Low and Outside
So there you are, driving down from Kingwood on the Eastex or heading in from Sugar Land on the Southwest Freeway, going to an Astros game.
Visions of sugarplums dance in your head.
You think back on all the lofty rhetoric that was tossed around during the 1996 campaign to convince voters to finance the new baseball stadium. You really hadn't heard the word "rejuvenate" too often in your life, but in the weeks leading up to the referendum, the city's movers and shakers were talking rejuvenation like there was no tomorrow.
The new stadium was gonna rejuvenate the decrepit neighborhood near U.S. 59 and the convention center. It was going to rejuvenate the entire east side of downtown. Hell, it was going to rejuvenate all of downtown. The new stadium was going to be an irrepressible dynamo of rejuvenation, effortlessly spurring new development even as it favored Astro fans with an unmatched facility to see a baseball game.
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Oh, the sports bars that would be built, their walls filled with Jeff Bagwell jerseys and Charles Barkley sneakers. The chic restaurants that would spring up, their white tablecloths contrasting smartly with the bare-bricked walls and the exposed warehouse pipes. The so-trendy-it-hurts lofts that would ring the stadium, pouring forth black-clad urban hipsters sneering at the kid-toting suburbanites.
What a marked difference from the Astrodome, a building surrounded by acres of empty concrete. As you cruise down the freeway you tell yourself that you are on your way to a field-of-dreams ballpark plopped right down in the middle of a swinging, big-city, hustling, bustling, rejuvenated-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life damn downtown mecca.
Then you pull up to the stadium. And three words pop into your head: Welcome to Sarajevo.
Rejuvenation, it appears, is not quite as instant a process as the build-it-and-they-will-come boys would have had you believe back in the election campaign. Far from thriving, the area around Enron Field is a desolate landscape of abandoned warehouses, boarded-up storefronts and fortresslike bail bondsman offices.
Don't worry, though: Rejuvenation is coming. It'll just take a while, and you shouldn't have thought otherwise.
A close look at the neighborhood does offer encouraging signs, mostly in the form of, well, signs, advertising coming glorious projects. Trammell Crow is building Ballpark Place, a giant apartment building right across the street from Enron Field, with stores and restaurants on the ground floor. A little farther away another developer is touting a similar mixed-use project that might rise to 37 stories. And the whitewashed windows of a couple of dilapidated stores boast legal notices of the property owners' intent to open bars. At some point.
"Houstonians kind of like instant gratification, and they'd like to see the whole area turn around in a hurry, but it doesn't work that way," says Diann Lewter, director of business development for Central Houston Inc., a downtown booster group. "We're in that first flush of new purchasers -- everything down there has either been sold or is for sale....By the end of the season, you're going to see a lot of stuff that is actually under construction."
"Big things are coming," says Danny Evans, owner of a bar that he says will open by the end of June. "I know Bennigan's, Hooter's and Chili's are all looking at properties in the area."
Wow. Maybe even The Great American Cookie Company could come in, just to complete the hellish Malling of Downtown effect.
At any rate, by next season -- and certainly within a couple of years -- the area surrounding Enron Field may indeed blossom into a thriving neighborhood.
But for now, at a time when Houstonians new to the idea of downtown baseball are forming their crucial first impressions, things look grim.
Or do they? The situation may not be as hopeless as it seems. The Houston Press has discovered several memos from local public relations firms -- memos that, as far as you know, have a very good chance of being real and not just made up to make a point -- dealing with how to turn the lemon of Enron Field's neighborhood into the lemonade of rejuvenation bustin' out all over.
Our philosophy of treating potential black eyes for public entities derives itself from the French painter Rene Magritte. He painted a picture of a pipe and called it This Is Not a Pipe, right? Fine. We take a look at allegedly so-called "bad" circumstances and say This Is Not a Problem.
A billion-dollar expansion of the Port of Houston? Hey, it'll help the environment. Sadistic traffic on Houston's freeways? Hey, you should see what it's like in Boston.
We sent a guy to walk around the neighborhood. He reports that, as usual, the complaints about a lack of "anything resembling civilization" around the new ballpark are just more of the same old carping from those naysayers who don't realize the phrase Can't Be Done has the word "can" in it, if you look hard enough.
A report from Our Man in Sarajevo:
"Contrary to popular belief, the teeming, thriving neighborhood around the new baseball stadium, which we will call Gashouseville® to get synergy with lame-but-determined Chronicle columnists inanely flogging the 'Gashouse' nickname, is alive with entertainment possibilities.
"A quick walking tour reveals the extent to which Denver's LoDo district or New York's Greenwich Village (minus the gays, thank God) better watch their backs. Gashouseville® is swinging, baby!
"You want eats? We got eats. Before I even got out of the car, I saw the towering skyline of the Ben Milam Hotel. What does a huge sign painted on that hotel say? 'New cafeteria,' that's what it says. While carbon-dating tests to determine just how pre-Eisenhower the sign is have yet to be completed, it's safe to say that no downtown eatery has a larger sign.
"Only a fool would argue that such a large sign would still be operational for a restaurant that is no longer open to the public. While I personally was unable to find the entry to the cafeteria, or at least one that wasn't boarded over, I did discover a street-level sign that said the place offered 'Southern Cooking.' Two signs for a place that's no longer open? I think not.
"So there's at least one retro-kitsch comfort-food 'emporium' right by the ballpark. Just try to get your naysayers to admit it, though.
"But that's not all. There's also a Catholic church right across the street from the new stadium. I'm reliably told that not only do they offer bread and wine at their services, but apparently there's some kind of floor show involved, a magician who somehow transforms those things into the 'body and blood of Christ,' Christ being some old kind of prophet dude. (Interesting fact, boss: When you occasionally blurt out 'For crissake, can't anybody here get their head out of their ass?' you're actually referring to this 'Christ' person. Swear to God.)
"At any rate, while I'm told that the wafers don't really offer much in the way of 'taste,' could it be any worse than the chips and salsa at some of the so-called 'Mexican' places around town? I think not.
"So you got retro comfort food, you got a floor show and snacks. Is that it? Au contraire, mon frère. During my walking tour I discovered not one, not two, not three, but four delightfully al fresco dining establishments, all within easy walking distance of Enron Field.
"All were cleverly disguised as those kind of god-awful silver-plated lunch trucks that pull up to serve construction workers and factory drones everywhere, but I assume that was just part of their hoi polloi charm. It is to just die, is it not? It's like Disney creating a fake Paris street scene. Genius, I'm telling you.
"All this alone is more than enough to allay any so-called 'concerns' about the neighborhood, right? Well, there's more. A mere four blocks away from the stadium is the annex to the Harris County Courthouse. A more munificent cornucopia of snack-machine offerings cannot be imagined by anyone outside of the snack-machine industry.
"I haven't even mentioned the King George Hotel, just across the street from the Star of Hope homeless shelter, which backs up onto the stadium. (Talk about street life!) Any hotel in downtown Houston that's named after King George (assuming it's not the insane one) just has to be pretty 'royal' in my book, and the street-level window, if you can see past the chain-link fence keeping out trespassers, advertises a coffee shop inside! Food fit for a 'King,' no doubt! (Ha, ha!)
"As with the Ben Milam Hotel, no easily accessible entrance was immediately discernible, but no doubt the proprietors were keen to keep out the riffraff. Surely anyone who could afford a ticket, parking and sundries at Enron Field would not be considered riffraff!
"As for bars, well -- except for the wine offered at Annunciation Catholic, which I'm told won't exactly have Ernest and Julio shaking in their boots -- pickings seem relatively slim. The good news, though, is that seems to be the case only if you are somehow determined to do your drinking indoors. If you don't mind a little healthy fresh air while imbibing, then the world's your oyster. As far as I can tell, it's easy to get rid of both your empty bottles (anywhere will do) and your excess urine (ditto). Not to mention vomit.
"That's not to say that there won't be some kind of last-minute 'cleanup' drive that will discourage such activities, but hey, boss, I can only report what I see.
"So, bottom line -- I don't see much of a challenge in employing the Hey What Problem mode. Plus, if we can just get the Hooter's people to put up a 'Coming Soon' sign, we're home free. Gashouseville® rules!"
As you can see, Our Man in Sarajevo is supremely confident that we can convince everyone that there is no actual "problem" as regards the area surrounding Enron Field, and that anyone who thinks so is a naysaying carper who wouldn't know Houston's Can-Do spirit if it slapped him in the face!
We look forward to doing business with you.
That firm was not the only one heard from, of course. Another bid memo came from a group that ridiculed the Hey What Problem solution, calling it "a discredited notion that was still resting on the laurels of having worked once for then-councilman Michael Yarbrough."
Their memo outlined what they termed a much more aggressive approach to dealing with ballpark blight:
Sirs, or Madams, or Whatevers:
You got a problem. You can ignore it and hope that people will settle for a bunch of "Development Coming Soon!" signs in lieu of actual places to eat or drink, but that's not quite what they expected for their tax dollars. When these burb brains roll in with their SUVs, they're gonna want two things: 1) a parking space that wasn't designed for a Toyota Corolla (not our problem, thankfully), and 2) downtown development.
They've been promised it. They want that promise to be delivered on.
Now you could go ahead and claim there is no problem, and what these newcomers are seeing actually is rejuvenated downtown development, and that we just do things a little differently downtown.
But we think it's better if you act like you got a pair and attack the issue. Take some proactive steps, for crying out loud.
We have, luckily, a few suggestions that will set spinning the heads of all those moms and dads and their 2.5 kids. By the time they're sitting in traffic trying desperately to get back to Katy before midnight, we'll have them convinced that they actually spent an evening in the hippest urban area this side of the Upper West Side. It'll take hiring a few minimum-wage workers and buying some props, but we think you'll agree it'll be money well spent.
1) Put muscle-bound bouncers in front of every abandoned doorway. Throw a velvet rope and stanchions in front of the door. For God's sake, make sure you can't see through the windows.
2) Have speakers blast Sting's latest CD (whatever the hell it's called; it probably won a Grammy, so you can look up the name there) from random windows of the Ben Milam Hotel. Stack some empty IKEA boxes on the curb.
3) Hire a few UH drama students to walk into building lobbies (past "security guards," who'll keep everyone else out). Dress 'em "boho" style and give 'em all Starbucks cups to walk around with. They'll have one line that they will keep muttering sotto voce to each other: "Gawd, I wish these breeders would head back to wherever it is they come from and leave us alone."
4) The King George Hotel? Rent a couple of rotating searchlights and two limos. Park the limos in front and flip on the lights. A couple of police barricades will keep the gawkers far enough away; the lines for the drama students playing the cops will be: "Jay-sus, didya see what Madonna's wearin'?" (an Irish accent lends atmosphere) and "Better call for backup, Puff Daddy's here."
5) As we all know, just a few yards from the right-field fence sits the Fiesta Ballroom, an "after-hours" club that won't open until long after the crowds are gone each night. Hire a middle-aged white couple to stand in front of the club every few minutes, stare at the locked door and say loudly enough for everyone to hear: "Gosh, they don't even open until after Jay Leno's done. Imagine that!" This will reinforce the feeling that visitors are truly in an otherworldly Land of Hip.
6) Let's take advantage of some other buildings that are already in place. Directly across from the main home-plate entrance of the ballpark is Surveyors Instrument Company, which, if the impressively large hand-painted sign out front is to be believed, is the place to go if you're looking to buy the "Schonsteldt Heliflux Magnetic Locator." Try finding one of those at the Katy Mills mall. There's also an abandoned warehouse prominently advertising itself as "Houston Gasket - The Rubber House." Blast the dance mix of Celine Dion's "That's the Way It Is" out of its darkened windows, and you'll have the out-of-towners convinced they actually walked by an honest-to-God kinky gay bar.
We got plenty of other ideas, but you gotta pay to play. We look forward to hearing from you.
There were other memos, naturally -- a business group called Rejuvenation Now! said that with the right amount of tax incentives, and a few waivers on building and fire codes, they could open up enough restaurants and bars to satisfy any visitor on opening day. The idea looked promising, but negotiations broke down when building and fire inspectors said the concept would wreak havoc on their plans to discreetly finance their summer vacations.
So much for memos that may or may not be real. Whatis
real is that developers moving into the area around Enron Field are absolutely confident that the neighborhood is about to take off.
"I've seen Denver develop out of absolutely nothing, an area that was just filled with depleted warehouses, and after [Coors Field] opened it became the place to go to hang out," says bar owner Evans.
Evans is planning to open a Little Woodrow's (he owns several) directly across the street from one of the main Enron Field entrances. He's putting a half-million dollars into the project, which is currently snagged on a bureaucratic question of whether he properly notified the convent and girl's high school associated with Annunciation Catholic Church.
(Don't get him started on the subject, by the way. It's tough enough to win a fight where you have nuns filing affidavits questioning your version of events; Evans feels the whole thing has become a political football.
"The church has blessed Enron Field's coming, and now they're saying they're concerned about people getting in their cars after being at our place and driving past the school," he says. "Well, what do they think people are going to be doing at Enron Field? And talk about maybe being hypocritical -- the beer distributors in town here fight to get the business of the Catholic churches for their bazaars and picnics, there's so much of it.")
Some of the real estate insiders who have been dealing with the Enron Field neighborhood say development has been slow to take off because property owners have been setting prices unrealistically high. "Right now for land, they're asking an arm and a leg," says Lois Baker, a commercial realtor with Vallone & Associates, which is brokering several properties in the area. "People are asking $100 to $150 a square foot."
The only way a developer can make a price like that work is if they "build up" with mid- to high-rise towers, she says.
No one wants to do a project like that in an area that fails to fulfill its promise, of course, so developers are hesitant to be the first to start construction.
"You've always got to have a pioneer to break that first shovelful of dirt in order to get everyone else scrambling," Baker says.
"Everyone's kind of in a wait-and-see mode right now, but the Trammell Crow development is going to help a lot."
The "Trammell Crow development" is Ballpark Place, directly across Crawford from Enron Field. Announced in February, it is a "proposed development" whose current plans include 34 floors of retail, parking, office space and "high-end apartments," says Patrick Hicks, a principal with the company.
Right now all that is on site is a billboard urging people to visit ballparkplace.com. That Web site, it turns out, is under construction. That's more than can be said for the building.
"Trammell Crow has closed on the land and is studying different alternatives for development," Hicks says. "[The mixed-use 34-story building] is one idea. We will be the developer, and we are looking to bring in an equity partner."
There's no timetable for finding a partner or deciding what kind of project to build, much less breaking ground.
Like everyone else, though, Hicks is confident the area will boom. "The amount of activity going on is exciting -- new projects are being announced almost weekly," he says. "The northeast quadrant [of downtown] is going to look a heckuva lot different in two to three years."
Along with other business types, Hicks sees the baseball stadium working in tandem with the new restaurants springing up along Main Street and in Market Square. The Cotswold beautification project along Texas and Prairie between the square and the stadium will be key, he says.
"Cotswold will really attach Enron Field to the main core of Market Square and downtown; they'll be strong links to [restaurants such as] Cabo and Solero," he says. "It fits nicely into the plan not to build a gargantuan parking garage and have the people who are visiting the ballpark just come and go and not be part of the city.
"This way they park five blocks away, and on the way into the ballpark they can interact with all kinds of things downtown and enjoy them, and everyone benefits."
With heavy hitters like Trammell Crow announcing major projects, it's hard to argue that some development won't be coming. But Phoenix residents are discovering that the Arizona Diamondbacks' Bank One Ballpark, a downtown stadium nicknamed "BOB," which opened in 1998, hasn't quite lived up to its promise to transform its surrounding neighborhood.
The Phoenix New Times, a sister paper to the Houston Press, reported March 9 that "[D]owntown merchants agree that rosy economic projections with the construction of BOB have not materialized. The impact on downtown business appears to be limited to a handful of bars on Jackson Street that host large crowds before and after games." (Some civic leaders dispute that claim, of course.)
Lewter of Central Houston Inc. has no qualms. "Developers are realizing that there is glitz and glamour attached to being near the ballpark," she says. "A lot of them are getting together with investors and making plans."
It may take a couple of years before the massive changes are all in place, she says: "On smaller buildings, like where there might be a bar, you might see them open in six to 12 months if they're renovating. But the really large buildings need a lot of work; they've been closed a long, long time, so you're looking at maybe 18 months. What developers have got to look at is how to open the ground floor of these places, with retail or a restaurant, while they continue working on the upper floors."
Central Houston estimates that by 2005 the area around Enron Field will look "radically different" than it did before the baseball-stadium vote.
But for much if not all of the Astros' first season downtown, visitors are not likely to be overwhelmed by their surroundings outside the park. Whether those first impressions will keep anyone away in future years is impossible to say, of course.
If they're worried about it, though, maybe the movers and shakers can break out the spin machine. Or the spotlights and Starbucks.
E-mail Richard Connelly at email@example.com.
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