In 2011, Plan El Paso was awarded the Smart Growth award as a model for making cities more compact. Smart growth has being dubbed as the future of America’s urban cities. However, smart growth has a flaw that proponents tend to ignore. Smart growth works by displacing poorer neighborhoods to make way for redeveloping the cityscapes. El Paso has been a leader of smart growth and today’s controversies like the downtown sports arena are driven by Plan El Paso. Plan El Paso is what is behind the gentrification of Segundo Barrio and Duranguito but few understand what Plan El Paso is. Today, Plan El Paso not only includes the Caballero Central Park “vision” but it remains the blueprint to downtown revitalization that is nothing more than colonialism in the modern era.
Plan El Paso is “new urbanism,” or “visions” of land use planning, development and public policy. New urbanism can be found today in Austin, (Mueller) Las Cruces (Plan 2040) and even Mexico City (Canal Nacional) and Shanghai (Old Town). At its core is reinventing cityscapes to make them more compact to minimize the use of cars.
Its cost, however, is the destruction of poorer neighborhoods, mostly made up of minorities, to make way for redeveloping the cityscape. The displacement of poorer communities is ignored by framing the idea of new urbanism around climate change and sprawl to mask the cost of gentrification brought on by its implementation across the globe.
Plan El Paso is smart growth as public policy and is the framework of zoning laws redirecting land development leading to the gentrification of communities like Duranguito and Segundo Barrio.
The land development plan, which was published in 2011 and remains the framework for El Paso today was created by Dover, Kohl and Partners. In 2010, city council commissioned Dover, Kohl and Partners to create a Comprehensive Plan for future land development in the city. On March 6, 2012, city council unanimously adopted the plan. The plan is explained in two volumes, the first is 333 pages long and the second is another 418 pages.
During the March 6, 2012 city council meeting, the plan was adopted unanimously after three votes were taken. Members of the city council at that time included Ann Morgan Lilly, Susie Byrd, Emma Acosta, Carl Robinson, Michiel Noe, Eddie Holguin, Steve Ortega and Cortney Niland. For the first vote, Byrd made the motion and it was seconded by Ortega. It adopted the plan without smart code and attached a letter submitted by then County Judge Veronica Escobar. It passed unanimously. However, Byrd made a second motion to reconsider the item and was again seconded by Ortega. Byrd and Ortega wanted smart growth to be included in as a city requirement. The second vote failed with Holguin, Robinson and Noe voting against the inclusion of smart code. For the third vote, again made by Byrd and seconded by Morgan Lilly, smart code was again removed and it passed again unanimously.
Smart code principals had been adopted by El Paso in 2008. However, unlike in Miami (Miami 21) where smart code principals are required, El Paso’s smart code only asks developers to implement it in their developments. Few have tried. Susie Byrd and Steve Ortega had tried to make smart code a requirement for development in the city but failed.
However some developers have opted to include smart code in their developments. One of them is Montecillo, a mixed-used community in west El Paso built around smart code in 2011. EPT Land Communities said at the time that they were attracted to smart code because it allowed them to build in higher densities. In other words, they could pack more revenue-generating residential and commercial buildings in a smaller footprint thus maximizing the revenues from a smaller parcel of land. Even with the potential increase in revenues for developers, Plan El Paso’s push towards smart code has not materialized as few developers see a market for densely populated residences. 
In her 2012 letter in support of the plan to city council, Escobar wrote that “the economic development strategies found in Plan El Paso will make us much more competitive and attractive to those seeking to do business in our region. These include downtown revitalization, which I have been a part of as past chair of the Downtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. 
Dover, Kohl and Partners was paid about $3 million by city council for the plan, which was first approved on April 6, 2010. At least five amendments were added to the contract over a two-year period bringing the cost to $2.9 million. 
Plan El Paso envisions a 55-mile bus rapid transit system (BRT) that has four lines extending out of downtown El Paso to the three major corners of the city – eastside, northeast and westside (Mesa Street corridor). These include Peter Svarzbein’s streetcar project. The streetcar project was not slated to be implemented immediately as Plan El Paso explains, “this market couldn’t afford to go straight to light rail,” so, instead the city wanted to develop the BRT as the immediate transit system to serve the needs of downtown El Paso. BRTs have the efficiency of light-rail without the associated costs provided that the city implements infrastructure like dedicated lanes and traffic devices that give the bus preference over other traffic to avoid delays in reaching destinations.
To this day the plan calls for building a Central Park on the railroads near El Paso’s downtown. And it is the driving force behind both the I-10 project and the downtown sports arena. Although the plan spends considerable ink expressing “El Paso residents have expressed a desire for a grand public open space that can serve as a central park,” it offers no mechanisms to funding such a cost-prohibitive park, although a quick reference is made Army funding it, without offering why it would do so. (page 311 in PDF, labeled 5.41 in vol. 2 document)
But as the Miami 21 smart code experience demonstrates, new urbanism has led to widespread gentrification. In 2020, Miami launched a task force to study how to promote low-income housing that the city critically needs. The low-income neighborhood of Little Haiti is now facing rising residential rents and small business evictions because of the Special Area Plan (SAP) projects that turned the neighborhood into a distressed area. It is the personification of gentrification. Now Miami is looking to allow developers to bypass parts of Miami 21 to address lingering problems. Among the problems are the parking issues that has led to increased traffic congestion, although smart code envisions doing away with the need for automobiles. The problem is that public transportation has not met the transportation needs of the Miami residents.
The lack of affordable transportation has exacerbated access to low-income housing because Miami 21 does not allow developers to build smaller housing units to help with the housing crisis facing Miami, instead forcing them to build larger communities.
The two volumes of the Plan El Paso mentions Segundo Barrio 24 times. Although Segundo Barrio has been targeted for gentrification to make way for downtown redevelopment, the plan’s documents point out that “Segundo Barrio” is not downtown. (page 74 in PDF, labeled 2.18 in vol. 1 document) The original plan recognizes that the residents of Segundo Barrio can become priced out of their community as downtown redevelopment happens. However, although the plan suggests that the neighborhood be protected, officially city council has not taken steps to protect the vulnerable community.
Among the “concerns” by El Pasoans addressed by the plan in volume two of the document, preservation of “Segundo Barrio without gentrification” is articulated. (page 52 in PDF, labeled 8.18 in vol. 2 document) Interestingly the document adds that “many in the community believe that the best way to protect Segundo Barrio is to locally designate it as a historic district.”
- Veronica Escobar, County Judge letter to El Paso City Council entered in the city council minutes of March 6,2012.
- City of El Paso Agenda Item, Department Head’s Summary Form, September 11, 2012.
- Alana Semuels. “El Paso Is Learning That Not Everyone Hates Sprawl,” The Atlantic, January 28, 2016.