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Dream Taker

On one corner stands the new monument to the mania of professional sports: Enron Field. Long before it was finished, politicians were already pointing to the retractable-roof stadium as the prime example of what can be accomplished when local governments get together with private enterprise and tens of millions in new tax dollars.

Just across the street is another monument signifying a sorrier side of public-private dealings, ones with subplots of influence and inflated egos. The old World Trade Center sits at the corner of Texas and Crawford, scowling like an attention-starved geriatric headed into the twilight.

Plywood boards, painted stormy gray, cover large swaths along the sidewalk. The checkerboard of bricks and turquoise tiles that once livened the lower facade now wears a worn-out look.

Heavy chunks of marble began crashing to the street about ten years ago, so the material was stripped away, leaving long bands of exposed concrete from the building's base to the top of the 12-story tinted-glass tower.

The building's air of groaning desuetude contrasts sharply with the manic energy of the neighborhood these days -- the snarling jackhammers, beeping bucket trucks and small army of workers in hard hats racing to complete the ballpark before opening day.

By the time the stadium gates opened, the World Trade Center was supposed to have been well on its way to accenting the amenities of a revitalized East End. Public officials said it could be prime real estate for several uses. It could have been transformed into a square-block oasis of parkland that would be the peaceful green front porch for the stadium. Or a parking lot. Or, as some developers proposed, it could have served as the new home for a quality hotel, one highlighted by classy restaurants and bars catering to crowds flowing into a re-energized downtown.

Houston Port commissioners weighed the plans and the potential for this piece of Port-owned land. The options attracted political infighting as well as veteran developers. In the end, the Port picked a buyer whose only real credentials came on the basketball courts of the NBA.

More than a year later, as the final touches are added to the stadium across the street, nothing has changed on the opposite corner. Hakeem Olajuwon's World Trade Center project remains little more than his famous nickname: a dream.

sBefore Houston surged toward suburbia, the World Trade Center tower went up in 1961 as far more than a beacon to downtown vitality. The building became home to the trade and consular offices of various countries, whose banners fluttered out front.

The building was adjacent to the two-story brick headquarters of the Port of Houston Authority, which owned the block framed by Texas, Crawford, Capitol and La Branch. The Port bailed out in 1991, opting for spacious new digs at the Houston Ship Channel's Turning Basin. Commissioners for the Port subsequently spent $1.4 million removing asbestos and readying their old place for possible lease or sale, but the property slipped into the state of decay that then marked that area of the central city. In the past few years it has served as little more than a bed board for derelicts who regularly slept along its western walls.

Then the property's value shot up amid a flurry of more recent downtown development. The Rice Hotel reopened as lofts. Trendy nightspots sprang up, and many downtown blocks received some type of renovation.

None of these projects, however, compared to the auspicious tidings borne by the Sports Authority's resolution in September 1997. It was going to build a new ballpark in the trade center's own backyard, at the old Union Station. The Astros' new home was a certain indication of fresh life returning to this neglected area of downtown.

More specifically, the sights of the Sports Authority focused squarely on the block containing the trade center. From the moment the Sports Authority passed its ballpark measure, officials there envisioned the plot as a key "front door" to the stadium. All authority directors needed to do was persuade the Port of their good intentions.

Instead, the fallout from that effort continues to rekindle acrimony among those agencies and the entities who appoint their leaders: city and county government.

Today, when former Sports Authority chairman Jack Rains and Harris County Judge Robert Eckels set eyes on the beleaguered World Trade compound, they can almost see live oaks and crape myrtles spreading over shady walkways and pleasant blue pools.

Then reality strikes. They stare at a scene of the crusty buildings, concrete and chain-link fences.

"The bottom line is we tried to make it a park Š and that piece of shit is still sitting on the corner there," Rains says.

Eckels and Rains say that early on, they, along with Mayor Lee Brown, discussed with Port Chairman Ned Holmes the park prospects and the Sports Authority obtaining the property through "friendly" condemnation or a lease agreement. Holmes, they insist, was amenable to the idea.  

The Sports Authority eventually proposed leasing the land for 30 years at $1 a year and tapping corporate donors to create a park. Rains conceived the idea, in conjunction with the mayor and county judge, the officeholders responsible for appointing him and the Sports Authority's board members.

"Jack was just doing what we told him to do," Eckels says. In the negotiations, the officials tried to play off the positive public relations to be generated for the Port with a park in prime downtown real estate. The green space would net between $250,000 and $750,000 annually for the Port in naming rights and advertising, they argued. Stadium officials appealed to the vanity of the Port. They cooed about having national network coverage exposure. Between innings of broadcast games, cameras would naturally pan to scenic vistas of a Port Authority park next door, center stage in a backdrop of downtown buildings.

"The Port will receive an immediate and lasting surge of good will and public support by accepting this proposal and contributing land to the development of a park honoring the Port," Rains later wrote the commission.

Port Chairman Holmes says the park idea intrigued him, but not for the $1-a-year lease proposed by the Sports Authority. "We reached the conclusion that the Port needed to be compensated. That was the overwhelming public sentiment," he says.

Some Port commissioners also questioned if giving away a downtown block might come back to haunt them in the upcoming controversial bond election campaign regarding the Bayport terminal. While it might reflect civic compassion, a giveaway also could make voters wonder about the fiscal ways of an agency asking them to approve more funding.

Rains, known for possessing the diplomacy of a pit bull, and his political allies upped the pressure for a park; the Port Commission eventually fought back. Verbal backroom brawling would later burst onto public forums.

If the buck-a-year lease notion ever enticed Port officials, they would eventually come to openly mock it. At a Port meeting, Commissioner Chase Untermeyer asked if $1 could buy anything at the new ballpark.

Executive Director Tom Kornegay retorted, "It wouldn't buy a Coke at a football game."

By then the Port officials had made their decision. They would unload the land, which they valued at $3.2 million. But the only green to be seen there would be the color of money. In June 1998 the Port voted to put the property up for bid.

The Sports Authority park concept, Port Commissioner Jim Edmonds says, had merit, but its proponents "sort of crammed [it] down our throats."

While talk of a park rippled through the Sports Authority and Port Commission, developers also came calling. Port Chairman Holmes repeats the position that he frequently asserted at the time: "We were looking for basically the highest and best price for selling public assets."

However, the lengthy request for proposals sent to potential bidders in the summer of 1998 went well beyond simple talk of dollars and cents. In addition to asking interested parties to name their best price and provide proof they really could pay, the bid requests sought descriptions of the proposed land use, analysis of the economic impact on the neighborhood and -- more important -- time lines for development. The introductory letter indicated bids would "be evaluated for the highest and best useto the Port of Houston Authority."

Eight bids arrived at the Port. They were a mixed bag, ranging from polished, highly professional presentations that cleaved to the guidelines of the bid requests, to wild pitches and uninspired ideas that looked hastily construed as if by students on the eve of a paper deadline.

One name among the competitors stood out, but not because of any overriding business successes: Hakeem Olajuwon, the Houston Rockets' center and then-NBA star.

"I saw an opportunity and made a bid like everyone else," Olajuwon says. "I was looking for opportunities as any businessman would do."

If he was eager, the Dream showed he wasn't exactly charging into a full-court fast break. Olajuwon missed the deadline for making offers, but the Port was ready to cut him some slack and consider the bid. His tardy proposal was striking in that it proposed almost nothing at all.

He offered to lease the property for $300,000 a year for ten years with a $100 purchase option after that. But he didn't say a word about what he planned to do with it.  

He simply stated: "My firm intent is to be personally involved in both the ownership and character of the future development on the Property, if the Proposal is accepted." His offer sounded as if the athlete were vying for a Nike endorsement contract rather than a neglected building. Olajuwon proposed trading in on a "valuable intangible" -- his celebrity status.

"I am aware of the Authority's desire to promote the Port of Houston throughout the world as an extremely viable gateway to North America Š.As a part of the Proposal, I suggest that I undertake in a formal way to assist the Authority in these particular areas, as well as other publicity projectsŠ.I believe I can offer very real recognition and international exposure to underscore these efforts."

Even with the special offer, Olajuwon fell behind the pack. At a meeting to assess bidder qualifications in October 1998, Port officials selected three finalists. Olajuwon did not make the cut.

One of the preferred proposals came from Burk-Kleinpeter, a New Orleans company. It sought a 75-year lease at $200,000 a year, to convert the property into a $100-a-room hotel. As for experience in the lodging industry, Burk-Kleinpeter offered up partner M.H.H. Consultants, a part owner of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New Orleans.

Drury Inn proposed locating a branch of its national chain for a purchase price of just over $2 million.

Houston's Stature Construction originally offered to lease the property for a year and then purchase it for $3.5 million. The company pitched an eclectic project that included a hotel, shopping and office areas, and a smattering of apartments and penthouses.

But none of the bids sufficiently impressed the Port. Despite the pledges of monetary commitment offered up by the companies remaining in the competition, Holmes said none of them had demonstrated they had the financial heft to seal a deal.

At the October 26, 1998, meeting, the commission threw out all the bids and called for a second round.

The bidders refined their offers by the November 11 deadline. This time five companies jumped in. Burk-Kleinpeter offered to purchase the property for $3 million, after leasing it for an unspecified number of years at $200,000 annually. Stature upped its purchase price to more than $4 million. Drury dropped out.

Senterra Real Estate Group of Houston joined the mix, offering $3 million up front, to build a parking garage. Wiese Properties, a Houston loft developer, offered $3.67 million but was disqualified for submitting a late bid.

And at tip-off time for bidding, Olajuwon was late again. This time, though, it was only by minutes. He proposed erecting a ten-story parking garage and raising the lease to $400,000 a year.

Although he was disqualified for lateness, it turned out not to matter. Once again the Port rejected the bids.

"The issue there was who had the money, and no one could demonstrate they had the money," Holmes contends. "We had to extend to a third round in order to get to that point." The protracted process and procedural twists made some bidders skeptical about the Port's real intent. After the repeated rounds, the strongest contenders simply packed up and left the table.

"We couldn't do any better than what we were offering," says Larry Sisung, CEO of Sisung Securities, an investment banking firm that partnered with Burk-Kleinpeter on the proposal.

That basically left Wiese going one-on-one with Olajuwon. Wiese offered to lease the property temporarily and then buy it after a month for $3.26 million. That up-front cash would seem to add up to a sweeter deal for the fiscally minded Port than Olajuwon's proposal. Olajuwon's H.O. Holdings renewed its lease-purchase offer of $400,000 a year for ten years with a $100 purchase option after that.

He backed his bid with a $400,000 cashier's check, exceeding Wiese's $250,000 personal check.

On December 21, 1998, the Port made its final decision: Olajuwon became the king of rebounds in this competition. He accepted his win graciously, renewing his pledge to "undertake in a formal way to assist the Port in advertising and promoting voter understanding of the Port's next bond election." That included six television ads in support of the Bayport terminal -- all for a mere $1 million write-off on the deal. The spokesperson arrangement, however, ultimately was scrapped because it "clouded the issue," Holmes says.

"We felt very comfortable with Hakeem," Holmes says. "We felt very comfortable the Port would be paid. He's very sensitive to his image. We thought that would bode well for whatever project."

For all the rounds of bidding and confirmation of assets and credentials, however, the Port appeared to have never checked out Olajuwon's only similar project.  

Rector Ron Pogue, of Trinity Episcopal Church in Galveston, followed Olajuwon's other central Houston deal when Pogue was board chairman of the Downtown Historic District. "If you want to see how Hakeem Olajuwon handles his downtown development, go look at the Franklin Bank building," he advises.

sThe April 19, 1994, front-page headline in the Houston Chronicle announced the cheery news: Olajuwon planned to purchase the old Franklin Bank building, a historical gem at 202 Main Street. As part of the same deal, he acquired the lease to the nearby Sweeney, Coombs and Fredericks building, which he later sold.

Ross Sterling, chairman of the board of the erstwhile Houston National Bank and, later, the governor of Texas, spared no expense when he constructed the edifice in 1928. He imported marble from Europe, commissioned canvases with scenes from classical mythology and Texas culture, and had a lavish fresco painted on the domed ceiling.

Olajuwon had the idea of converting the grand neoclassical structure into a mosque or an Islamic cultural center.

"I love architectureŠ.I looked at the building and immediately realized it would be a beautiful Islamic institute," he says. "As a developer downtown, it's fun and challenging, and you're adding to the landscape of downtown. You're creating your own styleŠ.I'm happy to be a part of it."

The initial Chronicle story said Olajuwon couldn't talk about his plans until the deal was finalized. When it was completed, his broker said Olajuwon couldn't say much because he had to stay focused on the Rockets' playoffs. And in the years since then, neither the Chronicle nor Olajuwon has said much more about the plans.

The little bit of confirmed work thus far has hardly brought praise; restorationists, instead, are horrified at what has happened.

One of Olajuwon's first moves as owner was to gut the building of its marble staircase, along with numerous bronze medallions of Greek gods and goddesses set above the building's thick columns. The staircase is up for sale at an antiques store, according to one restorationist. The bronze works were placed in storage, where several have been stolen.

Today the building looks largely untouched and in a state of serious disrepair. Its limestone walls and columns have blackened with smog, paintings are peeling, original light fixtures have been filched, and broken windows fester beside bronze screens.

Olajuwon, after six years of ownership, insists he has started doing work inside, but is proceeding cautiously.

"As you know, with a project like that, there's a lot of surprises because nobody builds buildings like that anymore," he says. "The most important thing is at least we've started working. The whole idea is preserve it, to do justice to the building Š to bring it back to life."

Some redevelopers dispute his assessment. Given the apparent lack of progress, there are downtown interests who believe Olajuwon may be no more than another real estate speculator, marketing his name to acquire property, then exploiting the redevelopment boom by waiting to sell at a hefty profit.

sProfits drove the Port in its plans for the World Trade Center, although the park proposal had pumped in more rancor between the Port and Sports Authority. Regardless, some county officials and Sports Authority members hardly eased up on their efforts to transform the trade center property into green space. That push may have come to shove -- in ways the park advocates never intended.

Some of the bidders for the Port property blame the Sports Authority almost as much as the Port for driving them away. On November 19, 1998, the Sports Authority passed a resolution "recognizing the paramount public purposes of certain real estate near the ballpark" and authorizing the Authority's general counsel to explore condemnation proceedings. That last bit of saber-rattling may have backfired. It failed to net the Authority the park and discouraged other beautifying improvements for the Port site, a few developers say.

Jorge Casimiro, CEO of Stature Construction, says the threat of condemnation caused him to drop out before the final bid round. "We decided we didn't want to tie up our capital in a lawsuit," he says.

Even after the Port accepted Olajuwon's bid, the Sports Authority, Mayor Brown and County Judge Eckels still fought to keep the park dream alive. Brown urged Holmes and Rains to work together to resolve the issue. Rains says the Sports Authority also made attempts to purchase the land from the Port for $3 million, outside the formal bidding process.

Rains insists that it was Brown himself who delivered the death blow to the park. Brown, Rains says, conferred with Olajuwon and his partner, cardiologist Antonio Pacifico, in February 1999. After that meeting, the mayor abruptly reversed himself and became an Olajuwon backer. At a press conference afterward, Brown said he was encouraged that the duo had scrapped their parking garage concept and were now proposing a hotel or lofts. So Brown instructed the Sports Authority to halt any condemnation efforts.  

"The mayor said he would not have us condemning any land. We deferred to the mayor's wish," Rains says. "He made it very clear to me. He told me, 'Back off, that needs to go to the private sector.' "

"Mayor Brown decided unilaterally that he favored a private developer over a park and gave the right to buy the property to the group fronted by Olajuwon," Rains says. The mayor did not comment on Rains's version of the events. Through a spokesperson, he recently tried to put an upbeat spin on the status of the property.

"Mr. Olajuwon and his partner have been working on several alternative development plans," Brown's statement said. "I have been advised that they will be bringing a significant proposal to us soon. I have been told that their proposal will blend in very nicely with the Enron Field project."

That mayoral pronouncement was accompanied by no details, however, and is quickly contradicted by Olajuwon himself and others familiar with the site. Asked about his plans, Olajuwon says he's still not sure what he will do. He says he's considering a hotel or loft apartments, which is what he has been saying for more than a year.

Bill Sharman, the president of Lancaster Hotels and Resorts Inc., believes the Dream is preparing to sell the property. Lancaster recently worked with Paladio Development, the limited partnership formed by Olajuwon and Pacifico, on a project to develop a 125-room boutique hotel, using the foundation of the existing building.

After several months on the project, Sharman says, he "started getting signals" that Paladio Development was more interested in merely turning over the property than developing it.

"I'd say there's a 90 percent chance the owner will pursue sale rather than a development option," Sharman says.

As to the outlook that the Port may have sold the land to only a speculator, Olajuwon insists his intention is to resurrect the plot. But he offers no specifics. "I don't think we'll sell," he says. "That wasn't our primary goal. Our primary goal is to developŠ.The idea is to beautify."

To be certain, no one expected a renovated trade center site to be ready for the opening game at the stadium. But the utter lack of work, or of even hard plans for development, disgusts many of those involved in the earlier fray.

"If I had gotten the property, there would be construction going on to enhance the area, which is what the Port told me they wanted to happen," says Casimiro of Stature Construction. "I have a bitter taste in my mouth from how it all went down. I would have had it on the tax rolls."

The salvos and snipes of the park battle have largely faded into silence, and the ghastly building lives on as a reminder of both shortsighted decision-making and of what might have been. County Judge Eckels even wonders if the war should be revived.

"[Olajuwon] is a great basketball player, but not a great developer downtown. I don't think he'll ever do what he said," Eckels says. "[The building] is an eyesore today and will be a year from nowŠ.I still think we ought to condemn."

E-mail John Suval at john.suval@houstonpress.com.


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