By: Jerry Kurtyka

The proposed Downtown + Uptown Master Plan is now set for adoption by the City. I want to point out some of the problems with this Plan, actually, more the process of the Plan, and I am asking that you as a reader communicate with your own City rep as I did and ask them to PAUSE this Plan until there is more input from the affected communities.

I attended a meeting of the Community First Coalition on March 18th and I was surprised to hear from several neighborhood associations that they were not consulted in the process. Also, the Plan’s stated purpose to provide housing for a non-existent community of future downtown “knowledge workers” or, as one Segundo resident said to me, “Not us.”

The City did this Plan like the City likes to do plans: They hire a consultant to ask how people feel about it and then draw up a plan to satisfy developers and investors, in this case overseen by a committee, most of whom do not likely live in the affected area. This traditional City planning process takes public space and turns it into private wealth for investors, obfuscating its real purpose with virtue signals like, “…to improve livability, equity, economic prosperity, housing…” (p3).

The Plan uses words like “decadent neighborhood” (p68) and TIRZ (11 times). When I hear “TIRZ” here, I think of how much we have invested of the taxpayers’ money in Hunt’s new building from which the average taxpayer derives little benefit, along with the rest of downtown El Paso and Paul Foster’s new 2,000+ acre barony in Northeast.

I am sick of this development model. I am sick of paying for it and the City needs to have a better and more equitable one. I want to see a City planning process that asks some out-of-the-box questions like:

  1. How is wealth transferred/transformed/accumulated in this Plan? Upward or outward? Who benefits? Who pays? How will it circulate?
  2. What does this Plan optimize? The usual – housing units; rentable space; real estate value; campaign contributions – or opportunity, community space and social capital for the average person who lives there now, not some future demographic that may or may not materialize.
  3. What is the relation between public and private space? How does this create more human interaction, freedom, preserve the local culture, i.e., the people who live there now? Not the ones you want to replace them with.
  4. How does energy function in the Plan? Electricity and gas? Does it simply rely on El Paso Electric, i.e., centralized electric power (and authority)? Or could we give residents some control over their own energy future in the form of a community solar microgrid? These are springing up all over. Minnesota, not exactly the sunniest place on earth, has over 200 of them.
  5. The same could be said of water, since all those “knowledge workers” will use a lot of it. Is there a plan to capture “grey water” for recycling, say in community garden plots?
  6. Food. How does the Plan propose to feed all those knowledge workers except in bistros and food carts? Food is mentioned 8 times in the Plan but only once in the context of local food systems (p11). Maybe people could grow some of their own food with recycled water? What a radical idea yet it is being done in progressive cities all over. I personally visited a community food garden in Victoria, BC a few years back. Of course, gardens don’t pay rent, why they’re probably not considered here. To be fair, the Plan does acknowledge that the area is pretty much a food desert and needs more grocery stores but think about alternative ways to stock those shelves with locally-sourced food, circulating wealth in the economy.
  7. Where do families fit in, or is this just a Plan for solo hipsters? One thing you can say about El Paso and its demographic is that family is important here. The Plan uses the word “family” 21 times but never referring to actual families and how they might live in its future vision. It is always coupled with “housing” as in, “multi-family.” That is, the Plan is about real estate and those who benefit from it and not actually about the lives of people who will inhabit its envisioned future.

I could go on, but these matters are not addressed in the Plan and, really, are never addressed here because the City doesn’t work for the people. It works for the developers and investors who will own what the Downtown + Uptown Master Plan describes. This is what I am sick of, and I want to see changed here.

It will take more time to answer these questions so please ask your City Rep to PAUSE the Plan until the City does its homework and decides that people are more important than bricks and mortar.

About the Author:

Jerry Kurtyka, a retired banker and IT consultant, is an activist whose focus is on water issues and sustainable community. He has studied and taught in various sustainability frameworks such as Ecovillage Design Education, Natural Capitalism, Permaculture, Project Drawdown and Pachamama Alliance. He was the first Executive Director of the El Paso Housing Finance Corporation and finished his career in 2013 as the Grant Project Manager for the El Paso Public Library’s Virtual Village Program. He is currently a community volunteer on the SWIM climate modeling project at UTEP, a 27-year Sierra Club member and on the Steering Committee for the Community First Coalition. Kurtika submitted this editorial in his personal capacity and not as part of any organization he is associated with.

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