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Fourth Ward

The bricks of Freedmen’s Town

Surely we can do something about this.

Most in the Fourth Ward community know the lore – that freed slaves and descendants first laid the bricks on the streets 100 years ago.

Now most agree the roads need repairs, but residents and preservationists worry a recently approved city plan to remove the bricks to fix piping underneath will ruin the original streets, a key element of Freedmen’s Town designation as a National Historic District. Some activists also say the process to approve the project violated federal laws intended to preserve national historic districts.

“I’m appalled that the mayor wants to disturb those bricks like that,” resident Terrance Williams said.

More than 100 years ago, Fourth Ward residents paid $1 per brick to have the streets paved in front of their houses, said Catherine Roberts, co-founder of the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum in Freedmen’s Town, and a major force for the area’s conservation. Not only are the bricks themselves significant, but the patterns they form tell a story. The designs at some intersections can be traced back to African crossroads – which pointed the way to safehouses for the black community – or religious traditions of the Yoruba people of West Africa.

“This is an in-the-ground cultural resource,” Roberts said. “You don’t take them out.”

Their inability to stop construction has made the community feel powerless – a community once considered the heartbeat of black Houston. Doctors, lawyers, dentists and ministers populated the area until the 1920s, when the Third and Fifth wards became more popular.

[…]

After decades of discussion and planning to install new utilities in the neighborhood, City Council approved a $5 million plan this month to repipe portions of Andrews and Wilson streets. Work is scheduled to start by early August, said Mike Cordova, project manager for the city.

Water and sewer pipes will be replaced, and then the salvageable bricks – estimated to be just one-third of those there now – will be cleaned and put back, but likely not in their original designs.

Texas Department of Transportation architect Mario Sanchez said the bricks will be regrouped at intersections rather than in their original locations. “It was determined infeasible to re-install them in their original locations, specifically because there would be a lack of continuity based on the number of salvageable bricks,” Sanchez wrote in the email to the Houston Chronicle.

That’s heartbreaking news to residents and historians, who believed that years ago they had reached a solution on upgrading the Freedmen’s Town streets. They pleaded with the city to tunnel underneath the bricks instead of moving them, and in 2007 former Mayor Bill White reached an agreement with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to do just that.

In a letter sent to the Chronicle from Jackson Lee to White, the congresswoman discusses the agreed-upon plan: using a combination of trenching and tunneling to put the water and sewer lines beneath the sidewalks instead of under the bricks, leaving them undisturbed.

City officials now say the streets are too narrow for tunneling, and construction costs could quadruple.

“It just wasn’t a practical way to move forward,” said council member Ellen Cohen, whose district includes Freedmen’s Town.

It always comes down to money, doesn’t it? There’s a lot more in the story about the historic preservation process and whether it’s being followed correctly, and you should read the whole thing. What it comes down to is that these bricks and these streets are a unique and very important piece of culture and history in a neighborhood that has lost so much of that culture and history to the demands of modern times. We really need to find a way to improve these streets without losing or damaging what they’re all about.

Today is Chapter 42 day

Actually, today is almost certainly the day that the Chapter 42 revisions get tagged by multiple members of Council, thus pushing it back for a week. Nonetheless, this is the beginning of the end of a long, long journey. Here’s another story about what that will mean.

The Fourth Ward would not look quite the way it does now, however, if not for a change in city development rules in 1999. That change hiked the density allowed in single-family housing construction inside Loop 610, allowing the building of several homes on what had been one residential lot.

City Council is poised Wednesday to extend that Inner Loop home density citywide in the first rewrite of Houston’s development rules, known as Chapter 42, in 14 years. And that has [Ray] Washington and other south Houston civic leaders on edge.

“You’ve got different developers. Some are going to be good, and you’re going to get a few bad ones. Our goal is to upgrade this community,” said Homer Clark, president of south Houston’s Five Corners Management District.

“If they say, ‘Hey, this is a nice place, I think I’ll go out here and buy me a little piece of land and I’ll just put this out here,’ that’s our fear, that it won’t be consistent with what we’re doing.”

To address concerns about incompatible development, the proposed rules include protections that would allow neighborhoods to impose minimum lot sizes for up to 500 homes at a time, preventing the subdivision of lots for townhomes. The requirement, which would last 40 years, also would restrict any residential or vacant land to single-family homes, keeping out apartment towers and condominiums.

“In Houston, because we’re not a zoned city, deed restrictions are the one thing that’s relied upon to keep your neighborhood consistent and retain that character,” said Suzy Hartgrove, spokeswoman for the city Planning Department. “It (minimum lot size) is a protection that really is akin to a deed restriction that will be established for these neighborhoods that apply and are designated. It’s a strong protection to have.”

The minimum lot size process has existed since 2001, and is applied only on a block-by-block basis. Under the proposed change, 10 percent of property owners in an area must apply, triggering a balloting process through which 60 percent of owners must vote yes to impose the restriction. City staff could revise an area’s boundaries to secure the necessary support.

The proposal is an acknowledgement that deed restrictions are difficult to amend, said Joshua Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit that represents developers.

“We understand the neighborhood concerns, and we think there should be more tools made available to them to protect against any sort of development,” he said.

“It’s not like these rules are in place to protect against bad development. They’re in place to protect the integrity of a neighborhood. We could go in and build something great on one piece of property, but it’s still an issue because it’s damaging the character of the neighborhood.”

[…]

The lot-size proposal is a “huge achievement,” said Jane West of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, though she is concerned areas with many rental properties will struggle with the petition process. That concern led civic leaders to negotiate a phase-in: one year to give neighborhoods time to petition, and a second year during which the new density would be allowed only on tracts larger than an acre; smaller tracts could be developed if most surrounding properties are not residential.

“It will help all the people it can help,” West said. “It depends a lot on the stamina and the abilities of the people in the neighborhood and how badly they want to save the neighborhood.”

See here, here, here, and here for the recent history. This ordinance and the effort to revamp it are big, complex beasts with lots of moving parts and no one really knows what the effect of this or that change will be, but it sounds like the lot size part of it is being well received by all. If both Jane Cahill West and Joshua Sanders think it’s a good idea, that’s saying something.

On a related note, I want to call attention to this comment left by Ed Browne to one of my earlier posts on Chapter 42:

I think that I can speak for the SNA when I say that everyone agrees that the City needs to grow and densify, but there are good ways to grow and bad ways. Tomaro Bell, president of the Super Neighborhood Alliance (SNA), and Jane Cahill West, its Vice President, have experienced the negative aspects of Chapter 42 inside Loop 610 where it has been the law for over 10 years. They and others inside the Loop decided that the rules need to be cleaned up before subjecting the entire City to them. SN 22, along the Washington Avenue corridor, has been a test case for a lot of these issues. Jane gave a tour for City Council members and SN leaders in her area of problems created by Chapter 42 and although many have been addressed by the City, some of the more important ones still need attention.

We had been told by the Mayor and developers that the main thrust for Chapter 42 was to redevelop run-down apartments and strip centers, but no sooner had the SNA removed its objections, then the Mayor started backpedaling – offering to reduce the wait time for neighborhoods to establish minimum lot sizes and setbacks from 2 years for lots under an acre to 1 year for lots under 1/2 acre. Small lots like this are not run-down apartment complexes. They are neighborhoods like yours.

Under street infrastructure for most of Houston is old and antiquated, so we want to be sure that high density building does not occur where the streets have inadequate storm sewers, water lines, and sanitation sewers. When the toilet flushes next door, will you get scalded? But Jane pointed out that high density also makes every detail more important. Where are trash cans stored? Where are mailboxes? Air conditioners? With a requirement of one guest parking spot for every 6 homes, where do guests (and homeowners) really park? In Cottage Grove, emergency vehicles cannot access many homes because too many vehicles are parked on narrow streets. Ladder trucks needed for the 3 or 4 story buildings need a place for the support pads so they don’t topple over. These were Fire Marshall concerns, too, not just Jane’s.

Average lot size can be as low as 1400 square feet, but there is no minimum lot size. Permeable ground can be no less than 150 square feet on a 3500 square foot lot – tiny. Chapter 42 and Chapter 9 are not harmonized; i.e., they contradict one another. Chapter 42 requires green space which increases as the lot sizes reduce until at 1400 square feet 600 square feet of green space is required, but there is no minimum lot size .

Very dense development makes sense in areas that have good mass transit because then people can do without a car, but multiple small shared driveway developments scattered throughout a neighborhood would be messy and would remove the trees and shade that redefine its character. That doesn’t matter to somebody who only wants to make money, but it does matter to the people who’ve searched for the perfect house for their family.

There’s a lot more to what Ed has to say, so go read the whole thing. Just as the changes from 1999 are being revisited now, the key to making this work as best as possible is to be willing to go back and make further tweaks and revisions as issues and problems arise. This is an ongoing concern, it’s not something you can do and be done with. If we see that something isn’t working the way we though it would, let’s not wait another 14 years to fix it.