EL PASO, Tex.—The downtown of this border town is not a particularly appealing place. Half-empty, 10-story buildings rub shoulders with vast parking complexes. Ground-floor retail spaces sport “For Lease” signs, and even the historical Kress department store is boarded-up. Half of the city seems dedicated to parking for cars, though the people who drive them are nowhere to be seen, not walking down the streets or sitting in the restaurants or drinking margaritas in the bars.
Looking around at this car-centric, nearly abandoned downtown, it may come as a surprise that in recent years the city has been feted for its urban-planning initiatives. The National Resources Defense Council has said that El Paso has “America’s Best Smart Growth Plan” and—perhaps more surprisingly—in 2011 the city won a Smart Growth award for its Plan El Paso, a 800-plus page comprehensive plan that aimed to make the city more compact, walkable, and transit-friendly.
But 10 years after the El Paso's city government first kicked off revitalization plans, downtown is still a relatively empty and sleepy place.
The city planner Carlos Gallinar doesn't see failure. He sees the fences around San Jacinto Plaza, the town center, and knows that when renovations are finished, the park will be transformed into a tree-lined civic space with terraced seating and bocce courts. He knows that one of downtown’s main thoroughfares, Kansas Street, is closed because the city is putting in a streetcar line that will make El Paso more transit-friendly. He sees the pop-up container coffee shop and the first condos that opened downtown as a sign that people do want to live in an urban setting in this city in a state where people love their trucks and sprawling land.
“A healthy, vibrant city needs to offer choices to people,” he told me. “If we don't have these choices for people, they're going to keep driving to the Austins, the Phoenixes, the San Diegos of the world.”