Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Plan El Paso Presentation Scheduled for Tomorrow Evening

County Commissioner Veronica Escobar participates in a hands-on session

The Plan El Paso team will give a Work-in-Progress presentation tomorrow evening, Wednesday, June 30, at the El Paso Main Public Library Auditorium, 501 N. Oregon. The Dover Kohl assembly of consultants will present all of the draft concepts, plans, renderings and preliminary regulating plans (zoning maps) for the ASARCO and transit sites.

Consultant Megan McLaughlin tells me:
"I can assure you that there will be a lot of very valuable information and its's really important that we get a good turn out so that we can get feedback from the attendees. We want to make sure we are on the right track before we return home to refine the plans."
Last week a number of El Pasoans gathered at the Memorial Park Senior Center to participate in a hands-on design session around transit-oriented development. They looked at three corridors - Five Points, Oregon and Remcon Circle.

Jim Erickson tackles some design issues with his group

County Commissioner Veronica Escobar participated in the session. Afterwards she said:

"It was a wonderful experience to sit with folks from the neighborhood to dream and plan for the future of Five Points. There's so much potential, and the ideas were so great, that I hope the City and the private sector can help make it happen."

Making it happen is my concern. I had the opportunity to visit with 3 members of the team this past Sunday while we hiked together in the Franklin Mountains State Park. I shared my primary concern: You can do all these great designs that conserve natural space, contribute to walkability, etc., but if a developer comes along and wants to do things the old way, what can be done especially in the State of Texas that has such strong private property laws?

The answer in a nutshell is that the designs will serve not only as examples of how to do something better, but they will be a vision that can long guide us. Dover Kohl City Planner, Pam Stacy, pointed out that El Paso's dreams for urban park development began with the vision of the 1925 City Plan for El Paso. The team that Dover Kohl has put together includes economists, city planners, people who know issues regarding zoning and much more.

Frankly, if just a portion of the dreams that are now taking shape are realized, the City will be so much the better.

Texas Wildlife Urban Biologist for El Paso, Lois Balin, has been sharing a similar dream. Here is her presentation on conservation development:

Balin Conservation Development Design

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Go Ahead - Make My Day

Click on image to enlarge

The Planning Department of El Paso and the Plan El Paso team of Dover, Kohl & Partners invited members of the Open Space Advisory Board to a meeting at the Open Design Studio at 2400 N. Oregon yesterday. I went with some skepticism based on my knowledge that not only is ASARCO property contaminated but so is all of the surrounding land - so much so that some believe that children in Anapra and Sunland Park suffer hyperactive disorders due to the effects of lead still in their environment. (Two of just a hand full of children that I met the other day were on Adderall.) I have my doubts as to how well the ASARCO toxins can be permanently contained and kept from our drinking water.

I went with skepticism. I left excited. What is Dover Kohl all about? All those good concepts that we keep talking about: sustainability, liveable communities, walkable neighborhoods, preservation of open space, green design, placemaking etc., etc. Where have these guys and gals been? The City of El Paso has chosen a first-tier consultant.

Dover Kohl is the lead consultant for Plan El Paso. However they have "assembled a team of national and local experts in sustainable urban design and planning to create the ASARCO/TOD Redevelopment Plans and Form-Based Codes for the City of El Paso."

Town Planner, Megan McLaughlin, walked us through a presentation of some of their design concepts surrounding the ASARCO area. As she did so, she and a couple of her other team members elicited comments from the Open Space members present.

Before I left, I asked a couple of other people in the environmental community (the "usual suspects" I call this group) what they thought about working on designs when there is still so much contamination and very little forthcoming information about that contamination. They said that it is a matter of "both/and" - learn what we can about the toxicity of the site and see what more can be done about it . . . but envision and design at the same time. With Dover Kohl on the job, I agree and I'm overjoyed.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Just a Thought

Duncan Black who writes the Eschaton blog recently made an astute observation about government and crises such as the BP oil spill and the meltdown on Wall Street in his post

". . . much of our difficulties to date stem directly from the idea that the way to fix problems is to partner up with industry--the NSA with the telcos, HHS with the insurance and drug companies, MMS with the oil companies, Treasury and the banksters--to deliver 'private sector' solutions. "

Rather than being a regulator, rather than making sure that the right thing is done, government as a partner has often allowed the wrong things to be done and/or happen. We see this in Texas with the TCEQ which has brought them in conflict with the EPA and now with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club over proposed provisions that "would weaken protections from bacteria pollution and undermine efforts to keep or make Texas water bodies clean enough for swimming, boating, wading, canoeing, kayaking, and other recreational activities." There are still questions about the TCEQ oversight of Jobe Material's Avispa Quarry compliance with air pollution standards.

However, my thought is this: in El Paso, the "partnership" between developers (and industry) and some City staff continues to be not just a reality but a roadblock to a truly cosmopolitan community and an environmentally caring culture. This is not to say that Council with the help of citizens hasn't developed some visionary master plans, development ordinances and currently a plan to encourage builders to do more infilling. Nevertheless, the struggle that often occurs between those who want conservation to be a guide to development and staff members in various departments has to do with how much business and industry should get their way. In short, a good old boy system still functions and is the source of the biggest push back against the Open Space Advisory Board. Changing this culture of partnership will probably help El Paso go a long way toward the greater wealth of being an attractive city environmentally. Slowly some are coming to the realization that property and community value increases when care for the surrounding environment increases. Beautiful amenities even as simple as a nice parking area for open space trails at the Palisades adds to the value of the neighborhood and the city. Goodness. El Paso may even find itself more often in the pages of Sunset Magazine.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Before You Go to a Charrette

From a City of El Paso press release an additional ASARCO Hands-On Design Session (Charrette) has been scheduled for tomorrow from 9 until Noon at Mesita Elementary. Director of Planning Matthew McElroy said, "In an effort to accommodate our citizens' eagerness to participate in the future of their community, we are adding a second hands-on session for ASARCO."

I have a suggestion before you go. Take a ride along the Rio Grande. Just off the Highway 180 into Anapra, NM along Highway 273/McNutt Road you will see the Carousel Convenience Store, a familiar old building and landmark. Travel south down the dirt road behind the store and stay to your left. You will pass where an old refinery once stood. There is virtually no growth on that land. Note the relationship of that dead land to the Rio Grande. See the test wells along the riverside. Look at the ditching to the river. Of course, as you travel down that road and go across an old wooden bridge to return to Paisano/Highway 180, you will be overshadowed by ASARCO and its mighty smokestack. Out of that stack once spewed cadmium, lead and arsenic . . . and clandestinely, during the 90s, residues from the illegal burning of toxic wastes from the military. All of those heavy metals and residues aren't just on ASARCO property, they are in the soil of the hills that run along the Rio Grande and get washed into the river along with the run-off from the contaminated soil from the old refinery.

And downstream? First there is the American Dam and then the EPWU pumping station that begins to send treated water uphill - first to Sunset Heights and then to a station near my neighborhood at Paul Moreno Elementary and then higher. Up and up so it can go down and down into our homes as the water we use for drinking, watering our gardens and bathing in. I don't for a moment believe that none of those toxic contaminants from ASARCO or other industries just remain in the soil. Capping the grounds at ASARCO property in preparation for a dream development does nothing to the land beyond the ASARCO and, in the opinion of many, the runoff that will occur below that cap flowing into the Rio Grande past the American dam into the pump station at Canal Road and up and up so it can be consumed by you and me.

So, before you go to the charrette and imagine all the cool ways that the ASARCO land can be used, perhaps a little tour first wouldn't hurt.

Just a thought.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Fossils, Rocks and Geology for Families

Granitic intrusion in Castner Marble just uphill from the museum on Transmountain

The El Paso Museum of Archeology Presents

Fossils, Rocks and Geology for Families

Workshops by Will Seigler, M.S.

9:30 am to 12 noon on the following Saturdays:

June 19, and July 24, 2010 for children ages 6-8

July 10 and August 7, 2010 for children 9-12

Registration Fee: $5.00 per child, Paid in advance

One Parent/Guardian Free; Additional Parent/Guardians $5.00

Franklin Mountains State Park Entry Fee:

$1.00 per individual age 13 and older, ages 12 and under – Free

Paid day of program at park entry gate

Local geologist Will Seigler leads families with children ages 6-12 in workshops with a field trip to learn how to identify and find fossils, rocks and interesting local geology. Parents or guardians must be available to drive for the local field trip.

Registration and Payment: Registration is on a first-come, first-served basis prior to the day of the class. Full payment must accompany registration. Contact the museum at 915-755-4332 or for a registration form and payment instructions.

Please use the following caption with the attached photo:

First Transmountain Road cut above museum shows granitic intrusive dikes cutting Castner Marble zenith located directly above car, photo by Will Seigler, 2010

Information: 915-755-4332;

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Is the PSB's Proposed Land Use Policy Good for Enjoying Open Space?

Those of us who care about the environment, open space and habitat often attend El Paso City Council meetings. Indeed we should. What we have been missing are the regular meetings of the Public Service Board. Because the PSB manages vast areas of land in El Paso, West Texas and New Mexico; and, since the advent of the stormwater fee, they have the charge to procure more open space, the decisions they make are critical. Their meetings, agendas and decisions should get top priority on our radar screens and contact management programs.

Tomorrow’s regular meeting is a case in point. The PSB will consider the adoption of a Land Use Policy – one which may be restricting unused land (land not set in use as ranch or storm water infrastructure for instance) from use by the public. Remember: the land is our land. The money they manage is our money. By dodging what seems to be a fiduciary responsibility for maintenance and by saying some land can have trails and other land cannot even if it is understood to be land that is only temporarily open space, portions of unused open space can be said to be restricted – not to be used by responsible recreational users even though, as it now seems, poachers and illegal dumpers may have unfettered right-of-way.

Although the policy mentions that laws against littering, theft (poaching of plants and rocks for landscaping for example) and illegal dumping will be enforced, one has to wonder because those laws are not being enforced now. Indeed, when such a crime was reported recently with clear evidence to track down the perpetrators, nothing was done. Yet, the policy suggests that none of the 10% of stormwater fees will be used at any time for maintenance or recreational matters. Note to PSB: We already hike and mountain bike our land, and many, who do so, work hard to maintain and keep trails and surrounding areas clean. Isn’t is a fiduciary responsibility to strictly enforce rules against poaching and illegal dumping? Isn’t it a fiduciary responsibility to maintain this land even if that means an easy contract with recreational associations who care.

What the policy may really be saying is that an arbitrary decision by some at PSB determines what is and is not open space. (Land that is open space can be so in perpetuity or temporarily.) What the policy may also be revealing is that funds will be spent down rather than managed so that, instead of the preservation and maintenance of the maximum acreage of open space, those funds will be spent down to limit that acreage so that more can be sold and developed. It’s a game of profit not of preservation. All of this may not be the case. However, it would be great to have all the cards laid out on the table so that, we the people, can know the concerns and plans of the PSB. Transparency should trump paternalism.

One last thought: wouldn’t it be nice to spend just a little bit of that stormwater fee to build attractive trailheads with some nice amenities such as bathrooms and a water fountain and inviting parking? It would be, if places such as the Palisades truly are the “gem” and “the Central Park of El Paso” as CEO Ed Archuleta has said. When our money is spent down rather than leveraged and managed so more can be purchased, one wonders what the hidden agenda or the concern may be. Wouldn’t it be better to work together and do big things?

Friday, June 4, 2010

NOW Is the Time to Learn More about Our Oceans

With the current terrible tragedy unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, El Pasoans have the opportunity to learn more about the "crucial role the oceans plays in our lives . . . " this Sunday at the El Paso Zoo.

What is especially great and unique about the El Paso Zoo experience is that it provides ways for visitors to become activists to protect the earth and its wildlife. People can take action online or while visiting the zoo on issues saving African elephants to the palm oil crisis. You can also help make El Paso a safer place for Burrowing Owls.

Here is the press release for World Oceans Day:

El Paso Zoo to celebrate World Oceans Day on Sunday, June 6th

El Paso will join hundreds of communities around the globe in celebrating World Oceans Day the week of June 6th – an opportunity to learn about our world ocean and our personal connection to the sea, to raise awareness about the crucial role the oceans plays in our lives, and the important ways people can help to protect our shared world ocean. On Sunday, June 6th from 10am to 4pm the El Paso Zoo will celebrate World Oceans Day while focusing on getting children interested in our oceans and helping families learn how they can help oceans by making informed choices when they buy sea food at the grocery store or order sea food off the menu at local restaurants.

With the ongoing oil spill crisis in the Gulf of Mexico many people want to help in any way they can. The El Paso Zoo and the El Paso Zoological Society will collect donations at the Zoo throughout the day to benefit the the Louisiana Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue Program. The program is coordinated by the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in Louisiana. Funds collected will be used to help primary responders rescue, rehabilitate, and release marine mammals (dolphins, whales and manatees) and sea turtles along the Louisiana coast.

Schedule of Activities:

Front Entrance Gate – Make a donation to the Louisiana Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue Program and receive a World Oceans Day button (while supplies last).

World of the California Sea Lion Exhibit – Learn about the Sea Food Watch Program and how you can help make sure that fish available in grocery stores and restaurants are all ocean-friendly.

El Paso Water Utilities Discovery Center near the Front Gate – Children can pick up a copy of the Dr. Seuss One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish activity booklet (while supplies last) and enjoy story time readings of the book.

Cisneros Paraje Discovery Center – Children can pick up a copy of the Dr. Seuss children’s activity booklet and color their very own World Oceans Day hat (while supplies last) while families learn about the Sea Food Watch Program and how they can help make sure that fish available in grocery stores and restaurants are all ocean-friendly.

Ages 2 & under .................................Free
Ages 3 to 12 .....................................$6.00
Ages 13 to 59..................................$10.00
Active Duty Military & spouse with ID...$7.50
Ages 60 & over ................................$7.50
Zoological Society Members .............Free

Thursday, June 3, 2010

El Paso and El Pasoans Deserve the Best

Public Service Board member, Dr. Rick Bonart, copied me on an email this morning to Mr. Ed Archuleta, the President and CEO of the El Paso Water Utilities Public Service Board. The context for Rick's email was the El Paso Times positive story this morning about the Palisades. He makes the point that having lovely open space areas for recreation such as the Palisades is more than just a need - it is a must and that the Public Service Board should take the lead. El Paso has long been hampered by a mindset that we don't deserve the best of amenities. The attitude is changing . . . but there still seems to be resistance.

Here is the text of Dr. Bonart's message:

To all,

I was very happy to see the article in today's paper regarding the Palisades.

Ultimately, I hope we share a common goal: to provide El Pasoans with usable open space and associated amenities like those I've experience in other cities.

The black letter of the law allows the 10% storm water funds to be spent on facilities, trails, etc. as long as there is a storm water nexus. 'The Capital Plan shall identify storm water infrastructure projects ( including land acquisitions) which may have the potential dual purposes of stormwater management and preservation of the City’s open spaces . . . '

Since inception, the PSB has been charged with land management. As we purchase open space and accept open space easements, we need to manage these properties for their intended purpose. Considering cost, legislative effort, and location, it is unlikely that every parcel (if any) of acquired open space will be suitable for transfer to the State Park. Fallow lands have recreational value and as fiduciaries we must maximize those opportunities.

We have all the tools at hand. We have the money! The proposed projects are fully vetted. Maintenance of the trails will be done by the users who created and currently groom them. Operation & Maintenance of correctly designed facilities will be miniscule in the context of our other responsibilities.

El Paso has long suffered from a pathologic self deprecating attitude. Our Mantra: 'We are a poor community that can't afford . . .'

Unfortunately, I feel some resistance inches from the goal [" to provide El Pasoans with usable open space and associated amenities . . . "]

Perhaps it's fear of change or fear of success?

This is not just an opportunity - it's a need for the PSB to lead and allow our community to enjoy some long overdue treats.

It's OK we deserve it.

Please pass this along.


Signage at the Lost Dog Wash Trail is nicely designed

What are examples of some recreational treats? Moab, Utah provides areas not only for mountain bikers but for 4 wheelers. The Lost Dog Wash Trail of Scottsdale, Arizona is a well-maintained and signed open space used for recreation.

The Summerlin Community in Las Vegas shows that homes can be built and beautiful natural open space can be kept and enjoyed rather than turning magnificent arroyos into concrete channels awaiting the vandalism of taggers. (Definitely take time to visit the Summerlin web site and "take the tours".)

Dr. Bonart is right. El Pasoans deserve the very best. The significance of the Palisades is that we stand on the verge of a new age if we can just get beyond the resistance of a few.

Help Design El Paso

Click pic to enlarge

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Incentives for Solar Power

Elpasonaturally previously reported about attempts to win incentives for solar power from the El Paso Electric Company. Last week City Council by vote requested that a team from the City and the Electric Company do a bit more negotiating to provide better incentives. The issue should come up again at the regular Council meeting on June 8.

You can read the El Paso Times story about the postponement and their editorial in favor of holding out for a better deal for those who wish to install solar panels.

Here is an excellent presentation by Jim Paton, teacher and member of the Audubon Society, on the reasons for and benefits of going solar:

Going Solar