The Downtown Plan
I have been to a number of meetings with El Pasoans, walked the neighborhoods that will be most affected by the plan, spent many hours on the phone or in person with people that are interested in the plan, read the articles and watched the newscasts and I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts and reactions.
The Plan is a Good One
This is the strongest sentiment that I hear expressed. We have been hoping and wishing for Downtown redevelopment for so long, and now it’s here. This plan has good ideas, some new, some different than the dozens of plans that have come before – but it also contains the mechanics of implementation. It holds out the real possibility that large private sector investment will be made in our central city, and that at last, we have a plan that will be carried out.
The bells and whistles of the plan – the arena, the arts walk, the thousands of new units of housing, the expanded retail – seem to match much of the public’s expectation of what an exciting downtown would hold. (Although not everyone’s – see my comments at the end).
The safeguards of the plan – the promise that new, superior housing will be in place before any residents move out of the redevelopment district; that current downtown property owners will have an opportunity to profit from their holdings; that retailers in the area targeted for redevelopment will have a place in the redeveloped Downtown with a chance to do a much greater volume of business; that much of the housing in the redeveloped area will be affordable to ensure that we do not lose any current residents from the area and that we create a true mixed income neighborhood – provide some level of security for those facing what will be, in any case, an uncomfortable transition.
Change is Hard and Assurances Are Needed
In one neighborhood meeting, a woman who lives in the proposed redevelopment district came up to me after she had been openly hostile to the plan in front of the audience. In private she said to me, “You know, this is a good plan. El Paso needs it. But I want to make sure that I come out of this OK.”
That seems to be the most pressing concern by those who are opposed to or suspicious of the plan. We are still in a big-picture planning stage, and many of the building-level, unit-level, development decisions have yet to be made. There is uncertainty and a lack of trust on the part of some that their interests will truly be taken into account.
The City must do all that it can to ensure that everyone who is currently in Downtown -- residents, property owners and retailers – comes out ahead at the end of the day. If we cannot do this, the plan is a failure.
The Farmworkers’ Center is slated to be a parking lot. The gym next to Sacred Heart Church is planned for redevelopment. What happens in these and hundreds of other special situations?
Can the Center come out ahead, either staying in its current location, or moving somewhere else in the proposed redevelopment district? Can the Center come out as a winner with more resources (e.g. beds and facilities) to offer to its clients in a new location?
How will the planners address issues like the Sacred Heart gym? We want young people in downtown to have a safe place to play basketball, to meet friends, to be temporarily sheltered from the Sun and the city.
Will Downtown Lose its History and its Edge?
Revolutions have been planned, newspapers published, and books written in the area proposed for redevelopment. Generations have been raised and prospered in and then moved on from South Mesa and South Oregon streets. Some of those who live in the area say they are happy with the way things are and don’t want it to change.
New urban pioneers – artists, publishers, thinkers, filmmakers, entrepreneurs – have a small, but vibrant toe-hold in Downtown --- do we lose them and their interest in continuing to build an organic colony of the much vaunted “creative class”?
For many of these urban pioneers, a real downtown is not lifestyle centers, national retailers and arenas, but boutique shops, bookstores, coffee bars and music clubs. The grit, unrefined local flavor, low rents and general rawness of the current Downtown is what attracted them there in the first place. (See Jenni Burton’s piece in the latest issue of Newspaper Tree – click here)
My Thoughts …
I tend to think that many of the objections and concerns will be addressed as the plan comes into sharper focus. The plan is still at a conceptual, block-size planning level – and has yet to address many of the important special interests that need to be answered as we move closer to implementation.
I think that the edge that many are concerned about losing in Downtown has its only chance of growing and becoming more of a force (at least in my lifetime) as a result of a plan this ambitious. In any successful urban center, the edge is constantly moving out and finding new ground to fertilize and organically redevelop – in New York it had its home in the Village, the East Village, SoHo, Tribeca, Williamsburg, etc – each time moving out as the money found the artists, and the artists and other beneficiaries of cheap housing moved on to find the next hot neighborhood. And if we have a thriving, successful downtown (and by extension, a thriving, successful city), more young people will choose to stay here, move back here and consider relocating here – growing the population of artists, artisans and urban pioneers that are so important to the success of any city.
But perhaps the most important issue to consider is the quality of life for those who live in the proposed redevelopment zone. Looking at the numbers, the current situation is clearly untenable.
In the census tracts contained in the proposed redevelopment district, unemployment is nearly three times what it is in the rest of the city, a city that regularly has unemployment at double the national average. More than 50 percent of the people live below the poverty line, and per capita income is $6,586 – almost one-quarter of the national average!
This plan – as difficult as it will be to implement, and as hard as it will be for people to accept the direct, personal change it will entail – is one of our best chances to infuse capital, jobs and opportunity into a part of the world that badly needs it.
There will be more public meetings and more opportunities for your input, questions and comment as we get closer to voting on whether or not the Downtown plan is formally adopted by the City (sometime in mid to late summer). If the plan successfully passes that step, the creation of a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) will be proposed, and acted on sometime in the late fall (November) – there will be a public comment process for this as well.
As dates are made certain I will forward the information to this list and make sure that our Public Information Office gets it out to the public. I look forward to your participation in these meetings, and hope that you will also take the time to write to me at email@example.com and send me your thoughts on Downtown and the future of our City.
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Beto O’Rourke is the El Paso city representative for the South-West district.
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-- NPT Downtown Plan coverage [link]