Center of Dispute

The well-dressed lawyers, architects and civic club leaders gathered in the meeting room at the Judson Robinson Jr. Community Center near Hermann Park last week buzzed with anger, anxiety and suspicion. Many of the attendees reside in Riverside Terrace along South MacGregor -- the River Oaks of Houston's black community -- and on this evening they exhibited all the classic symptoms of a severe attack of NIMBYitis. That's shorthand for the "Not In My Back Yard" syndrome whose outbreaks are more typically found in middle- or upper-class white communities threatened with having a low-income housing project, or a halfway house, or a jail placed in the neighborhood.

On this evening, the focus of concern was the future of St. Anthony Center, an empty ten-story building with attached chapel situated on 25 landscaped acres that sit east of the Medical Center on the west side of Highway 288 at South MacGregor. An order of nuns had the center built in 1966 as a retirement home for the elderly; a quarter of a century later, a group of prominent, but anonymous, Houstonians headed by Herman M. Frietsch bought the center with the idea of converting it into a drug treatment facility. That plan fell through, but recently a group of state, county and local officials began eyeing the property as a possible site for a one-stop complex for Harris County's troubled youth. Supporters of the plan like to characterize the proposed facility as educational in nature; to neighborhood opponents, the vision that quickly came to mind was that of a youth jail or boot camp. And while St. Anthony Center is relatively isolated from Riverside Terrace by the freeway and surrounding vacant land, the area's residents view the projected conversion as just one more threat to their property values.

While the notion of the youth center remains just that, a notion -- the project has yet to be funded, and exists only as a concept paper -- Riverside Terrace residents who gathered at the Judson Robinson Center feared that a little bit of history was about to repeat itself. In the 1980s, despite neighborhood opposition, Harris County built a psychiatric hospital that borders on Riverside Terrace. The specter of adding to that with a hard-core youth offender facility was enough to bring Carolyn Hall, wife of former Metro Chief Anthony Hall, to her feet at the Community Center meeting, her voice trembling with emotion. "The Riverside district should not become a place where you throw your people to be locked up because they cannot function elsewhere," Hall declared. "We are overloaded, we are not interested and it cannot be here." Harris County Council of Organizations member Percy Robinson added, "We're talking about the little hoodlum kids, kids out of the Texas Youth Council and druggies."

Exactly what is being proposed, and the likelihood of it going into St. Anthony Center, tends to depend on who you ask about it. Senator John Whitmire, one of the key players in the effort to establish a youth center, claims that the Riverside Terrace residents have frightened themselves by conjuring up "a ghost." It was Whitmire who helped assemble a task force that included representatives from a variety of agencies, including county child welfare, Mental Health and Mental Retardation, Juvenile Probation and public school districts in Harris County, to work out a plan that would consolidate services for problem teens at a single facility. The project concept paper describes a facility that would treat teenagers who have been expelled from school for behavioral problems, or have come under the jurisdiction of the Texas Family Code. The dollars involved would not be inconsequential: according to the concept paper, the purchase price for St. Anthony Center would be between $15 million and $20 million, renovation would take up to $15 million, and operating costs could total $25 million annually. A 180-day academic program would cost more than $7,000 per student, not including support services.

Still, those are just plans, and Whitmire says that the meeting of the Riverside Terrace people was "very premature. They know and I know, if the local senator and state rep did not approve [the youth center], it wouldn't be done. There's not even anything for them to approve or disapprove. I don't know why they had that meeting [except] to beat up on my aide, I guess."

Whitmire staffer Don Aaron did take some heat, particularly from Riverside Terrace residents who suggested that if Senator Whitmire liked the idea so much, why didn't he build the youth center in his own north Houston district?

Whitmire insists that a jail or a boot camp is not in the cards, but the concept paper put together by his task force spells out services ranging from daytime alternative classes to "a progression of security levels ranging from day treatment to intermediate secure residential to secure residential."

"I'm not a jailbird, I'm a resident in a secure residential facility," chortled one Riverside Terrace homeowner as Gordon Spencer and Jeff Weiner, two volunteer architects from the task force, tried to explain the proposal at the meeting. "If it walks like it, and quacks like it, it's probably a duck," seconded state Representative Al Edwards, who also lives in Riverside Terrace and opposes the use of St. Anthony Center for a troubled youth center.

Edwards says he didn't know what was being planned until William Paul, an aide to Senator Rodney Ellis, attended a task force meeting and got a copy of the concept paper. Both Ellis' and Edwards' staffs faxed the paper to community leaders, triggering last week's conclave.

Edwards and William Paul both claim that Whitmire and others involved in the planning of the youth facility aren't giving straight answers, and are trying to sugar coat the project in the most innocuous terms.

"I've got news for Whitmire," says Edwards. "In as much as I support his position in getting these people off the street, I don't want to look up in the morning and [find] some mental patient is in my front yard, and I can't leave my garage door open without somebody taking my lawnmower."

Whitmire contends residents' fears are misplaced, and a youth center would make the area more secure.

"It's one of the most frustrating things I deal with," complains the senator. "Most neighborhood groups are not willing to address the problem .... You know where the young people are who would be stationed there for treatment? They're their next door neighbors. They're street kids. They're running loose."

If neighborhood opposition cancels out St. Anthony Center as a youth facility site, Whitmire says other possible locations include the vacant Holiday Inn on Memorial outside downtown, and the empty Schlumberger property on the Gulf Freeway near the University of Houston. Based on the Riverside Terrace response, it would appear the One Stop Center for Troubled Youth has a few more stops to go before it finds a place to set up shop.


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