Texas Cities Showcase Downtown Redevelopments

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Economic development is, in many ways, the business of facilitating growth. Yet in Texas, thanks to an array of business- and development-friendly policies and laws, influxes of jobs, people and new real estate projects to support them sometimes seem to just happen naturally.

When this kind of heavy growth is sustained over time, it can lead to less-affordable housing, more cookie-cutter retail scenes and heavier congestion and pressure on local infrastructure. But it is possible for smaller municipalities to embrace job and population growth with new real estate uses and projects in ways that don’t entirely compromise the historic charm or tranquility that many residents of these cities value.

Revitalizing a downtown area — bringing in new businesses, adaptively reusing older buildings, creating pedestrian-friendly networks — is a primary means of marrying those objectives.

When a successful downtown revitalization program is executed, the benefits tend to have a domino effect. Elevated foot traffic boosts sales at local businesses, increasing asset values over time and stimulating sales of properties. Other investors take note of the viable business plan, and the rest becomes history. But the whole process often starts with the visions of local business owners and the willingness of local leaders to provide the services and incentives needed to make those visions reality.

In this piece, we examine the economic development efforts that a number of municipalities throughout the state are putting forth to stimulate and accommodate growth, while also preserving the abstract and lifestyle elements that have historically defined their communities.

Edinburg

Located in the Rio Grande Valley and sporting a population in excess of 100,000, Edinburg’s downtown revitalization caters to both its naturally growing resident population and elevated levels of border crossings among visitors. An emphasis on promoting local history and culture underpins the larger movement. 

As such, the city will debut its new arts, cultural and entertainment center this summer, offering painting and sculpture exhibitions, theater performances and other communal events for residents and visitors alike. 

A restoration project is also underway at one of Edinburg’s historic theaters. According to Raudel Garza, Edinburg’s executive director of economic development, the restoration of this historic building “revitalizes downtown Edinburg’s cultural identity, providing a venue for live performances, film screenings and community events that attract visitors and support local businesses.”

Residents and visitors can also broaden their knowledge of local history with a trip to the Museum of South Texas History, where they will find rotating exhibits, educational seminars and other community outreach programs. The same applies to the seven-story, 408,805-square-foot Hidalgo County Courthouse, which was renovated in 2023 to feature modern security measures and amenities. 

Edinburg has also overtly committed to its downtown outdoor scene with landscaped gardens, green spaces and public plazas. Garza says that the goal of these initiatives is to “create vibrant public space promoting social interaction, cultural enrichment and recreation, as well as enhance the quality of life for residents and visitors while attracting investment and development to the area.”

Farmers Branch

Unlike many municipalities featured in this story, Farmers Branch is entirely landlocked by interstates and larger cities. But while ground-up development is largely out of the question, the 12-square-mile community is no stranger to revitalization. In fact, that’s precisely the word that comes to mind for Stephanie Mullins, the city’s economic development coordinator, when she reflects on what the city’s main urban area has come to symbolize.

“Because we’re landlocked and don’t have a downtown per se, we had to create one in Mustang Station,” she says. 

Mustang Station brings together many of the physical and intangible elements that are central to mixed-use development: a residential base, public transit access, ample open green spaces and pocket parks and entertainment-driven retail. 

Among the latter uses are brewpub Bankhead Brewery; Roots Southern Table, an upscale restaurant by celebrity chef Tiffany Derry; breakfast and lunch eatery Starwood Café; and Locals, which houses a bar and lounge and an adjoining wine shop. Tiffany Derry’s Italian food concept also recently signed a lease at Mustang Station with plans to open this fall. 

“With Mustang Station, we wanted to create the feel of a downtown space,” says Mullins. With parking and fountains in the center and restaurants on the periphery, it makes for a fully walkable experience. Across the street is The Grove, a city-owned park that offers a seasonal farmers market, green space for families to enjoy and areas for live music. During the spring and summer, it’s buzzing with activity.”

With seasonal farmers markets and open green space for gathering and recreational events, the ‘downtown’ area that Farmers Branch has created features both a nod to the city’s historic roots and the type of modern real estate uses that its citizens want.

With limited land to work with, walkability has to be created rather than adapted. Just a short walk across town lies a different feel to Farmers Branch’s redevelopment initiatives. These areas house some older industrial buildings that the economic development team is aiming to rehabilitate. 

“What we’re looking at more than office [conversion] is flipping that old 70s-built industrial space into places that people want to come to — art spaces, brewpubs, restaurants and other retail,” says Mullins. “Owners of these industrial buildings that want to get new uses in can utilize our façade grant program to help with new landscaping, parking, paint jobs, windows — whatever they need to attract funky, cool new uses.”

Much like everywhere else in the metroplex, Farmers Branch needs more quality housing. To meet that need, the city introduced a residential revitalization program about 12 years ago in which single-family homeowners of all types can receive incentives from the city to tear down older homes and rebuild on those lots. There are also a couple traditional multifamily developments underway in Farmers Branch, most notably Presidium’s Valley View project, which is nearing completion and will add 344 apartments to the local supply. 

But perhaps the most significant project in Farmers Branch is the 82,000-square-foot multi-sport complex that is being developed in partnership with the NHL’s Dallas Stars. The hockey component of the facility is up and running, and construction began last winter on the basketball and volleyball facilities — all across the street from Mustang Station, The Grove and the Farmers Branch DART Station. (see ad on page 3)

Lancaster

The city of about 42,000 has historically benefitted from immediate proximity to well-traveled corridors. 

Over the last decade, the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) metroplex’s explosive expansion has enabled strong job growth in the northern sector of the metroplex, making the cities to the south more affordable — and generally less trafficked — by comparison. The overlap within those trends is central to Lancaster’s current economic development plans and advantages.

“Twenty years ago, the businesses that were locating here were primarily distribution — businesses that didn’t necessarily pay the highest wages,” explains Karl Stundins, assistant director of economic development. 

“Approximately 85 percent of Lancaster residents worked elsewhere, mostly to the north,” he continues. “So in recent years, we’ve focused more on recruiting tech, manufacturing and data center businesses. As those jobs come in, we hope to see more locals working in town, as well as growth in our middle- to upper-middle housing markets.”

Such housing will likely take the form of single-family residential projects, as Lancaster has minimal zoning to support traditional apartments. But Shane Shepard, director of economic development, notes that “Lancaster is one of the only places in DFW where you buy an acre-size lot and build a house for a reasonable price.”

Shepard also mentions that in recent years, there has been a significant revival in the city’s downtown area, some sections of which were devastated by a tornado in the mid-1990s. New investors and developers have bought up older buildings that survived the tornado and introduced new retail and restaurant uses to complement the city’s existing walkability and user base.

The new shopping and dining scene features authentic local operators: an upscale Mexican restaurant, a barbeque restaurant, bakery, bike shop, winery, specialty game card shop and a specialty cold-brew coffee shop. This combination of users has invigorated the city’s nightlife. 

“We’ve always had pedestrian-friendliness and walkability and courtyard space — the issue was that restaurants that were here would close at 4 in the afternoon and nobody was around the downtown area,” says Stundins. “We have the parks and green spaces and wide thoroughfares around the downtown area, but what it really took [to activate those spaces] was bringing in the right businesses that encouraged people to walk around.”

Looking forward, Lancaster hopes to further capitalize on regional data center and advanced manufacturing development via its supply of vacant land zoned for industrial use. The real estate footprints of these projects tend to cover several hundred acres, and Lancaster officials intend to make the permitting and entitlement processes as simple and painless as possible for these developers. 

Marble Falls

Although the city is roughly 50 miles west and an hour’s drive removed from downtown Austin, Marble Falls has gotten tastes of the state capital’s prolific growth that began over a decade ago. It was around that time that the city of about 9,000 undertook a major downtown redevelopment project that set the tone for bigger changes to come.  

“At the time, our police station was located in the middle of Main Street, and the stores and restaurants around it weren’t living up to their potential,” says Christian Fletcher, executive director of Marble Falls Economic Development Corp. “We partnered with a private entity to buy the old police station and convert it into a multi-tenant retail center with open-air park space. That helped set the stage for improvements in that area. We’re now undertaking some sidewalk improvements to make the downtown area more accessible and easier to traverse.”

Buildings that anchored the downtown area and were originally constructed to house banks — complete with night deposit boxes and all — have since been converted into art galleries or boutique retail spaces. These projects attest to the fact that with the right design, buildings that resonate local charm or historic significance can still function as aesthetically pleasing, high-traffic destinations.  

“The primary focus has been trying to build upon what we have and keep the vibe the same,” Fletcher says, adding that his team is now eyeing the city hall building for its next iteration of this trend. “If you can take a historic district with older buildings and keep that vibe while also adding new uses with character and charm that provide that local flavor and appeal — that’s what we want to do downtown.”

Midge Dockery, the EDC’s assistant director, agrees that public-private partnerships have been integral to the rejuvenation of downtown Marble Falls. 

“In addition to providing remodeled, leasable space for retailers and restaurants, those efforts also created public space in Harmony Park, which is very centered in the Main Street area and is a great gathering spot for families,” she says. “We’ve really invested in the downtown area for the current and long haul as far as those initiatives are concerned.”

And like most growing small towns, Marble Falls is hungry for new food-and-beverage concepts, whether they be fine-dining, fast-casual or something in between. Fletcher also says that the city could use more office space — “not downtown Class A space or buildings like you see in Austin, but some spaces that are locally owned and operated in which regional businesses would be comfortable coming to Marble Falls,” he clarifies.

There are several single-family residential projects in various stages of development throughout the area, though Fletcher concedes that home prices are still above historical averages for the community — another reflection of the region’s epic growth. And construction will begin later this year on a new hotel and conference center at the southern end of Main Street in the downtown area. According to Dockery, this project will be “catalytic in bringing new visitors to the downtown area to patronize the local mom-and-pop stores and restaurants in the area.”

Mesquite

With a population of more than 150,000, the City of Mesquite, located just east of downtown Dallas, has the demographic attributes needed to attract large employers. 

Over the past several years, developers have begun and delivered millions of square feet of Class A industrial space in Mesquite, banking that the city’s geographic, workforce-related and infrastructural qualities will attract big industrial users with hundreds of jobs to fill. Those people — and their families — need more than just good-paying jobs, and they often look to downtown areas for the quality of life they crave.

“A quality downtown area can be a deciding factor for companies in terms of recruiting workers because there has to be a ‘there-there’ where those people work and live,” says Beverly Abell, the city’s downtown development manager. “In Mesquite, leadership recognizes the importance of all aspects of economic development. In the case of downtown development, we work to create a program that focuses on four avenues: organization, promotion, economic vitality and design.”

Most recently, Mesquite supplied that demand with Front Street Station, a $5.5 million project that provided vast infrastructural improvements to an area targeted for restaurant development. The plan provided for major infrastructure upgrades, such as grease traps for commercial kitchens, in addition to new waterlines and drainage. Above-ground improvements included more parking, landscaping and an event pavilion.

“Though Front Street Station isn’t on the face an obvious real estate development project, it has been critical to generating real estate activity,” says Abell. “In the Front Street project area alone, we have experienced more than $1 million in property sales and more than $1 million in property rehabilitation. In addition, one-third of the buildings went under new leases.”

Having set the tone with Front Street Station, Mesquite officials are now putting together new zoning overlays for downtown buildings to allow more flexible ways to rehabilitate and use properties while protecting authenticity.

As a benefit of being a Texas Main Street designated program area, Downtown Mesquite provides business owners with renderings of what a property could look like when appropriate adaptive reuse practices are applied. Furthermore, there is opportunity to participate in the Downtown Mesquite Façade Improvement Program, which provides grants of up to $20,000 per address for approved projects within the downtown development program area.

“We’re investigating how to facilitate an easier path to pop-up businesses in our properties so we can beta test new business ideas,” Abell explains. “Buildings are their best selves when they’ve proven that people spend more while there, stay longer and return more often. So we’re looking to flex how buildings can be utilized and to give people different visions of how they can be used.”

Mount Pleasant

In 2022, the City of Mount Pleasant, located in Titus County in northeast Texas, approved a 20-/50-year comprehensive growth plan that ultimately identified the downtown area as the heart of the community and an area worthy of heavy investment. 

Since that time, major revitalization initiatives have been conceived and deployed within the town of roughly 16,000. And while local leaders are throwing their weight behind the recruitment of new retailers and restaurants and finding new and better uses for prime parcels, the key is raising awareness of these initiatives outside the downtown area. 

The challenge is largely geographic in nature, according to Nathan Tafoya, the city’s director of economic development. 

“About 60 to 70 percent of the landmass of the city is south of I-30, and we only have three exits, one of which takes you on a bypass with topography that prevents you from seeing the city’s retail corridor and everything else,” he explains. “The third exit takes you into an industrial park and the older metal buildings and scrapyards and railroad tracks. The middle exit — Jefferson Avenue — abuts Titus Regional Medical Center. That’s where you’ll find the corridors and arterials into the downtown area that we really want to develop.”

The medical campus-anchored area in question already features an array of restaurants and hotels as visitors approach downtown. But several years ago, local leaders decided that the land at the first signalized intersection wasn’t showcasing the highest and best use. A plan was launched around bringing in Chick-fil-A, the Atlanta-based chain that routinely crushes the competition in the fast-food world, and the restaurant opened last summer. 

Bringing in Chick-fil-A meant displacing the homes of the EDC and the Chamber of Commerce, but both those organizations were agreeable to the plan because they knew “what it would mean for the community,” Tafoya says. The chamber has since moved into its new space, also located downtown, and the EDC will soon follow suit.

“That deal speaks to the community’s vision for the downtown area and letting good retail do its thing and enhance the uniqueness of downtown,” says Tafoya. 

Outside its downtown area, Mount Pleasant remains an industrial town; Tafoya says that roughly 35 percent of the city and county population work in manufacturing. Among the biggest such employers are food processor and supplier Pilgrim’s Pride (3,000 employees) and farm equipment manufacturer Priefert (just under 1,000 employees). 

In addition, trailer maker Roadclipper Enterprises, doing business as Diamond C Trailers, purchased an entire city block near the downtown area last year for its new headquarters. The site was formerly the Mount Pleasant First Baptist Church, and the company plans to use the sanctuary as a public meeting and coworking space while also setting up an outdoor showroom and event space. Roadclipper expects to open its facility within the next 12 months.

The moves of these and other businesses have created a need for more housing, and the city is considering an  approximately $280  million, 116-acre multifamily project that would add about 800 apartments to the local supply. 

“Though we already have several hundred units in development, we know that some of our apartments have waiting lists of more than 200 people, if not more,” says Tafoya. “So we’re hoping this newest project goes through.”

Terrell

Terrell, Texas, population 17,500, lies about 35 miles east of Dallas. The city is visible from the I-20 corridor, but it’s U.S. Highway 80 that bisects the downtown area. And it’s the increased vehicular traffic along this thoroughfare that has sparked some new public initiatives and plans to boost pedestrian traffic. 

One such program is the “Mural Walk,” which invites residents and visitors to learn the town’s history through visuals adorning downtown buildings. But according to Raylan Smith, the city’s downtown project manager, the murals represent much more than just pretty pictures with popular Texas motifs.

“Our murals tell stories, encapsulating moments of Terrell’s history in ways that are both educational and entertaining,” says Smith. “For locals and visitors alike, the Mural Walk serves as a pictorial history lesson, bringing to life the events and figures that shaped the city.”

As anyone who makes the Mural Walk will discover, the city just celebrated its 150th anniversary, meaning there’s no shortage of buildings with the potential for adaptive reuse. City leaders have embraced these daunting and challenging architectural and construction projects without fear or hesitation, confident that they can achieve the delicate balance between preservation of quaint character and delivery of modern real estate. 

“Central to the larger revitalization is the meticulous restoration and maintenance of historic downtown buildings,” notes Smith. “The aim is to retain as much original character as possible, from architecture and signage to façades. This focus ensures that each building not only stands as a testament to the past but also continues to serve as a functional and integral part of the downtown landscape.”

When these projects are green-lit, many members of the community are given opportunities to weigh in on key issues, from zoning to parking to landscaping. It’s an approach that “fosters a sense of ownership among the community and ensures that the changes meet the diverse needs of all stakeholders,” according to Smith. 

In addition, taking this approach promotes the original goal of elevating foot traffic and creating a pedestrian-friendly downtown environment. When those goals are actualized, along with delivering infrastructural upgrades, local businesses are incentivized to extend their store hours — a total win for all parties involved.

Tomball

In recent years, many of the marquee real estate announcements in Tomball, a northeastern suburb of Houston, have been concentrated within the industrial sector. 

Last year, Macy’s (NYSE: M) opened a 900,000-square-foot distribution center within Interchange 249, a 3.1 million-square-foot development by locally based firm Lovett Industrial and New York-based Clarion Partners. Another user that calls the park home  is automotive accessories supplier Accelerated Solutions Group. A Costco Wholesale facility is also under construction within the larger industrial site. 

Yet to those who know it best, it’s Tomball’s downtown area that encapsulates the true spirit and character of the community. 

“Our cultural heart and soul is Old Town Tomball — our downtown shopping, dining and entertainment hub,” notes Kelly Violette, executive director of Tomball Economic Development Corp. (TEDC). “The revitalization of the downtown cultural core is the transformation that jumpstarted Tomball’s overall growth as a regional attraction.”

According to Violette, when the city celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2006, the downtown area comprised little more than a collection of quaint, yet early-to-close antique shops. But all that began to change the following year.

“A 2007 planning framework created from an access management study of Main Street morphed into a ‘livable centers’ downtown plan,” says Violette. “This initiative became the city’s first comprehensive blueprint with a vision, conceptual design and implementable projects, all designed to improve mobility, economic development and regional air quality.”

With an overarching focus on creating a pedestrian-friendly environment that preserved downtown’s historic character, Tomball acquired land to develop a public plaza with a splash pad, public restrooms, parking, walking paths and landscaping with memorial trees. A local artist added a replica oil derrick to the fountain as a nod to Tomball’s oilfield history that followed the railroad era.  

Today, shoppers can still find bargains on antiques — but with the added benefit of eating, drinking, dancing and socializing among a dozen restaurants within a vibrant urban core that routinely hosts parades, festivals and live music events. In addition, infrastructural improvements remain ongoing via repositioning of commercial alleyways that feature enhanced lighting, expanded patio spaces and generally improved aesthetics. 

Yet Tomball has not lost sight of its historic roots as a railroad hub. Located adjacent to the town plaza green space and wooden gazebo, both of which are cornerstones of Old Town, the Tomball Railroad Depot & Museum showcases original train memorabilia and antique railcars. The gathering space attracts more than 50,000 guests annually.

Weslaco

Another member city of Hidalgo County, Weslaco recently hit a new all-time high in occupancy — 87 percent — within the 164 buildings that comprise its downtown area. 

Occupancy is even higher (90 percent) within the city’s historic downtown district, and Steven Valdez, executive director of the Weslaco EDC, says that tenant interest remains high among vacant spaces.

These numbers are remarkable for the city of approximately 42,000 people. This is because many of these businesses are boutique mom-and-pop operations that have survived competition from the big box retailers and national chain restaurants that have steadily found their way into Weslaco over the last couple decades. 

Today, these retail and restaurant establishments collectively form what Valdez calls “a true ‘destination experience,’ ranging from high-end apparel, elegant and refined jewelry, antiques, collectibles, five-and-dime products and accessories to new bars, restaurants and nighttime entertainment.”

Valdez cites the iconic Wells of Weslaco clothing store as an example of one of the few remaining vacant buildings that prospective tenants are eyeing. With 7,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space and a 2,000-square-foot storage space on the second floor, EDC officials believe it’s only a matter of time before a new tenant takes the space and brings a creative concept to historic downtown Weslaco.

Local leaders credit the city’s façade renovation and improvement program as a major force behind the downtown revitalization. Under the terms of the program, applicants can have half the cost of these projects covered while ensuring that their buildings remain up to code and that their curb appeal is maximized.

Lastly, two major communal events have contributed greatly to downtown Weslaco’s success. 

The Alfresco Weslaco Music & Art on the Street festival, which is coordinated by the EDC department, features over 130 vendors circulating one-of-a-kind items to crowds as big as 7,000. The event takes place every third Thursday of the month from August to February. And in March comes the Texas Onion Fest, hosted by the Weslaco Area Chamber of Commerce. According to EDC officials, the event is one of the largest single-day festivals in the state, with more than 10,000 visitors lining the streets of the downtown area.

— This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Texas Real Estate Business magazine.