This Blows!

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

What's that, sir? Well, I think he's talking about, for example, you might develop a really cool building and then suddenly they put a Greyhound station next door. That sort of thing.

But Childers also sensed there might be other barriers to selling the building.

"I don't know if he really wants to sell it," he said. "Given what...our experience was, it was very sketchy what the real price was...He never came clean on that. And even the broker was kind of flabbergasted at times, not really understanding kind of whether they really want to sell it, or are they just kind of holding it."

An annual abandoned building survey identifies newly abandoned buildings, examines the causes of abandonment and prioritizes properties for action....The objective is to encourage potential developers to contact the building owners and initiate a private renovation of property.

-- Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2006

Okay, since I knew you were going to ask what city leaders had to say about these buildings, I called Frank Michel in Mayor Bill White's office. And I hope you're happy, because I don't think I'm going to be invited to the Michels' for dinner anytime soon.

When I asked him if the city ever talked to the owners of these three properties to see what might be done to move things along, he directed me to the city's FAST Team. Those are the guys who, if a complaint is made about code violations like vagrants, rats, broken windows or tall grass, take enforcement actions. But I clarified that I was asking about any city interest outside enforcement.

Michel told me: "If someone has a building that they're not occupying and they're not using, and they keep it up to standards, and it's just sitting there empty, as long as it's boarded and posted and [they] follow the requirements, then we would not typically step in and seize that property. There'd be no reason to seize private property."

To which I said: "The understanding I have from what you said is: As long as it's boarded up, up to code and they pay taxes on it, they can sit on a vacant property for as long as they want, and the city's not going to do anything."

I think that's when Michel wanted to reach through the phone and throttle me.

He told me the mayor's office has a definite interest in taking an active role in renewal. He cited the mayor's initiative for downtown's Discovery Green Park, funded with $50 million in private contributions. The city also helped the Hispanic Forum secure a Community Development Block Grant to renovate the old Light Guard Armory building. (The city had to take over the building when the Forum wasn't able to fulfill the terms of the grant, he said.)

He said: "We do those kinds of things from time to time, yes. We work with a number of private developers, all the while we respect people's private property rights...Do we drive around from block to block identifying every single building and reaching out and saying, 'We have a plan for your building'? No."

Fair enough. But I wanted to check with At-Large City Councilman Peter Brown, an architect, to hear what he thought.

"I cringe every time I drive by those," he said of the buildings.

He continued: "Why can't the city create some incentives to get those buildings occupied and on the tax rolls the way they should be?"

So, does Brown drive around, looking for vacant buildings, as Michel alluded to? No. But he did say that when he notices a sweet piece of property for sale, he'll get on the horn to developers he knows. He did that the other night, as a matter of fact.

"You can't just sit back and think there's some invisible hand out there that's going to make all this stuff work. You need smart intervention by the city and we need to create incentives for private investors and...developers to come in and do these things."

He also said this: "They blight the area. They retard the development within proximity to those buildings."

But I don't like the word "retard." I prefer "special opportunity."

The Louisville Vacant Property Review Commission was created to stem the proliferation of blight within the urban core through the imposition of an "abandoned urban property tax"...this tool taxes derelict property owners at three times the regular rate.

--Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, U.S. Conference of Mayors, 2006

Okay, I guarantee that you guys are going to love these next two properties. We've got the old Savoy Hotel, which also is actually two buildings. The original seven-story structure was completed in 1906 and was Houston's first high-rise, according to Rice's architectural historian, Stephen Fox. The 17-story second structure was completed in the mid-1960s, along with the parking garage.

Unfortunately, the hotel's owners filed for bankruptcy in the late 1970s and it was vacant by the mid-1980s. For a time, it was used as housing for South Texas College of Law students and was known as The Barrister Club. If you're into sketchy vans, there's a Barrister Club van still parked in the garage, next to a bunch of discarded fuel pumps. Anywho.

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