By Jeff Balke
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Eventually Silvers became so frustrated by the lack of new-home construction in St. George Place that he formed Ironwood Homes and started building houses himself. While that helped get the project off the ground, and has brought other builders into the area, Silvers says it's not something he planned or even wanted to do.
"I'm not a developer, I'm an investor," he says.
On a recent morning Silvers gave a tour of Tax-Increment Reinvestment Zone No. 1 that, by all appearances, should have been an opportunity to show off all that he has accomplished with St. George Place. Big, beautiful new houses line more than a half-dozen rebuilt streets, from Richmond north to Fayette, from Sage west to Yorktown. More new homes are under construction on almost every block. New sidewalks have been built, new trees planted. The neighborhood exudes a stately elegance.
But as Silvers guided his white Mercedes sedan up and down the streets, he seemed to grow angrier. It's the same anger that has been gnawing at him for years now.
"Just look at that," he growled, pulling up in front of a 1940s-era ranch house on Navarro Street. "Who is going to want to move in next door to a house like that?"
From an aesthetic perspective, Silvers has a point. The juxtaposition of low-slung ranch houses interspersed with towering multistory brick manses gives St. George Place the look of a bad haircut. That said, things could be a lot worse: Lamar Terrace was a frightfully neglected neighborhood. The nastiest structures have been torn down or renovated (Silvers actually complains about the fact that some investors have fixed up their properties), and none of the front-yard mechanics that used to populate the neighborhood are in business anymore.
None of this seems to make Silvers feel better, though. St. George Place is an impressive scene, but all Silvers can see is what hasn't been done. All he sees is the two dozen 50-year-old houses he doesn't own, most of which, he says, have been purchased by speculators. That the structures haven't been torn down yet is something of an insult to Silvers, who says they continue to exist "just to spite me."
One gets the sense that, after nine years of involvement with tax-increment reinvestment, almost nothing would please Silvers. But he has borne some very real costs. Time is money in real estate, and Silvers has had to carry the expense of land he bought more than a decade ago. Not only was he forced to start his own home-building company, but early on Silvers sold his lots well below market value in order to entice other builders to take a chance in the neighborhood.
Silvers also was required to put up almost $800,000 of his own money to jump-start the street improvements in 1992. He was promised reimbursement, though he has yet to receive it. Nonetheless, Silvers still has a way to go before he can put St. George Place behind him. He still owns 37 lots, which is why the sight of the older homes in the neighborhood still riles him.
"I wish I had never done this deal," he says. "I'll never make as much money as I should have. I'm very proud of the homes, very proud of what's happened over here, but I'm also feeling a little disillusioned."
David Hawes, a consultant who manages the day-to-day operations of the St. George Place TIRZ (he wasn't a party to Silvers's lawsuit), has been involved with the project almost as long as Silvers. A former city official with the Finance & Administration Department, he helped structure the 1992 bond deal for the TIRZ.
Hawes acknowledges that St. George Place has developed much more slowly than anticipated, primarily because other landowners in the zone either refused to sell their land or asked too much for it. As for eminent domain, Hawes says, city officials would have to approve its use. So far, they've been reluctant to take property to benefit Silvers.
"Robert Silvers is a good citizen," Hawes says. "He did the right thing, and he should be credited for his vision. But you can't control that which you do not own."
Hawes says that property values have gotten to the point where owners are more willing to sell. Home builders are lining up to start constructing homes on the west side of the zone, but the utilities and streets need to be upgraded first. Hawes says that because there are almost as many landowners as lots, there is no single developer willing to fund the infrastructure improvements needed. That's why the city has had to issue the additional bonds.
As for why the development that has taken place so far hasn't generated enough revenue to continue the project, Hawes can only shrug and offer the simplest of explanations.
"This was the city's first TIRZ," Hawes says. "It was new to everybody. "
Tax-increment reinvestment is no longer new to the city of Houston. Since approving the St. George TIRZ more than nine years ago, the city has created 19 more zones, encompassing more than 7 percent of the city's taxable land. Originally envisioned by state legislators as a tool for urban renewal, the city has strung TIRZs from southwest Houston to Kingwood, from east downtown to the far west suburbs.