History On Hold

"Super" $80 million visitors' center halted; plans for prime downtown property up in air

$80 million visitors' center halted, plans for prime property on hold

News, Shelby, Nau Center, March 2015
The Cohn House was to be part of the Nau Center for Texas Cultural Heritage, which is now on hold. Photo by Shelby Hodge
Mayor Annise D. Parker, from left, John L. Nau, III and Ric Campo at the Nau Center Groundbreaking Ceremony November 2014
Only four months ago Mayor Annise Parker, from left, John L. Nau III and Ric Campo celebrated the groundbreaking. Photo by Nick de la Torre
Nau Center Exterior Rendering Courtesy of Bailey Architects November 2014
This exterior rendering of the proposed Nau Center was presented at the groundbreaking in November. Rendering courtesy of Bailey Architects
Nau Center Visitor Center Rendering Courtesy of Gallagher & Associates
An interior view of the $80 million Nau Center for Texas Cultural Heritage. Rendering courtesy of Gallagher & Associates
News, Shelby, Nau Center, March 2015
While Nau Center is put on hold, construction cranes fill the sky near the George R. Brown Convention Center. Photo by Shelby Hodge
News, Shelby, Nau Center, March 2015
Mayor Annise D. Parker, from left, John L. Nau, III and Ric Campo at the Nau Center Groundbreaking Ceremony November 2014
Nau Center Exterior Rendering Courtesy of Bailey Architects November 2014
Nau Center Visitor Center Rendering Courtesy of Gallagher & Associates
News, Shelby, Nau Center, March 2015

Four months after the mayor and city officials gathered for the groundbreaking of the Nau Center for Texas Cultural Heritage, the historic Cohn House on the property is a sad sight on this gloomy day and the Union Pacific engine is wrapped up tight in a covering that resembles heavy-duty Visqueen.

Plans to transform the house, the engine and the vast block that they reside on into a first-class visitor's center and historical museum have come to a standstill as fundraising has fallen short of expectations.

The Nau Center's website has been reduced to a one-page statement in which John Nau III, whose $8 million contribution earned naming rights, explains, “We knew it would be challenging when we set out to build a state-of-the-art destination on a highly accelerated timeline. Skyrocketing construction costs and the challenge of raising $80 million within a short period simply made the project difficult to begin at this time."

The initial goal was to have the center completed in time for the 2017 Super Bowl, which meant a short fuse on fundraising.

" At this point there are no immediate plans for the property, which the City owns, but a visitors’ center somewhere in its vicinity remains a priority."

When first announced in 2012, the center was to be a $40 million project. By last April, that figure had soared to $75 million and escalated by the start of the year another $5 million for the 70,000-square-foot center. Today, the Cohn House rests on moving piers, its front porch boarded up. The Union Pacific engine sits off to the side. Little else has been done to the site that is basically a large field of dirt with an old parking lot.

In an email that went out to donors late Friday afternoon, Nau was more direct about the fate of the project. "I want to share some news with you about the Nau Center before it becomes public. The Nau Center for Texas Cultural Heritage Board of Directors has decided that rather than start construction, the project as it is will not move forward," he explained. "Skyrocketing construction costs, a tight timetable, and final agreements that did not provide for a sustainable business model, made the project difficult to deliver at the level that was expected by all."

In union with Houston First, which operates the city's convention, entertainment and arts venues, and the City of Houston, the Nau Center board opted to halt the project.

In the website statement, Mayor Annise Parker notes, “John Nau, the Nau Center board and Houston First have worked very hard on this project. We all agree that it is time to hit the pause button. When the time is right, we will reconvene and determine how and when to move forward.” 

Nau's email to donors, which included the website statement, continues, "We will return all donor monies received. Thank you so much for your interest and enthusiasm for the project. We deeply appreciate your involvement."

Houston First spokesman John Harris tells CultureMap, "We feel like Houstonians and our visitors deserve a dynamic state-of-the-art visitors’ center in the convention district, so we’re taking a hard look at how a center might fit with the overall plan for Avenida de las Americas. At this point there are no immediate plans for the property, which the City owns, but a visitors’ center somewhere in its vicinity remains a priority."