El Paso County Commissioners Court plans to hold a public meeting Saturday morning in hopes of convincing Downtown property owners that a proposed National Register Historic District would benefit their properties and Downtown.
County officials have been scrambling to save the proposed 144-acre district with 262 buildings since late January after dozens of property owners notified the Texas Historical Commission that they oppose the designation.
The county has several weeks to try to turn the opposition tide before the mid-April deadline for Mark Wolfe, Texas Historical Commission executive director, to submit the district to the National Park Service for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The listing can’t occur if more than half of private property owners in the district oppose it. The county has been working years on forming the district.
The city of El Paso, the El Paso Chamber of Commerce, and the Downtown Management District have been against the district because it includes the Union Plaza neighborhood known as Duranguito, where the city plans to put a multipurpose arena.
The National Register listing would allow property owners to tap into federal and state tax incentives for building renovations and also put Downtown El Paso on the heritage tourism map, county officials and other proponents of the district have said.
The county mailed letters to Downtown property owners in early February explaining the benefits of the proposed district and encouraged those who had filed a notice of opposition with the Texas Historical Commission to withdraw the opposition through a notarized letter to the state agency.
Two lawyers in the Kemp Smith law firm have been leading an effort to have Downtown property owners oppose the district, in large part, because of concerns that a city ordinance would require property owners within the proposed district to adhere to certain requirements for modifying or demolishing a building on the National Register of Historic Places.
Several of Downtown’s most prominent owners are among the opposition, including billionaire Paul Foster, who owns 25 properties in the district, and has renovated two of Downtown’s historic gems.
The city has begun the long process of possibly revising the ordinance that’s fueled the opposition.
Also, Russell Abeln, assistant city attorney, told El Paso City Council members at a council meeting last week that the ordinance only gives the city special authority over buildings with a National Register designation if that building also is in a city-designated historic district. A small portion of Downtown is part of the city Downtown Historic District, which is different from the proposed larger National Register district.
In a Feb. 17 letter to Downtown property owners, Kemp Smith attorneys Mark Osborn and Gene Wolf asserted that county officials provided “misleading” information in its recent letter to property owners.
In the letter, the lawyers wrote that it appears “the County has not been transparent regarding the proposed historic district and very possibly the County, or some of its elected officials, have been intentionally misleading people about the hidden purposes behind the effort to create the historic district.”
One of the hidden purposes, the lawyers asserted, is to get the proposed city arena footprint in the district, which, they argued, could provide a mechanism to wrest city control from city-owned buildings in the Duranguito neighborhood.
The letter also was published as an advertisement in El Paso Inc., a weekly business newspaper.
County Judge Ricardo Samaniego, in a Feb. 24 letter to the Kemp Smith attorneys, wrote, “Reasonable minds may differ on the wisdom of a historic district, but it is not reasonable to ascribe malicious intent to public servants who are trying to act in the best interest of the County.”
He invited them to Saturday’s meeting, along “with your clients so that you may publicly share your views for the County’s consideration.”
The county’s purpose in forming the historic district is “to recognize and celebrate the historical and cultural significance” of Downtown and help “ensure economic prosperity and historic preservation,” Samaniego wrote.
The meeting begins at 10 a.m., in the Commissioners Court meeting room in the County Courthouse at 500 E. San Antonio St. The meeting will be available online through the county’s YouTube channel or through a Teams meeting link, (downtown.epcounty.com). People can call in questions at 888-835-7276 during the public comment portion of the meeting. Also, up to 25 people will be allowed to go to the meeting in person, said Jose Landeros, director of the county Planning and Development Department.