The idea of using Smart Growth in El Paso goes back to November 2002 when the Caballero administration dubbed their growth strategy as “Smart Growth”. The Caballero philosophy suggested that the role of government is to drive housing growth according to predetermined strategies. The idea is that such smart growth will encourage the revitalization of older neighborhoods and control “sprawl,” read, gentrification.
A significant but often ignored piece of the “Smart Growth” strategy is the centralized and overarching authority of a municipal government over the private market decision making processes. The smart growth principal was the driving force behind the Tax Increment Finance Districts (TIFs), the moratorium on Public Service Board (PSB) land sales for a non-existing water crisis and the restriction of Housing Finance Corporation monies to certain areas of the city. The end goal was to create new affordable housing that is not automobile dependent because it is located close to the major job providers in the city. Adding texture to the “vision” was the “new urbanism” overlay that suggested recreating the city in the image of traditional European cityscapes.
A smart growth advocate, the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman (2001-2003) at the time, saw the smart growth trend expanding because natural resources are becoming limited. “That is a reality we all face. Water resources are finite. We know we have to ensure clean air for people and land. Open space for kids and communities is an essential part of quality of life,” said Whitman, at the time. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Whitman told New Yorkers that the air around the demolished towers “is safe to breathe and their water was safe to drink.” (EPA presser, September 18, 2001.)
Whitman apologized for the misleading statements about the air and the water in 2016. (Joanna Walters, The Guardian, September 10, 2016.)
This conceptual linking of Smart Growth and water as a finite resource bolstered the Caballero administration insistence that there was a drought. A drought – water as a finite and diminishing resource – was the key ingredient of the rationale for smart growth. Without it, there would be no reason for the attempts to control private property development. However, the restriction on housing development and PSB land sales increased the pressure to build housing by low-income property owners on the outskirts of town, increasing density because families cannot find affordable alternatives to their housing needs.
On the border, particularly in El Paso, this phenomenon is known as “colonias.” The fact is that the smart growth strategy has failed to reduce congestion or eliminate the need for infrastructure development. Instead, smart growth increased the actual cost of expanding infrastructure support to the colonias and placed pressure on the existing systems.
The Caballero administration used the threat of the scarcity of water to essentially tell people how to live their lives. There is nothing more intrinsic to anyone’s daily life than where they choose to live and how they get to work. Smart growth is a strategy intended to put keep individuals from making independent decisions about their private property rights and is an attempt to direct what should be a free housing market.
A water emergency that was a lie was the catalyst. Today it is economic development for the city. All of it at the expense of the predominant Latino taxpayers and the poorer Hispanics whose homes and businesses are targeted for demolition to make way for a sports arena.
Further, a National Center for Public Policy Research report suggests that the impact of smart growth policies is undermining the progress of low-income Americans wanting to make the acquisition of America’s best asset – home ownership. The report argues that smart growth policies increase “suburbanization,” i.e., colonia development.
Smart growth continues to be the driving force behind El Paso’s public policy agenda, but many argue that it is not smart. The false narratives of shortages, droughts and access to housing are used to create support for “visions” that the taxpayers are expected to fund. It is the driving forced used to gentrify the Latino communities in El Paso to make way for the proposed downtown sports arena.
Martín Paredes extensively covered city politics from 2001 through mid-2005 for the online publications: El Paso Metro and the El Paso Tribune. Unless specifically noted, the information presented in this article comes from contemporaneous notes taken by the author at the time of the events depicted here.