Some Earnest Questions About Downtown Development

I wonder what the advocates for a “vibrant downtown” imagine it should look like. Is it bars and nightclubs? Retail and restaurants? Smart Growth, with ground floor retail, second floor offices, and condos and apartments from the third floor up?

The reason El Paso still has all those neat old buildings downtown is because it’s cheaper to build out than up in El Paso. Other cities leveled their downtowns years ago, to make room for glass boxes in the seventies and eighties. These days, with telecommuting and cyberspace, there’s less reason to have a geographical hub for business. Which El Paso industry demands intensive face-time today? Which global industry demands it? Live theater? Education?

Somehow I don’t think that the titans of industry advocating a “vibrant downtown” are proposing a student ghetto down there.

Speaking of a student ghetto, what about Artspace, the proposed downtown housing for artists with limited incomes? Do you know any aspiring artists? Are they any good? Would you like to live in close proximity to several dozen of them? Who will pick up after them? Can you imagine a more creatively stifling environment than living with a bunch of struggling artists? It sounds like a gulag. We should bring artists together in the crucible of a project, and otherwise set them free to experience real life.

Did you know that the other Artspace studios in the country aren’t residential? Google tells me that they’re all studio and gallery space. I suppose that the El Paso Artspace was designed to be residential because, according to all the agitprop, El Paso’s vibrant downtown needs residents.

Who will be the first fat cat to move into downtown El Paso? Myrna Deckert said she would live downtown, back when she was the face of the downtown plan. Will the scions of the titans of industry leave the island at the Willows to move downtown? Do they know that if they live downtown, they may not get to pick their neighbors, with whom they’ll be sharing elevators, and hallways, and air?

Does anyone know how much money the citizens of El Paso have spent, through their tax dollars, to create a vibrant downtown? There’s the public portion of the money spent on the Plaza Theater, the Civic Center, the History Museum, the Art Museum, the Library Renovation, tax credits for hotels, the ballpark, the renovations to the buildings necessitated by the destruction of City Hall, the Union Plaza Transit Terminal, and the Bert Williams Downtown Santa Fe Transfer Center. Did I leave any out?

Soon, we’ll add to that, the downtown arena, the Hispanic Cultural Museum, the Children’s Museum, and a parking garage to which we are as yet uncommitted, but trust me, it’s a done deal.

Has El Paso seen any significant return for all that investment? Are the citizens of El Paso supposed to keep pouring money into downtown until all the downtown real estate speculators receive a return on their investment? They locked in the properties when the value was still relatively cheap. Except for the baseball team, it’s been a while since any private investor group has put any of their own money into downtown, and the Chihuahuas were pretty well leveraged with public funds.

Wouldn’t it have been cheaper for the citizens of El Paso if we’d just given those downtown real estate speculators a decent return on their money? Couldn’t we all have walked away happy with just a fraction of the expense? Or couldn’t we have taken a big chunk of the money that we’ve spent on downtown, and built some fantastic Quality of Life amenities, that would guarantee that El Paso was recognized as a great city? Like, say, a river walk? Or a world class system of interactive learning centers? Or could we have invested in ourselves through subsidized rents for cultural venues, or the world’s best municipal orchestra, or an international monorail, or a spaceport?

Would things be different if our City Manager Joyce Wilson weren’t an ex officio downtown real estate speculator, by virtue of her being an ex officio member of the Borderplex Alliance, née Paso del Norte Group, the civic front of the shadowy Borderplex Real Estate Investment Trust? When she retires in September, will she take a job with the aforementioned Borderplex Alliance, as is rumored? Or will she take a job with one of the other deep-pocketed incestuous non-profits, with the same or related board members?

Was our entire city government co-opted by downtown real estate speculators? Is there any way out of this money pit we’ve committed ourselves to? Where was the voice of reason during the last ten years? We’re there any independent adults in the room when these decisions were made, or any we could have consulted? Where was the sober voice of the Fourth Estate when all of this was transpiring? Do any of the former publishers of the El Paso Times still live in town, or have they all packed their carpetbags and fled to places where they don’t have to answer pesky questions?

Why am I the only one asking these pesky questions?

How, after all the money is spent and all the construction dust has settled, is this going to lead us to a vibrant downtown? Aren’t we still going to have the same downtown with a couple of sparkly features, like a ballpark that’s dark 285 days a year, and an arena that’s dark 340 days a year? What is the chain of events that leads from this snake pit to economic development?

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, what were they thinking?


  1. C’mon!
    Are you saying you’d prefer sprawl to historic renovation? 30 minutes in your car to 10 on your bike? I have worked on Artspace for over 6 years and every Artspace project in the country is a low income housing complex for artists (each also includes galleries and studios.) One of the (many) benefits of Artspace El Paso is artists’ close proximity to one another. It has been proven (with over 30 completed projects) to inspire artists and offer opportunities to collaborate. Sure, there will be the occasional asshole who plays his thrash metal guitar too loud once in a while, but one of those guys lives down the street from me now and we tolerate it. When Artspace is built and creativity begins to flow out of that building El Paso will feel the impact. Great ideas will come from that space. It surely isn’t coming from the “creatives” in the Chase or Wells Fargo towers today! I hope you change your mind about something that deserves your reconsideration as I agree with you most of the time.

    1. Well, I stand corrected as to Artspace. My mad googling skills failed me. Thank you for showing me the error of my ways. But if Artspace is a worthy project, how many could we have built for what the community has invested in downtown?

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