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Atlantis Sinks Again!

Old Fire Station No. 1: Will it be the dawning of the Age of Aquarium?
Houston Press

The vacant Fire Station No. 1 and the city's first water plant sit across Buffalo Bayou from the Wortham Theater on the last choice undeveloped civic center land on the booming west side of downtown. Lots of folk have groovy ideas about what to do with it, and outside public view, a city-appointed committee sorts through some rather unusual proposals.

One of them, a giant aquarium and hotel complex ostentatiously named World of Atlantis and championed by Houston Sports Authority chair Billy Burge and state Representative Garnet Coleman, has apparently sunk into the depths before it could even be charted on the municipal map. Still in the running is an aquarium restaurant and entertainment center proposed by Tilman Fertitta's Landry's Restaurants. It's modeled on his popular Aquarium eatery on the Kemah waterfront. Rest assured the water -- and aquatic life -- would not be drawn from the nearby turtle-and-alligator-gar-infested murk of the bayou.

At a closed series of presentations earlier this month, five groups offered their visions of what should replace the stained concrete hulk of the fire station and the old Central Waterworks plant behind it. The city is looking to create a long-term lease on the property, which includes some parking space under the Interstate 45-Memorial interchange that cuts through the area. Rent on the parcel, says convention center chief Jordy Tollett, would be between $150,000 and $300,000 a year. Eventually there would be the added payoff of increased sales taxes for the city from commercial activity, plus the redevelopment of currently blighted space. The target date for completion is late 2002 or early 2003.

Developers face some unique challenges. One is the varying level of the bayou, which can rise 14 feet above the ground level of the waterworks building in a 100-year flood. Also there's the task of beautifying the grim web of freeway pylons and pillars that bracket the 4.2-acre site.

Easily the most quixotic of the proposals was the Aquarium Foundation of Houston's entry, a 120,000-square-foot series of fish tanks housing 10,500 aquatic species and a hotel for homo sapiens. World of Atlantis, a for-profit corporation set up by Houston's Abercia family, would provide the management for the Houston project and similar enterprises around the country. The Abercias, explains Burge, are the extended clan of Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Jack Abercia.

Burge joined the nonprofit foundation board two months ago to front the presentation, while Representative Coleman was hired by the World of Atlantis team as a paid consultant. Both pitched the idea to an advisory committee appointed by Mayor Lee Brown. It includes attorney Zinetta Burney, Minister Harvey Clemmons, Houston Downtown Management Executive Director Bob Eury and Tollett.

According to notes provided by Burge to the committee, World of Atlantis is a "project with vision" that would provide "something more downtown besides just bars and restaurants." The city would have no liability, and World of Atlantis would be a contractor under the supervision of the nonprofit Aquarium Foundation of Houston.

"People around Houston feel like we're this close to the water and the gulf and things, and an aquarium would probably do well here," Burge tells the Insider. "A study that the Abercias paid for by a consultant who has done most of these aquariums around the country showed Houston to be a very fertile market in terms of revenues."

Burge says a sense of civic duty, rather than money, fuels his involvement with the aquarium. "It was something -- like the baseball stadium and everything else -- a nontraditional use that would help further develop hotels and residential [units]. And it was a family thing, more family-friendly than other things down there now." According to Burge, the Aquarium Foundation is simply a funnel to provide for the sale of tax-free bonds to float the entire project.

The foundation has been pushing the idea of an aquarium in Houston for nearly seven years but has yet to find either a site or the necessary funds. Tollett says the city is very leery of the idea's viability, partially because of the number of competing projects in nearby cities.

"The problem is, of the aquariums we've checked out, 75 percent of them are in debt or [are] foundations that have never made it," says Tollett. "And we're almost surrounded by them, with aquariums in Galveston and Corpus Christi and Louisiana. There's some concern as to whether it would ever get done here."

The effort to redevelop the fire station site got under way in earnest last year when proposals were solicited for an October deadline. Then Brown appointed the selection committee, which winnowed the five proposals down to two. Tollett expects a final recommendation on the winning proposal later this spring.

During the February 1 presentation at the Greater Houston Visitors and Convention Bureau offices, it quickly became apparent that World of Atlantis was not ready for prime time. One committee member says the World of Atlantis proposal, under committee questioning, sank a lot faster than its fabled lost continent namesake. "I would relate it more to the Titanic," chuckles the source.

"The team needs to be reconfigured, and how to get it done needs to be reconfigured," says one aquarium enthusiast. "They need big-money donors. Until then, it's not going to happen."

The two other projects that apparently did not find favor with the committee were a nonprofit music museum and a retail shopping area. On the short list, according to committee insiders, is a combination high-rise residential project with several floors of entertainment facilities. It is proposed by Bayou Place developer David Cordish and Post Properties. The other survivor is Fertitta's expanded version of his Kemah "dining with the fishes" concept, embellished with plenty of bells and whistles. Both are for-profit ventures.

"It's on a much more mammoth level [than Kemah]," enthuses Fertitta, "with an entertainment area enclosing all the acreage of the fire station, with trains and fountains. Lot of other things. We're extremely excited about it. We feel like it would be the no. 1 draw in downtown."

As for the homeless Aquarium Foundation, Burge says the group will just try to keep its head above water while looking for some dry land.

"I think they're still floating around," deadpans Burge. "They've looked at other properties and have not been successful, so they're still bouncing around."

If they get really desperate, the Aquarium Foundation could craft a proposal to fill up the aging Astrodome with water once the rodeo leaves town.

He Ain't No Pal of Mine

Last week the Insider described state Representative Garnet Coleman as "politically connected" with unsuccessful City Council candidate and antidrug agency director Richard Johnson. As Coleman correctly points out, if there's a connection, it's a bad one. Coleman supported Carol Galloway and Chris Bell, the candidates who whipped Johnson in his two Council campaigns, and the state rep has had critical things to say in the past about the performance of Johnson's Golden Eagle Leadership Academy. Coleman also defeated a Johnson-backed opponent, Alvin Roy, in his own 1996 re-election bid.

The Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse finances agencies such as Golden Eagle through the University of Texas Health Science Center. Coleman has played a major role in working on that funding arrangement. However, Johnson's main man in the lege is state Rep. Ron Wilson.

Hooked a hard news nugget for the Insider? Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.


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