The Pearl Brewrey's Farmers' Market has helped to make the site a food destination / Photo: John W. Schulze via Flickr

Food – we need it, we love it, and we structure our lives and cultures around it. San Antonio, Texas, is a city that is starting to structure its neighborhoods around it, starting with an ambitious redevelopment project called the Pearl Brewery. Located on 22 acres along the banks of the San Antonio River north of downtown, today’s Pearl is a multi-use campus of buildings originally founded as the J. B. Behloradsky Brewery and City Brewery over 120 years ago. The current vision for the site is for a vibrant urban district to grow out from a culinary destination that brings people together around the celebration of local food and culture.

Since PPS first got involved with the master planning process for Pearl in 2005, we’ve watched this place change the way that San Antonians think of food and its role in their city. Senior Vice President Phil Myrick, who is working now on the next phase of expansion, describes Pearl as “the vision and bold scheme of a local entrepreneur of hot sauce and salsa.” This entrepreneur and visionary developer is Kit Goldsbury, who purchased the fallow Pearl campus in 2001 through his investment firm Silver Ventures. Developments currently underway at Pearl include a plaza and hotel and the addition of retail, restaurants, and residential units that now number over 200.

The main brewery building's landmark tower watches over the site / Photo: RedTail_Panther via Flickr

A key development milestone was Kit’s courtship of the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) which led to the establishment of  a third campus at Pearl in 2010 (their other two residences are in Hyde Park, New York and Napa Valley, California). Says PPS’s Meg Walker: “CIA was an early anchor for Pearl, which was housed in a smaller building before moving to its current and larger home. The Farmers Market at the site also got going early on, along with food festivals in the parking lot.” The weekly market in particular was a Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper way of weaving local, fresh, and seasonal foods into daily life of the site’s neighbors. Together, the CIA and Farmers Market have been key in re-framing Pearl as a major destination at the intersection of community life and healthy, local food.

Future plans for Pearl reflect a well-curated mix of creative uses in support of food endeavors of all types. The presence of the CIA will act as a major stimulus for other food and cooking events on the campus, tapping into the power of triangulation to enhance the vibrancy of the place. Ideas for the public plaza, for instance, include edible gardens and a chef’s table, while the Black Box aspires to be a pop-up space for young entrepreneurial restaurateurs.

Latin American food  is a common thread throughout these ventures, as are creativity and comfort. “This stems from an articulated vision and desire to give back to the San Antonio community in a nurturing way through food,” Meg explains. Part of the nurture is designing a space that provides comfort to its users in the most practical of ways. Elizabeth Fauerso, chief marketing officer at Pearl, says, “The need for shade and water provisions to make the campus feel welcoming and usable in a hot climate was one of the key considerations in designing the landscape.”

Plenty of shade makes Pearl enjoyable even in San Antonio's hot summer months / Photo: The Brit_2 via Flickr

Pearl also hosts a variety of activities and programs, including cultural events (films, parties, conferences, and live performances) and engaging services and retail like the independent Twig Book Shop and Bike World bike rentals. Well-connected by an expanded Riverwalk and a bike share station , Pearl uses the Power of 10 to create a magnetic destination for the surrounding community. “Pearl is helping set an exciting drumbeat for San Antonio,” says Phil. “In several of the local workshops that PPS has conducted recently in the city, when asked to map San Antonio’s best places, participants have mentioned Pearl despite it being brand new to the scene. There is a feeling of serendipity that people associate with it.”

The momentum behind Pearl’s transformation is remarkable, but at the same time planning remains responsive and flexible. Meg emphasizes, “Pearl is not springing full-grown out of the developer’s head. While some developers want everything at once, build-out at Pearl has been evolving incrementally over the past six years, gradually bringing restaurants in and creating places people want to visit as a destination. And it’s working. People love it.”

In the larger context of the city, Pearl is the leading edge of River North’s rebirth as a vibrant arts district that promotes an urban lifestyle and creative living opportunities. In fact, the combination of dense urban housing and the infrastructure to embolden its growth is a key tenet of the plan for a vibrant central city. In February 2012, HR&A published a report, Center City Strategic Framework Plan, Implementation, commissioned by Centro Partnership of San Antonio and the City that illustrates how Pearl helps fulfill the city’s goal to encourage more people to live downtown. “Residential growth is the key to unlocking the benefits sought by the city,” the report explains, “including downtown amenities, redevelopment of existing building stock, and the presence of more vibrant neighborhood life on the street and in the public realm.” Anchored by the amenities and vibrancy of Pearl’s food and cultural attractions, the River North district  is enjoying a population boom that would have been unimaginable just five years ago when it was mostly vacant industrial land by the highway.

Going back to Kit’s original vision, Elizabeth says, “Pearl is his love letter to San Antonio.” In helping create the heart and soul of the neighborhood, Pearl’s potential as a public multi-use destination is kickstarting the economic development of a more livable, nourishing downtown.