City Pork Project

Residents look for answers but find only a developer's arrogance

When Greg Baxter needed to cut a deal with the city for a road through his proposed City Park development along White Oak Bayou, he of course hired a lawyer. But not just any lawyer: Baxter hired Neil Rackleff, a former assistant city attorney who now works for the downtown law firm of Coats, Rose, Yale, Holm, Ryman & Lee.

Rackleff spent his last two and a half years at the city "on loan" to Michael Stevens, former mayor Bob Lanier's unpaid urban-revitalization czar. The attorney had a front-row seat as Stevens and Lanier lavished unprecedented sums of public money on one big-ticket item after another: the Rice Hotel lofts, the construction boom in Midtown, the demolition of Allen Parkway Village, a redevelopment plan for Fourth Ward, a downtown ballpark.

When Stevens's work for Lanier was through in January 1998, Rackleff took a job with Coats, Rose, which also employs Barry Palmer, one of Stevens's personal attorneys. So it seemed like a smart play for Baxter to hire Rackleff in an effort to get the city to fund a $3 million extension of East T.C. Jester from 11th Street to 18th Street. In December City Council agreed to do just that by creating the City Park Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, whose board of directors will collect the incremental property-tax increase generated by the development to pay for the new road.

Presumably Rackleff learned much from Michael Stevens about the art of the "public-private partnership," a staple of the Lanier era. That insight probably helped Baxter in his negotiations with city planners on the East T.C. Jester extension. After all, the city's most recent traffic studies indicate the road will not be needed for transportation purposes for another decade. Moreover, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recently determined that White Oak Bayou cannot handle additional storm water runoff. FEMA has included Baxter's undeveloped 20-acre tract, as well as most of the adjacent Shady Acres subdivision, in the new 100-year floodplain.

In fact, there are only two apparent purposes for the extension. One is to provide bayou-side access to City Park Apartments, a 265-unit complex Baxter plans to build on about ten acres of his land. The other is for Baxter to realize enormous profits from the sale of nine acres to the Albertson's grocery chain, which wouldn't finalize the transaction until the extension of East T.C. Jester had been approved by City Council.

But while city officials were anxious to accommodate Baxter and Albertson's, homeowners in about a half-dozen nearby neighborhoods have little use for City Park. Three months after Council approved the TIRZ, members continue to actively oppose the project on several grounds, including the possibility that Baxter's land may not meet state and federal environmental standards for residential development because it is part of an abandoned oil field called Eureka Heights [see "Looking for Answers Down Below," by Brian Wallstin, January 21].

Baxter vehemently insists his land is environmentally safe. The developer even offered to share the details of two environmental studies at a February 24 community meeting set up by District A City Councilmember Bruce Tatro, a strong supporter of the City Park project. Almost 75 residents showed up that night to hear Baxter, only to discover that the developer and his consultant, Chris Thayer of Berg-Oliver Associates, had decided at the last minute not to attend.

Instead, Baxter sent Neil Rackleff, who took all of five minutes to turn the entire room against him. Given the floor, the attorney immediately began scolding residents for "irresponsible" criticism of the City Park project. He also complained that what had once been billed as a "reasonably informal meeting" between the developer and residents turned into "a summit on global warming."

Rackleff said Baxter was willing to answer "sincere, reasonable questions about the environmental condition of this property," but had decided to skip the community meeting for fear of being "bombarded" with "innuendos and half-truths" from residents.

"We have made as big an effort as we can to get the correct information out, okay?" whined Rackleff, a preppy young man who is clearly ill-suited for public relations work. "But, frankly, we're a little tired of being put on the proverbial hot seat with questions and information that are patently incorrect or wildly inaccurate."

After pleading for an "honest and open" discussion with residents, Rackleff proceeded to read them a prepared statement from Baxter. As if delivering a royal decree, Rackleff reported that Baxter's consultants "have been in contact with and received comments from the Texas Railroad Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and city of Houston health department....[A]ll the political, legal and regulatory requirements have been met."

"That's it," Rackleff concluded. "That's all I've been authorized to say."
However, the statement was blatantly incorrect.
Rackleff then refused to take questions, leaving Baxter's own "innuendos and half-truths" on the table for everyone to chew on. For example, Baxter's statement didn't say that, in late January, the Environmental Protection Agency notified the developer, verbally and in writing, that his environmental tests were inadequate and that more soil and groundwater samples needed to be analyzed before the land could be considered safe. The statement also didn't inform residents that the Texas Railroad Commission had reached the same conclusion way back in May 1998.

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