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Renovation costs, highway construction could force Lincoln Center demolition

By: Stacey Welsh

EL PASO, Texas -- The Texas Department of Transportation said it could tear down an El Paso landmark to make way for a new highway project, but the city doesn't have plans to save the Lincoln Center right now.

While the city said it has looked into renovating the Lincoln Center in the past, it could cost up to $5 million to do so.

As KFOX14 previously reported, TXDOT plans to connect Interstate 10 to the Cesar Chavez Border Highway. TXDOT is also planning major renovations to I-10 in the next 10 years, and said this connection could help traffic flow.

Some are fighting to save the center because it was previously used as the first school in El Paso for Mexican-Americans. Some tell KFOX14 it could stand as symbol for Latino culture.

El Paso district TXDOT engineer Bob Bielek said there are nine possible plans for the project, and two would call for demolishing the Lincoln Center.

"Those two alternatives are the two best alternatives that have been identified so far. It doesn't mean that there aren't going to be other alternatives identified," Bielek said.

TXDOT owns the Lincoln Center, and can tear it down to make way for transportation needs. That could happen even if renovations are completed and a new tenant moves in.

"We would need that land and that building for transportation purposes. That's the purpose it was originally bought for," Bielek said.

The Lincoln Center has been vacant since flooding in 2006, and Bielek said that also comes with dangers.

"If it's unmaintained, somebody breaks and they get hurt or killed, TXDOT can be sued," Bielek said.

El Paso District 8 Rep. Courtney Niland said it could be irresponsible for the city to pay for Lincoln Center renovations and possibly re-open it as a museum.

"I would be very cautious about investing any taxpayer dollars toward a project that could be demolished," Niland said.

"We've been working on this issue for two and a half years with the understanding that there was an opportunity to save the Lincoln Center if we could find some sponsors, governmental sponsors," State Sen. Jose Rodriguez (D-El Paso) said.

The Lincoln Park Conservation Committee is also working on a plan to renovate the center at a lower cost.

"We would work with local contractors to get volunteer labor. We would also work with anyone who wanted to donate their services to bring the building up to code," committee member Miguel Juarez said.

TXDOT said it will still be months before any work begins.

"I normally would not have identified any alternatives publicly until we got into the environmental process. I did in this case simply because I knew there was interest in the building," Bielek said.

The conservation committee plans to present a plan to the City Council for how much it finds renovating and operating the center could cost in the next couple of weeks.