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Artistic Inspiration

Inspiring Cities: The Pearl of San Antonio

On a recent September 2011 tour of San Antonio, TX during the CMG international conference, I had the opportunity to tour the Pearl District.

Located in San Antonio approximately two miles north of the world famous San Antonio Riverwalk, the Pearl District is a vibrant extension of the city. Associated with the city's philosophy of conservation, adaptive re-use, energy efficiency and growth of an authentic urban neighborhood; the Pearl District creates a unique and vibrant district for locals and visitors worldwide.

History of the Pearl
The city of San Antonio grew due to the river and natural water springs surrounding the land and became a perfect site for industry due to its vital water connections. Historically the site of two breweries in the 1890s, the area provided most of the employment in the San Antonio region and was embedded with a combination of German and Spanish heritage.

The site of one part of the district was established by Pearl Brewing Company in 1881 and began producing Pearl Beer in 1886. After owner Otto Koehler's death in 1914, his widow, Emma Bentzen Koehler, steered the company through Prohibition by making near-beer, soda water, dairy products and ice. On September 15, 1933 at 12:01 a.m., Prohibition ended and 6,000 San Antonians gathered to watch 100 trucks and 25 boxcars loaded with Pearl beer drive out of the Brewery.

> In 2001 the brewery closed and a large vacant lot needed a revitalization plan. In came a team headed by Silver Ventures, the company who purchased the Pearl District land, David Lake, principal at Lake/Flato Architects, and Jill Giles, principal and creative director at Giles Design Inc. Faced with 23 acres of industrial land, most paved with 400,000 square feet of building space; the goal became creating a fully self-sufficient village that preserved the history, culture and character of the Pearl.

Driven by the need to find creative solutions, the team focused on several neighborhoods around North America that had faced similar situations of empty industrial land and warehousing with needs for revitalization. Studies were made of Granville Island in Vancouver, CA the Distillery Historic District in Toronto, CA; the Pearl District in Portland, OR; the LoDo District in Denver, CO; and the Piazzo Rotunda, in Rome, Italy.

Each of these districts was created with a special focus in mind, a way to draw both locals and tourists to the area and keep the people engaged. Overall, these districts are self-sufficient areas with restaurants, entertainment and pedestrian experiences.

  • Granville Island, Vancouver: focuses on the marina with a market and art school, plus several restaurants, industrial architecture and a pedestrian experience
  • The Distillery Historic District in Toronto: focused on the performing arts with a blend of historic and new architecture, several restaurants and an always changing landscape
  • Pearl District in Portland: focused on the brewery industry with many restaurants, a living/working environment, and Design Central with over 70 retailers
  • LoDo District in Denver: focused the arts and business enterprise and a preservation of the lower downtown section of Denver, the historic warehouses have been converted into numerous work/live/area areas
  • Piazza della Rotunda in Rome, Italy: site of the Pantheon, this is the site of one of the most historically studied and revered locations of architecture's historical treasures

The Pearl Plan

With studies complete, a clear sense of the focus of the Pearl District came to light and a focus on the culinary arts was born. The Culinary Institute of the Arts would house one base section of the district and several restaurants would surround the school. As plans grew, another focus was to provide a connection to the famous Riverwalk and draw people in. Only two miles separated the two areas but had felt worlds apart. No longer!

Currently, the master plan contains an alternative education village with the Culinary Institute of the Arts, a farmer's market, Aveda School of Hair Design, events spaces, an amphitheatre, and a hotel and several restaurants. As part of the rehab, the river next to the district was cleaned up and the river boats from the Riverwalk are now able to provide tours and drop-off points to the area. Phase 3 is set for completion in 2012 and will include several hundred living spaces and more restaurants.

The Pearl Design Standards

Keeping the German and Spanish craftwork and heritage alive is vital to the design at the Pearl. The use of historical architectural elements is showcased throughout the area including galvanized metal, copper, terra cotta and brick. Historical monuments such as the rainwater tanks and old gas station pumps as well as the stable are kept as reminders of the past.

Look up! The Full Goods building showcases a light installation created with the clever use of steel beer filters. Each filter weighs about 60 lbs and runs on a 1 RPM motor. From this installation to the beer bottle chandeliers in the stable, these design elements are also repurposed from another era to add historical layers.

Knitting anyone? A new form of tagging without ruining property, guys from about town have “tagged" several elements of the Pearl by knitting wraps around various pipes. I've seen this in a few cities now so it's a trend I'm keeping an eye on.

The Pearl is Green

Adaptive re-use and reclamation recreated the Pearl District and environmental conservation helps to sustain it. An on-site solar array generates electricity for the Full Goods building, an old storage building that has now received a LEED Gold rating as its been reinvented into a retail and office space. Beer brewing tanks have been repurposed as cisterns, capturing rainwater to irrigate the Pearl. And, as part of healing the San Antonio River, water falls were added and clean up completed to rehabilitate a vital part of the scenery.

For more information, visit www.atpearl.com

Photos by Sara McLean