Blueprints for Circumnavigation Part III: Downtown and Visible Contradictions
By Mari Gomez
In 2011 Texas Monthly published an article on El Paso’s new comprehensive urban development plan and called it the “best laid plan.” The article states, “nine hundred pages long and beautifully illustrated, Plan El Paso, was so extensive and cutting-edge-focusing on walkability, historic preservation, gorgeous public spaces, environmental cleanup, and efficient public transportation outsiders couldn’t help but take notice.” (Nathan, 2011) In fact, many people have taken notice. Plan El Paso recently won an award for its innovation and emphasis on sustainability. Yet as far as I can tell from my daily drives, the above mentioned would not necessarily fit my current description of what’s happening in the city.
A comprehensive plan is not policy nor is it law. It is merely a guide for a city to follow. Many factors affect the implementation of this plan: political forces, wealthy investors, developers, contractors, money, public opinion. Despite its renowned comprehensive plan, the city continues to show more signs of outward expansion, continuing sprawl, which, among other things, has brought increased traffic, lane closures, bumper to bumper traffic on I-10, and constant delays on ongoing projects.
What has made it of Plan El Paso is encouraging, projects like Montecillo and the Brio Transit System. The Brio Transit System makes it easier, more convenient, and more attractive for commuters to travel downtown. Similarly, when driving down Mesa, Montecillo really stands out, a little cluster with its own personality and vibe. Presumably, this is what city planners want for most of the city. Downtown is, after all, where much of a city’s identity resides. And it is downtown where ideas of Smart Code, walkability, and gorgeous public spaces can really flourish and spread.
The Pizza Question
I was at the dog park not long ago, watching Samuel Beckett body slam dogs left and right. His namesake would be proud of his wrestling abilities I think. As I stood watching the dogs, a young hipster was talking in my direction, complaining about El Paso. These types of comments are common and almost expected in our beloved city. I myself indulge occasionally. In retrospect, much of this series, turned out to be a long winded complaint about the city, albeit with some historical context and conversation thrown in.
This hipster person at the dog park was visiting from Austin, TX and he went on for about ten minutes on how El Paso didn’t have good pizza places. I wanted to tell this person, is this really what you spend your time thinking about? (Instead, I pointed out how Samuel Beckett had his dog pinned to the ground by its neck..) However, the truth is, and director of city planning, Carlos Gallinar, whose conversations have been integral to this series, told me as much a few months back when we spoke: People, especially young professionals, want to live in a place that’s “cool.” Presumably, a place that has the kind of accommodations young people like: restaurants, clubs, hip bars, breweries, concert venues, art galleries, and apparently 'good pizza places.'
This country, particularly for the young and educated, offers a considerable amount of freedom in terms of mobility. A young person out of college can, in theory, pack up their belongings, move away and try their luck in a new city. And chances are young professionals on the move are going to choose cities that have these kind of attractions and opportunities for someone setting out on a career. Because young people like excitement and they like to go out and they like to spend money and make money and if a city cannot provide opportunities to do that, then they are going to go somewhere else. And many people would argue, in fact, that this has been El Paso’s problem for a long time: the infamous and perpetual loss of its youngest and brightest to cities where opportunities and culture are far more abundant.
Downtown, under construction.
Downtown is like the heart, the center that pumps life into the outer appendages of a city. That is, where there is a concentration of activity and happenings, including music scenes, restaurants, bars, clubs, retails, hordes of drunken college kids, Greyhound stations, etc…This is also where city planners have recently focused their attention in many revitalization projects throughout the country. By fixing up the downtown areas, city planners hope to change their cities for the better.
A city needs young professionals and entrepreneurs to boost local economies, start businesses, infuse the culture scene, innovate, create, etc. Carlos Gallinar also believes this is a problem (not the lack of good pizza, per se) but that El Paso is not doing a good enough job to attract young and educated or to keep them here after they graduate. Most people would agree with this sentiment, perhaps why the term “brain drain” is so well known.
So how do we attract these young professionals? How does El Paso stop this brain drain that has for so long snatched away the talented and bright? Well, Gallinar re-emphasized, “our downtown.”
This is key. For the endless suburban sprawl doesn’t seem to be what is attracting young people these days. The markets are changing, there is a demand among the young population to live in much more integrated communities, old fashioned neighborhoods with retail and schools and entertainment all within walking distance. Millenials have come to some understanding that the suburbanized American Dream is no longer sustainable, or frankly, all that attractive. Working a shit job to buy a large home in suburban neighborhood and spending all your paycheck paying mortgages, saving for retirement, car payments, gasoline, and insurance, is no longer the dream. This generation has realized that spending forty percent of your day in a car ‘going somewhere’ is not ideal. In fact, Millenials have become known as the generation that put off having children, getting married, and buying houses, all of which were three components to the classic white picket fence American Dream. The generation of young and educated professionals are no longer dreaming of a house with fancy appliances and double car garages. Instead, they look for community and culture and a sustainable life that is less wasteful.
If Gallinar’s assertion holds true, that by improving downtown the city would benefit as a whole, then why has it been so difficult for El Paso to achieve this? I think I first heard of the term revitalization in 2006 when The El Paso Del Norte Group came to the forefront when trying to re-develop parts of the historic Segundo Barrio.. The El Paso Del Norte Group, is a cohort of successful businessmen that were interested in changing downtown, in an attempt to make it more attractive and more profitable. After that fierce battle between community members and proponents of revitalization, not much happened for a long time. There has not been considerable improvement in downtown residences or small businesses. San Jacinto Plaza, for example, has been under construction for almost three years, making it seem that somehow downtown is not a top priority. There is however, massive development and suburban sprawl still happening throughout the city, as well as constant development of shopping centers throughout every breathable space in El Paso.
In 2011 the El Paso Times ran a story discussing how east side sprawl was straining city resources such as fire and police protection, water and sewage utilities, roads and recreational areas. (1)This is what happens when cities extend outward, public services must also extend their reach.
In the article there was a clear divide between city planners and developers who profit from such projects. These kinds of developments take people to live on the outskirts of the city, away from the city center, stealing potential residents from moving downtown and making the efforts of a self-sustaining downtown harder to achieve. So what happens is these people fall for the promise of a beautiful suburban home, move out to these areas, buy a bunch a shit for their house, require all kinds of services, and will probably need extra cars for everyone in the family to get around. This increases the use of resources and potential debt for the family and, quite simply, is not very sustainable. In addition to that, as it happened to many people, these folk end up losing it all when they can no longer afford it, which happens often with a shaky job market and economy.
An attractive and viable downtown would require getting people living in there and getting both small businesses and big businesses flourishing. Our city planners envision a downtown where people can live and have access to all amenities and entertainment. A downtown where small entrepreneurs and young professionals could coexist with wealthier businesses.
Right now, it can be difficult to obtain a place to live downtown. According to the El Paso Times downtown had a total of 4,571 units in 2012, a number that had remained stagnant for a decade and comprises only of a tiny fraction of the city’s housing market. (2) Instead, El Pasoans see tons of development on the outskirts of the city, out on the far east side and even past the city limits into the Canutillo area, which keeps downtown from flourishing because this development snatches potential downtown residents, as well as resources, and stretches them out.
The idea behind improving this city in the long term, is to build a downtown that is fully operational, lined with businesses and apartments that accommodate various economic levels and provide employment opportunities for workers at all income levels. This includes emphasizing mixed used communities, so that people can build their lives around where they live, cutting out the need to drive everywhere. It would also concentrate tax payer money in one area. In 2011 it was reported that Americans spent over 60 percent of their income in housing and transportation alone. (3) A percentage that leaves very little for the enjoyment of life. And yet, while it’s clear to city planners feel that outward development is no longer desirable or sustainable, and yet, it continues.
The Big Guns
Our city planners are now pushing the idea of Smart Code and sustainable living, but big time developers don’t always feel the same way; Smart Code is perhaps a more complicated venture that is not always seen as profitable. Our downtown, while very unique, is a heart under perpetual repair, half vacant, dirty, and chaotic, being fed intravenously by a handful of wealthy developers like Mimco, Borderplex Trust, River Oaks, and our beloved town drunk, Billy Abraham.
Borderplex Trust is run by a group of wealthy and successful El Paso businessmen including Bill Sanders and Myer Marcus. Sanders is also part of the El Paso del Norte Group and head of Verde Realty. Marcus is head of Mimco Inc, who also owns huge properties in El Paso and outside the El Paso city limits into Canutillo areas. If you drive on the Westside, on Doniphan or Sunland Park areas, many of the boring shopping centers that house stores like Family Dollar, Little Ceaser’s Pizza, or Subways are owned by Mimco Inc. You will find these Mimco properties around town, like Alameda Street. Boderplex Trust is funded by a group of wealthy shareholders. It was formed in 2006, the year the city adopted a downtown revitalization plan and around the time that the recession hit. Borderplex Trust owns a lot of store front properties among others in downtown El Paso.
Every time I come across the name Borderplex Trust in the local media it is preceded by such adjectives as “quiet” and “silent.” This is probably because they seemed to have been able to avoid becoming a household name, despite the fact they are comprised of some of the major players in terms of city development. They have kept quiet in terms of their plans with many of their properties. It’s been over a year since many buildings were demolished downtown by Borderplex and Mimco Inc., like a lot down on Mesa and Mills, some of them remaining as empty lots.
In 2011 the Borderplex Trust had raked up a huge 50 million dollar portfolio of properties downtown and was not disclosing its plans. (4) Borderplex Trust had purchased three huge buildings downtown including the historic Bassett Tower, the Chase Tower, and Wells Fargo buildings. So far there has been renovation on the Wells Fargo building, adding a new lobby with a coffee shop.
Borderplex is behind several new projects being built in downtown El Paso, including the new Savoy apartments, which according to the EP Times, will be testing "El Paso's appetite for downtown living" and is the only new housing the area has seen in some time. Borderplex's involvement isn’t necessarily a bad thing, except that questions arise like, why are they so “quiet” about some of their new developments? And is it not worrisome that most of the changes happening in the city, in terms of building and development, are being done by a handful of people?
If one walks downtown presently, one will come across several vacant lots. They have remained demolished for over a year now belong to developer River Oaks, who also own properties throughout the city and house mostly to big name stores like Sam’s Club. River Oaks manages a total of 150 shopping centers in the city. (5) Because they own so much property they have helped El Paso turn into a repetitive loop of retail chains. Two of those demolished buildings belong to them as well as other demolished buildings on San Antonio and Mesa, where more development has been promised.
In an article in the El Paso Times, city planner Jason King, who worked on the acclaimed Plan El Paso, was quoted as saying, in regards to the demolitions by developers downtown: “Plan El Paso makes a commitment to historic preservation as more than just a civic duty but as an economic development strategy. These (downtown) buildings are one of a kind and irreplaceable.” (6) It must be clear to Mr.King, that many of these big property owners in El Paso don’t hold Plan El Paso’s strategies in such high regard.
There are people fighting this kind of historic demolition, but River Oaks won out on this bid, even with protests from El Paso County Historical Commission. The developer argued that remodeling an old building and bringing it up to code was much more expensive than demolishing and building new. So, they were allowed to demolish.
In 2013, River Oaks bought out 200 acres in far East El Paso that were supposed to be a Smart Growth community called El Cruzero. Instead, River Oaks turned it to a giant shopping center. That is, 500,00 square feet of shopping center, to be exact. Montana Commons is to begin construction in 2016. From El Paso Development News website:
The shopping center will be laid out in a traditional power center fashion, as indicated by the site plan, with large box stores along the back of the development and smaller shop and restaurant buildings closer to the street. Large parking lots will be located in front of the stores. (7)
This is what El Pasoans have to look forward to: another Sam’s Club. Developers often see a shopping center as far more profitable and many are still approaching development with the same sprawl mentality.
Another businessman with properties downtown is Billy Abraham. He was in the news not long ago when he pleaded no contest for his involvement in an accident that killed a homeless man. (8) He is set to spend at least a few years in jail. Abraham owns several properties downtown that he refuses to fix, or open up, or put to use, one of which was the site of a murder a few months back. The city has tried to get him to do something with his properties, but has ultimately failed. Abraham has promised that he would be re-opening and fixing up some of his properties like, La Nortena restaurant on Overland. This was in 2011 and it still sits abandoned and in decay. Before he went to jail he managed to buy another property downtown, the spot where the old Walgreens used to be.
Attempts have been made to attract people downtown. Apartment projects such as Magoffin Park Villas on Myrtle was an interesting addition of apartments in a neighborhood with its fair share of abandoned houses and run down properties. The project includes about twenty apartments with reduced rent for low income families. I used to live on Myrtle and walked that neighborhood frequently, often surprised at the amount of properties that were either completely abandoned, unoccupied, or quite simply looked like crack houses. The duplex I lived in for three years was for sale the whole time and every buyer that came to look at it would walk away because of the massive amount of repairs needed. None of them thought the repairs were worth it apparently, which was strange, given the whole revitalization promise. One would think investing in downtown would be a worthy enterprise if the people believed in the idea that downtown would one day be the most desired location to live.
A couple of new additions are underway like a mixed used apartment complex on Campbell. This a project of another developer called Soto Enterprises, which will include retail space and one, two, and three bedroom apartments with balconies and an interior courtyard. (9)
Another new project underway downtown is on Stanton, west of the El Paso County Courthouse. The project is called the Savoy Loft Apartments and includes plans for twenty seven studio apartments with rents running from $560 to $950. The apartments would be on top of a retail unit, which at this time houses a Dollar Tree store. The developers on the deal are Borderplex Trust and Mimco. This is perhaps where there big money can benefit the city, by building semi affordable housing downtown and slowly get more residents in the area. Projects like these could be good news, given that if they are successful it would only attract more developers and more businesses to the area.
When we spoke about downtown and its struggling economy, Gallinar told me that the city needs the wealthy capital. That is people building hotels, large restorations of buildings, to provide a backbone, so to speak for a changing economy. Because if this wealthy capital succeeds in attracting people downtown then it can be helpful for smaller businesses that eventually open up.
We discussed the difficulty of a small business succeeding in the current downtown. A few months prior to our conversations back in November Kipps’ Cheesesteak, a local beloved business, had been force to close down. The Percolator on Stanton St had also vanished as well as other recently opened places like The Network. The truth is the average El Paso income is about $39,000 and after one pays for the necessities of food, gas, mortgages, it leaves very little money to spend on going out downtown. So, if there is not enough people living downtown then there is not enough disposable income to sustain small businesses. The goal of city planners is to flood downtown with activity so that it could feed itself. This way downtown can slowly make the transition from an economy that cannot support small businesses like Kipp’s Cheesesteak to one that encourages, supports, and even helps businesses such as this flourish and succeed.
“Not until you have a critical mass of people who want to come downtown,” Gallinar said, “will say you [he points to me across the table] Mari, entrepreneur, not a lot of money but has some savings to say ‘I’m going to make a gamble on my business’ will take the chance . It’s very hard. The people that save their money and say ‘I want to take a chance on downtown’ that’s the kind of people we should be supporting.”
It’s hard to tell what the end result will be. When it comes to change, El Paso seems to be rather slow at it. It’s not uncommon to hear conversations making fun of El Paso’s many delayed projects or complaints about traffic and ongoing road work. A few days before I posted this piece, it was announced that River Oaks is putting up all their downtown properties for auction, with the exception of one. The River Oaks downtown portfolio includes 18 properties and a half of Downtown block that has been cleared for development. According to El Paso Inc, River Oaks is giving up their downtown properties in order to focus their attention on the fringes of the city, like far east El Paso, where far more development has been seen in the past couple of years. (10) While they claim this is not exactly giving up on downtown, I don't know how else this could be taken, other than fixing downtown was harder than it appeared and requires a lot of faith and long term goals. After all, the key seems to be to get people wanting to live down there, to slowly attract residents so that there is increased income coming from and feeding right back to downtown. It seems however, that building shopping malls is a much quicker producer of profit.
The question I ultimately arrive at is, where is this city headed? A week or so ago it was reported that Cielo Vista Mall is getting a multi-million dollar expansion, adding thirty stores and 125,000 square feet of more mall. I don't know that this is anything but trying to force- feed this old consumer driven mentality, focusing on large shopping centers instead of culture, community, and the aching heart of the city that is downtown. Why all the outward development, if the proposed city plan, which has been nationally recognized for its innovation suggests the opposite? And if it's clear that continuous sprawl is not sustainable, requires more resources, more money, and is, in the long term, far more expensive and wasteful, why does it seem to be continuing with such momentum?
It’s difficult to gauge what the people of El Paso really want. I'm sure people will eventually flock to these newly established shopping malls and there will be no protest about it. I'm sure people will learn to depend on the new Wal Mart or the new Sam's Club, just as people will continue depending on their cars. There does seem to be however, a divide in how to approach city development in the twenty first century. This divide especially exists within those with the power to do something about it: one side is fighting to change the way Americans live, to promote Smart Code, old fashioned neighborhoods, sustainable and less resource-consuming lifestyles. This side emphasizes open spaces and civic spaces where communities are fostered and small businesses can thrive. Then there is the other side which continues to see open land as an opportunity to put shit on it, to build houses with huge garages that will require appliances and large screen televisions and no porches and boring monotonous suburban neighborhoods. This side that thinks its a good idea to continue developing outward, stretching city resources and services. It is the side that sees profit as the main goal.
For me, the city feels like a .growing, metastasizing, earth consuming organism, feeding on the thousands of lives that depend on it, whose labor is as necessary to the growing beast as it is often irrelevant and expendable. I am inside the beast's belly. I help feed it, for I must feed myself, but have little power to steer the course. I must ride the beast as it swims into the human-set trap where it will tangle itself until it chokes. Yet, until then I will attempt to navigate and to discover and to get where I need to go, I will put on a soundtrack and drive.