The developer of an expansive $777-million urban community on the Westside called Montecillo is preparing to begin construction on the most ambitious piece of the project yet – a 20-acre entertainment district anchored by El Paso’s first Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.

Executives with EPT Land Communities, the developer of Montecillo, fleshed out plans for the entertainment district, a new apartment community and new retail in a series of interviews with El Paso Inc. last week.

In addition, the trio behind several successful clubs and restaurants in El Paso, including The Garden, said they plan to open four eating establishments in Montecillo.

By all accounts, it’s going to be a big year for the almost 300-acre development extending from Interstate 10 and across Mesa, which aims to be El Paso’s first smart growth community.

“Because El Pasoans can now see the vision, our demand has really increased and we have broken ground on multiple projects. Twelve months from now, we expect Montecillo to be a very exciting place,” said Richard Aguilar, principal of EPT Land Communities.

The entertainment district would be nestled in a hilly landscape developers call “the bowl” – one of the last large swaths of undeveloped desert in the area. It’s located directly across Mesa Street from the development’s first apartment community called The Venue, which looms over Mesa near Castellano.

Once the city approves its grading plan, EPT Land will begin construction, said Matt Pepe, director of sales and leasing for the Montecillo development.

“We are trying to move as fast as we can. As soon as we are approved by the city to go, we will start moving dirt immediately,” Pepe said.

So, who’s bankrolling the project?

“It is company policy not to discuss financing,” Pepe said.

The entertainment district would be built into the hills above Mesa. At the top, a brief ride up a palm-tree-lined outdoor escalator would be Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a rendering of the entertainment district shows.

The Austin-based company announced last month that it would open its first El Paso movie theater in the Montecillo entertainment district. Its theaters, often located in urban centers, are known for their unique programming, community events and “ninjas” – servers who stealthily deliver food and drink to moviegoers.

The entertainment district will include “shopping, spas, salons, restaurants, nightlife, office space – all of that just working together,” Pepe said.

A 3-D video rendering of the district is online at www.eptmontecillo.com/video.html.

Grocery store?

Executives are also speaking with various grocery stores that would be new to El Paso about opening in the entertainment district, Pepe said. The city has long struggled to attract a new grocery store chain to El Paso where grocery prices are sometimes said to be 9 percent higher than the national average.

The hurdle most often cited by grocery stores is El Paso’s location. The city’s isolation from other markets makes supply chain logistics a challenge for the industry, which tends to work on tight profit margins.

But “not everybody is as hesitant as they used to be. There is a lot of interest,” said K.C. Griffin, president of Integrity Asset Management, which manages 54 apartment complexes in El Paso, including the apartments at Montecillo.

Pepe said the deal with Alamo Drafthouse has spurred other companies to take a more serious look at the El Paso market.

“Now that Alamo has been announced, we’re working with a lot of different companies,” he said.

Meanwhile, across Mesa, The Venue apartment complex is finished and is 94-percent occupied, a second community for seniors just below The Venue, called The View, is set to finish next year and construction is about to begin on a third housing project called Santi.

Absent so far has been retail.

But retail follows rooftops, as developers like to say, and Montecillo’s first business, the gelato café Il Gufo di Milano now located in Kern Place, is expected to open in the next couple weeks on the ground floor of The Venue apartments.

Next door to the gelateria, an interior designer from Austin plans to open a contemporary furniture and interior design store, according to Pepe. Soon to open also is a woman’s high-end boutique, which would bring new fashion lines from San Diego to El Paso.

Of the 15,000-square-feet of retail space at The Venue, 10,000-square-feet is leased, according to Pepe.

High stakes

As the first development in the city to conform to the smart growth style of development favored by city government, it has raised many questions. Some wonder if such development is sustainable financially in El Paso – if there is any demand for it – and others question if it will live up to the hype.

“We know there are eyes on us and they are expecting Montecillo to be an example of what new developments can look and feel like,” Aguilar said.

But, he adds, “We are more confident today than ever that Montecillo will be the community our team envisions.”

Generally, smart growth is a form of urban planning that encourages development that goes up rather than out and opposes suburban sprawl. Proponents say it minimizes infrastructure costs while increasing the quality of life and sense of community. Environmentalists argue it is a more sustainable way of growing.

It’s a throwback to the urban planning of the early 20th century, before the widespread use of the automobile and explosion of suburban living.

It often includes wide sidewalks, dense housing, narrower streets, bike lanes and emphasizes mixed uses – buildings with apartments or office space on top floors and retail on the ground floor.

EPT Land moved cautiously at first and the economy has slowed its progress, Aguilar admits. Plans call for 2,500 apartments, 500 homes and town homes, a school, office buildings, community centers, entertainment, lots of retail and parks, but the site had remained mostly undeveloped desert.

However, that changed this year, and executives say they are now building as quickly as possible.

“Originally, there was a question whether or not the desire would be there from El Pasoans, that there would be interest in smart growth, and we’re finding the interest is there,” Griffin said, “So now it’s just doing it bigger and better.”

Even as Montecillo’s first residents settle in at The Venue apartments, crews are continuing to work on the wall framing of a new senior community called The View, which is set to finish in about a year.

Griffin refers to The View as “the first active senior community in El Paso that is not assisted living.” The multi-story apartment building would be reserved for those 55-and-over and include 152 units, two courtyards, outdoor kitchens, social room with card tables, worship center, salon and 16-seat movie theater.

And on May 2, a groundbreaking will be held for the development’s third apartment community called Santi, which will include 263 units and 18,000-square-feet of retail space, according to Pepe.

Santi will have some of Montecillo’s nicest apartments and amenities, including an infinity pool, with rents to match. They will range from $746-per-month for the most basic one-bedroom apartment to $1,500 for the largest two-bedroom apartment.

Santi will also have a “fluffing station,” a common area for grooming dogs, and rooms will have 200-square-foot balconies to take advantage of the view, Griffin said.

The first units should be finished in about 15 months, according to Griffin.

TIME

Three of the investors behind The Garden restaurant – Nick Salgado, Octavio Gomez and Rudy Valdes – have broken ground on their latest project – a “non-traditional” retail space located in Montecillo they call TIME.

They will open three restaurants in the retail center, which will have a unique design and be built from shipping containers, Gomez said, although the trio is keeping details about the restaurants close to the vest.

They also plan to open a restaurant in The Venue apartment complex.

TIME stands for The Independent Modern Entrepreneur, and space will be available in the center for fledgling local businesses.

“We are trying to help small businesses have a place to launch,” Octavio said.

The restaurants would drive traffic to the center and the trio would provide tenants with informal business advice, Gomez said.

The three businessmen own the Crave restaurants on the East and Westside and are investors in 1914 Lounge, as well as in The Garden along with John Geske and Kenji Shigematsu.

Space in the TIME center, if all goes according to plan, will be available in six months, according to Octavio.

In the meantime, the half-mile long Fountains at Farah retail development next door to Cielo Vista Mall on Interstate 10 is expected to open in October with 615,000-square-feet of retail space.

And the presidents of River Oaks Properties and MIMCO, the largest retail developers in El Paso, say they each hope to build 150,000-square-feet of new retail space this year – mostly suburban strip malls on the fringes of the city.

All told, the retail building boom in El Paso is expected to add just over 1-million-square-feet of retail space to the economy this year.

But Griffin said EPT Land’s Montecillo development isn’t competing directly with The Fountains project or River Oaks and MIMCO for tenants.

“We are looking for specialized, high-end, boutique type businesses that are unique to the area,” she said.

Pepe adds, “We are experiencing a lot of growth here in El Paso, which can accommodate these various projects.”


Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at rsgray@elpasoinc.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.

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