Let’s do this right El Paso!

By Miguel Juárez

On Monday, April 13 at 9:05am, there was a Special City Council Meeting with six agenda items.

Item 6 on the Agenda reads as follows: 
“Discussion on renovating the Abraham Chavez Theater and/or the civic center with funds authorized by the ‘Museum, Cultural, Performing Arts, and Library Facilities’ ballot proposition of the 2012 Quality of Life bond election rather than building a new multipurpose performing arts and entertainment facility in the Union Plaza neighborhood.”

I am taking the liberty of sharing an opinion-editorial which was published in the El Paso Times on December 10, 2016 (28 months ago):

At the time I proposed demolishing the Abraham Chavez Theater, but today I agree that it would be better to renovate it or better yet, to table it and revisit its renovation in view of budgetary shortfalls associated with the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Having said that, I am not in favor of destroying Duranguito, nor am I in favor of laying off and/or furloughing city workers. Do we need to build a Multipurpose Arena that bad–at the expense of city workers?! I don’t think so.

My opinion-editorial stated (changes from the original document appear in bold):

Let’s turn the Arena proposal into a win-win opportunity, for both the taxpayer and the Union Plaza community.  We need a project that is forward thinking.  An alternative concept would be to use the site of the Judson F. Williams Convention Center, the Abraham Chavez Theater and El Paso Chamber of Commerce offices, as the footprint for the new multi-purpose Arena.  Before anyone states, we cannot tear down our civic center, we must remember that we tore down our city hall to make room for the baseball park, so the precedence exists.

El Paso’s present day trajectory can be compared to Charlotte, North Carolina’s downtown.  A November 18, 2015 article by David Erdman in The Charlotte Observer noted “no city in America of our size and age are so devoid of historic buildings.”  Likewise, why would we tear down the neighborhood where El Paso began?  Why not, instead turn it into a site for heritage tourism?  Duranguito was part of El Paso’s early Chinatown.  One of its original 19 Chinese laundries is still standing.  Underneath Duranguito is Ponce de Leon’s aquifer that provided water for early El Paso. Without it, El Paso would have not flourished and grown to what it is today. These are just 2 of 17 potential sites that could be developed into something incredibly unique to El Paso.

I am proposing that we turn Duranguito into a living historic timeline of El Paso by developing its archeological sites and rehabilitating historic buildings preserving their current use as affordable housing and most importantly preserving the cultural identity and fiber of the community — the residents who have lived there for generations.

The plan would consist of:

  1. Renovate the Civic Center and Chavez Theater and building it as a functional structure that can seat 20,000-22,000 (think Staples Center) but configurable for various purposes—for conventions, for the symphony (a civic center, arena and cultural center would be integrated on one site). Each organization would share the facilities, etc. Fiscally, it makes more sense for the taxpayer and El Paso will have a bigger arena that will likely be utilized year-round instead of sitting around for weeks without use.
  2. In Duranguito, use Federal Historic tax credits in combination with State affordable housing tax credits to rehabilitate the historic buildings currently used as residential. The city needs to dedicate state tax credits to rehab historic residential buildings in Duranguito and direct the El Paso Housing Authority to shepherd these buildings through renovation. Meanwhile, the El Paso County Historic Commission will conduct its historic overlay and those federal historic tax credits would additionally be available covering a large percentage of the rehabilitation cost. The biggest win would be that El Paso develops Duranguito into a unique historic heritage tourism asset while preserving the historic character of El Paso’s first neighborhood, affordable housing, and the homes for existing residents with minimal cost to the property owners.
  3. Regarding the Texas Enterprise Project of $25 million dollars of tax rebates, the State caps the rebate at $500,000 per year. It will take 50 years for the city to recoup $25 million and that is only if the city is able to meet the criteria of creating 500 new permanent jobs. The Arena itself may not meet those requirements, but an integrated center will.
  4. Since the city already owns the civic center property, the funds for property acquisition could serve a better use for development of a true Multi-purpose Arena complex.

The proposal I have outlined makes more sense than destroying Duranguito, El Paso’s first and most historic neighborhood. Let’s do this right El Paso.  Let’s celebrate and preserve where El Paso was born!

It’s time to stop threatening El Paso’s historical neighborhoods with demolition.