The east corner of Elgin and Dowling Streets doesn’t look like much now. Sitting across from the ongoing $33 million renovations of Emancipation Park, the lot is empty. But Garnet Coleman, a state representative whose district includes Third Ward, is hoping the corner will be part of an emerging vision of the historically African-American neighborhood that resisted what he calls the ills of gentrification.
“This is a historic moment,” said Assata Richards, director of the community-oriented think tank Sankofa Research Institute, speaking to the OST/Almeda Corridors Redevelopment Authority, a quasi-public agency, this month. “There has never been an African-American community in a city this size take on gentrification,” she said.
Richards, Coleman and the Redevelopment Authority represent a dedicated group of people, along with community organizations like Project Row Houses, who have worked for years to build partnerships and, perhaps most importantly, purchase land across Greater Third Ward. With new townhomes sprinkling the western edge of the neighborhood, property values rising and the renovation of Emancipation Park, residents have watched the changes with a wary eye. They look at places like Fourth Ward -- now more commonly described as Midtown -- another historically African-American neighborhood. There, many of the streets are now dominated by luxury townhomes. In Third Ward, they worry that the same types of townhomes could fill blocks where vacant land and neglected properties now stand, rendering the area unaffordable for current residents.
Indeed, a study by Kyle Shelton and Kelsey Walker of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research found that over the last decade, Third Ward buildings were being demolished at a higher rate than buildings county-wide. Meanwhile, construction in the neighborhood lagged behind the county average. The study mapped all of the demolition and construction permits across Harris County, painting a picture of a period of change in Third Ward. Blue squares, indicating a construction permit for the address, fill up the western edge as the infill development of Midtown spreads east. Meanwhile, red squares representing demolition permits dot the northeast part of the neighborhood, almost filling entire blocks in some cases.
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What will ultimately rise in place of these torn down buildings and homes depends, in part, on this informal coalition of community development groups, which also includes Houston Southeast Management District and many churches.
The role these groups could play crystallized for Eureka Gilkey, executive director of Project Row Houses, when the community-based, non-profit arts organization began working with the Emancipation Economic Development Council and a group of architecture and planning students and professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last year. The team determined that the churches, non-profits and public entities in the area owned roughly a quarter of the land in Third Ward.
“We’re definitely at a critical point,” Gilkey said, of the large portion of property owned by public entities and nonprofits. “Developers and funders are looking at this and seeing this is a game-changer.” And the community is beginning to see a way to hold on to their neighborhood.
"When we talk to other cities about the work that has already been done," she said, "they’re amazed."
Though Third Ward is hoping to do what few similarly-positioned neighborhoods have done on a wide scale -- manage the forces of gentrification -- its history is familiar. The forces at work today have their roots decades prior.
A historic neighborhood
Because of segregation, Third Ward grew as one of several historically African-American neighborhoods in the city. There, wealthy and poor residents alike went to the same schools and churches, like Ryan Middle School, which opened in the location of the old historic Yates High School and was a staple of the community. They worked at or attended Texas Southern University. They frequented the same businesses along Dowling Street, which counted more than 150 stores in 1950. Some, like Wolf’s Department Store and Pawn Shop, held on through the years since.
But after desegregation, many wealthy families settled outside the neighborhood. People began shopping elsewhere. “When desegregation happened and folks could run down to Foley’s and shop, that area starts gradually dying,” said Theola Petteway, executive director of the OST/Almeda Corridors Redevelopment Authority. As the city spread, highways were erected within neighborhoods like Third Ward, funneling people in and out of downtown. “[State highway] 288 took out a big swath,” said Petteway, who can tell you which families lost homes because of the highway.
Meanwhile, decades of discrimination kept many families from getting the loans needed to fix up their properties and their homes fell into disrepair. People who had moved out of the neighborhood often didn’t keep up with the property taxes of their grandparents’ or parents’ homes back in Third Ward, explained Petteway. For renters, absentee landlords had little incentive to maintain their units. The housing stock suffered. “These are not just old, they’re falling down,” said Petteway, of the properties that have been demolished and now sit vacant.
Still, many residents remained invested in and committed to the neighborhood. But as developers rediscovered the neighborhoods ringing downtown, others began to take interest in as well.
Coleman, the state representative, remembers when his constituents began receiving letters in the early 2000s from developers pushing them to sell. “It was very clear this was going to go fast,” he said. So he sent his own letter to 8,000 property owners in the area asking them not to sell. And then he did something unusual.
Adjacent to the Third Ward, the quasi-public tax increment reinvestment zone that was transforming Midtown -- an area formerly divided between the Third and Fourth Wards -- was required to dedicate a portion of its revenues for affordable housing. But Coleman saw that property values there were rising so quickly, affordable housing would be a difficult pitch to developers, so he convinced a related agency, the Midtown Redevelopment Authority, to use the money to buy properties in Third Ward instead. The redevelopment authority would then sell the property to developers who were required to build affordable single-family homes and rental units.
Today, the authority owns 3.5 million square feet of land in Greater Third Ward. Coleman started banking land through the authority in the neighborhood he grew up in, hoping to buy up enough to make a sizable percentage of its future housing affordable. That scheme has already yielded a crop of single-family homes and plans for apartment complexes.
At the same time, the city’s Land Assemblage Redevelopment Authority, created in 1999, made a modest number of property purchases in the neighborhood to build affordable housing. Today, that authority has sold seven homes at affordable prices, with five more under construction, and it owns 12 other lots.
Add to that the land held by the churches, non-profits and Petteway’s organization and community members see a strategy that’s already working.
“Every block isn’t filled with townhomes, and it hasn’t spread past Dowling really,” said Coleman.
Instead, they’re crafting a new vision for the neighborhood that honors its history and recalls the days when rich and poor lived together.
A univeristy's role
“What we want, and I speak as someone who grew up in Third Ward,” said Elwyn Lee, vice president for community relations at the University of Houston, “you want some diversity, you want the history respected.” That includes a separate effort to rename Dowling Street, which today honors a lieutenant in the Confederate Army, to Emancipation Street, to recognize the park purchased by freed slaves as some have called on the city do.
Though the university has at times had an uneasy relationship with the neighborhood, Lee said its students and staff are deeply engaged with the community, and chancellor Renu Khator is committed to an equitable vision of its future. Students in education, health and African-American studies programs work with organizations in the neighborhood, like the SHAPE Community Center. And community leaders have high hopes that the university can help fuel job growth in an area badly in need of job opportunities.
“The University has a role in changing the landscape of the neighborhood by helping our surrounding community reach its aspirations,” Lee said.
“It does not mean UH should dictate the transformation of the built environment of the historic Houston neighborhood that surrounds the campus.” Instead, Lee said, projects like the health clinic that’s part of the university’s $145 million master plan would be open to both the community and the campus to help better integrate and serve the two.
Controlling its destiny
With so many stakeholders working together, Richards of the Sankofa Research Institute said Third Ward has an unprecedented opportunity to control its own destiny. “Very seldom do we have the ability to make those decisions for the future of our neighborhood,” she said. She’s hoping the Emancipation Economic Development Council, a group of area churches she helped organize, will be an instrumental part of the process.
"Our work and our effort is about what we do want," said Richards at a recent council meeting, not just what they don't want: gentrification. Her group is looking to encourage mixed-use development, revitalize Dowling Street and create a community land trust, among other things. "For Texas," she said of the land trust proposal, "this is a drastic way of thinking," but, she said, "this strategy is really meeting the needs we have."
At the same time, the Houston Southeast Management District, whose territory includes the council and redevelopment authority, is drafting a new general plan and running workshops with potential local investors in the area.
What unites these different geographies and groups is a vision of development without displacement, as Gilkey, of Project Row Houses, puts it. “This should be a community where there’s a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds,” she said. That mix will be critical to bringing sorely needed grocery stores and additional retail.
“We can’t halt gentrification; it’s already happening,” she said, “but we have an opportunity to change the way this process works.”