The Paso del Sur group on Monday asked the El Paso County Commissioners Court to look into buying the buildings in the Duranguito neighborhood from the city and redevelop the area. 

The county, however, did not commit to anything other than to try to get a meeting set up with the El Paso City Council to see what’s possible.

The Commissioners Court heard a presentation from El Paso architect Martina Lorey and David Romo, a member of the Paso del Sur group that has been active in trying to protect the area since the city first voted to build the Downtown multipurpose performing arts and entertainment center there in 2016.

“We want to make sure that the residents themselves get to stay in their neighborhood and enjoy the fruits of progress,” Romo said. “Our plans imagine creative ways to provide services and jobs to residents while making the spaces attractive to visitors as well.”

While the county took no action on the presentation, Betsy Keller, the county’s chief administrator, said she would return to the County Commissioners Court next week with an item to set up a joint meeting with the City Council.

“I think by having everybody at the table and having that discussion, then it’s out in the open,” said El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego.

The City Council abandoned Duranguito – a neighborhood located in the Union Plaza area of Downtown El Paso – as the site for the future Downtown arena on Jan. 3. During that meeting, the Council did not give city staff a directive on when to return with recommendations on what to do with the buildings located within the former footprint. The area remains neglected and fenced in.

The city owns the properties within the former Downtown arena footprint and would have final say in whether the county could purchase the buildings.

“If there would be a benefit to have a joint meeting with the County in the future and a clear goal for doing so, we can consider that as well. We are not at that point at this time,” Mayor Oscar Leeser said in an emailed statement to El Paso Matters.

Leeser said the city is looking into all possibilities, and would consider selling the buildings to the County as with any other offer. He also said appraisals for the properties are expected in April and the city can move forward based on that information.

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)

“I believe that the county has a critical role to play in this,” said County Commissioner David Stout, who placed the item on the county agenda. He added that helping to restore the Duranguito area falls within the county’s strategic plan to develop heritage tourism.

Romo shared a plan that was community generated and aims to reactivate the area. The plan included options such as mixed-use indoor and outdoor spaces that preserve the buildings that could qualify for historic designations and spaces such as a community health center, Chinese American heritage center, museums and low-income housing. 

Details about how the county would pay for the buildings were not discussed.

The proposal also calls for the county to then sell or lease the buildings to non-profit organizations that would follow the plan’s guidelines.

“This is a historic moment, we have an incredible opportunity to create a model for the restoration of this neighborhood that not only fixes damaged buildings but heals a community that was deliberately displaced,” Romo said.

El Paso voters in 2012 approved $180 million for a Multipurpose Performing Arts and Entertainment Center in Downtown. The project was stalled in Texas courts since 2017, not long after the city chose to build the project in the Duranguito neighborhood. The city ended litigation in mid-January.

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.

Although the City Council has not publicly discussed future plans for the properties within the former arena footprint since January, last week the Council authorized paying the San Francisco-based M. Arthur Gensler & Associates, Inc. architectural firm up to $25,000 to look at other possible sites for the arena project.

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...