Fighting the Renaissance

Maybe there was a time, in his 59 years, when Ross Martella Jr. didn't want the land his family owns in the Fourth Ward. But he doesn't remember it.

The land isn't much: 10,000 square feet of a blighted neighborhood, topped by a homeless shelter and a white clapboard fourplex. To Martella, the shelter represents his desire to do good in the world; the fourplex, his chance to receive a reasonable return on an investment. To his surprise, those modest goals now pit him against the Fourth Ward's other Italian landowners -- and against a steamroller called Houston Renaissance Inc.

Houston Renaissance bills itself as a nonprofit organization with the charitable intent of transforming "unproductive" inner-city land. In 1994, the group announced its intent to lay hold of 80 blocks of weed-infested lots and creaky shotgun shacks just west of downtown. The area includes Freedmen's Town, a historic 40-block area originally settled by freed slaves; and it includes the Martellas' property, which lies along the project's northern boundary.

On those 80 blocks, now occupied by some of the city's poorest residents, Renaissance plans to build 2,000 new homes. In October, when the city of Houston promised Renaissance a $3.4 million economic-development grant, the deal was practically sealed.

Never mind the land's history. Never mind that many of the area's current residents would be priced out of the market. And never mind that Julio Laguarta, Renaissance's founder, stands to make hundreds of thousands in real-estate commissions if the project comes to fruition. (See "The Great Land Grab," January 30.)

Three weeks ago, the group's board of directors purchased the first of about 1.5 million square feet of the property they hope eventually to control. And if things go as planned in the next couple of months, the developers will work their way across the Fourth Ward, paying roughly $5 a square foot.

Unlike Ross Martella, many landowners will be more than happy to part with both their property and their tenants; the owners feel about as much connection to the Fourth Ward as they do to Jupiter. But to Martella, his little patch of land means something.

"My daddy and granddaddy worked real hard for what we got," says Martella, who is in the insurance business. "They were men of their word. A handshake was like a contract to them. But they gave me a piece of advice: 'Treat your neighbor kindly and with respect, but don't jump in the bayou with 'em and expect they'll help you swim it.' "

That warning seemed appropriate as Martella stood in front of the one-story building at the corner of West Dallas and Arthur. According to the raised inscription over the front door, Martella's grandfather, Giuseppe Mortellaro, erected the building in 1934, years after he migrated to Texas.

The building once served as a neighborhood grocery store. The business survived a few years after Giuseppe died in 1940. But eventually, like most of the rest of the Fourth Ward, it succumbed to social and economic decay.

Seven years ago, Ross Martella started losing sleep, "thinking about people sleeping on the street." He came in contact with the Reverend Winston James, and rented him Giuseppe's old store at a bargain rate. At what is now known as the Life Center, James has put the healing powers of the Lord to work on hundreds of homeless, drug-addled men. Six out of ten men, James says, "graduate" from his job-training and life-skills program.

The Italian landowner and the black minister are an odd alliance, but an effective one. When James is occasionally late with the rent, Martella cuts him slack.

The Life Center inspired Martella to spiff up the rest of the family real estate. His son, Ross III, a construction contractor, rehabbed the Life Center and the fourplex at the other end of the property, making about $25,000 worth of repairs -- an investment almost unheard-of in the Fourth Ward.

But apparently, not a bad investment. Next year, when the fourplex's downstairs units are habitable, Martella expects to turn a profit on the land for the first time in decades.

Since the Martellas rejected Houston Renaissance's initial overtures, they haven't been popular in the neighborhood. The family can't say for sure who it is that frequently dumps trash outside the fourplex. And the Reverend James doesn't know who often fills the Life Center's dumpster to overflowing. Both actions leave the Martella land in violation of city ordinances. If reported, those violations could result in $1,000-a-day fines -- or worse, condemnation.

Sometimes white men in suits show up to see the Reverend James. Invariably, they tell him that he needs to start thinking about moving, that he'll soon be asked to leave. He can't say for sure who they are, since he tears up their business cards as soon as they leave. "I believe the Lord told me to come here," he says. "This is where I'm supposed to be."

The Martellas' reluctance to part with their land has made the family pariahs among the area's other landowners, who want the deal closed. In March 1996, landowner Frances Corso Quartaro wrote a letter to the area's other Italian landowners, warning that Renaissance was threatening to abandon its redevelopment plans if balky landowners refused to accept $5 a square foot for their land. Quartaro urged the families to accept the deal, rather than fighting Houston Renaissance: "This is what wars are made of," she wrote, "and we all know nobody really wins a war."

She also suggested that, should some owners hold out for more money, the city might exercise eminent domain and just take the land at fair market price. That, she hinted, might be considerably less than $5 a square foot.

Later that month, Quartaro and the other Italian landowners met with Renaissance's Laguarta. Ross Martella III showed up -- accompanied by Gladys House, the Fourth Ward resident who has been the most relentless critic of Renaissance's plan.

"There were about 50 people in the room, all Italians," the younger Martella recalls with some amusement. "When they saw Gladys, it was like, 'What are you doing here? We're not meeting with the blacks until next week.' But why couldn't she be there? She owns land there like everyone else in that room."

At the meeting, Martella says, Laguarta threatened the landowners with eminent domain. Martella took exception to that statement -- after all, where did Houston Renaissance get the right to bargain with the city's power to condemn land? Eventually, Martella was asked to leave.

Laguarta refused to comment on the meeting or anything else. "Why the fuck should I cooperate with you?" he asked. (Earlier this year, he was removed from the Houston Planning Commission after the Press reported that he lived in Bellaire.)

According to Michael Stevens, the mayor's unpaid housing advisor, Martella is right to be skeptical that the city would invoke eminent domain. "That's something that other people are bringing up," he says. "Our focus now is on getting the various financing mechanisms in place."

That may be so, but according to Houston Renaissance documents, the nonprofit has considered creating a special taxation district that, if approved by City Council, would have condemnation powers. It's unclear how seriously that option is being considered. But last year, Renaissance presented the city with an expense report requesting $200,000 to pay the law firm Vinson & Elkins for "organization" of a tax-increment financing district and "eminent domain legal matters."

Ross Martella Jr. hates the idea that his family might lose their land. "They would like to get this land dirt-cheap, probably so they can charge you and me $5 an hour to park on it," he says. "But I've always had dreams of keeping it. Maybe Ross or somebody could open a little Italian delicatessen. I really don't want to sell it.

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