Brownsville: A History in Itself A future in the past Historic preservation seen as key to citys future - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Brownsville: A History in Itself A future in the past Historic preservation seen as key to citys future

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Posted: Sunday, May 19, 2002 12:00 am

By BRITTNEY BOOTH

The Brownsville Herald

Some might dismiss the aging, brick building on the corner of 12th and Adams

streets as just another old, forgotten edifice in downtown Brownsville, but to

Tom Sweeney, the two-story New Orleans-styled structure represents history,

character and opportunity.

The 119-year-old local landmark, known as the Juan Fernandez and Hermano

building, will soon become Sweeneys home. He plans to live on the top floor.

It once served as a family residence and thriving general store.

Sweeney believes its an ideal location. The U-shaped structure wraps around a

large, secluded courtyard, and the balcony provides a view to a prominent pair

of Brownsville landmarks: the Immaculate Conception Cathedral and Market

Square, where Sweeneys grandfather once worked.

I always loved this building, said the real estate investor and Brownsville

native who recently returned to South Texas after living in Boston.

While the majority of developers have focused on expanding certain portions of

the city, Sweeney, who owns several downtown buildings, said hes not enticed

by tract homes and chain restaurants. He said hed rather undertake the

lengthy and costly process of restoring an old building close to its original

condition.

Brownsville is arguably second only to San Antonio in the number of historic

buildings, local historians say. In Brownsville, one finds clusters of

historic jewels that have withstood wars, hurricanes and profound political

changes. Such structures stand alongside ropa usada stores and low-income

housing. Several of these buildings are defaced with graffiti or have suffered

years of neglect. And while downtown developers tout the potential

capital-producing benefits of historic buildings, a slow trickle of investors

willing to fund restoration projects has surfaced only recently.

Many are like Sweeney, a native returning to Brownsville, or they are

newcomers to the area from other cities with vibrant historic districts that

sense an opportunity, said Peter Goodman, Historic Downtown District director.

Goodman sees vast cultural and economic potential in revitalizing downtown. It

could mean the development of an entertainment and commercial district. And

there would be economic rewards from preservation efforts such as increased

property values and tax incentives.

And while enthusiasm for renovation projects is growing, there seems to be a

limited supply of funds to finance them. Also, local banks appear somewhat

reluctant to extend loans for such projects.

Still, preserving the citys past is essential to its future, Goodman said.

Downtown is the heart of Brownsville. Thats never going to change, Goodman

said. Nobody wants to live without a past.

Border citys start

Brownsville sprang up on the banks of the Rio Grande in the early 1800s,

across from bustling Matamoros, Mexico, said Tony Knopp, a board member of the

Brownsville Historic Association. Buildings were built close to the river to

accommodate steamboats unloading on the banks.

For decades, downtown remained a bustling commercial center mixed with

residential areas and government buildings, said Knopp, a history professor at

the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. Knopp has

written extensively about the areas history.

But in the last 50 years, Brownsville has experienced change just like other

U.S. cities. Its downtown businesses have suffered through peso devaluations,

malls and shopping centers that have opened on the citys outskirts and

competition for tourists from much larger cities like San Antonio that have

drawn wealthy Mexican customers away from the border.

As residents moved out of Brownsvilles downtown to outlying areas, upscale

stores have followed.

Businesses transformed into catering to what I call walk-across clientele,

Knopp said, referring to Mexican shoppers who walk across the border.

Historic buildings were replaced by fashionable, modern-style structures,

Goodman said. No ordinances protected the historic buildings until the

mid-1980s. The city also established heritage or overlay districts where

property owners are required to make sure that changes to a building are in

accordance with the historic character, Goodman said. The designations can

mean a significant tax exemption up to 100 percent for some owners of

historic property.

Historic buildings can be renovated to function as offices, classrooms,

community service centers, restaurants and even residences, Goodman said.

Certain downtown sections have already experienced a rebirth such as St.

Charles Street, where several renovated buildings and houses have been

transformed into offices for area lawyers, business and research institutes.

For example, the Russell-Cocke building serves as a mental health institution

and the Alonso building is used for functions by the University of

Texas-Brownsville.

High ideals, short on cash

While other cities in the state can provide added incentives for historic

preservation like matching municipal funds or lower interest rates on bank

loans Goodman said Brownsville doesnt have the resources.

The problems and challenges we face are the same as other cities. The

disadvantage we face is we dont have a lot of money, he said.

For a cash-strapped city like Brownsville, historic preservation enthusiasts

must stand in a long line to wait for a helping hand from city hall.

I think we have the moral support of the city, Goodman said. Downtown isnt

the only area with needs. Thats also why (preservation efforts) are coming

from out of town.

Mayor Blanca S. Vela said the hiring of two full-time historic preservation

employees signals the City Commissions support of such efforts.

We need to protect and take care of our old buildings, she said. Its going

to take people that want to invest in Brownsville (and) that want to maintain

and keep it historic.

The city also allocates federal funds to home renovations and projects, City

Manager Lanny Lambert said.

The citys $3.5 million streetscape program, funded by bond money in 1998,

witnessed the renovation of downtown sidewalks and the installation of new

lighting. Last year, the city spent more than $100,000 on a consultants study

to identify opportunity sites and ways to revitalize the downtown area.

Our philosophy is you cant grow a living organism around a dead heart,

Lambert said. We cant be successful in rapid growth if were not successful

downtown. I think (where) we have failed (is that) we have not capitalized on

our beautiful architecture like Galveston and New Orleans.

Examples of positive change do exist. For instance, crime in the downtown area

has been reduced in recent years, a police official said.

Well worth the cost

Pouring money into downtown renovation has generated positive returns for

cities across Texas, according to several economic impact reports.

A 1999 report conducted by Rutgers University and the University of Texas at

Austin on the impact of historic preservation in the Texas economy found that

preservation boosts property values, encourages economic development and spurs

tourism.

In a separate report by the Texas Historic Commission, the Hill Country city

of New Braunfels spent $6.5 million renovating 223 buildings from 1991 to

1997. Forty-one of the buildings were sold at a value of $7 million, $14

million was pumped into the local economy and 337 jobs were created.

But unlike 80 other Texas cities, there is no coordinated effort among

Brownsville banks to provide low-interest loans, developers say.

Bankers do not loan money on downtown development, Sweeney said.

In Weslaco, several banks with branches in Brownsville loaned money for

renovation projects in the Mid-Valley city in the 1990s, but developers said

the same banks stayed away from projects in Brownsville. Goodman said efforts

to work with bank consortiums groups of banks that provide low-interest

loans to housing projects failed as well. That has led developers to seek

funding elsewhere or to finance projects out of their own pockets.

Some bankers admit they are hesitant to extend loans to downtown merchants in

Brownsville.

With so many merchants leasing locations downtown, they see a strong

possibility of business instability as shops come and go.

Other observers say its not that local banks dont want to help preservation

efforts, there just isnt a coordinated program to provide low-interest loans.

They point out that many banks have downtown branches and would certainly

benefit from renovations in those areas.

Few loan applications for such projects in Brownsville have been processed at

the International Bank of Commerce, Executive Vice-President Manuel Casanova

said.

Were open to any support we are able to lend, he said.

Lee Kirkpatrick, Texas State Bank Brownsville region president, said his bank

would also assist in downtown renovation efforts by providing financial

assistance either in sustained loan programs or on an individual basis.

Were willing to put our resources where our ideas are, he said.

In addition to funding challenges, the importance of preservation of older

buildings and homes hasnt caught on yet with Brownsville residents, Sweeney

said.

Still, he believes once residents see the results of renovations in the

downtown area, they will likely be persuaded that such efforts are worthwhile.

Its a matter of changing public opinion, he said.

For years, if you had something old, that meant you were poor, he said. If

you had something new, that meant you were a success.

A future with a past

By restoring the past, many see hope for the future.

A colorful illustration of a city nightscape is propped up in Goodmans

office. Displayed is a restored Capitol Theater, a 1,200-seat performance

space on East Levee Street that Goodman envisions as a focal point of an

entertainment district with restaurants and nightclubs. Considering its

proximity to the University of Texas-Brownsville, a downtown entertainment

district would thrive, Goodman said.

There is also grandiose talk of developing a riverfront boardwalk with

condos, retail shops and restaurants in Brownsville.

A number of other cities around the country have works in progress to

revitalize and develop town centers. South Texas cities such as Laredo,

McAllen and even Harlingen are pumping money into their downtowns in hopes of

bringing urban renewal and economic rebirth to often long dormant areas.

Goodman said he expects great changes in the next five years in Brownsville.

The kind of interesting thing is that downtown renovation never stops, he

said. Theres always more to do. Brownsvilles blessed to have so many

historic sites.

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