CASTLE HILLS — A high-rise senior-living complex where five elderly residents lost their lives in a tragic fire nearly four years ago is getting a new lease on life.
Developer Pat Biernacki is looking to renovate the 11-story Wedgwood building at 6701 Blanco Road into a mixed-use property featuring apartments and possibly retail businesses.
The former Wedgwood Senior Living Apartments has been vacant since the blaze Dec. 28, 2014, that killed three women and two men ages 73 to 85.
“The plan is restore it to senior housing, independent living for people age 55 and older,” Biernacki said. “We think this is a great market for independent-living seniors, an underserved market here in San Antonio. The Wedgwood will be a great addition with great amenities, great facilities in a good location.”
He wants to renovate and update the building to meet new safety regulations. At the time of the blaze, it did not have a sprinkler system.
Currently, there are 305 apartment units in the Wedgwood building, with 84 one-bedroom lofts. Rent will be in the $1,340 per month range for a one-bedroom apartment.
Biernacki, a principal with 6701 Blanco Road L.P., purchased the Wedgwood building in March. The selling price was not disclosed. Biernacki said the Wedgwood renovation project is scheduled for completion by December 2019.
At the time of the three-alarm fire — which was turned in about 6 a.m. — the apartments housed nearly 250 elderly residents. Officials said firefighters carried 75 to 120 of them to safety.
Autopsies indicated four victims died from smoke inhalation and one from burns. A sixth death after the fire was not linked directly to the incident.
Fire Chief Darrell Dover said the investigation into the cause of the conflagration is “still open.”
The Wedgwood high-rise was allowed to operate without a sprinkler system because it was built before 1982, when building codes were updated to require such safety measures.
“As a direct result of the Wedgwood fire, the state of Texas laws have changed,” Dover said. “Residential high-rise buildings have to use sprinklers now. The safety of the residents, the safety of the building, is my utmost concern. I was there for the Wedgwood (in 2014), I was inside the building. I would not go through that again.”
More than 150 firefighters from several cities worked with Castle Hills first responders to contain the fire four years ago. San Antonio fire officials were among those pushing for new state safety standards in the aftermath.
Biernacki said he spent seven months working closely with Dover and San Antonio to discuss the tragedy at the Wedgwood and what safety measures needed to be added to the building.
“We talked about how we can improve upon the safety measures, adding a sprinkler system that will make the building up to code,” Biernacki said. “We also discussed upgrading the fire-alarm system, and access to the building will be improved so emergency vehicles can get in faster if needed.”
Castle Hills firefighters recently added a new, 100-foot heavy-duty platform ladder truck to the fleet. Dover said the Pierce aerial platform truck provides Castle Hills with rescue, ventilation and fire-extinguishing capacities it did not have at the time of the Wedgwood fire.
“We can get to the top of every building in Castle Hills now with the new ladder truck,” Dover said. “Our previous fire truck only had a 75-foot ladder, it could only reach the ninth floor of the Wedgwood building. The day of the Wedgwood fire, we actually rescued people from the 11th floor using a 100-foot ladder truck from the San Antonio Fire Department.”
Biernacki said the Wedgwood is zoned for commercial use and at some point could see retail development along the property’s Blanco Road boundary. The 260,000-square-foot building could be worth $20 million once renovations are done.
Since the Wedgwood building has been sitting vacant, revenue from its property tax has been down 75 percent. In 2014, the appraised value of the property was nearly $16.9 million. After the fire, the appraised value dropped to $4 million.
Not all residents support returning the Wedgwood to senior housing. Some said they would like to see the property redeveloped to house people of all ages and include more retail.
“Affordable senior living is something we as a society must consider,” said John Kenny at a recent council meeting. “However, if we want to keep Castle Hills as a city progressing into the future, to truly revitalize the Blanco Road corridor, then redeveloping the Wedgwood back into a senior living facility and rebranding it with a new name is not the way to go.”
Al Moeller also said he was opposed to remaking the Wedgwood into a facility for elderly residents alone.
“Make it something more attractive to the general community, i.e. the Pearl, i.e. Southtown, places that are being renovated that do bring in income into our community,” Moeller said.
The Wedgwood originally opened in 1965. It was the last building designed by renowned architect Walter W. Ahlschlager, whose career spanned 53 years.