|By Adam Russell, Tyler Morning Telegraph,
TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 27, 2011--With its drab color, dated windows and faded memories, the 16-story former Carlton Hotel building in downtown Tyler would seem more at home in the Saigon skyline during the 1960s.But Tyler architect Ron Mabry, who has agreed to buy the building within two years from Smith County for $305,000, has renovation plans that could include turning it into an upscale hotel. It would include converting 30,000 square feet into conference and banquet space.
The property also could be used for downtown loft apartments or even an education center for surrounding universities, Mabry said, adding that demolition is not in the plans.
The 115,000-square-foot structure, built in the early 1950s at the corner of Broadway Avenue and Elm Street, has a three-story, 126-space parking garage as well as a rooftop swimming pool and cabana.
Mabry said he has spent years envisioning the structure as an investment for developers.
"It's past the dream stage because we are spending money," he said. "We're just not in the done-deal stages yet."
It would take millions of dollars to renovate the building into a four-star hotel and conference center, he added.
But hotel management firms in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Dallas and Denver already have expressed interest, he said.
Development would coincide with Mabry's plans to remodel the former three-story Elks Lodge across the street. That 34,000-square-foot building could see additional conference and banquet space.
The Carlton Hotel opened in 1954 as a 200-room, full-service hotel that hosted functions including banquets and school proms.
Mabry's plans call for up to 125 rooms of varying size on the fourth through 16th floors. The basement through third floors, at around 34,000 square feet, would house hotel management, dining and conference and banquet facilities.
City of Tyler studies, including a 2009 PKF Consultants report, have shown that the community needs more hotel and conference space.
City Manager Mark McDaniel said the studies show that developing hotel and conference space represent a lucrative investment opportunity "without a doubt."
Mabry said the three-story parking garage connected to the hotel could be converted into almost a dozen loft apartments. Tenants could enjoy the rooftop pool, sundeck and cabana, he said.
"The possibilities for this building are endless," he said. "It's a great location and a great building with a lot of history.
"It was always the place to be in Tyler, and we would like to bring back that glitz and glamour to downtown."
Mabry's second vision for the structure is loft apartments. Downtown living space, he said, is in high demand.
Tom Mullins, Tyler Economic Development Council president and CEO, said the building represents a possible economic-development catalyst.
"For downtown to be viable, it has to have residents, because if you have residents you attract commercial and retail development," Mullins said.
Residential development around downtown Tyler has seen success, he said, and high-rise apartments would have no trouble finding tenants.
But Mabry said the building could become a "university center" through a partnership between higher-education institutions.
That could spark more nightlife and retail outlets and perhaps dorms, he said.
"A student population here brings the need for housing and retail," he said. "Those are the real catalysts for making downtown something special."
Aubrey Sharpe, Tyler Junior College's continuing studies dean, said TJC has discussed bringing courses downtown in a partnership with the city or some form of public-private partnership.
"We're willing to work with just about anybody as long as it makes sense for both of us," Sharpe said.
A university center with multiple area colleges and universities downtown would represent a "cornerstone" for projects identified within Tyler 21, a long-range plan that community leaders put together for the city in 2007.
Each university would need to complement and not compete with one another, Sharpe said, adding that noncompete clauses could be ironed out easily.
"None of us could take a whole college or university to downtown, but you can take something that would be a hit there," he said.
The Universities Center in downtown Dallas is an example of the concept working. Three universities -- Texas A&M-Commerce, University of Texas at Arlington and North Texas -- share space and offer a range of programs; a majority are graduate courses.
Sharpe said TJC has talked to city officials about utilizing a floor of the Fair Building, at Broadway and Erwin in downtown, to bring an arts studio or arts incubator.
That would tie in with the ongoing development of other arts and entertainment venues downtown, he said. Art, music and dance would bring people downtown, with investment right behind.
"All of a sudden you have a live, active downtown," Sharpe said. "I would love to see downtown become the hottest thing going."
One obstacle for the university center option could be investment, with higher institutions statewide sweating what the Texas Legislature will do to their funding this year, he said.
Mabry dismissed negative reports regarding the former Carlton Hotel's structural integrity.
All of the building's shortcomings have been mechanical or cosmetic, he said.
Restoration will require gutting the building to its columns and replacing mechanical, electrical and plumbing, Mabry said, the sole bidder earlier this year when Smith County put the building up for sale.
Removing an eyesore from the Tyler skyline served as one of Mabry's primary motivations for purchasing the structure.
Because the former Carlton Hotel is more than 50 years old, it qualifies for federal tax credits of up to 20 percent if restored to its original design and condition. It would need to be on the National Registry for Historic Places, and Mabry has spoken to historic preservation groups regarding the savings.
In addition, the building falls within the city's Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, created in 2008. The city captures tax revenues generated from increased property values in the zone and can reinvest them in public improvements, revitalization and infrastructure.
Tyler Mayor Barbara Bass, who spoke with Mabry this past week, said the project could lead to more private investment in downtown.
"Both Tyler 21 and the (Industry Growth Initiative) call for additional living units downtown, as well as a downtown hotel, and this is a positive step in that direction," Mayor Bass said.
And if the project fails to meet Mabry's expectations?
"I guess my wife and I will have a 115,000-square-foot apartment with a rooftop pool," he said. "But I doubt it comes to that."
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Copyright (c) 2011, Tyler Morning Telegraph, Texas
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