Dear Mayor and City Council,
In 2017, the El Paso County Commissioners Court conducted an architectural survey of Downtown El Paso and the adjacent barrios, and in 2020 they unanimously nominated both Downtown and the Segundo Barrio to the National Register of Historic Places.
After approval by both the Texas Historical Commission (THC) and the National Park Service (NPS), the Segundo Barrio National Register Historic District was established on November 3, 2021.
Before that date, there was only a single Segundo Barrio property listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Now there are 686, most of which are now eligible for state and federal tax credits that can pay for up to 45% of renovation costs.
Fr. Rafael Garcia and I are co-chairing the effort to restore Sacred Heart Church, and we expect to receive a tax credit of about $650,000 because the building is a contributing property within the new historic district. We could not complete this project without those funds.
Unfortunately, former Mayor Dee Margo sent the Texas Historical Commission a letter opposing the establishment of a Downtown National Register Historic District, and this is a primary reason why the County plan has been stalled.
NO REGULATIONS FOR PRIVATE PROPERTY OWNERS
The THC makes perfectly clear that a “National Register designation imposes no restrictions on property owners.” Likewise, the NPS affirms that the “National Register places no restrictions on what a non-federal owner may do with their property up to and including destruction.”
The only exceptions are if a property owner (1) wishes to restore her/her building using the federal and/or state tax credits, or (2) the building is part of a project that receives Federal assistance.
Some have confused the local Downtown H-Overlay District, which was established in 1992 and is regulated by the City’s Historic Landmark Commission, with the proposed Downtown National Register Historic District, which would come with no regulations for private property owners. My attached map shows the boundaries of these two areas.
Certain investors have claimed publicly that a National Register Historic District will regulate private property owners and thus impose an onerous burden upon them.
This is absolutely false.
If you still harbor any doubts, please consult your Historic Preservation Officer, Providencia Velazquez, for clarification. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 915-212-1567.
KEMP SMITH LAW FIRM SOWS CONFUSION
On February 17, Mark Osborn and Gene Wolf of the law firm Kemp Smith, LLP led an effort to kill the proposed National Register Historic District for Downtown El Paso.
In order to achieve this, 51% of all property owners within the boundaries of the proposed district would need to object, so the two men, who claimed to be working pro-bono for the good of the community, sent a letter to every property owner in downtown El Paso inviting them to formally oppose the County’s project.
They feared that the establishment of the new district would prevent the construction of an arena in Duranguito. In fact, under state law, any Texan can nominate a publicly owned National Register property to be a State Antiquities Landmark, a status that confers some protection against modification or demolition.
Since 12 of the 14 buildings in the former “Arena Footprint” are owned by the City, Osborn and Wolf were concerned that a National Register designation would mean that someone would apply to have them converted into State Antiquities Landmarks.
They also pointed to a rogue ordinance in the City Code, 20.20.080(A)(1), that purports to regulate National Register properties, even though Assistant City Attorney Russell T. Abeln gave a public 8-minute presentation clarifying that the ordinance is unenforceable and a violation of federal law. (In fact, the ordinance was unanimously voted out of existence by the City Plan Commission this past Thursday, and that result will soon be presented to you for ratification).
Of course, Osborn was the lead counsel for the City in the six-year legal battle over the arena.
When the Texas State Board of Review of the THC took up the question of establishing a National Register Historic District in our downtown, Paul Foster appeared during public comment in order to register his opposition.
This is the same Paul Foster who used historic tax credits to restore the Anson Mills Building, the White House Building, the Hilton, and now the Kress!
In any case, because the City Council voted on January 3 to move the arena project out of Duranguito and then accepted my terms for ending the arena litigation, Kemp Smith’s effort to kill the proposed district is now pointless.
EFFORT TO KILL THE HISTORIC DISTRICT FAILS
The application to establish the Downtown El Paso National Register Historic District has been stalled at the THC for more than two years, but I can tell you that Kemp Smith failed in its effort to kill the project, which is very much alive and needs one final push for approval.
CITY COUNCIL TO VOTE TUESDAY
Until now, only the County supported this project, with former Mayor Dee Margo presenting the City’s opposition to the THC. That was back when our City Council was dominated by the Oligarchy Caucus, which consistently obeyed the pro-arena developers
Those days are over
We now have a City Council that is dominated by thoughtful, independent-minded representatives who care deeply about the plight of the taxpayers and consistently vote for their interests.
I feel confident that you fully understand the benefits of a National Register Historic District and that there is no downside
You understand that restoring our historic building stock and promoting our City’s rich history will catalyze heritage tourism and drive downtown development more than a $500 million multipurpose G-League basketball arena ever could have
You understand that restoring buildings and putting them back into productive use increases their taxable value and thus lessens the property tax burden of El Pasoans at large.
You also understand that there will be no solution for Duranguito unless the Downtown El Paso National Register Historic District is created and historic tax credits are conferred upon those 12 properties.
Only then can they be resold to the private sector!
The credits will be available for a total 191 downtown properties, whereas currently there are only 26 tax-credit-eligible downtown properties on the National Register of Historic Places (four of which were restored by Paul Foster using—you guessed it—tax credits).
This coming Tuesday, you will vote on agenda item 15, posted by Rep. Chris Canales of District 8, who represents our Downtown.
The item reads: “Discussion and action requesting that the Mayor send a letter on behalf of the
City of El Paso to the Texas Historical Commission in support of the National Register of Historic Places nomination of the proposed Downtown El Paso
Historic District, the boundaries of such as originally proposed by El Paso County on June 29, 2020.”
I strongly urge you to vote “YES” on this item so that the City can join the County in support of a project that will ultimately benefit every El Pasoan.
Max Grossman, PhD
Board of Directors