On Monday morning, Mayor Sylvester Turner took to the steps of Houston City Hall and announced five under-resourced neighborhoods that city officials will attempt to revitalize through the city’s brand-new Complete Communities pilot program.
“Acres Homes. Gulfton. Second Ward,” said Turner, flanked by political scenesters such as U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee as well as Dwight Boykins, Houston City Council member for District D, who represents Sunnyside, which would certainly qualify as a historically marginalized area.
“Near Northside,” Turner continued. “Third Ward.”
That’s five. No Sunnyside.
Hours later, a Sunnyside neighborhood leader and the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service shot off a terse reaction, claiming that the city has, once again, rejected the low-income southeast Houston neighborhood. Sunnyside resident Debra Walker, who didn’t respond to a voice message left on her cell phone, co-authored the prepared statement on behalf of the predominantly African-American neighborhood.
For decades, the Sunnyside neighborhood in southeast Houston has been disinvested, disenfranchised and overlooked by local government. Mayor Sylvester Turner’s ‘Complete Communities’ initiative could have begun to reverse that trend. Instead, it’s yet another broken promise to Sunnyside residents.
Over the past two years, residents have come together to create the Sunnyside Neighborhood Plan, a vision for inclusive housing and equitable infrastructure. It provides a blueprint for how the City could direct the reinvestment of Sunnyside in an effective, accountable manner… after today’s official ‘Complete Communities’ announcement, those words ring hollow.
Funny. Complete Communities sounds awfully similar to a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, a controversial revenue-generating mechanism that critics say has been abused and bloated by the city in an attempt to ignore the topped-out revenue cap.
It appears that new funding streams aren’t currently in place for the program. (As for an overall concrete dollar amount, Turner didn’t share those details on Monday.) Instead, Turner said during the presser that 60 percent of “uncommitted discretionary funding” that includes “TIRZ affordable housing and [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] funds” would be redirected to Complete Communities.
For some, another gut punch took place Monday night at the Sunnyside Multi-Service Center, where Turner held a public meeting to discuss the environmental test results for Sunnyside Park, the site of an old dump and the proposed location for a yet-to-be-built, $24.9 million center that would replace the current building.
As he has during recent Houston City Council meetings, Turner stated, with complete confidence – and now buoyed by a recently completed environmental study of the site – that Sunnyside Park (née Bellfort Landfill) is safe.
“The summary says that it’s safe, but the devil is in the details. I can say it’s safe all day, but is it a recommended site? That’s a whole other thing,” says licensed environmental engineer and Sunnyside resident Tahir Charles, who, along with a roomful of amped folks, engaged Turner in heated discussions that have been the norm with this issue since the latter part of 2016.
Those opposed to the move to the old dump allege that the city has gone behind their backs and tried to green-light the controversial project without any community input. City officials have gone on record at council meetings and said that something must be done because the 40-year-old Sunnyside Multi-Service Center on Bellfort is crumbling and unsustainable.
“As an environmental professional, I wanted to see the engineering reports that support [Boykins’s] bold statement. I requested an open records request through the City of Houston and the response was there are no such records to support those claims of the building being unsafe,” says Charles. “Let’s take a step back even before requesting the report. If the building needs to be torn down and is unsafe, why do elected officials hold events in the building? Why are city employees working in the building?”
On Tuesday, Terrain Solutions, the company commissioned by the city to test Sunnyside Park, backed the move of the center to the former dumpsite.
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Charles, who is still going through the 460-page beast that is Terrain Solutions’s complete environmental assessment, remains skeptical. (Last week, the City of Houston attempted to charge Houston Press for the document. It’s now available for free on the City of Houston website.)
During Houston City Council meetings in late 2016, Turner and Boykins claimed that the old dump is just that: an old dump that’s safe in terms of the groundwater supply and air quality. However, at that time, only a part of the site had been evaluated — and that was back in 2010.
“The land was just tested this year [on February 13 and March 20, 2017]. So if testing was just done, how can you tell the community it was safe during presentations in November and December 2016?” asks Charles. “The proposed location has been tested one time instead of continual monitoring as needed before making a rushed decision. It’s like telling someone they have high blood pressure and prescribing medications with one test reading.”
“The city is using scare tactics and the mayor is not getting all of the information,” says Charles.