Perhaps it was just a coincidence that real estate agent Sharon Katz and developer Wayne Duddlesten sat together at the head table with Bob Lanier at the mayor's gala fundraiser two weeks ago. But Katz and Duddlesten do have at least one current common interest: both stand to benefit handsomely if a Housing Authority selection committee picks their team to be the master planner for the redevelopment of that most insoluble of Houston's urban dilemmas, Allen Parkway Village.
Duddlesten is one of the mayor's earliest -- and biggest -- campaign contributors. He was tabbed by the Lanier administration to manage the city's purchase and ongoing resale of apartment properties from the Resolution Trust Corporation.
Katz is a former Housing Authority commissioner who also was president of the ill-fated Corps 2 and Houtex partnerships, which were an integral part of the housing authority's effort to manage commercial apartment complexes for a profit in the late 1980s. Derisively known as "Hou-Dog", and "Corpse 2" to former authority board members, the corporations lost millions before unloading its properties five years ago.
Duddlesten is in harness with the Boston firm of Tise, Hurwitz, and Diamond on his Allen Parkway Village management proposal, and Katz was brought aboard for her real-estate expertise -- and, as she sort of acknowledges, her connections at the Housing Authority.
"Having served as a board member," says Katz, "I don't forget everything I heard. That would be somewhat ludicrous, don't you think?"
Katz certainly would have some institutional knowledge of the Allen Parkway Village story. Built as a public housing project for poor whites in the 1940s, the project just west of downtown has long been a political battleground. For decades, corporate interests have drooled at the prospect of redeveloping the choice real estate of APV and the surrounding Fourth Ward as pricey office and residential space. They have argued that the Fourth Ward, mostly occupied by black renters and owned by absentee white landlords, could not be rehabilitated as long as APV remained in its current configuration.
Advocates for the poor have maintained that the project's aging units should be renovated to provide homes for hundreds of needy families and fuel a revival of the surrounding neighborhood.
Over the course of the years-long standoff between those forces, the Housing Authority turned APV into an urban ghost town in preparation for its redevelopment. Only 22 of its nearly 1,000 units are currently occupied.
Since Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros has decreed that none of the APV property can be sold to private interests, Katz, if the Duddlesten team were to win the contract, would be involved in a pursuit in which she has extensive, if not exactly boffo, success: advising the Housing Authority on the management of rental properties.
While all involved on the Housing Authority and city side claim Lanier is exerting no pressure to tip the contract to Duddlesten and friends, the members of the committee that will select the winner, including Housing Authority Director Joy Fitzgerald, are well aware of Duddlesten's ties to the mayor, who himself has been closely involved in the evolution of the APV deal.
The community that rises from the rubble to come is sure to bear the imprimatur of Lanier, a developer of suburban property before he became mayor. Through his Neighborhoods to Standards program, Lanier has taken on the entire inner city as his personal redevelopment zone. But solving the decades-old struggle over the fate of the APV site would be a crowning achievement for the career of any politician.
"It will be an immense symbolic matter, and I hope it will be viewed constructively in the city," says Lanier of the impending demolition and redevelopment.
The mayor has been greasing the tracks of the APV deal with a series of private meetings and conversations with Cisneros, and he indicates Cisneros has effectively signed off on the demolition proposal.
"Cisneros got in touch with me and said he would like to reach an agreement and go ahead and support us," says Lanier, "but he wanted to reach an agreement so as to retain [the land] and do nothing but housing on it. I said okay, but give us some diversity on the population we'll have on site. And he said he would agree to a scaling down on the number of units, so we'd have more green space."
With Cisneros' quick official approval, the demolition could begin by summer's end, with less than 200 of the original units to be retained and renovated. According to the mayor, an additional 300 units of "affordable" housing to be rented at market rates will be built on the site and managed by the housing authority, perhaps by contracting with private companies such as Duddlesten's. That would leave approximately 500 units of mixed housing stock to be built on the 37-acre site.
The housing authority board gave the plan unanimous approval last week as members of the handful of families who still call APV home jeered "Judas" at the lone resident commissioner, Diane Sheffield. While the leader of the residents, Lenwood Johnson, vowed to continue his court fight against demolition, Lanier thinks Johnson has alienated just about everyone who counts.
"Johnson had earlier worn out his lawyers, the mediator, the federal judge, the housing board and a prior mayor," chuckles Lanier, "and I will say that Cisneros' tenure as a Johnson negotiator did not distinguish him from the crowd."
APV residents and their supporters aren't the only folks unhappy with the compromise demolition plan. Vinson & Elkins lawyer-lobbyist Joe B. Allen calls the decision to keep the land in housing authority hands "absurd."
Allen describes the 37 acres along Allen Parkway as "an extremely valuable site for purposes other than low and moderate-moderate-income housing. The site would generate enough revenue to build more than probably 1,200 replacement units on what I would hope to be multiple sites in the city, so that you don't try to replicate these massive concentration camps of poor people."
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Although he finds the plan unpalatable, Allen agrees the deal will finally break the APV logjam.
"Allen Parkway Village has been a huge, symbolic barrier to inner city redevelopment -- a symbol that we cannot come to grips with competing interests to successfully allow major inner-city redevelopment," reasons Allen. "Any resolution of Allen Parkway Village that breaks the political gridlock is very positive."
For those community activists currently blasting the housing authority for requesting demolition at all, Cisneros' guarantees of public ownership are taken with a grain of salt. Lawyer and former state legislator Frances "Sissy" Farenthold says Allen and other downtown interests are just piqued because they'll have to wait a while before getting their hands on the APV real estate. But get it they eventually will, she believes.
"Temporarily," Farenthold says of the Cisneros guarantee that keeps the land in public hands. "But oh so temporarily. Because there's no telling what's being planned right now.