Seguin and Amarillo offer distinct approaches to balancing preservation and growth.
The explosive population growth across Texas has caused numerous communities to consider how to carefully balance their past with a new future. How can developing towns and cities retain key parts of their identity while embracing growth? What makes a place worth keeping, and who decides how to move communities into the next century? The 2020 census showed that much of Texas’ population growth is concentrated in urban centers and the suburbs. Frisco, Hutto, Kyle, Richmond, San Marcos, and Seguin are examples of communities that have been forced to manage booming populations. In West Texas and the Panhandle, Amarillo, Lubbock, and the Permian Basin have experienced growth, albeit at a slightly slower pace. Seguin and Amarillo represent two cities that have recently invested in updating their citywide and downtown master plans, each with a similar goal but different methods to achieve success.
The city of Seguin, founded in 1838, is a community of 30,000 that has managed to preserve its past, invest in today’s growth, and prepare for the future. Located less than an hour east of San Antonio, Seguin’s abundance of large trees and plentiful waterways provided an attractive home, first for Native Americans and later for European settlers. The city was instrumental in Texas’ early history as an independent nation and promoter of education. Seguin’s first school was chartered in 1849, and by 1915, the city hosted two colleges: Guadalupe College, founded by Black Baptist congregations in 1884, and Texas Lutheran College, which relocated from Brenham in 1912. Seguin’s natural landscape — filled with live oaks and a plethora of early concrete buildings, neat in appearance — was highlighted by Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture. His 1857 book, “A Journey Through Texas,” labeled Seguin as the “prettiest town in Texas.” The timing of his visit to the city coincided with the growing popularity of construction with limecrete, an early form of non-reinforced concrete often finished with a white lime plaster. Limecrete was used to construct fences, cisterns, and nearly 100 buildings in Seguin, including one of the oldest continuously used schools in the state of Texas. And this construction method gave Seguin its nickname: the “Mother of Concrete Cities,” as described by a local journalist in the 19th century.
After the Civil War, Seguin continued to grow, and it developed into a mixture of one- and two-story brick buildings in various styles from Italianate to Art Deco. The result is a downtown district that was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and that comprises over 120 buildings. Within this historic district, visitors will find work completed by noted Texas architects Leo Dielmann, Atlee B. Ayres, Louis Wirtz, and James Riely Gordon. Outside of downtown, Walnut Springs Park and Max Starcke Park are popular attractions for residents. Both parks were initially designed by architect Robert H. H. Hugman, a preservationist and designer of the San Antonio River Walk. More recently, locals have been quick to embrace the city’s contemporary library located along Walnut Creek, adjacent to Walnut Springs Park. The library was completed in 2016 and designed by PGAL and 720 Design. This rich architectural legacy has provided the city with key resources that collectively contribute to making Seguin the place it is today.
In 2021, the city of Seguin hired Freese and Nichols to develop new comprehensive and downtown plans. The goal was to create a blueprint for the city’s future that maintains its smalltown feel, a desire shared by many communities across the state. To achieve this, Freese and Nichols launched a multiphase community engagement effort that included online surveys, community meetings, physical outreach at downtown events, and two websites dedicated to keeping the public informed. This extensive outreach provided the firm with more community input than anticipated, a problem welcomed by the planners.
Freese and Nichols project manager Alexis Garcia worked with a team of city leaders and a plan advisory committee to coordinate extensive conversations with property owners, business owners, and citizens across the city. Kyle Kramm, Seguin’s Main Street and CVB director, was instrumental in soliciting downtown voices to help shape the future of the city’s core. Kramm helped Freese and Nichols identify business owners, property owners, and organizations interested in civic engagement, with a goal of acquiring input from people with a range of backgrounds. Key leaders from various organizations were invited, along with any resident that had an interest in voicing their opinion. The project team worked to overcome the challenge of making sure all community stakeholders and residents throughout the city were heard.
The months-long community engagement effort resulted in a better awareness of how locals viewed their city and what direction they wanted for future growth. At an open house, community members listed their favorite things about Seguin, which included its smalltown feel, park system, downtown, and overall history. The new library was rated as the second favorite place in town, reflecting the importance of future placemaking and the power of good design. Additionally, participants felt the city needed more retail, grocery, river/creek walkways, and parks. And, despite the more than 14,878 housing units in development in 2022, citizens stressed a need for all types of housing.
New subdivisions in the city include duplexes and single-family homes with a median sale price of $315,000. Joshua Schneuker, executive director of the Seguin Economic Development Corporation (SEDC), oversees business opportunities for Seguin and its residents. Having the residential units in development and delivering those units in a timely fashion has given Seguin an upper hand: New and existing employers are confidently investing in the city, knowing that its future focus is on greater infrastructure improvements including water, wastewater/sewer, and so on. Two years ago, the city proposed a five-dollar monthly stormwater fee to provide funding for drainage projects, including street repairs made necessary by repeated flooding. After working with a consultant, completing a citizen survey, and projecting future growth, a three-dollar stormwater fee was accepted by city council in lieu of raising property taxes.
Schneuker comments that “smaller communities often have to grow on the fly,” and this reactive — as opposed to proactive — development precludes careful consideration of growth, often resulting in a lack of preservation and an inability to keep key places intact. This sentiment is likely shared by larger communities in the Texas triangle that have grown faster than planning can accommodate. Schneuker has worked with SEDC counterparts in nearby New Braunfels, San Marcos, Cibolo, and Schertz to share and gather best practices. The simple idea of learning from the past mistakes of other Texas cities is crucial to placekeeping and placemaking. Some Texas cities have been complacent with growth and fail to properly plan until it is too late. As a result, strain is placed on housing and infrastructure, or gentrification occurs. Seguin Mayor Donna Dodgen believes that most communities are okay with the status quo, but that “change and growth make communities look at how to invest in the future.” Mayor Dodgen encourages other communities to not be frugal in investing or complacent regarding planning.
So, what does Seguin want to be in the next 20 or 30 years? Business stakeholders see the city’s reputation as a manufacturing hub diversifying over time. The community open house revealed that citizens want more tech, remote, and white-collar jobs to go along with existing electronic controls, automotive electronics, and agricultural service careers. Citizens also expressed the need to tell more stories about Seguin’s Mexican-American and African American heritage. Project manager Alexis Garcia, whose family resides in Seguin, took special interest in preserving what makes the city special. How can Texans keep places that matter and shape them into economic engines that tourists and locals can enjoy for generations? Garcia emphasized the implementation of tools that communities can use to keep the character of a city intact, such as establishing design regulations or overlay district design standards, and utilization of lighting design to create inviting and safe spaces for pedestrians. These kinds of initiatives overlap with feedback from the community, whose public safety and physical appearance priorities for downtown included improved lighting, more landscaping/plantings, improved building facades, and historic preservation. Locals also desire more diverse businesses, nightlife/entertainment, and events/festivals.
What can other communities learn from Seguin? One key aspect of the city’s success is leadership that is willing to invest in downtown areas and actively engage its citizens. Mayor Dodgen has worked with city leaders and staff to help make people into ambassadors who collaborate with civic entities to teach the community how government works and how to contribute to future success. Her goal is to keep history at the forefront of the city’s growth and to highlight it throughout festivals, events, and places around town. Strong leadership from city hall, organizational leaders, business owners, and community members is key to shaping the identity of a place and moving it forward.
Since the 1990s, the Seguin City Hall has continually provided funding for a Main Street director and facade grants. Other incentives for business owners to maintain and invest in older buildings include fire suppression assistance, permit waivers, design assistance, and tax credits. The city also completed two projects with funding from the Texas Historical Commission: an updated historic resource survey in 2019, and a master plan for the Sebastopol House in 2023. Cox|McLain Environmental Consulting’s historic resource survey assessed buildings adjacent to the central business district built in 1973 or earlier. The survey will help guide the city concerning what resources should be retained and preserved for future generations. Architecture, planning, and historic preservation firm Architexas analyzed the Sebastopol House, Seguin’s best-preserved example of limecrete construction, and provided recommendations for future repairs. Seguin’s dedication to supporting the revitalization of the city’s historic resources has created an environment in which small businesses and tourism can thrive.
Freese and Nichols’ comprehensive and downtown plans will advise Seguin on its future branding, downtown catalyst projects, city amenities, jobs, and tourism. When asked about elements that contribute to future placemaking, Garcia said communities should “take advantage of what’s already there.” Placekeeping is an integral part of placemaking. As for many other communities across the state, Seguin’s historic infrastructure provides a foundation for future success. Proposed projects in the new downtown master plan include creating interactive features at Central Park, making a pedestrian boulevard, and developing micro-retail shops on an existing parking lot. Even new construction projects, like the Seguin Public Library, can be influenced by an appreciation of the community’s natural and built environments. The commitment to preserve the past, build for today, and plan for the future has ensured Seguin’s success as a growing city.
Amarillo, home to more than 200,000 people, is another city approaching growth in a similarly thoughtful way. With a long history of cattle, horses, and natural resource mining — and as the largest Texas city along Route 66 — Amarillo has a rich identity that continues to be embraced and molded over time. It has faced challenges similar to many other places across the country including drought, military base closure, a depressed downtown core, and neighborhood disinvestment. Despite these trials, the city developed into a regional center filled with Art Deco-style buildings, converted an old Air Force base into a college campus, initiated a downtown strategic plan, and began to invest in neglected neighborhoods.
To appreciate downtown Amarillo’s growth, one has to understand the hardships it has faced. On March 1, 1970, its downtown high school was destroyed by fire, leaving 1,700 students without classrooms. The fire also left a void downtown, especially because the high school was rebuilt in the southwest part of town, following the city’s growth. The closing of downtown retail stores and restaurants was no doubt spurred by construction of the $12 million Western Plaza mall, which was completed in 1968 off of Interstate 40. The vacant downtown was attempting to reinvigorate itself by adding new banks and office towers, razing many historic structures in the name of modern renewal. In the 1990s, Center City of Amarillo was formed by citizens to create meaningful change to downtown.
Amarillo’s downtown core was found by preservation consultants and the Texas Historical Commission to be lacking continuity and historical integrity, terms used to indicate whether or not a resource or district retains its historical associations or attributes. Past demolitions and fires had resulted in empty or non-contributing buildings that would prevent creation of a National Register Historic District. Nevertheless, preservation advocates focused on individual National Register nominations for historic buildings, such as the Santa Fe Building, which was listed in 1996. Potter County purchased the building and later reopened it as county offices in 2000.
Center City of Amarillo is just one of many groups that have contributed to retaining and sharing Amarillo’s history. The Amarillo Economic Development Corporation, Downtown Amarillo Inc., Amarillo Historic Preservation Foundation, and the city of Amarillo have worked together with stakeholders, businesses, and developers to complete catalyst projects like the 2006 Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts. Big changes occurred in 2006 when the city created a downtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) and in 2008 after a downtown strategic plan was approved. The goal of both actions was to increase tourism by turning downtown into a retail and entertainment destination. TIRZ funding has allowed the city to allocate funds for facade improvement grants, cash rebates for converting office space to residential space, performing project feasibility studies, encouraging private development, and improving infrastructure. Several projects were later completed from the downtown plan, including streetscape improvements, a convention center hotel, restoration/rehabilitation of buildings, and a multipurpose ballpark. Downtown property values have increased more than $100 million since creation of the TIRZ, proving the idea to be a successful tool in keeping Amarillo’s core alive.
In cities as big as Amarillo, neglected neighborhoods can often be found. As southwest Amarillo grew, historic communities near downtown were deprived of critical investment. In 2016, as part of an approved bond election, the city received $2.6 million for a neighborhood planning initiative. A committee composed of two city council members and two Potter County commissioners led the creation of neighborhood plans as a tool for helping revitalize older neighborhoods. City staff worked with committees of community stakeholders and neighborhood organizations to formulate these area-specific plans. To date, four neighborhood plan amendments to the 2010 City Comprehensive Plan have been adopted: Barrio, North Heights, San Jacinto, and Eastridge. These neighborhoods consist of a historically African American neighborhood, a neighborhood formerly inhabited by Santa Fe railroad workers, a multicultural neighborhood along Route 66, and a refugee resettlement area where 38 languages are spoken at a local elementary school.
Despite the community engagement outreach completed during the neighborhood plan development, citizens of these neighborhoods were concerned about how the city would spend funds without their direct input, and they were critical of what they viewed as their unequal share of growth and resources. Because local input and active engagement are key to placekeeping in every community, city staff prioritized listening to the voices of its once-disengaged citizens. They created a Recognized Neighborhood Association (RNA) program to formalize the partnership between neighborhood organizations and the city. RNAs are considered the sole, official partner for coordinating projects in order to ensure that these are in line with neighborhood plans. Since 2017, $11 million in neighborhood projects have been completed, including street repairs, a community activity center, art projects, wayfinding, park updates, and business grants. The success of the program spurred the city to allocate $400,000 in federal funds under the American Rescue Plan Act for the four underserved neighborhoods. Emily Koller, Amarillo’s assistant director of planning, stressed how the city’s program improves conditions for longtime residents without contributing to displacement or gentrification. The neighborhood plans are what convinced Koller to join the department as an economic development and neighborhood revitalization manager. She describes future plans for implementing a Neighborhood Empowerment Zone program, which will encourage private investment in housing, businesses, and services in the four plan areas by waiving building permit fees and providing property tax rebates to those rehabilitating existing structures or embarking on new construction projects. The program will require careful oversight by city staff and RNAs to prevent future gentrification.
In addition to major neighborhood investment, the city completed an update to its downtown strategic plan in 2019, formed a Tri-State Fairgrounds district master plan in 2022, and will begin a new city plan this year. The new city plan will “establish a consensus-driven vision for how Amarillo will grow over the next 20 years,” according to Koller. She says: “Amarillo has not traditionally used planning to solve community problems. Local citizens are not as aware about citywide concerns or how to use planning as a solution.” For Amarillo, this is changing, and at workshop meetings for the downtown plan update, the community expressed that downtown revitalization is important to keeping Amarillo’s identity intact. Key ideas in the new plan include attracting residential development downtown to create a mixed-use project aligned with New Urbanist principles, additional hotels, retail, a stronger higher education presence, and streetscape improvements.
Preservation will continue to be at the forefront of downtown redevelopment as new projects utilize state and federal preservation tax incentives offered by the Texas Historical Commission and the National Park Service. Beth Duke, executive director at Center City of Amarillo, says: “Leadership at the city has been the main partner in making this [downtown] happen. Elected mayors put historic preservation on the front burner. This needs to happen. Your city has to make it a priority. County government also saved the Santa Fe Building and made it into county offices along with the courthouse restoration.”
Taking into account multiple buildings lost to fire in recent years and continued demolition of historic buildings, Duke advocates the need for an updated historic resource survey, new designated landmarks, and a historic preservation ordinance with enforcement abilities. At most, the city’s landmarks commission can delay demolitions for one year, and many developers/property owners prefer to ask for forgiveness instead of permission — a tendency found throughout the state. Duke’s advice to other communities engaging in placekeeping and preserving identity is to become active with the Texas Main Street Program and make change happen. “If we were going to make Amarillo great, we had to do it ourselves. The calvary ain’t coming. It’s our pioneer spirit; we’re going to make it happen.”
Preserving and reusing historic core fabric and engaging the people who live, work, and play in town are crucial to discovering how to maintain neighborhoods and the feel of a place. Seguin and Amarillo exemplify strategies used to keep downtown cores and historic neighborhoods intact. These two communities show that no matter the size, politics, religion, or creed, people can come together to solve community problems and keep places that reflect their identity. Beth Duke believes that history makes a place worth keeping. She says people are experiential learners: “They experience history with a great building and build a love of history. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever; you won’t get it back.” On the topic of growth, she repeats a common saying: “You don’t want your city to develop like a donut, because a hole lies at the center. You want your city to develop like a cinnamon roll, with the best part in the gooey center.”
JuanRaymon Rubio, Assoc. AIA, is an associate at Architexas in Austin, where he works on historic preservation projects across the state.