It was a positive development when El Paso, Texas, began to see a surging revitalization of two of its adjacent downtown districts. The only problem was that these two districts were separated from each other by a private, locked parking lot, forcing people to take a 15- to 20-minute detour to walk from one district to the other. So, the city proposed transforming the parking lot into a public space that would connect the two areas with a pedestrian pathway.
El Paso is situated just north of the Mexican border in far West Texas. With a population of nearly 675,000, the city is currently undergoing revitalization in several districts, including the downtown area. The last decade has seen the downtown blossom with public and private development, including a new triple-A baseball stadium, improvements to the international bridges, conservation and adaptive reuse of the historic Mills Building, and official designation of a Downtown Arts District by the Texas Commission on the Arts. With a developing transportation infrastructure and thriving cultural and festival scene, El Paso is seeing more visits than ever before to the downtown area. Two of the most vibrant districts are the Union Plaza District, a popular site for restaurants and nightlife, and the Downtown Arts District, home to the El Paso Museum of Art, the historic Plaza Theatre Performing Arts Center, and other cultural facilities.
Because of the transit connectivity, El Paso's downtown area serves the entire city as well as the larger region. An international bridge from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, routes international commuters and shoppers directly into downtown’s core throughout the day, and one of the largest military bases in the world, Fort Bliss, is less than 10 minutes away. People travel downtown from across the city, the base, and Juárez to go to work or to visit restaurants, museums, performing arts venues, and other cultural attractions. The area has an active and committed group of stakeholders, including business and property owners, workers, students, artists, and elected officials.
The Union Plaza District and the Downtown Arts District are centers of cultural and economic activity but, even though they are adjacent to each other, a small parking lot that was kept locked had impeded public access between the two districts. This blockage meant that anyone wanting to walk from one district to the other would have to walk around the convention center, a 15-20 minute detour. To support activity in each of the districts and foster economic development, the city needed to introduce a more efficient pedestrian connection between them, allowing people to move from one to the other without having to walk the existing, inefficient route.
The city determined that a new pedestrian connection could transform the 15-20 minute walk into a 4-5 minute walk. More than a simple path, it also had the potential to become a public space in its own right. According to Benjamin Fyffe, Cultural Programs Supervisor for the City of El Paso Museums and Cultural Affairs Department (MCAD), “the path would become not just an artery, but a space that could be programmed with events.” It would also become part of a broader city initiative to make the downtown area more pedestrian friendly. The city positioned it as a way to add to the economic development of the area since it would encourage residents to try new restaurants or visit new exhibitions and events.
Because the project involved physical changes to the urban fabric, partnerships were fundamental. The City of El Paso Planning & Economic Development Department (PEDD) led the project. Having just completed a comprehensive city plan, and having committed to increasing pedestrian activity throughout the downtown area, the department was well suited to lead the project. It worked closely with MCAD, which conducted overall project management. The El Paso Downtown Management District helped spread the word through its membership network, while the El Paso Convention & Visitors Bureau helped with site and tenant challenges. As Fyffe observes, “there are ebbs and flows in a rapidly revitalizing downtown, so it was important to build strong coalitions with partners.”
- City of El Paso General Funds
- City of El Paso Quality of Life Bond Funding
The Department of Planning & Economic Development hired urban planning firm Dover, Kohl & Associates (DKA) to develop a site master plan. The Florida-based firm was in the middle of a yearlong comprehensive planning process for El Paso with dozens of public input meetings and open design studio throughout the city. Since the firm was familiar with the area, its promise for revitalization, and the challenges that accompany growth, PEDD and DKA could make sure that the master plan for the pathway would dovetail into larger smart-growth goals of the new masterplan. Working with the firm, MCAD held several charrettes and open design studios, which drew record crowds for municipal meetings. Because of MCAD’s belief that the arts were key to activating the new pedestrian space, a charrette for local artists was also included. To engage with the site’s younger demographic, MCAD partnered with Union Plaza’s Creative Kids, Inc. to develop a planning charrette targeted to kids. Youth involved in Creative Kids programming spent time discussing what makes good public spaces work and strategizing how public art and design can create a sense of place. Then, they created their own pathway renderings with solutions to some of the site’s trickiest challenges, which included linking multiple levels of foot traffic, transforming an underpass into a more friendly pedestrian area, combatting intense desert heat, and creating a stronger sense of place for the area. Solutions included dropdown staircases, shade structures, and signature public art along the pathway. Using the findings from the charrettes, Dover, Kohl & Associates developed a masterplan, which was then used to promote the project as part of the Quality of Life Bond Election that would provide project funding. (The bond passed with a 71% majority.)
The project resulted in a site masterplan that was informed by considerable community input, approved by City Council, and placed on a 2012 bond election which passed with a 71% majority. Once construction is complete in early 2015, there will be a designed pedestrian pathway that will be a well-lit open public space with plantings, seating, public art, water fountains, a staircase amphitheater, murals, and bike parking maintained by the City’s contracted convention center operator. It is anticipated that this enhanced connectivity will lead to increased vibrancy and economic development through the cross-pollination of both districts’ patrons and customers, ease of access for the convention center’s attendees, and greater time spent downtown by locals and visitors. Ultimately, the project’s biggest success, in former Planning and Economic Development Director Kathryn Dodson’s estimation, is that the space will “serve as a catalyst for a more comprehensive experience between downtown’s busiest areas.”
In doing site research, the designers and planners came to the surprise realization that the two districts were actually once connected by a pathway, but that the original path had been covered over by the Convention Center. In a sense, then, the plan they proposed was a restoration of a historic landscape. Once community stakeholders came to see the two districts as inherently closely connected, the project was able to serve as a catalyst for the design of a larger set of programmatic and spatial connections between the entertainment district and the historic downtown.