Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | November 17, 2016
When Wayne Norden moved from Iowa to Houston in 1989, he and his wife searched the Houston area looking for land and greenery.
They started their search in Sugar Land, but that felt too sterile, he said. “We’re from the Midwest, where trees are taller than we are,” he said.
So they worked their way around Beltway 8 for six months looking. Still, nothing was quite right.
Then they found Inwood Forest, northwest of downtown, outside the 610 Loop. With homes along a golf course and country club, the green space reminded him of home.
A mix of residential neighborhoods, strip centers and industry, the area’s prospects have risen and fallen over the years. After the oil bust in the 1980s, fortunes fell. Crime went up and apartment complexes, many with absentee landlords, stood vacant. And when the owner of the country club passed away, the property was sold to another developer looking to turn the land into apartments. Homeowners along the course fought back, said Norden, and eventually the developer negotiated a sale to the city instead.
Today, like many Houston suburbs, the area is now looking to redefine itself. Bike trails, flood management and rebranding efforts are all part of the area’s overhaul, but unlike other suburban centers like Sugar Land and The Woodlands — which have manicured town centers with high-end retail — Inwood Forest and the broader Near Northwest area, of which it is a part, have fewer resources to work with as they address the challenges of struggling apartment stock, worn out infrastructure and a lack of grocery options.
Houston boomed at the same time suburbs did. In 1950, the city had just under 600,00 people. By 1970, that count had more than doubled. Today, many urban thinkers view suburbs as static communities, the opposite of the dynamic, urban redevelopment that is attracting the “creative class” to cities across the country.
But, argues Kyle Shelton, historian and program director for the Kinder Institute, suburbs are rapidly changing.
“Today, suburban areas removed from central cores remain among the most quickly growing parts of the nation and will remain a key part of metropolitan life for decades to come,” he writes in the Kinder Institute’s newest report, produced in collaboration with the Urban Land Institute.
The Near Northwest is just one example from the report, “Building Stronger Suburbs,” that highlights how both new and older suburbs are championing walkability, mixed-use development and green spaces inspired by more urban settings.
Like many older, inner-ring suburbs, part of the Near Northwest sits inside Houston city limits while the rest is in unincorporated Harris County. With more than 110,000 residents, the area is served by three different city council members, two different county commissioners and several school districts. Norden and others saw a need for an organization that could represent the interests of their diverse community. Shortly after moving in, he helped co-found the Greater Inwood Partnership, which serves his part of Near Northwest. Then in 2001, he helped write the state legislation that created the Near Northwest Management District, which he serves as president. Relying on the business community, the management district has taken on a variety of quality of life projects to improve the area, starting with crime.
It contracted with the constables and worked with the police and sheriff’s department to encourage coordination among law enforcement agencies serving the areas. So far, he said, that collaboration is helping to reduce crime.
Then came the new signs and logo announcing the Near Northwest’s rebranding. “I couldn’t put up signs until everybody was talking in a much more positive way,” he said. The assessed property value in the district has grown from $705.7 million in 2004 to $1.3 billion, according to Kinder Institute/ULI report. And Norden says families priced out of neighborhoods like the Heights and Garden Oaks are coming to Inwood as “the next logical step.”
Now Norden is looking to tackle larger livability projects, guided by a recent Livable Centers Study and starting with the rebuilding of Antoine Drive, a bumpy, slow-going stretch of road crowded with cars and trucks. And he’s turned his attention to the bayous, often associated with flooding in the area. With the new hike-and-bike trails making their way along White Oak Bayou, the management district has worked with owners of a partly-empty shopping center to create the White Oak Bayou Village at Antoine Drive and West Little York Road, with bayou-facing storefronts meant to attract people using the trails along the water.
Billed as “Houston’s only destination spot located on the White Oak Bayou bike trail,” plans for the shopping center include strong pedestrian connections and even a station where cyclists can get air for their tires. Still in its early stages, the development would be the hub of a new walkable center in Norden’s vision.
The vision faces several challenges, but one of Norden’s biggest is a matter of perception. “I call it the ‘hangover effect.’ People have this vision of who we are without knowing who we are. And they base it on all the bad stuff they heard about this neighborhood when it was really bad,” he said. “I hear it all the time, ‘Oh, your schools are terrible up there.’ ‘Oh, crime is awful up there.’ Or my favorite, ‘Oh you’re white (and) you still live there?’”
The last one offends him the most because in his mind, the diversity of the area is one of its greatest assets. Near Northwest is 48 percent Hispanic and 33 percent black, according to the management district. It’s part of what he looked for in schools for his daughter years ago, and it’s part of what he likes now. “I go to a lot of committees, and I’m the only white guy in the room; that’s the way life is,” said Norden.
But some challenges remain. Inside the FoodTown grocery store on West Little York Road, one of only a few supermarkets inside the Near Northwest District, shopper Patrick Neil said safety has been improving, but it’s still a concern for him. On the other hand, he likes the relative quiet of the area, he said. He moved there with his mother in 2001 and attends Lone Star College in the neighborhood.
“We’re gradually getting there,” said Norden, sitting in a conference room in the repurposed White Oak Conference Center on what used to be the golf course. Now, it hosts a disc golf course, a butterfly garden and swimming pool. Schools groups visit the garden and picnic in the grass, said Norden. And every time they put out a call for volunteers, at least 15 people from the neighborhood show up. “There’s a pretty strong core of individuals who have gone through the bad times,” he said, “and they really believe in this community, and they want to stay in this community.”
- “Building Stronger Suburbs” (full report)
- “Cities Shouldn’t be Afraid to Look to the Suburbs For Inspiration” (blog post)