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