By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
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By Sean Pendergast
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The beach seemed a peculiar place to find Michael Stevens on the morning of September 4. As Mayor Bob Lanier's $1-a-year "special assistant for housing and inner-city revitalization," Stevens had spent many months negotiating the purchase of the historic Rice Hotel, whose renovation is thought to be critical to the rejuvenation of downtown Houston -- at least by those with a stake in the rejuvenation of downtown Houston.
But on the day City Council was asked to approve the use of public money for the project, Stevens was winding up a week's vacation in Galveston. That morning, Lanier faced a Council uprising led by Michael Yarbrough and Judson Robinson III, who were indignant over the lack of details available on Stevens' plan, as well as the sudden appearance of the transaction on Council's agenda. Despite the
mayor's snarling displeasure, Council voted to postpone action on the matter for one week.
Stevens, however, knew he'd earned his leisure. The Rice Hotel was a done deal in his mind. The purchase price of $3 million had been negotiated. Two local banks had agreed to provide $24 million to turn the old building into loft-style apartments. A construction team, led by developer Randall Davis, had already been assembled. And removal of asbestos from the 83-year-old structure on Texas Avenue was under way.
As for the stubbornness of City Council, if the members needed another week to sign off on the use of some $19 million in future tax revenues for the Rice, Stevens figured that was largely a problem for the mayor. Lanier's administration would have to go through the motions of addressing the interests of a few elected officials.
Michael Stevens, on the other hand, only addresses the interests of Bob Lanier. It's more than a full-time job. By his own count, Stevens spends 60 to 70 hours a week attempting to carry out the mayor's urban-renewal agenda. Whatever time is left -- and, he'll tell you, it's not much -- goes to Michael Stevens Interests, his multimillion-dollar apartment development business.
Since his appointment in March 1995, Stevens has been omnipresent, speaking before almost every booster club, business association and building-trades group in the city. Invariably, his speeches point out how he and the mayor have invested the city with a new sense of promise. Projects that have stymied business and political leaders for almost a generation have become a reality, he says.
"In my opinion, we are going to create more momentum for downtown than has ever been experienced in our recent time," says Stevens, who at age 46 has the looks -- and the energy level -- of someone a decade younger. "I think most of that is happening, and I believe that people see it happening."
Maybe not just yet, but soon. After more than a decade of turmoil and stalemate, the demolition of Allen Parkway Village is finally under way, and work on a $50 million, federally funded mixed-income community could begin next spring. Long-awaited improvement to the neglected and decayed Fourth Ward is imminent as well. Houston Renaissance, a nonprofit that has been quietly accumulating land in the 90-block area, is awaiting nearly $15 million in federal grants to initiate a master plan to build 680 housing units.
Stevens is also the face and force behind Lanier's pet project, Homes for Houston, which aspires to provide 25,000 additional housing units by the turn of the century. Toss in a few other projects on the horizon -- the redevelopment of the Market Square and Midtown districts; conversion of Main Street to a pedestrian-friendly boulevard and substantial development in the Second and Third wards -- and it's easy to understand the faith and optimism that seems to ooze from Stevens' pores.
The only suggestion of a problem you're likely to encounter is that Stevens may be close to being overwhelmed. He's Lanier's point man on the ongoing reconstruction of the Albert Thomas Convention Center; he's the chairman of the Houston International Sports Committee, which hopes to bring the Olympics to town; and, if construction of a downtown baseball stadium is okayed by voters in a November referendum, he'll likely have a role in seeing that project to fruition, too.
But Stevens has come to see the challenge in global terms -- a sense of mission that is in keeping with what, by most accounts, is his substantial ego. Both he and the mayor fully expect their approach to urban redevelopment to become the standard nationwide.
Stevens recently spoke at a Harvard seminar on "new urbanism" at the invitation of Henry Cisneros, director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. And with the groundwork for the mayor's goals in place, he's spent considerable time elsewhere, recounting for whomever will listen how the Lanier administration supposedly has revolutionized government's role in rebuilding inner-city America.
"I think," Stevens said in a recent interview, "what we've done here is clearly focused at the national level, because as a government, we need to figure out a way to cut out the premium for having public involvement. Clearly, the city of Houston is doing things that are not being done elsewhere."
But just as clearly, all that activity raises a couple of significant questions: Is it actually working? And, to the degree that it is, what will be the ultimate price?