When a construction team drilled the 120-foot foundation of the Canopy by Hilton hotel, which opens today on the River Walk, they found a cable line that wasn’t on any of the city’s utility maps, running straight across the property.
They weren’t sure what it was, when it was built, or whether it was being used, said Patrick Shearer, president of Crockett Urban Ventures, the firm that built the Canopy by Hilton. They soon learned that it was a fiberoptic line that operated a nearby floodgate controlling the water level of the river. For two or three months, construction stopped while crews worked with the city on a solution that involved relocating the cable by building a new conduit encased in concrete.
That cable is one among a multitude of reasons why the Canopy by Hilton, a 24-story high-rise at the northwest corner of East Commerce and North St. Mary’s streets, opened this month rather than in mid-2018, as its developer Chris Hill said it would when the project was announced in early 2016. As tourists and locals begin to flock to downtown’s latest building, which boasts a South Texas cuisine restaurant named Domingo on the River Walk, and a cocktail bar named Otro on a terrace overlooking the river, they most likely won’t have a clue how difficult it was to build, and on the river no less.
Delays are common for construction projects in downtown San Antonio. The developer of the Floodgate apartment tower, one doors down from the Canopy by Hilton, said in 2016 that he hoped to have it finished in time for the city’s Tricentennial in 2018, but it is still in the early stages of construction. Many of GrayStreet Partners’ projects have fallen far behind schedule.
Often, the delays are due to the difficulty of arranging the tens of millions of dollars of financing needed to build a large construction project. But the challenges Hill and his team faced in building the Canopy by Hilton demonstrate why delays are common even after a project is funded and has broken ground.
Some of the challenges they faced could have happened in any city—such as a rainy morning which prevented the pouring of concrete, forcing them to reschedule the arrival of a fleet of mixing trucks, Shearer said. Others are more peculiar to downtown San Antonio, where properties are often small and irregularly-shaped, making construction work difficult, and where the roots of history have been spreading for many hundreds of years.
For the Canopy by Hilton, the Covid pandemic presented another obstacle. Some of the project’s construction workers were exposed to the virus and had to go into quarantine, Shearer said.
“We’re happy to be part of the urban fabric. It adds a lot to our project, and creates the environment that makes a project like this feasible at all,” Shearer said. “But it comes at a cost of needing to anticipate obstacles, and lots of coordination with stakeholders.”
David Adelman, who built the ’68 apartment complex at Hemisfair and refurbished the Maverick apartment building on East Houston Street, offered a similar view.
“Any time you’re dealing with inner-city projects, you’re going to always have those unexpecteds, because you’re dealing with aged infrastructure, and the records aren’t really that good,” he said. “The flip side is, all the things that make it more difficult also, in a way, make it more precious.”
The Canopy has only a 0.14-acre footprint, a tight squeeze for a 195-room hotel with a restaurant and bar on its lower floors. The site is bounded by Commerce and St. Mary’s streets, busy roads for pedestrians and bus routes, and abuts the Esquire Tavern, which Hill owns.
At the start of construction, because of the compact nature of the site, the crew had to dig down to the level of the river four feet at a time, bracing the walls along the hole as they went, Hill said. They then had to use a crane to lower a drilling rig into the hole to dig the foundation.
The small footprint forced the development team to adopt a cantilever design in order to build all the rooms they wanted, with the upper floors hanging 17 feet over the Esquire and 30 feet over the river. To pour the concrete for the cantilevers, the construction crew laid down a temporary structure of steel trusses, which took longer than expected to remove, Shearer said.
A construction project on a larger site might have used two cranes to remove the trusses, but the Canopy team had to do it one-by-one, he said.
A large part of the project’s delay was due to small problems that compounded each other, he said. Because the hotel occupies such a small site, all of its components—water lines, air conditioning ducts, electrical conduits—had to be fitted together precisely. A small delay in doing one thing often pushed back an entire sequence of jobs.
“It’s like conducting a symphony,” Shearer said. “You have to have everyone playing together, and if one piece falls short or doesn’t show up on rehearsal day, it throws everyone else off.”
Each delay increased the cost of the project, because the development team was responsible for paying the contractors for the extra time, he said. Meanwhile, interest accrued on loans which the team had taken to finance the project.
Shearer declined to divulge the Canopy’s final cost. In 2016, the hotel’s predicted cost was between $55 and $60 million, according to news reports.
The Floodgate, a 17-story tower with an octagonal design, is being built on a 0.24-acre site. Recently, the owner of the Drury Plaza Hotel San Antonio Riverwalk filed a lawsuit against the development team after a construction crane allegedly knocked over a tree on the hotel’s property which then stuck one of the hotel’s windows, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
The Floodgate’s developer, Keller Henderson, declined to comment.
In downtown San Antonio, with its abundance of historic districts and landmarks, preservation is a challenge for construction projects. To build the ’68, Adelman had to hire an archaeologist to examine the soil that was dug up during the digging of the foundation to check whether there were any artifacts below ground.
“It’s because the indigenous people were living along the edge of a river, you know, for several thousand years,” he said. “That certainly is a challenge. We didn’t have any problems.”
The construction of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park ran into delays after archaeologists discovered the remains of buildings from the mid-1800s, including the worship space of St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of Bexar County’s first Black churches.
To get approval for the Canopy from the city’s Historic and Design Review Commission, Hill and his team agreed to preserve an old cistern by the river. Early on in the project, one of the contractors ran into it with some machinery. It became clear that they couldn’t keep it there during the drilling of the foundation, Hill said.
The city gave them permission to take it apart and keep it off-site. It has now been restored.
“The likelihood of it surviving construction was going to be small,” Hill said.
While building the hotel, the construction crew had to coordinate with the city, which began digging up gas lines along East Commerce as part of a project passed in the 2012-2017 bond, further complicating the project.
The city was a “great partner” in getting the project through the regulatory process and helping with its construction by closing traffic lanes, among other matters, Hill said. But one of the difficulties in building downtown is that the city has poor information about what is underground, he said.
Apart from the fiberoptic cable, the construction crew discovered that a sewer line connection was in a different place from where the records indicated, Shearer said.
“The biggest caveat to anyone building downtown is when you hit something that isn’t anywhere on the plans from the city, don’t be surprised,” Hill said.
As for the difficulties the project faced, Shearer seemed to take them in stride.
“It’s part of the job,” he said. “If it were easy, everyone would do it, right?”
Richard Webner is a freelance journalist covering Austin and San Antonio, and a former San Antonio Express-News business reporter. Follow him at @RWebner on Twitter