Sustaining Downtown El Paso
Successful Redevelopment in Trying Economic Times
By Verónica R. Soto, AICP
The current national economic climate has forced some cities to put redevelopment projects on-hold until a more advantageous and less risky time. However, El Paso, Texas has had the good fortune to move forward with redeveloping the city's downtown. Years of slow decline and unrealized revitalization efforts in the 1990s collectively triggered a re-emergence in downtown El Paso that is finally in full swing thanks to the Downtown 2015 Plan.
In an effort to revive the area as the center of commerce, culture and tourism, the Downtown 2015 Plan was funded by public and private investments, including a $259,873 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Adopted in October 2006, the Plan is a driving force behind the redevelopment and it sets the vision and foundation for a renewed downtown with economic development potential for El Paso's residents and visitors. The revitalization program implements elements that will allow the city to thrive as an energetic and productive economy, promoting the value and attractiveness of the downtown. The Plan is bearing fruit with many public and private investments, strong public-private partnerships and an effort to promote the area as a multi-use live, work, shop and play environment.
Several incentive programs were created to foster this environment including the Facade Improvement program, a partnership between the city and the Downtown Management District, to provide dollar-for-dollar matching grants to tenants or property owners who improve the façades of their downtown properties. Another incentive is a Tax Exemption program for renovation or restoration of historically designated properties; two historic districts are within the Plan area. Targeted promotions to historic property owners — including community meetings — were among the outreach efforts to promote these incentives. Additionally, a sales tax rebate and reduced permitting fees are in place.
The effort undertaken that is now yielding success was funded in part by the City of El Paso, with strong leadership from the private sector. This partnership formed through a likeminded vision and the desire to eliminate years of declining property values, high vacancy rates, and other undesirable circumstances that idle the local economy.
The Plan was adopted by the El Paso City Council after a six month-long public vetting process. Early challenges arose during the public vetting and adoption process with concerns ranging from NIMBY (not in my back yard) issues to those about eminent domain abuses in the event of plan implementation. With extensive public meetings within the downtown area and throughout the city, and after changes to the draft plan and its parameters, the Plan was adopted with a set of guiding principles crafted to ensure the concerns were properly addressed without halting the implementation phase.
Part of the vision encapsulated in the Plan calls for a revitalized downtown that provides opportunities to live, work, shop, and play while creating a productive and energetic economy. Using this framework, downtown El Paso is now in the midst of a transformation. Within one year of plan adoption, property valuations in the area increased significantly, reversing a decade long downward trend. The rising valuations — bucking the national trend — are driving redevelopment, since one of the first implementation actions produced a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. The Reinvestment Zone relies on the incremental increases in property taxes to fund public improvements in the area so that downtown redevelopment pays for itself.
Since 2006, more than $203 million in public and private investments have steered the course toward greater economic promise in downtown El Paso. A total of fourteen major projects are underway. Major renovations to vacant building and lots within the Plan's development area are some of the current projects.
One previously vacant building is the Doubletree Hotel City Center, formerly the International Hotel, which had fallen into substantial disrepair. However, it is now a gleaming example of successful downtown redevelopment. The 17-story, 200-room hotel features a scenic ballroom on the top floor and a seventh-floor Sunset Terrace which includes a swimming pool and fire pit. A full-service, 180-seat restaurant called Fire and a bar inside the restaurant called Liquid, add to the dining amenities available in downtown. The high quality finishes in the hotel have set a new standard for the Doubletree chain nationally.
Among private sector projects in progress, the Mills Plaza development is the largest and arguably the most exciting. An investment of more than $25 million is being used to renovate the Mills Plaza District's three historic properties. Most notably, the Mills Building, a historic structure designed by Henry Trost, El Paso's most famous architect, is being renovated to its original grandeur. Additional parking is being added as well as other amenities to incorporate a variety of accommodations in the downtown. The busy cranes at the site convey part of the excitement of the revitalization story, as long time El Pasoans come forward to share memories about notable events in their lives that took place in the lobbies of buildings that are now coming back to life. The revitalization of downtown El Paso has spurred economic development that is rejuvenating the landscape and transitioning the environment to a more productive and fulfilling asset.
There are many components of downtown El Paso's redevelopment story including designing an environment supporting around-the-clock activity, and a vision for producing housing developments that encourage downtown living. Two new housing developments are underway — a structure offering 91 rental units in a historic district and a high-end loft-style development with residential amenities such as private covered parking and a rooftop terrace overlooking the city's skyline. The Magoffin Park Villas will be erected at the site of three former vacant lots in the Magoffin Historic District. Developed by Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe, a local non-profit, in partnership with TVO Development, 20 percent of the units will be reserved for low-income families for a minimum duration of 40 years. Amenities including 1,700 square feet of ground floor retail space are components of the development plan.
A second housing development is located at the corner of First Avenue and Florence. The First Avenue Lofts is set to debut a different style of city-living. The plan is to have nine upscale condos on the building's second and third floors, and a retail component on the ground floor. A market study has been commissioned through a joint partnership between an artist advocacy group and the city to examine the feasibility of live/work artists units. Artspace, Inc., a leading non-profit real estate developer, will conduct the survey in October 2009.
From the public sector, work continues on the new $78 million United States Federal Courthouse now under construction. This nine-story building will provide 239,400 gross square feet of courtrooms and offices. It will accommodate 13 judges compared to the seven served by the old courthouse which dates back to the mid-1930s.
There are also important transportation initiatives starting to take shape in downtown El Paso. A state-of-the-art transit transfer terminal by Sun Metro, the city's public transit provider, is set to be located at the corner of Santa Fe and Third Streets within the Plan area. The heart of the new transit system will include a 6,000 square foot customer service building with the latest amenities such as shelters, air conditioning inside the terminal, Wi-Fi Internet access, and real-time bus information.
Additionally, the renovations to the plaza area of the Judson F. Williams Convention Center include a new restroom facility, drainage system, pavers, and surface will be installed, thereby increasing the usable plaza square footage within a block of the busy South El Paso Street shopping area. APA recognized South El Paso Street as a Great Place in America in 2008 because of its unique characteristics connecting two countries and serving as a gateway bustling with activity.
All of the revitalization efforts are chronicled on the City of El Paso's website available at www.elpasotexas.gov/downtown. It provides a full copy of the Downtown 2015 Plan, along with copies of all City Council action regarding redevelopment. There is also information for almost every user, such as historical facts about downtown, a gallery of images and information on activities in downtown via a monthly calendar of events, and pictures of the construction activity for the various public and private sector projects.
The site is comprehensive and every effort was made to include retailers, restaurants and available entertainment options in downtown as a way to share the excitement of the downtown transformation, while deliberately including transparency as part of the implementation process.
"I've always said a great downtown is a key ingredient in making a great city," said El Paso Mayor John Cook. "This website points out the many things our downtown has to offer and highlights the vision for what the future holds as revitalization moves forward."
With the city embarking on revitalizing its core — the downtown — and preserving its history, El Pasoans find themselves visiting, exploring, and reimagining the place they call home. Given the many conversations in the community, the anticipation for what's next in the redevelopment story continues, as downtown El Paso becomes a place where a new generation will make memories that will last a lifetime.
Verónica R. Soto, AICP, has worked in the non-profit and public sectors at the federal and local levels. She held posts at the US Department of Commerce in Washington, DC, the City of New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the City of El Paso Department of Planning. Until 2007, she was Director of the Community Development Department at the City of Sunland Park, New Mexico. Currently, Ms. Soto is the Redevelopment Manager for the City of El Paso, Texas in the Economic Development Department. She is President-Elect of the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association. Ms. Soto is a graduate of Harvard College and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.
Images: Top — Economic Development Director Kathy Dodson shares information on the Downtown 2015 Plan implementation with school-age children and their parents. Public outreach is ongoing for the downtown plan. Middle — February 2008 unveiling of the development plans for the Mills Plaza District, to renovate three historic buildings in the heart of downtown El Paso. Renovation of the first building is scheduled for completion in October 2009. Bottom — First Avenue Lofts under construction within the Residential-Mixed Use District of the Downtown 2015 Plan. Photos Victor Venegas, Economic Development Dept, City of El Paso.