El Paso adopts smart-growth plan
By Laurence Gibson, El Paso Group chair
March 6, 2012, may go down in history as the day El Paso decided to change itself. On that day El Paso’s City Council voted unanimously to adopt Plan El Paso.
Plan El Paso, developed by Dover, Kohl & Partners, arguably the nation’s finest urban-planning firm, working in concert with city planners, had already won the 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.” Victor Dover, a founder of Dover, Kohl, called the plan “sweeping,” “ambitious,” “citizen-driven,” and most eloquently, “a love letter to the future.”
Selling SmartCode, El Paso’s own name for the Plan’s design principles, was a challenge. Work on this all-encompassing design for El Paso began in 2010. Dover, Kohl held planning charettes all over the city to determine citizen needs and values. Dozens of meetings and hundreds of inputs later, Plan El Paso emerged. The citizens who said they would prefer to live in communities where walkable neighborhoods and mixed-use buildings replace cul de sacs and strip malls were already sold.
El Paso’s land and water entity, the Public Service Board (PSB), was the next stop. The PSB represents establishment interests and attitudes of the development industry while managing thousands of acres of undeveloped public land originally purchased to recharge aquifers. Over the years it has partnered with developers, selling public land on demand with the bogus justification that the land sales are necessary to hold water rates down. When Victor Dover and his staff presented Plan El Paso to the PSB on the evening of March 5, the Board’s main concern was getting development on as much of El Paso’s Franklin Mountain foothills as possible. No arguments about Smart Code surfaced.
When the Chamber of Commerce saw that Plan El Paso’ Smart Growth features would not be stopped at the El Paso Group PSB, Director Richard Dayoub called a late-night session with the development community. This resulted in several requests designed to “encourage” Plan El Paso’s features instead of “requiring” them. Dayoub said, “We want to stress…that our non-objection to the plan adoption should not be interpreted as a wholesale agreement to the future implementation of all those aspirations.”
Many developers are convinced that homebuyers will be reluctant to give up
their backyards and multicar garages. They also warn that SmartCode homes
will cost more and be unaffordable for first-time buyers. Victor Dover pointed
out that many developers are part of what he called “the sprawl industry,”
producing acres of “cookie cutter” homes by mass production for big prof its. Distrust of Smart Growth principles “is an absolutely normal reaction.”
The El Paso City Council on March 12 adopted Plan El Paso, which won the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 National Award for Smart Growth Achievement. The agency called it ‘a comprehensive, transit-oriented development plan (that) will help link neighborhoods to greater economic opportunity and to one another, creating new homes and jobs.’
El Paso City Manager Joyce Wilson said, “I think the idea that they (the public) only want a certain type of product is not going to prove true.” She also pointed out that Downtown housing projects using Smart Growth features are selling well and are already helping to reverse the flight to the suburbs. Residents of Smart Growth communities will also drive less, spending less on car payments, insurance and gas — money that can be used for living expenses. Quality of life will improve with cleaner air and healthier lifestyles.
When the cheer went up in City Council chambers on Tuesday afternoon, March 6th, 2012, after council’s unanimous approval, El Pasoans could be proud of their city. El Paso’s City Council is to be congratulated on working through the objections of Plan El Paso’s detractors to a positive decision to move El Paso onward and upward with distinction.
Quotations courtesy of Chris Roberts and the El Paso Times