The Houston Way paves the way in Galleria-area land taking

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Lately, quite a bit of attention has been focused on “the Chicago Way,” the complex web of cronyism, patronage, and machine politics that can make (think both of the Mayors Daley) or break (think recent governors) Illinois pols.

Locally, we have The Houston Way, which doesn’t factor into our state politics quite as prominently, but is no less intriguing when it comes to cronyism, patronage, and the benefits that always seem to accrue to the city’s powerful and well-connected.

As Houston Chronicle reporters Carolyn Feibel and Bradley Olson make clear today in an outstanding followup to a March 2008 story by Mike Snyder on the city’s abuse of its eminent domain power, The Houston Way hardly went away when Lee Brown finally was term-limited out of office and Bill White took charge (even though Mayor White’s press staff surely loves it when journalists give the impression that White singlehandedly restored ethics to Houston government). Rather, one might say it reverted back to the more refined practices of, say, the Lanier Administration (more refined in the sense that we doubt any White Administration staffers will wind up indicted like various Brown Administration staffers, who were bunglers in The Houston Way really).

Recall back in March that we and other blogs commented on the story by Snyder, which described a lawsuit filed by two brothers contesting the city’s effort to take their small Galleria-area property and make it into a so-small-as-to-be-useless “public park” that would conveniently double as ornamentation for a huge planned real-estate development. To recap Snyder’s reporting: The brothers had acquired that property in 1982, and had been approached by the Uptown Houston District in February 2004 about selling it for parkland. In April 2004, Wulfe & Co. became interested in acquiring the land, and within a year had announced plans to redevelop a surrounding plot into the multi-acre BLVD Place mixed-use development. In July 2006, Wulfe & Co made a sizable offer for the land, which the brothers declined. In October 2006, the City of Houston said it wanted to acquire the land for a park. In May 2007, the city made an offer for the land, which the brothers declined. In November 2007, the City filed to acquire the property by eminent domain for the Uptown Houston District — for more than a million dollars less than Wulfe & Co had once offered. At the time, Joe Turner, the City’s Parks and Recreation director, said the move was justified, and that there was a “shortage of parks” in the area. The reporting noted that Ed Wulfe had a seat on the Uptown Houston District’s board, and “is well-known at City Hall.”

At the time, some of us didn’t think this passed the smell test.

In today’s intricate, detailed followup to the original story, we learn quite a bit more about this deal that makes it smell even worse. In no particular order, here are more of the damning details:

  • The Hanover Company (which would acquire 1.48 acres of land from Wulfe & Co for a residential tower) stipulated that the brothers’ property (which was adjacent) had to be a part of any deal — and it eventually was, courtesy of the Uptown Houston District and the city’s eminent domain power. Like Wulfe, Hanover President John Nash is a member of the Uptown Houston District board.
  • In depositions related to the lawsuit, Joe Turner (the Parks and Recreation director) now says he did not want to seize the land for the park, that the idea did not originate with his office (which has not used condemnation to acquire parkland in his tenure), and that Councilmember Pam Holm pushed the idea and provided him a memo to sign off on backing the deal.
  • Mayor White’s March 2008 memo after some critical press coverage seems to betray the fact that there was no public-purpose behind the land grab.
  • There still are no plans for the land’s use as a park.
  • Hanover executives and Wulfe are big contributors to Mayor Bill White, Councilmember Pam Holm, and Councilmember Peter Brown, all of whom supported the eminent domain proceeding enthusiastically.
  • Councilmember Peter Brown’s wife just happened to be an investor in BLVD Place, but City Attorney Arturo Michel apparently told Brown that this didn’t represent a conflict of interest.
  • Mayor Bill White and Councilmember Peter Brown are both resisting deposition efforts.

We’ll leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions about this smelly, incestuous mess, although we suspect all but the most partisan cheerleaders for Mayor White will at least agree that it’s a smelly incestuous mess.

We do take exception with one small part of the otherwise fine reporting by Feibel and Olson:

[C]ritics of City Hall contend that officials too often shape policy and decisions to aid developers.

That’s not untrue, but a better description of The Houston Way is that officials too often shape policy and decisions to aid the city’s powerful and well-connected (at the expense of the less powerful).

Notable recent examples of The Houston Way in action would include: Mayor White, Council, and Richard Vacar putting an airport shuttle company out of business at the behest of Yellow Cab, which wanted the business to itself; Mayor White’s use of an archaic driveway ordinance to continue to frustrate a planned high-rise development (that had seemingly met existing regulatory hurdles) once well-connected supporters demanded it be stopped (this would be a key example of developers NOT shaping policy); Mayor White and Council extending the IAH Terminal C concession for the well-connected Jason Yoo despite the abysmal job he has done; and of course the unsuccessful effort to boot the Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation from its prime real estate (for developers never named?).

In a town with a columnist like John Kass, we might look forward to many scathing columns in the future about The Houston Way and all of its incestuous relationships and deals. Alas, The Plagiarist is more expert in The San Antonio Way than ours, the Teen Diarist‘s range is *ahem* limited as well, and the Houston Press gave up trying to write about politics years ago. Too bad.

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Kevin Whited
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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX