Some have had the impression that Corpus Christi is a city that does not particularly value its heritage, that “demolish it” is the motto here. But the national trend towards adaptive reuse is increasingly visible here in Corpus Christi, and has paid off for the community.
What is adaptive reuse? Adaptive reuse refers to the reuse of an existing building or site for functions different from those for which it was originally designed. Adaptive reuse can be an effective strategy to optimize construction costs, to use existing buildings and infrastructure. And of course, adaptive reuse of buildings can be a highly sustainable strategy, tantamount to large-scale recycling. It takes a huge number of cans to match the savings in recycled materials and energy of a single recycled building.
We can see the growth of an adaptive reuse strategy here at Corpus Christi. A very common example, seen in the older quarters near the courthouse, is that of all the old Victorian houses converted into law firms. Some great downtown examples include BUS (Bar Under the Sun) which was previously Greyhound’s bus station, the Downtown Carwash Club which was previously the Bank of America auto bank, and The Goldfish, which was previously a car cleaner. dry and was transformed into a shipping container bar in 2017. Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi’s purchase of the former JCPenney building will bring the university’s art gallery and other public functions to the center. city, and is a prime example of the university’s contribution to the wider community. And of course, there are plenty of examples in downtown and the Westside of buildings being repurposed to house new small businesses.
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It is true that not all situations call for adaptive reuse – the finished product must serve the intended purpose. But the frequently heard argument “it will be cheaper to just tear it down and rebuild it” can sometimes be the expression of a habitual attitude, rather than a fact-based conclusion. Decisions to renovate or demolish and rebuild are often made for reasons other than, and before, any specific cost analysis.
Adaptive reuse has significant economic benefits that go beyond the immediate cost of construction. For reasons of scale and diversity, the reuse of existing structures can sometimes produce a more lively, interesting and economically viable environment than projects built from scratch. Development before the 1960s generally created structures that were smaller, denser, more versatile, and more pedestrian-friendly. Smaller-sized structures can be perfect for incubating new businesses, and the resulting cluster of complementary uses is essential to produce a vibrant streetscape.
Many communities across the country have produced extremely successful examples of neighborhood regeneration through adaptive reuse. Many of us enjoyed visiting the Pearl Brewery neighborhood in downtown San Antonio. Not so long ago, the Pearl Brewery consisted of vacant buildings, flood plains, and homeless camps, but today it’s a hugely productive addition to the city. This kind of success is the result of active cooperation between the city, community leaders and private developers.
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We see a similar successful example of adaptive reuse in the work of the Corpus Christi Downtown Management District, which has fostered a true revival of downtown Corpus Christi in recent years. Today there are many more businesses, restaurants and more life on the streets than there has been in decades. One of the goals of the Downtown Management District is to create a sparkling Marina Arts District, as can be seen in other cities like Mobile, Galveston, Savannah, Tampa; and Charleston. The hard work and cooperation between DMD, the city, the private sector and other community leaders adaptively reuse a whole part of the city.
Adaptive reuse, ultimately, means more than cutting expenses or creating a more interesting tourist district. This means that we view our neighborhoods and our community as something worth saving. It’s a signal that we feel our community is valuable and worth taking care of for the long term. For this reason, the movement towards more conservation and renovation is a signal of maturity in our city and of a caring attitude towards our community.
Sean Connor grew up in Corpus Christi, attended Rice University, and is a practicing architect and fellow of the American Institute of Architects. He spent part of his career in Austin and Houston and recently opened an office for his firm in Corpus Christi.