The final concept plans for the redesign of San Jacinto Plaza have been completed, city officials confirmed Thursday. The Historic Landmark Commission gave the plans a green light this week.
ABC-7 has also learned Paul Foster's company, Mills Plaza Properties, who funded the initial concept plans and who owns redeveloped property around the plaza, has backed out of the redesign.
Foster initially offered to pay architectural firm SWA for the design process, which could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. He then left the project after the city council voted to implement a public committee's recommendations, along with SWA's, into the concept plans, Deputy City Manager Debbie Hamlyn confirmed Thursday. Mills Plaza Properties did pay SWA $250,000 for the initial concept plans, which included the removal of Luis Jimenez's "Lagartos" sculpture from the plaza or moving it to the side of the plaza, instead of the center.
A committee, headed by former City Planning Director, Nestor Valencia and also organized by PhD History student Miguel Juarez opposed the removal of the sculpture. At an October 18, 2011 city council meeting in which representatives voted to incorporate the committee's designs into the SWA plan, Juarez and others said Jimenez's sculpture symbolizes El Paso's Hispanic culture and should remain.
"The use of private funds for redevelopment is a good thing and should be encouraged, but there needs to be input from the community about what can be changed, or there needs to be sensitivity to the culture that's here," Juarez told ABC-7 Thursday.
At the same meeting, Brent Harris, the CEO of Mills Plaza Properties, told council members there already had been plenty of opportunities for public input after SWA held several charettes. He said that Foster, if SWA's plan was not adopted, may "bow out and leave the funding to someone else." Harris also said he and Foster were not personally involved in the concept plans, and SWA drafted the concept plans after several community meetings and public suggestions.
After Foster left the project, the city entered into a contract and retained SWA to finish the concept plans. Hamlyn said the city has not yet paid SWA, but the contract states the plan's costs cannot exceed $20,000 and will most likely be less.
The new concept plans include the "Lagartos" sculpture in the center of the plaza, a shade structure for the artwork, more trees and gardens, chess and ping pong tables and splash pads, among other additions. Juarez said the committee got "90 percent" of what they wanted, and that his faith in public process and the city government had been restored.
"There needs to be community input, people need time to even propose new ones, like the creation of this committee," Juarez said.
There's a long process from concept to construction. Next are construction specifications, which take months to draft. The city estimates $4 to $5 million for the entire redesign, which they have from the downtown tax increment reinvestment zone and approved obligation bonds.