In the Chops

Kim Soo is at ground zero in the land battle over the arena site.
Deron Neblett

Martial arts grandmaster Kim Soo sits in his tiny office and spins another of his inspiring tales of success. A tenth-degree black belt and founder of the Chayon-Ryu (Natural Way) teaching method, Kim has overseen the establishment of 29 Texas schools, 24 in other states and five overseas. The day he first arrived in town, January 16, has been declared Kim Soo Day in Houston by three successive mayors. He has letters of recognition from George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and has been honored by martial arts associations worldwide.

Grandmaster Kim emigrated from Korea in 1968 and settled in Texas. The East and West Coasts had their share of martial arts grandmasters, he recalls. Friends and family warned him that Texas was a dangerous place full of gun-totin' cowboys, but he saw it as a prime destination. "Where nobody wants to go, that's where I want to go," Kim says.

After arriving in Houston with $100 and a single pair of pants, Kim stuck to his where-no-one-goes philosophy and moved into a dilapidated two-story downtown building on Clay Street. He transformed that location, near a vacant tract that later became the George R. Brown Convention Center, into his first school. Thirty-three years later it's still open for business; 10,000 students have trained there, including such notable alumni as the late congressman Mickey Leland, retired judge Felix Salazar and former Rockets center Don Smith.

Though he has modern facilities in other parts of Houston, Kim remains partial to the old building where he transformed his dream from scratch. Students from the suburbs insist on training there despite more-convenient locations. He mentions one of his newer Clay Street students -- the fourth generation he's taught from a single family. "People love this place," he says. "This is priceless. I put my life into it."

During his years there, Kim has had more relationships with winos seeking shelter in his doorway than fellow business owners in the area. Apartment buildings, a funeral home, and a fortune cookie factory all have come and gone. Now the East End is showing signs of life, and the grandmaster envisioned rebuilding the school to keep pace. At 61, but with the easy demeanor of an athlete in his prime, he says he's got at least ten good years of teaching left in him. Instead, however, he'll have to find a new home -- Kim Soo Karate will soon be displaced by the voter-approved sports arena.

Last September Kim received a letter from a lawyer representing Downtown Houston Inc. The city is interested in purchasing your property, the letter stated, for $315,000. He paid it little attention. "I had no reason to sell," Kim says.

But the reason became evident when he saw a map of the proposed arena published in the local daily prior to the November referendum. The arena was to be constructed right on top of his building.

Attorney Loren Klitsas, a student of Kim's since 1976, volunteered to represent the grandmaster in negotiations for a reasonable settlement with the city. Thus far, the two sides remain far apart: The city initially offered to pay the same amount it offered before the referendum was approved ($50 a square foot for his 4,750 square feet of land plus about $80,000 for the building), or to relocate him in the general vicinity. "We ought to be able to relocate him for a fairly reasonable" dollar amount, says Sports Authority chairman Billy Burge, who met with Kim and Klitsas several weeks ago.

That's not good enough for Kim, who wants compensation for having to move the business and $100 a square foot for the land -- $1 million total. The city paid $100 a square foot for the mostly vacant property across the street on which the convention center hotel will be built. That's also about what commercial development company Trammell Crow allegedly paid for the old Star of Hope property on which it plans to build an office, retail and residential complex. And on January 11 Crescent Real Estate Equities announced it had purchased a nearby block for $120 a square foot.

Those figures may be inflated, however. According to a source familiar with downtown real estate transactions, Crescent likely overpaid for its block in its zeal to lock up property in the area. In addition, the cost of the convention center hotel property doubled after several early deals were botched, leaving the city in a poor bargaining position. The landowners "had the city by the short hairs," he says, "because there weren't any other options in that immediate area."

Burge agrees. "That was the only place the hotel made sense," he says. "There's a different analogy between a hotel and an arena when you look at land prices."

But the real estate expert says Kim has a pretty good case, especially since finding a suitable location in the area is becoming more difficult by the day, and he doesn't think $50 or $60 a square foot is adequate. "He needs a million bucks," the source says.

Burge says the city recognizes Kim's contributions to downtown and intends to play fair. "Everybody involved is very sensitive to his business," he says. But Burge also acknowledges that the Sports Authority is constrained by its land acquisition budget -- $20 million for all the property needed for the arena. And the majority of that will go to Opicoil, a Taiwanese oil company that owns about half the arena site. "Twenty million is all we have from the city," he says, "so we've got to stay within that."

That doesn't bode especially well for Kim, says Ken Cunningham. An Arizona investor who owns several tracts near Enron Field, Cunningham is still in litigation over a plot abutting the ballpark's east side that the city took through condemnation in 1999. He and other landowners were offered $12 a square foot for the property, even though nearby land was going for $35 or $40 a foot at the time. "They had a budget," Cunningham says. "Rather than offering fair market value, they massaged us into their budget."

Eventually all the property holders but Cunningham gave up the fight. "The Sports Authority was very aggressive on lowballing the prices on the Enron Field condemnation," Cunningham says. "I'm the only one that's left. Everyone else got worn down."

The city recently sent attorney Klitsas an improved offer: $90 a square foot, with nothing additional for moving expenses -- still less than half of what Kim hopes to receive. "It's getting better," Kim says, "but I need more than that to relocate."

Erin Rogers, a graphic artist and Web designer who has studied with the grandmaster for three years, laments the inevitable passing of Kim's personal field of dreams. "It will destroy a piece of history," Rogers says. "As a student, I can appreciate the contributions he's made to the people of Houston. Knowing where he came from and the hardships he had to overcome to get here, it's hard to see it being torn down.

"There's going to be a sense of loss."

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