El Paso

The Texas city gets started on a broad downtown improvement plan in dramatic fashion.

Over the weekend, the DoubleTree hotel in downtown El Paso was offering a once-in-a-lifetime "Dreams to Reality" Demolition Package for two: a night in the hotel, a five-course gourmet dinner with wine pairings, an all-night Implosion Party looking out over the "last moments of moonlight" on part of the city’s skyline, to be followed Sunday morning – all of this starting at $299 – by a champagne continental breakfast buffet with one of the best views in town of the live demolition of City Hall.

El Paso’s City Hall was not particularly historic (it was built in 1978), nor architecturally significant, nor even structurally unsound. But its eight-second implosion yesterday morning was cause for watch parties all over town because of what will replace it: a new AAA ballpark, the first tangible sign of a $473 million commitment by the city to improve its quality of life (the ballpark, in particular, is also apparently the stuff of some El Pasoans’ dreams).

"It’s like the first big step of implementation," says Joyce Wilson, El Paso’s City Manager. To watch the 10-story City Hall implode into a mound of rubble – literally clearing the way for the city’s future – was a form of collective catharsis (at least for those residents who didn't protest the decision). The new ballpark will go up on this same plot of land. Elsewhere in town, a quality-of-life bond supported by voters last November will also enable new parks, recreation centers, athletic fields, public pools, a cultural center, a children’s museum, and upgrades to the city zoo and performing arts center, about 40 projects in all.

Most of them are due to be completed within the next decade. But the first games at the soon-to-rise baseball stadium are scheduled for next year (the ballot last November also included a vote to raise the hotel occupancy tax to finance it).

"The impact on downtown," Wilson says, "will be very immediate and transformational."

But first, the implosion (seen here in slow motion):

The city also demolished on Saturday morning a pair of towering smokestacks, long part of a 126-year-old copper smelting site in West-Central El Paso. "This is like demolition weekend," Wilson says.

Such wholesale change in the city was necessary after years without any kind of coherent development plan.

"El Paso’s downtown is probably one of the few urban centers that did not really recreate itself in the late ‘90s and early 2000s when other cities were starting to do some pretty dramatic changes to their downtown," Wilson says. "For whatever reason, El Paso just never did that."

For years, she says, property owners in otherwise blighted parts of the city were still turning profits renting ground-floor retail with vacant floors above, thanks to shoppers coming across the Mexican border. As a result, the city's ability to acquire some of these properties – and the motivation for property owners to revitalize them – stalled.

Now, government workers who had been in City Hall, the last of whom moved out of their offices just a few weeks ago, have permanently relocated into what were a pair of vacant buildings and a third rehabbed building across downtown. And so Sunday morning's implosion also means that 600-700 daytime workers will now be animating another part of the city that had been largely underused.

"We’re kind of behind the curve,” Wilson says, “but we’re also at an advantage because we’re taking the best practices from other folks."

A few more images for anyone who wants to savor the moment:

All photos courtesy of the city of El Paso.

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