Not dead yet: County supporting via Americas riverfront project

A man walks along the levee Monday that runs parallel to Sam Perl Boulevard. The city of Brownsville has concluded that via Americas, a concept for a mixed-use riverfront redevelopment project, that would replace the current levee is not financially viable. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Months after the city of Brownsville concluded that LandGrant Development’s plan to transform the city’s riverfront into a retail and cultural mecca is unfeasible without more up-front financial commitment from the developer, Cameron County is doing what it can to keep the project moving forward.

City Manager Noel Bernal sent LandGrant President Sam Marasco III a letter in June listing several reasons why the city believes Marasco’s “via Americas” proposed mixed-use development project — officially the Riverfront and Railyard Redevelopment Program and Project — is financially not viable, and stating that city staff were being pulled off the project and that no more city resources would be devoted to it.

Among the reasons Bernal cited were that the project required participation from the state through its Hotel Financing Zone Program that had not been secured, and that a required amendment to the Texas Tax Code required for the project to advance had not been made.

The origins of via Americas go back to when County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. served as mayor between 2003 and 2007, not long after Marasco opened the successful Las Americas retail center in San Diego, Calif., where LandGrant is headquartered. Trevino said earlier this month that he doesn’t want to see the Brownsville project “die on the vine” if there’s a chance it’s doable, and that the county is reviewing ways it can engage, such as advocating with the Legislature and state and federal authorities on LandGrant’s behalf. Trevino said the county has been in talks with LandGrant over the last several months.

“It would be a severe disappointment to me if the project wasn’t able to move forward because of lack of support from the community, so we’re trying to give them that,” he said. “If at the end of the day from a financial standpoint they’re not able to do it, well then that’s a different matter.”

A resolution approved by county commissioners on Sept. 29 aimed at furthering a proposed makeover of county-owned Gateway International Bridge also includes provisions that would benefit the LandGrant project. Included in those provisions is the language regarding the removal of the existing downtown border barrier and earthen levee, allowable under a federal court order. Under the LandGrant plan, the earthen levee and fence would be replaced by a concrete retaining wall/flood barrier that would also serve as the platform for Rio Grande Esplanade, the retail catalyst for via Americas.

Trevino said that if the plan comes to fruition it will involve substantial infrastructure investment on the part of the developer that would also be beneficial to downtown and a revamped Gateway Bridge, a project the county is seeking federal funds to accomplish.

“If we can make that part of this project, to develop retail and make it a tourist attraction for downtown Brownsville and Cameron County as a whole, we want to do our part to make that a reality,” he said.

Mark Yates, the county’s director of economic development and community affairs, said taking down the fence and building a retaining wall in its place would pave the way for opening up the currently non-productive area between Gateway and the B&M International Bridge to “proper development” while also protecting the border. Including specific language about commercial riverfront redevelopment in the resolution was intended to signal the county’s support for the LandGrant project, he said.

“We’re looking for cooperation from the federal government,” Yates said. “We’re also looking for cooperation from the state government, and so we want to be very clear that we’re intent on doing this project and we’re looking to improve connectivity between Brownsville and Matamoros, and to serve the consulate and do our part in downtown revitalization.”

He said he believes via Americas represents an opportunity for job creation and increased property valuations that will generate significant economic activity for the city and the county. Yates said Trevino is the driving force behind the county’s support of the LandGrant project, though “the commission itself is pretty united on this.” He noted that the county has regular Monday meetings with Marasco via Zoom.

Yates pointed to San Antonio’s history over the last 50 years as evidence of what major investment in downtown can yield, turning that city’s historic heart into one of the nation’s most popular tourist destinations. He’d like to see vibrant cross-border commerce on both sides of the Rio Grande again, and the stretch of Matamoros nearest Brownsville “tamed” by major retail development on this side, perhaps even sparking a Matamoros riverfront revival.

“Look at cities like New Orleans and Baltimore and start integrating our history into our economic focus,” Yates said. “We don’t have to invent this. It’s being successful in a lot of different places. Let’s just take advantage of what we have.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com

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No dice:City deems riverfront project unfeasible

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