Today marks three years since October 13, 2016, when the City of El Paso announced that it would destroy Duranguito for a Multipurpose Performing Arts and Entertainment Facility. Only five days later, the City Council voted itself eminent domain power over more than 11 acres of dense urban fabric that it began to call the “Master Plan Area,” which includes numerous historic buildings as well as a residential community consisting almost entirely of Hispanics. The City immediately began a propaganda campaign aimed at convincing El Pasoans that there is nothing historic in Duranguito and that its residents would be happier living in other neighborhoods. In the period around Christmas 2016, approximately 40 residents were displaced from two tenements, provided with rental apartments and some rent money, and then forgotten by the media. Soon we learned that the City does not plan to build a MPC at all, much less improve an existing facility (per the bond language). Rather, they intend to build an arena for D-League basketball that would seat nearly 15,000 people. In order to prevent any legal opposition to their project, the City filed a bond validation lawsuit in a courthouse in Travis County, clear across Texas, and that is when things started to go very wrong…
JP Bryan and I met the City’s challenge in court, and we were joined by Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (representing four current and former Duranguito residents) as well as Dr. Yolanda Leyva. Since spring 2017, the litigation has spread into more than a half-dozen other courtrooms, in Austin, Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso, and several lawsuits have reached the Supreme Court of Texas. The City has spent millions in a desperate effort to defend itself against its own citizens. It paid between three and five times CAD value for the Duranguito properties, plus relocation expenses for the owners of empty surface lots. Petitions have been signed by thousands of voters demanding that Duranguito be designated a historic district, and the recently completed County Survey recommended exactly that. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Texas, the Texas State Historical Association and other key organizations have issued statements adamantly opposing the City’s plan, and leaders of their groups traveled to El Paso to participate in a public forum highlighting the critical significance of the neighborhood. KVIA conducted a scientific poll showing that less than one third of the public supports razing Duranguito. There have been aborted attempts to bulldoze buildings accompanied by mass protests and police in riot gear. The Mayor presented JP Bryan and me with a compromise plan that would have moved the “Arena” one block north and then suddenly yanked their own proposal from the table without explanation. Beto’s deep involvement in the initial phase of the City’s plan has come back to bite him very hard, and he is not the only one. Several political careers have been ruined by this issue, including Cortney Niland’s. Our City has been humiliated and disgraced in state and national news.
And yet here we are, at the start of the fourth year of this crisis. There are currently two major lawsuits, with the next hearing scheduled for October 21. There is a court-imposed temporary restraining order against demolition. The Mayor is facing a whole range of ethics charges, some of which stem from his involvement in this project. He now tells us that the “Arena” will cost at least $250,000,000 and that the City will have to issue certificates of obligation (without voter approval) to make up for the shortfall. The “Quality of Life” bond projects are more than $100,000,000 over budget have put serious upward pressure on our taxes, and we now have the second highest homestead tax among the 50 largest cities in the United States. Our budget has ballooned past $1 billion and our debt is off the charts, even as our population declines. It is no secret that El Pasoans absolutely hate their City government.
The final outcome of the “Arena” litigation cannot be predicted, but I can assure you of one thing. JP Bryan and I will never give up. We will press ahead in the courts until the City agrees to abandon its corrupt plan and preserve the birthplace of El Paso.
Max Grossman, PhD Architectural Historian