Since the Downtown Plan was released two weeks ago, a series of meetings have shed light on the difficulties ahead, and piece by piece, more details are emerging and the battle lines are being drawn.
For example, Bill Sanders, a driver of the plan, said during a meeting April 13 at the South Side’s Armijo Center that the Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), an entity to be formed as a master property owner, initially would take roughly $15 million to $20 million to capitalize at $10 a share. He said that he had planned to invest in it, but decided not to because he doesn’t want people to think he’s promoting the plan for economic self-interest.
Still, that statement pointed directly at one of the major difficulties -- whether they believe it or not, opponents of the plan have found a target through which to raise doubts.
The opponents fall largely into two groups: South Side residents who mistrust the government and don’t want their lives disrupted by removals, and property owners in the Redevelopment District who don’t want to lose control of their buildings and land.
The property owners saw a presentation of the plan April 12, at a Central Business Association lunch, where more than 500 people packed a conference room at the Camino Real hotel. [ep times article]
“You cannot have change without disruption,” Sanders bluntly told the audience.
During questioning, most wanted to know about eminent domain. One questioner asked whether they would receive compensation for loss of income. Russell Hill, a lawyer advising the Downtown planners, said in a negotiation, all the criteria one typically would use come into play -- relocation cost, income, whether the property is leased. In a condemnation, he said, the constitution and state set parameters. [texas property code chapter 251] [texas property code chapter 21] [boston globe article on eminent domain nationwide]
Sanders said that the plan does not entail “one project breaking ground on Day 1. It will be a sequential series of major projects.” Building owners will be contacted as their property is needed, and shown locations to which they can move, Sanders said.
“It won’t be an easy conversation. Hopefully it will be compelling enough it will convince you to choose one of three options,” Sanders said. The options are to sell the property, trade it for shares in the REIT, or swap it for other property. If none of those happen, the next step is eminent domain.
Gil Kimmelman, who owns Continental Dry Goods at 305 S. El Paso, said after the April 12 meeting he wanted his building to stay in his family, regardless of whether he could make as much or more money by involvement in a REIT. Then he attacked city Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a strong proponent of the plan and Sanders’ son-in-law.
“It’s a clear conflict of interest. It happens to be his father-in-law and he should recuse himself from any decisions,” Kimmelman said.
O’Rourke, in a telephone interview later, said he didn’t see the conflict.
“You’ve got Bill Sanders, who is my father-in-law but has decades of experience in developing and redeveloping, helping build up American cities, and he's volunteering that expertise and his time to help make El Paso a better place. He doesn’t own property Downtown, and doesn’t stand to personally profit from this.
“Then you've got me, a City Council representative who makes $18,000 a year. Part of my reason for running for office was to help build up Downtown El Paso, and we're both working toward the same end to make this a leading American city. I just don’t see where the conflict is,” O’Rourke said.
Abstaining from voting would remove any questions, he said, “but ... it's not fair to the people I represent to remove myself from the decision-making process just because there might be a perception (of conflict). It might be the politically correct thing to do, it might look right and make some people feel good, but that's not what I’m here for.”
O’Rourke also took some heat from Trini Acevedo, a neighborhood activist who ran unsuccessfully for school board and did not discount the possibility that he would run for another office, perhaps against O’Rourke.
Acevedo, who said his home on Magoffin was a couple of blocks outside of the Redevelopment District, said that there was no reason to trust that the plan would include protection or benefits for residents.
“I would be all for it but I think we should be invited to the table. It's apparent that no one with our socioeconomic status is at the table now. I myself see it as a plan for the rich. We must be realistic,” Acevedo said in an interview after the April 13 meeting at Armijo, where he emerged as an opponent of the project. His quote in the El Paso Times the next day: "Mr. O'Rourke, listen to the voters; we don't want it." [link]
Before the April 13 meeting at Armijo, someone passed around flyers variously described as informational, urging people to go to the meeting, and inflammatory, warning people that the government was coming to take their homes.
Acevedo, representing the Magoffin Neighborhood Association, said he was given some flyers from someone at the Chihuahuita Neighborhood Association. The flyers, he said in an interview, emphasized the importance of going to the meeting and speaking out, and he described the reference to eminent domain this way: “It did say that there was a possibility that where they lived was in possible danger.”
Acevedo also criticized Council members for some of the details in the plan he said didn’t make sense. For example, the Centro De Los Trabajadores Agrícolas Fronterizos is shown on the map of the Redevelopment District as a parking lot. [farmworker center]
“How ironic of Miss (city Rep. Susie) Byrd, O’Rourke, all of them marching with them on Cesar Chavez day. How can you march with those people and try to demolish their structure?” Acevedo said. Acevedo, as a member of the Community Development Steering Committee, watched a $500,000 grant to go the Creative Kids group for its new building in Union Plaza, and said, “they allocated $500,000 to renovate a building they're about to tear down.”
Byrd said Acevedo was wrong about Creative Kids, pointing out the building is outside the Redevelopment District. She said he had a good point about the farmworkers’ center.
“That’s one of the parts I’m least comfortable about in terms of the plan. I feel that’s a very important place in the community and I certainly can’t make a decision on that until I understand why (it’s necessary for the plan),” Byrd said. “I did talk to (Farmworker Center Director Carlos) Marentes and we are meeting soon to see what he and the farmworkers think about it.”
She said perhaps there is a benefit to the farmworkers: “It has become almost a full-time shelter instead of what it was originally intended to be, a place for hang out while waiting for jobs, so maybe it’s an opportunity to build housing for farmworkers.”
As for Acevedo’s charge of irony, Byrd said, “My understanding is Cesar Chavez was about building opportunity, and that’s what this plan is about. We can go Mr. Acevedo’s route, which is keeping things as they are, locking people out from opportunity and a continued decline, or we can grow. The thing that Mr. Acevedo seems not to want to comprehend is that this is a plan, and there is still opportunity to change the plan.
“Several people asked him to participate in the process and give ideas but it seems to me his inclination is just to say we don’t need this project in this area,” Byrd said.
The question of how much the plan can change without affecting its economic viability is an open one. O’Rourke, who asked how flexible the plan was at the unveiling two weeks ago, said that continues to be a concern of his.
“I thought there were important questions asked by people like Trini and I thought there were some important answers given to those questions. The more I go through this, we might change or add (to the plan),” O’Rourke said. “We have to be really careful about our identity and what makes us really special ... we can’t lose it by just transferring an idea or look from another city onto our city. I'm open to whatever is going to work and I’m sensitive to what doesn’t work.
“Right now we're at 10,000 feet and as we start to descend and get closer to street level and things don’t fit and we have to adjust the plan. I’m very open to it. What's the point of community input if we can’t alter the plan?”
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Sito Negron can be reached at email@example.com