Angry homeowners in west Houston took to the streets last week and staged a demonstration on the site of a proposed apartment project.
Residents of the Wildwood Cluster Homes and Westchester subdivisions marched with picket signs to protest a proposed 208-unit project on Dairy Ashford Road, just south of Buffalo Bayou.
Homeowners claim the complex, called Ashford Lakes, will aggravate flooding and overtax storm sewers. The site is located within the Buffalo Bayou flood plain.
But Jenard Gross, developer of Ashford Lakes, argues that the concerns are groundless.
He says two engineering companies have worked together on the project to ensure that it won’t have an impact on the nearby bayou. The site’s sandy soil absorbs water quickly, he adds, and its runoff is discharged on the east side of Dairy Ashford, downstream from both the Wildwood and Westchester projects.
Plans for Ashford Lakes have already been given the green light by the Planning and Development Commission, subject to approval from the Harris County Flood Control District and from the city’s Public Utilities Department. Gross assures that the project will comply with the requirements of flood control and public utilities.
Art Storey, executive director of the flood control district, says his staff requires evidence that the project won’t displace storm water in the flood plain. Gross’ plans call for building apartment units on stilts — a strategy that will probably satisfy the letter of the law.
If Ashford Lakes meets regulatory requirements, flood control will approve the project. But Storey says he can’t help but be concerned any time there’s high-value construction in the flood plain. When an individual’s expensive car gets trapped in rising flood waters, Storey says he’s the one the wet motorist blames.
“Local regulations should be more restrictive about building high-value structures in the flood plain,” Storey says.
At the present time, he indicates that he can do little more than register his concern about planned construction in the flood plain. But demonstrations by angry homeowners indicate to Storey that the public is aware there’s a link between development in the flood plain and subsequent flooding.
So far, Gross has failed to convince County Commissioner Steve Radack that Ashford Lakes won’t impact the nearby bayou.
“In no way, shape or form have I seen any information that would remove any fear I have that the project will aggravate flooding,” Radack says.
The commissioner says he’s opposed to the project on that issue alone, and will remain opposed until he’s convinced otherwise.
In addition to citing fears about flooding, area homeowners opposed to Ashford Lakes also contend that the proposed apartment site is the nesting ground for several bird species, and they fear development will drive wildlife from the area.
Gross reports that neither he nor his project team members have spotted any evidence of birds’ nests on the disputed tract. Except for ducks swimming on Wildwood’s nearby pond, the developer says he hasn’t seen anything but the most common birds in the area.
Althea Schultz, vice president of the Wildwood Civic Association, says a Great Blue Heron makes its home in the area year-round, while water turkeys and an egret with a six-foot wingspan are regular seasonal visitors.
Concerned as she is about the area’s bird population, Schultz is more worried that apartment construction will aggravate area flooding. In March of last year, water from Wildwood’s pond rose 15 feet — high enough to lift the subdivision’s waterside gazebo off its base.
And Robin Motley, a Westchester resident, says several houses on her street flood during periods of heavy rain. Motley doesn’t want to see additional construction close to the bayou until area flooding is under control.
Gross is surprised at the outcry sparked by his plans for Ashford Lakes.
“I was taken aback,” he says.
The developer didn’t learn of last week’s planned demonstration until the evening before the scheduled date.
He was surprised because Ashford Lakes won’t directly border any residential development. The project site is bounded by a bayou easement to the north, Old Buffalo Bayou to the west, Dairy Ashford to the east and a neighborhood swimming pool to the south.
“We’re far away from the rest of the people,” Gross claims.
But Jim Westover, president of the Wildwood Civic Association, disagrees. He says that one of the 15 buildings proposed by Gross extends out over the water and comes within about 60 feet of a Wildwood house.
Flooding, storm water runoff and wildlife preservation may be the rallying cries of Wildwood and Westchester residents, but the groups are also concerned that apartments will lower property values and aggravate traffic congestion.
It’s not a very auspicious time to be an apartment developer in Houston.
Last week, Bellaire residents protested plans for an apartment project on a vacant tract near Loop 610. Last fall, residents of west Houston’s Fleetwood and Fleetwood West subdivisions protested a proposed apartment project in their area. And last year, Gross saw his plan to incorporate a vintage building into a new apartment complex squelched when the City of Houston wielded its power to eminent domain to acquire the property in order to keep a roof over the head of a resident theater group.
“Generally, people don’t want apartments,” Gross says. “They have the misconception that apartments downgrade a neighborhood.”
Although Houston has the reputation of welcoming development, Gross says he has found it easier lately to build in communities with development-leery reputations.
“We’ve built in places like Austin and don’t seem to have the problems we’re experiencing here,” he says.
According to Wildwood’s Westover, 818 new apartment units have gone up within a mile of the proposed Ashford Lakes site within the past year.
Schultz is scared that too many new apartments in one area will lead to vacancies and depressed rents.
Whether west Houston-area residents like it or not, their area is ripe for apartments, Gross says. BP Exploration, Landmark Graphics Corp. and other employers are relocating to west Houston, he says, ticking off company names.
“A lot of the jobs in Houston are moving out to that part of town,” Gross says. “That’s what’s driving development.”
Gross believes he owns one of the most attractive land tracts in the city. He thinks Ashford Lakes will easily clear a few remaining hurdles, and he predicts that the finished product will convert the neighbors.
“It’s going to be of such high quality that people will be glad to have it in the neighborhood once it’s up,” he says.
But Schultz isn’t convinced.
“It’s an attractive site,” she agrees. “But with so many buildings, it won’t look at all like the attractive site it is now.”