Interview with City Redevelopment Manager Veronica Rosales-Soto
by Sito Negron
Posted on April 30, 2008
Veronica Rosales-Soto is the Redevelopment Manager for the city of El Paso. Her job involves implementing the Downtown Plan, a controversial project that has divided, if not the city at large, the "opinion leaders" in the political and civic leadership circles in El Paso.
She also is president of the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association, "the first Hispanic and first Latina elected as president (and) … also the first president elected from west of the Pecos," stated a news release from the city announcing her appointment.
The release stated: "The American Planning Association is a nonprofit public interest and research organization representing 39,000 practicing planners, officials, and citizens involved with urban and rural planning issues. In Texas, over 900 planners belong to the APA. Sixty-five percent of the group’s members work for state and local government agencies."
Rosales-Soto, 35, received degrees from Harvard and Princeton and worked in the New York City Planning Department before returning to El Paso in 1997. She worked for the city of El Paso until 2005, served as the director of planning for Sunland Park, N.M., from 2005 to 2007, and returned to the city of El Paso in 2007.
She discussed how she got into planning, the philosophies at work in urban planning, and issues related to the Downtown Plan, including the next step. The interview was conducted April 1, 2008, with a brief follow up on April 29, 2008.
NPT: I didn't realize you had gone to Harvard, Princeton, all those fancy places … I don’t want to get into your age but if you returned here in '97 …
VERONICA ROSALES-SOTO: I'm 35 (laughs). That's not a secret.
NPT: How long have you been a planner?
ROSALES-SOTO: I have been a planner since '97, when I came back here.
NPT: How did you become a planner?
ROSALES-SOTO: I learned how to make maps the old-fashioned way, in New York City.
NPT: What does that mean?
ROSALES-SOTO: We would literally have different sizes of tape and draw boundaries on a plat map and cut maps with knives and tape them together. I fell in love with maps. The guy who taught me how to make the maps, an old Jewish guy who looked like he was 80 years old, really had a passion for maps; he had been making maps for 30 years. This was between my first and second year in grad school.
NPT: Did you study this in college?
ROSALES-SOTO: No, I had taken a year out of college to take the fellowship. It's called the New York City Urban Fellows Program where you become an employee of the city of New York.
This guy knew the city inside out. This huge city, and he could tell you what building was where, and how long it had been vacant, and what we needed to do inside that building. He had this knowledge of New York City that the higher ups in the agency didn’t have, and I respected how he respected the city, and he taught me how to make maps.
The maps, doing tours for the mayor, special projects, that attracted me to the planning side, rather than the housing side, because I had wanted to do housing.
NPT: What does housing mean? Is that like social work?
ROSALES-SOTO: Related to that. I've always been concerned with poverty issues, because of where I grew up being on the other side of the service spectrum. Every house I grew up in in El Paso when I was a kid is no longer there.
NPT: Where is that?
ROSALES-SOTO: Well there's about three of them. On Laurel and Cotton there was an apartment building that is no longer there, I think it is now a place where old folks get treatment.
Then I had moved to San Antonio Street near Piedras; that has been demolished because it was unfit for human habitation. And that's the kind of house I grew up in so I always thought I wanted to do housing.
But being in New York City and being with this man who had this love and knew so much about the city and it was a way to deal with the housing … that was my way of getting into the social service side, addressing the poverty issues and providing good service. It's also why I went into public service, because I never thought as a kid we got good service from public servants, so I told my mom if I ever got a chance to provide service I'd treat everyone like people, not like I'm doing you a favor.
NPT: When planners use the word "social" and connect it to what they do -- "planning" -- it can become "social planning," and that is one of the objections people have to what planners do. Where is the line?
ROSALES-SOTO: I don't think what I do is social planning. There is always a balance. Part of the planning I do addresses needs and neglects and I don’t think of it as social planning at all. I think of codes that protect people, I think of zoning codes that help us build better things. But there is always a tug.
When I was in the Planning Department it was very palpable. Developers always wanted the baseline, and that is what government is supposed to do, give you the baseline. But once you set a baseline no one really goes above and beyond that. So if your baseline is the lowest value what you're going to get in the built environment is also going to be the lowest value.
You see that tug of war right now with smart growth issues here at City Hall. (However), I'm not involved with all that because I'm in Economic Development now.
NPT: Are you assigned specifically to the Downtown Plan as a planner?
ROSALES-SOTO: Yes, but even with the Downtown Plan I'm not doing mostly planning work. It's cutting across disciplines and that's exciting. A good planner needs to be able to be a finance person for half a day, be an economist for a little bit, understand the accountant, the developer, the bottom line. But you also have to understand from the public sector side we're here to protect the public and that's why you have the rules and regulations and people are always going to be chafing.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have speed limits, for example, and planning is in the same vein. It's there to protect everyone, and you still have to set minimums and that's the kind of planning I see myself doing. And there's always a balance, the pendulum swings a lot, but you always have find the balance, because some people will always want to have less regulation and some people will always want to have more regulation. It's not about less or more it's about better regulation.
NPT: This may be a difficult issue for any civil servant, because the balance changes depending on who is creating the policy. And sometimes the balance may be here and sometimes it may be there. How do you separate what you think is the correct balance from the policy directives that you're given?
ROSALES-SOTO: Well, I only know I know nothing so I always figure out what the best practices are and try to apply them to the local situation. We always hear the argument, 'We're not Dallas, we're not Phoenix,' and that's very true, but that doesn't mean we can't strive for some of the best things from those cities. We certainly don't want everything from those cities because we are a border community and we have differences; whatever we adopt locally has to adapt.
As a planner here in the city you're supposed to be protecting the larger citizenry, so the policy directive from council is supposed to represent that. And you always can present the options. It's not always pretty and it's not always easy. A good planner always looks at 'This is the spectrum of things we can do, these are the best things,' but is willing to listen to someone else with an entirely different idea. That's what makes it a little bit messy sometimes but it's supposed to make it better in the end. That's the kind of planner I hope I am.
NPT: What do you do as a planner in your day to day activities?
ROSALES-SOTO: Right now my title is not a planner title, it's redevelopment manager. But I think of it as I'm a planner who is implementing a lot of things. There is no set schedule from day to day. A lot of the work I do is outreach. This morning I got to go visit a new business Downtown. I get to call them later and write an article about their business for our newsletter, which is mailed to every business owner Downtown and to anyone who has ever contacted me about Downtown.
I got to walk around and see what new construction was in the area. I notice little things like a new awning. So I get to go and ask the business person 'Do you know we have grant monies to give away?' I get to administer the grant program. There's a committee here that reviews that. So if the guy I went to talk to about his awning takes me up on getting more information and applying for the grant than I get to call the committee together, make sure he submits the right application, make sure he gives me a good estimate, make sure he gives me good drawings for what he's fixing. So I get to be a press person, I get to be an architect, I get to be a grant person, I get to be an administrator, I get to be a secretary when I call the committee together, I get to walk around Downtown, which is cool, and I get to talk to people.
NPT: I'll take a wild guess that the walking around is the best part.
ROSALES-SOTO: Walking around Downtown is probably one of the best things. One of my goals is to eat at every restaurant Downtown before the end of the year. I don’t go every day to eat Downtown but it's one of the ways I get to know Downtown and what kind of people are in Downtown and that's definitely one of the best goals I've set for myself this year.
NPT: You talked about how not much of what you do is quote planning so how do the folks at the American Planning Association, Texas Chapter, who elected you president feel about that. Do they realize you're not doing much planning and are there other quasi planners?
ROSALES-SOTO: There are other quasi-planners. Redevelopment has always been aligned with planning. As a profession we all know that we can't be putting blinders on the work we do. I think we all realize that the work we do cuts across many different fields and you can only be a good planner if you understand all of that.
There are many different types of planning. There are planners who do environmental work and that's all they do and they know all the EPA regulations backwards and forward and never talk about zoning. There are planners who all they do is historic preservation and they know the ins and outs of buildings better than architects but they never do a land use map. There's planners who all they do is zoning codes, and who sound like lawyers, writing zoning codes all the time.
NPT: Going back to what you were saying about walking around Downtown, as you get to know the people on the ground, on the street, the folks with the businesses and maybe the guy sitting on a bench in the plaza, do you ever get the sense that there's a tension between the grand scale of the plan and the things that are happening at the top and the needs of people here on the ground and how do you resolve that?
ROSALES-SOTO: I do notice that and I do struggle with that and there is that tension, but I think every downtown has that tension because a downtown is for everyone.
You're going to have homeless people who congregate Downtown and there's a place for them. You're going to have people who office Downtown and there's a place for them in the same park as the homeless person is hanging out. You're going to have CEOs come Downtown for their business meeting, for their headquarters, and they're going to be in the same park as that office worker, that entry level office worker, as that homeless person.
Downtown is always a mix. So the tension is always going to be there. Even if we had the best downtown, a downtown that worked very well for everyone, and not all of it is working very well for everyone, you would still have that mix and that tension. And I do wonder when I meet different people is there a place for them, later?
There was a shoe shiner, and I talked to him for a couple of hours and it ended up he knew my dad who was a taxi driver, and I wondered, where is this guy going to be, he's already in his 50s, where is this guy going to be in 10 years, what buildings in Downtown can he provide his service?
NPT: Where was he?
ROSALES-SOTO: This was at Valuta Corp., at Paisano and Mesa, I think, and so I wonder, this is typical El Paso. It's something I grew up with in Juarez and El Paso. But he was the only one I saw doing shoe shines that day and I did wonder, where is the place for this and we should find a place, because it's part of our culture but it's also a job.
NPT: And going back to what you were saying about a downtown being for everybody, when they announced the proposal to close Mills and turn it into a pedestrian plaza, I wondered whether it would be retained as a public space. Because a lifestyle mall, for example, it looks like a street, but the operators own the entire place so it's not a public space. It's a commercial space only. It sounds like you have a recognition of a downtown being more than a commercial space. It's a community space.
ROSALES-SOTO: It very much is a community space, that's true.
NPT: How do you get that point across? Because you're in economic development and that's where this is taking place.
ROSALES-SOTO: Well, a lot of the conversations I have with business owners, building owners, developers, are about how do we create a space?
They're not about how do we make your business successful, even though that's part of the conversation. It's about the space we're creating, the experience we're going to create. It's not just about what happens inside a building but what happens on the sidewalk, what happens a block from the building. All of that is part of the conversation I have with people.
On the Mills Plaza project we had conversations where we from the city side said this really should be a space that's for the public and the developer agreed with that. The reason we went to council two weeks ago was to have it be city-initiated so the city would have ownership of that so it would be a public space. It would be closed for vehicular access but it would add to our open space. So it would enhance the projects right next to it but it would be something where any one of those three people I described could be and have a good experience.
NPT: And I suppose some business owners or building owners are going to have pre-conceived notions you have to take into account. One specific example I remember was in the Cortez Building, there was a tenant downstairs who wanted to put chairs in front of his shop. He said they wouldn’t let him, that it wasn’t good for the ambience.
ROSALES-SOTO: He had a shoeshine inside.
NPT: He had a shoeshine inside.
ROSALES-SOTO: That's one of the things we're trying to change. Part of what I see my job, putting the planning hat on, is sometimes we have arcane rules. We have good regulations overall, but sometimes the regulations are too stringent or they're too cumbersome. The way we govern sidewalks Downtown makes it difficult. Not just from the property owners' perspective of 'That's not the type of the activity I want outside my building' but the city has it so that it's really difficult to have someone sitting out there sipping a cup of coffee. We go through this convoluted and long process and for businesses time is money and we recognize that.
We have we have to have some kind of process, some kind of regulation, but we're trying to make it administrative. So if someone wants to put a couple of chairs as long as there's still clearance, as long as people can still walk, and as long as nothing's falling on people you can do it and make it easy.
We're looking forward to those kinds of things, making it easier for sidewalks to have awnings, that kind of character. And part of what I see my job is looking at current regulations and changing things that need to be streamlined. A big part of my job is that, actually.
NPT: Are you involved in the bus issue?
ROSALES-SOTO: Yes, in that anything Downtown I'm supposed to be involved along with my boss, but day-to-day, operationally? No. I get invited to the meetings, I inject myself into the meetings if I don’t get invited. Sometimes I find out about what really is happening at places like the CBA luncheon. Last month they had a presentation on the Union Plaza Transit Terminal, which was the first time I saw any of those slides. So I found out along with other downtown merchants what the proposal was. I had seen a previous proposal but I hadn’t gotten the update. So I wish it was better, in terms of coordination, a big part of my job is coordination and I'm working really hard at it, and that's why I inject myself into meetings. But there's a lot of dominos for them, they have to work on two things before they get to the third thing, which is where I get involved. Property owners who don't like it call me. That's where I get involved.
NPT: You were part of the planning department under the Wardy administration when this plan was first being developed and you're also a member of the PDNG.
ROSALES-SOTO: Actually, when I was in planning I was not a member of the PDNG.
I went to work for the city of Sunland Park, and that was in 2005. I think in '06 they invited me to be a member of PDNG.
NPT: Did you ever feel as a planner, here I am representing the city doing this big plan, but the public's not involved? Did you ever have concerns about that?
NPT: You were not a member of the PDNG at the time you were a planner. Are you a member now?
NPT: Did you feel it was a conflict with the ideals of planning to be part of this group and really the planning was business-driven. Did you ever say I'm leaving, I'm out of here?
ROSALES-SOTO: No, I never said I'm leaving. I worked for the city. I was marginally involved when I was at the city. I was kind of like the go-fer for the actual planners hired by the city and PDNG, so any time those planners needed planning documents or other information I was the person they would come and ask. I would get to see the proposals, and I did share with the PDNG that it wasn’t good not to involve the public. I remember in particular I had a heated conversation where I disagreed very strongly about that issue. Because I had seen other very good plans go down in flames because there wasn’t a good public process and I shared (that) this might face opposition because it was not an open process. I wasn’t at the grand opening of the plan on March 31, because I wasn’t in town. And I remember within a month I thought, 'See I told you so.'
But some people don’t have to listen to me. Many people don’t listen to me. And that's ok. As long as I share what I believe, share what should be done. But I know I'm not always right.
NPT: But you're here now working for the plan. Obviously you think there is a portion of it or all of it that will work or that can be redeemed. How would you define a positive outcome for the plan and what is it taking and what will it take to achieve that?
ROSALES-SOTO: The first thing is it's going to take a lot of time. I've worked in planning long enough to know that results don't come quickly so you have to be patient.
NPT: Time meaning?
ROSALES-SOTO: I think it's going to take about 10 years to see real results. Within five years we're going to see changes but within 10 years we're going to know if we're successful. When I came to this job last year in March one of the first things I did was go and talk to students, fourth or fifth graders, 10-year-olds, and I told them when they are old enough to vote, that's when you will decide if I did a good job. So about 10 years is when we'll know if we did a good plan and a good plan implementation. It's not just about the plan. It's about implementing it well, and that takes time.
We'll see some things in the next two years that are going to be very exciting but in downtown planning there's no one solution, one silver bullet. You have to do a lot of things to fix downtown. Those are the lessons we've learned from other cities. Even successful cities don’t have everything working well … We have to take the best from those places see how they fit here if they fit at all, and give it time to work its way through our city.
NPT: What specifically would you define as a positive outcome?
ROSALES-SOTO: It's no single thing. It will be we have more hotels that do well, not just more hotels but hotels that do well. It will be that the property tax base is higher. It will be the number of renovated, not just new but renovated, buildings we have. It will be the creation of more open public spaces. And it will be the pride we take in it. Some of those you can measure and some you can't.
NPT: How would you define a negative outcome and what are the risks in what you are doing?
ROSALES-SOTO: I think a negative would be if we lost historic buildings in this process. I think if we did have massive displacement of residential. There are not a lot of residents within the area of the Downtown Plan, although around it there is residential. But if we had massive displacement and didn’t offer alternatives that would be a negative.
NPT: Right off the bat you're looking at a couple hundred people in Union Plaza, designated by the plan as an entertainment district/arena, and a few thousand people in the Sacred Heart neighborhood.
ROSALES-SOTO: Within the Downtown Plan in that area around Sacred Heart I don’t think there is several thousand. It's closer to maybe 150. Still, if we had a lot of displacement and didn’t have an opportunity to accommodate them Downtown or near Downtown then you might think it's a negative.
NPT: So the negative outcome really has to do with displacement in terms of people and small businesses?
ROSALES-SOTO: If we had massive displacement. There will be some displacement. That's part of the cost of a revitalized Downtown.
NPT: It could happen anywhere, in a natural fashion. An example is the Mimco building on Franklin. There was a newsstand there, and across the street was the Regel Beagle.
ROSALES-SOTO: There was a good Puerto Rican restaurant there too.
NPT: Yes. So Mimco bought it, and the leases either lapsed or Mimco bought them out. Whatever they did, they bought it, and there's a natural process that happens. What you have to be sensitive to is the city's role. It's one thing when Paul Foster buys a building -- he gets to decide who's in it and who's not, and a person might feel 'that's a shame.' But when the city gets involved …
ROSALES-SOTO: Even if there wasn't a plan change would still happen. The only constant, right? In this particular case because we do have a plan there is an outlet. That's what I hear from business owners, what assistance is available for whatever their need is.
NPT: So should the city be in the position of protecting the people and mitigating any damage from the change or should the city be the change agent?
ROSALES-SOTO: I think you need to be cognizant of the change and be ready to help people adapt. But if we were not the change agent it would get really bad. Our Downtown has declined. I go and talk to people every week about the plan, even people who have 'Hands off My Property' and 'No Eminent Domain' signs. Those are the people I'm most interested in talking to sometimes. Even the people who oppose the plan, who don't like 'x' or 'y' in the plan -- and I'm not always the good guy in their eyes -- will tell me, 'yes, Downtown has declined.' So if we did nothing, if we were not the agent of change, it would only continue to deteriorate. In this case, because it has deteriorated so much, in many ways, not all of it, but overall it has deteriorated, we have to be the ones to step in. It doesn’t mean we need to change everything but we have to stop the decline. In this instance, the answer is we have to be the agent of change, and recognize, things are gong to change, we need to help people adapt. But we can't help everyone adapt. It's not good to help someone who doesn’t have a good business plan stay in business.
NPT: What if they have a good business plan and it's working for them and the city comes in and changes the circumstances around them?
ROSALES-SOTO: That may happen. That's why we have to be ready to adapt, and help those people adapt and offer services to help them adapt.
NPT: That's the third rail of this. It's one thing if Paul Foster forces people to adapt. He bought the building, they're going to have to adapt. It's different if the city comes in and says, 'We're changing the conditions around you and you have to adapt.' That makes it tough because a lot of people will say it's not the city's role to do that.
ROSALES-SOTO: Well, I heard a lot of that conversation around what Sun Metro is doing, and that is why I go back to having a good process. You're not always going to make everyone happy but that’s part of the reason you have to have a good process. Even the best plan is not going to tell you all the unintended consequences so that's why you have to have a good public process.
NPT: So there's urgency, a need to act, or just continue a slow steady decline?
ROSALES-SOTO: If we weren’t the agent of change in this case in 10 years the decline would be so no one would want to be Downtown at all. How can you adapt that way?
NPT: Some people would say, so what?
ROSALES-SOTO: Downtown is such a big place in our civic life, I don’t think we can take a 'so-what' attitude. Even people who oppose the plan say Downtown has declined, and we have to have some response.
NPT: Now I'm going to take the developers' side and say you know what, there's always an unintended consequence and you can't plan for every consequence so get the hell out of my way and let me do my thing.
ROSALES-SOTO: Again, as long as there's a process and it's followed.
NPT: There has been some confusion with the status of the plan, based on the El Paso Times article headlined "Downtown Plan Redirected" and the subsequent newsletter from Economic Development Director Kathy Dodson saying the plan was intact. Has the plan changed, and what is next?
ROSALES-SOTO: The plan has not changed. The consultant's study is telling us the steps we need to do to implement the plan and move forward. So what's next is the implementation plan and getting to the detail of implementing the plan vision.
NPT: When do you get the implementation plan and consultant's study?
ROSALES-SOTO: The implementation plan we should get Monday next week, and we'll make it public at the TIRZ board that Thursday, May 8.
NPT: Will this start another round of controversy?
ROSALES-SOTO: I hope not.
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