Regents approve purchasing Asarco site for UTEP

by Marty Schladen, USA Today Network Austin Bureau


AUSTIN — A large piece of property along Interstate 10 just northwest of Downtown El Paso that used to belong to Asarco will soon become a part of the University of Texas at El Paso.

The University of Texas Board of Regents on Thursday approved opening negotiations to purchase the 458-acre parcel — apparently for about $17 million. Some of the land is east of I-10 in the mountain area where the Miner soccer and softball fields are.

The other portion of the land is across the freeway from UTEP, where the Asarco smokestack used to be.

“We have wanted to acquire the east side of I-10 for years and years and years and years,” said UTEP President Diana Natalicio, who flew to Austin to attend the meeting.

The parcel is desirable to the university because the campus is landlocked by businesses along Mesa Street to the east and by mountains to the northwest.

University of Texas System officials should complete the purchase of the site in the next 30 to 60 days, said UTEP Executive Vice President Richard Adauto.

It’s not clear yet when the university’s new land will be developed, Natalicio said.

The parcel is bisected by I-10, with 248 acres on the east side of the freeway and 210 acres on the west side. Natalicio said the plan is to build additional student housing and recreational facilities on the land east of the freeway.

Currently, about 1,000 students live on campus while the rest of the university’s 23,000 students commute or live on their own elsewhere. Natalicio said she wants to increase the number living on campus because such students tend to graduate sooner and have more access to university amenities.

However, officials didn’t want to make any concrete decisions until they were sure they were going to get the land.

“We’re going to have to start doing some master planning and deep thinking about” how to develop the Asarco land east of I-10, Natalicio said.

No timetable has been set to complete plans and start construction, the UTEP president said. An environmental cleanup of the site was completed this year.

What to do with the acreage on the west side of the freeway, where the main Asarco smelter was, is more up in the air.

Because it stretches south almost to Downtown and is bordered on one side by Mexico and on the other by the freeway, Natalicio said the parcel has unique potential. She said she wants to see a public discussion about how UTEP or the larger community might use the land.

Typically, governmental entities don’t say how much they’re willing to pay for land at the outset of negotiations. But Regent Wallace Hall threw out a figure before he cast the sole vote against making the purchase.

“I’m not sure being landlocked is sufficient reason to spend $17 million buying a brownfield for future expansion,” Hall said.

In 2014, Hall stirred controversy during a lengthy fight with former UT Austin President Bill Powers. He accused Powers of giving preferential admissions to politically connected applicants.

Hall’s zealousness led to Powers’ resignation and an investigation of Hall by a Texas House of Representatives committee. Paul Foster, an El Paso businessman who is chairman of the Board of Regents, called on Hall to resign because of all the controversy he stirred.

Foster wasn’t present in the boardroom during Thursday’s vote, but took his chair shortly afterward.

The Asarco site has a long, turbulent history in El Paso. A smelting plant started operations there in 1887. In 2005, Asarco, which then owned the El Paso smelter and scores of other polluted sites around the country, filed for bankruptcy.

In April 2013, two iconic smokestacks were demolished at the site. That same weekend, the nearby El Paso City Hall also was demolished.

The two demolitions reshaped the El Paso cityscape.

This story has been updated to say that the Asarco cleanup is complete.