Moving into Baxter

Historic renovation brings ‘mix’ to downtown

HARLINGEN — When Elsa Rodriguez first saw the city’s tallest building, she never dreamed the former flop house would become her home.

Less than two weeks ago, she moved into Baxter Lofts, the city’s first high-rise development.

“I would drive by and it was just an old abandoned building,” said Rodriguez, who moved to Harlingen three years ago after living in Dallas and Chicago. “I’d heard it was in pretty bad shape.”

In July 2018, MRE Capital, a Kansas City, Kansas, developer, launched a $4.5 million renovation project aimed at turning the city’s tallest eyesore into an apartment development offering so-called “affordable housing.”

“We are very pleased with the completion of this project and we congratulate the owners on a beautiful addition to our downtown,” City Manager Dan Serna stated yesterday. “This is a remarkable addition for the entire city.”

After months of delays, Rodriguez is among the first tenants to move into the iconic building whose transformation marks one of the city’s most historic renovations.

“I was wowed by the building,” said Rodriguez, a disabled former apartment manager. “The downtown high-rise is very nice. I was intrigued by all the windows — the natural lighting. It’s all modernized — all the appliances, the flooring.”

Five years ago, Nathan Pullin was working for the city when he first walked into the old nine-story building.

“I remember seeing it when it was awful — broken, trashed and full of graffiti,” Pullin, a retail store stocker, said.

Three weeks ago, his sixth-story apartment became the first home he’s leased on his own.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” Pullin said of the building’s transformation. “It’s my first place living by myself so it feels very gratifying. The room is great. There’s a lot of space for one person. With the windows, there’s so much light. It makes it open and breathable.”

End of long delay

For months, Suzanne Davis, has been waiting for her tenants to move in after the developer completed the renovation project.

First, June 24’s big storm flooded the building’s basement.

Then, a city inspection called for a bigger generator to help power the building.

“One of the requirements for the Baxter Lofts is to have a generator that will be able to provide sufficient back-up power for a building of its height and size,” Serna stated.

After the generator’s installation, Pullin became the building’s second tenant.

“They’ve been moving in — slowly but surely,” Davis said.

By the end of this month, she’s counting on the rest of her tenants filling up the building’s 24 apartments.

Historic project nearly complete

For Mayor Chris Boswell, the tenants’ arrival marks the closing of a decades-old project.

“I drove by the building last night and the lights were on,” Boswell said. “That really is a milestone for the downtown — to have that building occupied in a useful way.”

For more than 30 years, Harlingen’s leaders had talked about ways to rid the city of its tallest building after it had turned into a flophouse looming over downtown.

When he won election to the mayor’s post in 2007, Boswell made the historic building’s renovation one of his administration’s goals.

In late 2015, city commissioners entered into an agreement with MRE Capital to renovate the nine-story building to its original condition.

As part of a contract, the Harlingen Community Improvement Board agreed to sell the Baxter Building to MRE Capital for $250,000 on the condition the developer clinch federal tax credits to help fund the $4.5 million renovation project.

“It feels good to see that building brought back to life,” Boswell said.

Sense of community

The tenants bring a new sense of community to the city’s downtown.

Davis said her tenants include some of the first children to live downtown in decades.

“The more people live here, the more sense of community,” said Bill DeBrooke, a downtown property owner who helped spearhead the area’s revitalization nearly 30 years ago. “The more people who live downtown, the better community we build.”

Along the Jackson Street business district, merchants are counting on tenants to spark up new business.

“From the standpoint of downtown businesses, it will be a plus,” DeBrooke said. “It’s going to add more people to the mix, eating at downtown restaurants and shopping at downtown businesses.”

Strict selection process

As part of the leasing process, tenants underwent background checks.

“They do so many background checks,” Rodriguez said. “They’re very particular about who they rent to.”

For months, Baxter Lofts has piqued high interest across the area.

On Facebook, the high-rise’s page has drawn more than 10,000 views, Davis said.

However, MRE Capital followed strict guidelines in selecting tenants.

Because the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs awarded the developer $3.3 million in federal tax credits to help fund the project’s construction, MRE Capital was required to rent the apartments as affordable housing following federal guidelines.

Depending on income and other factors, Baxter Lofts leases its one-bedroom apartments from about $239 to $600 while its two-bedroom apartments rent from $275 to $800.

Baxter Lofts, described as a “luxury” development, offers residents a unique opportunity to live in the city’s first high-rise featuring an outdoor picnic area, a community room, a small library including two computers and a fitness center.

“The rent is so reasonable — you would think it would be so expensive,” Rodriguez said. “It gives other people an opportunity to live in a nice place — and in a high-rise at that.”