Bisnow Houston | Christie Moffat
One of the coolest neighborhoods in Houston just happens to be one of its oldest. A leafy suburb with historic Victorian mansions, a popular hike-and-bike trail, great restaurants and independent retail, the Houston Heights draws people from all over the city to eat, drink, shop and wander.
“A lot of this has to do with the amenities — restaurants, bars, hike/bike trails — [as well as] proximity to Downtown/job centers, and quickly appreciating home values,” Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research Deputy Director Kyle Shelton said.
The Houston Heights has undergone transformative change over the past two decades, moving from decline to one of the most popular areas in Houston. But with that popularity comes the downside: skyrocketing house prices and a lack of affordable rental properties.
Gentrification is a reoccurring story across the U.S., but how the community chooses to address the issue in the coming years will play a major role in determining new development projects in the Houston Heights.
With so many marks in its favor, new transplants to Houston might think the Houston Heights has always been a trendy place. But, that hasn't always been the case.
The Houston Heights came into existence in 1891, when self-made millionaire Oscar Martin Carter and his Omaha & South Texas Land Co. purchased 1,756 acres and set about creating the first master-planned residential community in Houston.
Today, it is one of the innermost neighborhoods within the Greater Heights, a collective “Super Neighborhood” of nine adjoining communities that collaborate on shared needs, concerns and priorities. The geographic boundaries are Interstate 10 to the south, Loop 610 to the north, Studewood Street to the east and Shepherd Drive to the west.
The proximity to Downtown Houston is one of the neighborhood’s major strengths and has made it very popular with young professionals, families and older people looking to live closer to the urban core. But that popularity is the product of significant transformation that has happened over the past 20 years, following decades of deterioration.
When Boulevard Realty owner Bill Baldwin first moved to the Houston Heights in 1998, the area had something of a rough reputation.
“When I got here, still much of it was in what would be perceived to be a decline, even though many people thought it was very charming. There were bars on most of the windows, there were chain link fences, there were Doberman pinschers in the yard,” Baldwin said. “In '98, many firms would not allow their agents to take a listing on this side of I-10. [They] did not feel it was safe for their Realtors, for single women to be showing houses in an area that had a perception of high crime.”
The affluent area first began to decline after World War II, when the expansion of the road system gave Houston’s urban residents more mobility to move to outer suburbs. Most larger homes were transformed into multifamily apartments or were neglected and eventually demolished. In addition, more commercial and industrial interests began to creep into the area due to a lack of zoning laws.
In an effort to combat the perceived poverty and high crime of the area, residents founded the Houston Heights Association in 1973 to promote revitalization while also preserving its history.
Baldwin sat on the HHA board from 2010 to 2019, and he served as president in 2012, 2017 and 2018. He told Bisnow that a huge amount of credit is owed to the earlier generations who pioneered the improvement and conservation of the area, and described those residents as “hands-on” and very politically active.
“Forming the Heights Association was an extremely important endeavor to protect the neighborhood. Raising money so that they had the ability to do something was an extremely valuable notion that was carried through,” Baldwin said.
The revitalization of Downtown Houston has also played a role in the growing popularity of the Houston Heights. As new stadiums, parks, retail and restaurants have been introduced, the perception of inner city living has improved.
Much of the visible character of the Houston Heights is linked to the preservation of its architecture. The neighborhood is known for its older Craftsman-style bungalows that tend to have less square footage than newer houses built in Houston’s outer suburbs.
“There's the style of architecture that makes us unique today, and that generation before me — I want to be clear that I give them credit — fought tooth and nail to get the largest historic districts so that you couldn't demolish the houses, so that you retained that style of architecture,” Baldwin said.
In 1983, the Houston Heights gained three designated historic districts following recommendations from the National Park Service and the Texas Historical Commission. Between 1983 and 2017, 121 properties in the Houston Heights were entered in the National Register of Historic Places. The most recent was the Heights Theater, which was registered in July 2017.
The creation of a historic district means certain rules apply to the entire neighborhood and changes to properties in the district must be appropriate for the historic character of the area. The city of Houston released updated design guidelines for building in any of the three historic districts within the Houston Heights in July 2018.
Because the neighborhood doesn’t have huge swaths of available land, the community has historically been vocal about keeping large national retail chains from developing in the area, according to Baldwin. Instead, local, independent businesses have been given a chance to flourish, which has also contributed to the character of the neighborhood.
“I don't need a Landry's, or a Chili's or an Olive Garden in the middle of the Heights. I want Savoir, and I want Squable and I want Eight Row Flint, and I want young chefs to get an investor and start something new,” Baldwin said.
Though HHA has no real political power to block new developments, the community-run organization has something else in its favor: money. Over nearly five decades, HHA has put millions of dollars in the bank, and those funds are strategically deployed on behalf of the neighborhood. One example is the Houston Heights City Hall and Fire Station at the corner of 12th and Yale, which HHA purchased from the city of Houston in 2009.
“The board, right before I became president, decided to buy it from the city, for fear that the city would sell assets and create a problem,” Baldwin said. “In order to prevent that, it was easier to buy it for $350K versus renting it for $1. But we were playing defense, long-term investment into [the] neighborhood.”
That isn’t to say all development is unwelcome in the Houston Heights. Redevelopment projects like Heights Mercantile and the soon-to-open M-K-T are examples of projects where HHA has worked with developers to make suggestions that will improve the safety, walkability and appearance of the neighborhood for the community.
Radom Capital is the developer behind both projects, and it has a number of other smaller retail projects in the area. The firm partnered with Triten Real Estate Partners to redevelop M-K-T, which is a collection of five industrial buildings that sit directly along the hike-and-bike trail.
Exterior construction and landscaping will reach completion by the end of September, Triten Real Estate Partners Marketing/Brand Director Lisa Reyerse told Bisnow. Interior build-outs for retail will continue into the fourth quarter, and most are expected to open to the public early next year. M-K-T also has creative office space, and tenants have started moving in.
“I think [that’s what] the Heights and the Inner Loop Houston area is kind of getting known for — just taking something and repurposing it, and finding a new reason to enjoy it,” Reyerse said.
The controversial 153K SF Walmart Supercenter at Yale and Koehler faced years of community opposition, even though it technically falls outside the boundaries of the Houston Heights. Though many residents opposed the presence of the store, HHA ended up working with developer Lance Gilliam and the city of Houston on the project. The end result was millions of dollars' worth of improvements made to the area.
“We got better sidewalks. We directed the street lights. They contributed to improve Heights Boulevard on the esplanade from Washington to I-10. We made our neighborhood better because of their participation,” Baldwin said.
One of the biggest challenges for the Houston Heights today is affordability. Average house prices are north of $800K, meaning that for the vast majority of people, homeownership is not an option. That price pressure is also impacting other neighborhoods in the Greater Heights.
“The growth and demand in the Heights is so great that [it] is impacting other communities adjacent to it with spillover development pressure. This is visible in the Near Northside, Independence Heights and Garden Oaks,” Shelton said.
“Independence Heights and Near Northside are areas where the threat of displacement of longtime residents of color or those with lower income is most problematic. Generally, the Heights has become more wealthy and more white over the past few decades.”
Densification would provide more affordable opportunities to live in the area, but apartment buildings still receive a hostile reception from some members of the community who want to preserve the historic feel of the neighborhood, according to Baldwin.
“Apartments are hugely controversial. Mixed-use housing is usually very controversial. Any sort of housing where the price point might be below the medium average income is somewhat disturbing to people because they have a perception in their mind that cheaper rent or fixed-rate rent places are bad for property,” Baldwin said.
“I'm in real estate and I'm telling you they're not bad for property values, and they're not bad for neighborhoods, but it's hard to convince people of that.”