By Peter Svarzbein

Compromise is something of a challenging word these days. Nationally, we have seen this play out in the dysfunction and lack of action of our federal leadership on a myriad of issues over decades. But locally we are seeing how difficult compromise is too. This is unfortunate because many times, when we compromise we can get better solutions for our community.

Peter Svarzbein

This week we will have an opportunity to finally learn about the multipurpose center project, unless that presentation and discussion is silenced by opponents of this voter-approved project.

The design and feasibility study deals with most groups’ concerns with the city’s Downtown multipurpose center and will be presented for the first time at City Council on Tuesday, Jan. 3.

The current design recommendation by Gensler, a design firm hired for this $800,000 design and feasibility study is truly a compromise solution, that delivers a multipurpose center project under budget, and leaves the historic and residential buildings in the MPC footprint area untouched for a walkable heritage pavilion, while also continuing the economic momentum of downtown and provides an economic anchor for entertainment and heritage tourism in our community, as well as honoring the will of voters in 2012.

The feasibility and design study developed by Gensler was a data-led process that looked at multiple data points, including market assessment, program analysis, architectural/structural assessment, economic impact analysis, and community input. 

These existing structures would be preserved under an arena plan to be presented to City Council on Tuesday, Jan. 3. (Photo courtesy city of El Paso)

Out of this process a number of important points were made that will not only allow this facility to be built under the budget of the voter approved $180 million but will have money to be able to invest in preserving and rehabilitating historic structures within the Union Plaza/ MPC footprint.

For example, the price to construct the hybrid option will come in at $142 million, with the entertainment facility occupying mostly vacant parking lots and non-historic warehouses along Santa Fe street and Paisano. This compromise option based upon market research and community input could lead to possibly $10 million or more to preserve seven buildings identified as culturally significant, including the Chinese laundry, the Mansion as well as the Grocery Gallery building.

Gensler has identified a clear market gap and confirmed with entertainment industry experts on the need for a modern mid-sized to large facility. Currently, according to this market analysis, there are over 80 events our community is missing out on as the only facility close to this size is the antiquated and dilapidated El Paso County Coliseum.

Opponents of the MPC believe that these building will fix themselves through federal and state tax credits given to the private sector, yet the fact remains that just abandoning this MPC/arena project to spend money on the convention center does not offer funds to fix up historic structures, not to mention voters in 2012 did not approve for money to spend to rehabilitate our convention center. 

The only plan that does offer the opportunity for funds for historic preservation in the Union Plaza area is the hybrid option being presented to council on Tuesday. Our community deserves the respect of hearing the options being presented on Tuesday and having a deliberate and informed discussion about what is best for our future.

These buildings in Duranguito would be demolished as part of a plan to build an arena in Downtown El Paso. (Photo courtesy city of El Paso)

Aside from this, the MPC project will offer a number of benefits to citizens in El Paso. The site plan for both options preserves open public areas that create a porous/accessible destination with open spaces which means people will be able to enjoy the neighborhood and historic nature without having to buy a ticket at the new multipurpose center. 

Fortunately, as the historic buildings identified are brought back online, they provide a unique opportunity of adaptive re-use of buildings by local business as well. This synergy between new facilities and enhanced historic and public spaces will only elevate and expand our convention center campus. 

We are already seeing real results with our strategic vision to help bring online more hotels for conventions Downtown, but as already shown by the 3,000-person strong Texas American Institute of Architects convention in October 2022, more meeting and programmable convention space is needed outside of what the convention center already offers. The new hybrid option identified by this study does just that.

The idea of finding a compromise between honoring the will of the voters and concerns for residents, historians and others in the communities has been something I have been concerned about since this project location was first publicly announced in the beginning of my first term on City Council in 2015. Many in District 1 and El Paso have been excited to see this project executed. 

Finally, after many years of passionate opinions on all sides and other obstacles, we finally have a path forward based on compromise which honors the will of the voters of 2012 while respecting, elevating and funding our history. The City Council should really reflect on the opportunity presented by the hybrid option and not just throw away our Downtown future without some thoughtfulness and time to see all options. 

To view the Gensler presentation referenced above for theTuesday, Jan. 3, City Council meeting, click on this link.

Peter Svarzbein has represented District 1 on El Paso City Council since 2015. His term expires on Jan. 3, before the next City Council meeting.