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Coming in from the north, you have to drive past the chemical plants and refineries that mark Pasadena and La Porte, finally hitting open grassland as you continue your search. Coming from the south on Todville Road, you drive north from Kemah and Seabrook until the high-priced homes fronting Galveston Bay, with the BMWs and Mercedes filling two-car driveways, begin to give way to less-ostentatious houses and then to that same open space. And finally, there, past Pine Gully Park, past Maas's Nursery -- where odd plants and odder knickknacks fill the walls -- out there by the convenience store and the early-'60s subdivision sign, is the not-so-grand entrance to El Jardin Del Mar, "The Garden by the Sea."
Turn in, and you'll ease past kids on bicycles casually pedaling to nowhere in particular. Drive down El Jardin Street and you'll pass playgrounds with signs noting the presence of bird sanctuaries; you'll pass side streets where live oaks shade houses more concerned with comfort than with cutting-edge architectural design. Go on a few blocks, over that slight rise at the end of the street, and you'll find yourself at a breezy, unadorned, grassy park on the edge of Galveston Bay.
It's as if one of Houston's inner loop neighborhoods, the previously sleepy kind, about to be pounced on by developers eager to replace old homes with new condos, had somehow been parked by the Bay. It's an affordable, 400-home neighborhood that's hard to find, but well worth the effort.
Randy Barnett thought so. He purchased a house in El Jardin six months ago. "I drove the coastline all up and down Todville Road. I spent weekend after weekend looking for a place that was in my price range," he says. "Finally, I stumbled on this, and I couldn't believe it. I said to myself, it's not paradise, but it's something I can afford. I just thought it was one of the most scenic areas around."
The self-described "new-media designer" has only grown more fond of the funky place since moving in and discovering the neighborhood's laid-back attitude. "A lot of us are kind of throwback hippies here who love nature, but we've got chemical-plant workers, doctors, a little of everything, and everyone gets along because we all love nature and we all love the water."
Karen Laake, a single mom, feels the same way. She visited a friend in El Jardin a few years ago and immediately began saving up for a home there of her own. "No place in Houston lets you live this close to the water in a place that's affordable," she says.
She'd never heard of El Jardin, she says, until she visited her friend. She never knew where it was.
It won't be long, though, before it will be easy to find El Jardin. Those residents who are left can just tell visitors to follow the rumbling line of 18-wheelers grinding down Todville Road or along State Highway 146, perhaps thousands of trucks each day heading for a huge, noisy shipping terminal whose seven-story cranes make a new skyline during the day and a brightly lighted attraction at night as they service smoke-belching freighters registered under the flags (and pollution regulations) of some obscure Third World nation.
Right there -- at the 24-lane truck entrance to the dockyard, the one that operates 24 hours a day and lies just across what was once a sleepy rural road -- will be the beleaguered residents of El Jardin.
It was what no doubt will be, in the annals of the Battle for El Jardin, an exceedingly rare moment -- Charlotte Cherry was speechless.
The volatile, voluble 37-year-old genetic-research secretary had rounded up dozens of her neighbors May 26 for a special meeting of the Seabrook City Council. El Jardin is technically part of Pasadena (even if residents are full of anecdotes about having to give police directions to their place), but word about a possible development by the Port of Houston had leaked first to Seabrook.
The Port, a quasi-governmental authority responsible for the Ship Channel, the large wharves at Barbours Cut and other facilities, owns close to a thousand acres of empty land surrounding El Jardin, just across the Bayport Channel from Shoreacres. Port officials had asked Seabrook about the city's plans to build an amphitheater that, it turns out, would be affected by rail lines for a proposed Port project in the area.
El Jardin's neighborhood board had heard of a proposed Port project on the Bayport Channel that would be about 150 acres at most, but what residents saw at the Seabrook council meeting was of another scale entirely: seven wharves instead of one, on a dock fully 7,000 feet long; a container terminal about three times the 250 acres at Barbours Cut; a huge rail yard; widening of the area roads, and a 100-acre cruise terminal facility that could handle more than a million passengers a year.