Once again demonstrating their unparalleled mastery of public relations, those hell-for-leather guys rushing to build a downtown baseball stadium offered up a heartwarming Thanksgiving scene last weekend: the unceremonious dumping on the street of a 60-year-old widow still bewildered and bitter over the lightning-quick condemnation of her property.
Gayle J. Mackay and her family spent the holiday weekend moving the industrial supply company they have run for 27 years from its location outside what will be the right-field bleachers of the Ballpark at Union Station to a new site about a mile away.
Condemnation fights can sometimes take years, but with the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority running things, the Mackays have had less than three months to learn about and fight the condemnation of their property; find, purchase and close on a new location (with sellers fully aware that they had to buy now); and move all of the equipment, furniture and records of their industrial supply company.
And the Authority wanted them out even faster. Thanks partly to delaying tactics by a neighbor, the Mackays won two extra weeks to move Abrasives & Allied Products, Inc., a company at the corner of Congress and Jackson that employs 18 and makes such industrial items as grinding belts.
Those extra weeks hardly allowed for a relaxed move, though, as the frantic Thanksgiving efforts showed.
"This poor woman is being trampled on," says daughter Heather Mackay.
"The timetable was just completely accelerated because of [Astros owner] Drayton McLane's deadline of opening the stadium by April 2000," says Heather's brother Doug. "They are all working at breakneck speed, willy-nilly, and they don't have the time to show the consideration that normally would be shown on real estate like this."
Heather and Doug say that newspaper maps of the proposed stadium never made it clear whether their family's building was inside or outside of the facility's property lines. As it turns out, it lies outside the stadium proper, but within the area targeted for support facilities such as loading docks and a gateway to the complex.
They learned that fact on September 5, when they received what was labeled a "final offer" of $331,834 for their 9,400-square-foot property.
The "final offer" was the first one they received from the Sports Authority, which had been formally created only three days before the letter was dated. About a year earlier, property owners in the area had received what they dismissed as laughably low offers; they learned much later that the offers came from the private group headed by Enron's Ken Lay that is buying land for the stadium. ("A woman walked in off the street and laid a contract on my mother's desk for a ridiculous price, to be sold to an unnamed trustee," Doug Mackay says of the earlier dealings.)
Lay's group succeeded in negotiating sales with most of the large property owners in the area, including Houston Belt & Terminal and Stewart & Stevenson. Some smaller owners also sold; the Mackays and their neighbor, Billy Marlin, were among five property owners whose property was taken through condemnation hearings.
Marlin grumbles that Lay's Enron and the other corporate investors in his group will profit off of the real estate deals; it's more likely, though, that the corporate giants got involved in order to be first in line, as they now contractually are, for perks such as suites, field boxes and the chance to have their company's name on the facility.
The Mackays were resigned to leaving once they got the September 5 letter, but they weren't overly concerned about the timetable. "Our attorney said it would take months for the process to be completed," Heather Mackay says.
The lawyer hadn't reckoned with the no-time-for-subtleties schedule of the Sports Authority, which is pushing relentlessly on all fronts, even without having in place such seemingly necessary items as a construction plan for the stadium or contracts with an architect and contractor.
Less than two months after the September letter was received, the condemnation hearing had been completed and the Mackays were given one month to move out.
"My mother has had to buy a new building, and it has to be downtown because all of our customers and workers are in that area," Heather Mackay says. "And now property values down there have shot out of sight because of the stadium."
The family eventually found a building about a mile south of their present location, on the other side of U.S. Highway 59. The $331,000 awarded in the condemnation proceedings, Heather says, "won't pay for one-third the cost" of buying a new place and relocating.
The Mackays have recently chosen to low-key their comments, because they hope an early December negotiation with the Sports Authority will get them some more money.
But Marlin, their downtown neighbor, is taking the opposite tack: He's turned his soon-to-be demolished building into a billboard lacerating the Sports Authority for its steamroller tactics.
Marlin, 37, runs a bail-bond business and deals in downtown real estate. It's hard to tell just what has him more upset about his condemnation -- the ham-fisted methods of the Sports Authority or the idea that they are demolishing his 77-year-old building to make room for a brewpub.
"I could understand if my property was on second base," he says, "but this is ridiculous."
The microbrewery, as it's designated on the Sports Authority's stadium map, will be located just beyond the center-field bleachers.
The combative Marlin all but shouts at the irony of the situation. "Here they are building a faux-historic ballpark," he fumes, "and they're tearing down these historic buildings."
This being Houston, the definition of what constitutes a historic building can be pretty loose. Marlin says he got no help from the local historical commissions.
Marlin drew out his fight with the Sports Authority by forcing them to redo paperwork that wasn't properly prepared. He also absented himself when the Authority's lawyers tried to hand-deliver legal notices.
"I didn't evade them, exactly. I just didn't lay down for them," he says. "And that pissed them off."
Marlin purchased his building in 1990 and lived in it for awhile to see if it would be viable to use for lofts. (It is, he claims.)
He's appealing the $475,000 he was awarded for his 9,400 square feet; the Sports Authority will take control of the property while any appeals are made.
Marlin and the Mackays may end up suing. They say the Authority never negotiated in good faith, as condemnation law calls for. "We get a letter, the first thing we get from them, and it says 'final offer.' That's a negotiation?" Marlin asks.
The Sports Authority referred all questions on the condemnations to Jim Lemond, the private attorney who handled the work. He did not return phone calls.
Authority officials have said in the past that the prices they are paying are substantially higher than what the properties were worth before the proposed stadium location came to light.
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Marlin disputes that, and still hopes to get more money out of the Authority.
As anyone knows who's seen Marlin's homemade billboard, highlighted with the "Houston: Expect the Unexpected" slogan so beloved by the city's boosters, the small-time developer is not a happy man.
"The ironic thing is that I applaud what they're doing with this project -- I support downtown," he says. "When I saw in the paper where they were going to put the stadium, I told myself I was either sitting in the catbird seat or SOL ... they have steamrollered me, and they have made me diametrically opposed to their position."
Doug Mackay is just as blunt. "The process that they have employed just sickens me," he says.