In March 2012 The El Paso City Council unanimously adopted Plan El Paso, a comprehensive development plan based on the principles of green and smart growth.
Smart Code, which is based on these same princples, was largely chosen to combat sprawl, large land use and carbon pollution. After numerous citywide meetings with citizens, government entities, nonprofit groups and business leaders, the plan moved forward.
Smart Code emphasizes new urbanism, density, walkability, mixeduse development and open space with access to public transit.
Developers have the choice in most instances to pick the traditional zoning code or opt for Smart Code. The Smart Code offers potential Chapter 380 economic incentives with city council approval. Sales, use and property tax abatements are available for qualified projects.
Higher densities and higher property values through Smart Code generate greater taxes, which justify the rebates.
Some developers say project costs are about 30 percent higher under Smart Code when compared to the traditional code.
Smart Code typically makes the most sense for infill development in higher-income areas. Prior to the economic downturn of 2008, a large mixed-use development in northeast El Paso was slated to become the first project in the city to implement elements of Smart Code.
As a result of economic conditions at the time, the development did not materialize.
Currently, there are four or five local developments that have embraced Smart Code. Some have also opted for Chapter 380 incentives and are in various phases of completion.
Predating Plan El Paso was a study titled Connecting El Paso, completed by Dover Kohl and Associates in 2010.
One of its stated goals was to help create a vision for an updated transportation system for El Paso, and lay the regulatory ground work for transit-oriented development, along with more complete streets and neighborhoods to serve El Paso into the next century. The study aimed to spark a coordinated effort focused on increasing transit ridership while jump-starting economic development in urban locations.
In June of 2013, construction began in west El Paso on the first of four rapid transit routes, with 80 percent of the projected $141.6 million budget provided by the federal government. All four transit hubs should be completed by 2017.
First Smart Code Project
The first El Paso developer to successfully utilize Smart Code is EPT Land Communities on its 300-acre Montecillo project in west El Paso.
Plans for the mixed-use infill development were laid out in 2006. A large tract of land was purchased from ASARCO and Cemex. Smart Code was chosen after an invitation by the city to review development aspects.
EPT picked Smart Code in part because it allowed for greater densities.
Plans call for up to 5,000 homes consisting of single-family detached, condos, townhomes and apartments. Up to 750,000 square feet of retail is anticipated, with much of it fronting I-10.
Several new developments in El Paso have utilized Smart Code.
The Venue, part of a mixed-use development called Montecillo, is a four-story, 290-unit luxury apartment complex with retail space on the first floor. Opened in 2011, it has been highly successful, with 100 percent occupancy and a waiting list. This project commands the highest rents in town, ranging between $700 and $1,500 per month. Santi, another planned multifamily community inside Montecillo, is a 263-unit, highend complex in the final stages of completion. Montecillo is also home to a 149-unit active senior project. This is a first for El Paso. Time, a 12,000-square-foot nontraditional entertainment complex, opened in July of 2014.
Alamo Draft House, another part of Montecillo, is a planned eightscreen theater to be completed in 2016. Plans also call for an upscale grocery and additional retail.
Aldea is a planned 200-acre urban village adjacent to Montecillo which also utilizes Smart Code. Over 1 million square feet of retail and entertainment space are planned.
It is anticipated that over 1,245 residential units of various sizes and types will be built. Aldea will be anchored by a new Walmart Supercenter that should be complete in two years. A new I-10 access road and exit are being built to accommodate these projects.
In December 2014 El Paso City Council approved Smart Code zoning for the Metro 31 project in northeast El Paso.
This 31-acre mixed-use development sits on the site of the former Northgate Mall. Plans call for 135,115 square feet of retail, 100,000 square feet of office space, a 50,000-squarefoot grocery store and 400 apartment units. Hunt Building Corp. is developing it.
Other projects in the city have also embraced Smart Code.
The Medial Center of the Americas is a 440-acre site South of I-10 in central El Paso. It is built around Texas Tech Medical School, University Hospital and El Paso Children’s Hospital. No Chapter 380 incentives exist for this project.
The 450-acre ASARCO site in West El Paso has also adopted Smart Code zoning.
This location was home to a copper smelter for over 100 years. Cleanup should be completed this year. That entity could potentially obtain Chapter 380 incentives on the project.
River Oaks Properties is currently weighing the positives and negatives of Smart Code for a 228-acre project in east El Paso at Montana and Loop 375.
One concern is that some big box retailers are reluctant to deviate from their standard site and floor plans. Parking in the back of a building as opposed to the front can pose issues as well. Only time will tell how successful this approach will be.