El Paso County Commissioners Court held a special meeting Saturday in hopes of convincing Downtown property owners to support the proposed Downtown National Register Historic District, which many owners are opposing.
But only five people and only one owner, albeit a prominent one, spoke at the hourlong meeting, with most of the time spent on a county presentation outlining issues surrounding the proposed district.
El Paso billionaire Paul Foster, who owns about 25 properties in the proposed historic district, reiterated his stance against the district, which, he said in a telephone call to the meeting, isn’t needed. Foster said Saturday’s meeting was a waste of time and what’s needed instead is a private meeting between property owners and city and county officials to discuss concerns about the proposed district.
“There needs to be substantial and meaningful dialogue involving the county, the city and representatives of Downtown property owners for there to be any real hope of your project moving forward,” Foster said. “I sincerely hope that sometime after this meeting ends the county will reach out to the city and the property owners with the goal of setting up such a meeting. I would gladly participate in such a process.”
County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said after the meeting that he likes Foster’s suggestion.
“I am going to accept the request to sit down as mentioned by Mr. Paul Foster. I am trying to do it as soon as Monday, but I think it needs to come from them (property owners) as a request to sit down with them.”
County officials are scrambling to get Downtown property owners to support the proposed district because if half the owners oppose it, then it can’t be listed on the National Register of Historical Places.
The listing would bring state and federal tax incentives for building renovations and put Downtown El Paso on the heritage tourism map, county officials and other proponents have said.
Mark Wolfe, Texas Historical Commission executive director, has until April 20 to submit the proposed district to the National Park Service for listing on the National Register. The commission continues to review letters of support and opposition to the El Paso district in preparation for his report to the Park Service, a Historical Commission spokesman said.
Samaniego said he wasn’t surprised property owners didn’t participate in Saturday’s meeting because two lawyers for the Kemp Smith law firm, who have been leading an effort to have property owners oppose the historic district, did not participate in the meeting. And they likely didn’t encourage owners to participate, Samaniego said.
The lawyers asked county officials to do this kind of outreach, “so it’s something we wanted to do and had to do,” Samaniego said.
The lawyers, Mark Osborn and Gene Wolf, in a Feb. 17 letter to property owners reiterated that a city ordinance with requirements for modifying or demolishing a building on the National Register of Historic Places remained a problem for property owners if the proposed Downtown district was listed on the register.
However, an assistant city attorney last week told City Council that the ordinance had been misinterpreted and the city would have no special authority over buildings solely in the National Register Historic District. That point was made during a county official’s presentation at Saturday’s meeting. The city also is in the process of possibly revising the ordinance that’s fueled opposition to the district.
Another sticking point for the historic district is it includes the footprint for the city’s proposed multipurpose arena in the Union Plaza’s Duranguito neighborhood.
City officials are opposing the historic district because of Duranguito’s inclusion. At Saturday’s meeting, Sam Rodriguez, the city’s chief operations and transportation officer, again asked Commissioners Court to remove the arena footprint from the historic district because, he said, it would hinder development of the proposed arena.
County officials have said the Duranguito neighborhood needs to remain in the historic district. But Samaniego softened that position a little after Saturday’s meeting. He told the El Paso Times that Commissioners Court would discuss in its Monday, closed-door executive session whether the arena footprint could be removed from the historic district.
“We need more expert advice on what that would mean. We don’t want to inhibit them (city) on something they want to do. But at the same time, it’s unclear if the city will ever build the arena,” he said.
County Commissioner David Stout, who represents the Downtown area, said he’d oppose any effort to remove Duranguito from the historic district, especially, he said, since there’s “so much uncertainty about whether the arena would be built,”
Stout said he didn’t like that the Kemp Smith lawyers, in their recent letter to Downtown property owners, insinuated Commissioners Court had a hidden agenda to form the historic district so the arena footprint would be part of it. The county began the process of forming a historic district in early 2016, months before the city even selected Duranguito as the proposed arena site, he said.
Saturday’s meeting was mostly virtual. But Samaniego, Stout, County Commissioner Iliana Holguin and other county officials were present in the commissioners meeting room in the Downtown County Courthouse.
Up to 25 people from the public were allowed to attend, but only two showed up, said Jose Landeros, interim director of the County Economic Development Department. About 15 people watched it through a Teams meeting link, two commented via phone, and 90 viewed it on YouTube, he said.