Julio del Carpio hadn’t thought much about Houston’s East End District until four years ago. He did not live in the area, one of Houston’s largest and lowest income communities—a mish-mash of residential, commercial, and abandoned industrial properties bordered by the Houston Ship Channel and just five minutes from downtown. It was a mere blip on his radar.
Then the Bolivian-born architect was commissioned to renovate the Laredo National Bank on Harrisburg Boulevard, the East End’s main artery. “One look at the East End, with its thriving Latin population, and I knew there was potential,” he says. “The area was ripe for change. All it needed was a facelift.”
Del Carpio’s instincts proved correct. The designer crafted a Spanish Colonial complex out of three abandoned buildings for the Laredo National Bank, but his vision was greater than one renovation. What if the East End could become a cultural attraction? Though some merchants were initially opposed to del Carpio’s plans, little by little they began making changes to their storefronts.
“It’s what I call change by example,” says del Carpio, who opened an office on Harrisburg Boulevard to demonstrate his dedication to the district. Next, he purchased and renovated the two-story, 1934 building that became Marbella Banquet Hall. Today it houses shops, a country chapel, two courtyards, waterfalls, a banquet hall, and a bar that looks like a bullfight arena. In keeping with del Carpio’s vision of a Mexican village, Marbella is rife with colonial-style arches, painted floors, stone columns, and sounds of the Amazon.
Understanding that local support is key to success, del Carpio created the Harrisburg Development Association, a group of business owners and community leaders dedicated to creating a master plan. “It can be difficult to generate enthusiasm in an area as long abandoned as the East End,” del Carpio says. “People are skeptical that anything positive can happen. They don’t believe tourists will actually come here.”
Civic leaders quickly embraced del Carpio’s vision. Over the past four years, developers have pumped millions into the area. Seven blocks along Harrisburg Boulevard are awash in bright colors. Wrought iron adorns windows, plants hang from balconies, and there’s an emphasis on new landscaping.
Del Carpio has also completed phase one of his latest acquisition—the Tlaquepaque Marketplace, which he’s modeling after one of the most famous attractions in Mexico—the cradle of the mariachi culture. Ultimately the center will include restaurants, shops, and El Callejón del Beso (the Alley of the Kiss), attracting lovers for a quick smooch in a secluded spot. “I see a tourist destination where one can walk, shop, and dine,” he says. “Houston is a diverse city with a 42 percent Hispanic population, yet there’s no real entertainment or cultural center. Why not add some flavor?”
Del Carpio and his supporters plan to lobby for more financial assistance and a light rail extension down Harrisburg Boulevard. This year’s Super Bowl attracted thousands, and in coming years he intends to rebuild the first Capitol of Texas (which was in Old Harrisburg in 1836).
“We have all the ingredients for success,” he says. “The East End is ready.”