This Blows!

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

Antonini: "If I give you some data, what's the feasibility you don't use my name, but just say 'the former owner's representative'?"

Me: "Well...I've got to name all the former owners."

Antonini: "But the former is a corp."

Me: "Uh, right...but..."

Antonini: [chuckles] "but...you're stuttering."

Me: "That doesn't tell anyone anything, 'a corporation'...What matters are the individuals involved, not 'ABC, Inc.'"

Antonini: "I don't know that I totally agree with that."

I really wish we could've compromised, because Antonini assured me that he had some serious insight as to why all three of these buildings have been vacant for so long.

Anywho. The property is owned by HDW S.A. Partners, L.P., of Bronxville, New York. There are a bunch of different "HDW" entities operating out of that same office. Stands for Harvey D. Wolinetz, who also runs a company called Park National Mortgage. Central Square's lienholder is Park National Capital Funding, incorporated in Texas.

Antonini had a bunch of liens on his properties, and some of his corporations filed for bankruptcy while he was in the pen, so Wolinetz stepped in, via "HDW" entities and Park National.

Let's get down to brass tacks: Wolinetz told me he's asking $10–$12 million. He's got two brokers on it -- Cushman & Wakefield and Bejjani. I called Sandy Harris at C&W to see if I could take a tour, but she said something about "tortious interference," so that was pretty much a no. What's that, sir? The building is conducting tortious interference on your eyes? Well, that's just one more reason you should consider stepping up to the plate!

Hey, here's a spot of good news: Fred Ghabriel at Bejjani had no problem discussing the property.

Here's what Fred says: "It's my favorite vacant building in Houston." He says the structure is really two connected buildings, 12- and 14-stories, with a clear view of downtown, the Galleria and the Medical Center. He sees it as an oasis for mixed-use. Maybe retail on the first or second floor, then condos or lofts. And the top floor? It would still be a great place for a club.

What's that? Why hasn't it sold if it's such a peach?

Ghabriel thinks it might have to do with the lack of vision of many Houston developers.

"There's only a few people in Houston that have that kind of redevelopment experience," he said. "If this building was in Chicago, New York, Miami, L.A., it would've been long gone and redeveloped."

But when I told Charles Le Blanc, executive director of the Midtown Management District, how much they were asking for the building, he said it sounded a bit high.

"I don't know what they're waiting on, to be quite honest with you," he said. "I guess $10 million. I think they might have to wait a long time to get there."

He also had this to say: "The building is a detriment because it's got to be demo'd. And it's going to cost probably a half a million dollars or better to tear the damn thing down."

I know what you might be thinking: Does the Midtown Management District do anything proactive to bring buyers and sellers to the table? No. They do have expense abatement programs you can apply for, but you've gotta go to them.

As Le Blanc says: "The city of Houston doesn't go out and solicit companies all over the United States and say, 'We'll give you tax credits if you come to Houston.' They don't readily go on tour to do that sort of thing. If they're approached, they consider it."

What's that, ma'am? The sit-back-and-wait-approach might be one reason why these buildings look like they do? Well, you're certainly entitled to your opinion.

One of the things you can apply for is partial reimbursement for public right-of-way improvement if you want to create a mixed-use development. Le Blanc says mixed-use is probably the only thing his board would consider ponying up for. Pardon? Yes, as a matter of fact, I did just tell you that Fred Ghabriel thinks mixed-use is the best idea, too. Hmm. Maybe one day those two will talk to each other.

Maybe you should hear from Doug Childers at Morris Architects. He said he tried to make something happen with the building about three years ago. He wanted to move his office to midtown, near the rail line.

"We explored two or three options, mostly in conjunction with developers, where they would basically do the project and we would be a prime tenant, [which] would kind of make the project feasible," Childers said.

He considers it to be about a $3.5 million land deal, with maybe $1 million for the frame. Only the parking garage has real value.

"The typical Houston problem, actually, with old buildings is: there's a notion that people don't value the old buildings or the historical buildings, and they'd rather be in something new if they're going to spend the same amount of money," he said. "Houston developers are really tough; they're really risk-averse. And Houston's not an easy market, because there's not protection for developers. You never know what's going to happen next -- around you or behind you or down the street."

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