Life on the Plaza, El Paso-style
By Cindy Graff Cohen
At the foot of the mountains on the Westside, a whole new kind of neighborhood is taking shape near the intersection of Escondido and Westwind. Called Piazza Escondida, the small development may be new for El Paso, but the plan is as old as the earliest neighborhoods in ancient history, says project developer Scott Winton, vice president of business development for Winton Homes.
From Escondido Drive, Piazza Escondida looks like a small cluster of shops or offices under construction. Then you walk behind those shops-to-be, and you enter a hidden gem, an open brick plaza centered with a sparkling fountain and benches inviting you to sit and enjoy the mountain views. Around you are two- and three-story homes with balconies and colorful details. Soft music fills the air and the community’s raised herb and flower garden promises sweet fragrances in the spring.
You’ve never been here, but you feel like you have. You’ve been in a courtyard like this before – a cozy village in France, a town square in Belgium, a plaza in Italy. Your déjà vu moment may remind you of medieval-era Venice or Seville, but walk inside any of the homes and you are definitely in 2014.
Community in the making
“I started thinking about the piazza concept for this piece of land back in 2007,” says Winton, who returned to El Paso in 2005 to work with his father Jack Winton after spending 25 years in the Austin area working in urban planning, real estate, and city government. “We had this empty lot, about 1.6 acres, next to our offices and it seemed like the best arrangement would be to build homes around the perimeter.”
Ask Winton about his inspiration and you’ll gain a new perspective on the evolution of cities, suburbs, and even lifestyles. In the earliest towns, people lived and worked in compact areas, sharing common space in the center of a town, he explains. With the advent of the car, planners moved away from tighter grids of streets and neighborhoods to speed-efficient long blocks designed to keep you driving through, losing a sense of community and intergenerational diversity in the process.
“I decided that my objectives for this development were to have an open public space, a diversity of housing types for people at various stages of life, and convenient services,” says Winton. The development includes a mix of single-family homes, studio lofts, condos, townhouses and “live-work” units, an innovative combination of second-floor living space above a first-floor office or shop with access to Escondido Drive.
The next phase was envisioning how the lot would look; he began sketching and researching. His computer is filled with hundreds of images of plazas from many different cultures and eras. He settled on an Italian-influenced design and came up with the neighborhood’s name.
“The buildings create the sense of space, but the architecture creates the sense of place,” he says. Because no parking will be permitted on the square, with cars tucked away in garages below all units or in parking lots behind the buildings, the plaza also has a sense of timelessness. “Not only will you say, ‘where am I?’” Winton laughs, “you will also say ‘when am I?’”
Innovation attracting attention
“People come into the development and the model home and say they’ve never seen anything like this in El Paso,” says Edgar Barrientos of Mendez-Burk Realty, the agency representing Piazza Escondida. “They say they’ve seen squares like this in Europe or Mexico, but not here. We’re selling a new lifestyle.” He notes that people may like the timeless feel of the homes, but they also go for the energy-efficient features, such as tankless water heaters and double-pane windows, and high-end finishing, such as granite countertops.
Jaime Martinez, who bought a condo in the three-story building called the “Mansion,” reports that he and his wife, a UTEP nursing student, have been looking for a starter home since they married two years ago. They currently rent an apartment on the Westside. “I’m a workaholic so I don’t have time to work on a yard yet,” says Martinez, a plant manager at a local refinery. “I was looking for an affordable investment for now that could be easy to rent down the road when we move to a bigger home. The place seems like it will be comfortable and private, and I like the idea of getting to know your neighbors.”
“The Wintons have a good concept,” says Celia Berton, another condo purchaser. She will be moving into a handicapped-accessible unit on the first floor that eliminates troublesome steps for her husband. She likes the enclave plan and thinks it will have a cozy, neighborly atmosphere. They wanted to downsize and looked at many houses with no success. “Developers in El Paso have not taken older people into account,” she says. “Retirement homes serve their place, but we also just want smaller homes and maintenance-free living.”
Bistro on the premises
Scott Winton knew he wanted a certain kind of cuisine for the restaurant set to open this spring on the “work-live” side of the Piazza. He chose a personal chef and personal trainer, Michael Laster. Laster owns The Grape, a catering service that delivers tasty fresh lunches under 550 calories all over El Paso. The lunch delivery grew out of Laster’s other business, Home Fitness; his training clients wanted to eat healthier while working on their fitness goals.
“I was born with a passion to cook,” says Laster. The new Grape Café lunch menu will list each item’s calories, carbohydrates, proteins, fat content and even Weight Watcher points. The dinner menu will feature signature salads, steaks, salmon and, of course, Italian food. “The ambience will be like you were in Venice,” Laster notes. “We will take full advantage of El Paso’s good weather with tables on the patio and open windows onto the plaza.”
The Wintons think that the Piazza Escondida concept is catching on in El Paso. “People who have parcels of land have expressed interest in developing similar projects with us,” says Jack Winton, founder of The Winton Group.
“To go from sketches on cocktail napkins to the point where people will soon be moving in is very gratifying,” says Scott Winton. “I think Piazza Escondida will be part of the new El Paso that is taking shape.”
Cindy Graff Cohen is now a freelance writer and editor after a long career in journalism and publishing in Washington, D.C., and Boston.
Photographs by Brian Wancho