Rocky Landing

You have to look pretty hard to find El Jardin Del Mar, an eclectic seaside neighborhood filled with a mixture of old homes that have been there for 70 years, slightly newer homes that have been moved in from other areas and brand-new homes that have been sprouting up.

Coming in from the north, you have to drive past the chemical plants and refineries that mark Pasadena and La Porte, finally hitting open grassland as you continue your search. Coming from the south on Todville Road, you drive north from Kemah and Seabrook until the high-priced homes fronting Galveston Bay, with the BMWs and Mercedes filling two-car driveways, begin to give way to less-ostentatious houses and then to that same open space. And finally, there, past Pine Gully Park, past Maas's Nursery -- where odd plants and odder knickknacks fill the walls -- out there by the convenience store and the early-'60s subdivision sign, is the not-so-grand entrance to El Jardin Del Mar, "The Garden by the Sea."

Turn in, and you'll ease past kids on bicycles casually pedaling to nowhere in particular. Drive down El Jardin Street and you'll pass playgrounds with signs noting the presence of bird sanctuaries; you'll pass side streets where live oaks shade houses more concerned with comfort than with cutting-edge architectural design. Go on a few blocks, over that slight rise at the end of the street, and you'll find yourself at a breezy, unadorned, grassy park on the edge of Galveston Bay.

It's as if one of Houston's inner loop neighborhoods, the previously sleepy kind, about to be pounced on by developers eager to replace old homes with new condos, had somehow been parked by the Bay. It's an affordable, 400-home neighborhood that's hard to find, but well worth the effort.

Randy Barnett thought so. He purchased a house in El Jardin six months ago. "I drove the coastline all up and down Todville Road. I spent weekend after weekend looking for a place that was in my price range," he says. "Finally, I stumbled on this, and I couldn't believe it. I said to myself, it's not paradise, but it's something I can afford. I just thought it was one of the most scenic areas around."

The self-described "new-media designer" has only grown more fond of the funky place since moving in and discovering the neighborhood's laid-back attitude. "A lot of us are kind of throwback hippies here who love nature, but we've got chemical-plant workers, doctors, a little of everything, and everyone gets along because we all love nature and we all love the water."

Karen Laake, a single mom, feels the same way. She visited a friend in El Jardin a few years ago and immediately began saving up for a home there of her own. "No place in Houston lets you live this close to the water in a place that's affordable," she says.

She'd never heard of El Jardin, she says, until she visited her friend. She never knew where it was.

It won't be long, though, before it will be easy to find El Jardin. Those residents who are left can just tell visitors to follow the rumbling line of 18-wheelers grinding down Todville Road or along State Highway 146, perhaps thousands of trucks each day heading for a huge, noisy shipping terminal whose seven-story cranes make a new skyline during the day and a brightly lighted attraction at night as they service smoke-belching freighters registered under the flags (and pollution regulations) of some obscure Third World nation.

Right there -- at the 24-lane truck entrance to the dockyard, the one that operates 24 hours a day and lies just across what was once a sleepy rural road -- will be the beleaguered residents of El Jardin.

It was what no doubt will be, in the annals of the Battle for El Jardin, an exceedingly rare moment -- Charlotte Cherry was speechless.

The volatile, voluble 37-year-old genetic-research secretary had rounded up dozens of her neighbors May 26 for a special meeting of the Seabrook City Council. El Jardin is technically part of Pasadena (even if residents are full of anecdotes about having to give police directions to their place), but word about a possible development by the Port of Houston had leaked first to Seabrook.

The Port, a quasi-governmental authority responsible for the Ship Channel, the large wharves at Barbours Cut and other facilities, owns close to a thousand acres of empty land surrounding El Jardin, just across the Bayport Channel from Shoreacres. Port officials had asked Seabrook about the city's plans to build an amphitheater that, it turns out, would be affected by rail lines for a proposed Port project in the area.

El Jardin's neighborhood board had heard of a proposed Port project on the Bayport Channel that would be about 150 acres at most, but what residents saw at the Seabrook council meeting was of another scale entirely: seven wharves instead of one, on a dock fully 7,000 feet long; a container terminal about three times the 250 acres at Barbours Cut; a huge rail yard; widening of the area roads, and a 100-acre cruise terminal facility that could handle more than a million passengers a year.

At a total cost of $1.2 billion, the proposed Bayport project was a facility that would cover 1,000 acres and dwarf Barbours Cut, which is the nation's ninth-largest port for container shipping.

"We're all sitting there at the meeting, and our jaws are just dropping on the floor," Cherry says. "It was like a left hook that came out of nowhere."

Cherry had only recently moved to El Jardin after eight years in Seattle, but she was intimately familiar with the place. Her husband's family has lived there for generations. "When I was dating my husband 17 years ago, he took me to El Jardin, and I couldn't believe it," she says. "There was this very weird little community all off by itself, right on the Bay. You can be living side by side with someone in a trailer, or someone who's been living here in a house since the '30s."

El Jardin residents aren't strangers to industry: Chemical plants, and the occasional smell from them, are more prevalent here than one would think possible in a place residents are so enthusiastic about. But the size of the proposed Bayport project staggered people.

"Everyone knew the port would be developed one day, but no one expected this huge a development right in the middle of two residential neighborhoods," says one of Cherry's allies, an engineer who doesn't want his name used.

Although Port officials will tell you residents should not have been surprised, it's hard to see where they could have found out about the project. A large Houston Chronicle story on proposed Port expansion, which ran just two months before the Seabrook meeting, said the Port Authority "plans to spend $100.7 million over the next three years developing this [Bayport] container terminal, which will be 425 acres once fully developed." Apparently the paper was referring only to Phase One of the project.

Residents were not mollified when Port officials tried to explain that the complete $1.2 billion project, if built, would not be finished for 15 to 20 years. That talk was at odds with the Port's aggressive lobbying for expansion funds at the county and federal levels, they thought, during which officials were complaining of a pressing need for new facilities that had to be built as fast as possible.

And even if the project took a full 20 years to complete, that would mean only a slower death for their neighborhood, Cherry says. "It's like we've been diagnosed with cancer -- we've been told we're going to die, and we're not symptomatic yet, but in two years, or however many years, our dreams are going to die."

Cherry decided to fight. She engineered a coup on the neighborhood board that ousted representatives seen as too passive to industry. And she did another thing: She walked down the block to the home of Frank Bettencourt.

Bettencourt, 49, is an artist whose walls are adorned with the classic '60s-era posters he designed for Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and Neil Young, back in the days when he was sharing living space with one-hit hippie wonders the Quicksilver Messenger Service. He still paints, but he also designs museum displays and laser shows for Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney and festivals around the world.

He and his wife, Linda, a NASA astrophysicist, moved into El Jardin 14 months ago. "I had lived in Santa Barbara, and I thought this was like Santa Barbara in the 1960s, without the mountains," he says. "I liked the eclectic feel of the neighborhood, how you would have trailers, and then you'd have really wealthy homes."

"Plus it's real quiet and there are all kinds of birds," his wife says.
Bettencourt had heard a rumor about potential Port development in the area, he says, so before buying his house he called the Port and the cities of Pasadena and Seabrook. All, he says, assured him there were no big plans on tap. (He says he didn't write down the names of the persons he talked to.) Because he got a Federal Housing Authority mortgage, he says the feds did their own checking to see if anything might occur that would lower property values, and also came up empty.

So Bettencourt dismissed the occasional rumor, until the fallout from the Seabrook meeting spread. Now he sits in his living room, probably two miles from the point where huge container ships will pull up to the dock, and imagines the change that's coming.

"A lot of people are going to be affected by this that don't even know it yet," he says. "There's going to be 18 train tracks out there. Go outside right now -- do you hear anything but the birds and the wind and the occasional car? What do you think it's going to be like with a huge rail yard out there?"

Bettencourt had two advantages Cherry didn't -- he worked at home and could more easily make phone calls, and he had a long history of involvement with ecological issues. He contacted the local Sierra Club and started to raise the alarm.

"It never occurred to me that something this massive would be done," says Page Williams, a Sierra Club official who's also secretary of the Galveston Bay Foundation. "We're very angry, because we think the Port has not been leveling with us, and we hope that this time the public will say the Port has gone too far."

Also getting involved is attorney Jim Blackburn, one of Houston's leading ecological lawyers. The proposed port "poses a major environmental threat to the Galveston Bay system," he says.

Blackburn and others want the Port to build their new facility at Texas City, which has been pushing to expand its port.

"They do need to look at a regional port, and Texas City is the place," says Sharron Stewart, a Lake Jackson environmentalist who teamed up this year with Blackburn to stop a proposed golf course in her city that would have been built in an ecologically sensitive forest used by migratory birds. "But Texas City isn't in Harris County, and it's one of those competitive things. The attitude you get is, 'How dare you suggest that we do it some other way than we've planned?' "

These are frustrating, if exciting, times for George Williamson, managing director of the Port of Houston. He can look out his fourth-floor window at the Port's offices near the 610 Loop's Ship Channel Bridge and see something that wouldn't have been conceivable just a few years ago -- stacks and stacks of containers, overflow from the Barbours Cut facility that's 25 miles away.

The container business is absolutely booming these days, and the Port of Houston is angling aggressively to remain a major player.

"Containers," to the rest of us, are what goes on the back of semi trucks. Filled with every conceivable type of good, from furniture to stereos to clothes, they can be transferred easily from a ship to a train or truck by large computer-operated cranes. Those cranes have largely wiped out the stevedore system that once made unloading a ship a labor-intensive, days-long operation. A ship can now be emptied in hours.

Los Angeles and Long Beach rule container traffic on the West Coast; in the East it's Norfolk, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina. For ships using the Gulf of Mexico as an easy entrance to America's heartland, Houston is in high-stakes competition with New Orleans.

And Houston is winning. More than half the container traffic in the Gulf comes through the port -- enough traffic that Barbours Cut is over capacity.

And right now -- as shipping companies merge, consolidating their operations into one port or another -- it's a bad time to be over capacity.

In fact, as Williamson glances at his watch during an interview, waiting patiently in a nearby room are representatives of a large Asian shipper. With business slumping in that part of the world, they want to use their idle ships to haul cargo between America and Europe, and are looking for a place to base themselves.

It's a potentially lucrative deal. Container terminals can generate up to $15 million a year in revenue for a port, and the more containers moved, the more money coming in.

"These guys are talking about 50,000 containers a year," Williamson says hungrily. Barbours Cut handles a maximum of 700,000 containers annually.

Normally, Williamson would be confident he could sell Houston over New Orleans -- "It's a day up the river to get to New Orleans, and a day down the river, and these ships are expensive, and they don't want to do that," he says -- but these days he's got a problem. He's got no room for more business.

The Port of Houston has leased space at the Port of Galveston to handle its overflow, but customers are leery of the extra distance and the facilities on the island.

"With Barbours Cut, trucks generally can do two-way traffic; they can bring containers in and then pick up containers to take out," he says. "With Galveston, it's generally a one-way trip, so the cargo has to pay for a roundtrip, and that's generally a dollar a mile. So if you and I are competing to ship goods to Rotterdam, and I have to charge $150 and you can charge $100, you know who's going to win."

"We thought we could buy some time with Galveston, but we can't get the customers to ship there," says Rosie Barrera, director of public affairs for the Port.

Given that, Williamson will have to gloss over Galveston's faults and wow the Asians with a series of pretty colored renditions of the proposed Bayport facility.

"I can tell them the first one into Galveston will be the first one into Bayport, when it opens," he says.

The Asians aren't the only people knocking on Williamson's door. Houston officials have been aggressively recruiting in the surging, NAFTA-fueled South American market, with remarkable success.

Growth has been phenomenal in the last decade, and has accelerated especially in the last few years. The Port of Houston shipped almost 14 percent more containers in 1997 than it did in 1993, and much of that increase occurred since 1995.

In fact, in a study done for the Port in 1993, experts claimed that officials wouldn't have to worry about Barbours Cut approaching capacity until the year 2001. Instead, demand outstripped capacity last year.

So for Williamson, the fact that the Port owns significant acreage on largely empty land in a largely industrial area, in a spot where a shipping channel already has been dredged (albeit one that would have to be deepened, much to environmentalists' dismay), should lead to a no-brainer decision to start construction on Bayport yesterday.

"You either have to grow or get out of the business," he says. "You either tell your customers, 'Don't come, there's no room for you,' or you grow.... You never want to turn anyone away -- once you do, just try and get them back later."

The jobs and subsidiary business spawned by the container business more than justify expansion, Port officials say.

"You take a Barbours Cut, which cost maybe $300 million to build over a 20-year period, and you see it's generating $755 million to the community each year," Barrera says. "It's payback to the community, and it's phenomenal."

That's the Houston community, by the way. Which is one reason officials dismiss any talk of building their port in Texas City, which is in Galveston County, not Harris County.

"I don't know what Texas City has and doesn't have," Williamson says. "But one thing it does have is a distance problem from the industrial center of Houston. The container business is so competitive that if you would have to truck from Houston to Texas City and back, that cost would be too significant."

"It's not boosterism, it's infrastructure," Barrera says. Officials deny what area residents allege, that the Port is firmly committed to the Bayport site because of a $150 million chemical plant to be built nearby by American Acryl, a company that is a joint venture of Nippon Shokubai, a Japanese petrochemical firm, and Elf Atochem, a French firm that has been cited for pollution problems at plants it owns in east Harris County.

As far as the Port is concerned, Bayport is the only way to go. "One of the best things about it is, it's a greenfield site," says Steven DeWolf, the Port's chief engineer. "There's not a lot of existing stuff that's already there, so you're able to build from the ground up."

And although officials insist that the ultimate 1,000-acre build-out of the Bayport design shown on the master plan might take 20 years to complete, Williamson and others obviously would like to ride the hot market as far as it can go.

"You build one phase and get the cash flow coming in, and that can help you fund further construction," Williamson says.

He can easily envision eventually reaching the capacity of Bayport, a time when, according to the proposal, 57 lengthy trains will rumble into the yards in a peak week, and 7,000 trucks will enter or leave the facility on a peak day.

That, of course, is what's gotten people like Charlotte Cherry so worked up, and adding to their anger is the piecemeal way that information has dribbled out about the project. The El Jardin residents and their allies who are most active in opposing the project feel they've been getting the runaround from Port officials.

"They're telling something different to each town they talk to," Cherry fumes. "They're trying to divide us subdivision by subdivision."

Barrera, who's leading the community-relations effort, denies that, but says that different towns have different agendas.

"We showed a plan that had a scenic route and buffers around El Jardin, and Seabrook didn't want it," she says. "They said, 'You're crazy to do all that just to please [El Jardin].' So the messages we get are somewhat contradictory."

Barrera admits that different maps of the proposed project have been circulating, partly because the Port only recently received its official, if still preliminary, recommendations on Bayport.

The maps show a lovely cruise terminal on land bumping up against El Jardin, with a large lakelike marina and lots of green space. The trouble is, that's the part of the project that's least likely to get built.

"It's the iffiest part of it," Barrera admits.
"We need a cruise component in the project, but you're not going to have a build-out like that [on the map] anytime soon," Williamson says. And yes, he says, confirming residents' suspicions, the land could be used instead for more container space if demand requires it.

The group opposing the Bayport project is still in its infancy, and many are unschooled in fighting big business. They've already been dismayed by a June 1 Houston Chronicle article on their fight.

Headlined "Concern and Rumors Rock Bayport Project," the article, in its third paragraph, declared that Barrera "says many of the concerns are based on a lot of erroneous supposition and that the plans are not yet final."

Deep down in the article, the first local resident to be quoted notes that rumors had spread throughout El Jardin that the Port planned to bulldoze the entire neighborhood, but that "after reviewing the proposed plans, [he] has no problem with the Port developing the area around El Jardin."

"That kind of let us know what we were up against, the power the Port has," Cherry says.

Luckily for her group, there are hoops of all kinds for the Port to jump through before the entire $1.2 billion project becomes a reality.

There are environment questions, for instance -- Port officials admit that up to 200 acres of wetlands would be destroyed.

"But just how many [acres], we don't know, and they certainly don't know, because they haven't been on the property," Barrera says. "But there are mitigation issues that can come into play. In 1989, when we dredged the Ship Channel, we used the dredge material for islands. We can talk to the Galveston Bay Foundation about creating an interactive nature center. There are all sorts of ways to maximize the mitigation: You could fill in pothole wetlands and make something continuous."

The size and location of an "interactive nature center" would have to be negotiated.

There's also the practical realities of funding the project. The $1.2 billion would eventually have to come from a mixture of federal and local funds, revenue from the Port, and bond sales that voters would have to approve. Harris County commissioners are currently weighing the Port's request to conduct a referendum on selling $300 million in bonds for the initial phases of the Bayport project.

Barrera, who says Houston and Harris County have always had a "can-do attitude" in supporting the Port's bond votes, says that residents of El Jardin, Shoreacres and Seabrook will have to accept that Bayport will become a reality.

"This has been in the works for a long, long time," she says. "We've got to be responsive to the community, but this is our property, and this is where we're building.... To the extent we can mitigate any lost wetlands, we will; to the extent we can build buffer zones, we will. But it's been our property for a long time, and although it's not zoned industrial, that was always going to be its use."

Cherry says sometimes she thinks Barrera is right. "Some days I'm real positive about it, and I think we can stop this, but other days I get more discouraged, when I don't get phone calls returned from agencies that should be helping us, and I just wonder what is going on," she says.

A few days later, she was standing, on a blazing Saturday afternoon, on a street that seemed to sum up much of El Jardin. Her fixer-upper house was in the background, still a work in progress; it sat next to an empty lot she covets, whose owner has sensed the renewed interest in the area and is holding out for more money.

Next to that was the unique home of an older cousin, the inside a camping-lodge living room with walls covered with deer and other game trophies; the outside a big, varied garden with a large pond that housed an alligator, until it took after a local dog. Across the street were aligned three older houses moved in recently from the Heights area, ready to be refurbished and eventually become homes.

"It's maybe not a Street of Dreams where you have to pay five dollars to take a tour, but it's our street of dreams," Cherry said. "I tell people about what's going to happen, and they say, 'Just move,' but they don't know what we have out here. It's a neighborhood of misfits. If working-class people want to live on the Gulf, they can't afford Seabrook, but they can afford it here. This is a last haven. We have something priceless, and we don't want to let it go."

E-mail Richard Connelly at rich_connelly@houstonpress.com.

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