Bulldozers at the Gate

Houston fiddles while its architectural and cultural heritage disappears

"I couldn't get a loan to do the work," he explains. "The house had zero value, and the land just wasn't worth enough. It was the same for everybody back then. Nowadays the banks lobby you to borrow money."

Indeed, every 5,000-square-foot lot in the Old Sixth Ward, which is located a short walk northwest of downtown, represents a small fortune today: Buyers can expect to pay upwards of $100,000 just for the land. As a result, like many of the enclaves in Houston's inner city, the Old Sixth Ward, which many consider to be the most distinctive, is caught between what it once was and what it is becoming.

In 1978 the Old Sixth Ward was the first Houston neighborhood to be designated a national historic district. Roughly 300 homes built between the 1880s and the 1920s had managed to survive, many of which were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But in the last two decades, about 120 of those homes have been demolished; if more than half the original 300 are destroyed, the Old Sixth Ward could lose its status as a national landmark.

To be sure, many of the original structures were lost when, like Al and Diane Morin, the owners couldn't get home improvement loans. But while it has been much easier the past few years for the Morins and others to restore the Old Sixth Ward's historic structures, those efforts have collided with the increasing demand for near-downtown property. Moreover, the price of land in the neighborhood has compelled developers to clear the lots and build a couple of town homes to maximize their returns.

"The given is that developers are going to come in and say, 'Hmmm, you've got a lot of tear-downs around here,' " says Morin. "But we're talking about the survival of this place as we know it. A lot of people are willing to take credit for all this economic growth, but no one's taking responsibility for the fallout."

In an attempt to discourage future demolitions, the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association, of which Morin is president, applied for and received designation as a city historic district in 1998. The city designation is supposed to offer protection under a local ordinance aimed at preserving historic buildings. So far, though, the law hasn't stopped the demolition of a single historic structure in the Old Sixth Ward or, for that matter, anywhere else in Houston.

The preservation ordinance went on the books in 1995, but not before city planners turned the law into a running joke by giving property owners two ways to dodge it. First, while the Houston Archeological & Historical Commission, the 12-member panel that administers the law, has the power to deny a demolition permit, the property owner can simply wait 90 days, then legally tear down the structure anyway. A more expedient way around the ordinance is to apply for a "certificate of non-designation" from the city planning department. The non-designation, which is routinely granted if the building hasn't already been given landmark status, allows the property owner to proceed with demolition without first appearing before the historical commission.

The inherent weakness of the ordinance has made it impossible to enforce. Not a single citation has ever been issued, not a nickel in fines has ever been levied. Meanwhile, a number of antiquated homes with distinguished-sounding names -- Allen-Paul, Ross Sterling, Brosius-Alexander, DeGeorge -- have been razed, to say nothing of how thoroughly Freedmen's Town, a 40-block neighborhood built and settled by former slaves, has been scraped clean.

From the moment the ordinance was passed, preservation advocates, including the historical commission itself, realized that it was powerless to save the city's architectural and cultural heritage. Three years ago they began revising the law, a process that will culminate later this spring, when City Council considers a series of amendments to the ordinance.

But as it stands now, the proposed new ordinance offers only a slight improvement over the existing one. For example, the 90-day demolition delay has been extended to a proposed 180 days. And the new ordinance still would allow property owners to avoid a hearing before the historical commission by securing a certificate of non-designation from city planners.

When the proposed amendments were released by city planners last August, Morin and the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association immediately began drafting their own revisions to the ordinance. The most significant of their proposals would eliminate both the demolition delay and the certificate of non-designation. In recent weeks Morin and others from the neighborhood have been lobbying councilmembers, other preservationists and Inner Loop civic clubs to support the Old Sixth Ward association's amendments. So far, the reception has been decidedly cautious. It seems no one yet knows the answer to the basic question: Is Houston ready for a historic preservation ordinance that actually preserves history?

Al Morin believes the answer has to be yes. Otherwise, the ethnic and economic diversity that the city's leaders so often tout -- and that represents the true heritage of Houston's inner city -- will disappear.

Less than a year after they moved to the Old Sixth Ward, Al and Diane shut down work on their Kane Street house to help raise money for the first St. Joe's Old Sixth Ward Fun & Food Fest, a culture and arts festival sponsored by St. Joseph's Catholic Church, at the corner of Kane Street and Houston Avenue.

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