The stadium is coming and the rush will soon be on to start packing up City Hall for an exodus that will begin before Christmas.
Outside the building Friday morning, the first preparations were already being made for the demolition to come, as workers pounded pipes into the ground to get soil samples.
Property owners in the area are also expecting big changes and maybe big offers now that it’s looking like a new Triple-A ballpark will go up after the 33-year-old City Hall comes down.
Mayor John Cook, torn between his opposition to razing City Hall and his wish to see something big happen Downtown, decided Thursday not to veto the 25-year lease of the City Hall site that City Council approved on a 4-3 vote Tuesday.
“It’ll definitely change, but to what I don’t know,” said Mike Dipp, who helps manage extensive family real estate holdings in the Downtown area, including several properties adjacent to the Old San Francisco Historic District, right next door to City Hall.
“I see lot of neat things going up,” he said. “It happens anyplace around ballparks: little restaurants, little bars and I’m sure someone will open a souvenir shop.”
The line of stately but run-down apartment buildings built around the turn-of-the-last century along West Missouri Street will likely be gentrified, which doesn’t bode well for the people who live there now.
“Who lives there now? Very low-income people who don’t own cars because there’s no parking for the high-density apartments there,” said Dr. Jamie Barron, who sold one large apartment building on Missouri several years ago but holds the mortgage lien.
Some of those residents said they’re waiting for evictions to start and for the demolition of the historic buildings that happen to be in a city historic district and on the National Register of Historic Places.
“They’re going to move us out, and that’s why I’m opposed to the stadium,” said Richard Banda, a 42-year-old college student who lives in a brownstone building called the Missouri Street Residence.
On hearing that the district will not be razed, he changed his mind about the project on the spot, last week.
“It’ll be great,” he said.
Still, he and others know they’ll be gone regardless of what happens – unless nothing happens.
“They’re going to buy these apartments and tear them down, that’s what we heard in July,” said Rosa Martinez, a long-time resident of 510 Missouri. Like Banda she was surprised to hear the buildings are secure – though not necessarily safe.
She said her building is haunted by ghosts that won’t leave and dangerous code violations the city refuses to enforce.
“I can see clubs and restaurants coming up here and maybe they’ll make improvements to this park,” Martinez said, referring to Grace Chope Park, a cozy, green sliver of grass down a cement slope from the interstate where she and her neighbors often spend their evenings.
Her friends, Raul Hernandez and a man who introduced himself only as Cowboy, seemed acquainted with the district’s protected status, but think developers will find a way to tear it down anyway.
“I’m against the stadium because one way or the other, we will get screwed,” Hernandez said. “The property values will go up and rents will be outrageous.”
Dipp, who sold the Plaza Hotel to Paul Foster in 2010, said there are 14 property owners in the San Francisco area. And while no one has come looking to buy that he knows of, he knows they’re coming.
“They haven’t called us yet, but I’m sure they will once the word gets out,” he said.
Word spread quickly last week about City Council’s series of 4-3 votes to push the stadium project through, and then about Cook backing away from the veto that started as a hint and grew to a threat.
In the end, Cook couldn’t bring himself to do it, clearing the way for voters to consider a 2-cent increase in the city’s hotel occupancy tax that could pay for 70 percent or more of the $50-million project.
Now, MountainStar Sports Group will pay $20 million for the Triple-A Tucson Padres, with the contractual understanding that the ball field will be ready by the start of the 2014 season.
“If it’s the City Council’s decision to relocate City Hall and they want a baseball stadium Downtown, then maybe those two concepts are compatible,” Cook told El Paso Inc. “So, maybe it’s not appropriate for me to use my veto power just because I disagree.
“As I told my wife, either way, this will be part of my legacy as mayor. If it succeeds, I didn’t stand in the way. And if it fails, then part of my legacy will be that I could have stopped it but I didn’t.”
Cook said his message to Woody Hunt and Paul Foster, principals of MountainStar, was this: “Hopefully, you guys are right and I’m wrong, and my hope is that this turns out to be part of a positive thing for El Paso and not a mistake.
“Either way, we’re going forward with it now.”
City Council’s votes on a series of measures Tuesday approving the lease and other agreements involving the stadium followed more than five hours of public comments from supporters and opponents.
According to the city clerk’s office, 143 people signed up to speak, but only 74 actually addressed the council because many left as the day wore on.
By El Paso Inc.’s count, there were 78 speakers – 43 for the stadium project and 33 against, with two speaking neither in direct support nor in opposition.
Since June 26 – when City Council gave its initial but nonbinding approval to plans for the demolition of City Hall and the Insights museum and for the acquisition of new properties to house city government – the drumbeat against the project has been hard and steady.
Supporters, on the other hand, have been quiet and hard to find, at least until Tuesday’s meeting.
Cook, who picked up the third vote from city Rep. Emma Acosta that he would need to sustain a veto, had said he wanted to hear from supporters of the stadium project before he decided.
On Tuesday, they seemed well prepared, well versed and, some, well rehearsed. Opponents were less organized, but a widespread, popular opposition to the project was evident.
At City Hall and elsewhere, supporters are more than a little concerned about the two quality of life bond measures totaling $473 million on the Nov. 6 ballot, as well as the increase in the hotel occupancy tax to pay for most of the stadium expenses.
Its failure would force the city to pay for it from various pots of money and would require the creation of a corporation to buy the stadium, which the city would pay for through the lease.
In the next six weeks, El Pasoans will likely be exposed to a vigorous advertising and organizing campaign for the stadium and bonds and continued efforts by opponents to derail one or both.
Cook, who has lived in Northeast El Paso for decades and who represented the area on City Council before becoming mayor, said he will focus much of his attention on those voters.
People there, including former city Rep. Stan Roberts, are upset about that the city is turning its back on Cohen Stadium to build a new ballpark Downtown and over losing out on amenities, such as an Olympic-sized pool, in the quality of life bond propositions.
“I am not going to forget about Northeast El Paso in all of this,” Cook said. “You can’t win a citywide election without the Northeast.
“We really have to come up with a way to make Cohen Stadium a win for the Northeast.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.