Will the Taj Come Tumbling Down?

The louvered, multilevel Houston Independent School District administration building was built in the Summer of Love, 1967. Since then, expressions of affection for the sprawling $6 million educational white elephant have been few and far between.

It quickly got the Taj Mahal nickname, after India's pricey mausoleum, and it came to symbolize the district's failings: inflated bureaucracy, overcentralized administration and wasted tax dollars.

HISD board president Jeff Shadwick says for years board members have wanted to sell the 238,144-square-foot building, and interim superintendent Kaye Stripling shares their opinion. This week the board will consider authorizing the superintendent to solicit buyers for the HISD property at 3830 Richmond, between Weslayan and Timmons.

The board is determined to "send the message to the public we are serious about reform and decentralizing," says Shadwick. "The best way we can send that message is to get rid of the Taj Mahal."

The Taj's failings are physical as well as symbolic.

"The building leaks like a colander," explains one HISD staffer. "The heating and air-conditioning suck, and it's either too hot or too cold."

Office spaces along the exterior walls encircle an airy skylight-illuminated inner core of stairways and terraces. While the atmosphere is reminiscent of a pleasant college student union, the structure is only marginally accessible for the handicapped.

Rumors have circulated among Taj Mahalics in recent weeks that Albertson's Food and Drug has offered $50 million for the property. Shadwick doubts any specific offer has been made, and indicates $50 million is a dream price.

"Once it becomes known that the property is for sale," says the board president, "we're going to get probably a handful of enterprising real estate people who have all sorts of ideas for [its use], and the market will drive the price wherever it goes."

HISD planners are considering relocating Will Rogers Elementary from the corner of Richmond and Weslayan to the back of the property line. Shadwick says that means "we could get the maximum value out of the corner and a new school building out of the deal."

The district would look to a purchaser to provide space elsewhere to lease for an administration building. "If there's some class-B space somewhere where part of the transaction will be the buy-down of a 30-year lease or something," says Shadwick, "that would make sense and be a good use of taxpayer dollars."

David Greenberg, president of the commercial real estate firm Greenberg & Company, approached HISD several years ago on behalf of a client. They were interested in the same scenario sketched out by Shadwick, a land purchase coupled with a lease arrangement at an existing building. Nothing came of that offer, but now Greenberg expects interest to be intense once the land goes up for bid.

"It's a prime, inside-the-Loop, high-dollar area," explains Greenberg. "You've got Greenway Plaza serving it, you've got River Oaks, you got West U, Southside. It's an area so high in demand and there's so very little available."

Likely uses would be high-end retail, office space for firms that can't get into booming Greenway Plaza, and high-priced town homes, according to Greenberg. He says a retail chain like Albertson's would be a logical buyer. "I can see any major grocery-store chain going in for that site."

Greenberg cites "a fair but conservative price" for the district land of at least $30 a square foot. Since the property totals 323,605 square feet, that translates to approximately $10 million. Highland Village property, to the south on Westheimer, has been going in the high 40s, a price that would bring HISD $15 million.

"They just don't make prime sites like that anymore," Greenberg says of the HISD land. "That's the bottom line."

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