Under growing pressure from the city – most recently, the threat of a $872,000 fine – the owner of the Popular Building is pushing forward with repairs to the historic structure, which the city declared a public health hazard.
On Wednesday, the city Building and Standards Commission considered the issue at its regular meeting.
“What I respectfully ask of this commission is some patience for us to be in a position to get this work done,” Francisco Ortega, a lawyer at Scott Hulse who is representing the owner, told the commission. “It will get done.”
The city first inspected the Popular Building on Jan. 17, 2018, “to ensure the safety of the public and preserve the structure from demolition by neglect,” according to a city memorandum. The six-story building is mostly vacant, but a busy Fallas Paredes department store occupies three floors.
After inspectors found water damage, mold, exposed electrical wiring, code violations and serious lapses in fire safety measures in parts of the building, it was declared a public health hazard.
J&M Properties, which owns the building, was ordered to fix the problems by the Building and Standards Commission on May 30, 2018, March 27, 2019, and again on May 29, 2019, according to city documents.
J&M Properties operates the California-based Fallas Paredes Discount Stores chain, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in August 2018.
“Right now, I am not 100% satisfied, but I do appreciate that they have a plan and are making progress,” commission chair Michael Bray said before casting his vote. “I see that there is good communication and an effort here.”
In addition, revoking the certificate of occupancy and slapping J&M with the maximum $872,000 fine, would delay work on the building and make it harder for the owner to comply with the orders, Bray said.
The commission voted unanimously to give J&M 60 more days to bring the fire-safety system up to code and review the company’s progress at its November meeting.
Ortega told commissioners he had walked through the building at least 15 times and the first time he did, “You couldn’t even breathe it was so bad.”
But since May 2018, J&M has spent $224,642 to bring the building into compliance with city code, Ortega told commissioners, presenting them with the invoices.
“If you look at the before and after, it is complete night and day,” he said. “Almost 10 truckloads of trash was cleared.”
Adolph Schwartz, a Hungarian immigrant who arrived on the shores of America with less than a dollar in his pocket, commissioned the building for a department store in the early 1900s. The Popular, as most El Pasoans knew it, became one of the most successful department stores in the Southwest.
The building was designed by famed Southwest architect Henry Trost and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. But like many old buildings in Downtown, its condition deteriorated over the years.
J&M has owned the building since 2008, city records show.
“Whether it’s our employees or patrons,” Ortega said, “we want to make sure everybody is safe and not exposed to any type of hazards.”