Feature: Wednesday, November 14, 2002
Mr. Bass, Tear Down These Walls

Why Fort Worth is home to the worlds tallest birdcage.

By Dan Malone

Why does the old Bank One tower remain empty, ugly, and unused two years, seven months, and two weeks after the tornado that wrecked it left town? Why have its owners been unable or unwilling to raze or rebuild the structure as the owners of numerous other buildings damaged or destroyed by the twister have long since done?

The 35-story skyscraper is owned by a partnership led by Ed Bass, a member of a family that has heretofore possessed the financial wherewithal to fairly well do as it pleased. Has a Bass finally met his match? Was a load of kryptonite dumped on Sundance Square? Was he calf-roped by bureaucratic Lilliputians?

This birdcage of a building has hovered over the skyline 23 months longer than it took clean-up crews to remove the 108,000 loads of debris from the World Trade Center. Travel writers are beginning to take note. Listen up, civic boosters: A Chicago Tribune travel story described Bank One as a “tombstone in the skyline.” And still there is no solution in sight.

Could it truly take as much time to decide a future for this plot of land as Lewis and Clark spent exploring the vast uncharted West? The Great Flood of the Old Testament lasted just 40 days. What on God’s green Biosphere 1 is taking so long?

The official answer to these questions is found in a three-page letter Bass wrote Mayor Kenneth Barr on March 18 in which he revealed his decision to leave the property standing “until a more favorable economic opportunity exists.’’

Bass complained to Barr that his “Block 82 Partners, the owners of the building, have been subjected to both pressures and constraints, sometimes pulling in different directions, emanating from three sources: the City of Fort Worth, The Texas Department of Health, and the insurance industry.’’ Those pressures, Bass said, left Block 82 with little choice but to keep the building as is for “two or three years, though timing is by no means certain.’’

“Regrettable as this may seem in the short run, please be assured that we nonetheless remain committed and determined in the long run to bring this unfortunate chapter in the history of Fort Worth’s downtown to a respectable close,” Bass wrote. Seven months after Bass sent that letter, the city is left mulling the theoretical possibility that this story could linger longer than World War II. (It’s already dragged on longer than the American involvement in World War I.)

Bass’ longtime spokeswoman Terrell Lamb referred questions about the building to William Boecker, president of Sundance Square and one of the managers of the Bass partnership that owns the building. Boecker said the problem facing the building should be viewed in long-term perspective and noted that the Bass partnership has owned the building only since March 2001 — a year after it was whacked by the twister.

“A year and a half in downtown development may seem like a long time but it’s not, particularly when you have the conviction to do the right thing with it as opposed to doing something with it,’’ Boecker said.

Still, there’s another story about Bank One, largely untold, found in thousands of pages of records maintained by the city of Fort Worth on the building, under its past and present owners. Those records, reviewed by Fort Worth Weekly under the Texas public information act, paint a more complicated picture than the one sketched out by Bass’ letter.

The records show that Bass’ problem in finding insurance for a possible implosion was complicated by his decision, made before he bought the old Bank One, to begin building a new office tower on an adjacent block.

They also show that complaints about unhelpful Texas Department of Health officials differ from what state officials said was a legitimate concern about the potential spread of airborne asbestos over much of downtown in the demolition process.

What’s more, the records show that Bass’ problems with the city stem partially from foot-dragging when fire officials, finding the plywood on and in the building to be a fire hazard, twice notified building representatives of code violations. In fact, the city grew so frustrated with the building’s owners in the weeks after Sept. 11 that officials researched whether they could go to court and tear the building down themselves. (They concluded that they could.)

But now it appears that a building once viewed as too severely damaged to be repaired may in fact be destined for renovation. Copies of e-mail between top redevelopment officials reveal that the city was approached two months ago by “a real live architect working for an actual client’’ to turn Bank One into a condominium tower. Talk about your room with a view.

City officials won’t reveal the identities of the developers interested in the tower but are now entertaining a notion that once seemed impossible. “Based on the people I’ve talked to,’’ said Tom Higgins, director of Economic and Community Development, “there seems to be a school of thought that the building can be redeveloped.’’

The city’s tallest building ruined by the March 28, 2000, storm hasn’t always been Ed Bass’ problem. When the tornado struck, Bank One was owned by Loutex Fort Worth, a real estate company that records show was largely funded by Canadian investors and pension funds. For the first year after the storm, Loutex, like Bass’ partnership, explored various options for the building, from repairing it to taking it to the ground. Demolition estimates contained in court records started at about $3.5 million and went skyward. Repair estimates ranged from $50 to $137 million.

Loutex tried to team up with the Trammell Crow Co. to rebuild the tower, but the Dallas-based development company bailed out of the project at the end of 2000. Loutex subsequently decided to accept an $80 million settlement from its insurance company, pay off debt, and sell the building as it was — passing the problem on to the next owner.

Boecker said Trammel Crow tried to persuade the Bass organization to invest in rebuilding the tower while Loutex still owned it, but no agreement was reached.

“We felt like it needed to be knocked down,’’ Boecker said. “If Trammel Crow couldn’t fix it, who could?’’

After Trammel Crow dropped out, Boecker said the Bass organization started hearing rumors that the building was going to be sold to someone “who could afford to buy it but not fix it.’’ Bass, he said, already owned property near Bank One and wanted to keep the building “from being there in the wrong hands for a decade or more.”

“So, we wound up buying the building.’’

Ironically, that decision would eventually leave Bass not knowing what to do with the building. “With all good intentions,’’ Boecker said, Bass wound up “a little trapped himself.’’

In mid-March 2001, attorneys for Bass filed papers with the Texas secretary of state’s office creating two companies that would eventually own and manage the tower — Block 82 Partners, L.P., and Block 82 Genpar, LLC. Those companies take their name from the block of real estate on which the tower sits. And Bass eventually renamed Bank One with a moniker almost no one uses: Block 82 Tower.

When the sale for a reported $3.8 million was revealed in April 2001, Bass promptly announced that the new owners would do what others had tried and failed to do. And who could doubt him? His family, after all, had basically refashioned Cowtown’s downtown during the last 20 years, gentrifying the city’s core.

The Basses’ fortune, according to those familiar with the family’s history, flowed from an inheritance from Sid Richardson, a colorful wildcatter who made and lost several fortunes during his lifetime. A foundation he established funded the Sid Richardson Collection of Western Art, the public home for his extensive collection of paintings by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. Richardson left much of his estate to a nephew, Perry Richardson Bass, the father of the four “Bass brothers of Fort Worth’’ — Sid Richardson Bass, Edward Perry Bass, Robert Muse Bass, and Lee Marshall Bass.

Father and all four sons made Forbes magazine’s 2001 list of the world’s richest people, with a combined worth of $13.9 billion. By 2002, however, Perry and Ed Bass were dropped from the list. And late last year, county records show that family members took a second lien on some of their downtown holdings to secure a loan up to $100 million. Times apparently are tough even for the über-rich.

Still, stand in the center of downtown at the corner of 4th and Main streets, and most of the buildings you see, with the exception of the Tarrant County Courthouse, were built by one Bass or another, sometimes with taxpayer help. Federal grants paid for infrastructure improvements when the Basses first got started. Later, the city stepped in with tax breaks that melded private investment with public.

Collectively, the Bass family was behind the Americana Hotel (now Renaissance Worthington Hotel), the twin City Center towers, and Sundance Square.

Robert Bass was responsible for throwing a wrench in the works when state highway planners came up with the boneheaded concept of expanding the I-30 overhead. A group he founded, I-Care, was largely responsible for forcing a new plan to tear down the overhead, move the freeway further south, and reunify a downtown that had been partitioned by the structure for decades. Lee Bass and his wife, Ramona, funded renovation and expansion of the Fort Worth Zoo.

Of the four brothers, Ed Bass has the reputation of marching to the beat of an odd percussionist. He owns a hotel in Nepal and a ranch in Australia, and he funded an experiment in the Arizona desert known as Biosphere 2. The project was designed to see whether a team of “biospherians’’ could live in a self-contained world. Turned out they couldn’t, and the structure made of geodesic domes was eventually turned over to Columbia University for environmental research.

The Caravan of Dreams, which also featured a geodesic dome on top, was an Ed Bass venture. The defunct jazz venue is now home to Reata, the restaurant that once sat atop Bank One. Bass pioneered the re-homesteading of downtown with his Sundance West project. He led the fundraising campaign to build the angel-emblazoned downtown performance hall named after his parents, Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass.

For the first six months that Ed Bass owned the old Bank One building, his public relations machine busily churned out press releases, stratagems, and internal memos — all striving to portray the Bass investment vehicle as the savior of the city’s skyline.

“A group headed by Ed Bass acquired the property in March 2001 with the objective of safely clearing away this reminder of destruction and continuing revitalization of downtown Fort Worth,’’ one document stated. Another said that the company “stepped in’’ to solve a chronic municipal problem and stated that its number-one goal was to “establish Sundance Square Management as providing resolution to what is a hazardous structure in Fort Worth.’’

Representatives of Sundance, Block 82, and the city met regularly during the first months after the ownership change. Their conversations and concerns were recorded in minutes of periodic “Bank One Team Meetings.” A demolition contractor was hired to bring the building down. A 24-7 clean-up operation, carting off 100 truckloads of debris a day, was expected to last six weeks. City officials estimated that debris from the implosion would leave part of Throckmorton Street closed for at least two weeks. Contingency plans were made in case the implosion didn’t go as planned and the Wild West returned to Fort Worth. “Issues to be addressed are civil disturbances, firearms, access badges, service interruptions ... .’’

There also was a minor to-do over what the implosion would be called. Bass representatives objected when a city official used the word “event’’ to describe what was believed to be the impending implosion of the tallest building on record. Bass’ people, the city was informed, wanted the implosion of a 35-story building in the middle of downtown to assume as low of “a profile as possible.’’

But the optimism that surrounded Bass’ purchase of Bank One quickly began to fade as more and more asbestos was discovered inside the building. By July, according to minutes of a Bank One committee meeting, Bass was “examining other options for the Bank One Building. These include traditional demolition, ‘moth-balling,’ or putting up for sale.’’ The hoped-for midsummer date for imploding the building shifted to August, and then to September.

And then came news that hijacked airliners had turned the two World Trade Center towers and part of the Pentagon into rubble. As Block 82 Partners considered their options, city records show work on the building came to a near-standstill.

What had once seemed like a relatively easy job — demolishing the building — was growing increasingly complex.

One of the factors making implosion tricky was a construction project under way just across the street from Bank One. Shortly after the tornado, Bass announced plans to build another office tower on a lot just north of Bank One. In February 2001, when the old tower was still owned by Loutex, Ron Cherry, a Loutex principal, told Executive Deputy Fire Chief Jim Tidwell that he was trying to demolish the building by June.

“This date is important because the new Bank One building going up across the street will be a detriment to imploding the “old” Bank One building once it comes out of the ground,’’ Tidwell wrote.

That problem became even more worrisome after the building sold. The terror attacks on New York and Washington turned what had been a surmountable obstacle into an insurmountable one.

Julie Rochman, a spokeswoman for the American Insurance Association, said 9/11 dealt a pointed blow to the very insurers Block 82 would need to implode the tower.

Insurance companies, she said, lay off risk by buying their own insurance from so-called reinsurers. And reinsurers became very jittery following 9/11.

“As terrorism has come to look a lot more like war, they don’t know how to price risk and assess risk,’’ she said. “They walk away from substantial risk like skyscrapers.’’

Skyscrapers and other so-called icon-properties are covered through negotiated manuscript policies, and “those are the first policies that lost their reinsurance’’ following 9/11. Since the attacks, insurance companies have persuaded regulators in 45 states to exclude terrorism from their policies, she said. But not Texas. “So the market there is more dysfunctional than in other states,’’ she said.

With Block 82’s plan to implode the building now frustrated by a crippled insurance industry, the city began to consider whether it should take over the demolition. Officials wanted to know what options they had.

The answer is found in an Oct. 5, 2001, memo from Tidwell to Assistant City Manager Libby Watson: “The consensus is that we have the statutory authority to go forward with litigation to place us in a position to demolish the building.’’

City officials said the plan to take Bass to court was nothing more than an option. But council member Clyde Picht joked recently that it wasn’t such a bad idea.

“I think we should ignore the asbestos liability, implode it, and take our chances,’’ he said.

Swirling debris from the tornado had broken or cracked most of the exterior glass windows on the Bank One building. Loutex had dealt with that problem by replacing the glass with sheets of plywood and leaving the outer skin of the building a blotched, uneven checkerboard of glass and wood. By the time Bass bought the building, the plywood had been up for months and was growing more brittle by the day.

“The current situation is that the building is sitting with no work being done,’’ Tidwell wrote in an e-mail to Watson in February. “This has been the situation since late November.’’

After months of exposure, the tessellated tower had become more than an eyesore. City officials, now concerned about the fire hazard posed by the increasingly weathered plywood, began to press Block 82 to make the building safer by either replacing the plywood or applying a fireproof coating.

The asbestos problems were beginning to complicate matters as well. Leslye Nunnelee, a Sundance Square officer then overseeing the building, told Tidwell that “her goal was to avoid applying the fireproofing by abating the asbestos and either demolishing the building or removing the plywood and letting the building sit.’’

Tidwell, however, wouldn’t budge. In a letter to Nunnelee the next day, he wrote, “please consider this correspondence your formal notice of violation. ... [T]he building in its current condition presents a distinct hazard to life and property ... because the plywood is exposed to weather, it continues to deteriorate, increases the ease of ignition and potential for fire spread.’’

The city gave Block 82 a month to come up with a plan to make the building safe. When the Bank One committee met again on March 11 to discuss progress, it was apparent that there had not been enough. City officials complained, according to handwritten notes of that meeting, that Block 82 was backing them “into a corner and we will be forced to begin enforcement action.”

Seven days later, Bass dropped his “Dear Mayor’’ letter on Barr. The dangerous plywood would be replaced, he said, but the implosion was off. Bass said he had decided to let the eyesore “stand ‘cold and dark’ until other alternatives might develop.’’ The fire hazard would be taken care of, but the building would remain.

One month later, Block 82 presented city hall with a revised plan to demolish the tower floor by floor — and to ask taxpayers to chip in on the increased costs. In the plan, investors noted that they had been unable to implode the building before Sept. 11 because of unforeseen problems with asbestos and difficulties dealing with the Texas Department of Health, which oversees asbestos abatement in the state.

“It was originally expected that the building could be abated, stripped, and imploded by early summer of 2001,’’ the report to the city stated. Once work began, however, it became clear that there was far more asbestos in the building than had been initially thought.

The owners said they sought approval from the state health department for a variance which could have sped up and reduced the expense of removing the asbestos — and said that the department agreed, but “later reversed itself, due mainly to TDH personnel changes.’’ In other words, the owners were telling the city they wouldn’t have had to ask for help had the bureaucrats in Austin stuck by their word.

State health officials, however, tell a different story. They said it was the building owners who pulled a switcheroo.

Asbestos comes in two forms — friable and non-friable. Friable asbestos, such as ceiling texture, easily crumbles and can become airborne. Non-friable asbestos, which is found in roofing tar and caulks, is much less likely to become airborne. Asbestos in things such as floor tile is normally stable but becomes friable when demolition workers start ripping out floors.

Alan Morris, director of toxic substances control division of the state health department, acknowledged there had been a personnel change — the official who granted the initial variance was an Air Force reservist called into service after Sept. 11. But he said that had no effect on the agency’s policy.

“A reversal? That’s totally incorrect,’’ he said. “We honored the decision that had been made. ... It’s just that we had received a request to apply that variance to new material, which we found to be inappropriate.’’

The building owners, who had been granted a variance for removing the non-friable asbestos, had asked to apply that same exemption to the friable, easily airborne type, he said. Applying the variance to the friable asbestos, Morris said, could have sent particles floating across much of downtown.

“The bottom line that we gave was, if it’s friable, you can’t use the variance,’’ Morris said.

Morris, like others, said he doesn’t understand why the owners have had such difficulty removing the asbestos. “Our response is that the tornado affected a lot of buildings in Fort Worth and there were no others that had problems complying with asbestos requirements,’’ he said. “We did not have any other requests for variances.’’

Boecker said the plywood and asbestos problems were intertwined. They were reluctant to remove the plywood because it might have helped corral the friable asbestos during removal. But the owners couldn’t get state health officials to authorize their asbestos abatement proposals.

“There were so many decisions with so many people,’’ he said. “All it did was amount to ... delay.’’

In the two and a half years since the tornado ravaged downtown, most other severely damaged buildings — small and large — have been repaired or torn down. The Mallick Tower and Cash America International buildings look better than they did before the tornado. The tiny West 7th Street Barber Shop, which was flattened, is back in business. A church just west of downtown was razed and the lot cleared.

Another notable exception is the building at 309 Commerce St., the Landmark Tower. Its windows are still covered with plywood. Maybe that is what Bass was referring to in his letter to Barr when he complained about being “held [to] the highest, though not necessarily universally enforced standards.’’

The owners announced plans to turn the Landmark Tower into condos about a year ago. That has yet to happen, but a spokesperson for the owners said an announcement is imminent. City code inspectors, meanwhile, were inspecting the building earlier this week.

The city hasn’t decided whether to open up the public purse to help Bass take down the tower. Officials said they’re still waiting for Bass to come back with precise figures on what he wants. Boecker said a formal request for financial help hasn’t been submitted because the decision hasn’t yet been made to tear it down.

Since Bass announced plans for fireproofing the building, the plywood has been removed from the window openings and replaced with fireproof covers. Instead of the wood being removed from the building, however, it was stacked inside the building, effectively just moving the hazard from the outside of the building to the inside — and creating what the city termed an “extreme fire load’’ and “significant fire hazard.’’

In a July 9, 2002, letter, Fire Marshall John James informed the owner’s demolition contractor that “storing combustible materials within the vacant high-rise’’ was a violation of three sections of the city fire code. City officials said the plywood has since been removed.

Boecker doesn’t know what fate ultimately awaits Bank One. But he said whatever decision is made will be the best for downtown.

“We’re still looking at every conceivable option,’’ he said. Ed Bass will be “dead solid perfect on his homework before he makes a decision on that building.’’

In the meantime, the skyline’s most prominent eyesore remains standing, as it has for 961 days. Let’s see, that’s eight times as long as it took the state highway department — not known for its speed — to knock down and cart off another Fort Worth eyesore, the I-30 overhead.

Freelance writer Dawn Reiss contributed to this report.

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