Monday, February 22, 2010

Where Goes the Neighborhood?

posted by Free Press Houston @ 2:36 PM



by M. Martin



Recently, Free Press Houston received a press release for a project called Forever Garden. The purpose of this project was impressive: nothing short of transforming the 8 acres of scenic wasteland left by the demolition of Wilshire Village, creating community gardens and parkland. Unfortunately, almost as soon as this news was received a rumor surfaced from multiple sources that HEB had either acquired the property or penned some sort of lease agreement. Setting aside for a moment (we'll come back to it) the Forever Garden announcement, let's look at the HEB rumor--and at it's possible implications for The Montrose, particularly in light of other current and upcoming developments.

To begin with, this is only a rumor--but a pretty likely one. HEB briefly operated a Montrose location before, in the space currently occupied by Half Price Books ont Westheimer. The changing demographics of Montrose make it an increasingly attractive location for them. Additional credence for this speculation is the fact, as reported by Swamplot.com, that the holding company that owns the former Wilshire Village property has apparently been in default on loans used to acquire the property since last October (which probably explains the "For Sale" signs that went up on the property in mid-September). The company subsequently went Chapter 11 in early November. Add to this the tax liability on the property (diminished by turning it into a vacant lot, but still significant), and you have a lot of pressure to do whatever deal can be done... in what is rapidly becoming the worst business climate since the Great Depression.

If it is true, the cascade of resulting events could completely alter the nature of Southwest Montrose and speed the ongoing metamorphosis of the neighborhood at large.

Consider: the presence of an HEB-anchored commercial development on one corner of W. Alabama & Dunlavy would have an inevitable and detrimental impact on the existing Fiesta Mart-anchored strip center on the other side of Dunlavy--with the most likely outcome being a decision by Fiesta to close the store, and the most likely outcome of that decision being a decision on the part of the property owners to put the center up for sale. Should that happen, the most likely outcome would be to see the center demolished and replaced by more high-density apartment housing, comparable to what now exists at Westheimer and Shepherd, at Richmond and Kirby, and at Richmond and Dunlavy.

Consider also that Metro's plans for the University Rail Corridor on Richmond Avenue recently received a shot in the arm in the form of Federal approval of the preliminary engineering phase of the project. Consequently, Metro has released an extensive list of properties along Richmond Avenue that will either fully or partially be acquired under right of eminent domain--in other words, seized. Metro still plans to have The University Line operational by 2012, which means that construction can be expected to begin within the next year. Once light rail construction begins on Richmond, expect traffic to begin shifting to West Alabama. Consequently, expect that at some point Alabama will be expanded from it's currently three lane configuration between Spur 527 and S. Shepherd to a full four lanes--very likely resulting in additional property condemnations as well.

By the time construction is completed on The University Line, concurrent with an expanded West Alabama, an HEB-anchored shopping center, and yet more damned yuppie beehive housing on the ruins of Fiesta Mart, Southwest Montrose as it is currently known and loved no will longer exist. Currently, much of the area between Dunlavy, Shepherd, Alabama and Richmond consists almost exclusively of older and inexpensive multi-family housing, largely favored by students, artists, and lower-income (largely Hispanic) families. Even those properties that are not outrightly condemned will be subjected to higher taxation, once the presence of 'improved' transportation and nearby commercial real estate projects have caused them to be re-appraised. Expect more old properties to disappear, replaced by more condos and frat-rat rabbit warrens.

At that point, about all that will be left of "Old Montrose" would be a few blocks of land on either side of Westheimer and the fag bar ghetto on Pacific Street--at which point most of Houston will happily proclaim "Good Riddance"--it's not like the denizens of Mommy and Daddy Land ever wanted a local Greenwich Village/Haight-Ashbury equivalent in the middle of their city in the first place.

That's one vision for the future of neighborhood. Lacking a concerted effort and vision for an alternative, it's almost certainly what will happen.

The Forever Garden proposal offers a compelling such contrast. Instead of yet another bland and soulless mini-mall, the eight empty acres that formerly held Wilshire Village would be transformed into a collection of allotment gardens, community garden space, ponds, beehives, and park space, while reserving room for a farmer's market, a restaurant, and a community center that would offer, among other things, classes in yoga, nutrition, meditation, and alternative/preventative health practices. There would also be residential spaces for participants in residency programs in Visual Art, Writing, Music, and Horticulture.

Even though Forever Gardens founder Whitney Riley confesses to having been "crushed" when news emerged of the HEB deal (Ms. Whitney has sources of her own that lead her to believe the rumors are absolutely true), she has since bounced back-- and has current plans to present a scaled-back version of the Forever Garden proposal to whomever winds up developing the former Wilshire property, as well as plans to seek out other potential urban garden spaces.

If all this sounds idealistic, aspirational, and hugely optimistic...well, that's only because it is. But what's wrong with that? Even before he was sworn in, our current U.S. President started dialing back the aspirational and idealistic principles of his campaign in exchange for a more "realistic" governing strategy....which doesn't seem to have worked out all that terribly well. If you start out a negotiation by giving things up, you can't be too surprised if you wind up giving up everything.

The fact of the matter is that without a conscious effort at preserving the cultural, architectural, and social uniqueness of Montrose as a community, that community will simply cease to exist. This would be a shame, because the 'hood seems to be in the middle of one of it's periodic upswings, with more bands, more street art... more young people who have not yet accepted the dreary wisdom of becoming pointless replays of their parents. It would be a shame if they didn't have a place to go and congregate--didn't have a place to hold street festivals and hang out in coffee shops and go to crappy art openings and drink cheap wine for free. Absent Montrose, there doesn't seem to be anywhere else in Houston that really fits that bill. The downtown warehouse looked promising once, but has since wound up nothing more than scenester/cokehead bars and really crappy, overpriced lofts.

So...where goes the neighborhood? What exactly constitutes "The Montrose" five years from now? Do we fall down the drain of gentrification we're currently circling? Or is it possible to turn projects like Forever Gardens from hopeful pipe dreams into into viable community development options with real business plans and real support? It all boils down to the people who live in Montrose--as it is and has been-- making a commitment to their community, one that can be measured in dollars and time spent in community service.

In other words... it's up to you.

For details on Forever Gardens, check out their Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/home.php#/group.php?gid=252695914732. For details on the ongoing saga of the former Wilshire Village, check out Swamplot's excellent continued coverage at http://swamplot.com/tag/wilshire-village/.

4 Comments:

At February 23, 2010 at 9:29 AM , Blogger evita101 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At February 23, 2010 at 9:29 AM , Blogger evita101 said...

great writeup, did not know about these efforts. let's hope HEB gives up, have you seen their Bunkerhill store, it's cray cray big!

 
At February 24, 2010 at 10:33 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

sweet article; saw the sign outside 'the park'!

 
At March 13, 2010 at 10:29 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

i support the gentrication of montrose

 

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