Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A pat on the back is worth a thousand words



An audience by invitation only waits with baited breath for the Plaza Mills Unveiling

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

First and Foremost


Here's a photoessay I shot several months ago which ended up in a publication's development hell.

Some background:

Paul Foster, our local Phanthropy Celebrity (honored by our City Council as a "Conquistador"), purchased several downtown landmark properties. Among his purchases were the Plaza Hotel, the Mills Building, The Centre, and, in a joint effort with the Borderland Community Trust's Bill (the Billionaire) Sanders, the Jack in the Box Parking on Oregon Street. Shortly after the purchase of these properties, bus traffic was redirected from the Plaza De Los Lagartos (San Jacinto Plaza) to a "temporary" station across from the library and history museum. City Council, of course did not say that they were in negotiations with Foster regarding the redevelopment of the properties adjacent to the park. Instead, some lame line was given about Union Plaza and it's unused transportation hub. Shortly after the bus terminal was moved, Sanders purchased the Sun Metro ticket kiosk from the city for redevelopment, and Foster announced his plans for redeveloping the afore mentioned landmark properties at a private unveiling in a public park. Pioneer Plaza, which is adjacent to the Plaza Hotel's lobby, was cordoned off using a chain-link fence, police officers were posted at the entrance of the fence to ensure that only the invited guests (City Employees, developers, and downtown property owners) were allowed in. The press was allowed to enter, but they were not allowed into the Plaza Hotel's lobby for the pre-unveiling cocktail hour. Hm, I wonder why.

So, since the public was not allowed into a public park for the unveiling of a project which will change the face of Downtown, I recorded the gathering and transcribed the speech as a matter of public record. I will publish the pictures and their captions in the next post:

- Jenni B

Mills Plaza Transcription:

BH= Brent Harris
MC= Mayor Cook
PF= Paul Foster

BH: …At this time I’d like to bring Mayor Cook up to say a few words.

MC: Thank you very much. Boy, isn’t this an exciting time for El Paso? [applause] You know, I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and I used to clip things out of the newspaper every Sunday, one of those memorable things that I used to clip was an article called “Yesterday and Today”. And in “Yesterday and Today”, what they would do is they would feature neighborhoods and buildings, what they looked like back in the 20’s and 30’s and then what they looked like today. Back then I thought that was pretty cool. You had this old building and progress came along, the building went down and you’d put something new up. When I look back at think about that now, what we had really done is we had torn down history and removed it from our memories, and that’s pretty sad. There was a calendar floating around El Paso a number of years ago, that showed some of the historic courthouses we used to have in all their grandeur, and they’ve also gone to the wrecking ball, but fortunately we’ve had some people in our community who knew that some of our history had to be preserved. I want to congratulate the Dipp family for preserving some of that, and making sure that future leaders of El Paso could come along and pick up the pieces, and pick up the history, polish it up, and bring it back to its original splendor and grandeur. And that’s exactly what is happening today. We’re across the street from the Plaza Theatre. I remember the grand opening for it. Any of you who haven’t been inside- I don’t know what your excuse was, but it’s not a good enough excuse. You really need to see what’s happening. And now the Plaza Hotel. Just in mingling with the crowd this evening- people telling their stories about their first memory of being in the Plaza Hotel. Larry Patton telling me he came down here because he wanted to see if he was going to get drafted back during the Viet-Nam war, and stopping for a beer and the lady asked him, “Are you a member of the club?” And he said, “What club?” Back then, as those people who’ve been in El Paso for a while remember, we didn’t have open bars, you had to join a club, so they would charge you a dollar- you were a member- and then you could drink all night if you wanted. Larry- I think he still carries his card in his wallet.

Today is about progress, moving forward. Somebody asked me a few minutes ago, “Isn’t this a great time to be the mayor?” And I’ll tell you what- I couldn’t have planned or paid for it to be a better time, when fantastic things are happening, when you have philanthropists like the man sitting to my right here [gestures to Foster] who come along and say they want to make El Paso a better place. They see the character that we have, they see the history, they see the culture, and they decide they’re going to be on a crusade to make it their mission to make El Paso the best city in the United States. So with that, Paul, on behalf of about 700,000 in this community, I’d like to thank you for your philanthropy, for your vision, for your faith, your confidence, and your hope that we’re going to become a better city. There should be more people like Paul Foster.

BH: Thank you Mayor Cook for your endless work and your enthusiasm for our city. I’d also like to thank at this time Joyce Wilson, Cathy Dodson, Mark Grisom, Pat Adauto, and the many other city staff members and department heads that have been so helpful in working with us on our plans for Downtown. [applause]

Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight is a very special evening. Where we stand right now is at the heart of El Paso. In this place rests the legacy of our history as a city on the border, that was always destined to be the convergence of great opportunities for people who came to be here. Opportunities both economic and cultural. Tonight we are going to share with you our vision for what this heart of the city will become. But first I’d like to step back and provide you with a brief history of this area and the buildings you see around you. 

Behind me are photos of what the Mills Building, the Centre Building, and the Plaza Hotel once was and what they have become today. The Anson Mills Building was designed by El Paso’s famous Henry C. Trost, of the Trost and Trost architectural firm. It stands 12 stories high and was the tallest monolithic, all concrete building in the United States at the time it was built in 1911. It was also the tallest building in El Paso. The Mills Building was built on the site of the first home in El Paso- The Ponce de Leon Ranch in 1832. In fact, the Rio Grande flowed where we now stand. When the ranch burned down the site was used for the Grand Central Hotel, which eventually burned down as well. It was then used as an office building that was torn down to create the building you see today at a cost of $300,000- a lot of money in those days. Unfortunately, in the mid 1970’s renovations were made to modernize the building that greatly diminished Trost’s opulent and intricate design. The portico’s were removed and a window wall was installed that completely covered Trost’s beautiful architectural creation.

The building just to my right, across the street, is the Centre Building. Many El Paso likely remember the building as the White House department store. It also a Trost design and was built in 1912. It served as the White House on the first two floors and the Hotel McCoy on the upper floors. El Paso Electric has occupied the entire building since its renovation.

And finally, the building you’ve been enjoying for the last hour- the Plaza Hotel- our most recent and our most popular acquisition. The Plaza Hotel was originally the Hilton Hotel. It was the first high-rise Hilton, built by Conrad Hilton, and was designed by Trost in 1929. A mere 19 days after construction began, the Great Depression began, but even the Great Depression didn’t stop the Hiltons. At that time, it surpassed Basset Tower as the tallest building in El Paso at 19 stories. Elizabeth Taylor lived in the Penthouse for a short time while she was married to Nicky Hilton. In 1963 the Hotel was sold, and became the Plaza Hotel which we know today. The hotel was listed on the National Historic Register in 1980. Until a couple of weeks ago, the building was owned and managed by the Dipp family of El Paso. Paul and I would like to personally recognize Mike, George, Paul and Mary Jean Dipp, who are here with us tonight, and we thank them for allowing us the opportunity to purchase this grand historic hotel. I’d also like to recognize Leo Piñeda. Leo has worked at this building since the 1950’s, and we’re thrilled that he’s not only here with us tonight, but also that he’s joined our team, as well.

So now that you’ve had a relatively brief history lesson about these historic El Paso Landmarks, I’m sure you’re more than ready to hear about what we mean when we say a “Special Unveiling”. I’d like to turn it over to Paul Foster who has made all that you’re about to see a reality.

PF: Thank you. Thank you Brent, and good evening to all of you. I appreciate you being with us here tonight. Mayor Cook, thank you for your comments. We’re honored that you joined us tonight. We look forward to working with you and with the City in achieving what we believe are exciting plans for this Downtown area of El Paso. What makes our city better, I think are the positive things happening all around us, and how people feel about their city. Just thinking about recent achievements: the Fort Bliss expansion, the Medical Center of the Americas, the nursing school at UTEP, the four year medical school at Tech- all of these are examples of the wonderful things happening right here in El Paso. Tonight I have the pleasure of telling you about a plan that we have- our company, Mills Plaza Properties- that we believe can be another positive thing for our community. This plan involves three buildings and adjacent buildings that we own here in the Downtown area. We’re excited and we’re convinced that when completed that this project can have a significant impact on El Paso’s overall economic development. We also believe it can make our Historical Downtown treasures, in this area a destination location for El Pasoans and visitors. Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce you to the Mills Plaza District. [applause]

The Mills Plaza District is our plan to establish this area and these buildings as the heart of El Paso, once again. Each of the buildings Brent has told you about tonight will be revitalized to bring this area premium office space, retail space, and restaurant opportunities, and a general quality of life that has been sorely missed from our Downtown for many years. And now I’d like to invite Brent back up here to tell you more about the details of the Mills Plaza District. Thank you.

BH: Thank you, Paul. Our plan is to bring back the original splendor of these buildings, and provide the cornerstone for the vision of what El Paso’s Downtown is meant to be. The Mills Plaza district will be the most prestigious address in our city, and is where El Pasoans and visitors of all ages will want to be. We engaged the firm of Martinez and Johnson architecture, who has extensive Historic building renovation experience. Martinez and Johnson recently restored the El Paso’s landmark Plaza Theatre, and many other famous projects like the Boston Opera House. We are pleased that they have joined us tonight for this special occasion. As you can see, demolition on the Mills Building began this week (for the record, I saw the building being gutted NEARLY A YEAR AGO). It will be one of the only environmentally friendly, green, high-rise buildings in Downtown. The Mills Building Renovation will include the removal of a full-length window-wall that was installed in the 70’s, and will be replaced with new, double-hung, insulated windows that resemble the original windows. The two porticoes and the awning hung by cables will be brought back, and the building will be painted similar to its original color that will revitalize and enhance the original design elements, originally created by Trost. While the original look of thee building will be restored, the interior of the building will be brought into the 21st Century with a state of the art managed heating and cooling system, the latest in IT technology and many other smart building features. As part of the Mills renovation, the Mills and Centre Buildings will be connected as one on the first floor. An elegant shopping promenade will be created that will meander throughout the first floor of both buildings, and will create opportunities for restaurants, a deli, coffee shop, bookstore, not to mention other boutique shopping venues, with room for art galleries in the basement (no natural light?) and a world-class restaurant on the second floor overlooking San Jacinto Plaza. The remaining ten floors will be dedicated to office space. We have already begun discussions with a new and exciting restaurant for the Centre Building, and we’ll be creating a private gym in the basement of the Centre Building for the exclusive use of the tenants of the Centre, Mills, and what might become of the Plaza Hotel. With respect to the Plaza Hotel, in the next couple of weeks we will commence a conceptual planning process to study the hotels and the many possibilities there are. We do know that this unique historic hotel has similar retail and restaurant opportunities, similar to that of the Mills Building. With the possibility of creating a boutique hotel with a residential component on the upper floors. We hope to make that determination shortly. And most importantly, I need to address parking. An integral part of the Mills Plaza district will be an ample supply of secure, easily accessible parking. As part of the Centre Building acquisition, we purchased the surface lot on the corner of El Paso and Main Street and last week we closed on the Sun City Metro ticket kiosk parcel on the southwest corner of Main and Oregon. This ticket kiosk was the site of the old St. Regis Hotel, which mysteriously burned down many years ago. And lastly, we are in the process of finalizing the purchase of the Jack in the Box parking garage, located on the Northwest corner of Main and Oregon. We are currently designing the garage and these parcels to accommodate 700-1000 parking spaces. The façade of the garage will be designed to resemble the old St. Regis Hotel, and accordingly, we have decided to name it the St. Regis Parking Garage. It will be attached to and provide direct access to the Mills Building, and will cross over Main Street. It will provide for a well-lit, secure parking environment for tenants of the Mills and Centre buildings, as well as additional parking for the Plaza Theatre, the Library, and others in the area. We hope to be under construction in June of this year. In addition to my left we will be looking to be converting the surface lot to a parking garage in the near future.

And now the most exciting part: To complete the unification of these buildings into a true district, we’re working closely with the city of El Paso to close Mills Street from Oregon to El Paso Street, and create the most unique pedestrian-only park like environment venue area. [applause] It will be the perfect place to spend time outdoors eating lunch or dinner enjoying coffee or just hanging out enjoying El Paso’s fabulous weather. This area will feature outdoor dining, trees, benches, and a venue for public art and public entertainment performances. It is critical that this area be well-lit, safe and secure, where people of all ages will feel comfortable visiting at any time of the day or night. This next week I look forward to presenting our detailed plan to City Council, City Planning Commission, and the Tourist Board. We hope that you all share our excitement and passion for the prospects this project will bring to Downtown, and our city as a whole. We thank you for joining us this evening, and good night.

[applause]

Because the Lavatory is where your editor would put your work anyway

I'm Jenni B, and I'm your hostess, editrix, and moderator for what could be an exciting experiment in Paseño journalism. I've been a writer, columnist and shit-stirrer in El Paso since the tender age of nineteen and have found that there is a vacuum when it comes to insightful, critical writing in the city. There are many talented writers and artists here, who because of a lack of venue, find that their work is either sliced and diced, shelved indefinitely without pay, or lambasted. If you are a writer from El Chuco, you're well-spoken, you have something pertinent to write about, and you're not batshit crazy, I want to hear from you. Submit your work to my email address, and if I like it, I will happily publish. Right now, this is an experiment, and so there are no ad dollars behind it, so don't expect payment. Right now, this is a place to vent, a place to submit work that you've put love into that doesn't fit into your publication's editorial guidelines, and a place for conversation. If this works out well, and there is community interest, I will buy a domain, persue ad revinue, develop the site, and we can all benefit financially.

To the writers and the readers: I believe in the value of using expletives when other words fail, which is why I have included the adult content warning on this blog. I also encourage those of you who write about sex, feminism, and politics to submit your work, and I recognise that some pieces may not be appropriate for those under 18. We'll just have to see about that, right. So, here it goes, I'm pressing post, and let's see what happens.

-Jenni B