Rise of the Pearl: How a historic brewery transformed the city – San Antonio Report

FROM THE ARCHIVES: This story, originally published in October 2017 by development beat reporter Shari Biediger, dug deep into the creation of the Pearl, the high-profile venture in the former Pearl brewery complex north of downtown. With its gathering spaces, restaurants and the Culinary Institute of America, the brewery redevelopment has become a model for San Antonio’s growth, featuring new ventures in historic buildings.

The area has continued to grow in the years since; this year, the century-old Boehler’s House reopened as Carriqui, nearly 1,200 new apartments are underway across the river, and developers announced plans to convert the Pearl Stable to a 1,000-seat live music venue and biergarten.

Read more in the Pearl archives and Live Like a Local.

Rare is the modern-day development that has the power to transform a city. Yet the crown jewel of downtown San Antonio revitalization, unfolding on the banks of the Riverwalk since 2001, has been accomplishing that for more than a century.

The opening of the Bottling Department Food Hall in October 2017 signaled a new phase for the former brewery owned by Silver Ventures CEO Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury. 

With a vision to remake the dilapidated industrial site into a culinary destination, a lot happened in those between years — including the addition of a luxury hotel on the banks of an expanded San Antonio River Walk. 

Now in 2022, with Pearl leadership preparing to cut the ribbon on 1100 Springs Plaza, it’s clear that the gem of a development on the north edges of downtown San Antonio just keeps evolving.

But bringing people together around food is still the focus. 

The Springs and the Bottling Department are home to multiple food vendors and Pearl-owned restaurants and bars and wide open green spaces that encourage people to sit and stay awhile. With Jazz TX and the Pearl Stables in the mix, entertainment is also part of the draw. 

In nature, the most valued of pearls are formed by chance. In San Antonio, the Pearl is transformative by design.

Brewing history

Though the Pearl gets its name from the beer produced there, named so by German Kaiser-Beck’s brewmaster who thought the foamy bubbles in a freshly poured glass resembled sparkling pearls, the plant opened in 1881 as the J.B. Behloradsky Brewery.

It later became the San Antonio Brewing Company and grew into one of the largest breweries in the nation. Then, in 1952, owner Otto A. Koehler and the board renamed it to more closely associate the brewery with its famous label.

As the name appears on the old smokestack towering over all that is the Pearl, it’s one that today’s locals and visitors associate with something far more than suds. That’s because beer and other beverages are once again flowing there, and the late-1800s-era factory buildings buzz with people every day of the week.

“They were important buildings, beautiful buildings,” said Jeff Fetzer, a preservation architect who has worked with Silver Ventures to restore the factory and office buildings. “The owners could have put up anything large enough to house equipment, but they were proud enough of what they were doing that they decided to build substantial buildings that would last.”

They engaged August Maritzen of Chicago, a renowned architect designing breweries all over the county at the time, and hired German-born masons, who used the brick and limestone prevalent in the area.

Hotel Emma viewed from the rooftop of Cellars.
Hotel Emma viewed from the rooftop of the Cellars apartments. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

First came the brewhouse, stable, boiler house, engine room (now the lobby of Hotel Emma), and an office building that today houses the rustic-yet-chic restaurant Cured. Later came structures opened as the Cellars at Pearl — upscale and pricey residential units — and a first-class spa, the Hiatus Spa + Retreat.

“The fact that they were still here 100 years later, though they needed some love and care to bring them back, makes them important buildings to the history of San Antonio,” Fetzer said. “At one time, the brewery was the largest employer in San Antonio and largest brewery in Texas. It had a long, important history in San Antonio and Silver Ventures wanted to preserve that.” 

Way to a person’s heart

Founded by Goldsbury, a local billionaire who made his fortune after selling Pace Foods to Campbell Soup in 1994, Silver Ventures is a private equity firm that has backed the 18-acre Pearl site and brought the Culinary Institute of America to San Antonio.

A reclusive Goldsbury remains the visionary director behind all that has been established at the Pearl and that is to come, according to Bill Shown, managing director of real estate for Silver Ventures since 2005.

“He’s an extremely creative person, and his mind is constantly working,” Shown said. “He is very involved. This is his baby for sure.”

From a real estate perspective, the purchase of the Pearl made no sense, Shown told a group at the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Texas forum in June. Few people lived in the area on this northeastern edge of downtown, known for its low income, high crime rate, and chronic flooding. The ground was contaminated.

“Our advice to Kit was to run,” Shown said. “But he saw it as an opportunity and he had a dream and the commitment.”

At the core of that dream was not only historic preservation, but also changing the culinary landscape in San Antonio — a foodie’s dream.

“He hired talented, local chefs and helped them succeed,” Shown said. And he convinced the Culinary Institute of America to establish the college’s third campus at the Pearl, starting with a small test kitchen.

Since it opened in 2008, more than 1,000 chefs have graduated from the program. Many have gone on to start or work at the Pearl’s two dozen restaurants, considered an extraordinary number of eateries on a site of that size. Developers would have recommended a maximum of four restaurants, Shown said.

“People will always go to find great food. People will travel to find it even if it’s not in the most ideal spot,” he said. “And that was important to us in the early days before the neighborhood turned around. We had really talented chefs with unique concepts, and people enjoyed the idea of something delivered at a high level with a lot of creativity by local chefs.”

A baking class prepares banana nut bread at the Culinary Institute of America at Pearl.
A baking class prepares banana nut bread at the Culinary Institute of America at the Pearl. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Living at the Pearl

If food gave people a reason to visit, then new residential units offered them a reason to stay. The Can Plant Residences opened first in 2012. Its 293 units, with leases starting at more $1,000 a month, are fully occupied. Ranging from 505-square-foot studios to two-bedroom units, the apartments are home to singles, couples, and now families — 15 are raising their “Can Plant babies” there.

John Taylor Schaffhauser moved to San Antonio with his wife in 2015 for a job with Lake|Flato Architects and chose a one-bedroom Can Plant apartment above Bakery Lorraine.

“We were looking for urban living and it seemed like a really great place to get to know the city,” said the Mississippi native. “It’s an interesting paradox, though. Because you’re paying so much to be close to the amenities of the Pearl, you may not be able to take advantage of all the things it offers,” like eating in a Pearl restaurant every night of the week. “But it’s interesting to be around the energy.”

The Pearl features a network of small roads that connect local businesses, residences and amenities.
The Pearl features a network of small roads that connect local businesses, residences and amenities. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Though the Schaffhausers bought their first house one year later, one with a yard for their dog in the nearby Alta Vista neighborhood, they still visit the area often.

The Cellars at Pearl, which opened in April 2017 as a residential extension of the five-star Hotel Emma, offers luxurious urban living on the River Walk, complete with 24/7 valet and concierge services — for a price previously unseen in San Antonio, though common in other major cities.

A one-bedroom apartment starts at more than $1,900 a month. Most of the Cellars’ 122 units have views of the Museum Reach.

In 2020, the 223-unit multifamily development Southline opened at the Pearl to new renters, and construction began in June 2022 on the seven-story, 256-unit Elmira apartments across the river from the Cellars.

Stories worth preserving

When developers first looked at plans for the Pearl, they estimated a start-to-finish timeline of six to seven years.

“That was 12 years ago,” said Allen Sikes, Silver Ventures’ design and construction manager, in 2017. “We obviously underestimated. The reason, for one, is we have close to 1 million square feet of buildings now. That’s a lot of buildings to develop in 12 years considering every project is different.

“What took us 12 years is the thought process that goes into each project. You’ve got to make sure the tenant is right and we’re a good fit. We have to vet the architecture and make sure we’re putting something on the property that is the same caliber as everything else.”

In addition, in an attempt to preserve the existing architecture and history, the team often discovered problems it didn’t anticipate, like a recessed moat feature outside the Pearl Stable (formerly used as an event venue) and the original tile in the lobby of the Hotel Emma, a Silver Ventures hotel that opened in 2015.

“To take that away would be the start of degrading the strength of the story, in my opinion. And in a lot of cases, that’s what sparks conversation,” Sikes said.

“One of the things I love most about working on this is walking the site and hearing someone having a conversation and telling a story about the buildings. Whether it’s accurate or not doesn’t matter, but actually telling the story shows they care and are interested. For me, there’s nothing more congratulatory.”

One worthy of retelling for its lesson on perseverance is how San Antonio Brewing Association Chief Executive Emma Koehler kept the brewery going through Prohibition by producing “near beer,” ice and ice cream, bottling soft drinks and operating an advertising sign company.

Less than 15 minutes after Prohibition ended in Texas, according to the Texas State Historical Association, 100 trucks and 25 boxcars loaded with Pearl beer rolled out of the brewery grounds.

From ghost town to local hangout

When the Pearl plant finally closed in 2001, “the whistle blew and people left,” said Elizabeth Fauerso, the Pearl’s chief marketing officer who is working to create an exhibit of the items left behind, from ashtrays and signage to an old fire engine. “It was a derelict ghost town.”

Not so anymore. Besides the restaurants, there are 13 retail outlets, several of which date to the opening of Pearl — including Adelante Boutique and The Twig Book Shop — and office space throughout the development.

Adelante owner Marla Ross said business is “insane,” leading her to expand her store by another 800 square feet next door in 2017. “The growth has been everything I thought it would be,” she said, though the first year was slow. “I came down early because I wanted to have the best spot when retail went full blast.”

Ross estimates about half of Adelante shoppers are tourists and the other half regulars from when her four-decade-old business was located in Alamo Heights. “I can have one customer come over from Hotel Emma and take care of my whole day [in rent],” she said.

Some businesses have come and gone from the Pearl for various reasons, including the Aveda Institute, The Iron Yard, Sandbar Fish House and Market and One Lucky Duck.

But other shops and “activations” are helping fulfill the developers’ goal to create a favorite space for locals, even as tourists discover its charms.

An estimated 7,000 people visit the Pearl to shop at the weekend farmer’s market, about 3,000 on summer movie nights, and several hundred for Sound Cream Sunset Sessions and other seasonal performances.

The Pearl Farmer's Market happens every Saturday and Sunday. Here, it is viewed from the balcony of Cellars.
The Pearl Farmers Market attracts visitors to the local produce, live music and more. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Can Plant resident Jordie Shepherd moved into a one-bedroom-plus-study, with a view of the hotel, three years ago for that very reason.

“I never dreamed I would love living somewhere so much,” she said. “There is no place I would rather be. The rates are high, but it’s worth it because everywhere my friends and I want to go is within walking distance. The best part is there are new things to do weekly.”

Beguiled investors are also transforming the once-neglected stretch of Broadway near the Pearl into a destination. 

Numerous multifamily housing developments have sprung up in the district with more to come. Encore Enterprises has a five-story residential tower in the works at the corner of Carson and Austin streets and Fulcrum Development is planning a residential tower east of Broadway Street that could go as high as 15 stories. 

In 2020, Silver Ventures opened a commercial office building on Broadway Street near the Pearl. The Oxbow is adjacent the new headquarters for Credit Human, and nearby is the new home office for Jefferson Bank, slated to open later this year. 

Carriqui will operate out of a restored and expanded building that once housed the Liberty Bar restaurant.
Carriqui operates in an expanded building that once housed the Liberty Bar restaurant. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

More to come

“The Pearl is more about community than commerce,” Shown said. “When we started, that’s how we decided we would measure the success — whether we were catalytic to the neighborhood and created a spark. That has become a filter through which all our decisions passed. If we are successful in that regard, we would be an economic success.”

In 2017, the Pearl was among 13 real estate development projects from around the world selected as winners of the Urban Land Institute’s 2017-2018 Global Awards for Excellence.

The Pearl evolution continues today and its footprint keeps growing.

In late 2021, after several years of considering possible uses for the adjacent 2.76-acre former Samuels Glass complex on Newell Street that Silver Ventures had acquired, the developer announced it would become a market-style destination with eateries and office space. That work is ongoing. 

Last month, it opened the long-awaited Carriqui restaurant, followed soon after by Ladino and the Full Goods Diner. 

“[The Pearl has] been a real success not because we focused on the bottom line,” Shown said. “But because we focused on San Antonio and the community.”

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