Glimpse into El Paso’s future: Plan El Paso earns praise from EPA

A far-reaching plan expected to guide El Paso’s growth and development for decades promises to cure urban ills — including obesity, social alienation and rising taxes.

“Plan El Paso,” a comprehensive blueprint based on Smart Growth principles, received unanimous approval from the El Paso City Council last week. It has already gained national recognition.

A draft version of the plan was among five winners of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement. The agency said it is a “comprehensive, transit-oriented development plan (that) will help link neighborhoods to greater economic opportunity and to one another, creating new homes and jobs.”

Kaid Benfield, the National Resources Defense Council’s sustainable communities director, wrote an extended blog post on the plan last week.

“It is among the best, most articulate comprehensive plans I have ever seen,” Benfield wrote. “Early on, the new document makes clear that it is time for a bold new vision and commitment.”

He quotes from the plan: “In recent years health problems such as obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and the maladies associated with social alienation have become a normal response to a built-environment that does not allow walking or facilitate human interaction. The young and the elderly of El Paso, especially, have been left behind by urban forms that necessitate driving long distances.”

Smart Growth communities encourage social interaction, physical activity and economic efficiency. The philosophy draws from pre-World War II urban design concepts that mostly fell by the wayside as the automobile increasingly dominated American culture.

Desired development would resemble Sunset Heights or Kern Place, which represent two different types of development possible under the new plan. SmartCode — El Paso created its own version of this Smart Growth tool — generally calls for neighborhoods with higher population densities that mix businesses and residences. The overall appearance is meant to please the eye.

In El Paso’s future, people living in “community centers” throughout the city would be able to walk to businesses selling goods and services that satisfy everyday needs. Street-level storefronts entice people strolling along tree-shaded promenades. Apartments above the businesses provide some of the higher-density housing. Public areas described as “outdoor living rooms” encourage people to get out and socialize.

As those people — neighbors and business owners — get to know each other, criminal activity is displaced. Regular exercise improves residents’ health. And as people spend less time in their cars polluting, the air also becomes easier to breathe. Community centers and other busy public destinations are linked by extensive bike-trail networks and a rapid transit system.

It is believed that this kind of design will, at least in some measure, re-create the idyllic lifestyle of small-town America with a contemporary flair.

Plan El Paso is not the city’s first attempt to create attractive development.

The city’s old neighborhoods have elements recommended in the “1925 City Plan,” which was created under the guidance of George E. Kessler. Kessler, a German immigrant who settled in the Midwest, also created comprehensive plans for Denver, Dallas, Houston and other cities. Kessler was enamored of El Paso, which he believed had the location, weather and natural resources to become the premier city of the Southwest.

“One can see many of (the Kessler Plan’s) recommendations materialized and successfully in place today,” Plan El Paso states. “It stressed the importance of the character and quality of the public realm, including El Paso’s streets. The plan said that streets should not be too wide so as to require an unnecessary amount of pavement, which is hot and expensive; and planted parkways should line public sidewalks.”

The 1925 plan begins with a short biography of Kessler, who died in 1923 before his work was officially adopted.

Kessler’s idea of public service, it says, extended to “the helpless and needy, and to the tired worker, the bearer of burdens.”

“This deep feeling of responsibility to the innocents, the unprotected, the weary ones, the ‘uncompensated majority’ as he used to call the folk with whose greater happiness he charged himself — affected all his ‘city planning’ work,” according to the biography. “Mr. Kessler was that rare being, an artist who could teach business to business men, and leave them his grateful debtors.”

Victor Dover, a founder of Dover, Kohl & Partners, the company that oversaw the current plan’s creation, said Plan El Paso is an effort to return to that kind of vision.

“It’s a love letter to the future,” he said. “It’s heavily illustrated. Most comprehensive plans are boring type-written documents that lawyers could fight over later.”

Plan El Paso makes it clear what was intended, he said.

“The illustrations aren’t abstractions,” Dover said.

Whether hand drawings or computer generated, the illustrations are based on actual dimensions of streets, houses and businesses in specific parts of El Paso, Dover said.

And most comprehensive plans do not take up health concerns such as obesity and diabetes, he said.

“These are national issues, and they are worse in Borderland communities,” Dover said. “There are only a couple of other towns that have health elements in their comprehensive plans. El Paso is trying to show the way.”

The plan also has sustainability goals, he said. It aims to protect remaining farmland, which could be used to provide food without the added transportation costs. And it includes provisions to protect some of the city’s arroyos.

However, it remains to be seen whether modern-day El Paso developers will have the same enthusiasm for Plan El Paso.

Many developers and members of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce have expressed grave reservations about the plan. During a late-night session the day before the plan went to the El Paso City Council, chamber members worked to soften the language so Smart Growth would be “encouraged” rather than “required.” City staff have said the document is clear in its intent, even with the changes.

Speaking for developers in the process was Richard Dayoub, Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer.

“We want to stress É that our non-objection to the plan adoption should not be interpreted as a wholesale agreement to the future implementation of all those aspirations,” Dayoub told council members before they voted. “Respectfully, we reserve the right, during the processing of future code amendments and zoning cases, to voice our concerns and, when appropriate, our opposition where we believe that the best needs of the community will not be met by strict implementation of the plan.”

Dayoub also said two years was not adequate time to consider “massive regulatory changes which are affecting the development community and in turn may adversely affect first-time homebuyers and our community’s small-business owners.”

Despite the perpetual popularity of areas like Sunset Heights and Kern Place, many developers remain unconvinced that prospective homeowners will relinquish backyards and cul-de-sacs.

“I think the idea that they (the public) only want a certain type of product is not going to prove true,” said El Paso City Manager Joyce Wilson. She said that Downtown housing projects based on Smart Growth principles have been selling well. And she believes that activity has already reversed a decades long trend of population flowing to the city’s outskirts.

Migration to the fringes has created expensive “urban sprawl,” characterized by East Side development. As people left Downtown, buildings began to fall into disrepair, and more tax dollars were needed to pay to extend city services to sprawling development. Many of those services — including fire and police protection, sewer and water utilities, parks, libraries, roads and other amenities — also carry long-term maintenance and operation costs requiring tax increases.

The city’s new plan is intended to provide an alternative to sprawl.

It pushes growth into undeveloped or underdeveloped areas inside the city where services are available. The higher population density of most types of Smart Growth also improve the tax base because more people are paying for the services, proponents say.

But those Smart Growth homes will probably cost more, developers warn, potentially excluding the city’s low-income residents.

Affordable housing has been provided in existing Smart Growth developments, Wilson said, and specific projects will ensure there are options for low-income residents.

Residents in Smart Growth communities also will drive less, Dover said. Car payments, insurance and the ever increasing cost of gas take significant bites out of a person’s income, he said. Fouled air and lack of exercise also create long-term health-care costs, he said.

Most developers are part of a “sprawl industry,” Dover said, that makes significant profit by mass production of “cookie-cutter” homes lacking character and providing poor resale value.

Distrust “is an absolutely normal reaction” for developers, Dover said. “It’s another constraint they have to deal with.”

Some El Paso developers have embraced the concept, Dover said. Both he and Wilson believe those developers will profit.

There are a lot of ways “for enthusiastic capitalists to make money” using SmartCode, Dover said.

And Smart Growth does not assume the death of the automobile, Dover said.

“Cars are here to stay,” he said. “But we need to find a way to activate the other modes of transportation (so people) have a choice.”

After World War II — with the boom of suburbs and an increasing reliance on automobiles — grass yards replaced sidewalks and double- or triple-door garages replaced front porches. Zoning isolated residential areas from business areas, and the strip mall was born. Giant shopping malls with vast parking lots replaced many of the local, stores.

“In real estate, short-term profits always drive everything,” Dover said. “There was a kind of super-sizing going on.”

Plan El Paso, Dover said, restores the balancing element of long-term planning with a specific vision, which takes into account the larger public good.

To ensure that Plan El Paso does not sit on a shelf gathering dust, city staff will prepare an implementation plan that includes short-term goals, Wilson said.

Weaving health, environmental and sustainability concerns into a vision for El Paso’s future is more than an administrative task. Kessler, with his dream of El Paso as the great Southwest city, was described as having the sensibility of a poet and artist. Plan El Paso’s language reflects some of that spirit.

“The plan recognizes the indispensability of beauty, not as something separate and apart from life-like pictures in a gallery, but beauty in homes, neighborhoods, civic buildings, streets, and public spaces,” it says. “In this way Plan El Paso aims not to return to a vanished time, but rather to grow a choiceworthy contemporary (c)ity based on cherished and enduring values.”

Smart Growth Influence in El Paso

Last week the El Paso City Council passed Plan El Paso, an expansive document intended to guide the city’s development for many years based on Smart Growth principles.
If the plan is used successfully, undeveloped and underdeveloped locations within the city, where services and utilities are already available, will be prioritized for new projects. Areas similar to Kern Place and Sunset Heights will give residents a mix of business and residential opportunities that are expected to reduce driving, improving health and environment. The communities will have higher population densities than traditional “sprawl””growth on the city’s fringes.

  • The process will be decades long, and in many cases the code will not be applied until an area is completely re-created. However, some projects are already incorporating Smart Growth principles. Here are brief descriptions of three such communities still in the planning stages:
    Retirement Community
  • This as-yet-unnamed community northwest of the Patriot Freeway near McCombs Street could provide as many as 1,100 dwelling units over the next 10 years.
  • It would have a variety of housing, including single-family detached, duplex-quadplex and townhome-condominium-apartment. It would have a recreation center and access to Painted Dunes Golf Course. Construction will emphasize views of the Franklin Mountains. The community also will provide some commercial and retail amenities, which could include a pharmacy, bank, convenience store, dry cleaner and florist. Roads will be constructed to accommodate golf carts.
  • The development master plan was approved by the El Paso Public Service Board on Monday and is expected to go before the El Paso City Council in May.
    Painted Dunes
  • This community on the southeast side of the Patriot Freeway across from the retirement community could provide as many as 1,600 dwelling units over the next 20 years. It would include the same variety of housing as the retirement community and also take advantage of mountain views.
  • However, about 40 percent would be apartment-rental units, which could satisfy some of the housing demand from Fort Bliss soldiers. It would have community buildings that could include a library or a civic center with multipurpose rooms. It would include commercial and retail amenities that could include a grocery store, coffee shop, clothing store, pharmacy, bank, gas station, dry cleaner, florist and doctor’s office. It also would be linked to the city’s mass-transit network with a transit center.
  • The development master plan was approved by the Public Service Board on Monday and is expected to go before the El Paso City Council in June.
    Northwest El Paso
  • This ultimately may be the city’s first true Smart Growth development, but the design is still in flux. Controversy over the Texas Department of Transportation plan to widen Trans Mountain Road led to a petition drive to protect scenic views and the environment along the road by using conservation easements.
  • Those issues are not resolved, and a second petition drive is still possible that could put the question to El Paso voters.
  • However, the development itself will be designed using the city’s SmartCode, a design tool used to create Smart Growth communities.
  • Three current scenarios provide a high of 4,201 individual lots to a low of 3,103 in about a three-square-mile area, mostly south of Trans Mountain. A rethinking of the project brought about by the petition drive cleared much of the development on the sides of Trans Mountain to protect views and along the Franklin Mountain foothills to protect trailheads and arroyos.
  • According to a scenario approved Monday by the Public Service Board, the design would provide 4,201 lots on 753 developed acres with 837 acres of open space. Bridges rather than box culverts that block wildlife trails would be used to span arroyos. Some have suggested relatively large parks that would require significant leveling of hills and valleys be replaced with more numerous “pocket parks””and “linear parks””along the arroyos.
  • The development would include a mix of retail, commercial and residential uses.

Article from ElPaso Times