Should Land Meant for a Needed Park on Buffalo Bayou Be Developed into Needed Housing?
Why is a nonprofit park organization developing green space into for-profit housing?
February 27, 2020
A prominent nonprofit organization has unveiled a plan to profit by building mixed-income housing on open, partially forested land that had long been designated for a nature park on Buffalo Bayou east of downtown Houston.
The long-term, multi-phase plan is to construct apartments, townhouses, and single-family homes on some 18 acres of partially-wooded green space on the south bank of Buffalo Bayou in Houston’s historic East End neighborhood. The Houston City Council last week voted to approve the first phase of the project known as Lockwood South: 120 apartments including 90 units for low-income tenants and 30 market-rate units.
But in a city, and in particular a neighborhood, severely lacking the beneficial access to natural areas (baseball fields, water slides, and running tracks don’t count), might it not be a better idea to locate the housing development elsewhere and develop a bayou park with trees and natural habitat instead?
That was the plan for the property dating from at least 2002. The planned 52-acre park, including adjacent industrial land, was to be named West Lockwood Park, and it was supposed to have been developed by now. (pp. 133, 140, 149)
Community Priorities: More Nature
Experience of nature was a priority expressed by members of the largely working-class community who attended packed community meetings about plans for the neighborhood in 2018.
While residents expressed concerns about the increasing cost of housing and preserving one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, their top priorities were for natural areas, access to the bayou and parks, soft footpaths focused on nature, shade, bird habitat (specifically on this property), urban forest, “protect nature as much as possible,” and so on.
The neighborhood is largely industrial with heavy pollution from industrial and chemical waste and emissions. (pp 27-31) Across from the proposed development site on Lockwood Drive are an asphalt factory and recycled concrete crushing plant, both potential sources of harmful pollution. On the west side of the property is a machine parts factory.
The Second Ward, where the proposed development property is located, in 2015 had 13,139 residents and currently has some 58.99 acres of parkland, mostly mowed grass and playing fields. The City says that’s more than enough. Using the common metric and excellent goal of “living within a ten-minute walk,” the City calculates that 87 percent of Second Ward residents live within a ten-minute walk of a park, no matter what type, compared to 47 percent of Houstonians. (p. 42) However, a drawback to that metric is that 1,000 people could live in highrises surrounding a one-acre park, even a skate-park, and you would have a lot of people crowding around a tiny plot of concrete within a 10-minute walk.
The National Recreation and Park Association, which supports the Ten-Minute Walk campaign, recommends 10 acres of park per 1,000 residents. By that calculation, the Second Ward community should have some 130 acres of park.
The public can send comments on the proposed development project to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. See below.
Developing and Appreciating Buffalo Bayou
The land development scheme is a project of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a private nonprofit founded in 1986 for “redevelopment and stewardship of the waterfront” from Shepherd Drive to the Port of Houston Turning Basin. The organization, which has partnered with Brinshore Development of Northfield, Illinois, for the housing project, says the plan will generate funds for expansion and improvement of other parks in the neighborhood, primarily Tony Marron Park just upstream (west) of the property. The Partnership plans to spend $40 million on Tony Marron Park and expand it by 30 acres, according to a letter sent in January 2019 to the East End Management District.
That 19-acre city-owned park was significantly improved and landscaped in 2005 by the nonprofit Park People with $2.2 million in public and private funds. The Partnership owns several acres of bayou frontage across North York Street from the park, land envisioned for a swimming hole and boating center (p. 12). That bayou-front property is now used by the Rice Rowing Crew, and on a recent visit it was fenced and locked, prohibiting public access to the bayou from the street with a sign announcing “Private Property.” However the bayou was still accessible along the concrete hike-and-bike trail leading from downtown to Lockwood, a trail developed primarily by private landowners and volunteers as well as the Partnership, according a source involved.
Altogether the Partnership owns some 47 acres of land downtown and on the east side both north and south of the bayou, as well as 78,000 square feet of building space, according to Harris County records. These buildings include former industrial buildings destined for event and community spaces.
Affordable Rental Housing
The Lockwood South housing project approved by City Council February 19, with delay and some nays, was a vote to recommend the project, among others, to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs for a competition for Housing Tax Credits. The federally-funded program offers a nine percent reduction of federal income taxes to a limited number of owners of affordable rental housing.
The Partnership, which as a nonprofit does not pay income taxes, claims to have overseen the expenditure of some $200 million in public and private funds since its founding, including some $58 million (not including repair and maintenance costs), renovating the popular if controversial Buffalo Bayou Park between Shepherd Drive and downtown Houston.
The organization originally envisioned an ambitious 2,500-acre, 10-mile long west-east park system connecting schools, parks, and neighborhoods to downtown. (p. 54) That 2002 Master Plan was much more explicitly development-oriented and controversial, although ironically it did preserve and expand this Lockwood space and other bayou frontage property into ecological parks.
Its current goals are “spearheading award-winning capital projects, protecting land for future parks and green space, constructing hike and bike trails, and operating comprehensive clean-up and maintenance programs.”
Pressure on the East End
The results have been greater awareness and appreciation of Buffalo Bayou as a natural amenity, with numerous arts and recreational programs sponsored by the Partnership. The bayou east of downtown is also an industrial artery, and the 2019 Buffalo Bayou East plan, which does include the Lockwood residential development, also has the admirable goal of repurposing industrial spaces along what was once part of the Houston Ship Channel, a long-channelized section of the bayou still used by commercial barges even upstream of the Turning Basin, the official upstream end of the Port of Houston.
The East End master plan, which cost $1.5 million, according to the Partnership, respects the industrial and social history of the East End area, with goals of improving its environment, ecology, and welfare with mixed use, mixed income, and restoration projects.
But the planned results, as with any park improvement, have also been increased development along the bayou with an increase in surrounding property values and taxes. This has created pressure on long-time residents of the East End, even as the Partnership has done little but buy property and stimulate speculation.
In the Second Ward the median housing value has nearly tripled between 2000 and 2015 with new construction, mainly townhouses, even as the population has declined and vacant housing has increased, according to statistics from the City of Houston. Still, nearly three-quarters of the homes in the neighborhood were built before 1979. Nearly one-third were built before 1939.
The declining, largely Hispanic population, however, has become wealthier, older, and less Hispanic, with fewer families living in slightly more households.
Undeveloped Land Since 1944
The 18-acres of land to be developed has been open, somewhat wooded space since at least 1944. Currently most of it, 11.4 acres, is owned by Mike Garver, a past chairman of the Partnership and a major donor, and founder of BRH-Garver Construction. Garver, who lives on the bayou near Memorial Park, is also a board member of the Bayou Preservation Association.
The Partnership and its development partner, Brinshore, have agreed to buy Garver’s land for $4.8 million, according to documents filed with the Texas Department of Community Housing and Affairs. The Partnership owns the remaining property. The Parks Department owns a five-acre strip on the bayou’s edge, purchased and donated to the City by Garver, according to sources and county tax records.
It appears the Partnership’s housing development project was first announced to local residents at a sparsely attended meeting on January 23, a meeting initially interrupted, as they have done at other recent Partnership meetings, by activists holding banners and yelling chants opposing gentrification of the East End.
On February 3 the local Super Neighborhood 63 voted to support the project at its bi-monthly meeting. This was based on the “big concern” in the East End for “having affordable housing” to “keep existing families here,” said then-president Tommy Garcia-Prats, who has pioneered urban farming in the once-rural East End. He added that the board was not aware of long-standing plans for the bayou property to be used for park land.
At least 100 new affordable housing units by 2023 is also a goal of the City of Houston’s Complete Communities plan for the Second Ward. (p. 29)
The public can express their opinions on this and other housing projects being considered by the state. Here is the full application for the Lockwood project. Comments, which must be received by 5 p.m. June 19, 2020, can be emailed to HTCPC@mail.tdhca.state.tx.us or sent by mail to the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, Public Comment–Multifamily Finance Division, P.O. Box 13941, Austin, Texas 78711-3941.