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'Forgotten' Alief Seeing Long-Desired Development, But Community Wants More

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A concentration of revitalization efforts in Alief  — a proud Southwest Houston neighborhood known for its diversity of people, cultures and businesses — is taking hold on Bellaire Street.

Property owners are redeveloping shopping centers along the major economic thoroughfare, and the city of Houston approved a new $58M community center to anchor the commercial corridor.   

"Bellaire is jumping," Alief Super Neighborhood Council Vice President Noreen Smith said. 

Will the investment activity seep into much-needed residential redevelopment? Community leaders hope so. All but one multifamily property in Alief is classified as Class-B and lower and the majority were built in the 1980s, which makes the area primed for redevelopment, and residents are ready to see more investment flow into their neighborhood.

'Forgotten' Alief Seeing Long-Desired Development, But Community Wants More
Alief in Southwest Houston

The Alief community is often overlooked and undervalued, Alief Super Neighborhood Council President Barbara Quattro said. A new community center breaking ground next year has taken nearly two decades to be funded and approved by the city.

She believes the slowness of redevelopment in parts of the community stems from a lack of governmental support and leadership and inactivity from local property owners. 

"They don't call [Alief] the forgotten district for nothing," Quattro said.

Bounded by Westheimer on the north, Beltway 8 on the east, the Fort Bend County line on the west and Interstate 59 on the south, Alief has become a magnet for people looking for an affordable place to live relatively close to the city center. The median household income was less than $40K in 2017, according to the U.S. Census 2017 American Community Survey for ZIP codes 77072 and 77099.

It is an increasingly diverse community within the overall cultural melting pot of Houston. About 38% of Alief residents are white, 25% black, 18% Asian and 20% other races, per the census. 

"People like to come here for the diversity, the food and the price point," said Southwest Realty Group founder Kenneth Li, who was also a founding owner of Chinatown, a commercial district east of Beltway 8 on Bellaire Street. "It is not just people in Houston. People know this is the place you come to see the diversity of Houston and authentic restaurants that you can only find in this community." 

'Forgotten' Alief Seeing Long-Desired Development, But Community Wants More
Alief Super Neighborhood Council members Noreen Smith and Barbara Quattro

The community has welcomed immigrants, refugees, middle- and working-class families, and they have formed a strong identity for Alief.

"If you ask people where they live, they say Alief, not Houston. That is Alief proud," Quattro said. 

But the perspective of the area can vary vastly between insiders and outsiders, and though some investors have seen value in commercial development they have been slow on multifamily redevelopment.   

While there is a growing number of young professionals that grew up in Alief who want to remain in the community, the lack of new housing options makes it less desirable, Quattro said. 

Community leaders have been pushing for improvements to Alief that will keep the area appealing. The goal of new and redevelopment projects slated for the community is to mirror the overall vision for Alief: a healthy family-friendly neighborhood, Smith said. 

"It is a stable environment to raise a family," she said. "Our roots are geared toward education, parks and healthcare." 

Houston city officials said they hear the concerns from the Alief community and believe the new Alief Community Center, slated to break ground in spring 2020, can serve as an anchor to Bellaire Street.  

"This is a big response to the feedback that the city doesn't care," City of Houston Senior Project Manager Dimitri Karavias said. "We are spending a lot of money to address the needs of the community and to provide another level of service." 

'Forgotten' Alief Seeing Long-Desired Development, But Community Wants More
SWA Group principal Natalia Beard at Alief Community Center public meeting

The two-story, 70K SF building will house three city departments: Health and Human Services, Parks and Recreation and the library. This is the first-of-its-kind multiservice facility in Houston, according to the city.  

EYP Inc. and SWA Group are responsible for architecture and landscaping. 

Combining these services under one roof saves money, improves efficiency, eliminates department redundancies and promotes to residents a wide spectrum of city-provided services, Karavias said.  

The multigenerational facility will include a Women, Infant and Child office on the first floor and the relocated library on the second floor.

The center redesign also includes three soccer fields, tennis courts, football fields, a baseball field, a skate park, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, an outdoor trail, an indoor track, a fitness center, an art garden, an outdoor pool, a playground, multipurpose rooms, an event lawn, and outdoor and indoor meeting spaces, including staircase seating in the lobby.

"We all work for the citizens, and everything is for their benefit," Karavias said. "We cannot do everything, but we tried to respond to the requests in a transparent manner."

'Forgotten' Alief Seeing Long-Desired Development, But Community Wants More
Bellaire Street and Kirkwood Road

Busy Bellaire 

The new landmark building will anchor a redeveloping Bellaire corridor, which is lined with densely populated shopping centers like Hong Kong City Mall that opened in 1999, local and regional businesses, ethnic restaurants, fast-food and chain restaurants and service-oriented retail. The majority of the commercial land is owned by Asian investors, Li said. 

Renovations are underway at several shopping centers in Alief. Topway Center, adjacent to the Alief Community Center at 11810 Bellaire Blvd., is redoing its facade. Tenants include Bank of America, Pho Ga Dakao Vietnamese restaurant and Hai Cang Harbor Seafood Restaurant. The gas station across the street also underwent a complete update within the last few months.

At Bellaire Boulevard and Synott Road across from My Hoa Food Market, an Asian grocery store, another neighborhood shopping center is applying cosmetic upgrades to the exterior. The property owner is marketing a 42K SF big-box lot for lease, according to the building's signage. On the other side of Bellaire near Beltway 8, a new two-story office building is under construction. 

'Forgotten' Alief Seeing Long-Desired Development, But Community Wants More
The Pines at Bellaire senior housing in Alief

The Pines at Bellaire, an Asian-focused assisted senior housing development on Bellaire Street near Cook Road, is expected to wrap construction in August, said C.C. Lee, part owner of the Pines at Bellaire and president of STOA International Architecture.

Due to the proximity to Chinatown and its location in Alief, the 119-bed community will tailor to the specific needs and design elements of the Asian community. The pre-grand opening is in July. 

"This is our first attempt to satisfy this demand within the Asian community," Lee said. "It will be the catalyst for future development for high-quality living in the Bellaire and Chinatown area." 

The Missing Piece 

Multifamily has not been revitalizing with the other property types, though occupancy is strong and community leaders have called for it.

The potential for multifamily redevelopment is great as most of the Alief submarket is made upb of Class-B and Class-C assets, but ApartmentData.com President Bruce McClenny said the changes have been slower and less apparent. 

'Forgotten' Alief Seeing Long-Desired Development, But Community Wants More
CDS President Steve Spillette and ApartmentData.com President Bruce McClenny

Many apartments were built in the 1970s and 1980s in response to the initial residential expansion. Aria at Westchase, an 81-unit property on Wilcrest Drive and Bissonnet Street, is the only Class-A property in the submarket. 

Property owners have approached redevelopment in various ways depending on the asset, McClenny said. One way has been to move out a section of residents and launch a multiphase renovation plan. Others have opted to upgrade by the unit as residents move out and then charge a premium for upgraded units.

An owner may also decide to renovate the entire community at once, which is less frequent in Alief, McClenny said.

The level of maintenance depends on ownership.  

"There are always going to be some owners that take better care of the property than others," Berkadia Senior Director Corby Chaffin said. 

There are 110 operating apartments totaling nearly 27,000 units in Alief, per ApartmentData.com. The occupancy was 92%, as of this week. 

The average occupancy rate has stabilized over the last few years due to the lack of new development, Chaffin said. Rental rates have improved because of renovations at existing apartments. Competition from brand-new apartments could hurt the overall occupancy. 

Average rents in Alief range from $750 for a one-bedroom unit, $955 for a two-bedroom unit and $1,180 for a three-bedroom unit, according to Berkadia. The overall average $875 compared to $1,040 in Houston overall.   

The affordable rents don't pencil out for new development, due to the rising cost of new construction, Chaffin said. With average rents at $1/SF, he doesn't see a demand from residents to pay $1.50/SF. 

New development or redevelopment of a low-income neighborhood often worries residents that they will be pushed out. However, that doesn't have to be the story for Alief. 

The primary goal should be to improve the current supply of apartments to accommodate the people already living in the area and bring in new residents, McClenny said. He also called for public/private partnerships to develop new affordable housing options.   

"I don't consider gentrification for this area," McClenny said. "Property owners are concerned with upgrading their properties. They have to fight off obsoletism. People are not going to respond to a property that is not kept up."