Muir Building to Become Parking Lot

Preservations say developers deceived public

Muir Building will be a Parking Lot

EL PASO, Texas - A downtown El Paso building considered by preservationists to be historically significant will be demolished to make way for a parking lot.

The revelation comes as a shock to many of the advocates who fought to save the Muir Building from the jaws of the bulldozers.

"Trust is one thing but we need a commitment from developers," El Paso County Historical Commission chairman Bernie Sargent said. "Instead of saying ‘Well let's look at taking it down,' say, ‘OK, if you want to take it down, what are you going to put in its place?'"

Borderplex Community Trust, the prospective purchaser and developer of the property, did not reveal its parking lot plans when it appealed the decision of the city's Historic Landmark Commission last November, preservationists say.

"I wish we could give you more details than we've been able to give," BCT attorney David Bernard said at the November city council meeting. "We've given you what we can, but confidentiality commitments that we've made don't allow us to do that."

Even though Bernard would not reveal specific details of the developer's plans for construction, he said what would be built would be an urban "mixed-use building," that would contribute to the economy of downtown.

BCT did not own the property at the time and was only interested in purchasing the Muir Building on the condition that demolition plans were given the green light.

During the heated city council meeting, historians and descendants of the building's architect, Henry Trost, pleaded with council members to follow the recommendations of the Historic Landmark Commission and the Texas Historical Commission to deny BCT's appeal for demolition.

In a unanimous vote, council members approved BCT's appeal for destruction, allowing for demolition to proceed.

The Muir Building is a non-contributing building that met the economic hardship provisions as defined by the city's municipal code, says the city's director of planning Mathew McKelroy.

The building has sat vacant for years. BCT made a case during the council meeting that according to their estimators, the cost for renovation would outweigh the cost of demolition.

"They didn't have to provide us with those numbers," McKelroy said. "In this particular case they were willing to provide us with those costs, and their costs were high. But we also know the costs on the Mills Building were also high."

Preservationists disagree with the figures presented by BCT to city council and question whether or not anyone with the city actually scrutinized the numbers.

"They are totally inaccurate," UTEP architecture professor and historian Max Grossman, Ph.D. said. "Take a look at what they did to the Buckler Building right down the block. That was developed by CVS and we know they want to make a profit. There's no way an international company would choose to renovate that building if they weren't going to make money from it. Go look at it, it looks great."

The Muir Building is not one of the historic properties protected from demolition under the current municipal code.

El Paso's Downtown Historic District was created in 1992. At the same time, a number of buildings within the district were given protection from demolition – designated as historically significant buildings.

Nobody has been able to say who came up with the list or the criteria used in constructing the list. In the more than 20 years since the list was first created, it has never been revised or updated.

Even though Bernard would not reveal specific details of the developer's plans for construction in November, he said what would be built would be an urban "mixed-use" project that would benefit the downtown economy.

ABC-7 contacted all of the city representatives, asking when they first heard the property was going to be a parking lot.

Only Reps. Steve Ortega, Susie Byrd and Cortney Niland responded.

Both Ortega and Byrd said they knew of the plans for a parking lot prior to their vote to overturn the HLC's decision in November.

Byrd said her understanding was that the parking lot was only temporary so that the property could produce income until development plans and financing for future construction of the site were solidified. She said she did not believe the parking lot would remain at the site indefinitely but only for a few years at most.

Byrd was not clear on where she first learned the site would become a parking lot, but said she thought it had been presented to city council publicly as part of the developer's presentation during the appeal, or in talks with BCT representatives.

"In November, during discussion of the project, I learned that a temporary use may be a surface parking lot," Ortega wrote in his email response. "It was made clear, that the end product will not be a parking lot, but rather a vertical development that would make the community proud. This is my best recollection."

Rep. Cortney Niland, whose district includes downtown, said she did not know the site would be developed into a parking lot.

"I'm not aware of this," Niland responded in an email. "I'm looking into the issue and I'll get back to you."

McKelroy said he had not heard of parking lot plans until about one month ago.

"I heard it from Max [Grossman], I can tell you that," McKelroy said. "That was probably 30 days ago. I had heard most recently from Borderplex they intend to use it as a surface parking lot [through the permit application process]."

The Muir building is part of a set of several buildings flanking San Jacinto Plaza created by prominent architect Henry Trost, whose work was most prolific from the late 1800s to the 1930s.

Architectural historians say the buildings were meant to be a showcase of the architect's varied ability – each one built in a different architectural style. Each structure represents a period in architectural history.

ABC-7 was unable to confirm when demolition of the Muir Building will begin.

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