Sunday, July 15, 2012

Let's Play Ball!

How exactly did El Paso chart a path from economic powerhouse of the southwest through the 1950s to low wage capital of the nation by the end of the century? My hunch: we traded in our ambition, getting hooked instead on an economic model where business feasted off of low wage labor with an eye towards retiring out of town. Guys that retire out of town with their loot aren't likely to want to invest big in the town that they are planning on leaving behind. Pretty soon El Paso became a city that was all too easy to leave behind.

I have seen many fits and starts of El Paso leadership trying to dig a way out from the bottom, and I have learned one very important thing: the public dollar can't do all the digging. If we move forward, if we increase wages, if we invest in the dynamo that we want downtown to be, if we build ourselves back into the role of economic powerhouse of the southwest, we only do it with private capital taking as much risk as public capital. Every city with a great story of economic re-birth had private investors and business leaders lined up along side public, civic and non-profit leadership.

We started this century ready to recapture our ambition for our community with elected and civic leaders making a case for big change. Why resign ourselves to low wages and poor quality of life? Why export our most talented and educated young people? We didn't lack for hope or vision or ambition or ideas on how to dig ourselves out, but we fell short on developing those critical partnerships with business leadership and private investors that create competitive cities.

Developers hoped that talk of smart growth and development paying for itself would be cured with the next election cycle, rather than figuring out how to move towards a development pattern that met the community's goals. Heavy public investment in the Union Entertainment District was not matched with similar enthusiasm from the private sector. Beautiful new tree lined streets with new park benches and historic street lights only seemed to amplify the meager private investment and the vacant buildings. The Border Health Institute turned Medical Center of the Americas that was supposed to grow into a transformative economic engine churning out high paying jobs languished and at times seemed on the point of collapse with only elected officials championing the business case.

That's changing. In the last five years, business leadership and private investors seem more willing than ever to take a chance on El Paso and the vision for change that the public has been mapping out through the last decade. Richard Aguilar and EPT bucked the development trend and all the naysayers (most of them developers) and are investing big in Smart Code with the 292 acre Montecillo Development. Other landowners and developers are starting to follow suit. The Medical Center of the Americas can now count on many private sector champions lined up to invest time and money and heartache in a dream of high wage, high value economic development for our region.

And then there is downtown. In a bolt of frenzied civic process, the public rallied for and railed against a Downtown Plan proposed by the Paso del Norte Group. The plan was adopted in 2006 and ever since the private sector has worked with the city to implement. While implementation looks nothing like the adopted plan, it certainly meets the public spirit and even some of the concern that shaped it. Investors big and small, private and non-profit have been building housing, night life, restaurants, events and offices. It is a work in progress but I have much more confidence that it will get done because the private sector is all in.

Which brings me to the baseball park. The hotly debated downtown plan envisioned five economic drivers that would bring people from all over the region to Downtown. One of these drivers was an arena or large event facility. People would come from Juarez, the Northeast, Las Cruces, the Mission Valley... to enjoy a great event hosted in the facility. Too early to go home, they would stay for a drink or dinner. Maybe they would hang out in the park, enjoy the El Paso summer nights. Downtown would become the great public gathering place that it was built to be.

The enthusiasm for a large event facility like this was tempered by others who wanted to make sure that new investment was inserted into downtown in a manner that was not disruptive of the existing economic, cultural or historic vitality of Downtown. People told us that an emphasis should be placed on reinventing the ambition of our history through the 1950s, rather than tearing down and starting over.

The private sector--Woody Hunt, Josht Hunt, Paul Foster and Alejandra de la Vega--went scouting for professional teams that they could buy and bring to El Paso's Downtown. As luck and good fortune would have it, a Triple A Baseball Team came up for sale. The ownership team agreed to buy the baseball team and operate it and asked the City to build the stadium.  The deal has to be approvated by the Pacific Coast League in order for El Paso to get the team. The Pacific Coast League is looking for a city that could deliver a ballpark for the team to start playing in by April 2014. They wanted a deal where the City could guarantee that the stadium get built.

Much of what drove the decision about locating the Triple A Baseball Park on the City Hall site were cost, timing and a desire that the ballpark be located so as not to destroy the great bones of Downtown. Buying property Downtown to accomodate a ballpark be cost prohibitive, time consuming and would likely require eminent domain which would mean years in court. Because of this City staff reviewed only large city-owned parcels to find the best fit for a ballpark. Of the threee sites reviewed, the City Hall site is the only one that could accomodate the ballpark, and it is the most visible site from the freeway. As you know, the City Hall site is a supersized suburban block that was built at time when it seemed like the best way to deal with Downtown was to remake it in the image of suburbia. That is how we ended up with a City Hall stranded in a sea of parking and built in the image of a toaster oven.

For a couple years now, we have been asked by City staff to invest between $12 to $15 million to bring the building up to standard. I opposed this investment and asked that we look at other locations for our City Hall operations. It didn't seem wise to invest that much money in a building that is only valued at $13 million and on a site that could be more meaningful to Downtown redevelopment efforts.

The City Council voted in a 6 to 2 vote to enter into a binding agreement to build the ballpark for not more than $50 million dollars, to re-locate City Hall and to authorize City staff to put an item on the November election to increase the Hotel Motel tax by 2% to pay for the ballpark.

There are a lot of questions and concerns about the particulars of this deal. You can find all you need to know about the deal points at: and I am glad to answer any questions but I mostly wanted you to know why I voted in favor of a baseball park for Downtown El Paso.

Bottom line: you don't pass up historic opportunities to rebuild your community, especially when the private sector is willing to pony up in a big way to capture that opportunity.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

TXDOT to El Paso: "My Way or the Highway"

TXDOT says we have two choices. We can take their $85 million and build a four lane freeway with two lanes of frontage on each side and four overpasses running up side the mountain. Or we can doom our citizens to a safety hazard of a road because if we don't like their idea they are sending the money back to Austin.

The El Paso Times says that development along the proposed Transmountain freeway is inevitable. Nothing we can do about it but sit idly by and let it happen.

The freeway is inevitable and crappy freeway development and suburban sprawl up the side of our moutain is inevitable.

Or is it? It is if we make decisions as a community and a City Council under coercion from TXDOT. It is if we accept false choices.

Is that the way to build a great city?
But if we want different choices, we need to take the time to demand other choices. And we don't have much time. TXDOT has opened up their public comment period, and they need to hear from you by April 1.

So what are other choices? First we need to know what the problem is.

The biggest problem that needs to be resolved is a saftey issue. Right now, two lanes of roadway going west transition abruptly into one lane. Turning movements on and off of Transmountain West are perilous. Also as land develops close to I-10, there are property owners with unlimited access to the Transmountain presenting a potential hazard if they decide to build driveways onto the main lanes of traffic wherever they choose.

The other problem is that the one lane in each direction on the West side of the mountain is not enough capacity for the cars using that road today, leading to delays, congestion and some aggressive driving.

So we need to solve the safety issue, and we need to expand the capacity of the roadway.

Is the freeway the only road type that does this? No.

A boulevard is an option that TXDOT modeled as an alternative to the freeway in their Environmental Assessment. A boulevard has features similar to a freeway in that there is limited access to the main through lanes. These through lanes are mostly for regional trips. The boulevard also features local roads alongside it to accomodate local traffic movements, similar to frontage roads but slower, less wide and safer and more comfortable for pedestrians and bicyclists (see rendering of a Transmountain boulevard below). The biggest difference between the boulevard and the freeway is that a boulevard doesn't have grade seperated overpasses and instead handles traffic through managed intersections. A boulevard could fit into the existing 200 feet of TXDOT right of way, whereas the proposed freeway will be 370 feet wide. (The current roadway is about 40 feet wide.)

TXDOT threw this out as an option primarily because they didn't think it had enough capacity to handle the projected volumes of traffic. The problem is that they used outdated information to make their case. TXDOT indicated that the current traffic volumes on Transmountain today is 17,000 cars per day. TXDOT estimated that in 2015 when the project is completed the car volume would increase to 40,000, a 57% increase in traffic volumes. TXDOT estimates that in 2035 the car trips per day would increase to 71,000. Problem is that the latest and greatest numbers show that only 18,000 cars will make this trip in 2020 and only 31,000 in 2035. Using the new numbers, the most recently adopted numbers, a boulevard holds up very well.

A boulevard also handles many of the safety concerns by eliminating the transition at high speeds from two lanes to one lane. Since it features local road alongside it, it resolves the issue of property owners building driveways directly onto the main lanes. In addition, pedestrians and bicyclists would feel safer and be safer walking or pedaling next to slow traffic on local roads rather than on fast traffic moving on frontage roads. When is the last time you thought to yourself that you would like to take a walk on frontage roads next to I10?

So the boulevard is a choice. Not TXDOT's choice, but a choice for resolving our mobility and safety issues in that area. What is your choice?

Another choice offered up by a group of determined El Pasoans is to let them have their freeway but to minimize the environmental impact by not building the last overpass closest to the mountain and to preserve the 900 acres of Public Service Board land that straddles that section of Transmountain. Their goal is to keep Transmountain scenic in the areas that the public has control over. That land is owned by the City of El Paso and there is nothing inevitable about it having to be developed. The public, you and I, can make a choice not to develop that section because it is more valuable to us as open space than it is as freeway development. If that last overpass closest to the State Park is built, it will set in place the line of development for all of the land north of it to the State line. Not building that overpass will create a pattern where most of the develop occurs closer to I-10.

So demand a choice. El Paso deserves real choices. Here's how:

Do we want TXDOT to build our City? Or are we going to do the hard work of building our city, guided by our own values and priorities? It is our choice.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Go Hunt Communities!

We write city codes as minimums but hope that in building neighborhoods for El Pasoans, developers will go above and beyond the codes to build great places that will stand the test of time.

Recently, the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board presented Hunt Communities for Excellence in Park Award by a Private Developer for their design and construction of Redstone Village Park Pond, 5910 Redstone Rim Rd. next to the Northeast Regional Park.

The 1½ acre “park – pond” through its unique architecture, provides passive park space for the neighborhood residents, as well as providing required drainage and stormwater capture.

Each year we will be recognizing developers for excellence in park design. If there is a new park that you would like us to consider for this recognition, let us know.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Domestic Partner Benefits

Two summers ago, Steve, Beto and I went to vist with young people enrolled in a program called Youth Build at Centro Salud Familiar La Fe. The program's aim is to teach young people who have dropped out of school a building trade and to work with them to get their G.E.D. We talked to them about El Paso, about our jobs and why we got involved in politics. We asked them to talk to us about their concerns, what they liked about El Paso, what they would like to see changed. A young man stood up and said he was in love with another young man and he wanted to know that they would have a welcome place in El Paso, in our commmunity. He wanted to know what we were doing to make El Paso a welcoming environment for gays and lesbians in our commmunity.

As a result of that young man's questions, Beto suggested that the City Council authorize domestic partner benefits for city employees. Essentially if a long time committed gay or lesbian couple can provide proof of that long time relationship, we would extend benefits to the partner in the same way that we would extend benefits for a spouse. Nothing more. Nothing less. Since gays and lesbians cannot consecrate their union by a legal marriage, domestic partner benefits would provide equal access to health insurance for committed partnerships. The City Council authorized the domestic partner benefits in a vote of 7 to 1.

There were many who came in support. There were also many who came and spoke out against this action of City Council. The people who came to speak out against it pounded bibles and quoted scripture and told us that homosexuals were immoral. Homosexuals could not claim love or commitment, only lust and deviance, they said. They told us that homosexuals were rapists and pedophiles. Some referenced domestic partner benefits as a subplot in a larger plot to legalize sex with children. They wanted us to know that homosexuals were "less than" and because of this should be treated as "less than." Barney Fields, an El Paso preacher, recently said that a vote in favor of domestic partner benefits was an open invitation to God for the violence in Juarez to spillover. The opponents said they would not stand for any measure by the City that would value the commitment of lesbians or gays in loving long term relationships.

To be clear, I do not think that everyone who opposes providing domestic partner benefits is led by the same hate and fear and hysteria that I illustrated above. For example, I heard from a city employee that he was concerned about adding additional people to the City's plan in a tough economic environment. Because we have to provide equal protection under the law, straight couples who meet the same criteria of domestic partners are also eligible for this benefit. Some people did not think it was right to provide these straight couples with benefits since they have legal access to the benefits of marriage.

But it was the people who dedicated themselves to this issue, the ones whose voices led the charge against domestic partner benefits, who seemed less concerned with "family values" and more concerned with tearing down people who live in our community and work for the City that brought this issue to the voters. They were so enraged when we passed the domestic partner benefits that they did the hard work of putting an item on the ballot to overturn the council's initiative. This is no small task. You have to collect thousands and thousands of signatures. Twice.

On November 2, 2010, 39,016 El Pasoans voted to "endorse traditional family values by making health benefits available only to city employees and their legal spouse and dependent children." 31,892 people voted against it. 10,931 people undervoted, which means they went to the polls but didn't vote on this measure either because they didn't understand the referendum or didn't care to weigh in on this particular issue.

On Tuesday, I voted to repeal this vote of a majority of El Pasoans. I also voted to introduce a city charter ammendment that stated, "The City shall afford equal employment and benefit opportunities to all qualified individuals in compliance with all applicable laws, without regard to their race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, marital status, color, religion, ethnic background or national origin, age, disability, or any other characteristic or status that is protected by federal, state, or local law."

I lost on both points.

The ordinance will stand as written by the petitioners and adopted by the voters of El Paso.

I've received emails and calls asking me to explain myself, asking why I would vote against the will of the people.

I'll do my best to explain.

We have been asked by the voters through iniatitive petitions before to change our minds. Most recently, a group of citizens asked voters to transfer the ratemaking authority for the stormwater system from the Public Service Board to the City Council. That vote failed but had it passed, I would have had no argument with implementing it as directed by the voters. It was a matter of policy, a matter of how best to run the stormwater system.

It is a different matter though when you are asked to change your vote on a matter of conscience, a basic principle, a fundamental of who you are that guides the way you live your life and treat other people, a value that you work hard everyday to instill in your own children.

Domestic partner benefits obviously is about more than access to health care. It is about how we treat people who are perceived to be different and whether we welcome everyone despite their differences. Gay and lesbian men and women in our community have enduring committed relationships. Why should we not honor and value those committed relationships as we honor and value the committed relationships of straight people? Like the young gay man said at La Fe, he wanted to know he had a place here. Not just to be tolerated but to be recognized and valued equally as part of his community.

There have been moments in our history when the majority wished to withhold the benefits of citizenship and employment and fair pay and benefits and dignity and liberty from any number of groups of people including women, black people, Catholics, Jews. But relentless and vocal advocates willing to speak to the best in all of us were able re-shape and change the landscape of those fears and hatreds and make our cities and our nation stronger because of it.

I did not do this lightly. It was an unsettling choice to make: to vote to upend the will of El Pasoans who I asked to represent or to vote against the very deepest values that shape who I am. And honestly, no matter what choice I made, I knew it would not feel exactly right. I also knew that my vote would put me at odds with many voters in my district and make me a legitimate target of a recall campaign.

All of this was further complicated by the language that was approved by the voters. The petitioners were against domestic partners benefits and wanted them repealed but instead of asking the voters to repeal the domestic partner benefits, they asked the voters to "endorse traditional family values by making health benefits available only to city employees and their legal spouse and dependent children." Because of the phrase, "only to city employees," the petitioners left out any number of people who are currently covered by our health plan. Retirees are not city employees. Luckily, there is a provision in state law that requires us to cover retirees unless they have access to health care through another source. So there may be some retirees who lose their coverage. There are many agencies of the city, like the Public Service Board and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, where the employees are not technically city employees. These employees will likely lose their health benefits under the language approved by the voters.

The petitioners were advised in November of last year that the language that they presented on the petition had significant problems that would cause more harm to more people than they intended. They could have started over, presented more clear ballot language but they refused to do so. "You know what we mean," they said. I understand that the intent of the petitioners was deny health care coverage to the partners of gay and lesbians who are employees of the City. But I cannot say that that was the intent of every voter. There was a lot of media coverage about the many people beyond domestic partners who would lose coverage. Some of the emails I received from voters said that they voted for the measure because they agreed that these other affected parties should not receive coverage. For example, I received this note from a voter, "Most of the citizens of El Paso do not even have the option of getting health insurance through their employers. The citizens that do get health insurance usually have to pay the full cost to cover their families. They do not want the city to tax them to provide benefits to city employees that far exceed what the tax payers have available."

I understand the intent of the petitioners. I've understood it all too well from having sat through hours and hours of meetings where they visciously tore down people in our community who do not conform to their view of "right" and "normal." But I can't say with certainty what the intent of the 39,016 people who voted in favor of the measure was. This was another reason that I felt that it would be important to put the measure back to the voters and why I proposed the non-discrimination city charter ammendment.

My colleagues did not accept the more general anti-discrimination language I proposed for a city charter ammendment but instead asked that we craft specific language and put the question to the voters more plainly. Should the City provide domestic partner benefits? Yes or no.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Bulldozers are Coming

The City of El Paso doesn't have a loop. Dallas has one. Austin has one. San Antonio has one. We have got to get us one of those. We are the only major Texas city without one. Shameful. Really shameful.

Although I have yet to have one constituent come knocking on my door demanding that we get us a loop right away, transportation planners, engineers and politicians are pretty sure that is exactly what we want, despite the costs and despite the consequences. Complete the loop has been the mantra of the transportation planners for the last decade.

Just what is a loop, you might ask. It is a freeway that rings your city, allowing you to travel at high speeds around your city in a circle without ever having to stop once. Which is exactly what I did once in Atlanta. Just went round and round the city unable to distinguish one towering office park strung together with chain restaurants and big boxes from the next and therefore unable to figure out just where to get off.

So what exactly do the fortunate cities with the loops get? Urban legend has it that these loops make you more competitive but if you take a look at Austin, Dallas, San Antonio you will see that loops induce more suburban sprawl, more traffic congestion, more development that is built for the car only at the expense of other modes of transportation, more air pollution and more fatal traffic accidents. Oooh, I can't wait to get us some of that.

You might have thought that Transmountain Road was only a scenic corridor, but it is in fact the skeleton of a freeway loop in the making. Thirty years ago, we hatched the plan. Got to get us a loop. Despite mounting evidence that freeways come with consequences, we have stayed on task without questioning some of the fundamental assumptions that build freeways.

I've been a part of that. In 2008, the City Council approved the Comprehensive Mobility Plan, a billion plan that completes the loop, or so they said. But as I recently learned, it turns out a billion dollars completes the loop, sort of, but not quite. When we approved the Mobility Plan, there was $17 million planned to add another lane to the westside of Transmountain from I10 to the Franklin State Park, an investment of about $5 million a mile. Makes sense. If you are heading west down the mountain on Transmountain, it all of sudden converts from two lanes to one lane. That one lane can't handle all the traffic we have on it now at rush hour. Turns out that adding the additional lanes was only the interim plan, the we're-only-half-way-there-with-a-billion-dollars plan. The real plan was to convert this 3.89 mile section into a full fledged freeway: two travel lanes in each direction with enough right-of-way to add another lane in each direction, four overpasses climbing up the side of the mountain to leap over current and planned aerterials, two frontage lanes on each side and a hike/bike lane on each side. The current road takes up about 42 feet. The planned freeway will consume 387 feet of right of way, almost 9 times the width of the current road. Approximately 187 acres of land running upside the mountain will have to be scraped and graded and turned to accomododate the new freeway. So much for scenic corridors.

Last year, El Paso was awarded $85 million to build the road that the traffic engineers had been dreaming about all along. On August 10 of this year, TXDOT and the property owners came to the City and asked us to change some of the zoning conditions on the property. If we change the zoning conditions, then the property owners will give TXDOT the right of way that it needs to finish the freeway in this section.

We went from a $5 million-a-mile project to a $28 million-a-mile project. All the extra money goes into frontage roads and making sure you don't have to stop your car, building grade seperated overpasses where there would normally be traffic lights. I asked Chuck Berry, the TXDOT chief engineer for this region, what that would mean for a driver. He estimated that going from the $17 million project to the $85 million project will mean a time savings of about 2 minutes for people traveling in their car. Wow. That sure is a lot of bucks spent and a lot of mountain consumed to save people 2 minutes.

But the trick of it is that the City Council and the public doesn't really have much in the way of options. TXDOT has let us know that we either approve the zoning conditions and wholeheartedly support the freeway design as proposed or we kiss $85 million good bye. No chance to weigh in with other options for accomodating growing traffic in the area. There are other ways and other road types that we can build to accomodate growing traffic but TXDOT tells us we don't have the time to consider these other options.

I say we call it a bluff and ask for real options, options that will help us build the city that we want, not the one that traffic engineers dreamed up stooped over a computer screen with the single goal of trying to move as many cars as possible in as little time as possible. I think we ask for an option that consumes less of the mountain, that preserves the character of Transmountain as a scenic corridor, that encourages something other than freeway pattern development, and that assumes that it is okay to slow traffic down a little, especially when traveling down one of our most precious assets, our mountain. Because you know what, everyone has a loop, but few can boast a mountain running through the center of their town.