Preliminary findings from a new study on the potential costs of the stalled Downtown arena show it could be smaller than initially proposed, but the inclusion of existing Duranguito buildings remains uncertain.

The city is paying the San Francisco-based M. Arthur Gensler & Associates, Inc. architectural firm about $800,000 for a feasibility study that will determine the costs for the project, what type of venue should be built and whether it could incorporate existing neighborhood buildings – a move that could help end a years-long legal battle.

Daniela Quesada, the city’s chief architect, said initial findings show the El Paso market may be able to sustain a venue with a seating capacity of 8,000 to 10,000 people, which is comparable to the arenas in Irving, Texas, and Allentown, Pa. Gensler designed the Toyota Music Factory arena in Irving. That capacity is lower than the 15,000-seat arena considered in 2016 for El Paso.

The latest findings were presented to the public Thursday during an information session at the El Paso Museum of Art. About 70 people attended the meeting where they were able to give feedback on what sort of features they would like to see in the project.

“One of the deliverables that the consultants are going to give us are different strategies and different opportunities of how we could adaptively reuse some of the existing buildings within the site,” Quesada said in an interview with El Paso Matters.

Sam Rodriguez, the city’s chief operations officer, said the feasibility study will help determine what gets recommended to council as far as the conditions and viability of the buildings within the arena site. The final study, with updated cost estimates, is expected to be completed by early 2023.

“At the end of the day we can spend a lot of money to make a structure structurally sound even if it is in shambles,” he said. “At this point it’s about how much it’s going to cost and how feasible it is to incorporate (them).”

El Pasoans view proposals and ask questions at the city’s presentation on the Downtown arena at the El Paso Museum of Art on Thursday, Sept. 15. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Quesada presented initial findings to the City Council last week. She said the firm is not ready to incorporate existing buildings in Duranguito because they are assessing the structural condition of those buildings.

“I think it’s only fair that we let the consultants run their structural engineering assessment which they’re in the middle of completing now,” she said, adding the results may be presented to the City Council in October.

Damaged buildings

Multiple buildings within the arena site were damaged in 2017 by demolition crews hired by the property owners after the city issued a demolition permit. The buildings have been deteriorating over the last five years. In March, the City Council approved spending about $29,000 to secure two of the buildings after previous efforts fizzled out.

The initial directive to secure buildings was approved by the council in November, but the extent of the work and funding was not approved until five months later.

Alfredo Reyes, chief construction inspector, said steel jacks, roof and wood braces and window coverings were placed in the Flor de Luna building at 300 W. Overland Ave. in June, according to emails obtained by El Paso Matters through the Texas Public Information Act.

The emails also show engineering staff started weekly inspections of the site in January after the City Council resumed talks on securing the buildings.

“Photos for this month, site condition were taken yesterday morning, uploaded to engineering P Drive – buildings condition do not show any signs of deterioration since last month, with the exception of the Flor de Luna building … vandalized with graffiti,” Reyes said in an April 19 email sent to other construction staff as well as Quesada.

City officials said the remaining work to stabilize the Chinese Laundry building at 212 W. Overland and the Flor de Luna Building was completed in June. That work included protecting the roof of the Chinese Laundry and sealing the large hole in the front of the Flor de Luna building with bricks.

Community feedback

As Gensler continues collecting data, initial research findings were presented to the public during the interactive meeting Thursday.

The city had large informational boards set out on tables for people to place stickers on things they liked or disliked about the potential uses of the project.

El Pasoans place red or green stickers to indicate their like or dislike for proposals related to the multi-purpose performing arts and entertainment center at the El Paso Museum of Art on Thursday, Sept. 15. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Participants placed stickers and notes on categories such as restaurants, entertainment, sports and other activities. They were also able to place stickers on which layout of the site they preferred including options on how many of the existing buildings to keep.

Ana Reza, a community advocate and outspoken opponent of the Downtown arena project, placed pink post-it notes that read “Don’t destroy historic barrio Duranguito” and “cleaned up existing conditions” on nearly all of the boards.

“We just want people to say ‘hey this is your history, we’re excited, let’s celebrate it and make a historical district,’ but instead more and more of our taxpayer money is being wasted to do this study,” Reza said.

Moises Flores said he is looking forward to the project for Downtown El Paso and to see how it develops.

Flores said his family never used to spend time or money Downtown when he was growing up, but now that he has two young daughters, they have spent thousands of dollars in the area. He attended the meeting to learn about how the project is developing and said he has no expectations or preferences about the final product and that it will benefit future generations.

“I love the momentum that is taking place Downtown,” Flores said. “I think it’s about more than one neighborhood, I think it’s about all neighborhoods.”

Asked if he had a preference about whether existing buildings should be incorporated into the project, Flores said, “however it’s built, whatever it looks like, it will be interesting to see.”

Remaining budget, comparable arenas

El Paso voters in 2012 approved $180 million for a Multipurpose Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Downtown. The project has been stalled in Texas courts since 2017, not long after the city chose to build the project in the Duranguito neighborhood near the Union Plaza.

The city has about $155 million of the $180 million budget left, with funds already used to buy out buildings, consulting, appraisals and engineering charges among other expenses. The city has separately spent about $3.3 million for ongoing litigation.

City officials in 2016 issued a request for qualifications that initially proposed a 15,000-seat arena that could accommodate basketball. That request was ultimately scrapped due to litigation.

The Gensler firm identified two arenas that it considered comparable benchmarks based on a variety of factors, including similar-sized markets and flexible building programs such as combination indoor and outdoor facilities.

El Pasoans left behind sticky notes with messages mostly opposing the Downtown arena project. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

The PPL Center in Allentown is city-owned, has a 10,500 indoor capacity, and hosts a variety of events, including sports, performances and private events. The arena cost $177 million to build in 2014, according to the presentation given to the City Council Aug. 12.

The Toyota Music Factory in Irving is city-owned and leased to the ARK Group, a real estate development firm based in North Carolina. The hybrid indoor/outdoor arena built in 2017 seats 8,000 and cost about $180 million to build, according to the Dallas Morning News.

The presentation given to the City Council Monday shows the Irving arena cost at $50 million. Asked about the cost difference, city officials said the $50 million was for the venue itself and the remainder of the cost was for the entire 17-acre mixed-use development that includes restaurants, bars and an open-air pavilion. The ARK Group confirmed the figures.

“This feasibility study is really looking at economic impact, so economic feasibility, and also understanding the market and what our market can sustain,” Quesada said.

How to give feedback:

The city is conducting a survey for public feedback as part of the feasibility study for the Multipurpose Cultural and Performing Arts Center online at Elevate El Paso.

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...