This Blows!

Houston has a national rep for taking down buildings. So why are these eyesores still standing?

One of our primary economic development strategies must be to return these [vacant] properties to productive use and get them back on the tax rolls.

--John Fabrizi; mayor, Bridgeport, CT; chair, Task Force on Vacant and Abandoned Properties, U.S. Conference of Mayors

Oh, you're early -- I wasn't expecting the two of you until one. How was your flight? Fast, I'm guessing. No, no, I usually don't come to the office in my robe. Like I said, you're early.

Anywho. Welcome to Houston. As I explained last week, although I'm a reporter, I'm very civic-minded. Call me a communitarian. Have I got some properties for you. This one right here is the old Central Bank building, 2100 Travis. It's in our Midtown section. This baby's a stone's throw from the rail line, and it's got a swell parking garage.

These two over here are technically in our downtown. This one, the Savoy, is 1616 Main, which puts it right on the rail line. Over here, you've got your old Holiday Inn-slash-Heaven-on-Earth-Inn. Again, practically right on the rail line.

All of these have been vacant for some time. But as any good entrepreneur knows: "There are no such things as enormous, pus-filled, weeping eyesores; there are only fixer-uppers."

Can I get you some coffee?

Now, one of you pointed out that you believed I had access to these buildings. Well, I can see how you might have drawn certain conclusions, but unfortunately, the owners have not given me access. Like I said, I'm a communitarian, not a broker. But I feel so strongly that, based on the information I have compiled, you'll be reaching for your checkbooks faster than you can say, "Crackheads stripped the copper wiring." What? Oh, it's just an expression we have down here.

What's that? Why have these buildings been vacant for so long? What's so bad about the market that these perfectly located buildings haven't been snatched up like that? Why can't the city do anything about it? I'm not sure what you mean. You mean, can the city take a proactive approach to spur redevelopment or demolition, rather than just sit back and wait for something to happen? Well, now, that's not really a city's job, is it?

So -- how about that coffee?

Conduct periodic tests of being a tourist/visitor in downtown, and work to fix missing parts of the visitor experience. (Operating: $5,000/$25,000)

--Houston Downtown Management District goals, 2006–2010 Service and Improvement Plan

So, you visitors say you drove in from the south end and were surprised to see three big vacant buildings in the downtown area of the fourth-largest city in the country? Good question.

I called the Downtown Management District folks the other day to ask them about those buildings, but their spokeswoman, Angie Bertinot, just said she didn't know anything about them. And then she wished me luck. Honestly, I was surprised, because everyone I talked to about the downtown real estate market referred me to the DMD.

Oh, but they share an office with Central Houston, Inc., and those people were pretty helpful. What? Why, if they're in the same office, can one talk and the other can't?

Well, let's start with the Central Square building, shall we? Interesting bit of history here. It was built in 1957 and was the site of the second famous Cork Club. Remember that old movie about Texas oilmen, Giant? Well, the James Dean character was based on a famous wildcatter named Glenn McCarthy. He built a historic hotel called the Shamrock. What? Uh, no. They tore that sucker down in the '80s.

Anyway, the Cork Club was the place to be. The ground floor was occupied by Central Bank. True story: When Lee Harvey Oswald came back from Russia, the FBI checked all the banks in the downtown area to see if he had a security deposit box here. And he didn't. Well, I said "true story," I didn't say "interesting story," did I?

In the early '90s, a guy named Alfred Antonini bought the building. He owned a bunch of apartment complexes in Louisiana, California and Houston. Back in '97, a city councilwoman called him a slumlord. So get this -- he sued her for defamation, but the case was dismissed.

In 2001, Antonini and one of his associates, Jim Lomonaco, pleaded guilty in federal court to charges of fraud. The feds said those two had a nice little check-kiting thing going. Antonini was sentenced to 60 months in the pen, but he had time shaved for good behavior and was released early, in 2005.

Funny story: the indictment alleged that Antonini and Lomonaco threatened an employee who found out about the scheme by sending him letters that said "What's the next sound you hear when you put your key in the ignition?" and "Who's watching your back?"

Oh, sorry, ma'am. I didn't mean to get you nervous. Don't worry -- he no longer owns the place. At least, I'm pretty sure he doesn't own it. It's a little confusing. Before I forget, Harris County is suing the owners to recover $192,000 in back taxes.

What's that? Did the former owner's incarceration obstruct its marketability? Well, that's what I was trying to find out. But Antonini didn't want to talk to me unless I could keep his name hush-hush. He was nice enough, but I told him I couldn't agree to that. Well -- here's how it went.

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