The Woodlawn Theatre, one of the few buildings in the Deco District that has maintained its original exterior, harkens back to another time It no longer shows movies, and is vacant. Photo by Mark Greenberg
The dream of revitalizing the Deco District

Liquor, hairdos, diner food, groceries: You can still buy many of the same products here that were available during the heyday of the Deco District, when the neighborhood was marketed as "The Arc of Opportunity." But the cache and the aesthetic appeal of the stretch of Fredericksburg Road that runs north from the I-10 intersection to Babcock, isn't quite the same nowadays. Vacant storefronts and fissured sidewalks deter strolling between the handful of manicured properties. In the 1600 block, Deco Plaza shows empty windows framed by gray granite panels and a fluted aluminum awning. Beige paint covers the signature glass blocks of the Woodlawn Theatre.

But a neighborhood-led revitalization that has stuttered since the mid-'90s seems to be hitting its stride. Seven years after the first parade heralded the Deco District's rebirth, contractors have nearly finished demolishing the inside of the city-owned Travis Building at 1802 Fredericksburg. Gordon Graham, director of Project Operations for the general contractor, Liberty Properties, says the company is on track for the anticipated June 2004 re-opening.

The 18,000-square-foot building is being redesigned to house galleries, studios, and small retail stores in hopes of engendering the kind of culture-driven revitalization that has proved successful in Philadelphia, Charleston, and San Antonio's Southtown. Within the month, Jefferson/Woodlawn Lake Community Development Corporation (CDC), which is spearheading the project, will begin contacting arts organizations city-wide, encouraging them to consider applying to be the anchor tenant for the property. Rents have not been set, but the CDC's board is studying comparable market rates and will also consider in the price a group's organizational needs, rental budget, and finish-out work.

At the corner of Fredericksburg and Hildebrand, H-E-B tore down its old store and built a new supermarket. Incorporating a Deco feel to the design was a requirement of the new project. Photo by Mark Greenberg
A new façade, designed under the guidance of local architectural firm Burton Rose Gonzales, features a colorful tile mosaic with a typical deco feather motif, and is even more lavish and iconic than the building's original sleek, modern front. But Graham says that the contractor's goal is to preserve many of the unique interior features, including terrazzo floors and antique wooden sections of the ceiling that were uncovered during demolition.

The Travis Building is intended to jumpstart the Deco District's revitalization, yet it remains uncertain whether the city can support multiple arts hubs, or if the top-down approach of sparking a culture-based economic boom will work in every context. Luring businesses to a struggling, albeit historical, area is still more difficult than attracting them to bright new shopping centers. And there is at least one potential problem in the Deco District, which shopping centers, for all their drawbacks, have overcome: parking. Critics of the project have suggested that insufficient parking will thwart plans to draw upscale shops and galleries. CDC Executive Director Noel Suniga says he can't comment due to legal issues, but added that when the building opens for business next spring, "There will be plenty of parking." The city already owns one vacant lot fronting Beal Street behind the Travis Building, and with street improvements to the four blocks between Kings Highway and Rosewood, including seven bus stop upgrades, developers hope patrons also will consider public transportation.

The Travis Building at 1802 Fredericksburg is being renovated. It is the centerpiece of the new effort to reinvigorate the Deco District. Photo by Mark Greenberg
Although the Travis Building renovation has been delayed over the past five years, the promise of public investment has encouraged some neighboring businesses to give their storefronts a self-financed makeover. One block south of the city property, owner Lonnie Fussell has refurbished a stretch of storefronts with period black tiles and two-tone lavender paint detailing. Fussell is now waiting on a little economic return before continuing to restore the original awnings and adjoining retail space.

Several businesspeople attended a recent informational meeting for Operation Facelift, which is the city's grant program whose matching funds have helped to transform Southtown. Architect Larry Travis expressed interest in restoring the period windows in the front of his office, and Gilbert Cortes wants to replace the original electric barber pole that was stolen from the front of his Continental Barber Shop.

In the meantime, the Jefferson/Woodlawn Lake CDC continues to encourage private entities to invest in the area's ample commercial space. "Certainly there is more than one phase to this project," says Suniga. "Right now we've kind of begun through the fog and the haze. Over the next couple of months things will become clearer." •

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