Saturday, June 4, 2011

Frayd Knot: Plan Not Viable

Editorial submission concerning the downtown revitalization project.

Building City-owned retail spaces in Bridge II approach
is not downtown revitalization; plan not viable
City administrators have been in negotiations with TxDOT this past year to orchestrate the trade of the five blocks of green spaces leading from IH-35 to Bridge II. The regional TxDOT engineer has said that because TxDOT can only sell or trade the land, the City of Laredo has negotiated a trade of the TxDOT-owned green spaces for land at the World Trade Bridge.
City administrators say that the City will get two parcels of the green spaces in exchange for the maintenance of the balance of the green spaces because TxDOT no longer wants to carry the burden of maintenance. The City Manager stated in the May 2011 issue of LareDOS that developing these blocks will provide a way to bring additional revenues to the City coffers. The plan, according to them, is to fill the blocks with a City mall filled with lease spaces and other buildings the City of Laredo will rent and maintain.
             The first project is a City-owned commercial mall piggybacked onto the Federal bus passenger inspection station. It is the intention of the City to close Hidalgo Street to traffic. (You can see the entire mall plan at The Federal station calls for a 10 to 15,000-square-foot space, but nowhere in the GSA solicitation does it make mention of the need for retail lease spaces. The City’s choice to be involved in this federal project is not a public necessity.
From GSA Solicitation Number: TX0283JL (Aug 3, 2010)
This project requires the design of an approximately 10,0 00SF to 15,000 SF bus and bus passenger processing facility at the Lincoln-Juarez LPOE. As a minimum, this facility is to include a luggage x-ray and inspection area; I-94 processing area and permit counters; waiting area; detention area; area(s) for federal and state inspection agencies; restrooms (public and staff); pedestrian inspection lanes; individual bus stalls (primary and secondary); non invasive inspection area; and canopy for loading and unloading.
Supporting facilities include utilities (water, sewer, gas, HVAC, steam and/or chilled water distribution), electric services, paving, walks, curbs, gutters, storm drainage, exterior communications and information systems, fire protection and alarm systems, site drainage, site work, and site improvements that include landscaping, parking, sidewalks and access drives. Access for individuals with disabilities will be provided, as well as provisions of building and site anti-terrorism measures. Any questions regarding this notice must be submitted in writing or via email to Trevor Simon at
Before the City-TxDOT trade of land negotiations began, the bus inspection terminal  was to be built on the east side of Bridge II on federally owned land.
City management has made it clear why they want those blocks of green space land. They want to build a lease mall to generate revenues. But where and when were the public meetings for those who have a stake in downtown or in downtown neighborhoods such as the Azteca, the San Agustin Historical District, and the St. Peters Historical District — those who would most adversely be affected by the location of the project. Where and when was the public meeting that allowed the business community a review and comment of the business plan that the City believes will be a revenue generator. Neither the efficacy of the business plan for the City to become a landlord nor the site of the mall’s location have had public vetting.
Today, after the northbound Mexican bus passengers are inspected and processed, they frequent neighboring money exchanges, restaurants, and convenience stores in the area surrounding Bridge II. The private sector businesses that service these passengers will have to compete with the City lease mall. According to one of these business owners, however, the City administrators have promised that they will be allowed to lease in the new City-operated building. They should be aware that it is easy to promise over 100% of coveted space to competitors, but some of them will be turned away. Assuredly, the City’s revenue generating business plan does not have a line item in the revenue loss column for the loss to the City of property tax revenues due to the probability of business closures because they have found a new address in a tax exempt City-owned mall.
Considering the revenue loss column further, is there a line item for the maintenance and repair of the mall, or will no cost be attributed because the City will just roll it into department tasks for City-owned buildings. The proposed retail mall’s common areas will take City employee time and expenditures for labor and purchases of materials. Is there a line item for utilities, or will no cost be attributed because utilities for City-owned buildings are paid by their department budget. Water, sewer, garbage pick-up, and electricity are still an expense even though they fall under the umbrella of the City. How about the expense for the maintenance of the balance of the three blocks that the city has reportedly agreed to in order to make this project possible? If many of the revenue loss line items are missing, how true and correct is it that this commercial mall addition to the federal bus station is revenue generating?
The City’s choice for their new mall location will impact access to downtown, which equals another revenue loss missing from the calculations of profitability. Santa Ursula and San Dario, the two major thoroughfares in the approach to Bridge II, form a boulevard that leads traffic to and from the international bridge. The strip of planted ground of the boulevard bounded by San Dario, Santa Ursula and five important east-west intersections is the land that the City administrators eye as valuable real estate. This public land which serves the purpose of attenuating traffic is in a highly congested area.
Access is what makes property valuable. Impeding or constricting access lowers property values. Impeding access to downtown and making it more difficult to shop there will lower sales tax recapture. The City’s project closes Hidalgo Street, a traffic-impeding choice for both for through traffic from south Laredo and destination traffic to downtown. The closure would have a catastrophic effect on the already depressed values of the Azteca neighborhood and it would make access to downtown and City and Webb County offices even more difficult for its residents. The City’s project fills the strip of land between Santa Ursula and San Dario with a high security bus station, a commercial mall, and proposed other City or federal buildings. The additional traffic will completely congest already heavily transited thoroughfares with busses trying to queue to the highway from Farragut Street. Cars attempting to go into and out of parking lots to the new buildings would invite gridlock to an already congested area. It will further exacerbate the virtual shut-down of traffic movement when the train blocks all access to public streets and the only way to join the gridlock is from the underpass on the highway.
Construction of a City retail mall in this five-block area will close and re-route traffic for two years or more. The lack of access during construction alone maybe enough to close down many sections of downtown for years, impede property sales downtown and in the St. Peter’s District, and sway students away from LCC West. Property owners will not have much to look forward to after construction because none of the work was done to make it easier to arrive, but only more difficult. Vacant properties mean lower property values and loss of property tax revenues for the City. These lost revenues need to be reflected in the City’s business plan for this project.
The City administrators, when judging if their project is an economic generator for the city, must make a true and real accounting as to the real cost of the project. It must include all expenditures and not rely on City departments to pick up the tab. It must consider the loss of revenue the plan may generate. Then you have to ask how much rent will people be willing to pay to make this a revenue-generating project. Or do we have to consider the possibility that this project is a sweetheart deal for people that City officials favor. Perhaps revenue generation is just an excuse. Perhaps some time should be spent on finding out who is actually involved in the development of this project and what work has been paid for.
Judging by the public meeting hosted on May 6 by Council member Cindy Liendo Espinoza and by what was printed in LareDOS, the Kell-Muñoz downtown master plan architects have spent time working on projects other than revitalization. How much of what they were they paid went to develop plans for the bus inspection station and City lease mall project? Whatever the amount was, it was money taken from taxpayers and the downtown business and property owners who expected a revitalization plan for downtown, not for new retail space owned by the City of Laredo.


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