Questions rise over San Benito development

Resaca-side neighbors speak out about development

SAN BENITO — On Johanna Lozano’s lush lawn, white wooden patio chairs sit along the banks of the resaca.

Like many of the neighbors, she and husband sit along the trimmed banks at sundown to take in the still of the winding canal.

“It’s real pretty,” Lozano said Friday. “We have lots of birds. We have ducks come and you can hear the parrots sing.”

But soon, a $5 million commercial development is expected to stand on the other side of the resaca.

Like Lozano, many residents here question whether Brownsville-based VARCO Real Estate’s planned row of shops, restaurants and office suites will change one of the city’s premier neighborhoods.

“We bought this house because of the property,” Lozano, a housewife, said in her living room off Resaca View. “We question the design — don’t be cheap with the design.”

For decades, city leaders have dreamed about bringing commercial development to the banks of the resaca.

After nearly two years of negotiations with the city, developer Carlos Varela is planning as much as 50,000 square feet of retail shops, offices and restaurants along the resaca off Business 77.

The 9.8-acre property remains zoned for commercial development at the former site of Guinzy’s Resaca Motel, which was razed more than 10 years ago.

Like some of her neighbors, Lozano hopes the city’s biggest development in years boosts the economy of one of the Rio Grande Valley’s poorest towns.

“I want this town to prosper,” she said. “Don’t bring cheap stuff here. Do it nice.”

Privacy concerns

Along North Shore Drive, George Hobbs believes the development would shatter the water-front neighborhood’s quaint charm.

“I bought this house because it’s on the resaca — I bought this property from my parents,” Hobbs said as he stood on his driveway clutching his feisty Chihuahua.

“I don’t want people picking their teeth on the other side of the resaca,” Hobbs, who retired from engineering work, said. “I don’t want to sit in the backyard drinking a beer and watch them watch me. They’ll be sipping a Bud Lite and throwing the carrier into the resaca.”

Big hopes

Across the street on North Shore Drive, Danny Cortez hopes the development helps the city open the door to new businesses.

“It’s about time they do something,” Cortez, a retired Harlingen police officer, said from the front door of his home, referring to what would become the area’s first resaca-side development.

“I’m hoping the city can build off of that,” Cortez, who has helped the city bring events to town, said. “I hope we’re able to get meat into town — businesses. Hopefully this will start to bring new restaurants and new businesses.”

Just down the street, Michael Mooneyham wants new shops and restaurants to open.

“For me, it’s great,” Mooneyham said as he started up his pickup truck to drive to work at H-E-B. “It’d be close — instead of going to Harlingen. It will bring other people to the city.”

Too pricey?

Like some neighbors, Lozano questions whether the city’s residents could afford to support the development’s shops, restaurants and office suites — although Varela plans to offer “affordable” rent to draw tenants and customers from San Benito and across Cameron County.

“If the prices are high, we’re just going to see it,” she said of the proposed shops and restaurants.

“Rent?” she asked. “If it’s going to be high, forget it.”

Here we go again?

Hobbs hopes the project fails.

“I think it’s the most piss-poor idea there is,” he said, describing the development as similar to a strip mall.

“Malls are growing out of style and they want to build one along the resaca,” he said. “It’s a pipe dream.”

Like Cortez, Hobbs remembers a project to develop a resaca-side commercial development failed about five years ago.

In 2013, the city’s Economic Development Corporation used $900,000 from a $1.2 million federal grant to buy the 9.8-acre property planned as the site of a so-called resaca boardwalk featuring shops and restaurants near a museum complex.

Later, the city scrapped the project after officials realized a previous grant stipulated the proposed museum, to house the San Benito History Museum, the Texas Conjunto Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Freddy Fender Museum, be built off Heywood Street.

“They’ve been talking about it for 20 years,” Hobbs said. “This has come up numerous times and it’s never come through.”

The developer

But city officials expect VARCO to break ground in March.

Since 2003, VARCO has developed real estate property in Texas, Arizona and Mexico.

Varela, a partner in the real estate firm as well as in Origo Works, a design-build architectural firm, is also director of IBEX Business Solutions.

From 2005 through June, he had served as a partner and director with Pronto Insurance, with more than 100 locations in Texas.

Varela, who holds a bachelor’s of arts degree in business administration from St. Edwards University, has served as a director of Texas Regional Bank since 2010.