During what was at times a contentious meeting, Alliance Residential Group detailed their initial plans for the old Heights waterworks, a two-acre site between West 19th and West 20th streets. An adjacent 1.8 acre second tract, where the water tank used to sit, is also included in the deal.
As Council Member Ellen Cohen reminded the 100 plus person group who attended the Tuesday night meeting at the Heights Fire Station, the land is currently owned by Public Works and Engineering and is not currently being utilized.
As it was not a functional asset for city, it was put up for sale and per city statute, the highest bid was the one accepted. The sale is not final until City Council votes on it, at which time the sale price will become public.
Cyrus Bahrami, who oversees development, investment and construction operations for the Houston office of Alliance, said he previously lived in the Heights and has been looking at the site for some time. He said that the plans for the southwest and southeast corners of West 20th and Nicholson – which are not in their final form – include one eight story, 275 unit apartment complex and one six story 63 unit complex. The first would be 80 percent one bedroom units, and 20 percent two bedroom units, while the second would be 90 percent two bedroom and 10 percent three bedroom units.
Bahrami said that the orientation for both would face the commercial areas with entrances facing 20th Street. He also said that in large part the parking for both structures would be underground, with an additional wraparound so that the public won’t see the parking.
Alliance’s partner in the deal Harres Exezidis was also on hand. Exezidis is the developer for Liberty Station and Cottonwood among other endeavors and he said that getting to develop the property is a “dream come true.”
Exezidis has plans for two to three restaurants on the waterworks site. Because of the dry statute, they would follow the private club route. Since the decommissioned water plant is a City of Houston protected landmark, it cannot be demolished, and Exezidis he plans to keep the structures much the same as they are, particularly on the outside.
He told the group of his work on La Grange in Montrose which used to be a horse hospital in the 1920s, and pledges to do something similar with the waterworks site with regard to repurposing elements and keeping as much as possible of the architectural features.
“We let the building tell us what the concept is going to be,” he said.
In addition to the restaurants Exezidis proposes a 5,000 square foot community garden, with a shed, and irrigation. The space could also host farmers markets and special events. Exezidis is also talking to artists about excavating the old water pipes in the ground and turning them into sculptures.
The groups’ reaction to plans was mixed, with many concerned about the additional traffic the development would bring to the area. Helms Elementary is behind the proposed eight story building and residents say they are concerned about the students who currently walk along 17th through 20th streets to get to school.
“It’s already dangerous,” noted one attendee.
Others noted how narrow Nicholson Street already is, and worried about safety along the bike path that’s currently there.
For others, concerns about flooding were paramount.
“We can’t deal with backup of water,” said one attendee who noted that a large number of the one bathroom bungalows in the area have already been replaced by units with multiple bathrooms. “It isn’t fair to us who already live there.” Another resident who lives near 19th said they already flood with just an inch of rain.
That brought up a discussion about overall infrastructure and what would be required with regard to sewer, water, and traffic. Bahrami said that they would abide by city codes and guidelines. Council Member Ellen Cohen told the group that many of their concerns would be best addressed by Public Works and pledged to set up another meeting.
The timeline for the project would be a summer start with an eye to completion of the two housing units by 2019. Exezidis said he hoped that the restaurants would come sooner.
Helms Elementary principal Lola Perejón-Lasheras expressed concerns that the construction start would coincide with the start of school and Bahrami told her that they would start grading at the end of summer, but would not go vertical until later.
One attendee said that she hoped that the community’s input would be heard and hoped that they could reduce the number of one bedroom apartments in the development and take into account issues of walkability and accessibility.
“I understand the concern,” said Bahrami. “We don’t build stereotypical apartments. This is going to integrate with the community.”
Council Member Ellen Cohen said that her District C has the most number of developments of any other in the city, and that she was committed to getting this one right.
When asked what would happen if the City Council voted not to approve the sale, she said they’d put it back on the market and accept the highest bid again.
“There were a lot of multi-family offers right behind us,” said Bahrami, leading Cohen to state that the property would most likely have been multi-residential property regardless, because that’s what the highest bidders were proposing.
Cohen addressed the tough financial straits that the city was in, especially with regard to pensions, and said that the money from the sale would be significant.
“The Mayor is looking at the bottom line,” said Cohen.