By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
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.
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 email@example.com.