Bulldozers at the Gate

Houston fiddles while its architectural and cultural heritage disappears

In response, O'Brien has signed on to the fight for a stronger preservation ordinance. A languid but acerbic man, O'Brien clearly is not afraid of offending anyone; for example, he compares the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister whose appeasement of Adolf Hitler in 1939 paved the way for Germany's invasion of Poland.

"We're in this from a neighborhood perspective as opposed to historic preservation," he says. "For neighborhoods without deed restrictions, the preservation ordinance is the only tool they have to keep their neighborhoods from turning into piles of crap."

O'Brien has been setting up meetings across the city to gain support from homeowners for the amendments to the ordinance drawn up by the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association.

At First Presbyterian, Jane Cahill, who heads a preservation ordinance committee for the Sixth Ward group, gave a brief slide show that explains, in pictures, how the ordinance has failed her neighborhood. There are the empty lots where grand old homes once stood; the renovation projects that turned Victorians into abominations; and, of course, there's the house under construction by Marty Lopez and Christine Hardin.

As she shut off the projector, Cahill lamented the increased pace of "the march of the town house" through the Old Sixth Ward. "I can see the war between the ranchers and the settlers coming," she said.

For better or worse, the rhetoric employed by O'Brien and Cahill is reshaping the historic preservation debate. No longer is it being discussed in terms of the last-minute, building-by-building efforts that seem to engage so few people, but rather as something every homeowner in the city should care about. Whether City Council will take notice remains to be seen. For now, the proposed new ordinance is stalled in council's Neighborhood Protection & Quality of Life Committee, chaired by Annise Parker.

Parker hasn't scheduled public hearings on the ordinance yet, so it's unclear when the final version will make it to the full council. Meanwhile, the councilwoman is holding weekly meetings with "stakeholders" -- O'Brien and the homeowners association; Ramona Davis of the preservation alliance; Lynn Edmundson of Historic Houston; and J.D. Bartell of the Sixth Ward association (Cahill is on kibbutz in Israel until later this month).

The talks are aimed at reaching answers to two questions: Should property owners have the right to "opt out" of the law's restrictions with the proposed 180-day demolition delay? And should the certificate of non-designation remain in the law, as proposed, or should it be eliminated? O'Brien, Edmundson and Bartell say the demolition delay must be removed from the ordinance -- "no means no," as they put it. And, of course, the non-designation should be eliminated; it defeats the purpose of a historic preservation.

But if council decides, as it has in the past, to rely on the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, the new ordinance will take only the smallest of steps toward its ultimate objective. Davis says she supports the strongest preservation ordinance possible. But in her view, the city's political and business leaders are not prepared to fully embrace historic preservation.

"Are we ready to make that step that solidifies the value of preservation without giving people an opt-out? That would be wonderful, but I think it's optimistic," she says. "Our stance is, the council is not going to go for a 'no means no' right now. And we'd rather go for what we think we can get."

It's part of Al Morin's nature to be optimistic, and he thinks Davis is selling councilmembers short. No one could predict that people would be forced from their homes by redevelopment, he says, or that redevelopment would put the city's solid old neighborhoods in jeopardy. Now that it's obvious, all it will take is a little strength on their part to make it right, to make Houston the kind of city Morin has always imagined. That's what makes the debate over historic preservation so important to Morin.

"We've been talking about it for years, mostly to ourselves," he says. "It's talking about what we all share commonly, about what we can all see together as beautiful, what we can do together. I mean, hey, if you don't have a dream about what this world should be about, then you'd better get one."

While the "stakeholders" hash out the particulars of the proposed ordinance, Morin dreams, and all one has to do to understand that dream is to visit his house on Kane Street and look down at the deep-grained heart pine that was salvaged from the 100-year-old buildings that no longer stand in Market Square but that now covers the floor of his cavernous living room. "There's nothing historic about a 45-foot room," he'll tell you. "I just had to have the room because I love to dance."

To imagine the city Al Morin imagines is to sit, as he does every morning with his coffee, in the coolness of the lemon tree that shades every inch of his front lawn, and to listen as he tries to explain why preserving the Old Sixth Ward is so necessary. Last year, he begins, the Old Sixth Ward Neighborhood Association took part in a community cleanup along Washington Avenue. Later in the day, after most of the volunteers had gone home, Morin and a couple of his neighbors went to Mrs. Vazquez's house, which is next door to his on Kane Street.

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