A Solution in Search of a Problem

sidewalk displays
Sidewalk merchandising on South El Paso Street

There’s an interesting story by David Crowder in this week’s El Paso Inc.

It seems that the City proposed an ordinance restricting the amount of sidewalk merchandising the stores in South El Paso can offer.

The Central Business Association, or CBA, alerted its members and others about the proposed regulations in its first-ever newsletter in August and is quietly trying to fend them off in negotiations.

“The CBA supports a clean, vibrant open-air market downtown,” the newsletter states. “We believe a safe environment means success for everyone.

“But the majority of these new regulations are potentially crushing to our downtown businesses, and there have been no complaints or problems which these regulations would solve.”

Mr. Crowder asked Matthew McElroy, the director of the city’s Development Services Department, about the proposed changes.

[Mr. McElroy] said he couldn’t say who called for the new rules, who was involved in writing them or what problems they are intended to correct.

Peculiar, isn’t it?  The motivation for the proposal is enigmatic.  The only effect seems to be to punish the store owners in South El Paso.

Perhaps that was the goal?

When the Ciudad Juarez administration wanted to close the businesses in the Mariscal, even the more legitimate businesses there, they sent the police to stop and frisk everybody who walked down the street, apparently as an annoyance/harassment tactic.  At first, I resented the indignity of standing with my hands against a wall as the police went through my pockets, but after a while, I accepted it as part of the weird Juarez experience.  I was never robbed by the cops, but some of my friends were.

The Arbolito was one of my favorite bars.  It was an historic little joint on Mariscal Street, sandwiched between a taco counter and a strip club called the Dia y Noche.  Old men would gather at the Arbolito to hang out and drink chuchupastes, an indigenous tincture of  roots carried down from the Sierra Tarahumara in tequila.  The Arbolito was a decent joint, devoid of pleasures of the flesh, but it got caught up in the drift net of urban renewal, like a dolphin in a tuna net.

After the businesses declined, the city offered to buy them out, at fire sale prices.  The Arbolito succumbed to the economic pressure.

The same stop-and-frisk policy was enforced as recently as last year near the Café Nuevo Central, according to this report from Frontera Norte Sur.

Now, of course, the area that was the Mariscal, teeming with sordid business, is vacant lots covered with paving stones.  Some would say that it’s an improvement.  Many would not.

One Juarez business owner speculates that the current infrastructure improvements in downtown are yet another ploy to drive the current businesses out, to make way for whatever dubious unannounced improvements are in the works.  Perhaps the same Machiavellian mindset is controlling efforts on this side of the border.

We may never know.  In the Inc. article, Mr. McElroy says that the proposal bears more discussion.

“We’re taking the item to executive session at the next council meeting because of some of the issues that have arisen,” McElroy said. “Short of that, I can’t tell you more.”

According to the City Council Meeting agenda, executive session is reserved for Consultation with Attorney, Deliberation Regarding Real Property, Deliberation Regarding Prospective Gifts, Personnel Matters, Deliberation Regarding Security Devices, and Deliberation Regarding Economic Development Negotiations.  It’s difficult to shoehorn the proposed ordinance into one of those categories.  And in fact, the item doesn’t appear on the Council’s agenda.

City Council disowned the proposed ordinance.

District 8 city Rep. Cortney Niland, whose district includes Downtown, said she didn’t know about the proposed restrictions on sidewalk sales.

“I’m the Downtown representative, and I am 100 percent behind Downtown sidewalk sales. I’ve told the CBA that,” Niland said.

So perhaps the City staff exceeded their mandate.  Maybe they’re not implementing the wishes of our elected officials.  Someone more cynical than I might conclude that someone else is pulling City staff’s strings.

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