Bulldozers at the Gate

Houston fiddles while its architectural and cultural heritage disappears

Klein perceives the proposed new ordinance as an assault by uptight aesthetes and busybodies on homeowners whose only crime is nonconformity. Typically there's no distracting him from the cause of liberty by pointing out that it's hardly unusual for people to complain when they have a pleasant expanse of grass outside their window one day and a brick wall there the next.

Nor is he pacified by the fact that the ordinance, which does indeed threaten fines of up to $500 a day, has never been enforced. He'll just slip you a newspaper clipping about Betty Deislinger, a 70-year-old woman who was cuffed and arrested at a historic commission meeting in Little Rock, Arkansas, because she refused to remove the burglar bars from her 1870s-era house.

"What we have today is a compromise, because it only denies the right to the use of your property for three months," he says. "But if the preservationists should be successful in getting what they want with this new law, we believe they'll come back and get other controls. It's an ongoing problem."

Al Morin wants to capture the Old Sixth Ward's past.
Deron Neblett
Al Morin wants to capture the Old Sixth Ward's past.

Klein and his supporters are worked up about two proposed amendments to the new ordinance in particular. One is the historical commission's "annual plan," which would identify buildings with historic significance that the commission would then try to designate as landmarks, with or without the owners' approval.

The other is a requirement that any new construction or restoration project in a historic district meet certain architectural guidelines that would regulate the appearance of a building. Klein points out that creation of a historic district requires the approval of only 67 percent of the property owners in the area, yet anyone who opposed the designation would still be subject to the guidelines. "I don't think anybody should be bound by controls they didn't agree to," Klein says.

Klein says people should conduct the proper due diligence and avoid neighborhoods without deed restrictions or that appear to be in the path of redevelopment. But above all, he believes, no one has the right to change the rules for everyone else. "Ultimately, I think you have to live with the fact that you can't control everything around you," he argues. "That's the way it is in real life. We don't have perfection."

Klein says his group has spread the word so thoroughly that it will be difficult for preservationists to have any more neighborhoods designated historic. That may be so, but it's also true that getting a historic designation from the city is a grueling process that many civic clubs will find too daunting to undertake.

First, to qualify, the majority of buildings inside the proposed district must be at least 50 years old. Once that's determined, someone has to research the history of the neighborhood, work up an architectural survey, determine the ownership of all the properties and take slide photographs of every building. After that, two-thirds of the property owners must sign a petition supporting creation of the district.

Before the city approves the designation, it must be determined that the area has historic significance -- that is, it must serve as a "visible reminder of the development, heritage and cultural and ethnic diversity of the city, state or nation." It also helps if someone famous, but dead, has any attachment to the area, or if something significant occurred there.

Bart Truxillo, a member of the historical commission who lives in the Norhill historic district, says Klein's warnings to every homeowner inside the Loop are a wasted effort. There isn't that much history left to protect in Houston, he says, so most homeowners don't have anything to fear from the ordinance. "I mean, it's so minuscule that it's laughable," he says. As for those people who resist having someone dictate what their house looks like or what kind of materials they can use for a renovation, Truxillo says, in essence, too bad. "They say, 'I don't want anybody telling me what kind of porch to put on my front porch,' " he says. "Well, duh! That's what it's all about, so that your front porch looks like it should if it's going to be a historic building."

Marty Lopez and Christine Hardin could be poster children for the fears of Klein and his property rights advocates. Early last year they bought an empty lot on the corner of Silver and Decatur streets in the Old Sixth Ward. They hired an architect, Chung Nguyen, to design their dream house and submitted his plans to the city planning department, as required by the ordinance.

One afternoon last September, Lopez appeared before the Houston Archeological & Historical Commission -- and was stunned to see that more than a dozen of his future neighbors had showed up to protest Chung's design. One by one they strode to the podium to accuse Lopez and Hardin of being "arrogant" and "insensitive" to the historic character of the Old Sixth Ward.

Jane Cahill, who owns three historic properties in the neighborhood, urged the commission to reject Chung's plans on what appeared to be a technicality. Apparently Lopez and Hardin hadn't quite closed the deal on the empty lot, raising Cahill's suspicions that Lopez and Hardin weren't the pleasant young couple they appeared to be.

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