El Paso City Council drops proposed “arena” location in Union Plaza
EL PASO, Texas (KTEP) - The El Paso City Council forwent proposals to send a planned arena project in Downtown to a ballot or have citywide meetings on whether to construct the project.
Instead, the council voted narrowly to abandon plans for a multipurpose performing arts and entertainment center proposal after years of opposition and litigation. The vote effectively removed the “Duranguito” neighborhood in Union Plaza from the footprint of the proposed project.
City Reps. Alexandra Annello, Chris Canales, Art Fierro, and Joe Molinar voted to reallocate funds for the arena into improvements to existing city facilities or repurpose bond money for the center on Tuesday. Reps. Cassandra Hernandez, Henry Rivera and Isabel Salcido voted against the idea. Newly elected city Rep. Brian Kennedy abstained from the vote.
The vote came the same day San Francisco-based M. Arthur Gensler & Associates, Inc. provided findings from a feasibility study on the proposed multipurpose center. The firm studied ways to incorporate damaged buildings in the proposed footprint of the project into a newly constructed facility.
“This issue is not just about historic preservation. It is not about adaptive reuse for buildings, it’s about our community,” Annello said.
Tuesday’s meeting lasted hours as 80 individuals lined up to speak about their views on the arena project. Community advocates, business leaders and other speakers were given three minutes each to speak.
Arena opponents spoke against the destruction of buildings in the “Duranguito” neighborhood as a way to preserve the remaining community. And, Pro-arena advocates spoke of the benefit the project could provide for the private sector.
Billionaire Paul Foster in a written statement called the project a "critical piece" of Downtown revitalization efforts. But Antonia Morales, who still lives in the Duranguito neighborhood, called on the council to abandon the project.
The Multipurpose Performing Arts and Entertainment Center is one of three signature projects funded through the 2012 Quality of Life bond initiative. The bond provided $180 million for the project.
For years, the project stalled after historic preservationist Max Grossman and residents in the neighborhood filed lawsuits against the city.
The city’s recent plans for the project were to construct a 15,000 seat event center for sports, concerts and other traveling acts. A study by Gensler & Associates suggested a 15,000 seat arena would cost $482.9 million, a little more than $302 million allocated in the bond initiative.
The study also included options to incorporate buildings in the "Duranguito" neighborhood damaged by construction crews in 2017.
But a hybrid venue option was also presented within $113 million that could seat 4,000 people indoors and 4,000 outdoors. The estimate assumed the city of El Paso would own the facility without a sports team tenant or private operator.
Properties within the former proposed footprint of the arena are almost entirely vacant. The masterplan area included “Duranguito,” and apartment buildings around the streets of Chihuahua and Overland.
The city spent nearly $12 million to acquire homes and business properties within the footprint. Public dollars were also spent on moving tenants to new housing in other parts of the city. In total, nearly $17 million were spent over the last several years, according to Robert Cortinas the city’s chief financial officer.
District 3 city Rep. Cassandra Hernandez petitioned her colleagues for 82 days to postpone Tuesday’s vote over concerns about legal challenges. Her request for community-wide meetings to survey residents was denied by her colleagues.
Hernandez said the city-funded feasibility study planned to incorporate buildings owned by the city within the center’s proposed footprint. Estimates and examples by Gensler & Associates would not displace residents and provided a solution to saving damaged buildings within the project’s footprint, she added.
“I feel there is a lot of risk with the proposal here today and it’s my duty to protect the taxpayer to make sure that we’re not sued,” Hernandez said. “And, if we are, we have a defensible argument.”
Newly elected District 8 city representative Chris Canales did not agree with Hernandez.
“Displacement of people doesn’t necessarily mean that you put a building where their house used to be,” Canales said. “People are displaced in other ways by increasing property values being passed to them in their rents. People are displaced by having a loud concert venue being built next to their house and they can’t sleep anymore.”
City attorney Karla Nieman said the multipurpose center project has drawn various legal challenges and asked the council to postpone their vote.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if the council was faced with more legal battles as a result of an action that was taken here today,” Nieman said. “There are still questions that I think the legal team needs to vet and discuss and be able to give you a more thorough explanation of potential ramifications of a vote.”
In 2019, the Texas 8th Court of Appeals placed a temporary ban on demolition of the Union Plaza neighborhood’s buildings. The ban coincided with an agreement to have Moore Archaeological Consulting Inc. conduct a survey of the ground beneath the neighborhood.
Historic preservationist Max Grossman says nearly 1,000 Apache men, women and children once lived within the area in the late 1700s. And, the remains of their encampment may be underneath the neighborhood.
The book by Mark Santiago called “A Bad Peace and a Good War: Spain and the Mescalero Apache Uprising of 1795-1799” refers to “peace camps” established along the Rio Grande.
A social media campaign led by Abel Legaspy attacked Grossman for his historic preservation advocacy. Signs from Legaspy’s “Free Downtown El Paso” were draped on fences in the Union Plaza neighborhood with Grossman’s likeness over the weekend.
Legaspy said the signs were a “shout out” to Grossman.