Promoting Downtown El Paso

Promoting higher population densities in the urban core is a good thing. Higher population densities, and better public transportation, yield synergies. I like the interpersonal interaction. I like the opportunities, and the possibilities.

But let me point out this uncomfortable truth: living closer together and using public transportation are generally features we associate with poor people.

All of those attractive downtowns that El Paso is trying to emulate were urban squalor in the not-so-distant past. They’re the product of re-gentrification, not desertification.

The vibrant downtowns El Paso is trying to ape have rich people living in condo towers. You can’t build a condo tower downtown until there’s sufficient demand. Sufficient demand comes from downtown jobs and long commutes, or fatuous trust-funders trying to compensate for their own vacuity with conspicuous consumption in exclusive communities. How long will it be till a condo in downtown El Paso is more attractive than a comparably priced two-bedroom bungalow on a quarter acre in the Upper Valley? Or a sticks and stucco McMansion on the foothills of the west side? Or a house in Kern, or Manhattan Heights?

In El Paso, rich people live in the suburbs.

You think you can jumpstart urban demand by building downtown attractions that only draw 71 times a year? If you throw in professional soccer, in our planned arena, that adds another 17 games a year. If you were to go to every game (not likely), that’s only 88 nights. Throw in every arena show that might have possibly played in those so far theoretical venues this past year, and you’ve added maybe a One Direction concert, for a grand total of 89 events, because One Direction was practically the only arena tour in 2013.

Do you think Triple A Baseball and Major League Soccer and a One Direction concert are going to convince people to give up their cars and sell their suburban homes to move downtown?

Baseball’s demographic is generally older and whiter and male, according to these 2008 survey results from Scarborough Sports Marketing. We’re not going to get a bunch of old white dudes to move downtown. You’d think the old white dudes proposing these solutions would realize that, but maybe they’re too busy hanging out with old white dudes to realize that not everybody shares their predilections.

I don’t mean to pick on the ballpark. That’s a done deal. I want to put that boondoggle behind us, and move on to constructive pursuits. But I also think it’s foolish to not recognize the ballpark’s limitations regarding its ostensible goals. I think it would be a mistake to continue public financial support for shortsighted efforts.

Our cars and houses are more than utilitarian conveniences. They’re who we are. Until downtown living represents a viable alternative self-concept, people won’t adopt that lifestyle. Most of us are attached to our identities, and we’re not changing for a pipe dream on a whim.

Young people’s self-concepts are still malleable, but none of the proposed amenities downtown are aimed at El Paso’s youth. Because young people striking out on their own are generally poor. They can’t eat at Café Central, or Anson 11. Those restaurants are destinations for people who drive in from the suburbs. Young people go to the Tap. That’s the kind of business we should be encouraging downtown.

There are already people living downtown, attracted by low rents and the urban grit. There are pockets of Section 8, and cheap unsubsidized housing. There are all those people living in Chihuahuita, and Segundo. If you want to revitalize downtown, give them alternatives to staying home. Give them a reason to walk those few blocks to the urban core.

Grow organically. You can’t make it grow. You have to let it grow. And it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Downtown Rome wasn’t built in a day.

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