The City Does Not Owe Antonini

Originally Published in The Houston Chronicle

Ending an 18-year saga, a Harris County civil court jury has ruled that Houston does not owe a California absentee landlord $120,000.

The Nov. 18 verdict in Harris County Court at Law No. 4 involved a former apartment complex at 8525 Pitner Road, which the city demolished in late 1992 at public expense.

Owned by L.A. Investments Inc. — one of various companies controlled by Alfred J. Antonini – the 250-unit complex had sat vacant for three years.

The property is the site of proposed baseball fields, where Spring Spirit Baseball broke ground last month on its Youth Community Center and Education Complex.

The nonprofit organization is partnering with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, Boys & Girls Clubs and other local organizations to build the facilities at Pitner and Roma Roads.

Catherine Barchfeld-Alexander, president of the Spring Branch Central Super Neighborhood, said the city’s legal victory in the lawsuit and the proposed baseball fields are two positive steps in making the property into something good for the community.

“We’ve always wanted it to be something special,” she said.

“It’s a program that will be for every child in Spring Branch.”

Former City Councilwoman Helen Huey, who was on council when the complex was demolished, said she had been confident the city would eventually prevail in court.

“It’s a magnificent win for the quality of life, for the future and for opportunities for new life the property will give to the surrounding area,” Huey, now an independent business consultant, said in a phone interview.

“It sends a terrific message,” said Huey, who served on council from 1990 through 1997, when she was term-limited.

Antonini, who has owned various Houston-area apartments over the years, went to court in August 1992 to stop the city from razing the Pitner Road complex.

Although he got a temporary restraining order, he later dropped the protest but didn’t pay for the $88,500 demolition.

That resulted in the city placing a lien on the property. In February 2000, the Spring Branch school district, city of Houston and other taxing entities, obtained a judgment against L.A.

Investments for delinquent taxes on the Pitner Road property, according to court records.

In June 2000, Saturn Capital Corp., another of Antonini’s companies, purchased the property at a tax sale.

In 2003, Saturn agreed to sell the property to Pitner Road Affordable Housing Ltd., but the city wouldn’t release the demolition lien until it was paid.

Saturn paid the $88,500 and then filed suit to recoup the payment plus interest. (The affordable housing proposal did not receive state funding to make the project possible.)

Antonini, meanwhile, began serving a five-year federal prison sentence in June 2001 for a $1.3-million check-kiting scheme to artificially inflate bank accounts in Texas and California.

He was released from the California prison in April 2005.

The city claimed it was immune from the Saturn suit, and the trial court (County Civil Court at Law No. 2) agreed. Saturn appealed, and in December 2007, the 14th Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court.

It went to trial Nov. 15 in County Court at Law No. 4.

Janice Evans, Mayor Annise Parker’s spokeswoman, said the case was transferred from Court at Law No. 2 at Saturn’s request.

The city’s legal department had pro-bono assistance from Cris Feldman, an attorney with Rusty Hardin and Associates PC.

If the jury had ruled in Saturn’s favor, the city would have had to return the $88,500 plus interest.

With the case pending so long, the total could have been $120,000 or more by this point, Evans said by e-mail. A city news release said Parker has made the removal of dangerous buildings a priority for her administration, with a record 910 demolitions in the fiscal year that ended June 30.