Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | May 5, 2016
At least three times a week, Kathy Flanagan Payton and her parents made the trip to Houston’s Fifth Ward northeast of downtown to attend church and visit her grandparents. After all, even after her family had moved away from the neighborhood in 1968, Fifth Ward was still home. And Lyons Avenue, a commercial corridor running through the community, is its heart. Payton still remembers the businesses, like the tailor shop her father frequented and the shoe store on the corner.
“I remember there always being vibrancy and people walking down the street,” she said.
But then — something happened. The vibrant neighborhood whose roots stretch all the way back to the freedmen who settled it after the Civil War began to fade with each visit.
“Every time I came into the community I saw one less person,” said Payton. People were leaving. Businesses closed up. “It was almost scary.” She used to tell her mother it was just like the movie The Birds — as if people were being chased off.
Now, president of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Center, Payton knows it wasn’t birds chasing people off in the mid-1970s but rather a set of forces at work familiar to many urban neighborhoods. In the mid- to late-1960s, desegregation meant black families that could leave did, even if meant moving just one neighborhood further out from the city’s core. Highways carved up the community. The interchange of Interstates 59 and Interstate 10 took out 800 units alone. And civic divestment meant those who stayed had to survive with less. The area quickly gained a bad reputation.
And the corner of Lyons Avenue and Jensen Drive gained an even worse one. Now, it’s just another vacant property that commuters from north of town see when they take the Lyons exit and cut through the neighborhood to get to downtown.
But Payton sees more when she looks at the empty space. “There’s opportunities for economic development at these corners,” she said. Plus, “it has the best view of the Houston skyline in the city.”
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Across Houston, neighborhoods are defined as much by their buildings as they are by their in-between spaces. Empty lots. Odd bits of underutilized land. Lonesome buildings waiting for a new purpose. For better or worse, these are hallmarks of urban life in Houston, a place famous for its laissez-faire approach to development.
Now, a handful of those spaces could soon be reimagined, thanks to a $10,000 challenge that is part of this year’s Next City Vanguard Conference in which 45 young urban thinkers from across the country will visit with Houston communities and create proposals for underutilized or vacant properties. The conference is a partnership between Next City, a national online magazine covering city issues, and Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
In addition to the corner lot in Fifth Ward, the Vanguard fellows will visit the old Rufus Cage Elementary School building in the East End; a plot of land on Fulton Street that’s part of a series of underused spaces along Metro’s Red Line; a city-owned lot near a charter school desperate for green space in southwest; and a small park in Third Ward south of downtown.
Groups of fellows who attend the conference will propose ways to improve each of those spaces. A panel of judges will select the best proposal, and stakeholders will then get $10,000 to put toward revitalizing the property as they see fit.
In Fifth Ward’s case, the property, which used to house retail, is now just one of several vacant lots in the area. Situated at the western end of Lyons Avenue, the space is one anchor of what Payton calls the Lyons Avenue Renaissance. She’s hoping some kind of mixed-use development could one day occupy the lot and spur retail nearby.
That’s a relatively new focus for her organization, which was founded in 1989. Affordable housing was the bread and butter of the center’s work, creating hundreds of new homes. And while that is still a large part of its mission, the group has tried to concentrate its efforts on Lyons Avenue. The corner in question is a small piece of a broader 22-block project with another three-block buffer to the north and south of the street.
“It was hard to see and feel the impact of our work because much of what we were doing was infill development scattered across eight square miles,” Payton said. Perhaps the most notable success of the new focus is the recent reopening of the historic DeLuxe Theater in partnership with Texas Southern University.
“I would really like to see this vitality come back,” Payton said.
But cut off from the rest of the Lyons Avenue corridor on the west side of I-59, the vacant lot at Jensen Drive is tricky.
“Three of the four corners are vacant and underutilized,” said Payton. And in January of 2017, after a preparatory school for boys moves to its permanent site further east, all four corners will be empty.
“My concern is that that will again create a sense of abandonment for that corner,” she said.
Southwest Middle and High School
On the other side of town, the green patch of earth across the parking lot from Southwest Middle and High School has been an unrealized dream for years. The school sits just off the access road in an area dense with strip malls and small businesses. Indian grocery stores and restaurants dot the streets, and the YMCA’s International Services site is just down the road.
The bit of green space on the corner of Westpark Drive and Hillcroft Avenue is owned by the city, which uses a portion of it for a water well. But the rest sits unused in an area starved for green.
“It’s been incubating for a while,” said Houston City Council Member Mike Laster, who represents the district. “We began having some level of conversation with the school in late 2012 or 2013.”
The school has long eyed the space as potential play area for the students, but Laster said the options are open.
“We’re hoping that maybe there will be a creative approach given that might incentivize the city to see the opportunities for using this as a green space for that school,” Laster said. While there are logistical questions to work out including maintenance and access, Laster said he thinks transforming part of the lot into usable green space will be a huge benefit to the school.
“All the obvious things come about: fresh air, the ability to potentially use the space as a gather spot, as a fun spot, maybe for some level of physical activity,” Laster said. “The sky is the limit.”
Metro Red Line
Elsewhere in the city, such bits of green space present the promise of better transit-oriented development. Along the northern extension of Metro’s Red Line light rail, Council Member Karla Cisneros is looking at another corner of underused green space that she hopes can deepen connections between the new rail and the neighborhood.
“It’s not very big,” Cisneros said of the plot of land on Fulton Street across from the Melbourne-North Lindale stop.
After the recent extension of the Red Line north of downtown and the Green Line east of downtown, Metro was left with a string of leftover parcels, the result of space once used to house equipment and components used in the development of the rail. Some are substantial enough to be sold or transformed into parks, but others, said Cisneros, were “little leftover pieces of land,” that are “too small or oddly shaped to be profitable or worth the trouble.”
That’s the case with the plot near the Fulton Street stop. But the space is in a prime position, in part because the nearby stop will connect to bike lanes under the proposed bike plan currently in front of the city. Since there’s federal funding involved, Metro can’t immediately hand the property directly over to the city. But Cisneros sees the sites as an opportunity to enhance its function as transit-oriented development and make connections along the rail where they’re lacking today.
“Right now, the stations are really nice,” she said, “but there’s a real, ‘so what?’ It doesn’t go into the neighborhood. They just sort of dump you onto the street.” To be truly successful, the stations need to be part of pedestrian corridors, according to Cisneros.
It’s in the early stages still, but she’s talked with community members who see the space as a potential pocket park, bike facility or even a place stocked with repair tools for people to work on their bicycles.
Rufus Cage Elementary
Other locations are the product of decades of struggle and a community’s dedication to preservation. That’s the story with the old Rufus Cage Elementary in Houston’s East End.
The three-story schoolhouse recalls the days when the neighborhood was largely rural. Indeed, the building used to be only two stories, each with soaring ceilings, while the bottom floor was where teachers and students would tie their horses up after riding to school.
“There’s a picture of [Rufus Cage] when he was doing the dedication, standing up on [what was] the first floor at the time, and on the back side all you see is woods,” said Robert Gallegos, city council member and the former chair of the Historic Rufus Cage Educational Alliance. In 1910, Cage, whose family had donated the land and who served as Houston Board of Education president, dedicated the four-room schoolhouse. It was still part of the county’s school district then, until, in 1914, it joined the Houston Independent School District.
It didn’t last long as part of the city’s school district. It was too small to be of much use, so the district closed it and leased out the property until neighborhood residents petitioned the district to reopen the school in 1925, according to the Houston Chronicle. Even after it was reopened, the school was not a priority for the district, which refused to furnish it with basic things like cooking equipment. Mothers filled the gap. It was the neighborhood’s school more than it was the district’s school.
For decades, the neighborhood fought to expand and protect the school until, in 1983, a new Cage Elementary School opened nearby and took the students with it. The district used the old building as storage before eventually looking to sell it off completely.
“I was president of the Eastwood and Lawndale Wayside Super Neighborhood over 10 years ago,” Gallegos said. “That’s when it was brought to my attention that HISD had a big old ‘For Sale’ sign out front.” He asked the district whether there were any restrictions on the potential buyer. When he found out the answer was no, he asked the mayor to intervene. The district ended up transferring the school to the city, which still owns it today.
“We’re of course glad that the building was saved, but now we need to figure out what it can be used for,” said Gallegos. “It’s been said from way back that when Rufus Cage provided the property, his only agreement was that the property would always have to be used for educational purposes,” Gallegos said.
With that in mind, TXRX Labs, a local makerspace, applied for federal funding to provide STEM programming in the buildings behind the old school, but so far it hasn’t been successful. Gallegos is still hopeful that will happen, and when it does, he hopes that the old schoolhouse will get a new life too, perhaps as a museum for the East End’s long history that actually predates the city’s founding.
“It’s part of our history,” said Gallegos of the structure.
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Whether preserving history or forging new connections, the properties each represent an opportunity to help guide a community’s development amidst the city’s growth and change. It’s a process Payton takes very seriously. “We need to do more than just build buildings,” she said.
By taking charge of the pace and direction of the inevitable change she sees engulfing her own community and others like it, she said, “We don’t give people an opportunity to make an opinion about us; we tell them what that opinion should be.” So while a development on the western end of Lyons Avenue would mark a new beginning for the corner, she’s open to whatever will best enhance the community while also serving its longtime residents.
There’s one thing she’s already ruled out, though.
“We certainly don’t want to use a quality spot like for parking,” she said.