NoDo Invades; Rebels Skirmish

Filmmaker Gary Chason: "Good Lord, they'll run us off yet."
Deron Neblett

Ever since her youth, Dawn Fudge has been dazzled by the legends surrounding a small establishment tucked away in an industrial corner just north of downtown.

She knew the rumors about the Last Concert Cafe and the colorful woman who opened it in 1950, Elena "Mama" Lopez. "We always heard about it growing up in the East End," she says. "There were those little rooms where the politicians used to take the girls. I don't know if it was ever a whorehouse, but I've heard enough stories to believe that it was."

Decades ago came the threat that the construction of Interstate 10 north of the central business district would turn the Last Concert into a concrete freeway. "Mama called in her cards with the politicians, and the highway was rerouted," she says.

Now, a band of bohemian residents perceive an even bigger threat than any I-10 thoroughfare through their eclectic Warehouse District neighborhood. Downtown is bearing down on them -- a big, revitalized, revenue-hungry central Houston bounding across the Buffalo Bayou boundary from NoDo. The invasion, some neighborhood activists fear, will leave them subsidizing the main downtown zone, or will redevelop the small community right out of existence.

Fudge, who now owns the Last Concert, says she found out about the invading forces only a few weeks ago. The Downtown Management District advised the warehouse neighborhood that it will now be charged a special assessment fee -- a new property tax -- because it's been annexed into the district, which has spearheaded redevelopment in the traditional downtown sector to the south.

The quaint Warehouse District faces its own worst fears -- of becoming pop-trendy, a victim of its location. The funky Last Concert may be lost in a sea of chrome, potted palms and escargots.

"Hey, we're free spirits, we are artists. Let us do our thing, and leave us alone," Fudge pleads. "We're not opposed to progress, but don't kick the little guys out."

The Warehouse District was more blue-collar than bohemian in Lopez's tenure at the helm of the Last Concert. "In Mama's day, the neighborhood consisted of houses, beer joints, pool halls, and it was industrial," Fudge remembers. That section of the Warehouse District is north of Buffalo Bayou and just south of I-10 and west of Main Street near the UH-Downtown campus.

When Fudge grabbed at the chance to buy the cafe in 1984, she was working as a compliance officer for an investment firm. Fudge got fired from her regular job six months after the purchase, so she needed cheap living space. She found it across the street from the Last Concert in the 1400 block of Nance.

"The really adventurous lived in the warehouses; there weren't any lofts," she says. "Every sidewalk was broken from the forklifts. Over the years, we've cleaned it up."

In the same period Fudge moved in, Milton Howe began the first loft project in the neighborhood, Houston Studios. About a decade later, Randall Davis followed with his nearby Dakota Lofts.

Even with the increasing number of artists' studios and small projects, the area remained in the relatively calm shadows of a downtown stirring from a long slumber. But then the scores of hip new NoDo establishments cut into the Last Concert's business. And it began attracting about as many complaints as crowds. Gentrified loft dwellers called police about the noise from the cafe's open-air concerts, and others griped about its lack of off-street parking for patrons.

As frustrations mounted, the sudden news came about the new tax and addition of a management district. "We had a hell-raising meeting here at the cafe," Fudge says. "All of the residents were here. I didn't even know that we had been annexed into downtown.I've never heard so much emotion in my life."

While the artisans of the warehouse area issued their call to arms, the annexing forces were welcomed by others, primarily property owners eager to cash in on the expansion of the downtown redevelopment boom.

"I'm very, very much for it," says Reggie Bowman, a realtor and owner of Warehouse District property. The management district is viewed by business interests as a vital ally in improving the newly annexed area.

The management district was formed in 1991 and has been credited with helping revive the pulse of what was a largely dormant central downtown. Special state legislation created a district of about 705 acres in central downtown, funded by a 12.5-cent tax rate that now requires property owners to pay $125 for each $100,000 of assessed value. The assessments generated about $3.8 million for projects and staffing last year.

District director Bob Eury says the addition of the warehouse area increased the size of the overall district to 1,173 acres. The $100,000 in extra income generated enabled the district to lower the tax rate from last year's 16 cents, without any decrease in revenue. Asked about motives for the expansion, he says his agency merely wanted to include all of downtown in the district.

The staff serves as head cheerleader for the central downtown revitalization effort. The district does marketing, oversees landscape projects, handles the special trash pickup duties, cohosts many events boosting downtown's image, manages the planned $58 million Cotswold Project, coordinates transportation improvements and works with agencies to streamline private deals and developments. It mows vacant lots, adds street lighting, signage, ornate sidewalks and various capital improvements.

Eury, in meetings with the warehouse-area critics of the annexation, has diffused some of the fears of those who said they don't want anything more than to be left alone. Many still wonder if they won't ultimately be just another source of revenue for central downtown glamour projects -- most notably, the Cotswold package of street improvements and accompanying fountains.

The district's director concedes that a tax is a tax, but insists that the main downtown area will be subsidizing improvements for the new area.

While the management district has publicized general directives that largely parallel what its function has been for central downtown, nobody has definite answers about specific work and projects yet.

Artist and activist Kirk Farris, who led the effort to create a small park on county land under the McKee Street bridge, wonders if big developers aren't behind the annexation. He echoes concerns over the lack of detailed plans by Eury. "We said, "What are you going to do with this money?' We caught him, and he didn't have a plan."

Ample assurances have come from Eury that the district intends to get feedback from residents and property owners so the eventual work will reflect their priorities. There's an emerging consensus that the downtown trolley routes should be extended to the warehouse area. Fudge notes with irony that there's a large bus barn in the neighborhood's own backyard.

"We've got a million buses parked in our neighborhood, and we can't even ride one of them," she says. Other concerns focus on parking. Downtown proper is exempt from the requirement that businesses furnish adequate off-street parking, and that's what many in the Warehouse District also want.

Eury is confident that the ombudsman role of the management district will help the warehouse area get its needs answered at City Hall. "We can't promise it, but we will work for the possible extension of the trolley service, and possible exemption of the city's parking ordinance," the director says.

The district's message is basically that, regardless, growth and change are coming to the warehouse neighborhood, and the district can help in assuring its quality and preserving its unique character.

Independent filmmaker Gary Chason, a 16-year resident, wonders if preservation is possible anymore. "Good Lord, they'll run us off yet," he says. "There are thousands moving in within walking distance of me."

Howe, another veteran of the area, thinks the so-called downtown renaissance will lose steam. "I've been at this longer than anybody else, and it takes a certain breed of cat to live downtown. I hear that as many people move out of the Rice Hotel as move into it."

Fudge only wishes that she had the inside political influence wielded by her Last Concert predecessor. "The whole deal is we want to be an artsy neighborhood where people can paint their building the way they want to, and where you can make as much noise as you want to," she explains.

In case the management district can't somehow protect the neighborhood's independent spirit, Fudge recently hedged her bets. She bought an old warehouse on North Main, outside the domain of the management district and its tax. The new site, she says, would make an excellent cafe location -- and the neighbors don't mind some loud music at night.

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