Dream Taker

When political egos and a basketball star vow to beautify a derelict building next door to Enron Field, what do you get after more than a year? Nothing.

On one corner stands the new monument to the mania of professional sports: Enron Field. Long before it was finished, politicians were already pointing to the retractable-roof stadium as the prime example of what can be accomplished when local governments get together with private enterprise and tens of millions in new tax dollars.

Just across the street is another monument signifying a sorrier side of public-private dealings, ones with subplots of influence and inflated egos. The old World Trade Center sits at the corner of Texas and Crawford, scowling like an attention-starved geriatric headed into the twilight.

Plywood boards, painted stormy gray, cover large swaths along the sidewalk. The checkerboard of bricks and turquoise tiles that once livened the lower facade now wears a worn-out look.

The Sports Authority's plans called for a park to serve as the stadium's entryway from the heart of downtown.
Deron Neblett
The Sports Authority's plans called for a park to serve as the stadium's entryway from the heart of downtown.

Heavy chunks of marble began crashing to the street about ten years ago, so the material was stripped away, leaving long bands of exposed concrete from the building's base to the top of the 12-story tinted-glass tower.

The building's air of groaning desuetude contrasts sharply with the manic energy of the neighborhood these days -- the snarling jackhammers, beeping bucket trucks and small army of workers in hard hats racing to complete the ballpark before opening day.

By the time the stadium gates opened, the World Trade Center was supposed to have been well on its way to accenting the amenities of a revitalized East End. Public officials said it could be prime real estate for several uses. It could have been transformed into a square-block oasis of parkland that would be the peaceful green front porch for the stadium. Or a parking lot. Or, as some developers proposed, it could have served as the new home for a quality hotel, one highlighted by classy restaurants and bars catering to crowds flowing into a re-energized downtown.

Houston Port commissioners weighed the plans and the potential for this piece of Port-owned land. The options attracted political infighting as well as veteran developers. In the end, the Port picked a buyer whose only real credentials came on the basketball courts of the NBA.

More than a year later, as the final touches are added to the stadium across the street, nothing has changed on the opposite corner. Hakeem Olajuwon's World Trade Center project remains little more than his famous nickname: a dream.

sBefore Houston surged toward suburbia, the World Trade Center tower went up in 1961 as far more than a beacon to downtown vitality. The building became home to the trade and consular offices of various countries, whose banners fluttered out front.

The building was adjacent to the two-story brick headquarters of the Port of Houston Authority, which owned the block framed by Texas, Crawford, Capitol and La Branch. The Port bailed out in 1991, opting for spacious new digs at the Houston Ship Channel's Turning Basin. Commissioners for the Port subsequently spent $1.4 million removing asbestos and readying their old place for possible lease or sale, but the property slipped into the state of decay that then marked that area of the central city. In the past few years it has served as little more than a bed board for derelicts who regularly slept along its western walls.

Then the property's value shot up amid a flurry of more recent downtown development. The Rice Hotel reopened as lofts. Trendy nightspots sprang up, and many downtown blocks received some type of renovation.

None of these projects, however, compared to the auspicious tidings borne by the Sports Authority's resolution in September 1997. It was going to build a new ballpark in the trade center's own backyard, at the old Union Station. The Astros' new home was a certain indication of fresh life returning to this neglected area of downtown.

More specifically, the sights of the Sports Authority focused squarely on the block containing the trade center. From the moment the Sports Authority passed its ballpark measure, officials there envisioned the plot as a key "front door" to the stadium. All authority directors needed to do was persuade the Port of their good intentions.

Instead, the fallout from that effort continues to rekindle acrimony among those agencies and the entities who appoint their leaders: city and county government.

Today, when former Sports Authority chairman Jack Rains and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels set eyes on the beleaguered World Trade compound, they can almost see live oaks and crape myrtles spreading over shady walkways and pleasant blue pools.

Then reality strikes. They stare at a scene of the crusty buildings, concrete and chain-link fences.

"The bottom line is we tried to make it a park Š and that piece of shit is still sitting on the corner there," Rains says.

Eckels and Rains say that early on, they, along with Mayor Lee Brown, discussed with Port Chairman Ned Holmes the park prospects and the Sports Authority obtaining the property through "friendly" condemnation or a lease agreement. Holmes, they insist, was amenable to the idea.

The Sports Authority eventually proposed leasing the land for 30 years at $1 a year and tapping corporate donors to create a park. Rains conceived the idea, in conjunction with the mayor and county judge, the officeholders responsible for appointing him and the Sports Authority's board members.

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