Today marks five 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, on October 18, 2016 under agenda item 31.1, our City Council voted 7-0 to authorize the use of eminent domain to seize private property within 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.
Of the City Council reps who supported eminent domain, Rep. Peter Svarzbein of District 1 is the only one remaining in office. On October 18, 2016 he disappeared after voting on item 26.4 and was thus conveniently absent during the eminent domain vote, yet in his public comments and in subsequent City Council meetings he strongly supported the policy.
Soon after, the City began a propaganda campaign aimed at convincing El Pasoans that there is “nothing historical” in Duranguito and that its residents would be happier living in other neighborhoods, even as we learned that numerous properties within the “Arena Footprint” are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
A counter-strategy was organized by Paso del Sur and other groups, who are now many thousands strong.
In the period around Christmas 2016, approximately 40 residents were displaced from two historic tenements, provided with rental apartments and some rent money, and then forgotten by the media. One evicted resident, 87-year-old Salvador Ortiz, died shortly afterwards.
By spring 2017, the public learned that the City does not plan to build a MPC at all, much less improve an existing facility (per the ballot language). Rather, they intend to build a multipurpose sports arena for G-League basketball that would seat nearly 15,000 people.
We also learned that the City paid between three and five times CAD value for the Duranguito properties, more than $12 million, including relocation expenses for the owners of surface lots.
In order to prevent any legal opposition to their project, on May 2, 2017 the City filed a bond validation lawsuit in Travis County, clear across Texas, beginning the litigation.
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 the City filed suit, the litigation spread into more than a half-dozen other courtrooms–in Austin, Fort Worth, San Antonio and El Paso–and two lawsuits reached the Supreme Court of Texas. There is currently an ongoing lawsuit in the 8th Court of Appeals and a legal injunction against demolition. Sadly, the City has spent millions in a desperate effort to defend itself against its own citizens.
On September 11-12, 2017 the City attempted to bulldoze the buildings within the “Arena Footprint,” sparking mass protests accompanied by scores of police in riot gear.
By the end of October 2017, petitions had been signed by thousands of voters demanding that Duranguito be designated a historic district, following the recommendations of the City’s own 1998 architectural survey as well as the County’s recent architectural survey.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Texas, the Texas State Historical Association and other key organizations issued statements adamantly opposing the City’s plan, and the City’s own Historic Landmark Commission and City Plan Commission voted for official positions in support of preserving the neighborhood.
In March 2018, former Mayor Dee Margo presented JP Bryan and me with a compromise plan that would have moved the “Arena” one block north and then suddenly yanked the proposal from the table without explanation three months later.
We now know that the “Arena” will not cost $180,000,000. It will cost more than $500,000,000, based upon current comps and the rising cost of construction labor and materials.
Several political careers have been terminated, in part by this issue, and recent elections have seen the defeat of all but two of the pro-arena advocates, including Dee Margo, who outspent his opponent by a wide margin but won only 20% of the vote.
Our City has been repeatedly humiliated and disgraced in both local and national news because of its willful disregard for Hispanic history and culture, most recently by Lester Holt in an international report on NBC Nightly News yesterday.
And yet here we are, at the start of the sixth year of this crisis.
The final outcome of the litigation cannot be predicted, but I can assure you that JP Bryan and I will never give up. We will press ahead until the City agrees to abandon its plan and preserve the birthplace of El Paso.
Enjoy your day.
Photo credit: Paso del Sur
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