City representatives’ efforts to have the damaged and crumbling buildings protected from the elements and potential fire damage in the site of the Downtown multipurpose arena have fizzled out.
Nearly three months after the City Council first requested city staff provide cost estimates for what it would take to secure and protect the buildings, the structures will — for now — remain exposed to the elements.
Staff was prepared to present a plan to safeguard the buildings during the Jan. 31 City Council work session, but city representatives voted to move the item into executive session to discuss the matter behind closed doors.
After an hours-long discussion City Council emerged and scrapped the item without hearing the presentation.
“I really don’t know what’s gonna happen,” city Rep. Joe Molinar said, adding that he voted against discussing the item in executive session and could not give too many details. “We’ll have to wait and see, that’s the best thing I can tell you right now.”
The move to scrap the plan comes after nearly three months since the City Council unanimously voted on a series of motions that included having city staff 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 demolition crews hired by the property owners after the city issued a demolition permit.
Molinar and city Reps. Alexsandra Annello and Claudia Rodriguez placed an item on a meeting agenda at the beginning of January that requested city staff return with a plan to secure the buildings during winter months and from winter weather and potential fire damage. Rodriguez could not be reached for comment.
Annello said the push to secure the buildings from the beginning of January is dead based on the Jan. 31 meeting, but the city is still addressing the November requests to develop cost estimates and hire consultants for the project that include economic-impact analysis and programming operations. The item also directed the city to incorporate the preservation of historic buildings and historic character in the project.
“So nothing is going to be done to these buildings until, earliest, this summer,” Annello said.
On Jan. 19 the City Council voted to instruct city staff to safeguard the damaged buildings without touching or entering the structures and return with cost estimates for further securing the buildings.
Back-up documents show city staff was prepared to present a plan on Jan. 31 to build plywood coverings at key entrances. City documents show it would have cost about $50,000 to protect damaged buildings.
The plan called for boarding up the building by removing and reclaiming fallen bricks and debris, setting concrete cubes to brace frames and support plywood, creating frames with plywood to board up and brace the openings as needed as well as boarding four window openings.
“Staff took the direction and staff had a whole presentation to give but didn’t give it because council didn’t want to have the conversation,” Annello said. “This isn’t supposed to be controversial.”
Annello and Molinar said the historic fire on Friday that nearly obliterated the 116-year-old De Soto Hotel building in the heart of Downtown El Paso is an example of why the city should be proactive in safeguarding the buildings in the arena site.
“When a building burns, you don’t just lose a building, people around it are impacted,” Annello said. “It’s a real public safety and economic concern.”
City officials are trying to determine what can legally be done to protect the damaged buildings while negotiations to resolve a years-long legal battle over the site continue.
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.
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 the conclusion of an appeal at the Texas Supreme Court.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated who hired demolition crews for Duranguito in 2017.
Cover photo: The city government has closed off the Duranguito neighborhood in Downtown El Paso as legal and political fights continue. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)