Monday, June 27, 2011

The Coming City: Representative Beto O’Rourke Leaves the El Paso Council with Development on a New Course

The coming City of El Paso will be different in many ways from the present City. And the coming City will arrive not as a new settlement on a distant plain, but in the form of infill development on passed-over tracts within the City, or as contiguous development extending the fabric of the city, with new neighborhoods and centers that are complete, compact, mixed-use, pedestrian friendly, and connected by transit. The pioneering spirit of the American West has turned back toward town, in the case of several massive infill projects facilitated by a City Council that O’Rourke helped lead. And new outward growth will be compact enough to develop in increments offering a range of daily needs within walking distance of one another. The new course for development may not affect all projects in El Paso but to the credit of O’Rourke and others it includes a significant portion.

When asked by the El Paso Times (6/22/11) if the City’s smart growth effort will halt when O’Rourke leaves office after six years as a City Representative, he said, “We've already won that fight. There's 10 to 15 years worth of smart growth development that's in place. I don't know how you reverse that." Over eight square miles of new development designed under the City’s SmartCode, a form-based code, has either been approved, received substantial tax incentives with zoning approval expected before the end of the year, or is required by ordinance on publicly-owned lands. In total this is an area twice the size of downtown El Paso.

Projects that have been rezoned to SmartCode include over 1000 acres with ample reservations of integrated open space and civic buildings, over 2 million square feet of retail and office buildings in a multistory, mixed-use format, and over 10,000 residential units, including rowhouses, single-family homes that range in size, live-work studios, and apartments above other uses. The varied housing stock will accommodate seniors, families, students, and everyone in-between. Interconnected networks of multimodal streets that are safe, comfortable, and interesting to the pedestrian are also required by the code. The largest of the SmartCode applications includes the former ASARCO smelter site, which encompasses 450 acres of brownfields slated for environmental cleanup, and is located adjacent to the core of the City.

Projects that have not yet received SmartCode designations but are expected to be rezoned before the end of the year roughly triples the numbers of residences, offices and shopping opportunities to be constructed in an urban format with walkable streets. These projects include the urban villages of El Cruzero, Monticello, and Miner’s Village. Each is located adjacent to existing urban fabric and is planned to be connected to the center of the City by Bus Rapid Transit service which is currently in development.

Add in publicly owned lands now required by ordinance to be developed under the SmartCode and this again more than triples the amount of form-based acreage. Over 8,000 acres of land on El Paso’s northeast and northwest edges owned by the Public Service Board is to be zoned SmartCode. These projects are sited to make use of existing water resources, and are to be planned as a continuation of the City’s network of streets. As SmartCode communities are denser than conventional development the City estimates that it will collect twice the tax revenue with far lower infrastructure development and upkeep costs.

Cesar Viramontes, the developer of the 200-acre traditional neighborhood development named El Cruzero, said, “I feel that El Paso is ready for this kind of development. Once we get this underway, and the rest of the real estate community notices it, it will be easier to sell the concept to the other developers that are not used to it – we’ll see that it is good for the community and good for the developer” (El Paso Inc., 5/1/2011).

Admittedly, historically there has been a huge divide between what gets planned and what gets built, and the approval of transect plans does not insure building permits will be pulled nor guarantee excellent design will be executed in every case. However, momentum is on the side of good outcomes, because El Paso continues to grow steadily. USA Today (6/21/11) reported that Texas has become the second-largest economy during the past decade, surpassing New York and approaching the scale of California. El Paso’s growth rate ranked 10th out of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas according to a Brookings Institution Report (6/11). Over 200,000 new people are expected in the next 20 years according to the US Census and the City is preparing for them. When you are in El Paso, you see construction cranes, scaffolding, and teams of builders in hardhats.

You might expect with all of the new development planned that neighbors would be up in arms. However, part of the mission of the Plan El Paso Comprehensive Plan effort led by Dover, Kohl & Partners is to give the public a voice in the location and character of new development, roadways and public spaces. Three charrettes, each two weeks long, were held in El Paso to devise the plan. They included hands-on design exercises, meetings with stakeholders and decision-makers sitting at the same table, visual image surveys, outreach via newspapers, television and radio, and an online town hall at planelpaso.org. By engaging the City in group work and one-on-one conversations, neighbors have had their concerns heard and left their imprint on the plan. Overwhelmingly, the citizen participants have become advocates of schools, shopping and public transportation within walking distance of homes and apartments, of housing variety, of tree-lined streets, wider sidewalks, front porches, sidewalk cafes, and meaningful open spaces. The Plan El Paso project includes over 20 square miles of additional illustrative plans for walkable urbanism, suburban retrofit, and sustainable new communities.

“One of the areas we have worked really hard on in El Paso is to make sure there is quality of life and quality of neighborhoods in El Paso. We worked on the subdivision code, the zoning code and we provided incentives for Smart Code, smart growth development in El Paso…. That will truly offer the El Paso homebuyer and the El Paso citizen choice in where and how they want to live,” said City Representative O’Rourke (El Paso Inc. 6/25/11).

Even if only a tiny fraction of all that is planned is constructed, each new neighborhood will provide many generations a chance to know their neighbors, to walk more and drive less, to enjoy preserved natural places and shared public spaces, and live more reasonable lives. This was a vision that City Representative Beto O’Rourke communicated to us on the steps of his home in the historic Sunset Heights neighborhood last time we sat down with him. We wish him the best.

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