April 01, 2007
The Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation

I can't tell you how many times I've driven past this place. I've always been curious about its history, and now I know a little something as its future is threatened.

For more than 40 years, it has occupied a prime chunk of public real estate near River Oaks caring for, employing and housing the mentally retarded.

But now the city of Houston is planning to sell the land to the highest bidder, meaning the nonprofit Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation has to find a new home.

The center's directors do not intend to go quietly. They have a 99-year lease signed with the city in the 1960s that required them to construct buildings and provide services for one of the city's neediest populations.

"I'm trying not to be real combative about it, but, doggone it, at the end of the day, if it comes to it, we'll fight," said Jack Manning, a member of the center's board. "We are not going to knuckle down and just move out."

But the city says the center may have no option.

The 99-year lease, signed in 1963 by then-Mayor Lewis Cutrer, is not valid, city lawyers argue, because the city charter limits such agreements to no more than 30 years.

And though the center has been paying the city $1 a year to lease the land, real estate investors say that particular tract, which sits on six acres between West Dallas and Allen Parkway near Shepherd, has become extremely valuable.

By real estate broker Stan Creech's estimate, it's worth about $26 million.


City Attorney Arturo Michel said it's not fair to give such a sweetheart deal to one nonprofit. In fact, the city has begun reviewing similar deals with other nonprofits housed on public property. The Lighthouse for the Blind nearby leases part of its property from the city, but officials say that lease, for 30 years, is valid. It's set to expire in 2030.

Mayor Bill White said he offered the center for those with mental retardation an opportunity to lease the property at a rate closer to market value, but he got no response.

"We are trying to make sure that we use the resources that we have to help the most number of people that are most in need," White said, adding that the city has offered to help the center find another location.


The center built the six-story Cullen Residence Hall after signing a 30-year lease with the city in 1972 to acquire an additional acre to go with the original five included in the 99-year lease.

Former Mayor Lee Brown's administration started to renew the lease when it expired in 2002, but, after White took office, it was never finalized. The center has been on a year-to-year lease ever since.

Executive Director Eva Aguirre said the center has more than held up its end of the lease, which required at least $17,200 in annual social services in trade for using the property. Aguirre said the center has provided more than $1 million in yearly services to people who can't afford to pay.


Councilwoman Ada Edwards, whose district includes the center, said the city is in a difficult spot.

On the one hand, it's taxpayer money, and the city has a financial responsibility.

On the other hand, the city also has a moral and social responsibility, and there is no question the center provides valuable services to a vulnerable community.

"I think there is a larger issue that needs to be raised, and I hope the community will help us look at this issue," she said. "Because, if we do remove them, where will they go? And who will be responsible for their care?"

I've read this story a couple of times through and I don't know what to make of it yet. I mostly agree with Council Member Edwards, but feel like I need a lot more information before I can make a good decision. What do you think?

One person who has picked a side is City Council candidate Andy Neill. I'm including his statement beneath the fold. Click on for more.

Houston City Council's At-Large position # 3 Candidate Andy Neill is throwing his support behind "The Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation" in their upcoming fight against the City of Houston who is looking to renege on their signed lease and sell the Center's land to the highest bidder.

From the Houston Chronicle's story by Reporter Melanie Markley: "The 99-year lease, signed in 1963 by then-Mayor Lewis Cutrer, is not valid, city lawyers argue, because the city charter limits such agreements to no more than 30 years."

The Center is a private not-for-profit United Way Agency, which has for more than 60 years served children and adults through educational, residential and work training programs. The philosophy of The Center is that every person has value and worth, is entitled to the highest quality of life, and should be treated with dignity.

City Council Candidate Neill is fuming over this situation and is pledging to raise awareness on this effort by the City; by openly challenging the Mayor and other City Council Members if he obtains the At-Large Position #3 seat in the upcoming May 12th Special Election. Neill states:

"This is the type of action that one would expect if they were doing business in a place like Cuba not here in the United States; and especially not here in Houston, TX. The Mayor seems most definitely to have overstepped his bounds not only in a possible legal capacity, but most importantly from a human decency standpoint. This is a morally bankrupt way to generate a new stream of revenue for the City of Houston, and I hope others won't stand for it either."

You can read the Chronicle's story by Melanie Markley in it's entirety by visiting their website at www.chron.com. You can learn more about the "The Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation" by visiting their website at www.cri-usa.org. You can learn more about Candidate Andy Neill's quest for the City Council At-Large Position # 3 seat at his website at www.neillforhouston.com.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 01, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston

I am a native Houstonian, resident in the United Kingdom for over 30 years. My sister, Mary, has been a resident of The Center since 1963 and works there as a chair caner, a job in which she takes great pride. I was astounded when I read the Chronicle article, couldn't believe that the Mayor and Council would make Houston the butt of a cruel joke, tarnishing its reputation as a 'world class' city. Do they not realise that Houston's reputation as an oil city, the site of the Enron debacle and rampant urban sprawl makes it known as a place of greed? This story will heap scorn on the city. If the Mayor and Council had a savvy PR agent, they would tell them to back out of this case as quickly as possible. I am amazed at their lack of self-awareness and knowledge of how much damage can be done to the City's reputation. One of the features of Houston that I proudly tell people about when they ask about Houston is The Center for People with Mental Retardation and its world-class standing for its services and amenities. It portrays Houston at its best, its caring for people with special needs. I urge everyone to sign the petition on the special website set up by The Center, www.savethecenter.org and to donate to their fighting fund.

Posted by: Phyllis SantaMaria on April 4, 2007 6:09 PM

Our city leaders are ready to sacrifice the well-being of some of our city's most needy and most helpless, the adult mentally-retarded population at the Cullen Center, to build another plush high-rise residential building. If only the front-page Houston Chronicle article of April 1st were an April Fool's joke. The message we give our children is that it is more important to provide a few wealthy citizens with unimpeded views of downtown and River Oaks from their penthouses than to take care of those who cannot care for themselves.

Mayor White and Mr. Stan Creech, formerly a member of the Houston Planning Commission and CEO of an organization which has handled over one billion dollars in real estate transactions in our area (Houston Business Journal, May 26, 2000), apparently expect us to believe that their prime interest in selling the property (the Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation) is to benefit the taxpayers of Houston. To paraphrase an old Texas saying, there are certain things even whipped cream can't cover up. In reality, the auction will benefit the kinds of buyers and sellers whom Mr. Creech markets his services to and who have the kind of money to make large political contributions.

If the Mayor and Mr. Creech want to help the taxpayers of Houston by increasing revenues, why don't they ask the Harris County Appraisal District to re-assess, for example, the land values of such institutions as the River Oaks Country Club, of which Mr. Creech is a member? With 7,954,056 sq. ft (approximately 182 acres) at 1600 River Oaks Blvd. according to 2006 HCAD public documents (HCAD # 0410170040004), the members of the Club are assessed a land value of $6,173,852 (approximately $33,922/acre). Mr. Creech estimates that the property of the Center for the Retarded (on the edge of River Oaks) could easily get $4.3 million/acre for its roughly 6 acres. If you multiply $4.3 million times 182 acres, you can see that the Club's roughly 1,500 members have an assessment that mocks the average Harris County taxpayer (they pay less than 1/126th in taxes of its true market value).

Where is the outrage? Is our motto now "steal from the poor to give to the rich?" We neglect Judaeo-Christian beliefs when we uproot the retarded, and other non-profit agencies like they are some kind of nuisance, a thorn in our side. Not only is it unethical, it's just plain wrong.

Our Mayor and the citizens of Houston acted appropriately for our neighbors who were victims of Hurricane Katrina. We volunteered, reached out, fixed sandwiches, donated money, provided free medical care, and found housing. Taxpayer money has gone to overtime compensation for police, among other things, as it costs money to care for an influx of 100,000 people? Does compassion not apply to the retarded, the homeless, the mentally ill who live in our midst?

to sign petition to support the center, go to

Posted by: Alan J. Hurwitz, MD, MPH on April 6, 2007 12:09 AM