EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — The El Paso Historic Landmark Commission voted unanimously to support the county’s Downtown Historical District application during their Monday night meeting.
The commissioners voted to support the application as it heads to the Texas Historical Commission, who will discuss the application on Saturday.
The county’s survey of Downtown has indicates that 13 properties in the Duranguito neighborhood, where the city plans on building the multipurpose performing arts and entertainment center, have historical significance and could be a part of a historical district.
The commission had been asked to remove a boundary of the district including the neighborhood and to pause their action.
“For the proposal to erase this part of history, all for a major project like this, I mean, it makes no sense,” Donald Sevigny, chair of the HLC said. “Quite honestly, it’s totally against the intent of this survey in the first place.”
The historic district proposal and neighborhood have intertwined over the years as the county has looked to finalize the district proposal, along with Duranguito against the city’s wishes.
Commissioners were reminded that a historical district does not necessarily protect buildings in its overlay but some still were weary it could.
The center is one of three signature projects proposed from the 2012 Quality of Life bond initiative. The city has maintained a position that the buildings in the neighborhood do not have historical significance.
El Paso County’s survey intends on creating one of the largest historic districts in the country with nearly 300 properties that both standalone and contribute as historical treasures.
Austin-based Hardy-Heck-Moore & Associates began the survey of Downtown El Paso in 2017 and identified over 1,000 properties that could be part of a National Register of Historic Places district.
National Register designations are primarily honorary and generally do not place restrictions on property owners. A designation typically frees up historic tax credits and federal dollars to renovate properties.
Most residents who called-in to express their opinions were in favor of the historic district application, including the Duranguito neighborhood.
Mayor Oscar Leeser has yet to state where he stands on the issue or whether he will reach out to the Texas Historical Commission.
HLC commissioners weigh in on application
Commissioners generally liked the idea of uplifting historical aspects of the city’s Downtown. But their positions on the application varied because of the language that include the Duranguito neighborhood.
Each commissioner is appointed to the HLC by the City Council. Though there are new representatives and a new mayor, there appears to still be a majority that favors placing the multipurpose performing arts center in the Duranguito neighborhood.
Sevigny said the work put into the application and hope for a district would uplift aspects of Downtown history that has not been fully explored before.
“What this proposal does is it expands it by looking at the families and the individuals that came from around the world,” said Donald Sevigny, chair of the Historic Landmark Commission. “Not just the United States and Mexico but from the Middle East, from China, from all over the place since this city was incorporated.”
But commissioners Shane Mercer and Ivan Lopez, there was a concern about what implications the application has for development and the topic of the city’s project.
Mercer said it is hard to say no to the application because of what it does for history in El Paso.
“Unfortunately a lot of times, history is shaped by us looking backwards from current political situations,” Mercer said. “And, this arena thing, I think, is just a controversial topic for all sides.”
Lopez said he was weary of their discussions becoming political and didn’t want their decision to seem it would be a vote in favor or against the city’s project. He was also concerned about the impact the overlay would have on properties.
“I just think there is a slight piece of me that there will be an impression that you are ruining the historical aspects of the city by bringing in new development,” Lopez said.
Vicki Hamilton said all new construction in historical areas of the city have been able to with “applause.”
Commissioner Paulina Lagos echoed Hamilton’s comments saying she did not feel their decision could hinder development.
“If anything, I think new development will be spurred by improved historic buildings,” she said.
Public comment leans for application as it is
Former mayoral candidate Veronica Carbajal called in to support the county’s application for the historic district.
“I support the nomination to the national register of the properties that are listed for a number of reasons,” she said. “It is long overdue that we recognize the value of historically black and brown neighborhoods, few of which have historic designations and protections.”
Former HLC commission chair Daniel Carey Whalen also called into the meeting to support the application.
“The amount of time and money that the city has wasted on this issues is unforgivable,” he said. “We became the laughing stock of pretty much the nation when it came to historic preservation because of this.”
Architect Bill Helm, who has worked on various Downtown projects, called the commission to support the application. He mentioned the historic designation would help property owners with smaller properties apply for tax credits to renovate their properties.
Registered city lobbyist and former president of the El Paso Chamber of Commerce said the HLC should have denied the application or table their decision. He claimed many property owners were unaware of the application and its impacts on the properties.
A spokeswoman for Franklin Mountain Investments, which is headed by billionaire Paul Foster, echoed Dayoub’s comments.
“I would recommend, respectfully, that the HLC deny this application for the time being. At the very least, delay the action on it.”
Providencia Velazquez, the city’s historic preservation officer, said there is a provision in the city’s regulations that require properties that are on the National Register of Historic Places to maintain the properties. But the city has worked on the provision for five years, she added.
“One of the driving forces behind that revision is that idea,” she said. “We’ve always believed that was just done in error. We have never enforced it.”
Donald Sevigny, the commission’s chair, said the issue was brought up to the City Council last year and “went nowhere.”
“Ultimately, it’s up to the City Council and it’s on them to straighten this out,” he said. “It’s on them.”
On Friday, the Downtown Management District sent its own letter to the THC asking the Duranguito properties be removed from the district.
THC letter prompts comment from City Council and HLC
A letter from the THC prompted the city of El Paso’s response to the Downtown historical district designation. Former mayor Dee Margo received a letter from the THC’s federal programs coordinator on Nov. 10.
The letter states the city’s chief elected official and local historic preservation commissions are required to separately notify the THC and Texas Certified Local Government Programs of their opinions. It mentioned that a response could be issued by Jan. 15.
Margo wrote to the THC, after a City Council vote, claiming the county represented the neighborhood to be in “good condition,” but mentioned several properties eligible for historical designation were currently deteriorated to the point that could “no longer be suitable or secure for any type of use.”
“The current condition of the MPC site prevents Duranguito from contributing to the significance of the proposed district and further damages the integrity of the proposed El Paso Downtown Historic District,” he wrote.
But Margo’s letter was submitted during the “lame duck” period where he had already conceded his campaign for reelection to current Mayor Oscar Leeser. Throughout his campaign, Leeser seemed to favor preserving the Duranguito neighborhood.
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