It’s not quite a stampede, but the East Morrison Road extension has a spawned a mini commercial development boom in an area shaping up to be the city’s hottest new retail hot spot.
The extension was completed earlier this year from Pablo Kisel to Paredes Line Road, improving access to the area. Texas Regional Bank has a sign up on the southeast corner of Pablo Kisel and Morrison Road announcing a coming bank branch. A stone’s throw to the west, on Morrison Road, construction is already underway on a First Community Bank branch adjacent to what will be Tipton Motors’ new Hyundai dealership.
The First Community branch and the dealership will face Morrison Road across from Las Tiendas Plaza, which was already anchored by Target when it drew Burlington Coat Factory and Office Depot from their former locations on Boca Chica Boulevard last year.
On Morrison Road west of the expressway, the well established Morrison Crossing development, anchored by Academy and Home Depot, appears to be thriving.
Less than two weeks ago, on the east side of the Pablo Kisel a brief distance south of Morrison Road, a sign for a new mall appeared, heralding another major retail presence in the area. The sign was erected by Origo Works, an architecture and development firm that built the resaca-side Media Luna Campus paralleling Central Boulevard and including Madeira restaurant and the Yoga Studio.
The sign is a little confusing, since it dubs future mall “Morrison Crossing.” But Javier Huerta, who co-owns Origo Works, said the name has no relation to the existing Morrison Crossing and was initially chosen because it’s the name given to the subdivided property by the city. At any rate, it’s already been changed to “Morrison Plaza,” said the firm.
Huerta said the sign attracted immediate interest and that he was already anticipating letters of commitment from five different parties that want to lease space in the new mall, which will wrap around the Texas Regional Bank site director on the corner. The first planned phase of Morrison Plaza consists of two separate buildings totaling 27,000 square feet of commercial space, four large units on each end and 10 smaller units in between.
Phase II features two separate pads, one 19,027 square feet and the other 36,582 square feet. For those sites Huerto envisions restaurants — one upscale and the other in the midrange, possibly with a drive-through.
“We need to put a shovel in the dirt in a couple of months,” Huerto said. “Our goal is by next April or May to be up and running with phase one.”
Phase two groundbreaking and construction will start as soon as tenants can be nailed down, he said, adding that he’s already talking to potential restaurants. Varco Investments is the investor on the Morrison Plaza project.
“We haven’t put it on the market yet, but a lot of people see what we’re doing and are interested,” Huerta said. “Right now we’re in the process of preparing some marketing packages.”
As for the location, it’s pretty much a no-brainer, he said.
“The corner: It’s the anchor for the whole intersection,” Huerta said. “It’s a very strategic point. It became very strategic because of Morrison Road.”
If it weren’t for the Morrison Road extension and the new access it creates, “it would be a very different story,” he noted.
Texas Regional Bank expects to start construction on the new branch this November and be finished by June or July 2013.
Another new development, a 10-suite retail center dubbed “707 Plaza,” will go up just south of Morrison Road on the frontage road west of U.S. Expressway 77/83. It will be 15,000 square feet and will include a Starbucks, a Taco Palenque and a U-Mix Frozen Yogurt shop. The other tenants will be named soon, according to developer Terreas Development. The land has already been cleared, ground will be broken soon and the project should be finished by January or February 2013.
Angela Burton, president and CEO of the Brownsville Chamber of Commerce, said the extension of Morrison Road — which the chamber was pushing years ago — is the driving force behind the recent retail growth spurt. Opening of the Morrison Road west extension, which will create even more access, is on hold until the Union Pacific railroad tracks west of the expressway are removed as part of the county’s West Rail Relocation project. That may or may not happen late this year.
Burton said the development around Morrison Road is part of the city’s natural growth pattern and that developers there have done a solid job marketing the area. At the same time, Brownsville shouldn’t lose sight of downtown’s potential for investment and revitalization, she said. Whether the city can do both — allow new development to expand north while encouraging redevelopment downtown — depends on the “will of the community,” Burton said.
“I think you have different target markets that you’re dealing with,” she said. “Obviously there’s room for growth and improvement downtown.”
Evaristo Gamez, city permitting director, said Morrison Road is attractive to developers and tenants because of the growing concentration of retail activity in the area. And while he expects permit applications for Morrison Road/Pablo Kisel area to keep coming in, Gamez wishes they were coming in faster. That fact is that, despite the recent boom in construction, the value of commercial permits his offices has granted to developers has plummeted from a year ago, when it appeared things were finally bouncing back from recession, which brought new commercial development to a virtual halt.
It seems more likely that recovery, at least in terms of commercial development, will fluctuate as opposed to climbing steadily, Gamez said.
“There are no big projects compared to a year ago,” he said. “I’m waiting for this month of September, which is the last month of the fiscal year, to see how we’re doing. We’ll see what happens after the elections. They say that businesses are waiting till after the election. Maybe it’s true.”
The principal behind Terreas Development, who wished to remain anonymous citing safety concerns, is more optimistic. The same company developed Boca Chica Plaza, North Plaza in Olmito and Villa Del Mar Plaza in Brownsville. He said Morrison Road is so popular now because, in keeping with a basic rule of development, retailers like to be close to other retailers because it attracts more customers, period. The heightened activity and the fact that major tenants are leasing is evidence of an improving economy, he added.
“There’s a perception that we’re still not on the right track, but I think the fundamentals are there,” he said. “The businesses are being successful, and I’m a firm believer that the enemy is within. If you have the right formula, the customers are there and they’re willing to spend their money, if you can provide the right services to them at the right price and in the right location.”