The city may abandon controversial plans to build an arena in Downtown El Paso, replacing it instead with an indoor-outdoor entertainment complex that may incorporate elements of the Duranguito neighborhood, documents show. 

The possible changes are outlined in a site development request for qualifications issued in January. City officials issued the request based on a directive given by the City Council in November that, in part, asked for a cost estimate for the multi-million dollar 2012 quality of life bond project that has been stalled by litigation for years. Part of the directive included negotiations to resolve the legal battle regarding the Duranguito neighborhood.

“The idea that the council is willing to come to the table and have a conversation about a settlement means that the project has changed,” said city Rep. Alexsandra Annello. “Everything has had to kind of shift and I think it’s a good thing to be looking at the whole area.”

Sam Rodriguez, the city’s capital improvements director, said the bid was issued through the capital improvement department’s professional services solicitation selection program.

The description for the project in the request for qualifications issued Jan. 14 via email to pre-qualified bidders includes programming “as part of the reimagining of the Multi-Purpose Cultural and Performing Arts Center from a one-use facility into a site development with various programs.”

City Rep. Cassandra Hernandez said nothing is off the table.

“I think that there is potential to look at everything that the site could have and how the site can be developed,” Hernandez said. “I think it’s going to continue to be fluid until we can get a hold of the overall cost.”

The request also asks for a combination of indoor and outdoor spaces within the existing built environment and strategies for adaptive reuse of some of the buildings. The scope of the project would also include “industry standard concessions and food services facilities, merchandising, branding, efficient building systems, team and event support facilities and amenities, potentially as dispersed programs among the existing urban fabric, as part of the adaptive re-use of existing buildings.”

Vendor responses were required to be submitted by Feb. 18.

The city of El Paso owns most of the property in the Duranguito neighborhood, which it has identified as the site of a planned multipurpose performing arts center. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

City Rep. Peter Svarzbein said there was a clear discussion about wanting to see how some of the existing buildings could be incorporated into the multipurpose center project.

Svarzbein also said the city wants to make sure the design team understands the nuances of the project to get a sense of what it would cost and what the potential uses of the site may be.

“Without having experts that can understand a project like this, how to design a project like this, you can’t really get to the point of understanding what the cost would be,” he said.

How we got here

El Paso voters in 2012 overwhelmingly approved a bond issue to build a $180 million multipurpose cultural arts and entertainment center.

In 2016, the city issued a request for qualifications for “a mid-sized arena with a target capacity of 15,000 seats for basketball games.” The city also proposed to build it in the Duranguito neighborhood located in the Union Plaza area of Downtown the same year.

The move to build the project in the area prompted a legal battle that started in 2017 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 and land in Duranguito have historic value and should be preserved.

The initial request for proposals later scrapped the term “arena” for “facility,” but was ultimately canceled because of the ongoing litigation.

Several of the buildings were damaged in 2017 by demolition crews hired by the then-owners of some of the properties. The area was later fenced in and the damaged buildings have been deteriorating since.

City-owned properties in the Duranguito neighborhood have little protection beyond a chain-link fence around the neighborhood. Some of the buildings were damaged in 2017 by demolition crews hired by the then-owners of the property. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)

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.

City officials have said they will begin negotiations with Grossman after a consultant is hired through the request for qualifications.

Recent efforts to safeguard buildings fail

Part of the November request by the City Council included having city staff find out how much it may cost to stabilize the damaged buildings.

In January, City Council made a push to move forward with getting cost estimates for safeguarding the buildings from winter weather and potential fire damage, but the efforts were abruptly dropped in February.

The recently issued request for qualifications includes recommendations on how to safeguard the damaged buildings and options for funding sources.

Rodriguez said the city is in the process of evaluating the bids. He said once a fee and a scope for the work is established with the selected firm, they will return to the City Council for final approval.

Rodriguez said he anticipates that the process to finalize the contract will be completed by March or early April.

Cover photo: 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 demolition crews hired by previous owners. (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...