By my count, that’s about to happen to one of our communities. They’re getting sucker punched, albeit legally, and they don’t know what in the world to do. We may have an answer.
Back in January 2014, Metro closed the Pinemont Park & Ride. The decision wasn’t made because traffic was down and money was being lost (though that could also have been the case. We are talking about Metro here.) Instead, TxDOT began work on U.S. 290 and decided there would no longer be a flyover from Pinemont to 290. That meant there was no way Metro could continue operation at the current location.
Naturally, they decided to declare the property as “surplus” and sell the land. And naturally, like most of you, I didn’t much care because I wasn’t personally impacted.
With that background in place, let me shift gears to something interesting happening in the neighborhoods around the former Pinemont Park & Ride. You know the gentrification happening in the Heights, Garden Oaks, Oak Forest and wonderful neighborhoods in between? Well, that same thing is beginning to happen just north of you, in neighborhoods like Pinemont Park, Forest Pines and Forest West. The old neighborhoods are becoming new again, and for good reason.
When construction on 290 is complete (I’m guessing in the year 2097), those neighborhoods will be mere blocks from 290, which will make for a very simple commute to the Energy Corridor, the Galleria or downtown. In essence, people are buying houses because they know this area has the potential to be something special in another five years.
When these new homeowners moved into the Pinemont and Antoine areas, though, they knew there were problems in their neighborhoods. Crime was – and still is – too high. Schools, as hard as they try, still have some work to do. And to top it off, there are eight low-income apartment complexes within a 1-mile radius of the area.
Still, these residents have seen (or at least heard) about light at the end of the freeway. There have been rumblings of retail development. In what seems like the most popular rumor in Houston, there’s been talk of an HEB grocery store at the Park & Ride location.
Well, so much for the light.
In what has all the stench of a backroom deal, Metro held an almost secret meeting Monday where Lance Gilliam, chair of the Houston Housing Authority, all but commanded that this available land will become another multi-family property. Gilliam threw out the words “eminent domain,” saying that’s how strongly his board feels about the property, which means if they want it, they’ll get it.
That’s right. The HHA, responsible for building and maintaining most of the subsidized housing in the city, will buy the land and build more apartments, because eight complexes in the immediate area just aren’t enough.
Now, let’s be fair about something. HHA doesn’t plan to build Section 8 housing here. Their plan is for “workforce” housing, which is usually defined as families that earn between $36,000-$42,000 year. These are not drug smugglers. These are policemen and first-year teachers and even nurses. Sure, you’ll get some weeds with the grass, but these are hard-working people who, in most cases, commit their lives and livelihood to service.
That fell on deaf ears to the three dozen citizens who miraculously found their way to the Metro meeting and passionately pleaded their case. (Metro did everything possible to not publicize this meeting. The Leader gets all of their releases and even the local paper didn’t hear about this one.) Most of the citizens didn’t care about the distinction between low-income and workforce housing. Instead, what they heard is that another apartment complex is coming to the area, and they desperately want HEB, or some other retail outfit, to buy the property. And they are right in their concern. With another 300 apartments means an influx of about 1,000 more people. That’s a lot of cars, a lot of traffic and, worse, no retail development.
The problem with this whole deal is the way it has gone down. Metro snuck around, which means their public relations arm failed, even if they think they didn’t. Jim Robinson, on the Metro board, tried to take an easy way out by proclaiming that this isn’t actually a Metro project. Nice try.
HHA looks bad because they’re just adding more apartments to a saturated market and their plans don’t fit with the vision of the residents.
When you chalk it all up, the residents lose, Metro loses, HHA loses, the tenants of the proposed apartments will lose (they might as well wear scarlet letters), and the entire community loses because they don’t get much-needed retail development. That’s five losers.
What can be done? I talked to a very trusted source connected to City Hall. Here’s what residents need to do. Get on the phone, on email and in front of City Council. Demand – and I mean demand – to be heard by city officials. Make Mayor Annise Parker tell you, to your face, that indeed, eminent domain will be used to purchase this property. (She won’t like saying that.)
Council members Ellen Cohen and Brenda Stardig need to hear from every single resident in the area. You need to call every at-large council member, as well. Trust me, this works. If enough people speak out – and it will take a concerted effort from the citizens – then you have a real chance.
And here’s one other tip. City council members and the mayor’s office read this newspaper. Write us letters. We’ll publish as many as possible.
Metro and HHA are both functions of our city’s government. The neighbors in Pinemont Park, Forest Pines and Forest West need to show up, en masse, and ask government to rethink this decision.
It’s going to be a tough battle because you’re fighting both David and Goliath, but if you have a slingshot big enough, you might at least get this process started over again. And that’s all you can do at this point.