Lovett? Or Leave It?

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

Still, Houston's preservation ordinance is seen by preservationists as largely toothless, because in ruling to deny the demolition application, the Archaeological and Historical Commission did, and can do, little (actually, nothing) more than mandate a 90-day moratorium and "cooling-off period," after which Liu and Lovett can proceed with their contracted arrangements unmolested.

And while Walton and friends uncovered plenty of feel-good reasons for wanting the Lovett homes to stay and the developer to get lost, they also uncovered at least one good reason, aside from 1214's rusting cast-iron plumbing, that Lovett would want to sell, and sell to Liu. His sister, Mary Hale McLean, is not only a co-heir to the property at 1214 Berthea, but also, as a broker with John Daugherty Realtors, holds the exclusive listing for the property's post-demolition development. McLean stands to get paid on both ends if the proposed development of five townhomes (on the block for an estimated $500,000 to $600,000 apiece) comes to fruition.

Of course there's nothing illegal, or even necessarily untoward, about that savvy arrangement. There's nothing necessarily disingenuous about Malcolm H. Lovett's Jr.'s assertions that his childhood home at 1214 isn't historically noteworthy; it wasn't even the most famous Lovett, after all, who lived there. And there's most certainly nothing inherently wrong with a developer trying to turn a buck into ten, which is what developers do. These are simply the realities of a real estate market booming so hard and fast that contractors can't keep up with cement demand.

In the court of public opinion, however, the venue into which Melinda Walton and her neighbors have steered this issue, there's something distressing in Lovett's underestimation of the property's importance. It's a distress made more acute when combative attorney Jim Moriarty -- who has invested heavily in the neighborhood and claims to have represented clients against Liu on multiple occasions -- points out that Liu named his company Lovett Homes after the residential college in which Liu lived as a Rice undergrad, a residential college itself named for Malcolm Lovett's grandfather, Edgar Odell Lovett.

For his part, Liu isn't likely to win any popularity contests in the neighborhood, and he consequently avoids press where possible. An earlier attempt to develop a historic music conservatory on Milford drew such protests that the developer chose to back out of the deal (the building is currently being renovated as a private home). And Moriarty, asked what his suits against Liu involved, responds with a curt "biodegradable foundations." Press requests for an interview with Liu drew an invitation to send a faxed list of questions, which in turn prompted a dissembling faxed reply that failed to address a majority of the inquiries, while presenting, in part, a corporate mission statement: "Our business is to construct quality homes in welcoming communities."

Ultimately, it may turn out that the Historic Preservation Ordinance's "toothless" 90-day cooling-off period is all that's needed for public opinion to step in and do its work. Councilman Roach met with Liu and Lovett on May 26 to urge the pursuit of an amicable, and preservationist, solution. And as the Press goes to press, Walton's husband, Thomas Larry Smith, reports that Liu and Lovett -- neither eager to be perceived as the big, bad heavy -- are crunching numbers to present a coalition of residents with an option to buy the lot at 1214 (1210 is currently occupied by Lovett's godfather, I.M. Wilford, 95, who holds a lifetime estate in the house), and thus steward the property. Smith confirms the existence of a group of interested buyers with tentative plans, should a reasonable opportunity present itself, to renovate the existing homes for resale -- presumably without destroying the trees.

But it won't likely be cheap. Though no concrete offer is expected to hit the table until shortly after publication of this week's Press, all involved are aware that Lovett and Liu will be asking not only for the fair market value of the 1214 lot, but for enough to cover Liu's architectural planning expenses and Mary Hale McLean's unrealized brokerage fees as well.

Which will make 1214 an expensive piece of preservation. And without a beefed-up preservation ordinance -- which Walton claims is her ultimate goal, and yet which seems unlikely in the immediate future -- the fight's not going to get any cheaper when the collective attention turns next door to 1210. Mr. Wilford still lives there, and intends -- as is allowed by agreement -- to live there until his death. But last month, Liu went ahead and applied for a demolition permit for that property as well.

E-mail Brad Tyer at

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