AMARILLO, Texas - The chairman of the Texas Historical Commission will seek legal advice as the commission reviews the decision by the Texas Antiquities Advisory Board to request more evidence and documentation of historical artifacts before the board makes a recommendation on 12 properties in the Duranguito neighborhood in Downtown El Paso.
The Antiquities Advisory Board examines nominations for historical landmark designations, then makes recommendations to the Texas Historical Commission.
Thursday, the board unanimously voted to deem the Duranguito nomination applications as incomplete. The board recommended the nominations be returned to the nominators: historian Max Grossman and businessman JP Bryan, the men fighting to preserve the properties from demolition.
The City of El Paso now owns 11 of the 12 properties in question. It plans to build a voter-approved multi-purpose performance arts center at the site. The City of El Paso told the board Thursday it has hired Moore Archeological Consultants to investigate the site for potential historical artifacts and it will submit its own report on the sites.
On Friday, Texas Historical Commission Chairman John Nau said he needed more time to review the board's action. "I'm not a lawyer and I'm not even going to try to give an opinion on this until we have good solid advice ... This is not a dead issue," Nau said.
During Thursday's board hearing, the general consensus from all parties involved was that there are historical artifacts buried underneath some of the properties in the Duranguito neighborhood. However, the board said it needed evidence, excavation reports and documentation before making any recommendations.
Board member Douglas Boyd reminded both sides that landmark designations are based on facts and documentation, and not the potential of an area to produce historical artifacts. A second board member, John D. Lowe, echoed the sentiment, saying he is concerned about the Commission setting a "bad precedent" if it designates historical landmarks in Duranguito purely based on a property's potential to produce historical artifacts.
Friday, UTEP archeologist David Carmichael argued before the commission that the mere presence of artifacts should be enough to grant historical landmark designation, regardless of any excavations. Carmichael asked the board to reconsider the nomination applications submitted by Grossman and Bryan. "THC rule 26.10 does not contain a requirement for such excavations," Carmichael said, "Research shows that a number of properties have received (landmark designation) prior to site-specific excavations, and in some of those cases, excavations have never been conducted and they are still (designated as historical landmarks)."
Attorney Frank Ainsa - representing Carmichael, Grossman and Bryan - questioned the board's decision to deem the application submitted by his clients as incomplete because of the lack of a site excavation report for each of the 12 properties. Ainsa told the commission he studied the code and the rules and found no requirement that a site excavation report be included in the applications. "This site is the oldest site in El Paso and settler Ponce de Leon is considered to be the founder of El Paso," Ainsa said as he urged the commission to reconsider. "You (the commission) clearly have the right to consider all kinds of collateral evidence to determine whether that criteria is met. These nominations are accompanied by extensive archeological reports," Aisa said.
During public comment, Bryan once again delivered a passionate critique of the City's plan to build the performance center in the Duranguito area. "We are not only in favor of what is below the ground, but what is above the ground. The City is determined to destroy Duranguito ... This is one of the most endangered sites in Texas," Bryan said. Bryan referred to Duranguito as "the birthplace of El Paso" and urged the board to protect the "foundation of El Paso" from a class B basketball court.
Laura Foster, the chief architect for the City of El Paso, addressed the commission Friday and said the City is grateful about Thursday's decision by the board. Foster said the City looks forward to working with the commission as the City moves forward with the archeological study of the Duranguito area.
What happens if the Duranguito properties are granted a historical landmark designation?
"A State Antiquities Landmark designation does not mean sites or buildings cannot be altered or destroyed," states the Texas Historical Commission on its website. "The land-owning agency must consult with the THC about such proposed actions through the permit process, and the THC will determine whether the work will be allowed."