Two dirty words at City Council Monday
by Sito Negron
Posted on August 19, 2008
Two words nobody likes to hear, especially in an election season, cropped up Monday during a City Council discussion of the best place for a Downtown Transit hub.
The words were "eminent" and "domain," and were spoken by Jane Shang, the new deputy city manager for mobility, when asked by city Rep. Beto O'Rourke what it would take to get the land needed for a transit hub at Paisano and Oregon.
Shang replied that it would take negotiations with six property owners, and likely would include eminent domain.
With that, Mayor John Cook raised his finger to his lips and said, "Shhh."
The City Council, acting as the Mass Transit Board, was considering where to create a Downtown transfer terminal. Sun Metro passengers now use Franklin and Missouri streets adjacent to the library and museum, after they were moved from San Jacinto Plaza to accommodate redevelopment.
The site at Franklin and Mills is meant to be temporary, and several months ago the council voted to move the permanent site to the garage in Union Plaza. [big changes to mass transit with sun metro proposals, april 7, 2008] The proposal was not well-received.
Monday, O'Rourke said, "We made a bad decision, and I take responsibility for making the motion."
However, he also said that he was acting at the time on information provided by the city consultant, Carter-Burgess.
The recommendation now from Shang was to move to a three and a half acre triangular site at Third and Santa Fe, which the city already owns but was rejected by Carter-Burgess.
However, the site was not ideal, O'Rourke said, pointing out that it has access only from Santa Fe, and is blocked from Paisano by a row of properties. He argued that the ideal site for the Downtown transit hub would be on the major north-south and east-west corridors -- Oregon or Mesa, and Paisano.
He said that he made a mistake in settling on an "imperfect" solution in the Union Plaza proposal, and "now I would like to push for the ideal."
That's when a third word that some City Council members don't like to hear -- especially in an election year -- came into play. "Rosenbaums."
Cook suggested that the Third Street site might work well if the city could make a deal with the two property owners blocking access to Paisano: "That way we don't have to deal with the Rosenbaums."
This gets to one of the major schisms on City Council.
The Rosenbaums are among the six property owners referred to by Shang around the Paisano-Oregon/Mesa intersections. They own the flea market properties between Oregon and Mesa at Paisano, and have been the major behind-the-scenes force in Land Grab Opponents, a group formed to fight the possible use of eminent domain in relation to the Downtown Plan.
Somewhat ironically, the Downtown Plan is in some ways driving the bus relocation.
The City Council made the decision to move the buses from San Jacinto Plaza before having a specific idea of where to put them. At least part of the reason was that construction was beginning on the Mills Building, which pinches the part of Oregon next to the Plaza. Another part of the reason was that the buses are not considered compatible with the redevelopment, which will aim for a more park-like environment for the Plaza to complement the upscale environment of the refurbished surrounding buildings.
Meanwhile, said Shang, "our riders don't have a home."
And there is a deadline. By December 2009, the Mills Plaza Group, which is building a parking garage adjacent to the Mills Building, will need to use Franklin as a feeder to the parking garage.
Wayne Windle, representing the Mills Plaza Group, urged the council to take the "simple route," and work with the property it already owns at Santa Fe and Third.
Richard Dayoub, president of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, did the same, as did Mike Breitinger, director of the Central Business Association.
O'Rourke made a motion to start negotiations with property owners at the preferred site, Mesa-Oregon and Paisano, and the property owners on Paisano adjacent to the city-owned Third Street site.
"We're drawing up boogiemen like eminent domain and the Rosenbaums," O'Rourke said. "That's an easy way to cop out of it."
The vote was 8-0 in favor, with Cook voting and Northeast city Rep. Melina Castro abstaining, to request city staff to report back on the negotiations in 30 days. During that time, the Citizens Advisory Committee will be asked to make a recommendation.
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