Despite pressure to reconsider the site for a Downtown arena, El Paso City Council members are committed to the controversial Union Plaza location – and now want build a more expensive arena with 15,000 seats.
That’s because building the arena within 1,000 feet of the El Paso Convention Center would allow the city to recover about $25 million in sales tax paid to the state, city Rep. Cortney Niland said Friday.
That could allow the city to increase the arena’s price tag from $180 million approved by voters in the 2012 bond election to $205 million, she said.
Available funding could even go higher because the city may be able to sell the naming rights for millions, she said.
Niland said an additional $25 million is an important reason for sticking with the Union Plaza site immediately south of the convention center.
“We would lose it if we picked the other site,” she said.
Going with the Union Pacific railyard site a mile to the east behind City Hall would also force the city to demolish two buildings it bought in 2013 and then restored. Known as City 3 and City 4, the buildings at 801 and 811 Texas house city planning operations and the one-stop shop for permits.
Though it hasn’t been discussed much in public, city Rep. Jim Tolbert said council members now want to build an arena with 15,000 seats, instead of the 12,700 recommended by consultants working with $180 million. That recommendation came under fire because it’s virtually the same size as UTEP’s Don Haskins Center with about 12,200 seats.
The consultants also recommended building a facility that could expand to 15,000 seats in the future, but Tolbert said the council wants it now.
The 11-acre site south of the convention center and San Antonio Street was one location recommended for an arena in the 2006 Downtown Plan, as well as a 2012 recommendation.
The city plans to acquire 41 pieces of private property, 21 of which are in the footprint of the arena.
One of that site’s chief opponents is UTEP historian Max Grossman, vice chair of the El Paso County Historical Commission, who believes the area is too important historically, architecturally and archaeologically to be demolished.
In announcing the site selection in October, El Paso City Attorney Sylvia Firth said that area had no recognized historic properties.
But Grossman cites a 1998 report prepared for the city that listed 17 properties in the proposed arena site as important for their architecture or history and seven as worthy of the National Register of Historic Places.
That report also recommended the creation of a Union Plaza Historic District that would include the proposed arena site.
Grossman said the commission, which officially opposes that arena site along with the city’s Historic Landmark Commission, recently labeled 10 more buildings in the area as historically important.
The area is known as Durangito, one of El Paso’s three original neighborhoods that included Chihuahuita and Segundo Barrio, he said.
“The city is trying to marginalize the neighborhood and diminish its historical importance so they can proceed with the dispossession, expropriation and mass demolition with as little controversy as possible,” Grossman said.
In the city’s view, he said, “The people who live there are mobile and can be moved like furniture, ignoring the fact that they have been there for generations.”
There were plenty of opponents on hand Monday evening for what was supposed to be an organized city meeting with residents and property owners to explain what their options will be as the city proceeds with acquiring the properties.
The event was a boisterous affair with about 40 opponents outside, waving signs, shouting, chanting and beating a drum to express their opposition.
A slightly larger crowd gathered inside, some to express opposition and some to hear, with difficulty, what city officials had to say.
A city real estate manager, Jose Carlos Villalva, said the city can paying renters’ moving expenses and provide rental subsidies of up to $11,550 over 3½ years.
Renters will have three options: letting the city cover the difference between what they are paying now for rent and utilities, prepay the new landlord or actually take a lump sum payment in advance.
Property owners, he said, can reach out to the city or wait to be contacted about the purchase of their property.
Guillermo Guillen, a businessman and president of the Union Plaza Neighborhood Association, accused the city of lying to residents and the public about its efforts to acquire the Union Pacific property.
Union Pacific officials have said there were no serious discussions with the city.
Guillen also said residents and property owners are prepared to resist the city and to go to court if necessary.
“We’re ready to rock and roll,” he said.
Answering Guillen, Firth said Union Pacific was ready to negotiate, but made it clear that in addition to money for land, it would also want the city to agree to close at least nine of 31 intersections where streets cross rails.
One of those intersections is the heavily used Zaragosa Road, she said.
The nine closures would be in addition to two or three the city still owes Union Pacific in exchange for a small amount of land and air rights the city needed to build the Downtown ballpark three years ago.
“They gave us a list of 31 potential closures and said, ‘Pick from here and then we’ll talk about it,’ ” Firth said.
City Council passed on the railroad’s offer in 2013, Firth said, and reopened talks with local Union Pacific representatives who reiterated the railroad’s requirement for at least nine more crossing closures.
“It’s not true that city did not engage,” she said. “For all those reasons, the railroad site was set aside by City Council.
“I hope that clears it up, because we did not lie to you.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.