Saving Downtown El Paso

Posted on: April 20th, 2016 by Special Contributor


By Max Grossman, Ph.D

In spring 2009 I flew to El Paso, Texas, to interview for an entry-level professorship at the University of Texas. As an architectural historian, I was curious about the historic core of El Paso, whose origins could be traced back to the Spanish colonial period, and my hosts were more than happy to oblige. During our walk around San Jacinto Plaza and along El Paso Street, I was amazed at the quality and beauty of the commercial architecture, most of which dates to the first decades of the 20th century when El Paso rapidly transformed from a rough and dusty frontier town into a major metropolitan center of industry and commerce. I was struck, however, by the great number of abandoned and neglected buildings. Despite their incredible potential, it was apparent that these historic structures, which had been built of the finest materials and embellished with ornate cornices and moldings, could not survive in this condition for long before they would have to be demolished out of necessity.

In 1908, horse-drawn buggies and wagons peppered the intersection of Mesa and Mills streets in Downtown El Paso. | Photo courtesy of El Paso Public Library via Wikipedia Commons.

In 1910, horse-drawn buggies and wagons peppered the intersection of Mesa and Mills streets in Downtown El Paso. | Photo courtesy of El Paso Public Library via Wikipedia Commons.

Only two months after moving to El Paso and starting my new academic career, I began attending El Paso County Historical Commission meetings. The county appointed me a commissioner, and I soon formed an Architectural Preservation Committee consisting of professionals with expertise in architecture, planning, history, and statutory law. We began a conversation about historic preservation and turned our attention to the municipal code that regulates the demolition and modification of buildings in El Paso’s local Downtown Historic District, which includes several properties on the National Register of Historic Places. We quickly realized that the code—poorly written and riddled with loopholes and redundancies—offered little protection for even the city’s most significant architecture. By contrast, other Texas cities, like San Antonio and Galveston, had laws and strategies in place that encouraged the restoration of hundreds of downtown buildings, and their tourism was booming as a result.... Read More →


View of flashboard and pin system at Pawtucket Dam with National Park Service visitors. | Credit: James Higgins.

View of flashboard and pin system at Pawtucket Dam with National Park Service visitors. | Credit: James Higgins

Most preservationists are familiar with the Section 106 review process under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which requires federal agencies to analyze whether their actions will have adverse effects on historic resources and to seek ways to avoid, minimize, or mitigate those effects. Consulting parties are an important aspect of the Section 106 review process, and they have a unique opportunity to participate in meetings and provide comments on draft documents throughout the process. Moreover, consulting parties usually have the right to sue a federal agency that fails to comply with the NHPA. The rights and remedies of a consulting party, however, may be severely limited when an undertaking is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC)—the agency that regulates interstate transmission of natural gas; oil; and electricity, including hydropower projects. The Federal Power Act governs FERC and provides for judicial review of FERC orders directly to the United States Court of Appeals, rather than to a federal district court. However, only parties that have formally intervened in a proceeding under FERC’s rules and regulations are authorized to appeal FERC’s decisions. To make matters worse, FERC recently adopted a policy that prohibits intervenors from participating as consulting parties under Section 106, thus forcing interested parties to choose between these two options.

The National Trust recently experienced this binary while working on the National Treasure campaign to preserve Pawtucket Dam. Constructed in 1847 and 1875 on the Merrimack River in Lowell, Massachusetts, Pawtucket Dam is a rare hydraulic structure with a granite block base topped with wooden flashboards supported by iron pins that follow the natural ledge of the Pawtucket Falls. The dam, which diverted much of the river’s flow into canals to power mills, was thus instrumental in establishing Lowell as the first large-scale planned industrial city in the United States. During flooding events, the dam’s five-foot-tall pins bend, releasing the flashboards and redirecting the water to bypass the canals in order to reduce the impact on the mills below and to minimize upstream flooding. The pins and flashboards are then manually replaced. Pawtucket Dam is nationally significant as it contributes to the Locks and Canal National Historic Landmark District, the Lowell National Historical Park (where it is showcased on the National Park Service’s canal boat tours), and the Downtown Lowell Historic District (a local district). It is also designated as a Historic Civil and Mechanical Engineering Landmark.... Read More →

About Anne Nelson

Anne Nelson is an associate general counsel with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission scored an important victory recently when a state supreme court justice ruled against a developer claiming to have suffered a “taking” following the Commission’s decision to designate the First Avenue Estate as a local landmark. First Avenue Estate is a group of historic apartment buildings located between York and First avenues at East 64th and East 65th streets. All First Avenue Estate apartments provided access to sunlight and fresh air, which represented an innovation in workforce housing at the time of their construction between 1898 and 1915. The buildings of First Avenue Estate—15 in total, all six stories tall—were known as “light-court tenements” and were intended to be alternatives to the dark and poorly ventilated tenement housing in other areas of the city.

Credit: Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts

Credit: Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts

The developer that filed the lawsuit, Stahl York Ave. Co., LLC, sought permission to demolish First Avenue Estate in order to build a new condominium tower. The Landmarks Commission, having designated First Avenue Estate as a landmark, denied the demolition request, a decision that Stahl sought to have overturned. The National Trust joined the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts as friends of the court along with a coalition of other groups. The coalition was represented by attorney Michael Gruen, a seasoned preservation attorney in New York City who has participated in several important lawsuits there. Our amici curiae memorandum is available here.
... Read More →

About Will Cook

Will Cook is an associate general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.