A Cultured Pearl

By MM Pack
Photography by Jody Horton (left) and Sandy Powers (right) 

Something exciting is going on in San Antonio. The landmark Pearl Brewery is being redeveloped—with vision, deliberation and purpose—as a food-centric, environmentally appropriate urban community and a thoughtful, comprehensive exercise in cultural place-making. Situated north of downtown on the San Antonio River, the 22-acre site includes revitalized historic brewery structures that now house a culinary school, a farmers market, several restaurants and specialty food businesses.

Also on the property are small offices, live/work spaces, performance and event venues, covered breezeways and quiet shady places. An edible landscape, amphitheater and bookstore are to follow.

The banks of the spring-fed San Antonio River have witnessed settlement and commerce for thousands of years—Native Americans, colonial-era Spaniards and Mexicans, and immigrants from the U.S. and Europe have all called the land home. By the late 19th century, as the multicultural city continued to grow around the river, the Pearl Brewery area was a thriving neighborhood, and the beer—produced with local spring water—was a significant aspect of San Antonio commerce and culture.

However, as has happened in too many American cities, freeways cut a swath through the bustling area in the 1950s causing the neighborhood to decline. Residents fled, businesses dwindled and beer making migrated to Fort Worth. The 120-year-old brewery’s doors closed for good in 2001, leaving a colorful cultural legacy, along with the deteriorating, albeit architecturally significant, buildings standing forlornly on the riverbank.

In 2002, Silver Ventures—a San Antonio real estate investment firm with an abiding interest in food ventures—purchased the Pearl complex along with the rights to use the name “Pearl Brewery” from The Pabst Brewing Company.

“We saw potential to make a culinary gathering place,” says Bob Sohn, Senior Advisor for Development and Planning. “What made sense in this spot a thousand years ago makes sense today,” he says. The vision is a vibrant urban village that celebrates the river location and local food.

“In 2004, we traveled to Pike Place in Seattle, Vancouver’s Granville Island and similar recovered communities in formerly blighted areas,” Sohn continues. “We wanted to understand how these places work, what makes them great. We found several commonalities: they’re walkable and safe, and people live there. There are stimulating mixes of commerce, food, essential services, art, music. There’s water nearby, and some kind of education is going on.”

The Pearl business enterprise works to a triple bottom line—the goals are financial viability, community building (providing jobs, educational opportunities and communal spaces) and stewardship in the form of leaving the place better off than it was.

“We’re committed to stewardship of the land, water, energy, buildings and ideas,” Sohn explains. “It’s honoring history and honoring the kids of the future who’ll need places like this. We want Pearl to be a laboratory; a place to test and experiment and discover ways to develop a more resilient future.”

“Resilience,” he says, “is the capacity to adapt positively to change while maintaining integrity.”

Both resilience and integrity are evident at the Pearl complex. Buildings conform to stringent Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards, and efficient cooling systems control temperatures without chilled water. A retention system stores rainwater in cisterns that once held beer. Bathrooms have dual-flush toilets and motion-sensor lights. The solar-power facility, developed in partnership with CPS Energy, is Texas’s largest solar project—often producing more power than is required. “The solar project is a lab, too,” Sohn says. “If one solar building can produce this much energy, what could a thousand do?”

An initial and critical component of the Pearl complex is the culinary school. In 2004, Silver Ventures partnered with the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) to create the Center for Foods of the Americas. “We wanted to combine an educational venue within the context and disciplines of retail and food,” says Sohn.

The school opened in 2006 in the former brewery machine shop and houses 5,500 square feet of cutting-edge teaching kitchens. Classes are offered in culinary arts and professional-level continuing education, emphasizing cuisines of Latin America. Former Austinite and Director of Education Shelley Grieshaber led the school experiment with such success that in 2008 it merged with the CIA, becoming an official third campus. A new 30,000 square-foot school building will open in 2010.

“It’ll be a big step up in what we can offer,” says Grieshaber. “We’ll double the students in the 30-week culinary arts certificate program and offer enhanced continuing education. We’re also adding a bake shop. I’m really looking forward to doing more—teaching more and becoming more integrated into the San Antonio community.”

The Pearl Farmers Market is a linchpin in the development. Debuting in May 2009, it continues to draw a couple thousand people every Saturday. Market director Tatum Evans—formerly of the Crescent City Market in New Orleans—reckons that San Antonio was simply ready for a producers-only market with live music, chef demonstrations and other amenities offered by Pearl.

“On opening day, we had six thousand people,” Evans recalls. “None of us were prepared for that. We’re still learning, but it’s coming together—we’re creating a community of producers and customers, a sort of bigger version of someone’s back porch.”

Vendors come from within a 150-mile radius and include farmers like Richard and Peggy Scott of Aquaponics Farms near Devine. They raise tilapia in greenhouses, along with watercress, lettuces, mints and basil.

“The market was two years in the planning,” Peggy recalls. “Producers were involved from the beginning—helping develop standards and practices. Pearl has worked so hard to make the market a success.”

A unique offering at each Saturday Pearl Market is the charming open-air MesAlegre (Joyful Table), where Chef Johnny Hernandez and his staff set up a portable kitchen and prepare a gourmet lunch from fresh ingredients sourced from market vendors. Served family-style at tables under a tent, Hernandez’s fine cooking demonstrates the best applications for local products and offers guests an exceptionally pleasant dining experience.

There is a variety of dining options at Pearl. In addition to MesAlegre, Hernandez is breaking ground for a casual Mexican restaurant, La Gloria, sited close to the river. Brian and Elise Montgomery’s Texas Farm to Table Café is a well-established, locally focused breakfast and lunch venue housed in the brewery’s former garage. And the recently opened Il Sogno (The Dream) is award-winning Chef Andrew Weissman’s intimate, fine-dining Italian restaurant in a beautiful new addition to the Full Goods Building. Weissman is also transporting his Sandbar Fish House to Pearl from its current downtown location.

Melissa Guerra, who moved her culinary retail shop from McAllen to Pearl’s Full Goods building, is enthusiastic about this business model and the role it’s playing in the development and recognition of Texan food culture. “It’s not like I’m just paying rent…that I’m simply a tenant here,” Guerra says. “It’s a question of shared values. This is about creating a community and showcasing some of the best things Texas has to offer. I’m convinced that Pearl will be the principal gathering place for the coming food revolution in Texas.”

The Pearl complex embodies a number of dualities: food and water, old and new, history and future, stimulation and quiet, ideas and discipline, dreams and practical reality—concepts not lost on Bob Sohn.

“The capacity to hold opposing concepts to create energy is a very powerful one,” he says. “We’ve got the power of the river, the power of food, the power of history working for us. Electricity happens when you put these things together.”