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City Council approves arena cost assessment, may negotiate to resolve lawsuit

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Update 5:45 p.m. Nov. 10: On Wednesday, the day after the City Council vote on the arena, the El Paso-based 8th Court of Appeals voted 2-1 to grant Max Grossman’s appeal requesting an injunction on any further work in the Duranguito area until another court conducts a trial on his allegations that the city’s planning on the site has been improper. The court also ordered the city to pay Grossman’s legal costs for the appeal. Chief Justice Yvonne Rodriguez and Justice Gina Palafox sided with Grossman; Justice Jeff Alley dissented and sided with the city.

The El Paso City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to have city staff find out how much the proposed Downtown multipurpose arena may finally cost and to explore a possible settlement of its longtime legal battle over the site for the facility.

The decision to move forward with the cost estimate for the stalled 2012 signature bond project is a drastic change by the majority of council members, who rejected a similar item two weeks earlier.

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“I think council really was very thorough and considered how we best can represent our community,” said Mayor Oscar Leeser, who was going to veto the City Council’s decision to reject a similar item during the Oct. 26 council meeting. The previous item was ultimately deleted from the agenda.

City Council revisited a similar item that included more detailed instructions Tuesday.

“What was being proposed previously, in my opinion, was very ambiguous and didn’t provide clear direction. The last thing we want to do is to mislead the public with a ‘guesstimate,’” said City Rep. Isabel Salcido. “We need something that’s going to be more accurate. While the city staff does excellent work, they are not experts in this field and I think we need experts to input when dealing with a project of this large scale.”

The item approved Tuesday directs city staff to develop cost estimates and hire consultants for the project that include economic-impact analysis and programming operations. The item was also amended to direct the city to incorporate the preservation of historic buildings and historic character in the project.

City staff was also directed to find out how much it may cost to stabilize the damaged buildings within the fenced-in area of the arena site located in the Duranguito neighborhood in the Union Plaza area of Downtown. Several of the buildings were damaged in 2017 by crews hired by the city.

City Rep. Alexsandra Annello said she has been advocating for the city to address the damaged buildings for a long time.

“I don’t believe that we have been responsible with these buildings or this neighborhood. I do think these buildings are structurally unsound, they are unsafe and I think that we should be doing something about it,” Annello said.

Fencing surrounds El Paso’s Duranguito neighborhood, where a plan for the construction of an arena has prompted years of lawsuits and activism by neighborhood preservationists. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso voters in 2012 overwhelmingly approved a $180 million bond issue to build a multipurpose event center, which the city later proposed to build in the Duranguito neighborhood.

The move to build the project in the area prompted a years-long legal battle between the city and Max Grossman, a University of Texas at El Paso art history professor who has been active in historic preservation efforts. Grossman has argued that the buildings in Duranguito have historic value and should be preserved.

City Council Tuesday also directed the city manager and the city attorney engage in discussions to identify options to resolve the ongoing litigation.

“I look forward to entering into good-faith discussions with the City of El Paso aimed at finding a solution that will preserve the buildings within the ‘arena footprint,’” Grossman said in an emailed statement.

Other efforts to negotiate a settlement with J.P. Bryan, a retired Houston oilman who has funded Grossman’s legal battle against the city, have previously failed.

Bryan reached out to Leeser in March in an effort to discuss possibly ending the lawsuits and he  unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a settlement of the lawsuits in 2018 with then-Mayor Dee Margo and El Paso businessman Woody Hunt, El Paso Inc. reported.

Tuesday’s items and amendments were approved by City Council unanimously after an hour of discussion before going into executive session.

Max Grossman, associate professor of art history at UTEP, has been in a legal fight with the city for years. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

During the public discussion, city Rep. Claudia Rodriguez spoke of the historic and architectural value in the Union Plaza area.

“I myself have a bachelor’s in architecture. I went to school, literally in Union Plaza. So I’m very familiar with the area,” she said. “It doesn’t take somebody from out of town to come and tell me what the value of that neighborhood is. So with that said, I am glad that we’re finally having this conversation; it’s a very important conversation to have for this council to become united.”

City Rep. Peter Svarzbein said he has advocated for urban design as part of the project.

“I have a sense of what we’re talking about with urban design and architecture, as well as looking at creativity and looking at things from multiple perspectives to come up with something profound and great,” he said.

Svarzbein said Tuesday that discussions in 2016 about the arena included incorporating existing structures in Duranguito into the facade and design of the multipurpose center.

Rodriguez responded harshly to that idea.

“When I mean save the buildings, I mean save the buildings, not take a Mickey Mouse, Toontown approach and save the facades,” she said.

City officials did not say how long it would take to return to the City Council with cost estimates, or a timeline for possible negotiations on the pending litigation.

Cover photo: Fencing obscures the view of El Paso’s Duranguito neighborhood, the proposed location for the city’s multipurpose arena. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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