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Sep 1, 2017

El Paso Preservation Activist Advancing the Economic Benefits of Historic Buildings

Photo courtesy of Max Grossman

When Max Grossman walks around downtown El Paso and the city’s barrios he doesn’t just see a wide array of stunning and unique historical structures dating back to the middle 1800s, he sees a way for the city to make money.

“Our built environment is the most fundamental feature of our future economy downtown,” says Grossman, who has emerged in recent months as one of the most active opponents to a City of El Paso plan to build a $180 million arena.

For Grossman, and other El Paso community activists and residents, it isn’t the stadium itself that is objectionable, but rather where city leaders want to build it: inside the historic Duranguito neighborhood.

That four-block neighborhood, made up of small one and two-story houses and businesses, many of which were built in the last century, is a one-of-a-kind section of the city that can never be replaced.

The move to build an arena there, which would be paid for out of a $472 million Quality of Life bond, has proven to be, says Grossman, “the last straw, a tinderbox,” between preservationists, historians, activists, and others, against city leaders.

“But it is more than an issue, it is something that threatens to seriously harm the reputation of our city and its economy,” continues Grossman. “We could face a downgrading of our bond ratings, and even a bond-holder revolt.”

Grossman’s advocacy for saving not just Duranguito but all parts of El Paso where historic buildings exist but are currently at risk of demolition, has won him praise in some corners, but decided condemnation in others.

In the latter category is El Paso Mayor Dee Margo who recently raised questions regarding retired oilman J.P. Bryan’s financial support of the anti-arena litigation and said that Grossman “has no financial resources,” before characterizing Bryan as “an oilman outside of Houston that is trying to determine what is best for our community.”

When Grossman demanded that the Mayor apologize, Margo said instead that “Max needs to apologize to the citizens of El Paso for costing the taxpayers for the litigation.”

That litigation has made its way to the courtroom of Civil District Court Judge Amy Clark Meachem, who earlier this summer ruled that the arena project could move forward only if it resulted in a multi-purpose performing arts and entertainment facility.

The facility could not have a sports function, Meachem said, because the original 2012 ballot language presented to El Paso voters made no mention of the arena being used for sports.

“The judge validated our arguments,” says Grossman, who is also an assistant professor of art history at the University of Texas at El Paso. “The city is now legally prevented from designing and building a structure that is meant to accommodate sports.”

Anti-arena advocates believe that the Judge’s decision in the long run will kill the project simply because the arena would, as many city officials have acknowledged, be a money-loser without sporting events.

In response, members of the El Paso City Council have since voted to appeal Meachem’s ruling.

Grossman contends that future conflicts pitting public construction projects against historic sites and neighborhoods will be lessened once a survey being conducted by El Paso County is completed, revealing the exact number of historic buildings and neighborhoods in El Paso.

“Knowing what we have could very well lead to very generous federal and state tax credits,” says Grossman, who notes that half of downtown El Paso has already been surveyed.

“The preliminary results are that there will be three new National Register Districts in our downtown, and one of them will be Duranguito,” he explains.

The existence of those districts will then allow developers to take advantage of both federal and state tax credits worth millions of dollars when it comes to renovating and upgrading historical structures.

“It could well turn out to be a preservation bonanza on a scale our state has probably never seen,” thinks Grossman. “There are investors who get it and are already thinking about what properties they are going to buy and what they are going to do with those properties.”

“Those investors all say the same thing,” continues Grossman, “the tax credits change the economic calculus of preservation; they make it strongly incentivized and profitable.”

Grossman adds that he is not, as he puts it, “a bomb-thrower.”

Noting that other cities in Texas have used the lure of tax credits for historic renovation and upgrading projects, Grossman says “If we have learned anything in Texas, it is that historic preservation is extremely profitable.”

 

By Garry Boulard

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