Tuesday, July 21, 2015

No Sex, But Lies and a Videotape

[What follows are some of Max Grossman's comments about yesterday's City Council farce. He posted these on Facebook. Max is the Co-Chair of the El Paso County Historical Commission and the leader of the local Trost Society. The comments are lengthy but well worth reading.]


Oh Rep. Niland, how do we even begin? To say that you have betrayed the cause of historic preservation would not be properly descriptive of the immense damage you have wreaked upon our city, its economy, and its reputation throughout our region as a result of your action. If we are now the laughing stock of the preservationist community in Texas, much of the credit belongs to you and you alone.

Given your recent votes to demolish two Trost buildings, which were replaced by absolutely nothing, we were seething with anger and mistrusted you to the core. Nevertheless, we reached out to you nearly a year ago and met with you on three separate occasions in order to begin a dialog that would hopefully lead to positive reforms in downtown El Paso. You shook our hands firmly and insisted that you were on our side and that you supported our basic aim: to find a way to protect our architectural assets in a manner that would be acceptable to property owners and El Pasoans at large. We decided to adopt the basic approach that has been so incredibly successful in other Texas cities: conduct an architectural survey so that we can identify and catalog our buildings and then proceed with a national registry nomination for downtown. The new historic district would free up federal and state tax credits that would pay for up to 45% of the cost of renovating historic properties without otherwise imposing a regulatory burden. Who could possibly object? Property owners in other Texas cities have been profiting nicely as a result of their downtown national historic districts to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars already!

We met with every leader in our government and all the key staff, contributing hundreds of unpaid hours to our plan. We reached out to every stakeholder we possibly could, including all the major property owners downtown. We received strong letters of support from Austin, Dallas, Galveston and San Antonio, as well as from the executive directors of both the Texas Historical Commission and Preservation Texas. We won two of the state's most prestigious grants to pay for most of the survey. We had the unanimous support of our 22-member Commission and the 8-member Historic Landmark Commission, and overwhelming support from more than 90% of the El Pasoans we engaged--not to mention from organizations such as the Texas Trost Society, the El Paso County Historical Society, and countless other groups.

So what happened?

Just as our plan was to come to City Council for consideration, after years of careful planning and preparation, the City Manager yanked our item from the Council agenda at the behest of the Downtown Management District (DMD). Could you possibly have had anything to do with that, Rep. Niland? We have been unable to reach you for a long time, and you have avoided all media comment on the controversy. After yanking our plan from the agenda a second time, the media outcry was such that the City Manager put the item back on the agenda for yesterday's special session, which lasted nearly four hours.

Finally you showed us your cards! There you were, misrepresenting the facts to your colleagues, the press, and your fellow citizens. Among your claims were:

1. Our plan would have led to increased regulations for property owners. This is absolutely false and not worthy of further comment.

2. You claimed that the stakeholders had not been properly involved in the process. You yourself are well aware of our intense effort to meet with all the major investors. We met with a good many of them, but certain among them (especially in the DMD and CBA) simply refused to meet with us, and you did not lift a finger to help us in this regard. The fact is that there is no major property owner who was denied the opportunity to meet with us; and once Jessica Herrera in the Economic Development office finally began to take an active role in outreach, the CBA, DMD and everyone else had weeks to consult with her directly. Is our plan so complex that so much time is necessary to consider it? Why are we the only city in Texas that has to struggle to offer our investors no-strings-attached tax incentives?

3. You made the claim that Segundo Barrio, the largest and most significant area of downtown without any historic overlay, does not wish to be included in a national historic district. To that effect you brought in Pablo Lopez of the South Side Neighborhood Association, who announced that he is "not for it." Do you really expect El Pasoans to believe that this organization is the sole legitimate representative of a neighborhood as rich and complex as Segundo Barrio? We have met with Father Ron Gonzales of Sacred Heart Church and several other residents and leaders in Segundo Barrio and, quite frankly, we have received only enthusiastic support from everyone we talked to. Mr. Lopez obviously cares about his community and we are confident that if we were permitted to meet with him he would support our plan as well, as most other people have.

4. With your insistence that all the speakers from the general public yesterday announce whether or not they are property owners, you seem to imply that land ownership is a prerequisite for having a say in our downtown plan. We have news for you. Downtown belongs to every El Pasoan, including those who reside outside District 8, and yes, including those who do not possess property. Even those who cannot afford to pay taxes (and there are many in El Paso) have a stake in the future of downtown. We apparently differ on our definition of "stakeholder".

In short, you obviously intended to sabotage this plan from the very beginning, long before your re-election. You bloviated at length in your signature manner and treated your opponents with arrogance.

As for us, we are now asking ourselves some very pressing questions: If we are unable to get our City to conduct a simple architectural survey (mostly paid for by outside sources!), why even try to save any of our buildings at all? Indeed, why does El Paso have a Historic Preservation Officer and a Historic Landmark Commission if they are so routinely ignored? Most importantly, if you are so against our plan, then what is your motive? What is your true agenda? We expect that we will all find out soon enough.


Mr. Berg passionately argued against proceeding with a survey of downtown El Paso on several grounds. We at the El Paso County Historical Commission feel compelled to respond to his points one at a time in order to set the record straight and refute his false allegations:

Mr. Berg claimed that he had not been informed about our plan for a survey or national registry nomination when in fact we contacted him nearly six months ago in order to meet with him. Hence our email of January 27:

"Dear Mr. Salom, Mr. Hernadez and Mr. Berg, We at the County Historical Commission have been working on an ambitious plan for downtown El Paso that we feel will benefit both property owners and preservationists. Our proposal calls for transforming all of downtown, including Segundo Barrio and Chihuahuita, into a national historic district. The edifices within the new district would then be eligible for state and federal tax credits towards their renovation and maintenance, amounting to 45% of the cost of materials and labor. This tax credit is unprecedented and truly historic. The beauty for property owners is that the new historic overlay would come with no regulatory burden (unlike local historic districts). Other Texas cities have recently created such districts in their downtowns and are already seeing very encouraging economic results. We also have a plan for property tax relief that we are sure you will also appreciate. Bernie Sargent and I have already with each member of City Council, the mayor, the city manager, and various development and community groups, and so far our CHC plan has been very well received. We would like the opportunity to meet with you as well, in order to receive your feedback, answer your questions, and hopefully win your approval. Please let me know if you are willing to meet with us (next week?), and then we can schedule a time that is convenient for you." 
George Salom contacted us, stating that he would arrange the meeting, but Mr. Berg then declined to meet with us at all. The fact is we have reached out to most of the major property owners, and while some have met with us, many of them declined to even respond to our solicitations. Cortney Niland declined to arrange meetings between us and certain key property owners or to put us in touch with them directly, in spite of our three meetings with her at City Hall. Several months ago also met with Joe Gudenrath, Executive Director of the Downtown Management District, and he felt that it would be unproductive for us to meet with the DMD directly. Now we hear that there has been a lack of outreach. in any case, our plan is quite simple to comprehend and should not require weeks or months to consider.

Mr. Berg stated that the 1992 architectural survey is complete enough and we do not need another one. In fact, that survey was conducted over a very small area of downtown and completely excluded Segundo Barrio and other critical areas. Moreover, it was conducted poorly and not according to objective criteria. The City does not even know who was in charge of that survey. Cities in Texas are supposed to update their surveys regularly in order to be eligible for certain grants and to provide updated information to the public for a variety of important reasons. We are the only major city in Texas without a proper architectural survey and it is embarrassing.

Mr. Berg claimed that "16 buildings", mostly by Trost & Trost, are already protected and therefore the status quo is acceptable. He is dead wrong, as any El Pasoan with common sense understands. There are, in fact, hundreds of buildings in our downtown that are worthy of a historic overlay, and there are entire regions of our historic core (e.g. Segundo Barrio) that are still unrecognized in spite of their great historical significance.

Mr. Berg along with Rep. Niland, Rep. Acosta, and others among our city leaders kept insisting that our plan would somehow lead to new regulations. What part of "THERE ARE NO REGULATORY OBLIGATIONS IN OUR PLAN" do these people not understand? They completely ignore this basic fact as well as the huge success of the tax credits in other Texas cities, where private developers are enjoying substantial profits as a result. We met with every single council representative at least once and made certain that they understood this point. I am certain that Cortney Niland and Emma Acosta understand the basic difference between a national overlay (no regulatory imposition) and a local overlay (which comes with regulations and was not even on the table). Stefanie Block of the Sunset Heights Neighborhood Association was there to clarify that point, but apparently certain city representatives either failed to understand or, in the case of Niland, deliberately misrepresented the truth.

Now El Paso will fall economically behind other Texas cities even further. El Pasoans deserve better from their government. Thank you, Mr. Berg, from all of us at the El Paso County Historical Commission. Your special contribution to our community yesterday will be long remembered.

SEE VIDEO OF COUNCIL MEETING ONLINE AT: Go to "Special meetings" and click 7/20/15.

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