It’s early Friday morning. As activity at the Hidalgo County Courthouse gradually turns downtown Edinburg into a bustle of attorneys and honking traffic, Mark Peña is observing the scene from a distance.
The downtown is not without a sense of irony, Peña says, walking through the square last week.
While the courthouse is the real reason for activity in the square, it has also prevented anything from blossoming in the downtown district said Peña, who is the coordinator of Edinburg’s CoolCities climate change initiative and is a boardmember on the city’s Environmental Advisory Board.
The reality, Peña says, is that unless you have some purpose downtown, either to see the Museum of South Texas History or do business at the courthouse, there is really no other reason to be there.
“I think it’s an irony that we have these Shop-Edinburg signs, because there is nowhere to shop downtown,” said Peña, walking through downtown last week. “If you come here in the evenings, it’s dead. If you come here on the weekends, it’s a ghost-town.”
Actions by city leaders and even personal efforts by Peña, however, may soon change the face of downtown, making it a hub of community activity for the first time in decades.
Earlier this month, Peña embarked on a fact-finding mission to Texas’ largest cities including Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio.
While the goal was to discover what prevalent trends were taking place in Texas’ top four cities, what Peña discovered was that small towns like San Marcos, McKinney, Boerne, Fredricksburg, and Kerrville are all making a positive case for “new urbanism” to develop their downtown districts.
New urbanism and smart growth are some of the latest concepts for environmentalists seeking to reduce sprawl in large cities, according to Peña. The national trend encourages infill development and “getting back to the way cities used to be built where people can get around the city without getting into a car,” Peña said.
“They (cities) are starting to go back to this traditional town quality which has the benefits of both worlds,” said Peña about towns which incorporate mix-use development and automobiles. Mix-use development includes shops, offices, restaurants and residents living in a downtown community.
“You do things like instead of having parking lots in front of buildings you put the parking lots behind a building or next to a building with a lot of landscaping to cover it up,” he said. “You make sure your pedestrian walkways are wide and friendly. You make sure your buildings are up close to the roadway with windowfronts.”
“There are some easy things that can be done. The more complicated thing is (achieving) this mix use, to encourage private development,” Peña said.
At their regular meeting on Aug. 18, Edinburg councilmembers selected Broaddus & Associates as their consultant to develop a downtown revitalization plan tentatively within the next 11 to 12 months.
The purpose of the plan, according to the city, is to identify marketing strategies to attract business to downtown, physical enhancements and update the city’s architectural standards.
The city selected Broaddus from a shortlist of at least five firms, all of which had representatives present at a special workshop held before the regular meeting. Firms produced roughly 10 minutes presentations to city leaders, and councilmembers mulled them over during executive session before coming to a decision.
“I think what we need is a change in mix-use in downtown so we can stimulate evening activity and establish our corridor for the university,” said Mayor Richard Garcia. “That’s going to be a big stimulus and source of business for downtown that will wake it up.”
Peña said there are some easy things that can be done, such as dealing with the traffic patterns and parking in the downtown area. The most complicated thing is using mix-use development to encourage private development, which will take “a lot more time and an effort” between the city, the EDC and the business community.
Just as the city has put so much effort in attracting businesses with its Shoppes at Rio Grande Valley, the same effort should be put into to developing downtown, Peña said.
“I am really excited about this revitalization. I think Edinburg is headed in a new direction,” Peña said. “We have a real opportunity to do something different and I strongly believe that if we don’t move in a new direction, Edinburg is going to be left behind economically. McAllen is going to continue to be the apple of the Valley because they have made a commitment to develop quality of life so that what we are seeing here is that many of the professionals of the area are choosing to live in McAllen because they have made an investment in quality of life. Edinburg has to do that.”
Some of Peña’s observations on his trip across Texas include:
• Dallas and Houston both have a light rail system in place and Austin will have their system up and running this fall. San Antonio is currently in talks for a similar system.
• The Dallas area is already well into the process of developing vibrant mixed-use areas, especially in the uptown northern area of the city.
• Downtown Austin is “bringing life into the downtown” by building townhomes, condominiums and apartments with urban landscaping and pedestrian facilities. They have also narrowed their roadways, and included on-street parking. They have more hike and bike trails.
• In San Antonio, the old Pearl Brewery near downtown is being converted into a mixed-use development where you will have people living, eating, shopping and playing all in the same area.
• The City of McKinney in North Texas developed an environmentally friendly agenda. The city is currently trying to appeal to “green-minded” businesses as part of its Green Initiative.