By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
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The only other proposal came from Crescent Real Estate Equities, the largest commercial landholder in Houston and owner of nearby Greenway Plaza. It wanted to purchase the property. In addition to asking for the right to tear down the center, Crescent proposed that the city give it the property in exchange for a piece of Crescent-owned land in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center. The company believed the land swap would clear up the $1.2 million debt Crescent still has with the city for failing to build a hotel near the convention center in 1997.
What followed was a months-long tussle with City Council, Crescent and Lakewood as the major players. And even though a 60-year, $35 million Lakewood lease was finally approved by council in December of last year, Crescent has taken the matter to court, claiming that a church in Compaq Center violates deed restrictions.
Those councilmembers who voted against the lease -- Chris Bell, Mark Ellis, Bert Keller and Bruce Tatro -- argue that the deal was rushed and that the city jumped on Lakewood's offer without recruiting other viable options.
"The way the whole measure was handled, I felt like it was preordained that Lakewood would get the Compaq Center," says Bell, who claims his staff was swamped by a "phenomenal" number of e-mails and phone calls from Lakewood Church members urging him to vote for the lease. "Why I say this is because of some of the information that was brought forth in public statements by Mr. Tollett, even before requests for proposals were brought forth, saying it would be the perfect site for Lakewood. And that was before we had even asked for proposals."
At City Council's request, the center was appraised several times (with a final value set at around $12 million, according to Tollett), and Lakewood eventually agreed to a rent increase of $12.1 million for the first 30 years and $22.6 for the final 30. Those in favor of the lease cite that the church plans numerous renovations at the center, and that the church has agreed to temporarily give up the space if Houston wins the 2012 Summer Olympics. But above all, supporters of the lease say it's a wise move for the city's future.
"Had we sold the Sam Houston Coliseum when the Compaq Center opened in 1974, in the year 2002 we would not have the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts going on that land," says Tollett. When the lease is up, "the city will still have that land, and the city gets all the improvements."
Councilmember Mark Goldberg, who was against the lease until a few days before the vote, says a large part of his decision to support the lease came when he realized the new Rockets arena had a noncompete clause in effect for 30 years with Compaq Center.
"It had been my understanding when I voted on the new arena that the noncompete clause was in effect for only ten years," says Goldberg. "But it's in effect for 30 years, and that means you couldn't use it for what it was built for. It's worthless now for the purpose and goal it was built for."
But Bell worries that the landslide of pro-Lakewood mail (he says a few letters suggested eternal damnation for failing to support the lease) did influence other councilmembers.
"I listen to both sides to make my decision, and certainly an overabundance of calls and e-mails is not going to sway my opinion, and shouldn't," says Bell. "Although I did start feeling as if it was having an impact" on other colleagues.
Walden, the church's lobbyist, laughs off that comment, suggesting that Bell's personal ties are what convinced him to vote against the lease. In fact, Crescent's lobbyist, Vinson & Elkins attorney Joe B. Allen, served as chairman of Bell's failed mayoral campaign (Allen would not return calls for this story).
"I didn't waste my time meeting with Chris," says Walden. "Joe B. Allen's his best friend, and there wasn't a chance in hell that I was going to get his vote. Not a chance in hell."
Walden also shrugs off the idea that his longtime friendship with Jordy Tollett had anything to do with Lakewood's eventual success.
"Truthfully, I don't like dealing with the little bastard [Tollett], because since I'm his friend I get nailed harder," says Walden. "Lakewood was looking at the Compaq Center long before they met me, and my contact with the church was through their attorneys, not Jordy. I think if you forget all that and see who has the best deal for the city, the numbers just speak for themselves."
Now the fight lies in whether the Compaq Center lease violates deed restrictions. While Crescent would not comment extensively on the matter, citing pending litigation, the company says it has nothing personal against the church.
"We feel it is a fundamental property rights issue that is very critical to a city that does not have zoning," says Jim Wilson, a regional vice president of property management for Crescent. "We certainly feel it's a very important issue, not only to Crescent but to the community and anyone who owns real estate, residential or commercial. I think it sends a terrible precedent if it were to change."