Mayor White says lease at One Park Place, make Houston better!
The Houston Chronicle seems to have decided there might be a future in watchdog reporting, especially watchdog reporting that involves The Houston Way.
Recall that in late December, local reporters Bradley Olson and Carolyn Feibel did some fine reporting on many interesting coincidences (or not) involving prominent local pols (including Mayor White) and politically well-connected developers that eventually resulted in the city taking a small bit of private land for a "public" park that the city's parks director now says he never wanted, but which (coincidentally *wink*) would serve as ornamentation for a planned development.
For the second time in roughly a month, the Chronicle has posted another story that raises questions about the extent to which Mayor White has gone to bat for a politically well-connected developer. Here is an excerpt from the reporting by Bradley Olson, Nancy Sarnoff, and Carolyn Feibel:
The mailing reads like a finely produced marketing brochure, touting the opening of a new downtown apartment tower and urging Houstonians to consider moving there: “One Park Place will be the residence of choice downtown because its 346 residences offer 14 floor plans with finishes typical of high-end condominiums, spectacular views, a nearly one-acre resort-style pool area, a grand terrace overlooking the park and retail spaces.”
Except it is not a marketing brochure. It is a Jan. 16 letter, penned by Mayor Bill White on city letterhead and sent by the developer of One Park Place to hundreds of people and human resources representatives at businesses and organizations across Houston.
Land-use experts and officials in other Texas cities said the letter is highly unusual. Most office holders involved in development and revitalization projects tout improvements in generalities, but rarely, if ever, participate in a marketing effort for a specific business interest.
White said he views One Park Place as a linchpin of the development in the works around Discovery Green, a key element of the plan to revitalize downtown. He also said he would do the same for any major residential development downtown.
City officials in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio were reluctant to weigh in on White’s letter, except to say that they were not aware of their mayors ever taking such a step. Mayors there have spoken publicly about some developments and attended ribbon-cuttings, but none of their staffs were aware of an endorsement on city stationary.
Government watchdogs said such a written endorsement is an inappropriate use of the mayor’s office, most notably because the owner of the development company, Marvy Finger, is a campaign contributor. Finger’s daughter, Jill Jewett, is a former senior staffer of the mayor and left City Hall to work for the Finger Companies.
“It is appropriate for mayors to help promote downtown living, but where you cross the line is where you’re promoting one project and endorsing it and asking people to consider a particular residential tower,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen. “Using city stationary and other trappings of your office to promote a particular building goes beyond the line.”
The amount of the political donation is actually pretty small, but it seems clear that developer Finger is better connected politically than some developers in town (the Ashby high rise developers come to mind). The former mayoral staffer apparently didn't work for Finger long, but again, it's the connection that's the key. The Houston Way is all about the connections!
No less a master of The Houston Way than Bob Lanier is cited by another developer in defense of the unusual letter:
Randall Davis, who redeveloped the Rice Hotel, applauded White for supporting Finger’s project, saying downtown needs the help. Davis also said then-mayor Bob Lanier helped a great deal with his project.
No doubt that's true!
We're having trouble getting too worked up over this, even though turning City Hall into an advertising firm for a local developer does seem a bit unseemly (not to mention clumsy). The Chron.com commenters sure don't seem to like it, though. What do you think?
BACKGROUND: PDF of Mayor White's letter.