Conundrum El Paso

Plan El Paso is the City’s general blueprint for “the built environment.” The Plan adopts the principles of New Urbanism, i.e., higher population densities, mass transit, and walkable neighborhoods, among others.

It’s a great idea. In older cities, that grew up before the automobile, and without city planners, the streets look a lot like New Urbanism. Think of San Francisco, or Boston, or New Orleans. The buildings are close together, often built up to the lot line, and usually two or three stories. Neighborhood grocery stores crop up every two or three blocks. In Boston, and Dublin, neighborhood bars are just as common as grocery stores. (In Dublin, if you want to find out where someone lives, you ask them “What’s your local?” meaning “What’s the neighborhood bar?”)

Plan El Paso also prioritizes downtown. Downtown El Paso is the first brick in the yellow brick road to prosperity. By stimulating interest in downtown El Paso, the Plan posits, we can encourage growth throughout El Paso. That’s why we’re getting a ballpark downtown. That’s why we have museums downtown, and events, like a Craft Beer Festival, and Chalk the Block, and Last Thursdays.

Of course, one-off events don’t create the kind of long term real estate demand necessary for sustained revitalization. An ice cream parlor on the plaza can’t survive off of a handful of events, not even seventy-one baseball games a year. The rent comes due every month, and they’ll likely be selling Nutty Buddy’s at the ballpark. (The ballpark vendors will probably be meeting much of the fans’ ancillary demand, like for beer and hot dogs. How good will the downtown bars do on quarter beer night, do you suppose?)

The Art Museum claims to get 80,000 visitors a year, but that doesn’t translate into sidewalk traffic. At least, not when I’ve been downtown lately. The Museum District is like the horse latitudes, and there’s only a few places where someone could spend money, anyway, even if they wanted to.

To be fair, downtown is currently mired in construction projects, hindering the free flow of commerce. On the other hand, there’s plenty of metered street parking available, a bargain at seventy-five cents an hour.

The City, I presume, hopes to create demand for downtown real estate by increasing the number of attractions downtown. Like museums, and large sports facilities. Unfortunately, the City has only so many types of arrows in its quiver. Beyond museums and stadiums, what, really, can the City do? They can’t bulldoze Segundo to let a private developer build a lifestyle center, because they already tried that, and it didn’t work, and in the intervening years, the state legislature made it illegal to use eminent domain for commercial projects.

So how else can the City help those private real estate speculators recoup their investment?

Revitalizing downtowns is a small industry these days. What makes El Paso’s downtown different from the downtowns of other cities is that El Paso’s downtown hadn’t quite passed away yet. In fact, some downtown properties are very profitable, for landlords and tenants alike.

(The Plaza de los Lagartos was fairly vital till they moved the buses to the fringe of south El Paso. That neighborhood, by the way, has experienced a renaissance since the Bert Williams Transfer Center opened there.)

The owners of the buildings downtown aren’t ready for a radical makeover because they’re already making money off the rent. In fact, because much of downtown is economically viable, and the rest is waiting for the boost all the proposed development will give, rents in El Paso’s urban core aren’t as cheap as rents in the downtowns of other cities, or even more depressed areas of El Paso’s suburbs.

So our city planners are faced with a conundrum. How do you revitalize a city center that hasn’t quit succumbed? How do you attract businesses without lowering the rents? How do you create a destination? The City’s hoping they can do it with museums and stadiums. I’m wondering if it needs to be done.

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