By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The scene is like a New Yorker cartoon come to life:
Chicken wire and chain-link fences protect a pair of small run-down houses where three scruffy mutts laze beneath fruit trees and clotheslines in a mostly grassless yard. The disheveled property is a tiny island in the huge, freshly paved parking lot of a gleaming, big-box shopping mall.
Sawyer Heights Village, just south of Interstate 10 at the Taylor Street exit, will open in July. Two miles northwest of downtown, the outdoor shopping center will include a Target, chain restaurants, apparel shops and banks. It's a dream come true for nearby Heights residents.
But living in the parking lot hasn't been easy, says Oscar Trevino Jr., who owns the two houses and resides in one with his ailing 70-year-old mother.
As the grand opening approaches, Oscar says, "the banging and banging and banging" of construction has finally subsided. But now he has another bone to pick: People who come to check out the new mall end up circling his property with puzzled looks.
"Has anyone driven in the parking lot of the new Target yet?" reads a posting on the Houston Architecture Info Forum Web site. "There are 2 old houses that are smack-dab in the middle of the parking lot! It is the oddest thing!"
Oscar, who spends hours each day tending his yard, hides behind trees to avoid the rubberneckers.
"I feel like an alien the way they look at me," he says. "Instead of Target, we're the attraction."
Oscar and his eight siblings grew up on the property, also known as 2414 and 2416 Shearn Street. They lived in one house, while the other was used for the family business, Trevino and Sons Mattresses, where they build custom beds.
There's nothing remarkable about the 60-year-old structures. They're single-story clapboard houses, each less than 1,000 square feet, painted tan with dark brown trim.
Each is listed in "poor" or "very poor" condition and appraised at about $75,000, according to county records. They're marked by peeling paint, broken steps and bulky air conditioners teetering outside the windows.
The yard is filled with an assortment of fruit trees, including avocado, fig, grapefruit, lemon, mango and pear. "This one I grew from the seeds of an apple I bought at H-E-B," Oscar says.
The Trevino family has owned the property for 45 years. Growing up, they say, Shearn was a sleepy, dead-end street in a neighborhood that was generally overlooked. Few cars ever passed by. City services often never came.
With its stunning view of the downtown skyline, the property sits in one of today's hot spots, says real estate agent Kelly Williams. It's located between the Heights and the fast-gentrifying Washington Avenue corridor.
"In five to ten years," Williams predicts, "the whole demographic of that area will have changed."
In August commercial photographer Mark Green built a swanky new production studio on Sawyer Street near the Trevino property. "I wanted to get back into a more artistic, industrial area," Green explains. Now he's faced with the challenge of "trying to be creative and artistic next to a Target."
The Trevinos were first approached about selling their property some two years ago.
Property Commerce, a Houston-based retail developer, gobbled up 30 acres of mostly industrial land occupied by large abandoned warehouses. Also included in the purchase were several small businesses and single-family homes.
Many homeowners took the money and ran. There were no protests, no petition drives. No one cried foul.
But the Trevinos quietly resisted. Oscar Trevino was particularly adamant about holding on to the property. He never married, and had lived there with his parents for most of his life. He had a close relationship with his father, who died in 2001.
His eight siblings, who all live nearby and return to the house several times a week for dinner, are also sentimental about it.
"Our memories mean more than money," insists 42-year-old younger brother Manuel.
Oscar says a broker representing Property Commerce shadowed him for months.
Every afternoon Oscar visits his father's grave site at Hollywood Cemetery. The broker would follow him there, Oscar says, and to the nearby storefront church where his father served as pastor for two decades.
"I want to talk to you about your property," the broker would say, according to Oscar. "You don't know what you're passing up. You're being selfish. Your sister needs a new Suburban."
Chad Moss, a broker for Property Commerce and a point person on the development project, says that broker is no longer retained by the company.
"We never endorsed that; we never supported that," Moss says. "You just don't do that."
Eventually the Trevinos had to face facts. If they didn't leave voluntarily, they would be forced out. They say that the broker had threatened them with an eminent domain lawsuit.
Plus, the ordeal was a strain on their diabetic mother. Jackhammers and bulldozers kept her awake all day. The electricity and phone frequently went out.
If they had to go, they might as well cash in. It's likely that the homeowners who held out were awarded a significantly larger purse than those who caved early on.