Some have had a perception that Corpus Christi is a town that does not particularly value its heritage, that “tear it down” is the motto around here. But the national trend towards adaptive reuse is increasingly seen here in Corpus Christi, and has been bearing good fruit for the community.
What is adaptive reuse? Adaptive reuse refers to the reuse of an existing building or site for functions different than what it was originally designed for. Adaptive reuse can be an effective strategy to optimize construction cost, to make use of existing edifices and infrastructure. And of course, adaptive reuse of buildings can be a highly sustainable strategy, amounting to recycling on a large scale. It takes an awful lot of tin cans to equal the recycled material and energy savings of single recycled building.
We can see the growth of an adaptive reuse strategy here in Corpus Christi. A very common example, seen around older neighborhoods near the courthouse, are all the old Victorian houses converted into law offices. Some great downtown examples include BUS (Bar Under the Sun) which was previously the Greyhound bus station, the Downtown Carwash Club which was previously the Bank of America motor bank, and The Goldfish, which was previously a dry cleaner and was transitioned into a shipping container bar in 2017. Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s purchase of the old JCPenney building will bring the university’s art gallery and other public functions to downtown, and is a great example of the university’s contribution to the broader community. And of course, there are many examples in midtown and the Westside of buildings repurposed to house new small businesses.
It is true that not every situation calls for adaptive reuse – the finished product has to serve the intended purpose. But the frequently heard argument “it’ll be cheaper just to tear it down and build new” can sometimes be an expression of a habitual attitude, rather than a fact-based conclusion. Decisions about whether to renovate or tear down and rebuild are often made for reasons other than, and prior to, any specific cost analysis.
There are important economic benefits of adaptive reuse that go beyond immediate construction cost. For reasons of scale and diversity, the reuse of existing structures can sometimes produce an environment that is more lively, interesting, and economically viable than projects built from zero. Pre-1960s development typically creates structures that are smaller, denser, more mixed-use, and more pedestrian friendly. The smaller sized structures can be perfect for incubating new businesses, and the resulting grouping of complementary uses is key to producing a vibrant streetscape.
Many communities around the country have produced extremely successful examples of neighborhood regeneration through adaptive reuse. Many of us have enjoyed visiting the Pearl Brewery district in downtown San Antonio. Not long ago the Pearl Brewery consisted of vacant buildings, flood plain, and homeless camps, but today it is an extremely productive addition to the city. This kind of success resulted from active cooperation between the city, community leaders and private developers.
We are seeing a similar successful example of adaptive reuse in the work of the Corpus Christi Downtown Management District, which has fostered a real rebirth of downtown Corpus Christi in recent years. Today there are many more businesses, restaurants, and there is more life in the streets than there has been for decades. One of the Downtown Management District’s goals is to create a sparkling Marina Arts District, such as can be seen in some other cities including Mobile, Galveston, Savannah, Tampa; and Charleston. The hard work and cooperation between the DMD, the city, the private sector and other community leaders is achieving the adaptive reuse of an entire part of town.
Adaptive reuse, ultimately, means more than reducing expenses or creating a more interesting tourist district. It means that we consider our neighborhoods, and our community, as being something worth saving. It is a signal that we feel our community has value and is worth the trouble of taking care of for the long term. For this reason, the movement toward more conservation and renovation is a signal of maturity in our city and of a caring attitude toward our community.
Sean Connor grew up in Corpus Christi, attended Rice University, and is a practicing architect and member of the American Institute of Architects. He has spent parts of his career in Austin and Houston and recently established an office for his firm in Corpus Christi.