El Pasoans are fleeing Central
By Cindy Ramirez-Cadena
El Paso Times
The character of Central El Paso is diverse, a colorful array of distinct neighborhoods.
Some are old, silent and decaying. Others are hanging on to their strong, youthful days as the heart of the city.
Their common thread? Most Central El Paso neighborhoods are thinning out, losing thousands of residents to urban sprawl.
"All our children are growing up and moving out, and no one wants to live in these old homes anymore," said 64-year-old Enrique Rodriguez, a retired electrician and longtime Central El Pasoan.
Central El Paso, which to city demographers includes South El Paso, lost 15,000 residents between 1990 and 2000, according to U.S. Census data. That represents a decrease of almost 11 percent, to about 124,000 people.
Meanwhile, the East Side grew 39 percent, to some 153,000 residents in 2000. The West Side increased by 28 percent to about 90,800. The Northeast had a modest increase, while the Lower Valley showed a slight decrease.
The population shift has again called attention to urban sprawl, a movement some city leaders say is hurting areas such as Central El Paso.
"We can't keep developing outward forever," Mayor Ray Caballero said. "We need to come back to these neighborhoods, and make them so they're enticing to families again."
Locked among the sprawling East, West and Northeast regions of the city, Central has no room for growth. Its hope lies in revitalization, officials said.
To help achieve that, Caballero said, the city is reviewing its development ordinances and this month will discuss annexation, in-fill development and urban sprawl with the City Council and city planners.
East-Central Rep. Larry Medina said the city needs to stop migration from Central El Paso.
"We need to show people the city government is going to fix streets, drainage, sidewalks and do what it can to increase the tax base by bringing in new businesses," Medina said. "We need to offer tax abatements to businesses and incentives to developers."
Medina said revitalizing Central El Paso could attract families that otherwise would settle on the East or West sides.
Veronica Robles agreed.
The 35-year-old elementary-school teacher bought a home in Central five years ago and has no regrets.
"It's in the middle of everything, so nothing is too far," she said. "It's peaceful and beautiful, and you can't beat the architecture of these old homes."
Robles said several of her friends recently opted to buy homes in East or West El Paso, though she encouraged them to stay in Central.
The East and West sides accounted for the majority of the city's growth the past decade and likely will keep growing over the next 10 years.
Groundbreaking for the first phase of a 1,300-unit subdivision in West El Paso, called Franklin Hills, is set for next month. It could take up to 10 years to develop, but Franklin Hills is a prime example of what's to come.
The East Side's flat desert land is ideal for affordable housing construction and accounts for more than half the city's new homes each year. The city annexed nearly 2,400 acres of land on the East Side in 1999, some of which is being developed.
However, Central El Paso homes, once considered grand, are now simply old, their sales down significantly as they compete with new developments on the city's eastern and western edges.
Home sales in Central have declined by 24 percent in the past five years, according to a comparison of the six-month period from February to August in 1996 with the same period this year, realty experts said.
"It is hard to sell some of those homes so many people opt to rent them out instead," said Michael Bray, president of the Greater El Paso Association of Realtors.
Though age breakdowns by region won't be available for another year, experts said they believe census data will show Central El Paso is primarily losing its young people.
"In 1990, it was the oldest area of the city, and it's probably the same (today). Consequently, the age of the population in the Central area doesn't reproduce as much as other areas with lots of young families," said Jesse Acosta, a county planner formerly with the Census Bureau.
Another indicator may lie within Central El Paso schools, which show enrollment declines in the past decade, according to figures released by the El Paso Independent School District.
For example, the Bowie High School attendance area had nearly 7,400 students in the 1989-90 school year. About 2,400 fewer students are expected to enroll this year.
Enrollment in the Jefferson and Austin high-school areas together declined by about 2,600 students during the same period.
"As the housing stock in the central city ages, people may be less likely to move there," said Cheryl Howard, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.
"There could be a residential progression where the central city is too expensive," Howard said. "Families of marginal means move to the colonias, and those with median incomes choose to buy new homes."
Howard said she thinks many areas of Central could be rehabilitated into desirable neighborhoods, such as Sunset Heights.
"You still need shopping and those other perks nearby," Howard said. "But the real draw could be that stronger sense of neighborhood the new developments are often missing."