How Plano's cultural district is becoming a reality

Cedar Park City Council approved ordinance amendments to its sign regulations in March, which apply both within the city limits and in the extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ.

Cedar Park City Council approved ordinance amendments to its sign regulations in March, which apply both within the city limits and in the extraterritorial jurisdiction, or ETJ.

Arts district is becoming a realityAs Historic Downtown Plano evolves into the newly named Downtown Plano Cultural District, pending development is expected to pose challenges during the interim for existing businesses, particularly those along 15th Street.


Merchants operating in these historic buildings have expressed short-term concerns in the face of long-term projects nearby, such as multifamily and mixed-use developments, as well as the opening of a second light-rail station.


Although these projects will ultimately expand downtown Plano’s footprint and customer base, merchants said construction and the pressure to keep these buildings competitive and preserved are serving as stressors at the present.


“There are [businesses] that have done a good job down here, and if they can hold on a little bit longer for these things to round out with the arts district it’s going to set them up for the next 10 years or more,” said Alex Hargis, director of the Historic Downtown Plano Association. “But can they hang on?”


The Texas Commission on the Arts in September formally designated downtown Plano as the city’s Downtown Plano Cultural District. These districts are special zones that are intended to harness the power of cultural resources to stimulate economic development and community revitalization by generating business, attracting tourists, stimulating cultural development and fostering civic pride.


“We are very excited to be recognized as an official cultural district,” said Michelle Hawkins, arts, culture and heritage manager for the city of Plano, in a news release. “Many people worked long and hard to create the activities and energy in downtown Plano, and being recognized for it is such an honor. This tells us we’re on the right track.”



Arts district is becoming a realityGrowing pains


As Pipe & Palette owner June Parker celebrates her one-year anniversary on 15th Street this month, the McKinney resident said she looked at many places—including Historic Downtown McKinney—before choosing to open her art and gift shop in Plano.


“It was frightening because almost every store down here was vacant [when I opened],” Parker said. “[But] I felt like it was an up-and-coming area that was really overlooked. This place just won me over.”


Retail business has its ups and downs in downtown Plano, especially for new businesses operating out of timeworn buildings that require more maintenance than newer storefronts, Parker said. Although there are many unknowns for 15th Street merchants at the moment, Parker said the rewards would be tenfold if they can make it through the growing pains.




“It’s really great for the downtown arts district to find its place within Plano’s overall growth vision."
—Alex Hargis, director, Historic Downtown Plano Association



“We’re going to have so many more shoppers down here and a bigger community with more parking,” she said. “It’s going to be great two or three years from now but right now, it’s a struggle.”



Downtown economics


Commercial property taxes have also increased steadily for most historic buildings on 15th Street since 2012, according to Collin Central Appraisal District records. These increases can trickle down to the tenant depending on the type of contract, commercial real estate broker Rick Fambro said.


Fambro moved his business, Fairway Group Real Estate, to downtown Plano adjacent to the remodeled McCall Plaza 13 years ago and concentrates much of his business in Plano and Collin County.


Downtown Plano restaurants operate on triple net leases and are responsible for paying property taxes, insurance and maintenance, Fambro said. About half the commercial taxes for retail along 15th Street, however, are paid for by building owners, he said.


As these historic buildings continue to be renovated from traditional hobby shop stores to contemporary storefronts, the number of triple net leases will increase to cover the cost of the investments, Fambro said.


The Legacy corridor boom along the Dallas North Tollway and the completion of CityLine in Richardson have also challenged the historic core to become more competitive, Fambro said. To compete, the area will require even more retail stores, he said.


“Personally [for the merchant] it becomes, ‘Can we survive the redevelopment projects down here and come out the other side?’” Fambro said.


HDPA member Mirna Lynch said downtown businesses felt the pinch after neighboring Junction 15 was built. Its added commercial development and news of growth in the Legacy corridor to the west caused a ripple effect on downtown rent rates, she said.


As owner of 1023 E. 15th St. (formerly Olive Mae children’s clothing store) since 1981, Lynch said she is confident her new tenant, XO Coffee, will receive a warm welcome when it opens in October. A working knowledge of the building’s history, as well as a close relationship with the tenant, encourages success for the business and the district as a whole, she said.


“You roll the dice and you hope it’s going to work,” Lynch said. “Right now I’m rolling the dice a lot because I’m putting a lot of money into that building. But I think in the longrun, it’s a good investment.”



Cultural district benefits


Hargis said he has heard candidly from 15th Street merchants about the projected growth and how it could affect their survival. Initiatives, such as an art portal project to install professional sculptures along 15th Street and added manpower toward the city’s Heritage Commission to streamline permitting processes, aim to support storeowners during this transitional time, he said.


The HDPA created its Public Improvement District in December 2014 to generate additional funding for projects and events. Funding for the PID is governed by property owners and has been used to strengthen the HDPA, Hargis said.


The PID also supports downtown businesses by paying for street maintenance, beautification projects and festivals. The results have produced a relational shift between the city and the HDPA, he said.


“It’s really great for the downtown arts district to find its place within Plano’s overall growth vision. There’s a [stronger] feeling [here] of, ‘We’re building this together now in real time.’ That makes it a lot more exciting,” Hargis said. “The development in west Plano is phenomenal, but we’re trying to carve our own development here in our own special way.”


Revised Heritage Commission guidelines also provide comprehensive information pertaining to what signage and lighting is appropriate for the city’s historic structures and have been expanded to include more possibilities, said Doug McDonald, comprehensive planning manager for the city of Plano.


Certificates of appropriateness are required before a building permit can be issued. The commission over the summer also streamlined the process so that what used to take about a month and a half to get approved can now be done in one day, he said.


“[The new standards] serve as a huge connector between the city’s initiatives to protect the historical resources but to also have an arts district,” McDonald said. “Those two don’t always run side by side.”



Looking to the future


Growing the cultural district will take time and effort, Hargis said. The movement requires the help of shopkeepers, history buffs, city staff, and individual residents who want to do their part.


“A year from now it’s going to be incredible to see what this place looks like. You’re going to sculptures, murals [and] more events happening in McCall Plaza on a daily basis,” he said. “This whole place is going to change drastically.”


With events like the monthly wine walk and Steinfest in October, the Downtown Plano Cultural District promises many fun events to keep foot traffic flowing and the sense of community growing, said Michelle Hawkins, arts, culture and heritage manager for the city of Plano.


“There’s going to be a lot more activity happening at McCall Plaza [that will be] more than just live music,” she said. “As we’re moving this cultural district direction we plan to have [events] that are going to bring people into downtown. With the uniqueness and vibe going on down here, we’re hoping people won’t care about the construction too much.”


Right now it is important that businesses be open to flexibility and creativity in order ot succeed, said Mona Crider, HDPA chairwoman and owner of La Foofaraw. Celebrating six years in business on 15th Street, Crider encouraged seasoned business owners to mentor newcomers and be plugged in to the association for district updates.


“We have a lot of good people here and we want them to get more active in the district to see how they can help,” she said.



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