Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Revitalizing Downtown Brownsville

Once a vibrant and growing part of our city has now fallen into despair as national stores, hotels, restaurants and people moved out into the western and northern section of the city over the last four decades. As new highways and boulevards were built, many people and businesses soon followed leaving downtown behind for good.

Many historical buildings and homes were forgotten, abandoned, demolished, or destroyed by nature in one way or another. Where once people lived high above the ground to beautiful vistas of Brownsville and Matamoros and excellent views of Military and Charro Days Parade have now been reduced to living miles away in one or two story homes or apartments not even exceeding three stories and far away from the grandeur and excitement of the yearly Charro Days Parade. Hotels no longer built high enough to see Brownsville in its most gorgeous view; from above. Hotels such as the El Jardin and the Colonial (then called Travelers Hotel) commanded views and style not seen in any other part of the country. Banks rose proudly to signify their presence like the six story First National Bank (now Wells Fargo, 1950s), the five story State National Bank (Payless Shoe Store now occupies the first floor, while the rest remain empty, 1925), and the four story Merchant’s Bank (top floors empty and an intimate apparel store below, 1912). Then there was the four story Federal Courthouse that prominently rose above most buildings to signify law and order while the three story Cameron County Courthouse (now known as the Dancy Building) stood a few blocks away. Theaters abounded all over downtown such as the Majestic Theater, Queens Theater, Dittman Theater, The Capitol Theater, Victoria Theater, and many more. Far more theaters than any in existence today.

Not only was downtown active and energetic but also has the most styles of architecture found in the Rio Grande Valley and maybe even equal to San Antonio’s equally impressive and varied styles. Architectural styles abound(ed) in the downtown area with styles such as: New Orleans style (the Gem Building and the Bollack Building), Border Brick (San Roman Building), Gothic (The Immaculate Cathedral and the South Western Bell Building), Renaissance (now City Hall), Spanish Colonial (El Jardin and the Southern Pacific RR Depot now a museum), Neo-Gothic (Sacred Heart Church), Victorian (Vivier Cromack Building), Art Deco (The Majestic Theater), International Style (now the Wells Fargo Bank), Mission Style (Market Square and the Kraigher House) and many more. Architects would come and try and outdo the others’ style and architecture. All this incredible architecture died as a result of modernism and company retained architects and Brownsville lost its booming architecture beginning in the 1950s as well as the activity that came with all the above mentioned.

Fast forward to 2005. Downtown is still very active but it no longer is the center of attention. Most people who shop there are from Matamoros and/or low income, which, in turn, attracts many second-hand stores, dollar stores, and other small businesses. Downtown no longer attracts major national stores such as JC Penny’s (used to be in downtown until the 1974), Dillard’s, Beal’s (also used to be in downtown), or other national stores. You won’t find a Hard Rock Café, or Hooters, or any other national restaurant. In fact, the only national store still located in downtown is Payless Shoe Store and only because it caters to lower income shoppers. Although there are people of middle and higher income in the downtown area, there is not enough to support national retailers, restaurants, or hotels. Downtown is effectively dead in this aspect. The only time that downtown attracts people from the north part of the city are when events such as the Charro Days Parade at the end of February, Sombrero Fest, or the Latin Jazz Festival come around once a year. Charro Days attracts upwards of up to 50,000 but generally do not buy at the stores more than just watch the event and go home only to return a year later for the return of Charro Days. Sombrero Fest comes around at about the same time as Charro Days but is located at Washington Park, which is several blocks away form downtown. The Latin Jazz Festival is held every October but does not attract as large a crowd as Charro Days or Sombrero Fest. It has been growing every year but you won’t see the amount of people as the other events. So then, what’s needed to bring back downtown back to life again? It’s the chicken or the egg thing. Which comes first? The chicken or the egg, or in this case, the people or the businesses?

Here’s the problem with revitalizing downtown. When a major business, national store/restaurant, or hotel wants to build, they look into the cities demographics, which include income levels and amount of traffic going through.

Businesses are going to build in a place where the income level is at or near poverty level. A major business is going to build only if there is 1) middle to high income, 2) high traffic count 3) a large population base within that area and only if it meets criteria number 1, 4) an attractive place to build such as a major highway and/or an area undergoing a commercial boom like north Brownsville.

People, on the other hand, want to live in an area that is similar to the above mentioned. So how do you get people and businesses back into a dying section of the city? Do you bring the people first or the businesses since both want essentially the same reasons to return. After a few years of going over it in my head, I finally came to the conclusion that it’s got to be the people, not the businesses. Why? Because is would be easier to attract people to downtown than businesses. Below is an idea of how to attract people back into downtown, which businesses would naturally follow.

I. Renovate the upper floors of the mid rise buildings in downtown. The Bollack Building (3-story building with New Orleans Style on Elizabeth St) is a shinning example of this idea. The owner has spent considerable amount of money to renovate the exterior and interior for lofts. Each floor is about 5,000 square feet! You can either divide it into two 2,500 sf or as one 5,000 sf condo. Other downtown buildings have been renovated and converted to apartments and homes but there are still many other buildings that could be converted into apartments and condos. Renovating a building in such a way that it looks elegant and comfortable inside that would attract wealthier people who love to live in restores historical buildings, and there are many like that. Other buildings that have several uppers floors are the Merchant’s Bank, State National Bank, The El Jardin Hotel, and many other buildings.

II. Renovate the historical homes in and around downtown. There are many historical homes that have been renovated and wealthier people are living there but there are still numerous other homes that do need to be renovated. The homes that are not historical and are in dire straights could be demolished and new ones built in the style of the neighborhood. In fact, BHA (Brownsville Housing Authority) has begun to do just that. BHA is in the process of buying up empty lots and non historical buildings and is going to build beautiful homes in the style of the historic neighborhood. Although BHA deals with low to middle income families, building new attractive homes helps attract other developers to do the same. The more people that more into an area, the more attractive it is to developers to build there. Developers may then concentrate on developing subdivisions for middle and higher income people just like is happening at the Paseo de la Resaca between FM 802 and Paredes Line Rd.

III. Student Housing. As UTB/TSC grows, so does the demand for housing. One great possibility for attracting students to the downtown is the use of the El Jardin Hotel as dorms. There were plans from a company that wanted to buy the El Jardin, renovate the existing structure and build a twin El Jardin behind it for a total capacity of 510 students! Talk about major attraction of people to the downtown area. Students would then go out to buy groceries, which the HEB would then need to tear down the old one in downtown and rebuild a larger one to accommodate the students. Students also need places to eat, buy clothes, etc. I truly believe that if downtown is to return to life, this is it. The El Jardin Hotel is the key to revitalizing downtown in such a way that no other method would prove better and faster than bringing student housing to downtown. This idea is an article onto itself that I will write about and post very soon! Many out-of-town students and foreign students bring more money to our area than any other way. They need all the above mentioned and to live in an attractive place. I’ve seen the plans and it blew me away. Too bad that UTB turned down this idea. It would have been the beginning of a Renaissance for the future of downtown. Stay tuned for this article!!

Once the downtown has been repopulated with people of middle to high income levels, then, businesses will surely follow. So the chicken and the egg dilemma has been answered. Now, who will step up to the plate and begin the revitalization of downtown Brownsville?

6 Comments:

Blogger David said...

Tony,

What do you feel about the possibility of the city setting aside 1/4 cent of every sales tax dollar earned torwards an entertainment arena such as the Dodge Arena? Do you think that this would be a good idea?

-D. Blanco

4:46 PM  
Blogger Mayra said...

Tony,

What are your thoughts on gentrification? This is currently happening in East Austin. While the neighborhood situation is improving many of the older residents are being displaced and often to worse neighborhoods and/or living conditions. Wouldn't you call the rise of our local colonias a form of gentrification? I think somehow Brownsville should try to do something other than follow the usual pattern of urban gentrification so that we can give all residents of Brownsville a quality life (for example compare the state of roads in La Posada compared to North Brownsville.) I don't believe people should be displaced to worse living conditions because they don't make the cut. How about Affirmative Civic Development? (I think I just made a new term up..cool) Instead of pushing out the lower-class, the city or non-for-profit organizations can provide resources and programs to educate people about how they can take advantage of the new developments in downtown Brownsville (and the city at large) to improve their quality of life. I think the UTB Center for Civic Engagement has already made progress in the Buena Vida Neighborhood (which is in downtown). I don't know if you know of them but as president of Preservation Brownsville I urge to get connected with them and get involved. Perhaps in renovation projects, the assiatance of at-risk youth would be helpful by engaging them in positive and productive situations that benefit the city and their quality of life. It would also be most useful to know what is already going on in the social and cultural sphere of downtown Brownsville. I strongly feel that Brownsville has the potential to set new standards that can set us apart as leaders in the terms of development, education and culture. So let's try to learn from the negative effects of gentrification from other cities and to make something completely innovative, something that will make people look to us as an example to follow! Let's make Brownsville's future one of innovators, not of followers!

Gentrification

UTB Center for Civic Engagement

9:29 PM  
Blogger Jorge Krieg said...

You can kiss downtown Brownsville good-bye. There are efforts to restore some of the Old buildings downtown such as the Capitol theatre, but that is more for self-promotion more than anything else. With the addtion of the soon to be river-walk in North Brownsville. I see no hope for the Downtown area. Downtown can only be used for small projects, college dorms or cheap housing. Other than that, forget it. Your vision of a downtown like major Texas cities (Austin, San Antonio, Houston) has a flaw. those cities grew from the center outward. Those cities grew from the spiral style (circle). Those cities grew from the center outwards in all directions, making downtown the "soul" of the city. In Brownsville, it grew in a V shaped direction (from the center to the north. This has much to do with the fact that downtown Brownsville is a stone throw away from the river that divides the U.S. from Mexico hence making it impossible for growth such as the cities mentioned. Downtown is dead and will never be brought back from the dead. I say forget about that area and concentrate on taking over everything south of Harlingen.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'am teaching English in Barranquilla Colombia. Every one is poor but the place is nice. Money driven gentrification isn't the answer. I'am happy here.....

6:50 PM  
Blogger theguywiththepen said...

As Ms. Mayra has said, we need to innovate, not imitate. If we build it, they will come. We need to rebuild the theaters, build new art venues, or restructure apartment buildings that cater to those citizens of our city that would like to live in a more metropolitan area. Just do it, stop thinking about it, stop politicizing the obvious, and just do it. The problem is, that the people that want to do the things that need to be done, are not politically active, do not have roots that date back to the start of the last century, they dont know a guy who knows a guy who knows the daughter of such and such judge. What im getting at, is that the reason that we will fail as a city is because our democratic city is run by BFF's that do not want to and never will, relenquish power.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Ivan Sanchez said...

People will never understand that because of all the second hand stores and the people that come from mexico to shop no one will ever want to be in our downtown. It ugly with nothing but cheap stores. Any kind of wealth that wants to go to a good restaurant and walk around a nice downtown where people want to take pictures will never come here. Downtown was lost a long time ago and unless you get rid of all those stores it will be lost forever. North Brownsville is where we have to invest to beautify an already nice area.

11:51 AM  

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