From Jerry Kurtkya:
EL PASO – AFFORDABLE STEPS TO RENEWAL
# 2 – Save the Land
A city has few opportunities to preserve its land for future generations. El Paso is fortunate in that much of our land is under control of the PSB and its charter to assure the city’s continuing water supply. Plan El Paso, created by the city’s Planning Department, is actually a pretty good template for how El Paso can use its land endowment to best advantage. In its preface. The document states, “Plan El Paso establishes priorities for public action and direction for complementary private decisions. Plan El Paso contains illustrative plans, diagrams, maps, and pictures to make its concepts clear and accessible to City officials, residents, developers, community groups, and other stakeholders.”
It is hard to argue with that but a lot of people do, as El Paso has observed these principles more in the breach than in the spirit. Still, there is much that could be done and I want to say to El Paso, why don’t you try being beautiful? A city is not renowned for its proliferation of billboards and urban sprawl but rather for its visual control and balance of the necessary elements of commerce, housing and recreation. So ignore Courtney Niland’s bellowing for a while and try this approach.
Priority #1 is to save the mountain slopes from development on both sides of the mountain north from Transmountain Road in perpetuity. This beautiful part of the mountains can be saved by an ordinance of City Council as a natural heritage for future generations before it is consumed by housing development or quarries. There is an active petition effort to the City Council – The Franklin Mountains Conservation Petition – on Jim Tolbert’s blog that you can access, sign and get your neighbors to sign, too. http://elpasonaturally.blogspot.com/p/2013-initiative-petition.html Do it.
This one act will define El Paso nationally as an urban leader in the conservation of wilderness. And, by the way, an environmentally progressive city is one that attracts the kind of people you want for neighbors, too: educated, professional, engaged.
Priority #2, per Plan El Paso, is to save the natural foothills, bosques, wetlands, critical arroyos, and other natural features owned by private or public entities but currently without protected status. Examples include the Castner Range and private tracts in and around the Franklin Mountains and Hueco Tanks State Parks. City regulations and policy decisions should help keep these lands in their natural state for drainage, natural habitat, and scenic protection. Public acquisition should be considered especially when key drainage features can be protected, as we have learned so well recently. Make environmentalism the city’s theme. Then, maybe, it will be “all good” someday. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. And when it is all gone, the people who built it will leave for the next place they can sprawl over.
Priority #3. A more compact city (and I’m not talking stack-and-pack because we have plenty of space on which to grow) is a more efficient city. Planners have found that, for every doubling in population, a city gains a 15% increase in productivity; there are real economies of scale. And we need the productivity because our growth is not producing prosperity at the same rate. See it at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vp6eKjQHNl0&feature=youtu.be But in order to gain the productivity, we need to compact our growth instead of continuing to spread outward. At 45 miles end-to-end, El Paso is one of the most spread out cities in the country. Infill and Smart Code are good ways to start.
When I was executive director of the Housing Finance Corporation, I looked at many vacant lots in the older areas of town such as Rio Grande, on Cotton and above Arizona. The lots are scattered among the old craft homes that define the area and city codes have been relaxed to encourage the redevelopment of these lots. But little has happened. Back then (2005) builders were too occupied with the housing boom on the east side to worry about one-off infills.
One reason little has happened, I discovered, is to just find out who owns a vacant lot in order to acquire it. There is always an address to which to send the tax bill, but identifying an owner is not as easy and then there is the issue of acquiring the land, sometimes divided among multiple heirs. To me, this is one great make-a-job-for-yourself business opportunity for some bright UTEP grads. It certainly beats answering a phone in a call center and it would be worth having the city encourage such businesses, perhaps through organizations like The Hub of Human Innovation. Maybe even the Builders Association can kick in some help? No, it’s not high-tech, but it is high-value and low risk and it is just waiting for someone to find the key to unlock its potential. There are hundreds of such vacant lots in El Paso and, if we can find a way to acquire them in bulk, the city can solicit bids for builders to redevelop these lots.
Recently, a Joint Land Use Study was drafted that encompasses multiple counties in the Borderland Region. This is a worthwhile process in which to educate and involve yourself, as there are many different and sometimes competitive land uses in this huge area: urban; housing; agricultural; recreational; military. In case you haven’t noticed, the country is preparing for decades of warfare. The military and its demand for sequestered land is a looming presence on our horizon, not all positive.
Get informed. Get involved.
NEXT – #3 Socialize the Benefits of Growth