Low and Outside

Welcome to the ballpark. And brown fields and barren expanses of a still-not-rejuvenated section of downtown.

Evans is planning to open a Little Woodrow's (he owns several) directly across the street from one of the main Enron Field entrances. He's putting a half-million dollars into the project, which is currently snagged on a bureaucratic question of whether he properly notified the convent and girl's high school associated with Annunciation Catholic Church.

(Don't get him started on the subject, by the way. It's tough enough to win a fight where you have nuns filing affidavits questioning your version of events; Evans feels the whole thing has become a political football.

"The church has blessed Enron Field's coming, and now they're saying they're concerned about people getting in their cars after being at our place and driving past the school," he says. "Well, what do they think people are going to be doing at Enron Field? And talk about maybe being hypocritical -- the beer distributors in town here fight to get the business of the Catholic churches for their bazaars and picnics, there's so much of it.")

Some of the real estate insiders who have been dealing with the Enron Field neighborhood say development has been slow to take off because property owners have been setting prices unrealistically high. "Right now for land, they're asking an arm and a leg," says Lois Baker, a commercial realtor with Vallone & Associates, which is brokering several properties in the area. "People are asking $100 to $150 a square foot."

The only way a developer can make a price like that work is if they "build up" with mid- to high-rise towers, she says.

No one wants to do a project like that in an area that fails to fulfill its promise, of course, so developers are hesitant to be the first to start construction.

"You've always got to have a pioneer to break that first shovelful of dirt in order to get everyone else scrambling," Baker says.

"Everyone's kind of in a wait-and-see mode right now, but the Trammell Crow development is going to help a lot."

The "Trammell Crow development" is Ballpark Place, directly across Crawford from Enron Field. Announced in February, it is a "proposed development" whose current plans include 34 floors of retail, parking, office space and "high-end apartments," says Patrick Hicks, a principal with the company.

Right now all that is on site is a billboard urging people to visit ballparkplace.com. That Web site, it turns out, is under construction. That's more than can be said for the building.

"Trammell Crow has closed on the land and is studying different alternatives for development," Hicks says. "[The mixed-use 34-story building] is one idea. We will be the developer, and we are looking to bring in an equity partner."

There's no timetable for finding a partner or deciding what kind of project to build, much less breaking ground.

Like everyone else, though, Hicks is confident the area will boom. "The amount of activity going on is exciting -- new projects are being announced almost weekly," he says. "The northeast quadrant [of downtown] is going to look a heckuva lot different in two to three years."

Along with other business types, Hicks sees the baseball stadium working in tandem with the new restaurants springing up along Main Street and in Market Square. The Cotswold beautification project along Texas and Prairie between the square and the stadium will be key, he says.

"Cotswold will really attach Enron Field to the main core of Market Square and downtown; they'll be strong links to [restaurants such as] Cabo and Solero," he says. "It fits nicely into the plan not to build a gargantuan parking garage and have the people who are visiting the ballpark just come and go and not be part of the city.

"This way they park five blocks away, and on the way into the ballpark they can interact with all kinds of things downtown and enjoy them, and everyone benefits."

With heavy hitters like Trammell Crow announcing major projects, it's hard to argue that some development won't be coming. But Phoenix residents are discovering that the Arizona Diamondbacks' Bank One Ballpark, a downtown stadium nicknamed "BOB," which opened in 1998, hasn't quite lived up to its promise to transform its surrounding neighborhood.

The Phoenix New Times, a sister paper to the Houston Press, reported March 9 that "[D]owntown merchants agree that rosy economic projections with the construction of BOB have not materialized. The impact on downtown business appears to be limited to a handful of bars on Jackson Street that host large crowds before and after games." (Some civic leaders dispute that claim, of course.)

Lewter of Central Houston Inc. has no qualms. "Developers are realizing that there is glitz and glamour attached to being near the ballpark," she says. "A lot of them are getting together with investors and making plans."

It may take a couple of years before the massive changes are all in place, she says: "On smaller buildings, like where there might be a bar, you might see them open in six to 12 months if they're renovating. But the really large buildings need a lot of work; they've been closed a long, long time, so you're looking at maybe 18 months. What developers have got to look at is how to open the ground floor of these places, with retail or a restaurant, while they continue working on the upper floors."

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