Ugly and Slow

A booster has been messing up downtown for years

Just off Market Square, near the center of the area that's supposed to be triggering a downtown revival, one property owner has persisted in keeping up ugly, sidewalk-blocking scaffolding and barriers.

The eyesores have been there for more than two years; the property owner, not satisfied with simply annoying downtown visitors, also at one point failed to pay thousands of dollars in permit fees -- more than a year's worth of payments to the city. When the city asked to see their plans to determine how long the unsightly project would continue, the property owner blew them off and didn't respond.

Sounds like a story you'd read about in the Houston Chronicle, which has tirelessly pushed every scheme, no matter how harebrained, to rejuvenate downtown Houston and has been harsh on those deemed insufficiently civic-minded.

But maybe you won't read that story, because the property owner in question is the Houston Chronicle.

The Chron is replacing the exterior facade and modernizing its offices at 801 Texas, a spokeswoman says. The project should take another 14 months "once required permits are obtained," she says.

Wes Johnson, spokesman for the city's public works department, says the paper first asked permission for the "sidewalk covers" in 2004. "About a year later," he says, "we asked them if they were going to continue with this because their permit was running out -- they said, 'Yeah, we are; we'll get back to you' -- well, they didn't."

Johnson says the department is "not out to be the police or anything"; the result was enforcement that might be the envy of other businesses. "We just said, 'When you get ready to renew this permit, you're gonna have to catch up on the permit fees that you missed,'" he says. "They said, 'Oh, okay.'...And we've asked them to come up with a written plan to let us know what they're gonna do and how long it's gonna take."

None of that is in the 300-plus pages of documents the department provided to the Houston Press in response to an open records request. Instead all we got were standard inspection reports dating back ten years or so.

Nothing in the documents indicated the city had asked the Chron to submit the required plan.

"It could have been verbal," Johnson says. "A lot of our stuff is done verbally."

With aggressive enforcement policies like that, it looks like visitors and residents better get used to the Chron's long-lived contribution to downtown life.

Praying for Relief

Leonard Scarcella, the mayor of suburban Stafford in Fort Bend County, has a new slogan: Let's Kick All These Goddamned Churches Out of Town.

That's not exactly his slogan, but Scarcella is gaining national notoriety with his complaints that his small town is overridden with religious facilities that pay no taxes.

He's been written up in the Los Angeles Times. The Washington Post has called. And he's lining up talk-radio appearances for stations across the country.

So have the God-fearing citizens of Stafford revolted against him? Not exactly. "The large majority of comments I'm receiving," Scarcella says, "is that the city has to do something, they have to look into this matter in terms of -- if you will -- the inordinate amount of religious faculties and things of that nature."

Stafford has 51 churches or other religious facilities within its seven square miles. The city does not collect property taxes -- so residential homes also aren't producing income for City Hall -- and depends mostly on sales taxes. Scarcella would like to see the city's remaining undeveloped land sprout more tax-revenue-producing businesses instead of church after church.

"I just took a gentleman on a tour here; he's from Brown University, and we were looking at matters related to the school district," Scarcella says. "And yet everywhere we went we saw a church or churches or some kind of religious facilities or Buddhist temples -- those types of things. If you literally get on the ground, you'll see what the situation is."

Or, as he told the Times, "We respect the Constitution, but 51 of anything is too much."

Lawyers are studying ways the city could legally keep more churches from opening, and are expected to deliver their findings this fall.

Until then, the city will hold off on its new signs: Welcome to Stafford -- But Take Your Churchin' Elsewhere!

Marital-Aid Squabble

The owner of Eros 1207, a Freeport-area adult-goods store, wanted to make a big splash. The first ever adult shop in Brazoria County sent out grand-opening invitations to 180 local elected officials and civil employees back in May.

This bold marketing strategy of inviting politicians from a conservative county to celebrate the arrival of ungodly decadence backfired, though. No elected officials attended the event, which featured catering and a harpist. (A harpist -- now that's class.)

The sheriff's department did position a camera-equipped van across from the store's entrance, though, a helpful little move that no doubt every dildo-seller wishes he could have.

David "Don't Use My Last Name," the manager of the Eros stores in Houston and Brazoria County, is undaunted.

"The citizens of Brazoria have welcomed us with open arms," he says. "It's only the elected officials that have given us problems."

David says he's collected 1,800 signatures of support for his "very upscale" store.

"There's nothing about the store that is a 'smut shop.' It's somewhere that your wife or partner would be very comfortable coming alone, male or female," he says. (And if you need help "coming alone," they have products for that, too.)

The store is planning to test the waters even further: David has applied to join the local chamber of commerce. Maybe he should bring the harpist along for the vote.

Lose-Win Situation

Mike Willcox, the local guy who was aiming to become the first American to win two world championships in the semi-obscure sport of dogfighting control-line model airplanes (see "Top of the World," July 6), came up short.

He finished tied for 12th at the competition in Spain. "I was a little off," he says by e-mail from that country. "Hard to make excuses."

If he was going to make excuses, though, it seems he has a good one. "My special planes got stopped in customs and at the last minute I had to get new planes, and they were of a different design that I was not used to flying," he says. "I had spent all my time training with the other planes, and this is the only thing I can think of that kept me just a little off my game."

Hypervigilant customs officials baffled by strange items that might resemble anthrax-spewing drones -- chalk up another victory for the war on terror.

Not everything went bad for Willcox in Europe, though. He proposed to his girlfriend and she accepted.

"At least I won on one front in Spain," he says.

AlmostMySpace

If a police chief can have an AlmostMySpace page, why not an Astro? Reliever Brad Lidge spent most of 2005 being "Lights Out Lidge," the rally-killer who entered the game to throbbing rock music and an elaborate light show. Then Albert Pujols took him deep in the NLCS, and things haven't been the same since. Click here to read his AlmostMySpace page.

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