The whine of bus engines and the stench of diesel exhaust are gone; Market Square, the heart of the heart of Brownsville, is entering a new phase, one aimed at attracting more people.
The city of Brownsville is handling the exterior makeover for the historic downtown centerpiece, the oldest part of which was erected in 1850.
Two years ago, even before the Brownsville Urban System relocated its buses to the new transit terminal on International Boulevard, the city’s planning department solicited ideas from University of Texas at Brownsville architecture students as to “what this place could look like,” said Ramiro Gonzalez, comprehensive planning manager for the city.
“We have a draft conceptual plan that’s basically been vetted through all the stakeholders,” he said.
Stakeholders include the fire department, Brownsville Historical Association, the planning department itself — any official entity with an interest in Market Square.
What kind of trees to install, lighting, landscaping and other options will be hammered out in the next few weeks, Gonzalez said.
“All those details are being worked through right now,” he said. “That’s where the plan stands. Engineering wise, it’s pretty much done.”
Gonzalez said the makeover will include not just Market Square itself but the alleys leading up to it, on either end, from East 10th Street and East 14th Street.
Locating the money to pay for the renovation is the next task, he said.
Sales tax revenue set aside for community development and Community Development Block Grant funds are among potential sources, Gonzalez said.
“There’s not going to be private grants out there,” he said. “You’re really going to have to be creative with finding the funding.”
Gonzalez said the University of Texas System Board of Regents’ decision to keep UTB downtown bodes well for downtown in general and Market Square in particular. Already more students are venturing downtown, he said.
“The importance of UTB staying where it is and growing into the urban fabric — you couldn’t ask for anything else,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a model that’s been replicated throughout the country. I know the city’s glad that UT made that decision.”
Market Square’s open-air market, with its distinctive, brick archways, was erected in 1852. It remained a working market until 1948, after which the city bricked in the archways and turned the building into city offices and City Commission chambers.
The BUS transit system moved into Market Square in 1984 — seen as a positive move at the time for a neglected area, Gonzalez said.
City hall vacated Market Square in 2007. The following year it was transferred to the Brownsville Historical Association on a 99-year lease under an agreement with then Mayor Eddie Treviño and the city.
The BHA opened its research center in Market Square in 2009 and began gradually renovating and occupying pieces of the complex. The permanent “Into the Wild West” exhibit, with pieces donated by the late Ben Edelstein, was installed in January 2010.
After BUS pulled out last year, BHA went to work on the market area itself.
Priscilla Rodriguez, BHA’s executive director, said a drop-down ceiling was removed to reveal the original ceiling. The interior was stripped down to the original brick walls and flooring as well. Market Square is essentially four buildings tacked together, she said.
“It was just amazing that so much of it was still intact,” Rodriguez said.
Wooden doors were custom-built for the archways. The first-floor renovation will be complete once the floors are sealed.
Rodriguez, BHA’s executive director, said Market Square’s hurricane-proof vaults are ideal for the nonprofit’s historic archives and collections. One vault houses BHA’s paper document and photo collection; another, its collection of historical objects, she said.
Before BHA moved into Market Square, these treasures were stuffed into a cramped space at the Stillman House complex with really no room for researchers, Rodriguez said.
Once the first floor is done, work will start on the second floor — empty now except for the occasional film crew. Rodriguez said the space will eventually serve as a rotating exhibition space for items from the archives, full of artifacts few people know exist.
“This is going to allow us to really showcase some of the awesome stuff we’re storing in our vault,” she said.
The second floor will also serve as a community meeting space. The original commission chambers will remain intact, meaning the mayor and City Commission can hold meetings there if they wish, Rodriguez said.
The mayor’s office, in fact, will eventually be installed in what once housed police and fire department headquarters — upstairs from what used to be the historic Texas Café and is now the Brownsville Heritage Office.
The total interior renovation should be complete within two years, Rodriguez said. The Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation is picking up the tab, around $180,000. It would likely be many times that if not for the architects and preservationists who have volunteered their time, Rodriguez said.
She said the space will be available free for certain events that are free and open to the public, though BHA also plans to rent it out for private events.
“We don’t want it dedicated to one particular function,” Rodriguez said. “We want it to be a flexible space.”