Community

Smart Growth Is Colonialism Reinvented

Plan El Paso was awarded the Smart Growth award in 2011 as a model for a comprehensive plan for making cities more compact. Walkable and transit-friendly cities compact families and businesses into denser footprints in the hopes of ending automobile dependence and making citizens healthier by making them walk instead of driving. Sustainability is the argument for Smart Growth. Smart Growth, however, has the unintended consequence of eroding opportunities and social justice in communities of color who are traditionally the targets of forced displacement to make way for urban renewal. It was the highways that created urban sprawl. The highways took away the land of the poor to make way for suburbanization and concentrated the lower social economic communities into polluted and underserved communities next to the highways that displaced them. Since 2006, it has been Smart Growth that is once again hurting the minority communities displaced by suburbanization, although the gentrification plan was conceived back in 2000.

Smart Growth focuses on aesthetics and healthy lifestyles while ignoring the impact on the communities it displaces.

“A healthy, vibrant city needs to offer choices to people,” Carlos Gallinar told The Atlantic in 2016 when arguing that the vision of Smart Growth in El Paso is not a failure for El Paso. [1] Gallinar was the city’s city planner and the face of Plan El Paso.

Unfortunately, Smart Growth does not give low-income communities a choice. Instead, Smart Growth further fragments displaced communities and creates inequitable development that leads to gentrification.

Under Smart Growth, disadvantaged communities like Duranguito are targeted to be replaced by upscale rental properties that only the wealthier tenants can afford. The displaced families are left inadequate housing and removed from the neighborhoods they have called home for generations.

Among the problems with Smart Growth is who is deciding how to implement new urbanism into the city. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, when the American freeway systems were being built, it was white planners that were dividing Black communities to make way for urban renewal.

Today it is highly educated planners that assume everyone can afford the amenities that come with Smart Growth.

The problem with smart Growth, is not the vision, but rather ignoring that social inequality leaves families out of the neighborhoods they struggled to make.

New Urbanism Is Colonialism Reinvented

New urbanism is colonialism wrapped up in healthy lifestyles and communities. The problem remains, who decides the make up a community? The planners who represent a wealthier voice, or the poor residents facing evictions from their homes?

To further understand who advocates for urban renewal it is important that the reader understands how words are used to describe communities.

“Language about place matters, because it can be used to justify actions toward people,” wrote the authors of Recognizing that words have the power to harm, we commit to using just language to describe places in a Brookings, The Avenue article posted on July 13, 2020. [2] [emphasis in original]

The authors point out the word blight, which is a favorite of new urbanism advocates who argue for making communities healthier. The authors write that blight “transposed the language of disease onto places, with devastating consequences for the people of color living within them.” [2]

In 2011, Veronica Escobar told the Borderzine that “downtown blight places an economic cost on everyone” in the community. [3] Escobar used the term blight to marginalize the Segundo Barrio community who wished to remain in their homes instead of making way for “economic” development by being displaced.

As a matter of fact, the term blight is used to argue that eminent domain was an appropriate use of government power to remove people from their homes. Blight is often a requirement for creating Tax Increment Districts (TIF). A TIF is a program where the local government freezes the taxes on a targeted area creating a base valuation. Once redevelopment is underway, the resulting tax revenues from increased property valuations are redirected to pay off bonds purchased by the municipality to finance amenities that are used to attract new investment in the TIF area.

TIF Districts

Under Ray Caballero, El Paso created two TIF Districts, numbers two and three. TIF number two was located near Thomason Hospital for developing the Border Health Institute (BHI). The BHI was to be cluster of medical service providers and educational facilities for driving economic development in El Paso based on the healthcare industry.

The second TIF district, number three, was for downtown redevelopment.

TIF District number two became highly controversial in El Paso because of the threat of eminent domain in the area around Thomason Hospital, now the University Medical Center.

According to the Texas State Comptroller, as of 2018 (the latest report available), El Paso has six active TIF districts. TIF districts are now labeled Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZ). TIRZ #5 was established in December 2006 for downtown redevelopment. TIF number five was “to enable the redevelopment of approximately 188.4 acres of land in the downtown area,” according to the Implementation of the El Paso Downtown 2015 Plan: Phase Two, a roadmap for the downtown redevelopment envisioned by Plan El Paso.

In 2007, the city council “amended the boundary of the TIRZ to include portions of the Historic Incentive District, i.e., roughly 100 additional acres.” [5] According to the city’s document, the revenues generated from the original boundaries of the TIF district could not be used for the new acreage that was added to the TIRZ. However, “funds from the Historic Incentive District may be used anywhere within the TIRZ.” [5]

TIF Districts allow government entities to borrow money to encourage investment in targeted communities. A TIF district freezes the tax base at the rate upon implementation and as taxes rise, due to redevelopment, the additional taxes are used to pay off the debt incurred by the city.

For example, if a property owner is paying $1,000 a year in taxes on their property within the TIF district, the $1,000 they pay in taxes at the start of the TIF district goes to the municipality and increases in tax revenues for that property goes to fund the TIF district. In our example above, as new development increases the valuation of our example property owner, it results in a new property tax of $1,200. The first $1,000 goes to fund the operations of the municipality and the additional $200 goes to fund the municipality’s cost to fund the TIF with bond money.

Texas law does not require an explicit finding of blight for a TIF district but does require that a TIF district contains “a substantial number of substandard, slum, deteriorated, or deteriorating structures”. [4]

A 2018 Lincoln Institute of Land Policy study of 30 Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts for economic development found that “TIF does little to deliver economic growth and sometimes simply relocates economic activity that would have occurred elsewhere without” the TIF. [4]

In other words, the economic development sought by El Paso with its TIF districts would have happened regardless of the TIF, albeit in another part of the city. El Paso’s TIF districts are forced economic development projects in target areas at the cost of displacing families.

Designating a place as “blighted” allows city officials to displace families via eminent domain to make way for Smart Growth projects. Another term used to displace families is “high-poverty” as the word allows urbanism planers to argue that starting over in targeted communities makes way for revitalization.

New urbanists tend to be highly educated individuals who have lived in compact neighborhood as they progressed through their education. Being educated has insulated them from poverty and the inability to meet rising housing costs as amenities and taxes rise to meet the costs to keep them sustainable.

As educated citizens, they can generate the revenues to meet the rising costs. Poor residents lack the education to afford the rising costs in their neighborhoods.

Carlos Gallinar argued in The Atlantic article that urbanization gives people the choice to keep people from driving “to the Austins, the Phoenixes, the San Diegos of the world.”

Therein lies the problem with Smart Growth, Gallinar looks at keeping people in El Paso as the ones that can afford to move to other cities. But what about the lower-income families who view survival over moving to other cities?

El Paso’s use of TIF districts to fund economic driver projects in downtown and around the University Medical Center have both resulted in neighborhoods scared of being gentrified out of their homes. The BHI TIF has evolved into the El Paso Medical Center of Americas (MCA) which is continuing the project of building a medical economic cluster around the UMC.

TIF District number two terrorized the neighborhood around UMC via the threat of displacement to make way for economic development for the medical industry. TIF number three continues to make life uncertain for Segundo Barrio neighbors and the Duranguito neighborhoods where the residents still living there continue to be threatened with eviction from their homes.

Footnotes:

  1. Alana Semuels, “El Paso Is Learning That Not Everyone Hates Sprawl,” The Atlantic, January 28, 2016
  2. Jennifer S. Vey and Hanna Love, “Recognizing that words have the power to harm, we commit to using more just language to describe places,” Brookings, The Avenue, July 13, 2020
  3. Kristopher Rivera, “Judge Veronica Escobar – A belief in the electoral process and the need for economic development,” Borderzine, December 22, 2011
  4. David Merriman, “Improving Tax Increment Financing (TIF) for Economic Development,” Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2018
  5. “Implementation of the El Paso Downtown 2015 Plan: Phase Two,” City of El Paso, July 30, 2008

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