Metro Tower withstood a tornado but sat underutilized for years. REALTOR® Alison Blalock rallied executives and public officials to bring affordable housing downtown. Her five-years-in-the-making property sale won the 2020 William C. Jennings award for commercial transaction of the year.
In 2015, Alison Blalock met with out-of-town developers to discuss a building she listed. She and the developers drove around Lubbock, looking at buildings and talking about what’s happening downtown.
Then the developers saw the city’s tallest building, Metro Tower. It wasn’t for sale, yet the developers were extremely interested. “We want that one,” they said. The WestMark Commercial/TNC Worldwide REALTOR® said she’d make
Standing Tall Over the Years
The Great Plains Life Insurance Building was constructed in 1955 on brick-paved Broadway Street. The 20-floor, roughly 111,000-square-foot building was designed by David S. Castle, an Abilene architect whose works have been listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
On May 11, 1970, downtown Lubbock was hit by an F5 tornado. The storm caused close to $200 million in damages and 26 deaths in Lubbock, according to the city.
Telecom company NTS Communications bought the building in the mid-1980s. By 2015, Metro Tower housed a few floors of NTS corporate offices as well as their main servers and wiring.
Floors eight through 20 were vacant due to fire safety issues. The building needed extensive remodeling, a new fire sprinkler system, and a secondary staircase to allow full occupancy again. Without it, the tower would remain underutilized and slowly deteriorate.
Selling “Mom’s Building”
Metro Tower was no ordinary property for Blalock. “In the late 1980s, when I was very young, I grew up knowing that building as ‘Mom’s building.’ My mom actually managed and leased Metro Tower for several years. I have a few short memories of going into the building,” the Lubbock native says.
Blalock’s first call about the project was to her mother, commercial agent and WestMark teammate Karen Higgins. Higgins shared her background knowledge and had even kept old building plans and reports from her property management days.
They later toured Metro Tower together. Higgins showed Blalock where her office used to be. The carpet Higgins had replaced was still inside the building. “I had a very personal connection with this building already,” Blalock says.
Blalock got in touch with NTS Communications’ executives. She pitched the developers’ idea: buy the building and renovate it using Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) Housing Tax Credits and Texas Historic Preservation Tax Credit funds. She presented multiple offers over the next three years, but the timing wasn’t right, she says.
In late 2018, Blalock reached out again after hearing about a change in upper management. NTS was now very interested in selling the building. NTS was in the process of selling the business to fiber-optic telecommunications company Vexus.
“Vexus did not want the building because of its many issues, so it was actually perfect timing: NTS could sell the business to Vexus and the building to us,” she says.
Making the Case for Metro Tower Lofts
Blalock and the developers needed to act quickly to apply for the TDHCA 9% Competitive Housing Tax Credits. They negotiated a sales price and contract deals before the end of the year.
“This transaction was really funded through tax credits, and that process is very competitive,” Blalock says. “We knew going into it that we were going to need to get quite a bit of support.”
Blalock compiled a brochure with key information. She contacted Mayor Dan Pope, the Lubbock City Council, and the city’s downtown redeveloper, McDougal Companies. She told them this was Lubbock’s chance to revive the tower while also bringing affordable housing and redevelopment to the central business district tax increment reinvestment zone. Blalock received unanimous support.
Blalock and the developers also met with Texas Rep. John Frullo. She credits his support as crucial to receiving full funding from TDHCA. The tax credit process took most of 2019.
Obstacles to Closing
NTS Communications planned to keep its servers and equipment on the second and third floors and satellites on the roof. NTS and the developers needed to sign a long-term lease to allow them to stay. The NTS servers could not be disturbed during renovation and remodeling.
All renovations had to meet Lubbock’s fire and code standards for safety, while also meeting historic preservation criteria approval to receive full funding.
Closing was planned for March 20, 2020. At the beginning of the month, historic preservation officials nixed the idea for a fire escape connecting floors 1 to 4 because it would disrupt the building’s historic exterior. Blalock, the project’s architect, engineer, and city officials drafted a new plan in a few hours that was approved by all parties.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began to disrupt life and business activity in March, investors froze some of the developers’ funding. The developers made some financial changes and the deal closed on April 30, 2020.
“I could not have done this without city support. I am very thankful for all of the people who helped get this deal done,” she says.
There were so many times that I thought there was no way that this was actually going to close. There were so many obstacles, so many tiny details that all had to be worked out, and so many people involved in it. We kept taking it one step at a time.
New Lofts Coming Soon
Metro Towers Lofts is scheduled to be completed in late 2021. The project will bring 89 affordable housing units to the heart of downtown.
“There were so many times that I thought there was no way that this was actually going to close,” Blalock says. “There were so many obstacles, so many tiny details that all had to be worked out, and so many people involved in it. Even until weeks before closing, I didn’t know if it would. We kept taking it one step at a time.”
Blalock was shocked to learn she had won the William C. Jennings Award. She says she is honored to have been a part of the once-in-a-lifetime deal and proud of the trust the developers put in her hands.
“Because of this deal, we’re seeing new things happen in downtown Lubbock. Additional people are investing and opening new businesses down there, and that makes me very excited to see that redevelopment actually happening right before my eyes.”