RGV Affordable Housing

Learn more about our work in the RGV.

A family's income defines its available choices in housing. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) of Texas, very low-income families have little to no choice available to them. The predominant type of very low-income housing is substandard, isolated from public institutions, and often negatively impacted by stormwater. These isolated communities do not fall within municipalities, and it is up to the counties to adopt Subdivision Regulations that may require a minimum quality of housing development. Counties currently spend their planning capital on bringing public infrastructure to new and existing neighborhoods located in such isolation. This causes counties to continuously search for outside funding to address these critical issues.

bcWORKSHOP Planning Associate Justin Tirsun has been leading an effort to catalogue all existing Federal, State of Texas, Hidalgo County, Cameron County, and local plans that address critical issues in substandard developments both directly or indirectly in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. The recommendations put forth in these plans are categorized by issue, and analyzed on the following criteria:

  1. Do the recommendations act in contradiction to or work in support of existing plans?
  2. Is there the potential for alignment between planning goals and measures of success between multiple agencies?
  3. Is the issue one that would have been rectified if zoning required the subdivision in an non-isolated region of the county?

The resulting catalogue is organized by the issues that have been identified by the state, counties, cities and local organizations that contribute to the cost of affordable housing:

  • Available Quality Housing
  • Poor Development Patterns
  • Access to Potable Water
  • Access to Sufficient Sewer Infrastructure
  • Adequate Drainage and Stormwater Management
  • Access to Transit
  • Access to Healthcare Institutions
  • Access to Education
  • Access to Jobs

The catalogued planning efforts affect a population of more than 100,000 residents in Hidalgo and Cameron counties. The catalogue will serve as a regional resource providing LRGV agencies and the public a single library of all plans that affect quality of life issues. It will be a single source for policy implementation addressing critical issues of housing, and how collaboration should occur between agencies when working on affordable housing choices. Finally, it will address an argument that providing the counties with zoning capacities will alleviate much of the same quality of life issues in future county development.

The catalogue will be shared with stakeholders on June 24, 2013.

Designing a New UTB

Read more about our work in the RGV.

A Victory for the Public’s Interest

In the summer of 2012, uncertainty surrounded the announced divorce of Texas Southmost College (TSC) and the University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB). City of Brownsville long-term strategic plans for the future economic vitality and success of its greater downtown core included anchor academic institutions, namely the existing TSC-UTB partnership and shared facilities. The separation of these two institutions had serious long-term economic and social implications for the health of the greater downtown area. An early study commissioned by UT Regents recommended a relocation of the UT Brownsville campus to a site north of the city, a plan generated without community engagement or input.

In an effort to influence the UT Board of Regents’ upcoming decision regarding the future location of UTB, bcWORKSHOP organized and facilitated a design charrette during which participants shared their vision for a new UTB and greater Downtown. The charrette paired local stakeholders with national experts in urban design, engineering, institutional development and city shaping. Public Architecture secured technical expertise in Cannon Design and Sam Schwartz Engineering and engaged U3 Ventures to assist with economic development. Participants, including academic administrators, faculty, students, business owners, developers, city staff, political leaders, and residents, numbered more than 75 during the July 25-28, 2012 charrette process.

bcWORKSHOP packaged the ideas generated at the design charrette and presented them in collaboration with the City of Brownsville to the Board of Regents. As a result, the UT system issued (1) a competitive Request for Qualifications for comprehensive architectural services concerning the design of a 21st century campus that was subsequently awarded to Cannon Design and (2) a Request for Proposals (RFP) for land acquisitions concerning the future location of UTB’s campus. Continuing planning efforts, the City of Brownsville asked bcWORKSHOP to assist in preparing a response to the RFP. The proposal created by bcWORKSHOP was a collection of privately and publicly owned land in the greater downtown and highlighted strengths of an urban campus as a place where:

  • synergies exist to positively shape the multi-faceted student experience
  • new development leverages existing UTB physical assets
  • flexibility enables the new 21st century education model

The urban campus proposal was submitted in October 2012. On May 9, 2013 the University of Texas Board of Regents voted to pass a motion confirming Downtown Brownsville as the future location of UTB. The vote authorized negotiations for lease of property from Texas Southmost College and to continue discussions with the City of Brownsville regarding purchase of land for future development. The Board’s decision is a victory for UTB students, faculty, and the greater Brownsville community. The downtown campus decision is seen as a culmination of community engagement efforts to ensure that the long-term plan reflects a thoughtful investment in the vitality of the campus, the downtown area, and their users.

UTB 2.0: Proposal for a Knowledge Community was prepared following the Community charrette.

Belden Trail Groundbreaking

Learn more about our work in the RGV.

March 21st, 2013 marked the groundbreaking ceremony for Belden Trail in Brownsville, TX. The ceremony was held at the intersection of West 8th and Fronton Street behind Skinner Elementary School. About 100 people were in attendance, including Brownsville Mayor Martinez, Commissioner Virrareal, Skinner Elementary Principal Moore, Assistant Superintendent Haynes, Community Development Corporation Brownsville Executive Director Nick Mitchell-Bennett, and Commissioner Rose Gowen who spoke on the importance of the Trail. See local coverage of the event from the Brownsville Herald and United Brownsville!

The groundbreaking was a celebration of every contribution by community residents, stakeholders, and project partners toward the development, planning, and design of this project. The process was a community wide effort of collaboration between adjacent residents and institutions as well as project partners and the City of Brownsville.

The trail design includes a pedestrian and bike pathway connecting Skinner Elementary School to Praxedis Orive Jr. Park on Palm Boulevard. The 10 foot-wide pathway also runs alongside Sams Memorial Stadium. The trail design includes:

  • local plants and shade trees including tall grasses and wildflowers, live oak trees, red yucca, sacahuista, and mealy blue sage
  • bike racks, play areas, and local art at Rotary Park, Skinner Elementary School, and the Elizabeth Street intersection.
  • safe street crossings with the addition of street chokers to slow traffic, signage, and crosswalks.

The addition of this public space in Brownsville will encourage healthy lifestyles, diversify transportation options and increase access to natural resources. The trail will serve as an example for continued development of a city-wide trail system increasing city residents' access to cultural, recreational, and natural amenities.

The trail will be under construction for the next two months. You can read more about the background of Belden Trial here. Be sure to like The Friends of Belden Trail on Facebook for updates!

A Designer's Paradise?

Learn more about La Hacienda and our work in the RGV.

By Emily Axtman

So what is bcWORKSHOP working on in the Valley besides La Hacienda Casitas?

The short answer: a lot.

To give some perspective about architecture practices in the Valley:

The city of Dallas, at a population of about 1.2 million, has 301 professional architecture practices according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) 2011 data. The city of Brownsville, at a population of 178,500, has 5 professional architecture practices.

Dallas averages 1 architecture firm for every 3,300 people. Brownsville averages 1 architect firm for every 35,600 people. So what's the big deal? Dallas has 10 times the capacity of people working towards providing better housing, public spaces and development within the city. Brownsville is in need of a greater design capacity and this is where bcWORKSHOP comes in.

Maggie Winter, a bcWORKSHOP designer, has been working toward implementing improvements for the quality of life in the LRGV since September 2011. Her projects have ranged from city-wide planning to housing and broader community development.

Justin Tirsun, a former VISTA at bcW, has been a part of the LRGV team since July 2012. Justin's main focus in the Valley has been policy research and development in the Colonias, as well as the Belden Trail. Among all of the projects, I have had the opportunity to work on the Alegria House.

Alegria House, front elevation.

Alegria House, front elevation.

bcWORKSHOP has been working with Ms. Alegria to design a new home for her and her 3 children. The Alegrias currently live in a mobile home without running water or electricity. Recently, Ms. Alegria's son was paralyzed in an accident, making accessibility part of their housing needs. Working within CDCB's Colonia Redevelopment Program, bcWORKSHOP has designed a home that will meet their needs and provide a healthy living environment. Construction is slated to begin in November!

The Colonia Redevelopment Program is a reconstruction & rehabilitation service for homeowners in Colonias currently living in homes that are not meeting their basic needs. Based on the sustainABLEhouse model,  bcW is teaming up with CDCB to offer a custom design service to the program. This opportunity directly involves the homeowners in the design and construction of their new home while remaining within the parameters of the Colonia Redevelopment Program. The bcW LRGV office is currently working with 4 families to design homes that will accommodate their needs, be energy efficient, and provide healthy living environments. We are thrilled to be working so closely with all of these families!

So now back to that OTHER housing project. What's going on with La Hacienda?! I'm excited to bring the news that the La Hacienda site has been under construction for 4 weeks now. With the infrastructural work underway (eg: water, sewer and fire lines; site-drainage and street layout) the first 8 homes will be under construction in the next couple weeks. The foundations have been staked and completion of these units is scheduled for mid-January. Stay tuned over these next few weeks: the houses are on their way!

La Hacienda site on 10/1/2012 facing east from Paloma Ln. 

La Hacienda site on 10/1/2012 facing east from Paloma Ln. 

Belden Trail

Learn more about Belden Trail and our work in the RGV.

Aerial photo of trail site

bcWORKSHOP has been invited to assist in the transformation of a former railroad segment into the Belden Trail, an urban pedestrian pathway, with the Friends of the Belden Trail, the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation (BCIC) and the lively West Brownsville community. This partnership began working together to collect memories, values, goals, and visions for the future. This community-wide effort builds upon the rich history of West Brownsville and aims  to keep the City moving, healthy, safe, and connected. The Belden Trail will be one of many inter-urban bike trail links that are planned or already built throughout the city. Community members and meeting participants are keenly aware of the connections between health and quality of life, and the need for healthy living opportunities in South Texas.

Dating back to the original township survey, the trail was once a street named after Brownsville founder, Samuel Belden. Over the course of years, the route was converted into part of the city’s expanding train track network and eventually abandoned as Brownsville’s transportation network and needs evolved. The tracks were removed, and the stretch was left to function as an informal alley, walking route and parking lane. The S-shaped street is in various states of repair along the one mile that connects West Brownsville to downtown neighborhoods. When completed, the trail will provide a safe pedestrian and bike-riding connection for the families of West Brownsville to commercial areas, schools, parks, and cultural resources in the historic town center. It will be a safe and fun route as well as a destination itself.

Follow the Friends of the Belden Trail to learn more about the project and get involved.