As one travels south on Business 83, the old Texas highway bends toward the east and parallels the Rio Grande River. In the 1930s, this section of 83 ran through the downtown areas of the major cities from Laredo to Brownsville and was known as “America’s longest Main Street.” During the postwar period, however, commerce in the Lower Rio Grande Valley shifted away from its agrarian roots, and Expressway 83 was built to the north, circumventing the towns. Highway 83 became Business 83, leaving the downtowns and their connecting corridor to fend for themselves as economic activity slowed, with traffic steadily migrating toward the new expressway.
Much of what is left along Business 83 is now abandoned and derelict. But a vibrant, low-income housing project located just west of Harlingen is demonstrating the value of smart architecture and community revitalization. La Hacienda Casitas is a 56-unit complex that was developed on the former site of a mid-20th-century motor court. The $6 million project was designed by buildingcommunityWORKSHOP (bcWORKSHOP) under the direction of a public-private partnership between the Cameron County Housing Authority (CCHA) and the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville (CDCB).
The CCHA acquired the 5.9-acre complex just after the property was dealt a deathblow by Hurricane Dolly, which ravaged the South Texas coast in 2008. Salvaging the asbestos-filled buildings was impractical, and the CCHA shuttered the complex with the intent to rebuild in the future with a multi-agency coalition.
In 2011, the CDCB stepped in, assuming ownership of the neglected property under a 75-year land lease from CCHA. CDCB has been working in the Valley since 1974 and values efficient, sustainable design, and quality construction. As the largest nonprofit single-family housing developer in the state, the organization knows what it is doing and appreciates pushing the envelope when the opportunity arises. Nick Mitchell-Bennett, CDCB’s executive director, notes that bcWORKSHOP won the commission by keying in on their hope for a cottage community — a smaller, denser single-family rental community.
Brent A. Brown, AIA, founding director of bcWORKSHOP, expanded his Dallas-based studio to the Valley in the fall of 2011. His team set up shop in Brownsville and recognized what we locals all know to be true: There is a dire need for more housing options to help immigrants in poverty live with respect and dignity. Perhaps nowhere in this country is public housing more needed than in the Valley.
The project represented considerable challenges. In order for it to qualify as a reconstruction project under the Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs low-income housing tax credit program, the architects had to replicate the number of units that were on the property prior to the rehabilitation. They also had to take into consideration the site grade and the most valuable element of the land: a cluster of old-growth Texas ebonies.
The motor court had been converted into a housing complex, which consisted of 56 studio and one-bedroom, single-story units on a nicely wooded — but very, very flat — site. In order to maximize density, 56 new one- to three-bed-room units were arranged on the site so that all of the trees could be maintained and water could be efficiently directed into the municipal drain-age system. The La Hacienda Casitas homes are 800- to 1,100-sf, one- and two-story buildings arranged around green spaces. A community center, barbeque area, park, and playground are all linked by paths crisscrossing the site.
Achieving the density needed to meet state requirements was a challenge for the design team, but the group achieved a one-inch toler-ance for all of the buildings. “The only way to add more density would have been to remove the trees, and that wasn’t an option for us,” commented Omar Hakeem, Assoc. AIA, bcWORK-SHOP’s lead designer on the project. Getting to the most effective solution for maximizing the density was tough. But Hakeem noted that drainage was arguably the most significant trial — everything about the project addresses how to move water.
At the La Hacienda Casitas site, the team was challenged with keeping upwards of 96,000 gallons of storm water on the property for as long as possible, in order to avoid inundating Harlingen’s storm system. The green spaces had to be layered and stitched together. “It ended up being a huge asset to the project,” said Hakeem.
Special care had to be given to saving the trees, and fully re-grading the interminably flat site was not an option. bcWORKSHOP responded to the problem by directing and filtering the water through bioswales that make up all of the property’s green spaces.
“Engineers and planners have a tendency to get storm water off a site as quickly as possible, without thinking about the guy next door,” said Mitchell-Bennett. “We cannot sustain the way that we are designing these water systems. In the Valley, current systems are absolutely archaic. We don’t get a lot of water, but when we do, it comes all at once.”
Water runs from the pitched roofs into depressed planted beds around each building; it eventually makes its way to the roads, where the water is directed into the system of bioswales, moving down the length of the site. Water then collects in another series of retention areas, where it is pumped to another bioswale before it is discharged.“The idea is to create a variety of moments where the water slows down, allowing the vegetation to absorb as much of it as possible,” said Hakeem. The water is circulated around the property twice before it then moves into the municipal system.
The landscape also informed the building materials and finishes. The strategy was to keep the building forms simple, using prismatic cubes and breaking the massing down further with the colors of gray, yellow-gold, and green. Applied in an eyedropper fashion, the colors are inspired by the tones of the ebony trees, and weave the buildings beautifully into the indigenous landscape. Pushing the two-story buildings together changed the scale of the amalgam. Situating them along the perimeter of the site created a more inward-looking layout and allowed for an efficient system of bioswales in the center of the property and in between the units.
It also provided a sense of protection and community, which was further enhanced by placing front doors on the park side to create an “eyes on the street” security. The roads are narrow and curbless, making them very pedestrian-friendly and giving them a rural sense of scale. Care was taken to establish a gradient of private, to semi-private, to public spaces. All these devices create a cozy RV-resort feel — reminiscent of the method of transportation favored by the Valley’s winter visitors.
The success of La Hacienda Casitas highlights the much-needed redevelopment efforts that are happening along the Valley’s Business 83 corridor. It’s a step in the right direction as Harlingen grows westward and begins to reclaim and revitalize its lost rural fabric. The project is also a significant example of a progressive water management approach that is good for both the native grasses and flowers at La Hacienda Casias, and the municipal water system that absorbs the much-reduced amount of storm water runoff.
Ultimately, bcWORKSHOP projects are about the common good. La Hacienda Casitas is no different. It has turned a property devastated by a hurricane into an active community. Because residents were only minimally represented during the design concept meetings (only six of the former housing complex’s residents could be located for the early meetings), the architects have done extensive post-occupancy studies to understand how the buildings are working for the community. “This process does something more for us than just give us good design,” said Mitchell-Bennett. “It also empowers and builds up people’s self-esteem, dignity, and ownership.”
Michael E. Allex, AIA, is principal of Rike Ogden Figueroa Allex (ROFA) Architects in Harlingen.
Published in the May/June 2014 issue of Texas Architect.