Pushing a Project

Jerry King doesn't like to talk about the past. The new director of the city's Public Works Department prefers to focus on how his agency will function properly in the coming months rather than its massive failings under former director Jimmie Schindewolf. Still, King must shake his head every time he turns over a rock at 1801 Main and finds another colony of worms crawling about.

The city has dropped several hundred million bucks on pavement the past six years. Not all of it has been well spent, as the Press has chronicled extensively. Millions in waste can be traced to the Street and Bridge Division, which is responsible for much of the asphalt laid within the city limits.

The selection process to determine which neighborhoods would get sidewalks, overlays and other improvements during Schindewolf's reign has been pretty much a mystery, especially since the department turned the process over to private consultants and essentially abandoned oversight of its own projects. Records are spotty at best. Determining who made specific decisions is like trying to prove the single-bullet theory.

Thus the conundrum on Crestwood, a quiet street of several blocks bordering Memorial Park's eastern edge. In March, residents at one end of Crestwood received notices from the contracting firm Brown & Root that their street would be closed off for a major reconstruction -- of a single block -- that would last three weeks. The work would begin the following day.

Aside from the short notice, the residents were perturbed on another account: Crestwood had been overlaid just two years earlier. The asphalt was in perfect condition. "There was nothing wrong with the street surface at all," says Crestwood resident Lucy Wiley.

Moreover, several neighboring streets were to be improved at the same time, but only the 500 block of Crestwood would be widened and get a complete concrete makeover, with curbs and gutters installed on both sides of the street as well as a new sidewalk on the park side. The others would receive a standard no-frills topping of black asphalt.

After Wiley circulated a petition opposing the plan for Crestwood, the city scaled it back, eliminating the sidewalk and narrowing the width. "I'm satisfied with the way it worked out," she says, "but it never needed to be done to begin with."

Just what qualified Crestwood for the pricey extra attention isn't clear. Nor is it clear why three other blocks in the neighborhood were included in the project, but no others. In 1992, four residents of Crestwood's 500 block did petition for street improvements, but only one of them still lives there. And of the other three blocks, a petition was forthcoming from only one of them -- Haskell -- though three of the six signators lived on different streets. "We couldn't figure that one out," says public works spokeswoman Mignette Patrick, who tried to track down the documentation and otherwise figure out what had transpired.

The blueprints for the project, which included roadwork all over the city, pose another vexing question: Why were the streets in question tacked onto the project after the original scope had been approved? And how did the plans get shepherded through the review process in near-record time, garnering signatures from six different divisions in a single day?

While no proof exists, several neighbors have an idea of what went down on Crestwood. The four blocks that were reconstructed in the vicinity form a perfect square around a small group of homes, including the $300,000, 2,741-square-foot townhouse of Sports Authority strongman Jack Rains. According to neighbors, Rains has repeatedly voiced a desire to see Crestwood widened and improved. "Jack kept telling people that he was going to get the streets repaired," says one neighbor. "He wanted gutters and curbs. It was his obsession."

Indeed, Rains told a February meeting of the Crestwood/Glen Cove Civic Club that he favored widening Crestwood in its entirety, though his view was vigorously opposed by most residents. The pol-turned-lobbyist put his name on the Haskell Street petition, even though he lives on Crestwood. And on the day that Lucy Wiley presented her petition to City Council, Rains was spotted gesticulating wildly on Crestwood and Byway, which front his corner property, to a bunch of official-looking people in suits. "There was a great deal of suspicion that Jack Rains had pushed this project forward," says Wiley.

Of course, that evidence is circumstantial, and Rains has purportedly denied any influence, though he was out of town for the holiday and unavailable for comment by press time.

On the other hand, several engineers familiar with the project vividly recall Rains's involvement. After Rains pushed his pals in the department to upgrade Crestwood and the surrounding blocks, they say, an edict was issued to then-Street and Bridge chief John Hatch. "Word had been passed from up yonder," says one source. "How far up yonder, I don't know."

Even though such a move might push the project over budget, Hatch ordered it done, no excuses. "Mr. Hatch let it be known to everybody involved that those four streets would be added to the project," says the engineer. Hatch has been transferred to another division, and his superiors, former deputy director Buddy Barnes and Schindewolf, have likewise departed public works.

Schindewolf, of course, is about to land a juicy $600,000 two-year gig as a consultant -- for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, chaired by Rains.

Jerry King won't hazard a guess as to why Crestwood got its face-lift, especially given that nearby streets in poorer neighborhoods are in desperate need of repair. But asked about the irregular process and lack of documentation, he repeats what has practically become a mantra since he took office last month. "The answer is, we're not going to do this in the future."

Contact Bob Burtman at bob_burtman@houstonpress.com.

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