So a bunch of rich guys stand up and say, "We're bestowing this wonderful gift on the city of Houston," and you, the attentive and mildly engaged citizen, are supposed to immediately praise their beneficence and reply, "Wow, thanks, that's great!" while having the good manners to refrain from asking the obvious question:

What the hell is it?
It's Cotswold, ladies and gentlemen, only the latest in the procession of exalted schemes to return downtown to its "former glory," whatever that was (sorry, I missed it -- the Rice Hotel was the world's largest open-air urinal by the time I arrived). The grandly named "Cotswold Project" has serious boardroom cred -- among those involved in its creation were such worthies as Jack Trotter, Robert McNair, Bob Cruikshank, Gordon Cain, Leo Linbeck Jr. and Walter Mischer Sr. They've established a nonprofit corporation to take tax-deductible donations, with the apparent aim of imposing the Old World charm and ambiance of the master-planned community on the north end of downtown.

"Envision urban life," instructed the handsome brochure distributed two weeks ago when the Cotswold "gift"was unwrapped at the new Kim Son restaurant on Market Square. In case you have a hard time with the vision thing, Cotswold supplied one for you, presented in the relentlessly upbeat sales rhetoric of the Saturday real estate sections:

"Imagine a peaceful neighborhood in downtown Houston where the sight and sound of water refreshes you and orderly rows of mature trees soften the sunlight and create natural barriers between the sidewalk and street ...."

Gosh, it sounds just like ... The Woodlands.
Not that the Cotswoldians are obscuring their designs. The obvious tip-off is in the name -- Cotswold being the sector of southwest England known for its rolling hills and pastoral vistas, not the first place that comes to mind when you're asked to envision urban life.

It's also the name of a breed of sheep developed in the region, whose long wool is especially good for fleecing.

So how does the Cotswold Foundation propose to go about its self-assigned task? According to the promotional literature, Cotswold's "responsibilities" call for it to "market, design, finance, construct and maintain streetscaping improvements ... operate a parking cooperative and security program; market the project to private-sector developers; and promote key developments" in an area running south from Commerce to Capitol and east from Louisiana to Highway 59.

That's a lot of responsibility, some of it traditionally held by the public sector, but the Cotswoldians maintain that they can handle it without costing taxpayers a nickel, relying instead on $12 million or so in private donations and another $3 million in private debt. They promise a self-sustaining project, one that won't require public outlays for upkeep.

Among other things, Cotswold proposes to deploy its own private police force in the area, even though we're told that downtown, despite what they may think in Kingwood, is actually so safe that a three-month-old with a wad of hundred-dollar bills in her lap could slumber undisturbed at a Metro stop.

The private cops would be funded by the aforementioned "parking cooperative" (sounds vaguely socialistic, doesn't it?) that would be entitled to the revenue from 3,000 or so parking places to be created when "underutilized" east-west streets through downtown are narrowed to "two or three" lanes.

Those would be public parking spaces, by the way, on public streets.
The centerpiece of Cotswold -- the "dramatic touch," as the Chronicle enthused in its predictably gushing editorial greeting the project -- would be the transformation of Congress Avenue into an eight-block canal between Market Square and the new ballpark that may or may not be built on the east side of downtown. The gondola concession reportedly has already been nailed down.

What the Cotswold Project seems to call for, then, is the wholesale conveyance of control over a large stretch of public space to a private group, which, after City Council cedes its authority over the public rights-of-way, may or may not be answerable to an authority higher than itself.

Details to come.
"Control" is not a word that Leo Linbeck III is comfortable with when discussing Cotswold. Despite the pomp and high-flown oratory accompanying its unveiling, Linbeck, who is managing the project, earnestly posits a more modest ambition for Cotswold: "Our main goal is to put in a bunch of trees and create a lot of new parking," he says. Beyond that, the mission is vague, although Linbeck allows that the foundation is intent on seeing a multiscreen cinema rise at the northwest edge of downtown and has already received a donation of property for that purpose.

While still sketchy on the details, Cotswold is being hailed as the cord to tie together the various projects under way or on the boards in and near downtown -- the new baseball stadium, the renovated Rice Hotel, the new music hall, the Midtown TIF, Houston Renaissance's plans for the Fourth Ward and so on. Bob Lanier welcomes the project as another complement to his efforts toward closing the social and economic distance between the suburbs and inner city and staving off creation of, as he puts it, a "two-tier society."

Sure, Cotswold may be nothing more than what it is presented as being -- a well-intentioned means of bringing some new infrastructure and flourishes to downtown to help along residential and retail development. The Cotswoldians are obviously touchy to any suggestion of self-dealing, offering repeated assurances that none of the trustees, save for Weekley, who has a limited interest in the Hogg Palace Lofts, owns any property in the targeted area.

But it would be easier to accept Cotswold and other inner-city redevelopment projects at face value if Lanier and some of the other people involved weren't responsible for the continued outward push of the population to the Grand Parkway and other nether regions, and if they weren't some of the same people who've seen to it that Houston still doesn't have anything approaching decent public transit -- including a rail system that, by the way, would make it more practical to narrow downtown streets and put up the dense residential developments planned for downtown, Midtown and the Fourth Ward. (Cotswold would create head-in parking on those narrowed streets, which, if your purpose were to dissuade people from driving downtown, would do the trick.)

And it would certainly be easier to greet these projects without reflexive skepticism if the people involved didn't persist in piously mouthing the virtues of their "private initiative" while relying on taxpayer-funded grants, tax abatements, tax-deductible donations and other public subsidies.

It's also debatable whether Cotswold, Houston Renaissance and the luxury apartments of the Rice Hotel will do anything to close the gap in the "two-tier society" Lanier wrings his hands over. As anybody with eyes can tell you, a literal two-tier society already is in place in downtown. Down below, thousands of white-collar office workers course daily through the privately secured, climate-controlled tunnel system. Up above, the streets east of Travis teem with homeless men and the immigrants from rural Mexico and Central America whom Metro ferries downtown to clean the office buildings and work in the kitchens.

Are those people included in Cotswold's pretty visions of "urban life?

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