For three years, City Council has been trying to sell local developers on its smart-growth agenda, with virtually no results.
But now three developers are pushing forward with construction of three groundbreaking “urban villages” that promise to follow the smart-growth guidelines favored by the city.
The teams of developers, architects and urban planners working on the projects seek nothing less than to redefine how development is done in El Paso.
“I feel that El Paso is ready for this kind of development. Once we get this underway, and the rest of the real estate community notices it, it will be easier to sell the concept to the other developers that are not used to it – we’ll see that it is good for the community and good for the developer,” says Cesar Viramontes.
Viramontes may be best known in El Paso as the king of jean-washing laundries, back when laundries were king in the 1970s and ‘80s. When NAFTA took effect in 1994, the laundry industry in El Paso, including Viramontes’ operation washing jeans for Levi Strauss, moved across the border.
Now Viramontes says he wants to be known as a pioneer of smart growth in El Paso.
His $367-million urban village named El Cruzero will be located in Far East El Paso, on 250 acres at the intersection of Loop 375 and Montana, across from the new Lowe’s home improvement store.
EPT Land Communities, meantime, breaks ground May 12 on its massive $777-million Westside urban village named Montecillo. It will be located on almost 300 acres along Mesa Street between Castellano Drive and Festival Drive, and extending to Interstate 10.
Less is known about a smart growth community being developed by Geltmore, LLC, headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M.
The property at Executive and I-10, adjacent to the Montecillo community, is owned by retail giant Wal-Mart, according to city economic development officials.
Geltmore manager and CEO Paul Silverman, contacted by El Paso Inc. on Thursday, says they are not yet ready to discuss their project with the media.
According to the company’s website, Geltmore has 44 developments throughout New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, including retail, office, warehouse, self-storage, hotel, restaurant and residential development worth $410 million.
What is smart growth?
In 2008, El Paso adopted pioneering policies to promote smart growth, offering developers the option of building under its new smart code.
Generally that means development that is vertical, packing more into a smaller space, and designs that where schools, shopping and public transportation are within walking distance of homes and apartments. It means tree-lined streets, wider sidewalks, front porches, sidewalk cafes and open space, city officials and developers say.
Connecting streets replace the cul-de-sacs that traditionally populate suburbia, and shops, rather than large parking lots, front into streets.
“Kern Place is a good example. That is what we are trying to recreate, whole neighborhoods, neighborhoods that allow neighbors to meet and greet each other,” says Katherine Updike, managing partner of Building Solutions. The local company is working with Viramontes to develop El Cruzero community.
She adds, “The type of development we are talking about harkens back to the good community planning that had been done for hundreds of years before the 1950s and ‘60s, when we started pulling apart the fabric of our communities.”
Right now, plans are moving forward for the construction of the first phase of the El Cruzero community, with mixed-use buildings that include rental units with retail space on the ground floor.
Updike declined to say when they would break ground, but says they are “doing all the things necessary to get ourselves there.”
Ultimately, they expect the community to include 444,000-square-feet of retail space, 557,900-square-feet of office and “flex space,” 1,700 dwelling units and 410 hotel rooms.
They are also working with the Socorro Independent School District and hope to have a combined elementary-middle school in the center of the community. Updike says there will be little need for buses or carpooling as all the residential areas will be within a half-mile walk of school.
The fact that such a community will be constructed on the Far Eastside, an area that some see as defining suburban sprawl in El Paso, makes the project all the more important, says Kathy Dodson, the city’s economic development director.
“That is where you are told it won’t work, but it actually will work,” she says. “We think it is going to be very popular, and we are so grateful that these developers have come along and have seen that El Pasoans want it.”
Updike says Far East is a great location, albeit an unlikely one, because that’s where the city is growing, the population pulled east by growth at Fort Bliss and the increasing number of maquilas in Juárez’s far eastside.
On the other side of town at Montecillo, developer EPT Land Communities expects to start construction soon on a cluster of four apartment buildings along Mesa Street called The Venue at Montecillo, according to Matt Pepe, who is director of sales and leasing for Montecillo.
They expect the construction to take about 16 months.
It’s the start of the urban village that is expected to have more than 2,500 apartments and almost 500 homes and town homes mixed with schools as well as retail space, offices and 80 acres of open space, mostly arroyo.
“Our culture is shifting a lot, and El Paso is ready for this new direction,” says K.C. Griffin, president of Integrity Asset Management, which will manage the apartments.
The company manages 46 apartment complexes in El Paso, and Griffin says their 8,000 residents have given them a good idea of what customers are looking for.
There is a new generation of young urbanites in El Paso, she says, that don’t relish the idea of long commutes and crave communities where they can walk to the grocery, ATM and coffee shop.
Griffin says they have also gotten feedback on what kind of shops residents might like in the retail portion of the The Venue. The top picks? A café, daycare, salon, coffee shop, grocery and boutique.
As for the retailers, Pepe with EPT says they will begin advertising to them in the next couple weeks, but he’s already getting calls. He says retailers like the idea of the built-in customer base, and some like the opportunity to live in an apartment right above their shop.
EPT is just finishing another apartment complex in the Northeast, The Reserve at Sandstone Ranch, and its first nine residents moved in Wednesday. Pepe says the amenities and rents at The Venue in the Monticello community will be similar to Sandstone Ranch.
The “apartment homes,” as they call them, range in price from $690 to $1,500 per month for one- to three-bedroom units, with 677 to 1,560-square-feet.
Residents are introduced to each other when they move in, and the complex is designed to encourage neighbors to get to know each other, Griffin says.
Amenities include an HD theater decked out with an 82-inch 3D television, four-hole putting green, dog park, resort-style pool, and “neighbor networking space.”
More city revenue
During last Tuesday’s City Council meeting, representatives voted unanimously to give tax breaks to the developers of El Cruzero and Montecillo. Representatives Suzy Byrd and Eddie Holguin were not present for the vote.
The city expects the Montecillo development to boost its coffers by almost $79 million over the next 20 years. The city will rebate EPT Land Communities the cost it would normally have to pay for the public infrastructure, or $22 million. In the end, that leaves the city with an estimated $57 million.
Dodson points out that if the development were to be built like most in El Paso that don’t adhere to the smart code, the city estimates it would only collect $26 million.
The city collects more revenue from a smart growth community, Dodson says, largely because the development is denser.
“With the density comes a greater amount of investment a thus a greater amount of tax revenue,” she says. That density also reduces infrastructure costs, she says.
It’s a similar story for El Cruzero. The city expects the development to boost its revenue by almost $40 million over 20 years. Some $9 million will be rebated to the developer, leaving the city with $31 million.
That’s also about 50-percent more than the city would collect if the community wasn’t built to smart code standards, according to Dodson.
But don’t expect the city to keep giving tax rebates for smart code developments.
Dodson says the incentives are really only meant to ameliorate the risk associated with developing something that has not been proven here, but after it’s been proven, there will be no need to support the deals with tax breaks.
Speaking at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Mayor John Cook said he is confident more projects will follow.
“We’ve invested quite a bit to make sure we have smart code development and, basically, there haven’t been a whole lot of takers,” he said. “So these projects are going to be the catalyst for other people to want to step up, once they see this on the ground and there is a demand for development that is different than what has been done traditionally.”