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Houston’s Near Northside Is Still Going Through A Transition

Most of Houston's inner-city neighborhoods have been transforming over the past two decades, the beneficiaries of investment dollars, revitalization projects and developer interest.

While other neighborhoods are further along, Near Northside is still transitioning. Though it sits immediately north of Downtown Houston’s grid of high-rise office buildings and commercial developments, the neighborhood has remained mostly residential in nature.

Near Northside has historically been defined by working-class homes, the Hardy Rail Yards and occasional pockets of commercial or industrial development. But as the pool of affordable land close to Downtown Houston continues to shrink and the district gears up a new business development strategy, Near Northside's evolution may start speeding up.

The Fulton/North Central light rail stop on METRORail's red line in Near Northside.

Near Northside emerged as a residential neighborhood during the 1880s and 1890s, when expansion of the nearby Hardy Rail Yards spurred housing development. About two-thirds of the neighborhood is still composed of wooden-frame, Victorian-era homes that once housed European immigrants drawn to work at the rail yards.

Much like the nearby Houston Heights, Near Northside declined after World War II, when the expansion of the road system led to residential development in Houston’s outer suburban areas and rail traffic began to decrease. Around the same time, the demographics of the area shifted from European to majority Hispanic, and it has remained that way for the last seven decades.

The neighborhood’s approximate geographic boundaries are Interstate 45 to the west, Frisco Street to the north, Elysian Street to the east and Burnett Street to the south, 4.3 square miles. The major commercial arteries of the neighborhood are North Main Street and Fulton Street.

Near Northside is one of several neighborhoods overseen by the Greater Northside Management District, which was created by the Texas Legislature in 2001 and began operating in 2006. Greater Northside Management District Executive Director Rebecca Reyna said that Near Northside has seen the majority of new development activity in the district, which also includes Independence Heights and Northline, owing to its proximity to Downtown Houston and the presence of the expanded METRORail red line. 

While the light rail’s 5.3-mile northern expansion has been beneficial, subsequent development has not occurred as fast as some observers had originally hoped. That may be partially due to the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, according to Reyna. The project broke ground behind schedule and didn’t open to the public until December 2013. 

“I think a lot of people anticipated [development] would be sooner with a light rail,” Reyna said. “And I think it took a little longer for various reasons. But we are starting to see that.”

Near Northside is composed of smaller land parcels than some other neighborhoods, offering fewer large-scale commercial opportunities for developers. Many are family-owned residential properties and have been for generations, limiting the number of suitable sites that come onto the market, Reyna noted.

Despite the obstacles, developers have a good reason to give Near Northside a second look: The entire neighborhood is contained within an opportunity zone, providing tax benefits since 2017 to developers and investors who introduce new business and physical improvements into the area.

Chicago-based developer Marquette Cos. has chosen to do exactly that. The firm is developing an unnamed Class-A, 260-unit multifamily community at North Main and Boundary Street, close to White Oak Music Hall.

Marquette Cos. Director of Development and Acquisitions Chris Yuko said the location of the land tract within an opportunity zone was a big reason the company was able to purchase the land in 2020 when most investment activity had slowed to a halt.

“It was because of that program, and the need to deploy capital, that allowed us to get this project done in the middle of COVID,” Yuko said.

A rendering of Marquette Cos.' unnamed Class-A, 260-unit multifamily community in Near Northside.

One of the most prominent redevelopment projects in the Near Northside area is Hardy Yards, formerly the location of the Hardy Rail Yards. The 43-acre site was acquired by Houston developer Avi Ron, who then sold the brownfield property to Austin-based Cypress Real Estate Advisors in 2005.

The first project at Hardy Yards came after Houston-based developer Zieben Group purchased nearly 5 acres from CREA in 2015. Zieben partnered with the city of Houston, Houston Housing Finance Corp. and Community Bank of Texas to build Residences at Hardy Yards, a Class-A, four-story, 350-unit mixed-income apartment community. That project was completed in 2018.

The second project underway at Hardy Yards is The Exchange, a 300-unit mixed-income housing project being developed by NRP Group in partnership with the Houston Housing Authority. The project is expected to complete this year.

Though Hardy Yards has secured two residential projects, the redevelopment site is still lacking in much-needed commercial activity. Reyna said the Greater Northside Management District has been in conversation with the city of Houston about how to change that.

“The dry cleaners, the coffee shop, the sort of small-scale retail, I think that's what has been needed in the neighborhood,” Reyna said.

The Greater Northside Management District is holding a public hearing on Jan. 8 to present its updated service plan for 2021-2030. Reyna told Bisnow the plan will include a proposal for building out a business development strategy to draw more commercial activity to the district, including Near Northside.

Yuko said he sees the availability and ease of transportation in and out of the neighborhood as a positive for the growth of commercial activity. He is optimistic that entertainment projects like White Oak Music Hall and new multifamily developments in the area will attract more businesses in the long run.

“I'm placing a big bet that the neighborhood is going to continue to develop well. You'll see more activity and more businesses moving in,” Yuko said.

Commercial developments in the Near Northside area tend to be smaller in scale, reflecting the residential character of the neighborhood. New development tends to occur along the North Main transit corridor to capture as much traffic as possible.

One example is Houston-based retail developer Rain Hollow, which is working on a small-scale retail project at North Main and Quitman Street. The development involves the renovation of an existing building that already houses a long-term popsicle retail tenant, as well as the construction of a second building. Both will have upstairs private office space. In addition, the developer is converting two shipping containers into a coffee shop on the adjacent corner.

Rain Hollow Director of Operations and Asset Manager Brett Huey said that on a micro-level, the company liked that the site is directly on the METRORail red line. On a broader level, Near Northside has proximity to Downtown Houston, access to major transit options and a local resident population that is proud of the neighborhood.

“We really think that the neighborhood's got the best potential to be a walkable, livable neighborhood in Houston, probably more so than anywhere else, just because of all the pieces that it already has in place that really haven't been capitalized on very well,” Huey said.

The Butterfly Pocket Park on Fulton Street in Near Northside.

Near Northside has gained more attention from developers and businesses over the last 10 years, but there are still misconceptions that the neighborhood is less safe than other inner-city neighborhoods, according to Reyna.

There were 1,588 crime cases in Near Northside during 2019, according to Rice University’s Kinder Institute’s HCDC dashboard, which uses data from the Houston Police Department. The number of crime cases falls within the same range as Montrose, the Greater Heights, Washington/Memorial Park and Uptown Houston during the same year.

Reyna said there is also the perception that Near Northside doesn’t have much to offer in the way of dining or entertainment options. 

“I think there's almost [a] perception that there's not much here, that you can't get a variety, there's not a place to shop or anything,” Reyna said.

Fans of the area would disagree. Aside from long-standing businesses in the area, several new businesses have opened in the last few years, including White Oak Music Hall, The Raven Tower, Monkey’s Tail, Local Group Brewery and Canary Café. The hope is that other small businesses will choose to follow.

The other issue is that the neighborhood still has many areas that appear neglected or dilapidated. To that end, the Greater Northside Management District has been working on several capital improvement and urban design projects. 

Those include the Butterfly Pocket Park, pedestrian and bicycle transit improvements, colorful columns at the Crosstimbers and I-45 underpass and the Elysian Viaduct, and a variety of other street murals in the neighborhood.

Huey said larger developments like White Oak Music Hall and Hardy Yards remain on the fringes of Near Northside, but that nobody has really penetrated the interior of the neighborhood. As a developer who specializes in smaller retail projects, he is optimistic that more opportunities will appear in the neighborhood for his firm.

“We're hopeful that those have drawn enough interest in the area to cultivate a little more traffic toward the interior of the neighborhood, [so we can] really capitalize on some of these things,” Huey said.