This Blows!

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

Here's what he told me: "I take care of properties like this. You know, secure them from entry. Do the cleanup. Like, if you walk by that building, sometimes when you walk by a vacant building, you smell urine and stuff like that? You never find that on a property like this."

You heard that right, folks. This building does not reek of urine. Go ahead, take a whiff. Pardon? Do I think they have to worry about piss on the Peace Palace? No, sir, I don't. But you know, I have a saying: "World peace is achieved one white-flight community at a time."

In the early 1990s, the ol' Maharishi went on a spending spree and bought a bunch of vacant hotels throughout the country, including this one, which they picked up for $2 million in 1992. The plan was to convert them into Heaven on Earth Inns and have spaces designated for TM students. It didn't really work out, though.

See if you can spot the Three Men and a Baby ghost. (We couldn't.)
See if you can spot the Three Men and a Baby ghost. (We couldn't.)
No Heaven on Earth Inn brochures were available -- just pretend these people are levitating.
No Heaven on Earth Inn brochures were available -- just pretend these people are levitating.

An ad in the Houston Business Journal last year listed the price for this hotel at $10 million. The building actually changed hands briefly in 2004. The Maharishi people sold it for $8.5 million to a group of investors that included a Colorado Springs outfit called LandCo. Michael Raider, a Houston native who works for LandCo, told the Houston Business Journal in 2005 that the property would be slated for apartments or condos.

Another LandCo guy, Don Nicholas, told the Houston Chronicle in 2004: "An ugly duckling downtown will become a swan."

Unfortunately, the swan kicked the bucket when the investors defaulted on the $8.5 mill, and the hotel went back to the yogis. I tried to talk to Michael Raider to see what happened, but he didn't return my calls. And Nicholas didn't want to talk on the record. Go figure.

I got in touch with Dave Humphreys, a lawyer who's handling the sale. But it was kind of difficult talking with him. After most of my questions, all I heard was the chirping of crickets and the forlorn rustle of tumbleweeds. And some of the answers were...well, they were a little weird. Like, I asked him why the Maharishi hasn't been able to unload the building in nearly 15 years.

Here's what he said: "We've only owned it for a year and a half. No, just a year."

Here's what he was referring to: The Maharishi organization that bought the building in 1992 was the World Plan Executive Council. But LandCo bought the property from a Maharishi organization called the Maharishi Global Development Fund. And when LandCo defaulted, the hotel went back to the Global Fund. So it appeared that that change in corporate filing therefore canceled out the entire previous decade.

So after a few tumbleweeds floated by, I tried phrasing the question along these lines: In the 15 years that the property has been owned by a Maharishi-affiliated entity, why has it been so hard to move?

Chirp. Chirp. Chirp.

"Well, depends on how you define that," he said. "I can only speak for Global Development Fund. That's who I work for."

What's that, sir? You need an Advil? Me too.

Here's a little history for you: Houston's Heaven on Earth Inn closed on Labor Day weekend 1994, along with its counterparts in Tulsa and Detroit. The plan, the Houston Chronicle reported, was to convert it into the Maharishi Vedic School. In 1998, city fire inspectors ordered the building closed after numerous health and fire code violations were never addressed.

The yogis also had trouble with one of the nicer properties they owned, in Chicago. In most cases, the hotels weren't much to look at, but in the Windy City they snatched up the Blackstone, which has a rich history. Lots of presidents stayed. Anyway, the Maharishi folks made some pretty bold announcements, according to newspaper reports from the time. They planned on investing $120 million in it to turn it into sweet condos.

As it turns out, the Maharishi people can reduce war in Lebanon, but there were two forces they could not overcome: Chicago building inspectors and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In November 2000, the city ordered the hotel closed after discovering asbestos exposure and a troubled electrical system, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. And then OSHA fined Heaven on Earth Inns, Inc. $157,350 for "allegedly exposing workers to asbestos." They sold the hotel a few years later.

In 2004, after the Maharishi folks had sat on a dilapidated Avon Lake, Ohio country club for years, that city's mayor tried to get the property declared a blight so it could be seized under eminent domain. But the Maharishi folks finally sold the property to a developer who razed the sucker.

And the mayor in Hartford, Connecticut, is getting a bit fed up with the yogis. See, they've been sitting on a vacant hotel for 12 years, in an area that's becoming a hub for corporate development.

Mayor Eddie Perez told the Hartford Courant he would probably "propose a redevelopment zone encompassing the two buildings," which would "give the city the option of acquiring the hotel by eminent domain."

What's that? How can their mayor talk about seizing the property if there aren't any outstanding violations? Good question. After all, it's private property, right? Well, I guess that mayor's a bit different than ours. As a matter of fact, I called the Hartford mayor's office, and they put me in touch with John Palmieri, director of the Department of Development Services. He's also the executive director of the Hartford Redevelopment Agency.

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