By Aaron Reiss
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By Dianna Wray
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Montrose's leafy, languid, mid-density mix of early-century bungalows and small, affordable, garden-style, postwar apartment complexes is under siege. Looming some four stories above traditional homes on the once low-rise residential streets, the outsize, unsubtle town homes for upwardly mobile, suburban-conditioned buyers are taking over. And there appears to be no way to stop them. Real estate economics, Montrose's design scheme and a hands-off city government all are conspiring to aid their invasion.
Just about all of the original lots in the Montrose were 50 feet wide by 100 feet deep. But the skyrocketing price of land in the neighborhood, typically about $150,000 per lot, has made building new single-family homes prohibitive. "It makes the cost comparable to what one could buy in West University or Southampton," says Tim Surratt, a sales agent at Greenwood King Properties, who has sold his share of monster Montrose town houses. "And single-family buyers, naturally, prefer those single-family neighborhoods."
So, on those Montrose blocks where deed restrictions haven't prevented lot subdivision, the town houses -- two to a lot; three, if it's on a corner -- have moved in.
"In the past couple of years it's gotten particularly worse," Surratt notes. "Where not that long ago builders would be able to assemble a string of lots at a bulk-style price and perhaps reduce density or, at the least, make the entire stretch look the same, today landowners know that demand for their property is so great they're not going to sell to anyone who doesn't offer them full market value."
But it's not just the drive for high-density housing that has pushed Montrose town houses to such absurd altitudes. It's also the fact that they've been plopped ungraciously atop giant garages that take up the bulk of a lot's surface area. "Unlike the Heights, Montrose never had any alleys," explains Surratt. "That immediately limits a builder's or an architect's options for parking." Even more constraining is a recent city ordinance requiring garages to be set back 17 feet from the sidewalk, so that cars parked in driveways won't force pedestrians out into the street. "That has made it impossible to put any other rooms on the ground floor," says Surratt.
Architect William Cannady, who designed an award-winning 36-unit town-house development at Bagby and Anita in the 1970s and is now on the faculty of Rice University's School of Architecture, points the finger at Houston city government for the upscale assault on the Montrose aesthetic. "Other cities make it easy for redevelopment corporations to do things like assemble land for small, residential block or neighborhood garages, so builders can have more options in their designs," he points out. "But," he says with a smile, "that requires enlightened political leaders who care about things other than themselves."
To see what Montrose town-house design might be, if Montrose were a different neighborhood or the city had a different government, one need only drive down Westmoreland Street to its dead end at U.S. 59. There sit a dozen two-year-old, two-story, exemplary "neotraditional" town homes. No garages are visible, and wide, deep porches flank the street-level front doors.
"This had been the site of the Staiti Mansion, which was relocated to Sam Houston Park in 1986," says real estate broker and land planning consultant Suzanne Page-Pryde, who negotiated the sale of the site to Parkwood Builders and the design of the development with the Westmoreland Civic Association. "It was 125 feet deep and had side-street access, which allowed us to build an alley driveway in the rear for the garages," Page-Pryde explains. "And the civic association's insistence that the homes appear historically compatible with the rest of the neighborhood was responsible for their front porches and other Victorian-era design elements."
Apologists for the towering Montrose town homes compare them with the 19th-century brownstones in East Coast cities that regularly rise three or four floors above street level and whose main entrances often sit at the end of an outdoor staircase. The familiar refrain: "Houston land prices are just catching up."
But anyone who has walked through Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square, Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle or New York City's Greenwich Village knows there is a difference that is not of degree between them and the new Montrose. Not only is there unity and coherence in the designs of adjacent town homes in those neighborhoods, but when those homes' front doors do rise above the street, their rise is not so overwhelming. Rather than sitting above a ground-level garage, the main floor rests atop a partially below-grade level of rooms, whose facade is continuous with and architecturally integrated into that of the rest of the home.
Even with Houston's flooding problems, it's possible to build below-grade garages, which helps reduce the shock to the streetscape provoked by ten-foot stairways leading up to front doors. The builders of a short row of otherwise typical town homes on Saint Street just north of Alabama made a respectable attempt to rescue their property's garages by lowering them into the ground and giving the garage doors the same style considerations that most builders give front doors. If Montrose has to have town homes, at least let them be more like these.
David Smith has written extensively about urban planning for publications in Washington, D.C.