Midland’s skeletal skyline, West Texas, part 3

Note: Another birthday, another perplexingly ordinary trip. Last year, I hit up Oklahoma City for some bitterly cold fun along the old Route 66. This year, I managed to make my first visit to Lubbock, Texas and some surrounding West Texas metropolises. First of all, I must communicate something of utmost national importance: West Texas is flatter than Kansas. Really, I swear! Even with the landscape that surely inspired Head East’s epic 1974 album, Flat as a Pancake, a nine-hour driving tour of Lubbock, Abilene and Midland left us entranced and perplexed. Inspirational and thought-provoking findings included:

  • The world’s largest wind farm, and its “large” economic impact on the region
  • Abilene’s barbeque deliciousness, which inspired the impromptu development of a barbeque evaluation matrix
  • A small city of abandoned mega high-rises (i.e., Midland)
  • A treasure trove of abandoned mid-century buildings and thriving malls in Lubbock

Midland, Texas:A place that can cram more huge buildings into a small city, than clowns can into a tiny car (has anyone ever seen clowns actually do that?)

About 120 miles and 10,000 cotton bales west of Abilene is Midland, Texas. For some reason, I had never really thought much about Midland. Even though this town of 110,000 peeps is twice the size of better-known cities like Cheyenne, Wyoming, it doesn’t even crack Texas’ top 20 largest cities list. I have to remember that there is a lot of “big” in Texas. The city and its skyline, however, is now seared—like a perfectly crisscrossed grill-marked Texas steak—into my memory.

The downtown is generally abandoned like so many small towns out there, but the city’s skeletal skyline is so unusual. Close to 40 pretty tall buildings dot the skyline—including 15 buildings that are 12 stories or more. Okay, yes, certainly nothing compared to New York City, but most cities of comparable size can’t even break out of the mid-single digits for tall buildings. Heck, Midland has even more tall buildings than somewhat close-by El Paso, which is about three times the size of Midland.

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Seth and I wandered around downtown Midland’s empty canyons. Granted, we walked around the city on Saturday afternoon, but you could tell the place wasn’t necessarily hoppin’ during 9 to 5. Entire skyscrapers stood vacant. We peered into numerous dusty, busted ground-level windows. We also easily stood in the middle of massive vehicle-less, three-lane, one-way streets as we snapped away at buildings.

I figured if the downtown was empty, then a city this small must be almost entirely deserted. We headed out to the edge of town to look at what I thought would surely be an abandoned shopping mall—Midland Park Mall. After driving through some pretty posh, well-maintained neighborhoods, we arrived at a bustling, 30 year-old mall. It was packed. No need to redo the mall, it’s tacky yet interesting ceilings didn’t seem to deter shoppers from devouring goods at more than 90 stores, including several large department stores. In an age of mall massacres, this mall didn’t seem to care. This mall on the edge of town was a mere four-mile drive from the deserted downtown. As the famous Kansas slogan goes, what the heck?

Midland Park Mall in all its un-updated glory.

Why all the abandoned buildings? Why the super-busy mall?

No one with even the tiniest bit of sanity decides they want to build a bunch of huge, vacant buildings in the middle-of-nowhere. There was some reason for all of these buildings. Something happened here—something big. (Okay, probably “pretty big” or even “medium” in Texas terminology) I dug into the research. Well, Midland sits smack-dab in the middle of a little thing called the Permian Basin. This 100-mile radius area is responsible for about 60 percent of Texas’ oil production and 16 percent of U.S. reserves. It is also responsible for 17 percent of U.S. gas production.

I always thought of Houston as the center of oil and gas, but, in fact, Midland used to rule the Permian Basin and the West Texas oil fields. And the Bushes found black gold here. George W. Bush got his start as seventh-grade class president.

Things were peachy in Midland from the 1920s until the mid-1980s. With the significant oil discoveries and production of the Permian Basin, major oil companies and independent producers used Midland as the region’s nerve center. Who knew parking could be a problem in middle-of-nowhere? It was in Midland. Streets were clogged and the place was, well, booming. In fact, another four buildings over 500 feet tall were planned in the 1980s, then oil prices plummeted. Bust. Many oil and gas businesses moved and consolidated in Houston. Buildings, however, are hard to move—especially 500 miles.

What are they doing about it now?

The downtown tax base has dropped more than $83 million between 1991 and 2003 alone, and sits with more than 4.5 million square feet of office space. The community points out the ample office space is attractive to businesses, but many similarly-sized communities can’t even fill much smaller office space footprints. 

So what is Midland doing besides touting their office space? Scouring reports, I learned about various plans and organizations working on the problem. Many a plan with in-vogue terms like “mixed-use” and “activity clusters,” but I didn’t see much progress in the downtown, except for some redone sidewalks and some large parking lots. The newly minted lots indicated that one plan is going through—tearing down buildings. As one Midlander sadly noted, “if we take down the ugliest building in Midland, it beautifies Midland to a degree.” I’m sure the recession has dampened many of high-flying plans people were discussing in the mid-2000s.

The rest of the town bustles because there are still oil and gas jobs to be had. In fact, Midland has ranked as one of the top small U.S. cities in terms of job growth, even in recent years. The jobs, however, are just not in the administrative and back office areas that would desire high-profile, high-rise buildings. And oil and gas companies that have stayed have left the downtown in search of more modern buildings on the city’s outskirts.

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4 comments

  1. I do reside in midland and happened on your page here i dont know that it makes a diffrence but a few of the buildings you have shown are no longer with us

    • Hey Michael!

      Thanks for the update, I appreciate it. I was there in January 2011, so apparently much is changing in the last couple of months. My question is how much longer will Midland be known as the “tall city?” H

  2. Ben

    I actually found your page while googling rumors that a 40 story building is in the works in Midland! Since Feb of ’11 to today the oil industry has boomed similar to North Dakota. I grew up in Midland with mostly vacant buildings and a population around 95,000 to 100,000. Now estimates are at 165,000 just two years after your article! According to friends and family in the area, a shale formation called the Cline Shale is about to be tapped and if oil prices manage to stay stable there may be a boom for up to 100 years. Obviously that’s a big IF and very unlikely, but amazing nonetheless. Thanks for the unexpected, interesting and entertaining article!

    • Thanks for writing, Ben! That’s pretty cool to hear about Midland. It is interesting to see the ebb and flow of towns over time. Oil shale is one of those things that could be huge for many communities, but relies on oil prices remaining high for a sustained period. It sounds like I may need to revisit Midland soon. Thanks again! H

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