When Greg Baxter needed to cut a deal with the city for a road through his proposed City Park development along White Oak Bayou, he of course hired a lawyer. But not just any lawyer: Baxter hired Neil Rackleff, a former assistant city attorney who now works for the downtown law firm of Coats, Rose, Yale, Holm, Ryman & Lee.
Rackleff spent his last two and a half years at the city "on loan" to Michael Stevens, former mayor Bob Lanier's unpaid urban-revitalization czar. The attorney had a front-row seat as Stevens and Lanier lavished unprecedented sums of public money on one big-ticket item after another: the Rice Hotel lofts, the construction boom in Midtown, the demolition of Allen Parkway Village, a redevelopment plan for Fourth Ward, a downtown ballpark.
When Stevens's work for Lanier was through in January 1998, Rackleff took a job with Coats, Rose, which also employs Barry Palmer, one of Stevens's personal attorneys. So it seemed like a smart play for Baxter to hire Rackleff in an effort to get the city to fund a $3 million extension of East T.C. Jester from 11th Street to 18th Street. In December City Council agreed to do just that by creating the City Park Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, whose board of directors will collect the incremental property-tax increase generated by the development to pay for the new road.
Presumably Rackleff learned much from Michael Stevens about the art of the "public-private partnership," a staple of the Lanier era. That insight probably helped Baxter in his negotiations with city planners on the East T.C. Jester extension. After all, the city's most recent traffic studies indicate the road will not be needed for transportation purposes for another decade. Moreover, the Federal Emergency Management Agency recently determined that White Oak Bayou cannot handle additional storm water runoff. FEMA has included Baxter's undeveloped 20-acre tract, as well as most of the adjacent Shady Acres subdivision, in the new 100-year floodplain.
In fact, there are only two apparent purposes for the extension. One is to provide bayou-side access to City Park Apartments, a 265-unit complex Baxter plans to build on about ten acres of his land. The other is for Baxter to realize enormous profits from the sale of nine acres to the Albertson's grocery chain, which wouldn't finalize the transaction until the extension of East T.C. Jester had been approved by City Council.
But while city officials were anxious to accommodate Baxter and Albertson's, homeowners in about a half-dozen nearby neighborhoods have little use for City Park. Three months after Council approved the TIRZ, members continue to actively oppose the project on several grounds, including the possibility that Baxter's land may not meet state and federal environmental standards for residential development because it is part of an abandoned oil field called Eureka Heights [see "Looking for Answers Down Below," by Brian Wallstin, January 21].
Baxter vehemently insists his land is environmentally safe. The developer even offered to share the details of two environmental studies at a February 24 community meeting set up by District A City Councilmember Bruce Tatro, a strong supporter of the City Park project. Almost 75 residents showed up that night to hear Baxter, only to discover that the developer and his consultant, Chris Thayer of Berg-Oliver Associates, had decided at the last minute not to attend.
Instead, Baxter sent Neil Rackleff, who took all of five minutes to turn the entire room against him. Given the floor, the attorney immediately began scolding residents for "irresponsible" criticism of the City Park project. He also complained that what had once been billed as a "reasonably informal meeting" between the developer and residents turned into "a summit on global warming."
Rackleff said Baxter was willing to answer "sincere, reasonable questions about the environmental condition of this property," but had decided to skip the community meeting for fear of being "bombarded" with "innuendos and half-truths" from residents.
"We have made as big an effort as we can to get the correct information out, okay?" whined Rackleff, a preppy young man who is clearly ill-suited for public relations work. "But, frankly, we're a little tired of being put on the proverbial hot seat with questions and information that are patently incorrect or wildly inaccurate."
After pleading for an "honest and open" discussion with residents, Rackleff proceeded to read them a prepared statement from Baxter. As if delivering a royal decree, Rackleff reported that Baxter's consultants "have been in contact with and received comments from the Texas Railroad Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and city of Houston health department....[A]ll the political, legal and regulatory requirements have been met."
"That's it," Rackleff concluded. "That's all I've been authorized to say."
However, the statement was blatantly incorrect.
Rackleff then refused to take questions, leaving Baxter's own "innuendos and half-truths" on the table for everyone to chew on. For example, Baxter's statement didn't say that, in late January, the Environmental Protection Agency notified the developer, verbally and in writing, that his environmental tests were inadequate and that more soil and groundwater samples needed to be analyzed before the land could be considered safe. The statement also didn't inform residents that the Texas Railroad Commission had reached the same conclusion way back in May 1998.
Not surprising, Baxter also failed to advise residents that he has chosen to ignore those agency conclusions and is fully within his rights to do so; while authorized to render an opinion, neither the state commission nor the feds have any regulatory power over the developer. Finally, Baxter's statement may have led some residents to believe the developer was working with the city health department. In fact, the health department has only just begun to look into the City Park site and is awaiting guidance from the city attorney before deciding how to proceed.
"We just can't go out on the property and start taking samples; that would be trespassing," says health department spokesperson Kathy Barton. "So we're looking to see what jurisdiction we have or anybody else may have over the property."
After stiffing the neighborhood residents, Baxter also failed to show up for a meeting scheduled the following day with city health officials and an EPA investigator. That meeting also had been arranged by Tatro, who had assured residents the previous evening that any questions about environmental safety would be answered "before a shovel is turned." But Tatro didn't bother to show up for the city-EPA session, either.
Baxter's credibility has come under sharp attack for almost a year, ever since he told city planners that the state railroad commission was preparing a "closure letter" clearing the land for housing construction. City officials didn't learn that wasn't true until after Council had approved creation of the City Park TIRZ.
By feeding Neil Rackleff to an angry mob, rather than facing it himself, Baxter did nothing to improve the perception that he has something to hide, not to mention that he is arrogant and heavy-handed. By the end of the community meeting, Rackleff had been called "an ugly man" by one resident offended by the lawyer's harsh, condescending tone.
Likewise, some residents believe that by blindly supporting Baxter, Bruce Tatro has failed to distinguish himself as an advocate for his neighborhood constituents, a failing that has made the councilman vulnerable in the upcoming city elections. Tatro insists he is still trying to bring together Baxter, the EPA and city health officials for a meeting.
Even if that happens, it may be too late for the councilman to salvage any trust and support from the many residents opposed to City Park. Fred Lazar, a Timbergrove Manor resident who agreed to help Tatro organize the community meeting, seemed to be speaking for everyone that night when he told the councilman the meeting was a waste of time.
"Last month we were assured the developer and his environmental consultant would be here," Lazar said to Tatro. "This is like a slap in the face.