Lenwood Johnson's Last Stand

APV is more than his home. It's his life. No wonder he can't let it go without one final struggle.

"We had spent several years trying and got black and white organizations together," Johnson says. "We might have had ten by the time the Houston Housing Concern was formed in 1985. But within a year, they had maybe 50 more signed up. The white suburban group was all the difference in the world."

Six years have passed since Lenwood Johnson and his band of happy preservationists drove a stake into HACH's plan to tear down Allen Parkway Village. Today, another demolition application sits before HUD, awaiting completion of a "master plan" to redevelop what is no longer just a parcel of coveted real estate.

"It's a tremendous piece of land," says Jeff Baloutine. "But in general, it's a symbol of an awful lot of things in Houston. I would imagine it represents the frustrations of people in this city not being able to get things done. I don't know that it's directed at Lenwood -- I'm sure there are people who think that way. He's the guy that's kept this going."

That, of course, makes him the guy who can end it.

On November 9, at the Allen Parkway Village Community Building, in the auditorium where, for years, APV tenants planned the defense of their home, HACH sponsored the first of four forums to discuss ideas for the "Allen Parkway Village Community Campus." This latest redevelopment plan is based on the "Stakes in the Ground," a set of nine principles hashed out in Washington in June 1994 by HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, Lenwood Johnson and Catherine Roberts, a social activist and creator of the community campus concept.

The idea is to transform Allen Parkway Village into a self-contained community. One-third of the residents would be mentors -- police officers, nursing and medical students, teachers and social service providers -- who would work with the low-income residents who would make up the balance of the population.

Roberts' campus plan calls for the preservation of all of APV's units, at least until a final plan for the 37-acre complex is complete. Even then, changes would be limited to reducing the density of the housing and accommodating the clinic and other support services.

Crucial to the concept, as far as Roberts and Johnson are concerned, is tenant involvement -- both in the planning process and later, when the campus would be run by a management group composed of residents. And if you listened to the opening comments made by housing officials at the first community forum, you might think the city, HACH, HUD and the residents are all finally on the same page.

"This is an inclusive process," declared HACH director Joy Fitzgerald. "I want to make sure to highlight that at the beginning."

Highlight it? She and HACH were bludgeoning people with it. Fitzgerald was followed by two independent contractors hired by HACH to, as one of them described it, "reach out as much as possible to all groups impacted." The other, introduced as the "quarterback of the participation process," talked about arming APV's children with disposable cameras so they could photograph troubled areas that would be eliminated.

Even Merrill Diamond, of master planners Tise, Hurwitz & Diamond, bowed to the APV residents, flattering them as having "pioneered" the community campus concept.

But the rhetoric inside was soon drowned out by the shouts of about 15 protesters outside. Led by Lenwood Johnson, demonstrators -- a few elderly white women, several Asians, blacks and a couple of men with hair down to their waists -- carried signs and screamed anti-demolition slogans: "For the needy, not the greedy!" "Down with Lanier!" "Renovation, not demolition!"

The demonstration was part of Lenwood Johnson's latest plan of attack: the boycott. As far as Johnson was concerned, HACH and HUD had reneged on everything that had been promised the tenants by Cisneros, and were merely paying lip service to the notion of resident involvement in the master planning process. To participate in what he calls "this sham" would be to allow HACH to demolish APV and say the residents had acquiesced.

Johnson's biggest complaint concerns a $300,000 planning grant that has been promised to the residents by HUD. The money is to be used to pay architects, social service workers and others who, as a team, would help the residents devise the campus plan and determine how it should be implemented.

"Developers are not qualified to create a community," says Catherine Roberts, the creator of the campus concept. "We decided that we would create it and fit it to the existing structures. We felt no need to change the buildings."

According to Roberts, Cisneros had promised the $300,000 would come directly from HUD. Once completed, the plan put together by Roberts, her team and the residents would serve as the blueprint for the master plan and the redevelopment of APV. But apparently, that agreement fell apart almost as soon as it was struck.

Within weeks of the June 1994 "Stakes in the Ground" compact, a HUD official met with residents and the campus planning team in Houston. The official announced that the $300,000 would have to come through HACH -- and to get it, the residents' team would have to sign off on HACH's $36.6 million urban development grant. Trouble was, that grant was tied to a 1993 proposal that called for the demolition of 850 of APV's units.

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