Houston 101

Westbury Square Was Supposed to be a Quaint Touch of Europe in Houston. Now It's an Eyesore.

Westbury Square, a shadow of its former glory.
Westbury Square, a shadow of its former glory. Photo by Sean Thomas

Westbury Square, the once quaint, European-themed shopping center built in the early '60s, has stood abandoned for over 30 years. Originally built to serve as the heartbeat of southwest Houston, the square now lies in ruin.

While the customers and businesses have long since gone, many of the buildings still remain as a grim reminder of what could have been. Now, residents are left to deal with what is — a derelict property and an owner with a dubious track record.

“I’ve been called the biggest slumlord in Houston,” Said Alfred Antonini, who has owned the property since he purchased it from Long Beach Credit Union in 1991. “That’s because I take over properties that have a problem and try to fix the problem.”

Antonini has had a long, contentious history in and outside of the Houston area. His name appears across a myriad of civil and criminal suits, including a five-year sentence for check kiting in 2001 and a failed appeal concerning ownership of a low-income apartment complex in 2010.

Legal history aside, Antonini said the reason for Westbury Square’s continued existence is not a product of greed but rather a desire to see the property revitalized into something that resembles its original function.

“We feel we owe something to Westbury. We've owned it long enough and it should be something of substance,” Antonini said. “We’ve had several opportunities to sell it to companies that want to develop low to moderate income housing, but we’d like to see the property become something more than that.”

Residents, however, remain unconvinced of Antonini’s supposed altruism. Charlsey Porcarello is a lifetime resident of Westbury and has been a practicing realtor in the area for over 25 years. She has seen Westbury Square go from what it was to what it now is, and said there’s only one person to blame.

“It's because of the person that owns it. He does not want to sell it or share,” Porcarello said. “I think it's all about showing the middle finger to everybody. He’s saying ‘I'm here and I'm here to stay.’”

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Charlsey Porcarello is not convinced of Alfred Antonini's good intentions.
Photo by Sean Thomas

Porcarello has been at the forefront in the neighborhood’s fight against Antonini. A former member of the civic association, she was among the few who spear-headed an effort to have the city investigate the property in 2020.

Those efforts culminated in an investigation by both the city and KPRC, which alleged a number of violations on the property. Not much came of either, however, as city inspectors were unable to enter the property and KPRC was unable to reach Antonini. In the end, all the city did was order Antonini to fix an outdoor staircase and produce a certificate of occupancy, both of which he did.

Charlsey said the city promised to follow up with a more detailed review of the property, but COVID-related disruptions ultimately put a stop to any further investigation. For the time being, the Westbury realtor will have to continue quietly ushering prospective home-buyers around the derelict square.

“I’ll have somebody driving through this beautiful neighborhood that we love, with half-million dollar homes all around and then there's Westbury Square,” Porcarello said. “It's just terrible.”

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Well it's colorful at least.
Photo by Sean Thomas
But not everyone is so eager to see the crumbling square demolished. R.W. McKinney, or Mister McKinney as he prefers to be called, runs a tour service called Mister McKinney’s Historic Houston. Mister McKinney’s concern is that residents’ personal issues with Antonini could result in the premature destruction of an important piece of Houston history.

“Anyone who advocates for bulldozing Westbury Square just to get rid of Antonini is doing a disservice to the history and memories of the people who grew up around there,” Mister McKinney said.

While Mister McKinney is not a resident of the area, he has worked with Antonini in the past. Prior to his current occupation as a tour guide, Mister McKinney ran a youth organization called the Bellaire Men’s Club. The group was headquartered out of a building in Westbury Square, and Mister McKinney said the location and price allowed them a level of flexibility they would not have otherwise been able to afford.

During the organization's tenure operating out of the ruined shopping center, it hosted a variety of charitable events. Crawfish boils, parties, yard sales and even one battle of the bands event now immortalized in an image of BMC’s flag proudly displayed in front of one of Westbury Square’s crumbling buildings — all were a product of what Mister McKinney see’s as a better side of a bad situation.

“I will say that we were blessed to be able to utilize the space. He gave us a lot of flexibility over there,” Mister McKinney said. “I also think the young people benefited from being there. We connected them a little bit to the established history of southwest Houston.”

It is that history that, in part, makes Westbury Square such a contentious subject for long-time residents.

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What Westbury Square started out to be.
Photo by Westbury Archive
During its heyday, Westbury Square was a place where they could live, eat and host community events. More than that, the property was a gateway into the world of post-WW2 globalization and cultural optimism, offering a variety of international imports, cuisine and other firsts to a hungry consumer base eager to indulge in what the world had to offer.

That gateway would soon become a floodgate as, shortly after its opening, The Beatles came to Houston, marking the beginning of the end for the city’s period of involuntary cultural isolationism.

Mike Vessels is a receiving coordinator for Rice University’s Fondren Library. A child at the time, Vessels remembers Westbury Square and The Beatles’ performances as two symptoms of a greater social shift. The typical America-first machismo and white picket fence traditionalism that had dominated the country were beginning to wane and in their place arose a newly-born international fascination.

“There was just a new sense of optimism coming out of WW2,” Vessels said. “And I think what Ira Berne wanted to bring to Houston with Westbury Square was just a little taste of the outside world.”

Berne, the original developer of the property, came to Houston in 1946. Described in a 2005 article in Rice University's Cite magazine remembering Westbury Square as “wild, crazy and rich,” Berne wanted to build something that would serve as a town center for the then up-and-coming neighborhood of Westbury.

Modeled off of places he’d seen in Italy and other European countries, Berne’s goal was to bring a taste of old-world order to the rapidly expanding suburb of Westbury. This influence could be seen not only in the architecture of the property, but also in the businesses that operated out of it.

One old advertisement for the square touts a variety of businesses that feel as though they were pulled straight off a cobblestone road in Victorian England. Michel Imports boasted a selection of what it called “mid-oriental wonders,” while a store called Art De Mer offered customers “unusual gifts from the sea.”

While some of these businesses undoubtedly indulged in varying levels of snake-oil salesmanship, others genuinely offered their customers something novel.

“I remember going there to eat pizza for the first time in my life,” Vessels said. “They even sold stuff like incense, which at the time was virtually unheard of outside of maybe Catholic church services.”

The businesses that inhabited Westbury Square also had a certain rustic, mom-and-pop feel that’s almost entirely absent in the majority of modern commercial developments. In the era before corporate capitalism took hold, companies dealt primarily in the bespoke, offering a unique inventory of hand-made goods — a direct contrast to the mass production seen today.

Outside of its retail environment, Westbury Square also served as an important community center for the surrounding neighborhood. Like Vessels, Porcarello also fondly remembered her time spent there with friends and family.

“It was wonderful. They had a player piano at the pizza shop, and then on the weekends, there was a stage where bands could come play. It was all about bringing in families,” Porcarello said. “It was just one of those places where you could come, hang out with friends, see family, do whatever really.”

This communal attachment, combined with the high value of the property and historic significance, have made for an uncertain future for the blighted community center. Recent years have seen the announcement of its supposed destruction on multiple occasions, including, as reported in the Houston Chronicle, an ambitious removal of one building by golden sledgehammer in 2015. To date, none of these plans have fully come to fruition.

Antonini said that the reason for the various failed plans for redevelopment have stemmed from disagreements with buyers over their intended use of the property. The landlord claimed that his stipulation that the property maintain some form of its original design have “cost him dearly,” and that finding the right buyer has proven difficult.

Yet there may be a glimmer of hope for the future of Westbury Square. A recent resurgence in mixed-use outdoor community centers, like Concept Neighborhood’s plan for a fully walkable community in the East End, could be a signal that the time is now ripe for redevelopment.

“I think if you look at all the good work these out-of-town developers are doing to make Houston a more outdoor-friendly city, you could definitely see some sort of resurgence for Westbury Square in the near future,” Mister McKinney said. “Westbury has great geography, great access to freeways and doesn’t have the same flooding concerns that nearby areas have.”

Some, however, believe that various limitations relating to logistics will prevent the property from re-attaining its former glory. Joe Donalson operates a halfway house across the street from Westbury Square and according to him, it does not have the necessary infrastructure to be redeveloped into a mixed-use space.

“That property has one sewer line from what’s left of Westbury Square,” Donalson said. “It’s conjecture, but if you look at the city sewer maps it just doesn’t look like there’s enough to support any real development.”

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A lot of work remains if Westbury Square is to be restored.
Photo by Sean Thomas

Porcarello said that for residents of the area the expectations are more modest. They have long since abandoned any grand design to completely overhaul the property, and have set their hopes on simply making use of the space for the benefit of the neighborhood. Hosting food trucks, a community garden and other services are what she thinks are the most realistic solutions.

With so many competing interests surrounding the future of the multi-million dollar property, the only certainty is that, whatever happens, some will be left feeling unsatisfied.

“Everything there will eventually be torn down, it’s just a question of when,” Antonini said. “In the meantime, we’re always open to talking with anyone that has the $8 million on-hand, and the ability to borrow another $20-25 million, necessary to transform the property.”
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Contributor John Lomax V is a senior studying journalism at the University of Houston. He currently serves as the editor in chief of The Cougar, the UH student newspaper.