Atlantis Sinks Again!

Fishy deals for Fire Station No. 1

The vacant Fire Station No. 1 and the city's first water plant sit across Buffalo Bayou from the Wortham Theater on the last choice undeveloped civic center land on the booming west side of downtown. Lots of folk have groovy ideas about what to do with it, and outside public view, a city-appointed committee sorts through some rather unusual proposals.

One of them, a giant aquarium and hotel complex ostentatiously named World of Atlantis and championed by Houston Sports Authority chair Billy Burge and state Representative Garnet Coleman, has apparently sunk into the depths before it could even be charted on the municipal map. Still in the running is an aquarium restaurant and entertainment center proposed by Tilman Fertitta's Landry's Restaurants. It's modeled on his popular Aquarium eatery on the Kemah waterfront. Rest assured the water -- and aquatic life -- would not be drawn from the nearby turtle-and-alligator-gar-infested murk of the bayou.

At a closed series of presentations earlier this month, five groups offered their visions of what should replace the stained concrete hulk of the fire station and the old Central Waterworks plant behind it. The city is looking to create a long-term lease on the property, which includes some parking space under the Interstate 45-Memorial interchange that cuts through the area. Rent on the parcel, says convention center chief Jordy Tollett, would be between $150,000 and $300,000 a year. Eventually there would be the added payoff of increased sales taxes for the city from commercial activity, plus the redevelopment of currently blighted space. The target date for completion is late 2002 or early 2003.

Old Fire Station No. 1: Will it be the dawning of the Age of Aquarium?
Houston Press
Old Fire Station No. 1: Will it be the dawning of the Age of Aquarium?

Developers face some unique challenges. One is the varying level of the bayou, which can rise 14 feet above the ground level of the waterworks building in a 100-year flood. Also there's the task of beautifying the grim web of freeway pylons and pillars that bracket the 4.2-acre site.

Easily the most quixotic of the proposals was the Aquarium Foundation of Houston's entry, a 120,000-square-foot series of fish tanks housing 10,500 aquatic species and a hotel for homo sapiens. World of Atlantis, a for-profit corporation set up by Houston's Abercia family, would provide the management for the Houston project and similar enterprises around the country. The Abercias, explains Burge, are the extended clan of Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Jack Abercia.

Burge joined the nonprofit foundation board two months ago to front the presentation, while Representative Coleman was hired by the World of Atlantis team as a paid consultant. Both pitched the idea to an advisory committee appointed by Mayor Lee Brown. It includes attorney Zinetta Burney, Minister Harvey Clemmons, Houston Downtown Management Executive Director Bob Eury and Tollett.

According to notes provided by Burge to the committee, World of Atlantis is a "project with vision" that would provide "something more downtown besides just bars and restaurants." The city would have no liability, and World of Atlantis would be a contractor under the supervision of the nonprofit Aquarium Foundation of Houston.

"People around Houston feel like we're this close to the water and the gulf and things, and an aquarium would probably do well here," Burge tells the Insider. "A study that the Abercias paid for by a consultant who has done most of these aquariums around the country showed Houston to be a very fertile market in terms of revenues."

Burge says a sense of civic duty, rather than money, fuels his involvement with the aquarium. "It was something -- like the baseball stadium and everything else -- a nontraditional use that would help further develop hotels and residential [units]. And it was a family thing, more family-friendly than other things down there now." According to Burge, the Aquarium Foundation is simply a funnel to provide for the sale of tax-free bonds to float the entire project.

The foundation has been pushing the idea of an aquarium in Houston for nearly seven years but has yet to find either a site or the necessary funds. Tollett says the city is very leery of the idea's viability, partially because of the number of competing projects in nearby cities.

"The problem is, of the aquariums we've checked out, 75 percent of them are in debt or [are] foundations that have never made it," says Tollett. "And we're almost surrounded by them, with aquariums in Galveston and Corpus Christi and Louisiana. There's some concern as to whether it would ever get done here."

The effort to redevelop the fire station site got under way in earnest last year when proposals were solicited for an October deadline. Then Brown appointed the selection committee, which winnowed the five proposals down to two. Tollett expects a final recommendation on the winning proposal later this spring.

During the February 1 presentation at the Greater Houston Visitors and Convention Bureau offices, it quickly became apparent that World of Atlantis was not ready for prime time. One committee member says the World of Atlantis proposal, under committee questioning, sank a lot faster than its fabled lost continent namesake. "I would relate it more to the Titanic," chuckles the source.

"The team needs to be reconfigured, and how to get it done needs to be reconfigured," says one aquarium enthusiast. "They need big-money donors. Until then, it's not going to happen."

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