The Museum of Expensive Mistakes in Downtown Revitalization

I spent the first half of this week in Las Cruces, New Mexico (population ~90,000). Las Cruces is New Mexico’s second largest city and is located in the south of the state 40 miles west of El Paso, Texas. I was there for a technical assistance visit paid for by the Las Cruces Downtownorganization and the City of Las Cruces.

My assignment was two-fold – to keynote the kickoff of a three day charette to design La Placita,a small plaza in downtown Las Cruces, and to have one-on-one meetings with 12 or 14 owners of downtown properties. I was there at the invitation of Cindi Fargo, executive director of Downtown Las Cruces which is a New Mexico Main Street affiliated organization. I’ve known Cindi for some years and worked with her when she had similar assignments in Escondido, California and Livingston, Montana.Well, in Las Cruces, Cindi has her biggest challenge yet.

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I’ll start with the bad news first. Twenty five or thirty years ago the city fathers (I can’t believe that any city mothers would have been so foolish) decided they would “revitalize” downtown Las Cruces. And in doing so the opted for not one or two but all five of the biggest, most expensive mistakes in downtown revitalization:

1. Build a pedestrian mall. Well, here it is, rarely a human being in sight, except for the great farmers’ market Wednesday and Saturday mornings and when the historic Rio Grande Theaterhas productions.

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In fairness a hundred or so communities built these pedestrian malls – invariably with Federal Urban Renewal dollars. Pedestrian malls are as close to a 100% urban design failure as there is. The rare exception success stories nearly all have the same variable – a million students next door who use the mall as their front yard. But unlike Las Cruces, most cities realized their error within five or ten years and tore the damn things out. I’m not a believer in “instant solutions” in downtown revitalization, but taking out pedestrian malls is as close to one as I’ve ever seen.

2. Tear down historic buildings.

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It was decided that the historic buildings were useless, so around two-thirds of all structures were demolished. There are less than a handful of historic buildings left in downtown Las Cruces, but in a business district that has to be 80% vacant, it was notable that all of the historic buildings that remain are occupied.

3. Create lots of surface parking.

There are still fools who say, “If we just have enough parking, downtown will be successful”. Well if that were the case downtown Las Cruces would be the most vibrant downtown in America. There’s no shortage of surface parking spaces…on the sites of demolished historic buildings.

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4. Listen to the traffic engineers and build one-way couplets to move cars fast.

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Surrounding the downtown are three lane, one way streets. I thought of them as a moat of automobiles but locals referred to them as the “race track”. Either way they encourage drivers not only to go right past the island that downtown has become, but do so apace.

5. Physically disconnect downtown with the nearby residential neighborhoods.

On both sides of the Isle of Downtown are great residential neighborhoods, with a variety of housing stock and wonderful historic resources. One of them would probably be called middle class and the other working class, but they are great places to live. But between the one-way streets noted above, and vehicular oriented developments between downtown and the neighborhoods, there isn’t any sense of connectivity. And that’s a shame, because those neighborhoods should constitute the major customer base (the other being the 4400 workers whose jobs are downtown) that could support a vibrant downtown economically and culturally.

But now the good news

The biggest part of the challenge in Las Cruces is that to get back up to zero, downtown advocates have to undo (at no little cost) the very expensive mistakes their predecessors made. But there are lots of reasons to hope that the Las Cruces downtown of tomorrow will be substantially better than the downtown of today. Here are some of those reasons:

1. There is almost universal recognition of the errors that were made, and a firm commitment particularly on the part of city government to undo them.

2. The middle section of the pedestrian mall has already been removed and plans on the board to remove the rest.

3. The one-way couplets will be returned to two-way streets.

4. The City adopted a Tax Increment District that includes both property and gross receipts taxes to help fund improvements.

5. The city council seems to “get it” in regards to downtown. Notably the Mayor Ken Miyagishima and Council Members Miguel Silva (whose district includes the downtown) and Sharon Thomas spent their Saturday attending the Main Street conference in Raton at the other end of the state. The city staff also understand the particular importance of downtown.

6. City government is committed to staying in the downtown and is building a new city hall there.

7. Unlike many other places with declining downtowns, the financial institutions remained at the core, providing an important institutional presence upon which to build future economic activity.

8. The Federal Government is building a new Court House downtown (although I may quibble about its scale, siting, design, massing, and orientation another time.)

9. There is a solid customer base of downtown workers and nearby residents whose needs could be met downtown.

10. Cultural institutions do exist in the otherwise nearly vacant downtown including the earlier mentioned Rio Grande Theater, a couple of other theaters, and the Branigan Cultural Centerfrom whom I lifted the historic photo above and the aerial photograph of downtown.

11. While there aren’t many businesses in downtown (only 2% of the retail volume in Las Cruces comes from downtown) those that are there certainly add character and differentiation, including a book store, a music store, several galleries and a couple of restaurants.

11. Business and professional firms that have been the core of what business there has been in downtown are part of the revitalization effort and for the most part well maintaining the buildings they are in.

13. Pending the awarding of New Markets Tax Credits a phased series of mixed use developments, including housing, are scheduled to be built on the surface parking lots.

14. There are several relatively young property owners who seem willing to incrementally risk their capital in both rehabilitating existing buildings and infill new construction. Most of them aren’t burdened with the mis-impression that a successful downtown strategy is the same as a successful strip center development strategy.

15. There is an excellent, committed board of directors of the downtown organization.

16. By in large there is a realistic expectation of the time frame required for the turn around, with most understanding that while some reinvestment is taking place already, downtown revitalization is an incremental, long term process.

So those of you who are students of downtown revitalization, take a look at Las Cruces today for the mistakes of the past (and to make sure your city isn’t still planning to make them). But also keep your eye on Las Cruces to see how well and how quickly a committed city can move past those mistakes and build a prosperous downtown for the future.