Lovett? Or Leave It?

Can public opinion preserve what a preservation ordinance can't? Or: Follow the bouncing wrecking ball

On one hand, it's a story about property values, and "quality of life," and trees, and historic preservation (sort of) and about how all of these things are good, if you can find a way to hold on to them.

On another hand, it's a story about property rights, and free-market real estate development, and sweetheart deals (again: sort of) and about how all of these things are good as well, if you happen to be swinging the big end of the stick, as opposed to holding the short end.

And if there were a third hand, it might be used to turn up the heat in order to boil the story down to its barest bone, which is this: A whole bunch of residents of a Montrose-area neighborhood, tucked away behind the Contemporary Arts Museum, really don't want developer Frank Liu to raze two Berthea Street homes owned by the H. Malcolm Lovett Estate and replace them with high-density townhomes.

Such a razing, though, would be just fine and dandy with attorney Malcolm H. Lovett Jr., one of four heirs to the Lovett estate. On May 21, Lovett Jr. stood before Houston's Archaeological and Historical Commission and poor-mouthed the Lovett family legacy in an attempt to convince the commission to grant a demolition permit to Liu, who has contracted to purchase two adjacent lots of Lovett-owned property at 1210 and 1214 Berthea. (Liu's company, by the way, is named Lovett Homes. More on that later.)

Each lot boasts a 70-year-old home built by Malcolm Lovett Sr., who, as Lovett Jr. pointed out to the commission, was merely a short-term chairman of Rice's board of governors, and hardly an imposing historical figure. The homes, meanwhile, are collectively in need of renovations estimated by Lovett in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and are architecturally modest to boot. As a preservationist package, Lovett Jr. argued, the properties don't merit special consideration in the eyes of the Lovett heirs, and "we think we're in the best position to make that estimation."

Perhaps so, but when interior designer Melinda Walton looked out the window of her residence at 1213 Berthea one February morning and saw two young men surveying the lots across the street, plans in hand, she came outside to ask what was going on, and quickly arrived at a different estimation. That's when, she says, a man in the employ of Frank Liu told of the developer's plans for the property. It was the first Walton had heard of the impending changes, and she asked him about the beautiful old trees -- live oak, water oak, willow oak, magnolia, pineapple guava, palm, pine, a record-setting Chinese tallow -- that dot the properties and provide a canopy of shade.

"Yeah," Walton says the worker responded. "It's a shame about those trees."
Walton is presumably not a hard-core stickler on issues of historic preservation. Her own home, built in the Cape Cod clapboard style by a son of Captain James A. Baker, remains sheathed in stucco from a 1993 remodeling. But a tool is a tool, and Walton didn't want her view of two old homes and old growth replaced with modern townhomes towering over bald lots. She also wasn't thrilled with the prospect of her neighboring single-family residences being replaced with up to ten townhomes, five on each lot -- and all the traffic that density implies -- on lots that butt up against the dead end of a narrow four-block-long street without so much as a cul-de-sac to its name.

So Walton set about researching her neighborhood, documenting the tangled vines of Baker and Lovett family residences in the area, and those families' influence on nearby Rice University. She and her neighbors uncovered any number of arguably good reasons why the neighborhood should be preserved and the Lovett lots unrazed. Through Councilmember Martha Wong, a forester with the Parks and Recreation Department was enlisted to survey the landscaping, and a forester recommended that 11 of 1214's 25 trees, including what seems to be the largest Chinese tallow in Harris County, be made the subjects of "an effort to preserve," though the trees are all on private property and are thus immune to regulation.

The neighbors compiled impressive biographies and residential histories of the Lovett and Baker clans and enlisted architectural historians to bolster the homes' reputations. They networked with activists in other parts of town who had felt put upon by unwanted development, and sent heartfelt letters filled with laments for a dying quality of life to city officials, and to Frank Liu.

And in the course of one frantic weekend, they set in motion a petition for historic designation of the Turner addition that was signed by 76 percent of the neighborhood's residents, and delivered a completed application for historic designation to the city Planning Department at 8 a.m., April 20, beating Liu's demolition application by days.

As a result, a historic designation is pending, and under Houston's 1995 Historic Preservation Ordinance, such circumstances dictate that the city's Archaeological and Historical Commission must grant a "certificate of appropriateness" prior to any demolition. That certificate is what Lovett, who was present, and Liu, who was not, sought at the May 21 hearing. But despite the testimony of Lovett, and perhaps in deference to the testimonies of some 25 neighbors and allied supporters, including state Representative Debra Danburg and City Councilman Joe Roach (who claimed to have seen the preservationist light after moving to the Inner Loop from Clear Lake City last year), that's precisely what Liu didn't get.

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