An anonymous listener asked Marfa Public Radio: What’s the deal with the abandoned skyscrapers in downtown Midland?
“Most of these buildings downtown were built for the Texacos, the Mobils, all those major oil companies.”
It’s a question that stirred a lot of curiosity in West Texas — it won our first West Texas Wonders voting round.
Standing on the corner of Big Spring and Texas, John James is looking up at the West Texas sky.
“We’re in downtown Midland, staring at what I consider to be the three musketeers,” says James, as cars fill in and out of parking lots. “Three vacant buildings who need some life breathed into them.”
The three buildings James is looking at — The Vaughn, The Building of the Southwest and the Western Life Building. The buildings, along with the bulk of the 24 skyscrapers in downtown Midland, were built from the 1950s to 70s, a time when a booming oil industry gave way to widespread development in Midland. Major oil companies like Texaco, Mobil, and Shell were setting up offices that would dominate the city skyline.
The downtown skyscrapers were so prominent, they even gave Midland a new nickname. In 1963 — a year after the cornerstone for the Vaughn was set — the City Council voted to begin referring to Midland as the “Tall City.”
But then the price of oil came tumbling down in 1986.
Soon, plans for future skyscrapers were scraped, companies shipped out, offices boarded up. Since then, a handful of buildings downtown has largely sat empty for the last 20 to 30 years.
“Besides just people losing jobs, the traffic, of course, was a lot less,” says Diane DePrang. “You just didn’t see people on the streets as much. There just wasn’t much anything going on.”
DePrang worked downtown throughout the 70s. She climbed her way up the ladder at an oil company, which officed out of one of the buildings that are now vacant: The Vaughn.
Outside the Vaughn, James is unlocking the doors to the 12-story building. He represents the owner, who lives in Houston.
“Originally the owner intended for the Vaughn to be converted to what we call a stack: retail, office and residential,” James says. “In my mind, that’s still a good concept for this building.”
Inside, the Vaughn is a shell of an office. It’s been completely gutted. And if you didn’t know any better, you might think it’s an abandoned construction site. There are exposed pipes, dusty floors and graffiti scrawled across its concrete walls.
James admits it’s gonna take a lot of money to develop.
“I think economics matter,” James says, as he walks through the decades-old building. “It’s easy enough to say somebody should do something with that building. But quite frankly, the math has to work.”
James says it will take $22 million to pull off this skyscraper makeover. The building needs electrical work, air conditioning, plumbing, new elevators.
Outside of money, when it comes to skyscraper-makeovers, there are three main hurdles.
The empty buildings are dated from the standards and layouts that most developers are looking for these days, says Midland architect Mark Wellen.
“They’re essentially functionally obsolete.”
Wellen — whose firm is leading a lot of the redevelopment efforts downtown — says there used to be “a lot more empty buildings” but over the years the spaces have been redeveloped.
Second: Parking is key.
Whelan says there simply isn’t enough parking downtown. When the bulk of the skyscrapers in Midland were erected, people mainly walked to work or they lived in nearby neighborhoods.
“Now in the industry today, for buildings to be marketable in most cities, there has to be a certain amount of parking for the building,” Wellen says.
City code in Midland doesn’t require buildings in the central business district to have parking space. But having parking spaces is attractive to developers.
And tearing down an empty building is a non-starter, Wellen says. It’s “inefficient” because it wouldn’t be the appropriate space for a parking garage.
Our third hurdle is a big one: Perception.
There are symbols, says John James, characteristics that can date a building and highlight its vacancy.
“On the Vaughn building, there’s a sign that says ‘office retail living December 2016.’ Well, December 2016, if I remember correctly, was a year and a half ago!”
For James this tells people that buildings like the Vaughn are neglected, stuck in time. He even remembers a “welcome home” sign for George W. Bush after he finished his second term. It hung in The Building of the Southwest — another vacant building across the street — for years.
“Those symbols contribute to this notion that there’s a lot of there are a lot of vacant properties in Downtown Midland when relatively speaking they’re not,” James says.
Most of the buildings downtown are occupied. Out of the 23 high-rise buildings downtown (there are 145 total buildings in the downtown corridor), only 4 are currently empty.
Still people like Diane DePrang, who were around in the 70s, say the area hasn’t quite returned to its glory days. “I would really like to see something happen. Even if they made apartments, lofts, kinda bring people downtown.”
Developers are sensing the renewed interest in downtown Midland. There’s now an offer to develop the Vaughn and another empty building nearby is set to become condominiums and office space. The type of mixed-use the ‘Tall City’ is waiting for.
Marfa Public Radio wants your help choosing our next West Texas Wonders story. You can cast your vote below until 11:59 PM CST Friday, August 31.