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Renovation May Revive Downtown El Paso
Article first published in Vol. 15, 1997.
By Luis Maldonado
Thirty or forty years ago, residents of both the U.S. and Mexico shopped the dozens of stores lining the main streets of downtown El Paso.
The Palace Nightclub located at 209 South El Paso Drive is one of several buildings that have been renovated in Downtown El Paso. Photo by Luis Maldonado
But by the mid 1970s, many El Pasoans had moved to new housing developments on the East and West sides of the city. Merchants soon realized that they could accommodate the public by moving closer to the housing areas. Customers would shop more often and therefore spend more money. Shopping malls and smaller centers offered everything suburbanites wanted within a few miles from home.
Downtown businesses in El Paso came to rely more and more for their sales on Mexican shoppers, who by the early 1980s comprised about 75% of their customers. In 1992, downtown businesses suffered a major blow when the Mexican peso dropped in value. Many Mexican shoppers could no longer afford to shop in El Paso. This affected the storekeepers and over 50% of downtown businesses were forced to close their doors, with remaining businesses fighting to survive. The death knell had sounded for downtown El Paso -- or had it?
Like cities all over the country, such as Orlando, San Francisco and Denver, El Paso launched a major effort to rejuvenate its downtown district. In 1994, the city planning committee devised a plan to revitalize downtown El Paso.
The plan was divided into eight separate sections which included street improvements, reactivation of streetcars, renovation of the Convention Center, development of an international trade center, transformation of the main branch of the public library, expansion of city hall, renovation of the old Plaza Hotel and plans to attract international hotels into the area.
Improvement of the city streets was the first step, beginning with South El Paso Street. Pavement and sidewalks were resurfaced and building walls refaced and repainted. Turn-of -the-century streetlights and trees transformed the once unsightly street into an attractive, bright entrance to numerous downtown attractions. The street has been renamed Paseo de las Luces, or the Walk of Lights.
The improvement of downtown streets is a project with shared funding from city and state. But it was a happy coincidence that the state of Texas decided to overhaul the downtown exits from Interstate 10 during the city's ongoing renovation in that area. Although the construction presented obstacles for east-west drivers for several months, most who drive this area today praise the colorful neon lighted arches which at night light the way to downtown. By day, the driver is welcomed to the downtown region by soft Southwestern colors and designs on both sides of the interstate, a far cry from the ugly gray concrete and steel jungle of a few years ago.
Residents and visitors can ride throughout the downtown area on a modern trolley system. Although the days of electric street cars are gone, the new rubber tired vehicles are spacious and clean, and the large windows and open areas afford a clear view of the area.
Nostalgic riders can remember the "good old days" when open air streetcars took them all over El Paso. The trolleys make several stops a day at the city's Convention Center, which is also up for renovation. The peeling, deteriorating rooftop will be resurfaced and stained walls repainted. A south side expansion adding a large meeting room surrounded by several smaller rooms is on the docket. The plan to make downtown El Paso the center of business also includes construction of an International Trade Center.
The planning committee has not forgotten the city's main library. The building's exterior will not be changed, though the interior will be completely redecorated. The renovated library will include a worldwide reference section, a foreign affairs division, a multi-language reference section, and an international writers' bibliography section.
A big part of the motivation for downtown renovation is to lure tourism back. Hotels in the area play an important part in tourism and conventions. Among the hotels scheduled for refurbishing is the historic Plaza Hotel, and in the works are attempts to attract international hotels to build downtown.
The planning commission hopes that residents having business in City Hall will feel more welcomed. An expansion of services is planned, including more meeting rooms for the public, services to help the homeless and a minority counseling center.
The first of the 12 travelers statues was completed last September: Fray Garcia de San Francisco was the founder of the Pass of the North in 1659. Photo by Ray M. Pierce
In addition to these projects, the El Paso Museum of Art will move from its Montana Street location to the corner of Santa Fe Street, where the former Greyhound Bus Station is undergoing extensive remodeling. Eventually, if the plan is carried out, visitors downtown will be greeted by the "Twelve Travelers," statues of twelve El Paso pioneers who helped change the history of the area.
The first of these bronzes was completed in September 1996 and stands in front of the Camino Real in Pioneer Plaza: that of Fray Garcia de San Francisco y Zuniga. The second one has been approved and will be of Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate on horseback accompanied by two other figures, yet to be determined. John Houser is the artist for this ambitious project.
The new Insights Science Museum was completed in May 1993, with plenty of parking to entice youngsters and their families to come downtown. The attempt to restore the Plaza Theater has found new life with the acquisition of the original organ played during silent movies. Hopes are high for the Plaza to reopen within a year or two. And Club 101, E-9, the Realm, the Palace and other nightclubs are vying for the party crowd, who now have a choice of staying downtown instead of going to Juárez clubs.
Downtown El Paso was once a lively place to shop, socialize and take care of business, and it was the place to go for entertainment and dining. This complex plan for renovating downtown promises to bring back much of the former life of the city's center, the heart of El Paso.