El Paso Times 06/18/2014 11:20 pm By Marty Schladen

AUSTIN — The Texas Transportation Commission on June 26 will discuss whether El Paso’s Lincoln Center will be demolished, but the commission will make no decision then — or ever, the commission’s chairman said Wednesday.
Any decisions about what to do with the building will be left to Texas Department of Transportation staff, which might take years to decide, said the chairman, El Paso businessman Ted Houghton.
“That’s going to be a management decision,” Houghton said. “I didn’t post it as an action item because it’s going to be management that makes that decision. It doesn’t have to be acted on at t­he commission level.”
After Houghton made that statement, TxDOT sent out a press release late Wednesday afternoon saying that it was postponing demolition indefinitely, but that the building would remain closed.
“I have decided that we will not demolish the Lincoln Center on Oct. 1 as scheduled,” the statement quoted Executive Director Joe Weber as saying. “The future of the building is tied to future transportation projects in this area that are subject to environmental and cultural reviews.”
The statement later said, “Due to the fact that this facility remains a health and safety risk for the public, the building will remain closed to the public, and we are taking measures to secure the facility.”
State Rep. Joe Pickett, who has tried to facilitate communication between the city and the transportation department, said TxDOT still doesn’t sound like it intends to allow the building to be reopened.
“It’s a stay of execution, but not a pardon,” he said.
The future of the building can only be determined after completion of these studies.
Controversy over the historic building has swirled since early May when TxDOT announced plans to start demolishing Lincoln Center, an early school for Hispanic and black students, at the end of the month.
Pickett, an El Paso Democrat who is a leading voice in Austin on transportation issues, and state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, said that only days earlier they had been assured by TxDOT officials that there were no immediate plans to demolish the center.
Lincoln Center lies beneath a tangle of highways known as the Spaghetti Bowl.
TxDOT, which has owned the century-old building since 1969, says it might need to knock down the building to build a planned interchange between Interstate 10 and U.S. 54. More recently, the agency has said Lincoln Center is not safe from vehicles that might plummet from the highway overhead — a claim that City Rep. Lilly Limón mocked in a recent interview.
In addition to its historical significance, Lincoln Center houses several murals celebrating the Chicano movement. Some local preservationists have been leading an effort to form a partnership with the city to reopen the building as a community center in one of El Paso’s poorest neighborhoods.
But some on the city council have been critical of several aspects of the business plan they submitted. Also, some on the council don’t want to invest in the building so long as TxDOT insists on being able to demolish it at any time.
Seeking to stop the planned demolition, the city council voted on May 19 to go to court and get a temporary-restraining order against TxDOT. In a May 23 letter, Weber offered to delay demolition until October if the city would withdraw its suit — a condition the council agreed to in hopes of negotiating a deal with the state agency.
On Wednesday, Pickett, who is chairman of a select committee on transportation funding, said the letter was vague.
It said, “We are also willing to work with the city during the time between now and October 2014 to gather and remove all artifacts of interest from the Lincoln Center and store them at city facilities so they may be protected and preserved. TxDOT desires to discuss with the city other preservation measures related to the murals inside and outside the Lincoln Center.”
Pickett and many others in El Paso want to know if TxDOT would be willing to preserve Lincoln Center under any circumstances.
“I would say that the plan is to tear it down,” Pickett said.
So he asked that the issue be placed on the agenda of the Transportation Commission, which oversees TxDOT, when it meets in Houston on June 26.
“There’s no asking questions back and forth by letter because their answers are so ambiguous,” Pickett said.
Houghton, however, said the commission won’t make any decisions when it meets next week.
“I think (Executive Director Weber) is basically going to say, ‘We’re going to go through a process and figure out what we need out there as transportation assets before we do anything else,” Houghton said. “That could take years.”

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