HARLINGEN — When city officials granted attorney Ruben Peña’s request to put up a tall electronic sign in front of his office building on West Harrison Avenue, they didn’t know the 35-foot-high sign was too big to comply with the downtown district’s restrictions.
Now, officials are proposing to remove the so-called La Placita area, in which Peña’s building stands, from the larger Downtown Improvement District.
“That’s what triggered this whole thing,” Assistant City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez said yesterday, referring to Peña’s sign.
Along the city’s historic Jackson Street business district, property owner Bill DeBrooke believes the city’s proposal threatens businesses in the area stretching from F to Fourth Streets and Tyler to Madison Avenues.
“This is going to set the whole downtown program back,” he said.
Officials have set public hearings Jan. 8 and 15 to give area residents a chance to speak up about their plans to remove the La Placita area from the downtown district.
At City Hall, Gonzalez said Peña’s request led officials to review the district’s boundaries.
Officials believed the boundaries changed with the passage of an amendment to the Downtown Improvement District’s ordinance more than 10 years ago, Gonzalez said.
However, he said, the district’s boundaries didn’t reflect the ordinance’s changes.
So, upon their review, he said, officials proposed the removal of the La Placita area from the downtown district.
“We want the overlay district to match the boundaries of the public improvement district,” Gonzalez said.
But DeBrooke, who helped found the downtown district, believes officials want to remove the La Placita area from the district to allow Peña to install his sign, which is about twice as big as the district’s regulations allow.
“I paid for it,” Peña said, referring to his sign and permitting fees.
Adult business threat
For years, DeBrooke pushed to make the La Placita area part of the downtown district to help officials better regulate businesses there.
Before the La Placita area became part of the downtown district, police struggled to control the area’s bars, said DeBrooke, who owns property in the La Placita area.
But within the downtown district’s boundaries, he said, tight restrictions have controlled the spread of adult businesses such as bars and tattoo parlors.
“The overlay was put in place to protect the core of Harlingen,” DeBrooke said.
If officials remove the La Placita area from the downtown district, he believes bars and adult businesses would open there.
“It impacts the rules we put on the bars in the district,” DeBrooke said. “It means that next door to me I could get a topless bar.”
DeBrooke said the proposal directly threatens businesses in the La Placita area.
“It’s 180 degrees to what we wanted to do,” he said. “If we can’t protect our architectural heritage, we’re just wasting our time. That would be like we’ve been wasting our time for 25 or 30 years trying to improve downtown.”
Within the Downtown Improvement District, restrictions prohibit adult businesses.
If officials remove the La Placita area from the downtown district, residents with plans to open adult businesses such as smoke shops would have to apply for specific use permits, Gonzalez said.
“It would subject them to the same restrictions in town that other areas are subject to,” Gonzalez said, noting residents who plan open adult businesses in areas outside the downtown district must apply for specific use permits.