Pedro Ayala, Assoc. AIA, wants to preserve the 1959 McAllen Civic Center in the booming Texas border city of McAllen. Ayala, a 2002 graduate of the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture at the University of Houston, is an urban designer. This summer, he began an effort to persuade McAllen city officials to hold off on demolishing the center, which they are obligated to do before closing on the sale of the 13.4-acre site to Dallas-based Provident Realty Advisors and Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group. Since completion of a new convention and civic center in 2007 (TA, May/June 2008), the City of McAllen has not sought alternative uses for the 1959 complex.
What got Ayala involved were the civic center’s distinctive mid-20th-century modern architecture and its generous landscaped public spaces, including a three-block-long park facing McAllen’s major north-south thoroughfare, 10th Street. Ayala was convinced that preserving and reusing these resources made more sense than scrapping them. The center consists of a performance auditorium and a convention and exposition center organized around a terraced interior patio. The complex was designed by Houston firm Caudill Rowlett Scott (CRS) with McAllen architects Zeb Rike and J. B. Hancock. It is a CRS classic: exposed, black-painted steel framing infilled with rose-colored brick panels, including solar screens that facilitate breeze flow. Ayala cleverly appropriated the center’s iconic feature, the auditorium’s faceted roof, as the graphic emblem for his preservation campaign.
Simon Property Group owns the nearby, 1.35 million-sf La Plaza Mall. In 2006, the Wall Street Journal identified La Plaza as one of the highest-grossing shopping malls in the U.S. La Plaza is a magnet for affluent consumers from Monterrey, 150 miles southwest of McAllen. To appeal to this market, Provident and Simon plan to build an upscale lifestyle center, The Shops at Solana, on the civic center site, subdividing the cleared tract into five large blocks separated by landscaped internal streets and buffered from the rest of the city by perimeter parking lots.
Ayala initially formulated a counterproposal for how the civic center could be adapted for shopping, restaurant, and entertainment uses. Since half the site is a surface parking lot, plentiful space remains for new construction. Ayala reached out to other preservationists — RGVMod, Preservation Texas, and the Texas Historical Commission — for encouragement. The historical commission responded by notifying city officials that the civic center is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, which could trigger substantial federal and state tax credits if the developers were to undertake a certified rehabilitation. Ayala also took his campaign to social media. Preservation Texas posted a link to his on line preservation petition. The result was 265 comments, a sign that there is a constituency for preservation and adaptive reuse of this building. Already in 2014, Dallas Morning News critic Mark Lamster had identified the civic center as one of a number of significant modern buildings in the southwest threatened with demolition.
Ayala addressed McAllen’s mayor, city commission, and city manager in late July, asking them to organize a design workshop to investigate alternatives for the site. City officials responded respectfully rather than dismissively. Ayala’s preservation initiative demonstrates how architects can use their analytical, visioning, and design skills to advance arguments about civic design, architectural preservation, resource conservation, and public space protection in public forums — and use social media to inform and seek a supportive constituency.
Stephen Fox is a fellow of the Anchorage Foundation of Texas.