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An Expanded Freeway In EaDo Puts Houston's Cars vs. Housing Debate Back In The Headlights

When the contentious North Houston Highway Improvement Project comes to East Downtown, it will tear up dozens of commercial properties, from affordable housing developments to popular breweries, along a stretch of St. Emanuel Street next to Interstate 69.

Part of the greater Texas Department of Transportation expansion of Interstate 45, the nearly $10B project is intended to improve transportation flow by expanding the congested intersection of interstates 69 and 45, along with adding new bike lanes and better flood control.

But progress has ground to a near halt following a Federal Highway Administration investigation into the project and recent protests meant to stop the teardown of the vacant Lofts at the Ballpark apartment complex at 610 St. Emanuel St. — one of TxDOT’s first scheduled EaDo demolitions.

And while advocates assert transportation upgrades are essential to accommodate growth, some activists and top Houston officials say the destruction of the living space is emblematic of TxDOT’s failure to properly examine the environmental impacts of the project or consider its potential to displace residents, some of whom are low-income or residing in affordable housing developments.

The vacant Lofts at the Ballpark complex in EaDo

“The fight to stop [this project] and make it better is about the priorities of this city," said Stop TxDOT I-45 volunteer Michael Mortiz of the showdown between housing and transportation.

"When I-10 and west Houston was expanded in the early 2000s, people touted that as a congestion mitigator, and great for commuting, and great for safety. But now we see travel times from Katy to downtown are significantly longer than they were before that project was even done. If you build more lanes, they’ll build more car-only development, far away from jobs. … The city has to, at some point, start prioritizing [public] transit and housing.” 

In notoriously car-dependent Houston, where the desire for dense, walkable accessible housing has rubbed uncomfortably against the desire for robust car transit for years, Stop TxDOT I-45, one of the largest groups against the project, sums up its feelings on the project with the slogan "Housing, not highways."

Houston-area lawmakers, such as Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, have also expressed doubts the project will ease traffic enough to make up for displacing residents.

“You can’t take more [units] than what’s needed at a time when affordability is a critical question and the housing stock is in short supply,” Turner said at a June Houston City Council meeting, reported by the Houston Chronicle. “Even if the green light was given on this particular project, I just don’t know what TxDOT was thinking. It doesn’t do anything to generate goodwill.”

The project is not facing universal disdain by any means.

After years of acquisition negotiations with area businesses, TxDOT now owns a small handful of properties along the street. Those still in negotiations, such as the East Village mixed-use project and several nonprofits targeting homeless individuals, are on the chopping block for acquisition and demolition through eminent domain.

Yet several businesses and organizations along St. Emanuel Street, including those that provide housing, commended TxDOT's efforts to Bisnow, speaking favorably on how the expansion will help the greater EaDo neighborhood and could lead to an even greater number of units than before.

TxDOT, for its part, said the aging infrastructure it's replacing will help with long-term issues like flooding, despite the people it will displace in the process. 

"The Houston area continues to grow at a rapid pace," TxDOT Public Information Officer Danny Perez said in an emailed statement. "The area has seven million people with a projected population growth of more than 80 percent by 2050. The I-45 corridor in Houston is home to nine of the top 25 most congested roadways in Texas. With the North Houston Highway Improvement Project (NHHIP), the Houston region will receive more than $43 billion in economic development, reduced travel times, environmental benefits, and much more."

As of the beginning of 2022, TxDOT owned about 20 properties in 77003, the EaDo ZIP code that encompasses St. Emanuel and surrounding streets. Though many of those are vacant lots without an address, the state of Texas now owns just over 750K SF of built real estate that is expected to be torn down. Most of that is multifamily units, though it also includes a warehouse and a tourist attraction, The Graffiti Building, according to Harris County Appraisal District records. 

Final environmental reports from TxDOT in 2020 estimated the project would displace about 1,079 housing units, 919 of them multifamily. One property, an affordable housing development called Temenos I, is set to be rebuilt with 15 additional units, but it’s unclear whether any more market-rate multifamily units will be built after Lofts at the Ballpark is demolished.

In those multifamily properties lies part of the concern for Moritz. 

"We started seeing barricades go up around the [Lofts at the Ballpark], and we knew that they owned the buildings," he said. "But we were concerned that demolishing them was very premature, because the project was paused and under investigation by the Federal Highway Administration. It didn't seem like a good thing to do, to demolish these homes before they needed to be."

That federal investigation, launched last summer and intended to ensure the project doesn't violate Houston residents' civil rights, has led to an ongoing stalemate that has halted roadwork and whipped up activist concern.

TxDOT has stated previously that the project will displace low-income and minority populations. Moritz expressed further worry that the environmental impact statement for the Lofts at Ballpark teardown included only one building out of the complex that was in the right of way for the freeway, not the entire development that was eventually bought.

"[TxDOT was] just going to tear them all down, because that's what they do. But it's very troubling, because housing is at a premium like never before," Moritz said. "This neighborhood is a transit-oriented housing development. It's a great place for housing. These buildings are 19 years old, there's no reason to tear them down."

St. Emanuel Street in Houston

Banyan Residential, which sold Lofts at the Ballpark to TxDOT, didn't respond to request for comment.

But Temenos I owner Eva Thibaudeau is satisfied with how TxDOT handled its acquisition of her property. Thibaudeau is the CEO of Temenos CDC, an affordable housing provider that focuses on helping homeless individuals transition off the street and into apartments in a housing-first model. Temenos I, the developer's first complex, is at 2200 Jefferson St., about a block away from St. Emanuel. 

The property was originally set to have about 300 feet of property shaved away, acquired by TxDOT through eminent domain. Because it would be logistically impossible to take off several feet of physical building, Temenos CDC sold the entire lot in July 2021 to TxDOT for a total of $14M. Now, the nonprofit is halfway through construction on a building several blocks away, one that will have even more units units than before and be more sturdily built for residents who can create a lot of wear and tear on their homes.

"We were able to recoup the funds to reinvest in a new development [and] will be moving people just a few blocks away," Thibaudeau told Bisnow. "Everyone who lives there now will have a first right of refusal, and they're excited about it. They all had input in the design of the new building. … They're watching it go up, they feel like they were part of the process."

The process for TxDOT to purchase a building that is funded through various grant sources was complicated, Thibaudeau said, but Temenos CDC was amenable to selling from the start. The original building at Jefferson Street ended up being challenging to use, as it wasn't designed for the residents' need for 24/7 case managers and other services.

Thibeaudeau said the organization learned from that and applied it into a bigger and better building, with sturdier designs and Covid-19-mindful airflow. The new development, at 1703 Gray St., will be upped from its previous 80 units to 95 units, and will have 15 units for young adults experiencing homelessness.

Temenos CDC would have normally been prohibited from moving, legally, due to its government grants.

"At one point, we probably had 50 lawyers, and their lawyers, [in] all-hours, long meetings, with everyone trying to figure out exactly what this means and how to [sell]," Thibeaudeau said. "You're taking significant taxpayer and federal dollars and agree that you're going to keep it for this purpose for anywhere from 15 to 40 years. … Everybody was very committed. Our government funder partners were committed to maintaining the housing stock through a replacement development."

David Denenburg, a local landlord and member of the East Downtown Management District, echoed sentiments that TxDOT has communicated well, and went even further in support for the project.

"The I-45 expansion project is singularly the greatest thing that could happen to EADO," Denenberg said in an email. "Currently, the freeway divides EADO from downtown and is associated with higher crime and reduced walkability. Once the dilapidated eyesore of a freeway is buried, these problems should be alleviated, and EADO, with its diverse culture and rich history, will finally achieve its place as a burgeoning neighborhood in the heart of Houston."

Denenburg, president of Denenburg Development + Construction, owns Cheek Neal Coffee Co., a 105-year-old historical landmark at 2017 Preston St., which is in direct line of fire for NHHIP. The building won't be torn down due to that historical designation, but Denenburg said he will be affected by neighboring construction, and that TxDOT's right-of-way encompasses the building's parking. Still, Denenburg told Bisnow he believes the project is vital for Houston's future and doesn't want state infrastructure funds to go to Austin or San Antonio instead.

"My concerns are nominal in comparison to the importance of this project for the future of our city – it is essential for Houston to compete on a national level," Denenburg said.

Search Homeless Services, behind Interstate 69

Though not all properties along the street have been purchased yet by TxDOT, the remainder are set to be acquired and demolished regardless if the project is renewed once the investigation concludes.

A little more than a mile down the street from Temenos CDC, near the opposite end of the planned teardown site, Search Homeless Services hasn't had an update on its potential acquisition for a year.  Instead, it's keeping its head down to serve its roughly 1,000-person client list, which includes low-income and homeless individuals.

"The only reason we [would leave] is because we are directly in the path of the freeway expansion, and TxDOT will condemn our property," Search CEO Thao Costis said.

Search's facility is an office at 2015 Congress St., across the street from the I-69 overpass. Though homeless individuals line up in the morning to speak to their case worker for social services, Costis said the building is relatively discreet. But the nature of it being a facility that assists the homeless  means it is having difficulty finding a new office amid "not in my backyard" attitudes.

Search was first approached by TxDOT in 2018 and has been in slow negotiations since. The organization is still unsure of where it would relocate, though it wants to stay nearby, where the bulk of its client base is located. Harris County sued TxDOT to stop the I-45 expansion in May 2021, and though the lawsuit was paused in November, amid negotiations, Costis has heard little since, and was surprised to see beginnings of a teardown for the Lofts at the Ball Park.

With the project in stasis and no final offer from TxDOT to purchase Search, especially amid fluctuating real estate prices, Search does not having the funding to acquire a new property. In the meantime, Costis said the organization is conducting business as usual.

"[Our employees] don’t think about it, it's not of their concern," he said. "They're worried about the clients, that's their job. I think people are curious, but it's not anything that's in front of our face."

On July 8, TxDOT revealed its Unified Transportation Program, a new 10-year plan that will direct $85B in federal and state funds to transportation, the Chronicle reported, $6.13B of that for the I-45 expansion.

Stop TxDOT I-45 is calling for the project to be removed from the Unified Transportation Program and for a new planning and environmental linkage study to look at the project's effects. Meanwhile, the Lofts at the Ballpark are still standing, and NHHIP remains in limbo.

Thibeaudeau said she understands the community concern, but points out the housing crunch in Houston is much larger than one project.

"For us, [the upcoming teardown] has worked out very well. But the problems [in housing] are systemic. The problem isn't that this rebuild is being done today, the problem is, as a state, we don't have the funds to act on everything from 15 to 20 years from the initial input phase. That's a problem," Thibeaudeau said, referring to the lengthy processes from seeking funds to delivering new affordable housing.

"It's not a one-entity blame kind of problem."