Dear Friends and Media:
City Attorney Karla Nieman, at the behest of five members of City Council, and Joe Gudenrath, Executive Director of the Downtown Management District (DMD), are attempting to kill the County’s project to establish the Downtown National Historic District. They both wrote letters to the Texas Historical Commission (THC) urging them to exclude 13 “Arena Footprint” properties that are eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places from the proposed district. Yet, they know that any delay in the application process would mean that key deadlines would be missed, the County survey conducted by Hardy-Heck-Moore of Austin would expire, and thus the plan–which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of County employee hours–would be scrapped. The THC is scheduled to take up the matter on January 16.
The project to establish a National Historic District in downtown El Paso began in the El Paso County Historical Commission in 2013. The following year, it was taken up by the City, which won $71,000 in grants from the THC and Summerlee Foundation to fund the required architectural survey. But on July 20, 2015 the City voted 6-2 to reject the plan at the behest of Joe Gudenrath of the Downtown Management District, Rep. Cortney Niland of District 8, and Jessica Herrera of Economic Development. The grant money was returned. Immediately afterwards, the County took over the same plan and on February 8, 2016 voted 5-0 to proceed with an architectural survey. After more than four years of work, the County Commissioners Court finalized the boundaries of the district by a vote of 5-0 this past June 29, and Hardy-Heck-Moore began preparing the final application for the THC.
The proposed district will not impose any regulations on property owners, who will be free to dispose of their buildings as they see fit. But it does come with federal and state tax credits that can pay for up to 45% of renovation costs, which would encourage historic preservation and promote heritage tourism. The new historic district will include 195 tax-credit-eligible historic properties, with tax credits potentially worth more than a quarter billion dollars. It took Mr. Gudenrath some years to appreciate the tremendous economic opportunity of the County’s plan. This past summer he told County Commissioner David Stout of Precinct 2 that he would not oppose the district. In fact, the DMD presented no opposition to the district at any point in the process, nor did the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce, property owners, or neighborhood groups. In fact, the project has been enthusiastically supported by letters from Mark Wolfe, Executive of Director of the Texas Historical Commission, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, numerous major downtown stakeholders, and even Adair Margo. I can forward these letters upon request.
THC LETTER TO MARGO
On November 10, Greg Smith of the THC wrote a letter to Mayor Dee Margo (attached) to inform the City that the THC would review the County’s nomination of our downtown this coming January 16. Mr. Smith provided the Mayor with a copy of the draft nomination and invited him and the City’s Historic Landmark Commission to submit their opinions in regard to the nomination.
NIEMAN’S REPLY TO THE THC
To review, on September 15, Rep. Cassandra Hernandez of District 3 put forth a motion “to recommend the nomination of downtown and Segundo Barrio projects and to remove the multipurpose center boundaries from the project.” The motion passed 6-2, with Reps. Annello and Rodriguez dissenting. This bizarre motion had no legal force since the City has no authority to intervene in the County’s plan. Then on December 14, under Executive Session item 4, the City Council voted 5-3, with Reps. Svarzbein, Annello and Rodriguez dissenting, to send the THC a letter asking them to exclude the city-owned “Arena Footprint” properties from the new district. The item was titled: “Texas Historical Commission request for opinion regarding the nomination of the Downtown El Paso Historic District nomination to the national Register of Historic Places.”
On December 23, City Attorney Karla Nieman sent the attached letter to Greg Smith of the THC, providing Margo’s opinion that the THC should exclude the “Arena Footprint” properties from the proposed district. In her letter, she told Mr. Smith that the City had not been given the proper 30-day notice, even though she received Mr. Smith’s November 10 notification letter. She goes on to claim that the Duranguito properties in question–five of which were partially demolished on September 12, 2017 with City authorization and left exposed to the elements ever since–are in poor structural condition and would thus detract from the proposed district. I have attached inspection reports from two structural engineers and a licensed inspector affirming that the damaged properties can be repaired and rehabilitated. Ms. Nieman has these reports and knows of their recommendations but omitted any mention of them in her letter.
Of course, the December 14 motion in City Council occurred during the lame duck period following the landslide victory of Oscar Leeser over Dee Margo. Mayor Leeser’s stated position is that Duranguito should be saved because of its historical and cultural significance and that the “Arena” project should be cancelled altogether, with the bond money used instead to renovate the Convention Center and Abraham Chavez Theater. There are at least three members of City Council who agree.
JOE GUDENRATH’S LETTER TO THE THC
Yesterday Joe Gudenrath wrote the attached letter to Mark Wolfe of the THC, requesting that the “Arena Footprint” properties be omitted from the proposed district. He did so unilaterally, without putting the matter to a vote of his Board or inviting public comment. His letter contradicts his statement to Commissioner Stout that he would not oppose the County plan. Mr. Gudenrath was properly informed of this plan at every stage, in spite of his claim to the contrary. Mr. Gudenrath is not a stakeholder in this process. Only the property owners are, and they have registered no opposition. Moreover, Mr. Gudenrath well knows that the National Register overlay does not prevent demolition and thus does not stand in the way of the City’s plans. The THC should disregard Mr. Gudenrath’s letter.
SUPPORT FOR DURANGUITO
To summarize, on November 7, 2016 the City’s own Historic Landmark Commission voted 6-0 to urge the preservation of Duranguito, and that was followed by a similar 4-1 vote of the City Plan Commission on December 15. On January 9, 2017 the El Paso County Historical Commission voted 13-0 in favor of sparing the neighborhood. On September 17, 2017, the Board of the El Paso County Historical Society voted unanimously to support sparing the neighborhood. The State Delegation and Bishop of El Paso weighed in on September 18. The National Trust for Historic Preservation sent a letter of support for saving the neighborhood on October 5, 2017, followed by Preservation Texas on February 28, 2018, which also added Duranguito to its Most Endangered Places List. The Current Chair of the El Paso County Historical Commission, after a Board vote, firmly reiterated its support of the neighborhood on January 14, 2020. Meanwhile, two citizen petitions with thousands of signatures in support of establishing a Duranguito H-overlay historic district were submitted to the City Clerk. Most recently, Oscar Lesser, running on a preservationist platform calling for saving the neighborhood, was elected Mayor with 80% of the vote.
HISTORIC LANDMARK COMMISSION MEETING THIS MONDAY, JANUARY 11 AT 4:00PM
This Monday at 4:00pm, the HLC is set for discussion and action on the National Register nomination for Downtown El Paso under item 5. The public is welcome to provide comment. Instructions for public comment are near the top of then agenda.
I will continue to keep you informed as the National Register nomination for downtown El Paso moves forward.
Have a great weekend!
Max Grossman, PhD
Board of Directors, Preservation Texas
Vice-Chair, The Trost Society
Co-Chair, Restore Sacred Heart Church