HARLINGEN — Spurred by the recent controversy involving the erection of a large sign nearby on West Harrison Avenue, property owners along Jackson Street in the La Placita area are seeking reinstatement into the Downtown Improvement District.
The three-block area was part of the district until about 2010 when its membership was allowed to lapse, and now property owners want back in.
The downtown district’s board approved the request Tuesday and will send it along to the City Commission for a final decision.
“The district stops right now at West Street, the downtown district stops at West Street,” said Bill DeBrooke, a member of the downtown board. “So it’ll go from the alley north of Jackson Street to the center of E Street, south on E street to the alley south of Jackson Street and back to West Street, and that’s the area that will be brought in. That will make it even with the Van Buren E Street boundary.”
Attorney Ruben Pena was preparing to erect a 35-foot-tall electronic sign next to his office building at West Harrison and West Street.
Although city officials had approved the sign, downtown board members notified them it was not in compliance with the historic district’s overlay zoning regulations. Although Pena’s office is just outside the current downtown district, it is in an area that once was in the district and downtown zoning regulations — the overlay — still apply.
Under the downtown district’s stricter zoning regulations, such a large sign is not permitted.
City officials, who apparently mistakenly granted the sign permit in the first place, then said they were going to remove West Harrison and Jackson Avenues, from the railroad tracks to F Street, from the downtown district overlay in order to allow Pena to put up his sign.
After pushback on that idea, city officials later offered a compromise, saying since Pena’s sign was on a state highway, West Harrison Avenue, a waiver could be enacted that would allow it to be erected while the downtown district’s overlay remains intact.
These moves by the city apparently galvanized property owners along Jackson to quickly attempt to re-gain the protection of being in the downtown district with its stricter zoning rules. If approved by the City Commission, these property owners will then pay an extra tax for that privilege, amounting to 15 cents per $100 valuation, which is on top of the regular city tax.
DeBrooke, who owns one of the buildings in the Jackson Street three-block area, said the downtown board has been intending to add the section back into the downtown district just as they did along parallel Van Buren Street about three years ago.
But the new pleas from property owners accelerated those plans.
“Quite honestly, I just got requests from property owners that wanted to come in, and then this sign problem happened over on Harrison and then it sort of doubled up, and people said we want to get back in the district, we want the overlay to stay in place,” he said.
To approve such a request for inclusion in the district, the downtown board needs to be presented with a petition signed by 80 percent of an area’s property owners.
“I just went down the street,” DeBrooke said. “I didn’t get a vacant lot, I didn’t get a guy who we haven’t been able to find for two years, and one other small property I didn’t get.
“But we got over 80 percent of the number of people and the value and the land area who wanted to come back in,” he added.
Part of what is driving property owners in the La Placita area to seek the protections of the downtown’s zoning regulations are memories of it as a red-light district, which although thriving, was populated with rowdy bars and strip clubs.
Lifting the downtown district’s overlay protections could result in a return of those businesses and those days in the area, DeBrooke has warned.