When I worked here as a reporter, one of my favorite beats to cover was Downtown. I arrived in El Paso in 2008, just as Downtown revitalization was getting going – a great time to be a business reporter in El Paso.
It was exciting to be on the front lines of all of the change, and I loved getting to know the entrepreneurs risking their time and money to revive a long-neglected area of the city. It takes guts to leap into the unknown first.
Yet watching the march of Downtown redevelopment so closely sometimes feels like watching the hour hand of a clock: Stare at it, and it doesn’t seem to move. But look back after a while and it’s obvious it is moving.
Over the past few years, the reaction to change in El Paso has grown louder, and the sentiment that revitalization is killing Downtown has popped up on social media.
But it’s worth looking back at how far Downtown has come since El Pasoans kicked things off with the restoration of The Plaza Theatre and El Paso businessman Paul Foster followed with the groundbreaking restoration of the historic Anson Mills building in 2011.
Curious, I asked the city and Downtown Management District for some of the latest stats last week.
In short: The number of private sector-led projects to move forward in Downtown over the past decade is unprecedented in El Paso’s recent history, and the investment is accelerating.
Since 2015, the private sector has invested at least $277 million in Downtown, the data show. By comparison, an estimated $110 million was invested in Downtown from 2010 to 2015.
Those numbers do not include public projects like the ballpark and streetcar line.
Another telling number: Property values in the core of Downtown have risen almost 25% since 2008, the data show. Downtown Management District Executive Director Joe Gudenrath points out the increase is all the more significant when you consider properties fell off the tax rolls during that period when City Hall relocated. More properties came off the tax rolls when the city purchased buildings in the proposed arena site.
Property values in the Downtown Management District were certified at $336 million earlier this month, a 4.4 percent increase over the prior year. That’s not too shabby
The private sector has followed the lead of public projects, and there are far more than can be listed here. A few of the highlights:
• The long-neglected Martin Building reopened as the Martin Lofts with 40 apartments in 2016. Next door, eateries have opened and modern office space has been built.
• The Buckler Block building where Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa was photographed having ice cream was restored and is now a CVS pharmacy.
• The Mix and Essex Alley projects turned century-old buildings into apartments and retail in the Union Plaza Entertainment District. Meanwhile, Lubbock-based engineering firm Parkhill, Smith & Cooper moved nearly 40 employees to the area in 2014 after renovating a vacant, 1920s-era building in Union Plaza that used to be a Cadillac dealership.
The list goes on. There’s also been new construction, including the Roderick Artspace Lofts and Franklin Avenue Apartments near the ballpark. El Paso-based United Bank invested $12 million to turn an ugly parking structure into a modern office building that now serves as its growing headquarters.
Hotels have opened, including the Hotel Indigo, Stanton Boutique Hotel and Courtyard by Marriott. The Aloft hotel revived the 15-story O.T. Bassett Tower, a historic high-rise designed in 1929 by acclaimed Southwest architect Henry Trost that was vacant and neglected for years.
Perhaps most significantly, none of these high-risk rehabilitation projects have failed – although the jury is still out on many of them. Renovated buildings are no good if there aren’t people to fill them, but the new hotels, offices and lofts have filled up, bringing more people to Downtown. And San Jacinto Plaza is busy after 5 p.m., when it used to be empty.
Projects now underway include the revival of the 19-story Plaza Hotel, which was the first high-rise in Conrad Hilton’s hotel empire but stood empty for years. El Paso businessman Paul Foster is restoring it to its former glory and plans to reopen it as a nearly five-star hotel.
The 16-story Blue Flame building is scheduled to re-open in 2020 with 120 apartments for low-income residents. The renovation of the Hotel Paso del Norte, one of the most anticipated projects in Downtown, is set to start wrapping up the end of this year.
What will be El Paso’s tallest building is quickly rising at 601 N. Mesa – a project backed by two homegrown El Paso companies, WestStar Bank and Hunt Companies. The $85 million, 18-story tower is set to open by the end of next year.
Another bright spot: Most of the historic but dilapidated Downtown buildings that Billy Abraham held onto for years have new owners. The controversial El Paso businessman filed for bankruptcy in 2018, and the buildings were sold at the courthouse earlier this year to settle his debts.
So buildings like the Caples Building, a treasure that is one of El Paso’s most endangered buildings, are being cleaned and secured.
To be sure, Downtown revitalization has happened in fits and starts, and it has been imperfect.
The resurrected streetcar system has not caught on yet and the ridership is low. The restoration of San Jacinto Plaza took years longer than it should have. And the rollout of the three signature bond projects – children’s museum, Mexican American Cultural Center and arena – has been… rocky.
Although many of El Paso’s most historic treasures are being (or have been) restored and put back into use, some have been lost – notably the building where Wild West gunslinger John Wesley Hardin once had his law office (to a fire in 2012), the grand John T. Muir Building (to demolition in 2013), and the 120-year-old Union Bank and Trust building (to demolition in 2013).
And what about south of Paisano? In particular, the shopping district – the heart of Downtown commerce – has struggled. I took a stroll down El Paso Street Thursday, and things were slow.
Unfortunately, that’s nothing new. The area operates on a different economy from the rest of Downtown, and has had periodic crises since long before I began reporting about it. Efforts to convince El Pasoans to skip the mall and shop there have been largely unsuccessful, so the area remains reliant on Mexican shoppers who walk across the Santa Fe Bridge, as it has for decades.
That has left shops exposed to changes in the peso’s value, bridge wait times and border crises. Lately, tough immigration talk, a lack of staffing on the bridges and general uncertainty have made Juárez shoppers hesitant about leaving home, starving shops of business.
Even so, overall, El Pasoans’ opinions of Downtown are improving. More than 85% of people who responded to the Downtown Management Districts most recent survey said Downtown is improving. The majority of respondents to the informal survey, 57%, said their primary reason for visiting Downtown was to attend events, including baseball games.
There were more than 35 street events in Downtown in 2018 – most of which didn’t exist in 2008.
As exhausting as it is to read through this list, it is far from exhaustive.
The progress is nothing to complain about, but other cities across the globe are not standing still. Whenever I visit one, what comes to mind is not that revitalization is killing Downtown El Paso but that, if anything, it’s not moving fast enough.