The World is Round

What I’m about to suggest is heresy.

What if downtown El Paso will never be a high-end destination?

That’s the goal the City and investors have been aiming for the last dozen years. Spurred by wishful thinking and private greed, we’ve thrown common sense out the window. What we’ve gotten has been vacant lots and empty store fronts. An alienated community. Property tax rates among the highest in the country. A pile of completed projects proffered with the empty promise of collateral development, with more in the pipeline.

After nearly a dozen years, all we have are dimming glimmers of hope.

I’m not against turning downtown into a playground for the well-heeled. I just don’t think it’ll work.

What, exactly, is the demographic we’re targeting? Who is our archetypal consumer? Who will heed the siren song of the heavily leveraged speculators?

Who, exactly, will move downtown? A family of four, with dogs and cats and an Audi SUV? A couple of DINKs currently residing in a stone house on a half acre lot in the upper valley? Eastsiders? Juarenses?

The office towers are full of suits content with their commutes from the suburbs. Do you think you’ll get a junior lawyer from Kemp Smith to live in a third-floor flat in downtown in lieu of a fifteen minute drive from his condo on North Stanton?

The savage truth is that there aren’t a lot of reasons to live downtown. The allure of the nightclub districts fades as the cohort of hard-chargers enters adulthood. How many times, in a year or a lifetime, will a person go to the Museum of Art, or History? How rabid a fan of baseball or Broadway would a person have to be to justify the lifestyle sacrifices of living downtown? They’d still have to drive to Sprouts, or the Fountains at Farah, or the IMAX theater at Basset Place. Instead of commuting to downtown, they’d be commuting to the suburbs.

What, then, is the inherent advantage to living downtown? What’s the draw?

I don’t see it. And I’m not the only one.

TVO pulled out of its plan to build condos in Basset Tower after occupancy rates for its Magoffin Park apartments didn’t meet expectations. River Oaks put most of its downtown properties up for auction. Some investors are seeing that the emperor is naked.

The City of El Paso, and taxpayers, have invested hundreds of millions of dollars into downtown revitalization, with no, or negative, returns. Maybe it’s time we reevaluated our strategy. Maybe it’s time we reassessed our priorities. Maybe it’s time we redefined our mission. What we’ve been doing obviously hasn’t been working. We’re in a hole. Can we stop digging?

Stay the course, the real estate speculators say. But they’ve stopped investing any of their own money. Now they’re only asking us to invest more of ours.

So maybe I’m a heretic. But so was Galileo.

25 comments

  1. Maybe El Paso could get the Abraham estate to donate some of their owned derelict buildings to generate some low cost middle American residences to spark a cost effective move into the area???

  2. So, Rich, where you “bean” all my life? I appreciate a sharp pen and you wield yours with practiced grace. Stephanie Townsend posted one of your articles on Facebook and it was there that I picked you up. I’m a rare breed around here, an old gringo native (who hasn’t left).

    I’m also a “Downtowner”, having worked within spitting distance of the Plaza most of my life while living up the hill in Kern-Mission Hills…and, so, your remarks about the redevelopment of same have resonance. More especially since I have a pretty strong career base in commercial real estate.

    What’s the solution to the dilemma you posit for thoughtful Downtown re-development? In a nutshell, jobs. Then, affordable chic housing. Then, ancillary services and entertainment. I agree with you, the mom and pop with kids and dogs will not reside there….at least not in the Urban Core, the CBD.

    That leaves two ends of the demographic spectrum for this sub-market: young pros and older empty-nesters. Each has a different set of criteria, and real estate projects have to be designed with that in mind. I know a lot of architects who are thinking about this task right now, on various levels, from the Texas Tech School of Architecture (now in the Union Depot), to Helm and his colleagues, to one by the name of Wright (like yours) who first started talking about “live-work” spaces around here well before it became Smart(Code). Ideas…all looking for fertile ground, capital and entrepreneurs to pull them off.

    But, jobs precede and supply housing demand, its elemental. Look at any vibrant urban core in the United States, or the world. When employment and housing mix, the synergy grows glorious creations. That’s our challenge, get employers to base operations in the central business district. How? Make it easier, cheaper and more efficient to set up operations there than in other locations. Quit the sprawl, reduce our impact on the outliers.

    “Space over time for a price”…the mantra underlying all commercial real estate practice…is the key formula in any business operation’s site selection process.
    When we match the correct metrics for the businesses that want to be here on the Border, and we offer a viable alternative in the CBD for their operations, combined with a stock of affordable and attractive housing with convenient services, then we have a shot at creating the vibrant vision for an urban core here in the Paso del Norte.

    But, it all begins with jobs…and our track record on job growth is way behind the curve compared with the rest of Texas or the United States as a whole. We can survey the buildings in Downtown any time we want, we don’t need a State Historic Grant….but, what we do need is concerted job growth and attraction strategy supported by the government in Austin and our local politicians.

    Dave Etzold

    1. Unfortunately, Dave, the hubris and sense of entitlement of the City’s previous regime led them to spend all our economic development money on shiny gewgaws. We’ll have to find creative ways to attract business. Instead of solutions, we get propaganda. But hey. It’s All Good. Like there’s not even a problem that needs to be addressed. If you think there’s something wrong, you must be one of those Crazies. It’s like 1984, or Stalin’s Soviet Union.

      I look forward to continuing the dialogue.

      Rich

      1. Rich — I apologize. I didn’t mean any disrespect, but I couldn’t help myself. The last sentence of your article reminded me of “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

          1. You know, I’ve been getting that a lot lately. Some people think that just because I’m a guy, I don’t have feelings.

            I know that’s not it. It’s because I’m super-logical. Like Spock. Right? That’s the only thing that makes sense.

  3. I usually find myself agreeing with you, but here I couldnt disagree more.
    Who will live downtown are essentially young people. Professionals, artists, grad students, etc. Revitalization of urban areas has happened in every major city in the USA, usually led by people in their 20s and 30s, many of whom lived and studied elsewhere and refunded home.
    I agree that we’re decades away from downtown being a high end destination, if it happens at all. However, it can certainly be a destinaton for young people (millennials for now, but in 15 years they’ll be called sometimes else) who want to try and replicate the urban lifestyle available in bigger cities.
    City council and real estate developers should get wise, because it can happen, but it won’t involve another arena and more parking lots

    1. Downtown isn’t some magical habitat that will attract young people because it sounds cool. What are the real benefits to “professionals, artists, grad students, etc.”? The Tap? The gayborhood?

      It could happen. In decades. But the current efforts leapfrog the necessary developmental steps. And vacant lots destroy the opportunities for those marginally profitable businesses that make downtowns cool.

      Yeah, it could happen. But we’ll have to reverse the trend. And right now, nobody’s doing that.

      1. I agree that a complete transformation will take decades, but I gotta disagree that “Downtown isn’t some magical habitat that will attract young people because it sounds cool.”
        If that were true, then why would downtowns in literally every other major city in the USA be magnets for young professionals? I went to grad school in Cleveland (hardly an NYC or SF by any standards), where downtown apartments have a 98% occupancy rate in a city that had virtually no life downtown twenty years ago.
        Downtown apartments in EP are going for some of the highest rates per square foot in the city. That’s proof to me that there’s a demand.
        And as for why? It’s an easy answer. Some people, for whatever reason (family, school, etc) choose to live in El Paso but don’t want the suburban style houses and apartments that most of the city offers. If you want to live in a mixed use, multi story building, downtown is pretty much your only option. People across the country are looking for exactly that, and El Paso is no exception.

        1. I agree that a complete transformation will take decades, but I gotta disagree that “Downtown isn’t some magical habitat that will attract young people because it sounds cool.”
          If that were true, then why would downtowns in literally every other major city in the USA be magnets for young professionals? I went to grad school in Cleveland (hardly an NYC or SF by any standards), where downtown apartments have a 98% occupancy rate in a city that had virtually no life downtown twenty years ago.
          Downtown apartments in EP are going for some of the highest rates per square foot in the city. That’s proof to me that there’s a demand.
          And as for why? It’s an easy answer. Some people, for whatever reason (family, school, etc) choose to live in El Paso but don’t want the suburban style houses and apartments that most of the city offers. If you want to live in a mixed use, multi story building, downtown is pretty much your only option. People across the country are looking for exactly that, and El Paso is no exception.
          To be clear, I’m a preservationist and hate the vacant lots as much as anyone. That said, I’ll still take downtown over the east or west sides any day, and in that I’m not alone.

          1. Which apartments downtown are you referring to when you say they have some of the highest rates per square foot in the city? I find it hard to believe that the Abdou Building, or the apartments above the Chinese restaurant on South El Paso, or that other place down the street that catered to transvestite junkies (I believe it was called the Rainbow Apartments) have the highest rents per square foot. Please illuminate me.

          2. Rich,
            I’m obviously not talking about those apartments. I’m talking about the restored buildings. I saw an interview with Octavio Gomez where he said the units in The Mix had some of the highest rents per square foot in the city. I can’t verify it, but anecdotal evidence suggests he’s at least in the ballpark.
            Also the new Martin Building units start at $700 for a one bedroom, which if nothing else, is on the high end for El Paso.
            I don’t remember the Rainbow Apartments, but if the Abdou Building weren’t under Abraham’s clutches I’m sure it could be in the same top tier of El Paso rents after some renovations too.

          3. Mr. Abraham doesn’t own or run the Abdou Building, so you’re wrong about that, also.

          4. Sorry. That was flip and dismissive. I apologize.

            I think we agree that the neighborhood around Union Plaza is not representative of downtown. It probably has more in common with Monticello (including the owners of adjacent retail). That neighborhood is the one bright shiny penny in a bowl of turds.

            It’s silly to speculate on what might happen decades from now, because anything could happen. But if current trends continue, the future of downtown looks more like the area just south of San Jacinto Plaza than the area just south of Union Plaza.

          5. I got the Abdou building and Caples building confused. What can I say, we all make mistakes.
            I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. From my perspective, projects like the Martin building apartments, the Aloft hotel in the Bassett tower, the Indigo hotel in the old Artisan hotel, and the boutique hotel Miguel Fernandez is putting in the old Rogers Furniture building are evidence that downtown momentum has spread beyond Union Plaza. Clearly there are problems, both with demolitions of historic buildings and other historic buildings deteriorating under slumlords, but on balance I see positive momentum.
            Who knows if I’m right though. I guess we’ll have to revisit this debate in five or ten years and see where things are headed

          6. Thank you for your contributions to the conversation. I look forward to hearing from you again.

        2. Just because the cost per square foot is high does not mean there is any demand. As for who will live downtown, here’s a better question for you: where will these denizens of the young, upwardly mobile thriving, throbbing city center go for their groceries, their gasoline, where will they park, where will they go for some of our famous El Paso style Mexican food? Why would they want to live downtown only to find that they now have to commute in order to obtain the basic necessities of life?

  4. Is the city council asking for tax dollars from the citizens like the city council did in San Antonio to build the Alamo dome? It was suppose to bring the NFL to the people instead a 3 cent tax increase and the citizens are still paying today. In Austin brand new getto is being built so people can live downtown . Two high rises already cater to section eight living that were promised to be filled with upper class citizens. Maybe that will happen in El Paso.

    1. El Paso’s property tax rates are among the highest in the nation, and they’re going up. But hey. It’s All Good.

Leave a Reply to John G Dungan Sr Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *