Fourth Ward or Bust

Houston Renaissance still hasn't secured private financing to redevelop the Fourth Ward, and its time may be running out

According to the loan agreement, the financing would be secured by the Fourth Ward land that Houston Renaissance already has purchased, plus a $1.5 million guaranty from HHFC. Some Renaissance board members are concerned that Stevens would commit public money to collateralize a loan that has terms they consider onerous.

Stevens, for his part, sees no problem with the financing of the project, saying that only a "few technical issues" need to be settled before the loan is finalized. And while some Renaissance board members believe his service on the Bank United board constitutes a conflict of interest, Stevens says he's had no role in the institution's decisions on the loan. His interest in the project, he explains, is solely as a "proponent of affordable housing."

Nothing of the backstage maneuvering over the Houston Renaissance project was revealed when Fourth Ward residents and others with something to say about the project gathered at Antioch Baptist Church. Among those present were U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and City Councilmen Jew Don Boney and John Castillo, all of whom can count parts of the Fourth Ward in their districts. The elected officials presumably are aware of the deadlines facing the project and of Renaissance's need for more financing. But if they were worried about the public money at stake, they didn't mention it at Antioch Baptist.

Instead, Lee tried to set the mood by applauding "the rainbowness of this room," and by urging the participants to find common ground.

"I think one thing we need to emphasize is that we all love the Fourth Ward-Freedmen's Town area," said the congresswoman. "Unity should be the goal."

And maybe it was to the assortment of white bureaucrats, builders and sycophants who were eating pastries and drinking coffee on the fringes of the crowd. Among them were Stevens; Doug O. Williams, the assistant to special assistant Stevens; architect Frank Kelly, the board chairman of Houston Renaissance; and Bob Eury, the executive director of Central Houston, a partnership of downtown businesses and landowners.

But most of them, apparently confident that David Lee would not promise something that couldn't be delivered, were gone by the time Fourth Ward advocates began to step up to the microphone in the center of the chapel.

Lee knew enough to agree with residents that Freedmen's Town, the former slave settlement sacred to the city's African-American community, should be the cornerstone of the redevelopment. The master plan, he said, would take full aesthetic advantage of the area's distinctive bungalows and shotgun shacks, as well as its narrow, leafy streets. The final product would also offer some physical lesson on the Fourth Ward's spiritual link to black Houstonians.

But whether this celebration of roots is spread throughout the ward or reduced to an eight-block theme park, as Renaissance has proposed, has nothing to do with a regard for history. Certainly, some historic structures unique to Freedmen's Town will be preserved -- not as monuments, but as selling points. There will probably be no more than enough to charm buyers to the new Fourth Ward's planned concentration of 2,000 houses and trendy townhomes.

Most sellers of the land Houston Renaissance has acquired since March, when it began borrowing down on the $3.4 million put up by the HHFC, were absentee owners who were pleased to accept $5 or $6 a square foot for their property. More likely than not, the rental homes on that land will be torn down, forcing the displacement of the majority of the residents.

The dozen or so owners who still occupy their houses might get a buyout offer from Houston Renaissance, or they might be able to stay as residents of whatever is left of Freedmen's Town Historic District, if their houses are in good enough shape to preserve.

Jacqueline Beckham has lived on Gillette Street for 34 years, and she's under no illusion that her modest desire to stay put matters anymore. Nor does she doubt Houston Renaissance regards "community participation" as a necessary indulgence -- inconvenient, but worth it to put the new Fourth Ward beyond the financial means of its current residents.

Beckham's participation at the Antioch Baptist meeting was brief and to the point: "Mr. Lee," she said, "you've stated and restated how you are new to this issue. Well, I can tell you, this is nothing but the same old stuff. We've been here again and again and again. If the developers had any love for our community, they'd have come to us long ago."

But the truth is that a "new Fourth Ward" is closer to reality than it's ever been -- just a few signatures and a $7.2 million loan away. The banks' terms, however, are intimidating.

Should Renaissance manage to somehow meet the most pressing obligations -- a master plan by mid-August, $3.7 million more in Fourth Ward land purchases and the sale of 36 lots by the end of September -- it's still not off the hook. The banks want the nonprofit to have generated $8.3 million in land sales by the end of 1999.

If Renaissance fails to satisfy those requirements, the most obvious penalty is default. The banks would then assume ownership of at least $3.4 million in Fourth Ward land -- but with all affordable housing restrictions removed, as stipulated by the loan agreement. Private developers would then be free to exercise their own vision, unencumbered by bureaucratic meddling.

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