Repurposing El Jardin could serve two functions

For nearly a century, El Jardin Hotel has been an iconic structure in Downtown Brownsville. In its heyday the majestic building was a symbol of the opulence that upper-crust Brownsville residents enjoyed before the Great Depression. More recently, however, the empty shell has been more of a representation of the city’s difficulty in returning to its past glory.

El Jardin is a certified historic structure, but it’s been abandoned for more than 30 years, with owners unable to find buyers; several investors showed interest over the years, but they balked after seeing the amount of work — and money — its renovation would require. At one point the city fenced it off after pieces of the facade began to fall off.

Now it appears the building will be revived; Brownsville’s Housing Authority was expected to finalize the purchase of the building this month, and it plans to convert it into lowincome housing.

The project could take $16 million or more to add structural support, renovate the interior and create as many as 42 housing units. The city is counting on millions in federal funding to help finance the renovation.

Such projects aren’t foreign to the city, which has renovated other complexes, mostly single-family units, and manages another tower with low-income housing, Villa del Sol, just a few blocks away from El Jardin.

Still, Brownsville officials should take advantage of the opportunity to discuss the project with their peers in Harlingen, which recently completed a similar conversion of the R.W. Baxter Office Building.

Unlike Villa del Sol, which is surrounded largely by other residences and warehouses, El Jardin lies in the heart of a long-dormant downtown district that is reawakening with new restaurants and entertainment venues. Therefore, city officials should note the issues that arose with the Baxter renovation. Downtown Harlingen merchants expressed concerns about residents and possible vagrants interfering with the flow of customers and downtown shoppers; people worried that possible patrons might be driven away if residents occupied too many of the already scarce parking in the area.

And with no buffering, such as office buildings separating entertainment district from the residential building, might business owners have to worry about El Jardin resident complaints about the noise and traffic after dark? Will residents have to worry about safety and security with so many strangers walking around the building at night?

And if the proposed riverfront “Esplanade” district is developed, those residents will be completely surrounded by such commercial ventures.

Fortunately, we should expect such concerns to be minimal in a city that enjoys one of the nation’s lowest crime rates. But such issues do need to be considered.

Brownsville officials must be aware of the issues, however, and take whatever steps they can to address and mitigate them.