April 5, 2023 717 PM
MARFA — When hotelier Liz Lambert announced the relocation and expansion of El Cosmico, the “nomadic hotel” and campground home to the annual Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love, the news made headlines far beyond the little West Texas town it calls home. The grand, futuristic bent of Lambert’s vision — to build the first-ever 3D-printed hotel, right here in the desert sprawl, plus 3D-printed homes to line the expansive property — made it an object of fascination for its architectural innovation.
But in conversations with neighbors of the prospective resort — planned for 61 acres off Antelope Hills Road, abutting the Gage Ranch — the cutting-edge technology of the venture hardly comes up. Those who own land in the quiet, sparsely-peopled subdivision outside Marfa city limits are struck more by the scale of the proposed project, which would include 120 units for hotel guests (a total number that includes tents and yurts from the old property), a restaurant, an infinity pool, and a yet-unknown number of homes. They wonder, mostly, about the development’s impact on the area’s water infrastructure, and on the one worn down, unpaved road that provides access to the neighborhood; the unprecedented traffic that could traverse that road; the potential crowds and noise that could interrupt the solitude that brought them to Antelope Hills in the first place.
Longtime Antelope Hills resident Malinda Beeman, an artist who runs local dairy Marfa Maid Goat Cheese, is worried about all of these issues — but for her, the expansion also signals the loss of something less tangible. She sees it as an “inflection point” in Marfa’s slow transformation from a place marked by authenticity — where folks came in search of a way of life that was “simple” and “pure” — to a place that increasingly exists to manufacture an experience for visitors who are here today, gone tomorrow.
“The town’s becoming a service community — not even necessarily a community, a town of service workers to tourists and second-home owners,” said Beeman.
The explosion of tourism, she noted, has “enhanced” the town in many ways –– when she first moved to Marfa 24 years ago, there was only one place to eat; Highland Avenue was a far cry from the shop-lined thoroughfare of local businesses it is today. But the scales are tipping too far, she believes, and this project is symbolic of that shift.
“I think at some point, someone — or a group of people — needs to say, maybe this is enough,” she said. “Maybe we try to keep this at this level, that we maintain what’s important here and what people came here for, what’s valued here, instead of just adding more and more and more and more and more.”
She has practical concerns too — chief among them is how the resort’s water usage will impact locals’ wells. “It seems like that’s a lot of water to run in a little community in one spot,” she said. “How does that impact our aquifer, our water table?”
She wonders how travel to and from the site will be made possible along that one dirt road that pools with water when it rains, and how noise and light could impact her quality of life and the environment. She questions the safety of increased traffic along the state highway that leads to Antelope Hills Road — a poorly-lit stretch of highway that includes a sharp curve.
She doesn’t believe Antelope Hills is the best location for such a venture but acknowledges she can’t halt the project — she can, however, bring her questions and concerns to county officials, and she can organize with like-minded neighbors.
“I’m just trying to know more about it, trying to understand more, and trying to find allies, other people who share those concerns,” she said.
In fact, the formation of a neighborhood association is currently in the works — if formalized, it may bring together neighbors with varied perspectives to lobby for the community’s future, beyond Lambert’s project. Beeman is involved in talks about that group’s formation, but stressed that her opinions were hers alone, and she did not speak for anyone but herself.
Organizer Deirdre Hisler emphasized that the fledgling association was not initiated in response to El Cosmico — it first began forming months prior to the announcement, with the goal of bringing residents together to form, hopefully, a “harmonious community” that could more effectively work with county officials when it comes to shared concerns.
Hisler introduced herself at a recent commissioners court meeting as “temporary president” of the group — in conversation with The Big Bend Sentinel, she clarified the title was a stopgap measure as they register as a Property Owners’ Association with the Texas secretary of state, after which board members will be formally appointed. She said that while she has concerns about the project, her goal is not to protest or stymie its development, but to facilitate a dialogue with the developer directly. She has spoken with Lambert over the phone and was left heartened by the conversation, she said.
“I just asked that we have a place at the table to chat about what our concerns would be,” she said.
In response, said Hisler, Lambert affirmed her team had been discussing the concerns raised by residents — including concerns around the water supply and dark skies conservation — and wanted to stay in touch. “The team has been wonderful about getting back to us and having a two-way conversation,” said Hisler. They plan to meet in person when Lambert is next in town.
“I don’t think we’d get that from a Holiday Inn or whatever else might move out here,” she said.
It remains to be seen how large the group will be — Hisler estimated that they’d received responses to about a half to three-quarters of questionnaires they’d sent gauging interest.
Antelope Hills resident Kristal Cuevas was among those who received a survey and expressed interest in joining. Once news of the El Cosmico expansion broke, the group’s formation took on a new urgency — she received an email from organizers indicating, essentially, the time to band together and make their collective voices heard was now.
“We’re not entirely against it,” said Cuevas, adding that Hisler’s recounting of her conversation with Lambert made her feel hopeful about the project’s handling. Still, she was not without her concerns: “There are things that have caused us to be disappointed as residents and nearby neighbors.”
Cuevas lives in Antelope Hills full-time — a choice she and her family made due to the relative solitude. She wonders how the arrival of a 120-unit hotel with events and an annual music festival, plus the expected influx of visitors, could pierce that solitude.
“We left a big city because we wanted a more quiet space, and we found that quiet space,” said Cuevas. “This has been like a respite, a sanctuary where we can just enjoy the quiet, and we are somewhat concerned about what kind of noise this is going to bring to the area.”
Cuevas enjoys walking the neighborhood loop with her family, basking in the silence, the landscape and the surrounding wildlife; she enjoys the dark skies untouched by light pollution; she worries about the incursion of non-residential traffic and its potential to make the roads less safe for her children; she is concerned the resort’s entrance will be on Antelope Hills Road, flooding the road with visitors’ vehicles.
Then there is the matter of the area’s water supply — top of mind for residents who depend on their wells. Cuevas hoped her family would not have to pare down its water usage once the space was up and running.
The formation of a neighborhood association, she believes, will be useful in soliciting answers to her outstanding questions and addressing her concerns about the project. But it will also give residents the tools to mobilize in the future, as Marfa and the surrounding land continues to grow.
“I’m hopeful that the organization of a neighborhood association will just give us a platform to speak our minds and share our opinions, whether it be with Liz or any other concerns that come up in the future with our neighborhood,” she said.
Like Hisler and Cuevas, other residents refrain from taking a hardline position on the matter. “I’m not freaking out,” said George Hinckley, who lives part-time in an airstream in the neighborhood. “People have a right to buy land to develop. But it is concerning. I enjoy the peace and quiet out here, and I suspect that will change some.”
Others, on the other end of the spectrum from Beeman, are more inclined to feel positively about the development. Resident Mary Lou Saxon balked at the negative sentiment she’d seen from other locals — after all, she said, Antelope Hills was already changing, becoming home to new commercial enterprises, including several gallery spaces. She appreciated Lambert’s decision to publicize her plan in advance.
“What makes this one raise the ire of folks? Is it because they came out ahead of the project with transparency in the paper rather than just buy the land and install what they wanted?” she asked, alluding to Lambert’s open letter to the community, published in this newspaper, announcing the plan. “I personally think that El Cosmico is a unique and creative concept.”
In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, Lambert affirmed her commitment to being open with the community as plans solidify, and providing information as plans become more concrete — as it stands, she said, many of the practical questions on the minds of locals are still being explored.
“It’s a process of, we’ve got to figure it out,” she said. “We’ve got to figure out roads. We have to figure out water. We have to figure out sustainability on many different counts.” An investment in dark skies, she said, was among the reasons she was excited about the move — away from the bright lights of the Border Patrol building adjacent to the current site.
Part of the process moving forward, she said, is taking into account the concerns of residents. “We’re interested in feedback,” she said. “We’ve thought about feedback, we’ve thought about what the community might want and need.” She said she plans to make regular trips to Marfa, and to make herself available for feedback.
“Marfa is the home of this business,” she continued. “[El Cosmico] has been a part of the community, and an active and engaged member of the business community and the community overall — and so of course this would be our process.”
In some ways, tackling the concerns of neighbors will be a matter of applying lessons learned from 15 years of operating at the current site, said Lambert — neighbors to that site had also raised concerns about noise. “It’s not going to be that different. We’re going to be a little farther from town,” she said. “Of course, it will affect a different set of neighbors. We’ve learned a lot in the last 15 years about what the community is concerned about and, sometimes, what the community wants more of, so I hope we can apply all of those lessons.”
As for concerns about attracting or promoting more tourism, Lambert disagreed with the idea that building more hotel space will attract more visitors — in her experience, she said, Marfa’s current hotel capacity has failed to match existing tourism demands, feeding the creation of more short-term rentals. “The demand of tourism is there already, and has been for at least the last 10 or 15 years,” she said. “It’s been in short supply for hotel rooms.”
Lambert said her team is still in the process of securing the funding for the project — “we have an equity partner, and we are going through the machinations to finalize our partnership and that could take a few more months,” she said. If all goes according to plan, they plan to break ground on the development in early 2024.
County Judge Joe Portillo said he anticipates more public discourse on the matter before the project moves forward in earnest — for one, he noted, officials will likely consider the potential pavement of Antelope Hills Road, which is maintained by the county. In any case, constituents will remain informed on the development’s progress before its construction.
“There’s going to be public meetings on it,” said Portillo. “I know in discussing just the initial idea with the commissioners, they have the same questions as constituents, and they have concerns. So I don’t think they’re just going to act willy-nilly and just [say] ‘We’re going to do this.’ I don’t think that’s going to happen.”