The Great Land Grab

A nonprofit "charity" is pursuing millions in taxpayers' money to redevelop the Fourth Ward. The question for Houston Renaissance is, charity for whom?

Julio Laguarta stood in a busy hallway in the City Hall Annex, looking tense and uneasy. It was early October, but for the squat, burr-headed homebuilder, it was getting uncomfortably late in the game.

For almost two years, Laguarta had been quietly making deals to buy up an 80-block area in the Fourth Ward just west of downtown. By late last summer, he had negotiated earnest money contracts on roughly half the territory, some 1,100,000 square feet of the hardest-looking urban real estate in Houston.

In September, City Council had approved a plan by Houston Renaissance -- a private, nonprofit corporation Laguarta formed in 1994 -- to develop and sell home sites in the area, which happens to encompass land that was first settled by freed slaves. Since 1986, that land has been known as the Freedmen's Town Historic District, and though it's been reduced over the years to a neglected wasteland inhabited by less than 800 people, most of them very poor, it remains sacred ground to many black Houstonians.

Given Houston Renaissance's own history, it really shouldn't surprise anyone that the group has yet to acknowledge that significance. As a result, everything about the men behind Renaissance -- who they are, what they want to do, and how -- haunts their plan to make over one of the most coveted pieces of land in the city and alienates them from the very community they vow to save.

The idea of a private-sector organization rebuilding the urban core was first broached by Laguarta, who was a member of the Houston Planning Commission until it was recently revealed that he actually lived in Bellaire. Also involved in fashioning the initial concept was Billy Burge, a confidant of Mayor Bob Lanier and a suburban developer with a River Oaks address, who, at the time, was the chairman of Metro. In late 1994, Burge pitched Houston Renaissance to Lanier, who was currying favor with U.S. Secretary of Housing Henry Cisneros in anticipation of launching a series of inner-city revitalization projects.

The mayor liked what he heard, and the new organization attracted a wealthy, pedigreed board of directors who, like Laguarta, have business relationships with the local building and banking communities that are at least as solid as their political connections. No less than five of Renaissance's board members are in the real estate business, either as brokers, developers or builders. Two of Houston's most prominent construction companies -- the W.S. Bellows Corporation and P.G. Bell Company -- are represented on the board. The group's secretary and treasurer, Pat Kiley, is executive director of the city's largest association of contractors.

In November 1994, Laguarta announced that Renaissance's first project would be to rebuild an area bounded by Dallas, West Gray, Taft and Heiner streets. Shortly after that, the mayor's Neighborhoods to Standard program finally made it to the Fourth Ward; a whopping $9 million in street, curb and gutter and sewer reconstruction projects are now under way in the area, which hasn't seen any such improvements in at least two decades.

So last October, Julio Laguarta walked into Council chambers confident he would leave with a $3.4 million grant that Houston Renaissance would use to close on the land. But before that could happen, he received a crisp reminder that the Fourth Ward was unlike any real estate venture he or his colleagues had ever pursued.

As luck would have it, the Houston Renaissance grant appeared on Council's agenda a few weeks after the city had given Randall Davis, another politically wired private developer, a generous subsidy for his renovation of the Rice Hotel. That deal, a key project in Lanier's inner-city strategy, was criticized by three African-American councilmembers, Michael Yarbrough, Jew Don Boney and Judson Robinson III. They complained that Davis, who is white, had been given preferential treatment and a handout to build downtown housing for other well-off whites. (It didn't help that Davis gave Council no assurances that he would adhere to the city's minority hiring guidelines.)

Laguarta had to anticipate that his Fourth Ward project, which will include homes priced as high as $150,000, would rile the usual suspects on Council for several reasons -- not the least of which was that the Houston Renaissance plan has a lot more in common with Randall Davis and the Rice Hotel than it does with those who either live in Freedmen's Town or feel an obligation to preserve its African-American history.

Perhaps much more significant, however, is that Renaissance hopes eventually to cram at least 2,000 new homes into the area. That would essentially wipe out any vestige of the past, not to mention displace poor black and Hispanic residents for whom inexpensive housing options are limited. Moreover, the $3.4 million grant would put Houston Renaissance firmly in control of an area that is eligible to receive millions of dollars in various federal housing subsidies.

Given the stakes, Yarbrough, a young second-termer from Pleasantville, didn't hesitate a moment before exercising his right to be a contrarian. He immediately "tagged" consideration of the grant, delaying a vote on the award for one week.

Outside Council chambers, Laguarta commiserated with Jim Tipps, assistant director of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, over the thankless lot of the urban pioneer. They were standing near a wall, at the end of a short, narrow corridor. At the other end of the hallway were Jew Don Boney; Richard Johnson, chief aide to Yarbrough; and the Reverend D.Z. Coffield, a member of the Fourth Ward Ministers Alliance, which represents the interests of the area's 16 houses of worship. Their conversation was held in hushed tones, but was furiously animated. They were soon joined by Tipps's boss, Margie Bingham, who, as the city's housing director, is responsible for recommending which organizations receive federal economic development funds.

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