A project to build a deck plaza in Downtown El Paso, tied to the Downtown I-10 project, has come closer to fruition thanks to a federal grant. But neighborhood groups and urban planners are skeptical of its benefits for the city.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) awarded the City of El Paso a $900,000 grant for a design study of the proposed Interstate-10 deck plaza on Nov. 16. The project would create a 12-acre plaza with amenities over the sunken area of I-10 through downtown El Paso.
The DOT awarded grants to El Paso and three other Texas jurisdictions as part of the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) program. Under Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the DOT has allocated discretionary funds to address racial inequities in highway design. But whether the deck plaza project is in the city's best interest and lives up to the goals of equity and sustainability is already subject of debate in El Paso.
Deck parks, or plazas, have been built in U.S. cities from Seattle to Dallas since the 1970s. The decks often connect areas fragmented by highways and create green space in urban cores. In El Paso, the deck plaza proposal is linked to the Texas Department of Transportation's (TxDOT) Downtown 10 project, which proposes adding lanes to the highway. Critics say the impacts of widening the highway outweigh the benefits of a deck plaza, while proponents say TxDOT investment in I-10 is a "window of opportunity" to build amenities like a deck plaza.
Paso del Norte Health Foundation Envisions Deck Plaza
Tracey Yellen, CEO of the Paso del Norte Community Foundation, which includes the Paso del Norte Health Foundation (PDNHF), said she learned about deck plazas from TxDOT representatives during the Reimagining I-10 process. PDNHF is creating a master plan for a 68-mile trail across El Paso County. Yellen and other Foundation staff realized a deck plaza could connect the trail from Sunset Heights to downtown.
"We got really excited about it," she said. "With the Biden Administration and the work that TxDOT is doing on I-10, it's a real convergence of opportunities to make this happen."
The foundation contracted OJB Architects, which designed the Klyde Warren Park over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway in Dallas, and established the Downtown Deck Plaza Foundation. They see Klyde Warren Park as a model for El Paso's deck plaza.
Specifics of the design are still in development, but DOT project materials say the proposed deck would include "green space, public gathering space, and entertainment venues." According to the DOT, the deck is "intended to remove barriers of opportunity for people of color in the project area."
"(Deck plazas) are not only reconnecting neighborhoods," Yellen said. "But also reclaiming space and creating more green space."
Renderings show trees, sports fields, seating areas and food trucks. Streetcar routes through the area would continue operating, pedestrian and bike crossing would be maintained and the plaza would link to the Paso del Norte trail in development.
The deck plaza would require its own funding from private sources, donations and the City of El Paso.
"The City, in partnership with the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation, plans to make a combined $360,000 contribution as a match to the $1,440,000 being requested through the RAISE application process," according to the RAISE grant proposal.
Benefits of deck plaza debated
Critics of the deck plaza raise several concerns: the potential cost to taxpayers, whether the project will actually benefit low-income and minority communities along I-10 and the environmental and social impacts of widening the highway.
El Paso historian Miguel Juárez has documented how I-10 impacted African American and Latino communities when it was constructed in the 1960s. African Americans were displaced from the Lincoln Park neighborhood by I-10 and Highway 54. In the past decade, new highway infrastructure threatened neighborhood landmarks, spurring residents to create the Lincoln Park Preservation Committee.
The RAISE funding proposal describes how the construction of I-10 in El Paso reinforced "patterns of racial and economic segregation which persist today."
But Sito Negron, president of the Sunset Heights Neighborhood Improvement Association, said the deck plaza proposal does little to right these historical wrongs.
"(The deck plaza) is not an equity issue," he said. "It doesn't provide housing for low income people, it doesn't reduce the environmental impacts of the highway."
The RAISE funding proposal says the project will draw more development dollars downtown. Backed with letters of support from the El Paso Chamber of Commerce, MountainStar Sports Group LLC and the Downtown Management District, the deck plaza will "spur development on the vacant lots, and attract more businesses, offices, and residents to the area," the proposal states.
Benjamin Crowther of the Congress for New Urbanism, who has studied deck parks around the country, said Klyde Warren Park in Dallas has increased surrounding property values. He said in El Paso, residents should ask: "What is the city willing to do here to capture and leverage some of that development to make sure that residents who are living along the highway benefit from it?"
Scott White, policy director of the Velo Paso Bicycle-Pedestrian Coalition, said that connectivity surrounding I-10 is a real problem, but Downtown should not be the priority.
"If we go a little further east, to the residential neighborhoods that were actually destroyed to build I-10 in the first place, there is no discussion of reconnecting those neighborhoods," White said.
He is worried neighborhood organizations and residents will not be able to provide meaningful feedback to either the deck plaza or Downtown I-10.
"We're always told that it's either too early or too late to make changes," White said. "Our question is when is the right time?"
Deck plaza tied to Downtown I-10 project
While separate projects, the deck plaza is closely linked to TxDOT's Downtown I-10 project. The same organizations and agencies have advocated for both projects.
The Downtown I-10 project is still in the development process, after TxDOT presented several proposals to the public this spring. According to the TxDOT Reimagine I-10 corridor study, construction is warranted because traffic speeds in the downtown section could slow to as low as 28 MPH by 2042. While a "no build" option is still on the table, as is legally required, three other options require adding lanes to the highway downtown.
"We are building this for the future of El Paso," said TxDOT's Jennifer Wright. "Traffic would be at a standstill as early as 2030 if the projected traffic counts hold through."
"We believe there will be economies of scale in coordinating the work with TxDOT plans for expansion," said Tracy Yellen of the Paso del Norte Health Foundation (PDNHF).
Specifically, TxDOT would pay for reinforcing the retaining walls that would hold the weight of the deck. Yellen said coordinating with TxDOT's downtown I-10 project in this way makes the deck plaza "much more financially feasible."
The PDNHF website states that congestion will increase if I-10 is not widened and that, "From an environmental perspective, an economic competitiveness perspective and from a quality of life perspective, this project should get done."
The El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization (EPMPO), lead by Eduardo Calvo, also supports the I-10 widening and the deck plaza. "The MPO policy board sees the widening as a must for transportation purposes," said Calvo.
But Calvo said the deck plaza without widening the highway could still be considered. "I think the deck project is pretty flexible," he said.
He said the argument that widening the highway will increase air pollution is a "common misconception" because the biggest contribution to emissions is idling traffic. However, both White and Crowther disputed this logic.
"In planning and transportation we try to strike the balance between all of these different criteria: we must fight congestion, we must protect the environment, we must make it safe," he said. "Striking that balance is not easy."
But critics say they can't have it both ways: championing more green space while widening the freeway.
"We know through induced demand, the more capacity we create, the more we encourage people to drive," White said. "There are other options ... What happens if we push the idea of getting more people to walk, bike, use transit? What if we invest in more transit, in more walkable neighborhoods?"
This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Downtown El Paso I-10 highway deck under consideration