El Paso: The United States’ 19th largest city and Texas’ sixth largest. Nationally recognized as the safest city in the United States for the past four years running and one of only a handful of truly binational cities in the world, El Paso del Norte occupies the corner farthest west in the Lone Star State. El Paso is a distinctive city with a unique heritage, a diverse architectural history, and a challenging yet evolving urban planning model.
For a lot of folks outside of Texas, it comes as a surprise that El Paso is closer to such western cities as Phoenix and San Diego than to Texas’ main population centers — Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. El Paso sits in the midst of the vast Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem and is surrounded by mountains, wildlife, and long stretches of open, undeveloped land. This region of more than 2.7 million inhabitants constitutes one of the largest bilingual/binational workforces in the Western Hemisphere.
Established in 1659 by Fray García de San Francisco, El Paso became
a key destination along the central pathway of the “Camino Real,” or Kings Highway connecting Mexico City to Santa Fe, and beyond to other Spanish territories. It was during the United States’ territorial expansion
toward the Pacific coast that El Paso served as a major transit center for traders and New World migrants. Currently, the population hovers at around 700,000 American citizens. Along with its Mexican neighbor Ciudad Juárez, truly a twin sister city, from which it is separated by the width of the Rio Grande, the population rises to almost 3 million.
Mid-20th century El Paso grew and thrived like many large American cities. More recently, again as in most of the U.S., El Paso’s citizens have suffered financial hardships and material fluctuations. The economic downturn along with escalating challenges with the illegal drug trade, caused many professionals to leave, albeit temporarily: There appears to be no substitute for El Paso, if recent return migration is any indication. Talented individuals who have experience with other urban lifestyles, opportunities, and amenities, have returned, infusing their city with a new sense of purpose and vision.
This newfound vitality led El Paso’s leadership to pass the City of El Paso’s 2012 Quality of Life Bond Program, intended to bring many needed improvements to the city. On November 6, 2012, El Paso voters approved $470 million worth of improvements for parks, libraries, museums, downtown amenities, El Paso International Airport, and the El Paso Zoo. These funds included money for a new multi purpose performing arts center ($180 million); the master plan for a new eastside regional park and New Eastside Regional Recreational Center and Natatorium ($48 million); a new downtown park, San Jacinto Plaza ($5.3 million); multiple improvement projects at the El Paso Zoo, including a new Chihuahuan Desert Habitat; a new baseball stadium for minor league team “Chihuahuas”; and a sports arena for downtown. When added to the private sector improvements and projects for U.S. Army base Fort Bliss, Texas Tech University, and The University of Texas at El Paso, it amounts to a regional transformation.
The changes began early in March 2010, when the City of El Paso commissioned Dover, Kohl & Partners to create a detailed comprehensive plan for the city, referred to as “Plan El Paso.” City Manager Joyce Wilson led the effort to establish a mandatory “Smart Code” ordinance mandating, among other things, that all new projects comply with guidelines delineated by smart growth ideas established by the Congress of New Urbanism. It was an effort by the city to create density, promote walkable neighborhoods and mixed-use pedestrian-oriented projects, reduce dependence on automobiles, and develop more green open spaces throughout the region.
During the same period, Texas Tech Health Science Center became a singular entity apart from the Texas Tech University Lubbock Campus. The newly instituted Paul J. Foster School of Medicine matriculated its first class, and the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) was preparing to celebrate its centennial. These efforts, combined with Fort Bliss’ multi-billion dollar expansion program for housing, hospital, and educational facilities, created a distinctive environment for growth and for projects that embraced quality of life and urban strategies. The following projects stand out as El Paso transforms itself.
San Jacinto Plaza
The renovation of San Jacinto Plaza is one of the key park projects that has helped change the character of central El Paso. Located in the heart of downtown, the plaza has been a focal point of the city since 1869. Originally, it was called City Square, or Plaza Central. The initial concept responded to the north-south axial layout of the original city, which has evolved over the past century. Initially, a central circular element with radiating walkways integrated with downtown El Paso; San Jacinto Plaza was conceived as a typical, simple town square with a circle in the center containing a water feature, a pond-like element, and a gazebo shelter. Alligators arrived at the plaza in the late 1880s, contributed from various sources (though they had been spotted along the Rio Grande River in small numbers all along). The alligators stayed as an attraction until the mid-1960s, when they were relocated to the El Paso Zoo for safety — their own. As local folklore has it, residents were uncertain if alligators could survive El Paso’s often chilly winters, so on particularly cold nights, townspeople would move the alligators inside downtown saloons and return them to the plaza’s pond in early morning.
As the city embarked on its quality-of-life program early in March of 2011, a consortium of developers and downtown business leaders began the process of hiring a nationally recognized landscape design firm to develop a new plaza, one that would embrace its past and would also point toward the future of El Paso. The search culminated in the selection of landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm SWA Group to lead the efforts.
The initial phase of the new San Jacinto Plaza project started in 2012, expanding the original site, adding new sidewalks, and reconstructing irrigation and utility services. In 2014, Phase Two of the project began, which included the redesign and construction of the new plaza. The new design builds on the original, keeping the center as the key visual component of the space. Original pond and gazebo features have been replaced by a new circular fountain surrounded by a concrete baluster, and a distinctive floating perforated metal roof that shades an alligator sculpture.
The fountain has an unusual alligator tile floor pattern and an ornamental railing that aims to recall design features of the historical plaza. A series of crisscrossing orthogonal, free-formed, and diagonal patterns connect sidewalks to city streets and allow for reclaiming as much open greenspace as possible. The new sidewalks are canvases for rich patterns of colors and textures that move from simple color changes to more complex regional Native American motifs. The integration of the sidewalks allowed the design to capture and create a series of contained open spaces that are either landscaped as native desert arroyos or used as public amenities with built-in games. The resulting space and amenities serve the citizens throughout the day with ping-pong tables, chess tables, a horseshoe field, a street cafe, and a water feature that functions both as a fountain and splash pool. The fountain/pool provides relief to El Paso youngsters during the dry, hot summer months.
As you enter San Jacinto Plaza, articulated concrete walls frame some of the sidewalks and contained spaces. These walls are designed with various colors, finishes, and exposed aggregates intended to recall the distinctive geological sedimentary strata and patina of the neighboring Franklin Mountain range. They also serve as backdrops to numerous plaques and recognitions the plaza has collected over the past half-century. The plaza is planted with a wide variety of native Chihuahuan Desert plants and trees that begin to illustrate the gorgeous diversity found within the boundaries of El Paso del Norte. Inside the plaza, the design team recreated a desert arroyo, allowing visitors to be exposed to the region’s unique relationship between earth and water. Inside the plaza, one finds oneself crossing bridges between spaces in the way of the early pioneers, who had to cross between El Paso and Juárez by means of arroyos and the Rio Grande River. The design also incorporates the restored (and now better-protected from the elements) rendition of the much-loved alligator sculpture Los Lagartos, created by local artist Luis Jiménez to adorn the plaza in 1995.
UTEP Centennial Plaza
The transformation of the UTEP campus is probably one of the most life-changing projects the region has recently undertaken. The project has impacted not only the life of every campus visitor and every student currently enrolled at UTEP, it affects every generation of UTEP students to come, as well. UTEP was on track to celebrate its centennial year as one of the region’s most significant academic institutions and as the UT System’s first campus outside the City of Austin. Inaugurated in 1914 with a class of 14 students as the Texas School of Mines and Metallurgy, the institution has since grown to more than 24,000 students. Diana Natalicio, who has served as president of the school for over a quarter of a century and has presided over its steady growth, provided the vision that led to the recent transformation project. UTEP’s campus was built in the foothills of the Franklin Mountains and gently grew at this junction between mountains, arroyos, and city. Over the years, El Paso and the campus grew, and ultimately several major roads serving the West El Paso community bisected the campus. This interlocking grid of streets and the increased vehicular traffic caused problems for students as they plotted courses between buildings during the school year.
Over the past decade, Natalicio formulated a vision for a car-free campus core. The campus is gifted with a unique collection of Bhutanese-styled buildings that create a great brand for the university: UTEP is one of only a few universities that have such a distinctive architectural character. Situated among hills, mountains, and arroyos, the campus landscape was nevertheless replete with hard surfaces, paved roads, parking spaces, invasive plants and trees, and non-student vehicular traffic. It was also home to a major arroyo that cuts through the campus and serves as a major watershed from the Franklin Mountains to the Rio Grande.
The buildings are not only historically significant; they are also peculiarly adapted to the site. The core of the campus, built between 1916 and 1960, follows the architectural inspiration of Henry Trost, recognized as one of the region’s leading architects and founder of the local architectural firm Trost & Trost. The Bhutanese building style came about as the result of advice by the wife of the first president of the university. After reading about the cities in Bhutan, she declared that the site and surroundings for the new campus reminded her of the images she had seen in a 1914 National Geographic article about the Kingdom of Bhutan, “Castles in the Air.” Her advice had a strong influence on the architectural style for her husband and the architects as they began to design the campus on its present location.
In 2008, Natalicio’s vision started to become a reality. Plans were implemented to gradually remove cars from the campus core and create a more pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly environment. In early 2011, a request for qualifications was advertised to transform UTEP. Ten Eyck Landscape Architects (TELA) and Lake|Flato were selected to develop a master plan, which was referred to as the Campus Transformation Plan. It consisted of eight distinctive projects that created a vehicle-free core, and significant landscape efforts to build a garden-like campus to foreground the Bhutanese buildings. In June of 2012, TELA began conceptual design for the central core, intending to be finished by August of 2014 for UTEP’s centennial celebration.
The Transformation Plan had several key design concepts that drove planning and eventually the construction of the projects. The vision for the campus included a purely pedestrian campus core; the use of native Chihuahuan Desert plants in all landscaping in order to better manage water; the rediscovery of the system of arroyos that was present on the campus prior to the major road construction; the creation of numerous venues for students to gather and learn; and the establishment of a gardenlike foreground for the buildings designed using sustainable guidelines and concepts.
The first phase of the project included removing vehicular roadways from three distinctive areas of the core: the Centennial Plaza, the area in front of the Old Main building, and the Leech Grove. During the 24-month construction period, all major electrical, communication, gas, and water utilities were replaced, some of which dated back as far as 1916. Roads, parking lots, and concrete sidewalks were removed and replaced with lawns, permeable granite walkways, decomposed granite walkways, and arroyos (acequias — irrigation channels) that were rebuilt in order to create a more natural habitat. Most invasive trees and plant species were replaced with over 600 new mesquites, acacias, mountain laurels, and oaks that are drought-resistant and native to the Chihuahuan Desert. Detention ponds and acequias were created to channel the runoff from the mountain, letting UTEP students experience how water flows on the campus during the rainy season. The restoration of the Lhakhang — a historical artifact and a gift from the Kingdom of Bhutan to the people of the U.S. — now sits high above the plaza. The Lhakhang was first exhibited in Washington D.C. during the 42nd annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2008. It was then dismantled and rebuilt on UTEP’s campus by Bhutanese monks.
Chihuahua Baseball Stadium, or Southwest University Park
One of the most interesting urban design decisions El Paso undertook in the past five years was to place their minor league baseball stadium in the middle of downtown. This decision exemplifies El Paso city leaders’ desire to create a new catalyst for redevelopment of downtown’s western edge. The decision had plenty of antagonists who fought the idea all the way to a public referendum. In the end, the concept was overwhelmingly embraced by a majority of citizens, and the vote passed. Southwest University Park, home of the El Paso Chihuahuas, a minor league baseball team affiliated with the San Diego Padres, sits adjacent to the arts district, the El Paso Convention Center, and the historic district on the west side of downtown. This area for years was perceived as a transitional zone occupied by warehouses, some residential properties, and a fleeting collection of restaurants, businesses, and specialty stores.
The most significant structure in the neighborhood is the El Paso Union Depot, which was built in 1905 by famous Chicago architect Daniel Hudson Burnham, FAIA, and has been the epicenter of much development in an area filled with turn-of-the-century brick and steel warehouse architecture reminiscent of the late 1800s.
The new baseball park, designed by Populous, serves as a fulcrum that connects several areas of downtown into a more cohesive larger district. On one of the corners of the park, the new stadium is accentuated by an open lawn where game-watchers can sit on grass, enjoying picnics while watching the game. At the opposite corner, the ballpark is anchored by a four-story structure that includes a restaurant/bar that accommodates those who would rather enjoy the game over a drink or a meal. The southern side of the ballpark serves as a boundary to the east-west rail lines that connect El Paso to the rest of the country. The main entrance is located on the west side. Anchored by a richly articulated tower, it leads you into a grand concourse that houses an open corridor filled with local restaurants, retail stores, and open areas for visitors to enjoy the game and hang out with their friends. Since the opening of the ballpark, this area has begun to experience a renaissance in activities, with new restaurants, plans for more residential units, and offices starting to pop up. As part of the continued growth, El Paso is developing a new 60,000-plus-sf arena to help develop the area as a sport and conference area. A new soccer stadium may also be built in the area on the Mexican side of the border, thus creating a truly international complex in this truly international city.
Architecturally, the baseball stadium is a simple structure: a playing field surrounded by a series of two- and three-story brick boxes, steel bridges, and canopies with heavily articulated steel frames that recall a historically expressive era. A path of retail stores and food vendors occupies the concourse level, which is easily accessible from both access points and to the convention center plaza as well. This path leads to all of the ballpark seating, stadium suites, and exits. At the center of the project (behind home plate), the park’s third level houses the club and skyboxes. During home games, the club serves as a gathering spot for citizens and Chihuahua fans. A sculptural, stainless steel fence designed by Ball-Nogues Studio demarcates the outfield at the park’s northernmost point, providing “knotholes” for passersby on the street to catch a glimpse of the action inside.
El Paso Zoo Expansion
The El Paso Zoo is another institution that benefited from the 2012 bond program. Under this program, the zoo has embarked on a series of projects that have begun to reshape not just the zoo proper but also the community where it sits and how the community experiences the zoo. Starting in 2012, the City of El Paso and the zoo leaders hired WDM Architects of Wichita, Kansas, to develop a new comprehensive plan for the facility. The zoo received bond funding to complete and renovate multiple existing venues, including a new Asian Gateway and the aforementioned Chihuahuan Desert Exhibit, which focuses on native plants and the Mexican gray wolf. This $10 million collection of signature projects will help replace and renovate approximately 20 percent of the zoo’s exhibits. Both projects were high on the priority list of the recently completed Zoo Master Plan. A new Wildlife Amphitheater is under construction, as is a multifunctional pavilion at the African Savannah, and the new Chihuahuan Desert Exhibit is being designed. At this time, the projects slated for the zoo are under construction and development, and it is too soon to evaluate their impact to the Zoo.
Indeed, El Paso is a city in the midst of a transformative time. Beyond the above-mentioned projects, there are the new University Medical Center and Children’s Hospital by KMD with MNK Architects; the new Medical Center of the Americas Foundation Cardwell Collaborative building, a research incubator by PhiloWilke Partnership; and the multi-million-dollar El Paso Housing Authority’s redesign of all their properties to meet the new city planning standards. Lastly, we must not forget our border sister, Juárez, with her mind on such vital upcoming projects as the privately funded Catholic-church-within-a-community-center, El Punto, by Herzog & de Meuron, and Fernando Romero’s revolutionary hexagonal border city vision for Santa Teresa. These projects set the tone for an evolving city that is committed to being an urban example for livable cities old and new, far beyond its region.
Nestor Infanzon, FAIA, is principal of Veritas Works in El Paso.
Phyllis Sheridan Infanzon, AIA, is a senior associate at PhiloWilke Partnership, also in El Paso.