Update, 5:30 p.m. Jan. 19: El Paso City Council on Tuesday instructed city staff to safeguard the damaged buildings without touching or entering the structures and return in two weeks with cost estimates for further securing the buildings.
City Reps. Alexsandra Annello, Joe Molinar and Claudia Rodriguez voted against the motion. City Reps. Cassandra Hernandez, Henry Rivera, Cissy Lizarraga and Peter Svarzbein voted in favor. City Rep. Isabel Salcido was not present for the vote.
Original story:

Following a contentious discussion earlier this month about what the city can do to weatherize damaged buildings where the city proposes to build the Downtown arena, City Council will revisit the topic during a work session Tuesday.

At issue is what the city can legally do to protect the damaged buildings in Duranguito, a fenced-in area of Union Plaza, while negotiations to resolve a years-long legal battle over the site continue.

Several of the buildings were damaged in 2017 by crews hired by the property owners after the city issued a demolition permit.

The negotiations are 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 Attorney Karla Nieman, in an emailed statement to El Paso Matters, said during the last five years Grossman has been in litigation with the city, he has filed a minimum of 10 temporary restraining orders to prohibit any work within the perimeter of the arena footprint regardless of whether it was to protect the structures or to secure them from further deterioration.

“At this point, any attempt by the city to do anything beyond the existing fencing and its continual upkeep, and the continuous patrolling of the perimeter, will likely result in Mr. Grossman alleging we are in violation of the agreement among the parties and will result in yet another filing with the courts,” Nieman said.

Grossman declined to comment due to the negotiations with the city.

City Rep. Alexsandra Annello said the issue is about public safety and being responsible with city-owned buildings, not historic preservation or the Downtown arena project. The city purchased most of the buildings in the Duranguito neighborhood to clear the way for an arena, also called a multipurpose performing arts center.

“We have the authority to board up and protect abandoned buildings. If we expect other homeowners, private homeowners to do this and we’re not doing it to our own buildings it’s hypocritical and irresponsible,” she said.

City Rep. Joe Molinar said he wants to make sure the buildings don’t fall into further disrepair.

“I completely understand we are still in litigation that has not been resolved and we have to be careful on how we proceed,” Molinar said.

The City of El Paso owns a number of buildings within the Duranguito neighborhood that are deteriorating, in part because of damage inflicted in 2017 by city-hired work crews. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

In November, the El Paso-based 8th Court of Appeals granted Grossman an 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.

Nieman said the city had been prohibited by a temporary restraining order from proceeding with an archeological study as permitted by the Texas Historical Commission.

She said the 8th Court of Appeals ruled against the city and found that Grossman could sue regarding the validity of the historical commission permit and instructed 384th District Court Judge Patrick Garcia to issue a temporary restraining order to prohibit the city from doing the archeological study until a final trial of the case in his court.

Nieman said the city filed a petition for review with the Texas Supreme Court to overturn the opinion of the 8th Court of Appeals.

She said the city and Grossman have entered into an agreement that the city will not proceed under a Texas Historical Commission permit until either there is a settlement agreement among the parties or until 30 days after a conclusion of the appeal at the Texas Supreme Court.

“As a result of the agreement with Grossman, the city would need to notify him prior to any activity taking place within the footprint of the MPC (multipurpose performing arts center),” Nieman said.

More than 10 weeks have passed since the City Council directed staff to begin the negotiations, hire consultants to determine what the arena project may cost and what it will cost to stabilize the damaged buildings.

During the first meeting of January, Annello, Molinar and Rep. Isabel Salcido placed an item on the agenda to discuss and take action on “a plan to secure Union Plaza area during winter months from winter weather and potential fire damage.”

Salcido did not respond to El Paso Matters’ request for comment.

City staff and the City Attorney’s Office did not have a recommendation or plan to present to the City Council at that earlier meeting.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the capital improvements department will present what options are available to protect the buildings. There is also an item on the executive session agenda to discuss the negotiations with Grossman to resolve the litigation.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated who hired demolition crews for Duranguito in 2017.

Cover photo: Contractors hired by the city knocked a hole in the exterior wall of the Flor de Luna building in the Duranguito neighborhood in 2017. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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...