UPDATE 12:18 p.m. April 28: This story has been updated with information from the April 26 council meeting.

In another move signaling that the city may be close to settling a years-long Downtown arena legal battle, El Paso City Council on Tuesday hired a San Francisco design firm to study the future of the multipurpose and performing arts center voters approved in 2012.

By a 5-2 vote, council approved awarding a nearly $800,000 contract to San Francisco-based M. Arthur Gensler & Associates, Inc., to conduct the feasibility study council requested in November 2021. The study will examine whether the Duranguito neighborhood near the Union Plaza entertainment district can be incorporated into the design of a multipurpose complex, the costs of such a project and what type of venue should be built.

City Reps. Peter Svarzbein, Cassandra Hernandez, Isabel Salcido, Claudia Rodriguez and Henry Rivera voted in favor of hiring the firm. Reps. Alexsandra Annello and Joe Molinar voted against it, while Rep. Cissy Lizarraga was not present for the vote.

In a press release issued Tuesday, city officials said that with the hiring of the design firm, the city will begin negotiations to settle the pending lawsuit with Max Grossman, who has spearheaded litigation over the proposed arena site since 2017.

“The award of this contract comes simultaneously as we continue talks with the opposition for a good-faith resolution of the ongoing lawsuit that has halted activity on the bond project,” City Attorney Karla Nieman said this week. 

Grossman, a University of Texas at El Paso art history professor who is active in local preservation efforts, has argued that the buildings and land in Duranguito have historic value and should be preserved rather than razed to build a multipurpose arena. His lawsuit has prevented the city from proceeding with the demolition of the proposed arena site, thus stalling all construction plans.

The multi-phase feasibility study will launch in May with the final results anticipated to be presented to City Council in January 2023, city officials said.

Part of the study will include public engagement which will allow for input on the various aspects of the project — from programming to operations to cultural and historical preservation.

Gensler & Associates will explore financial models that include estimates of capital and operating costs, public-private opportunities, and preservation of historic buildings and the historic character of the Duranguito neighborhood, according to the news release.

The project description given to firms interested in conducting the feasibility study asked for ideas “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.”

In March, the council signaled a desire to preserve parts of the neighborhood when it approved spending about $29,000 to secure two damaged buildings within the initial arena project site. The city is awaiting permission from the Texas Historical Commission.

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...