Cotswold Unspun

A group of weathy benefactors have a "gift" for the city. They say it won't cost taxpayers a nickel. But the fleecing may have already begun.

The spacious banquet room at the new Kim Son was packed. The latest addition to Market Square, the restaurant itself is one more sign of renewed life downtown, and the people who gathered there on January 23 had been invited for the public unveiling of a grand plan for the further revitalization of the historical heart of Houston. In the works for a year and a half, the project was called "Cotswold" -- named, for some inexplicable reason, after the pastoral region of England famous for its sheep and walking tours -- and it was put forth as the key component of the ongoing effort to transform the entire north end of downtown from a sparse, low-rent zone pocked with blight into "a thriving, livable urban neighborhood," as the promotional literature described it.

No doubt one of the drawing cards for the luncheon was the list of wealthy and influential businessmen whose names were attached to Cotswold. The lineup of board members was indeed impressive: Cogen Technologies' Robert McNair; former Shell Oil CEO John Bookout; former First City Bancorporation chairman James Elkins Jr.; the Sterling Group's Gordon Cain; investor Jack Trotter; Robert Cruikshank, the former senior partner of the Deloitte & Touche accounting firm; Leo Linbeck Jr. of Linbeck Construction; oilman Paul Howell; developer Richard Weekley; and Walter Mischer Sr., the political kingmaker of the seventies and eighties known for his ability to pull the levers of government for his own benefit.

Some of them, such as Cruikshank and Howell, were instrumental in the 1993 anti-zoning campaign; others, such as Linbeck and Weekley, play lead roles in the tort reform movement. But only Weekley, who owns an interest in the Hogg Palace Lofts near Market Square, has a financial interest in downtown redevelopment.

Yet, as was announced at the Kim Son luncheon, they had joined together to form a charitable nonprofit corporation, the Cotswold Foundation, which would raise and invest $30 million to narrow downtown streets, create about 3,000 new parking spaces and bring extensive landscaping touches to a 60-block zone running east from Louisiana Street to U.S. Highway 59 and south from Buffalo Bayou to Capitol. Congress Avenue would become Cotswold's centerpiece, a series of block-long water gardens linking the proposed baseball stadium near Union Station with Market Square, which would be turned into an underground parking garage topped by another water park. To keep things orderly, Cotswold would deploy its own uniformed security force.

But the most attractive feature of the whole package, as those who dined at Kim Son that day were told more than once, was that Cotswold wouldn't require the expenditure of any taxpayers' dollars. Rather, the project was to be "a gift" from the wealthy benefactors on the Cotswold board, who were said to have virtually no personal economic interest in the area and only wanted to give something back to their community.

That same message has been trumpeted far and wide since then -- at City Council meetings, in Cotswold presentations to civic groups and on the news and editorial pages of the Houston Chronicle, whose main property sits in the area targeted for Cotswold's supposed largess. "Public money is not needed to make this project succeed," proclaimed the original press release announcing the project.

That promise --and perhaps more important, the credibility of the men behind it -- have made it hard to argue with Cotswold. It's also obscured some rather unpleasant realities about the grand plan: the fact, for instance, that it was developed with almost no input from the various groups and individuals who had toiled for two decades to revive downtown, or that very little of the $30 million or so to be spent on the project will actually come from the pockets of the Cotswold trustees. Or that despite the repeated promises to the contrary, Cotswold will require a very large infusion of public money -- albeit an indirect one -- if it is to become a reality.

In the three months since the unveiling at Kim Son, little in the way of concrete detail has been offered to the public about Cotswold. If anything, the plan is even more vague: After several budget revisions and scathing criticism of Cotswold's plans for Market Square Park, plans for the underground parking garage have been temporarily scrapped. Since Cotswold's layout conflicts with Metro's long-range plan, other streets besides Congress are under consideration for the water gardens. And as Cotswold's hirelings and a battalion of city officials scramble to make the numbers work, it's unclear whether the plan can succeed at all -- at least without city backing.

None of these details have been aired publicly. Instead, the Cotswold promoters are distributing the same promotional package that was passed out at Kim Son in January. Cotswold Foundation executive director Mary Gibbs says that the plan is flexible and that Cotswold ambassadors have been actively reaching out for input from all quarters. But none of the principals were willing to field questions about the project from the Press before our deadline. "They're really not interested in pursuing media opportunities at this time," Gibbs explains.

At the same time, the lords of Cotswold have been almost pathologically anxious to secure an official go-ahead for the concept -- before most of the specifics have been fleshed out or any of the harder questions about costs and benefits have been answered. "I am getting considerable pressure from my sponsor group to get our proposal before City Council for preliminary approval," project manager Leo Linbeck III wrote on March 3 to Michael Stevens, the mayor's chief for inner city redevelopment. At Linbeck's urging, April 30 was set as a target date for Council consideration, though it appears that Cotswold won't make the agenda for another week or two.

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