Third Ward Rising

One of Houston's most venerable communities is set for redevelopment. Before that happens, though, perhaps one question needs to be answered: Whose community?

"Folks have investment on their mind, luring businesses in," he contends, "not an investment in the people in the community."

Austin Coleman disagrees.
"It's not a plan of the big and the powerful, but a plan of the people who live in the neighborhood," he says. "Everything in the plan is what folks in the neighborhood talked about and said they needed."

A smattering of projects are already under way in the Third Ward, and several developers and business ventures stand poised to commit to the community. One recently completed project is the Neighborhood Recovery Community Development Corporation's Nubia Square Apartments on Southmore. The 191-unit complex, which houses low- to moderate-income families, began leasing last November and has an occupancy rate of better than 90 percent.

Another development in full swing is Project Row Houses, the renovation of 22 houses into homes for local and national artists-in-residence and, eventually, a daycare center and a home for single mothers. There's also the San Jacinto Gardens Apartments renovation project, which after years of delays should be completely rehabilitated by the end of August.

Bank of America and Texas Commerce Bank have opened new branches in the Third Ward in the last year and a half, a welcome development to residents who once had to travel far outside their neighborhoods to make their deposits and withdrawals, and other financial institutions may soon follow. Negotiations are under way to bring a major grocery chain into the Third Ward -- there is none now -- as well as a possible shopping center development near Ennis and Blodgett. Paul Charles, executive director of the Neighborhood Recovery Community Development Corporation, is negotiating to start a joint retail center project with the MacGregor Community Development Corporation called the Renaissance Cooperative, possibly to be located at Scott and Old Spanish Trail. He says the project could break ground as early as next year.

All this comes amid the explosion of new townhouse and apartment construction in other inner-Loop areas, fueled by the growing desire of suburban Houstonians to migrate back to near-downtown areas. That demand for new housing could make the Third Ward, with its large stock of poor-quality housing that will be too costly to renovate, ripe for a "mass interest in residential development" by the end of the decade, predicts Gerald Womack, the president of Womack Development and Investment.

Womack's company has already contributed to the Third Ward's economic resurgence, having recently rehabbed a complex at Southmore and Ennis that had been a haven for crack dealers and turned it into housing for senior citizens.

The domino effect is what's hoped for: as a few investors brave the waters and stay afloat, more will likely jump in. It could take around $1 billion over 25 years to carry out a complete redevelopment of the community. TWRC board members don't put price tags on the overall effort, but they are confident funds can be found.

"It's not our role to give estimates to projects," says board member Paula Fredericks, a CPA. "Our role is a clearing-house. All you can do is set out options."

Public funding will be available, although the mood of Congress suggests it won't be flowing quite as freely in the future as it might have in the past. Eight of 12 census tracts in the Third Ward, for instance, recently were designated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development as an "Enhanced Enterprise Community," meaning it and other targeted areas in Houston will share $25 million from HUD, to be used for economic redevelopment.

Austin Coleman says the work of the Third Ward Redevelopment Council was one of the main reasons the area was granted the designation. To be eligible, he says, "you had to have individuals working to improve their communities."

But much of the redevelopment effort, if it comes to pass, will have to be borne by the private sector, and that's why people like Coleman will be germane to its success.

One tool for leverage is the Community Reinvestment Act, which was imposed in the late 1970s to keep banks from discriminating against the poor and minorities. But the act has only been vigorously enforced by banking regulators in the past few years, and the guidelines about exactly what financial institutions are supposed to be doing are ambiguous.

"Lot of banks just don't understand the communities," says Larry Hawkins, president and CEO of Unity National Bank, an African-American owned institution. "They will throw a lot of money at one project that they like, not really caring whether the community as a whole endorses or cares about the project."

Still, banks stand to capitalize on the estimated $256 million of disposable income in the Third Ward, and Hawkins says he expects more financing for smaller, well-planned investments.

"Once somebody realizes that an area is profitable for them," says state Representative Garnet Coleman, "that's when the good news spreads."

Not surprisingly, there are some in the Third Ward who don't expect the banks to deliver enough to make a difference. "I'd like to build in Third Ward," Robert Gilmore says, "but I don't have access to the land. So what assistance are you giving people like me?"

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