April 21, 2009
The Freeland Historic district

I drive down White Oak every day to take the girls to preschool, so I've been going past a bunch of houses that have signs with "save our bungalow" messages on them, but I wasn't sure what all the fuss was about. Now I know.

Jack Preston Wood isn't sure now if his dream home is compatible with the property he made an offer on last year near the Houston Heights.

What Wood didn't know when he entered a contract to buy the 1929 bungalow at 536 Granberry was that it is located in the recently designated Freeland Historic District.

The small neighborhood off White Oak Drive was platted by some of the developers of what is now the Heights Historic District. But what makes it unique in the city of Houston is that Freeland's original bungalow-style homes are virtually intact; only two of the original 37 have been lost.

Residents in the neighborhood are fighting to keep it that way. When word got out that Wood, a residential designer, wanted to tear down the bungalow, subdivide the lot and build two, four-story homes, neighbors organized a campaign to stop it.

The group spoke against the plans when they reached the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission in March, put out "save our district" signs and have since staged weekly protests at the corner of Granberry and White Oak Drive.

Even though city laws won't stop the redevelopment, Wood said there's no way he'll go through with those plans after speaking with some of the neighbors. But if they aren't amenable to something different, something he would consider compatible with the existing homes, then he may pull out of the deal altogether.

"If we can't find a way to get our dream to fit in there, then we won't close," Wood said.

Which, judging by the comments at Hair Balls and Swamplot, would clearly suit the remaining residents just fine. I just want to add a couple of points to the discussion.

One, in all of these homeowners-versus-developers stories, there are always a few people who advocate the position that folks like Jack Preston Wood should be free to do whatever they want with their property. The point I would make is that even in no-zoning Houston, we do have limits. It would be illegal for him to build, say, a strip club or a chemical plant there. Plenty of commercial projects get blocked or need to be drastically altered because of numerous regulations covering such mundane things as the number of available parking spaces. It's residential development that's far looser, and that's where these battles often erupt. I don't think it's unreasonable for people to believe there ought to be more restrictions on residential development, in a similar fashion to commercial development.

Second, the character of a neighborhood like the Freeland District has value to its residents. By tearing down a house that fits in with the neighborhood and replacing it with something completely different, some of that value is lost to the other residents. Again, those who would defend the developers in these scenarios often talk about their right to maximize the value of their properties. But how do you compensate those who believe their own values get diminished by that?

Finally, the Freeland Historic District (PDF) abuts the site of the long-controversial Viewpoint development - Granberry, and Frasier one block to its west, both terminate at the north end of the land where Viewpoint would be built, if it ever is. As such, I can't really blame the folks who live there if they feel like they're under siege.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 21, 2009 to Elsewhere in Houston

Our city council years ago "reformed" our city codes supposedly to make them more "neighborhood friendly" but in fact all they did was make them more "developer friendly" and the bottom line is if a developer is an insider instead of an outsider, there is really little anyone can do. They will get variances and permits and the city will in essence shoot the bird at the homeowners. And everyone else. Even in neighborhoods with supposedly "air-tight" deed restrictions and "historic district" designations.

Money talks. Particularly at City Hall.

Posted by: Baby Snooks on April 21, 2009 10:53 AM

Even people who oppose zoning like the folks at neohouston are advocating form-based code, which is, umm.... zoning by another name. So you have to wonder if zoning is just a dirty word like "gun control" or "affirmate action" around here, but otherwise most people support the general idea and share your concerns about what happens to other nearby landowners when a single property owner has the right to build whatever they want on their property.

Posted by: Mike on April 21, 2009 11:25 AM
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