Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Building woes

The legacy of the Wilshire Village apartments speaks volumes about Houston building practices. Constructed in 1940, the art deco-derived garden apartments opened for business in the heart of a soon-to-be-defunct streetcar suburb lurching toward inner-city status. As time passed, the apartments slowly fell into disrepair while the surrounding neighborhood gradually hemorrhaged its structures and residents and swapped them for new. The demolition of Wilshire Village last year, following a series of convoluted business dealings (including a possible allegation by the owner that his paid tenants were squatters), surprised few. Its destruction marked the passing of a slightly spooky New Deal-inspired neighborhood icon, which was the home of my newlywed grandparent's first apartment as well as the last Federal Housing Administration-backed site.

Rumors have swirled for years whether the lot will give way to a residential high-rise, a grocery store or some other development. News that H-E-B is closing a deal to put in a grocery store – directly across from a long-standing Fiesta – has generated little goodwill in the community, some members of which have banded together to form the Montrose Land Defense Coalition. The Coalition would rather see a park in its stead, a sympathetic but ultimately untenable position. The property, valued at a minimum of $11 million but likely worth in excess of $20 million, would cost the city nearly 1 percent of its fiscal year 2010 general funds solely for the land purchase. Menil, Mandell and Dunlavy parks are close by, and the money would be better invested in literacy programs for the Fondren or Gulfton areas than they would in greening an area that's already relatively green.

The Coalition would benefit from jettisoning the park idea entirely. Although H-E-B is in its closing stages, greater awareness could generate a more competitive bidding atmosphere over the tract. Virtually any other development – short of a high-rise – would be more beneficial for area traffic and infrastructure. A commercial plot or mixed-use lot would increase the walkability of the area, which will be served by the Mandell stop of the planned University Line. Montrose residents are rightly concerned about the neighborhood's creeping gentrification, but we'll likely see this story repeated time and again until Houston enacts concrete zoning laws and pursues historical preservation measures endowed with some real teeth.

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