What once was an iconic venue for live music is now a lifeless slab of concrete. Heights residents and visitors used to walk up to the bar or the stage, but now they walk through the vacant, tree-lined property as a shortcut to another watering hole, a restaurant or maybe to return home.
The century-old building that was Fitzgerald’s, which had more than a 40-year run as a popular concert spot, was demolished in May. What’s to become of the lot has been a hot topic among those who frequent the intersection of White Oak Drive and Studewood Street, where there are well-liked bars and restaurants on the other three corners.
Clues can be found on the website for Verde Communities, a real estate investment firm that develops and manages properties throughout the Houston area. A page dedicated to “Fitzgerald’s at White Oak” shows a video montage of the former building, recounts its history and outlines a plan for the future – a mixed-use development with a multi-story structure.
“We hope this will include retail and multi-family residential uses, and perhaps a street level or rooftop lounge which, perhaps in a modest way, is an homage to the history of the Fitzgerald’s site,” the website reads.
The marketing material goes against previous news reports and speculation among Heights residents that Fitzgerald’s will be replaced by an automated parking garage, the specialty of the Chicago-based company that purchased the property from Sara Fitzgerald last summer. Easy Park and affiliated entities, according to Harris County Appraisal District records and a prominent Heights Realtor, own more land near the property and have other projects in the works.
Across White Oak Drive and a little bit to the west, South Heights on White Oak is under construction at 2805 White Oak Dr. According to online leasing information, the plan is for 10,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space.
The site next to Gostic Gulch used to be a parking lot for the cluster of businesses across the street, which includes Barnaby’s, Christian’s Tailgate, District Dental, Linear Salon, Pho Binh, Public House and Tacos A Go Go. Signs now indicate that parking for those businesses is available on the same lot as the former Fitzgerald’s.
“The terrible thing was they tore up that parking lot, so there was nowhere to park,” said Woodland Heights resident Alli Johnson, who walked through the empty Fitzgerald’s lot Tuesday on her way to Barnaby’s. “Then at the same time, they started tearing this up.”
HCAD records show the under-construction retail development, along with the group of businesses across the street, are on property owned by South Heights Purchase LLC, which shares a Chicago address with Easy Park. So does Heights Studemont Purchase Company LLC, which HCAD lists as the owner for the former Fitzgerald’s site as well as three lots immediately to the north with 6th ½ Street addresses.
Verde Communities’ Marilyn Jimenez confirmed they are all affiliated with Easy Park. According to HCAD, the properties’ combined appraisal value is nearly $12 million.
Heights Realtor Bill Baldwin, a member of the Houston Planning Commission, said the lead investor for Easy Park is Jesse Levine. Neither he nor Easy Park, which has not responded to multiple messages left at its Chicago office, could be reached for comment.
Baldwin, citing conversations he’s had with Levine, said the plan for the White Oak developments includes a multi-story parking garage on the north side of the street. There now is a small, one-story garage between Christian’s Tailgate and Tacos A Go Go.
Baldwin said he would prefer not to see a parking garage at the Fitzgerald’s lot, which is at the northwest corner of White Oak and Studewood, but realizes the need for more parking on a street lined with destinations and oftentimes parked vehicles.
“As this area densifies, we all have a greater need for parking,” he said.
There is a “potential snag,” Baldwin said, regarding the plan for the mixed-use development where Fitzgerald’s once stood. The three lots immediately to the north are included in a Special Minimum Lot Size Area (SMLSA) application filed in March with the city’s Planning & Development Department.
According to HCAD, those lots are designated for single-family residential use. If the SMLSA application is approved by property owners, the planning commission and Houston City Council, it would be in effect for 40 years and could prevent those lots from being used for commercial purposes or for a multi-family residential complex.
“I think he’s hung up a little bit there,” Baldwin said of Levine.
Johnson said many nearby Heights homeowners are against the addition of apartment complexes, although she would welcome more retail developments and especially likes the idea of a rooftop lounge because it would provide good views of downtown.
Winston Manley and Kris Wathen, who are 29-year-old roommates just south of White Oak Drive and rode their bikes to Christian’s Tailgate on Tuesday evening, also said they would be in support of more restaurant and bar options on the street. But they disagreed that there is a need for more parking, at least for automobiles.
“Our generation Ubers everywhere,” Manley said. “Parking garages are nice, but it’s irrelevant to us.”