And it’s . . . off! The building designer who had planned to demolish a 1920 bungalow in the newly designated Freeland Historic District and build two 4-story townhomes in its place has now backed out of the deal completely. In a letter to neighborhood residents, Jack Preston Wood and his wife, Samantha Wood, say they’ve canceled their purchase contract for 536 Granberry, in the soppy southern reaches of the Heights.
What made them change their minds? Maybe . . . the gentle encouragement of their would-be neighbors?
We received mean spirited mail, emails, blogs, and visits to our business website all because we were planning on tearing down a house in very poor condition and replacing it with a new compatible home.
The Woods say that after the city historical commission rejected their demolition and construction plans in mid-March, they abandoned the double-townhouse idea and decided instead to replace the bungalow with a new 2800-sq.-ft. 1-1/2-story bungalow. But the neighbors kept at it:
Even though we had sent a response that we were not going to build our original plans and we were working on new plans the neighborhood still held a protest and plastered Freeland with signs. As we watched the news clip on the protest we began to realize that any new home, no matter how compatible, would not be accepted because the Freeland mantra was to remain an â€œintactâ€ neighborhood. . . .
About three weeks into the six weeks, we realized that we had become the â€œPoster Childâ€ to deter and slowdown development in the area.
Lots more fun in the full text of the Woods’ letter, reprinted — along with a neighbor’s response — below:
Oh yes, this is worth reading in full. All bolding in the original:
May 5, 2009
Re: 536 Granberry Street
To the Freeland Residents:
Preston and I have cancelled our contract to purchase 536 Granberry.Â We will not be building either of the homes we designed for our family ….the 31/2 Story Town homes or the 1 1/2 story Bungalow.
I would like to replay our side of the last six weeks:
About 6 weeks ago, just following the March 12th meeting with the HAHC we decided to scrap our plans to build one of the two 3 1/2 story homes we had originally designed for the lot.Â Our original plans showed 2 homes on the lot but we were only planning on building our home initially.Â However, we decided because of the neighborhood opposition and our own desire to enjoy the full yard that we would only build one home on the lot.Â We then began our design of a 11/2 story bungalow, a home that we felt would meet with neighborhood acceptance.Â We sent a lengthy email responding to the emails we had received.Â Our email stated that we would not be building the taller structures but that we were designing a single 11/2 story home for 536 Granberry. We also contacted Thomas McWhorter with HAHC and informed him that we wanted to meet with Mr. Pace, a preservation office for the HAHC and himself to get their input on our new plans.Â Following our meeting with the HAHC Officers we had planned to meet with the neighborhood to gain approval of our compromise.Â Mr. Pace had been out of town when I called but we never heard back from him to confirm a meeting or to respond to our phone call.
Even though we had sent a response that we were not going to build our original plans and we were working on new plans the neighborhood still held a protest and plastered Freeland with signs.Â As we watched the news clip on the protest we began to realize that any new home, no matter how compatible, would not be accepted because the Freeland mantra was to remain an “intact” neighborhood.
The neighborhood response ramped up and an article and blog appeared in the Houston Press.Â The Houston Press did not attempt to contact us; so preservationists and neighbors became “hyped” on inaccurate information.Â We were then contacted by the Chronicle for another article.Â We were able to again clearly state that we were not going to be building the 31/2-story town homes and that we were either going to build our new 11/2 story bungalow design or not purchase the lot.Â All of this information appeared in the article.
Another protest occurred, a second article in the Houston Chronicle, and a petition has been circulating. However, the most disappointing element of the neighborhood campaign has been some of the hateful and threatening emails that we have received.Â We definitely have experienced an attempt at character assassination. A lot of incorrect and exaggerated information, “spin” has been printed and spread through the community. We received mean spirited mail, emails, blogs, and visits to our business website all because we were planning on tearing down a house in very poor condition and replacing it with a new compatible home.
About three weeks into the six weeks, we realized that we had become the “Poster Child” to deter and slowdown development in the area.Â We too came to the conclusion just as many of the emails stated that we were not welcome…..people who build McMansions are not welcome.Â Well, a 2800 SF 11/2 story home is bigger than a 1400 SF existing bungalow but hardly a mansion.Â We also understand that one of the driving forces behind preservation of existing homes is the desire to control rising property taxes.Â Many Heights residents are concerned that increasing property values spurred by new construction increases taxes, however a loss in lot value of $100,000 should also be a concern.
We decided to cancel our contract so we visited with our attorney. Â He advised us to not discuss our plans or pursue any approval of the smaller house until we had cancelled our contract with the seller.Â The cancellation of our contract with Mr. Moore was completed last Friday.
We just gave you the news you wanted….. but please read on.Â We would like to share with you the due diligence process that we exercised during our feasibility period of our contract on Granberry.Â We feel that it helps pinpoint problems and offers some suggestions that may reduce the need to negatively combat potential future buyers.Â The greatest problem lies in an inability to educate potential buyers to the new ordinances and historic status of the neighborhood. Please read our process and its results.
Freeland became a historic neighborhood in September of 2008, yet as late as February 19, 2009 any information regarding the historic designation did not come up in public records at the Courthouse.Â There should be some sort of recordation that apprises possible buyers of this status.
We made our offer for 536 Granberry on November 11, 2009.Â The property was also being marketed as a lot.Â We received, within 15 days, our title commitment on the property.Â The Schedule B of the title report that divulges such information only had information on the original Deed of Record and Chapter 42.Â The three very important ordinances that could greatly affect a buyer were not present in our title commitment. These ordinances are as follows;
1. Ordinance 2003-149 an ordinance that sets a building line at 19′
2. Ordinance 2007-1016 an ordinance that sets minimum lot size.
3. Historic Designation?
We, however, as part of our expanded due diligence also went to the Courthouse to pull any existing public records.Â We were able to pull the two Ordinances 2003-149 and 2007-1016, but nothing came up in regards to the historic designation.
Because we were aware that several Heights neighborhoods were working on Historic Designation we also went to a website that we knew published a list of the current Historic Neighborhoods….the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance or GHPA.Â The GHPA had what we thought to be accurate information but it did not include Freeland as a Historic District.Â We performed this check in January.Â I just checked (5/05/2009) and Freeland is still not listed as one of the Historic Districts.Â Come on…..get the information to the public! The GHPA is helping with the latest Freeland Petition but if the GHPA just maintained and updated their website with current and accurate information they would be of greater service to the historic districts. They have let us all down.
The penalty for demolishing a landmark building or a structure in a historic district is the suspension of a building permit for that particular property for 5 years…that is a steep penalty.Â The public must have easy access to recorded historic data.
Another suggestion instead of working in a negative way why not make readily available in the form of a campaign the tax advantages of renovation of the existing, along with website instruction on how to fill out the paperwork to qualify for these perks.
Sadly, the biggest problem is not us but Ordinance 238, 239, and 250 (90 to 180 days – do what you want) that forces neighbors to become vigilantes (I can say this because of the mail we received).Â The current ordinance is only pitting neighbor against neighbor.
Another cold truth in regards to maintaining the status of an “intact” neighborhood is the economics of keeping homes like 536 Granberry that are in very poor condition from being torn down. Unfortunately, we would venture to say that most future buyers of 536 Granberry like us will have to wrestle with the economics of price they can pay for the existing structure, the cost to renovate, and the value at the end.Â We understand “economics” when weighed against “cause” can be a dirty word, but for the family footing the bill it has to be considered.Â An honest evaluation – the existing home at 536 Granberry has not been maintained for many years by the current owner and is very poor structural condition.Â The existing building sills are decomposed and the house is sitting on the ground.
We received a letter from a current homeowner in Freeland who also is a bungalow remodeler challenging us to renovate 536 Granberry.Â He also shared with us that he too had made an offer on 536 Granberry prior to our contract but was unable to reach an acceptable offer.Â We do not know the amount of his offer but what is understandable is that he had a certain price that he could pay and still justify renovating….at the end of the day our contract price for 536 Granberry did not make renovation feasibly possible.
A little information about your perceived enemy:
We too live in an old renovated structure.Â Seven years ago we bought and renovated an old warehouse into our offices and residence.Â A part of our building was built in the early 1900’s and half was added in the 1970’s. We have loved every part of it.Â The residence part of our warehouse was filmed and aired on HGTV’s Rezoned two years ago.Â Rezoned was a weekly cable TV program that showcased commercial buildings where the owner/occupant had successfully converted the buildings to another use rather than demolition.
We love architecture both historical and new.Â We love one story warehouses and 4 story town homes with views of downtown….we love urban living.
We own a Design Firm designing single family and multi-family homes from the suburbs to the inner city and we have done this for 28 years.
We were drawn to the big lot on the bayou with a great view of downtown and we had a different vision. When we drove the neighborhood of two streets, Granberry and Frazier we saw that many of the existing homes had not been renovated and many were not even being maintained.Â Although, the homes may have all been built around the same historical time period many were not the architecturally significant homes of the early 1900s.Â The two streets are surrounded by icehouses, restaurants, and bars. Connected to, along the side, and at the back of Granberry is a specialty lumber company andÂ Â Â vacant lots. (The lumber company and vacant lots are logistically a part of Freeland but are not included in the historic district)Â As I stated earlier, the property at 536 Granberry was being marketed at a lot and from all information gathered we did not find the “historical designation”.Â We did not see Freeland as a historical neighborhood but as two streets in transition.
Where we probably differ is in our perception of historical…we don’t believe that just being “old” warrants preservation especially if the structure is not sound.Â Some old homes of the early 1900’s were “tract housing:” for that period in history and they were not architecturally significant.Â The National Register has two classifications, contributing and non-contributing. Contributing is determined by the degree of architectural significance. Since there are not a lot of true historical properties in Houston, the city has added an additional class designated “potentially contributing” to help qualify neighborhoods as historical.Â We feel you still have to uphold some standards of architectural significance not just be “old” to be classified as historical.Â We also were under the impression that the term” potentially contributing” meant that those homes had to be rehabilitated to improve their architectural integrity.
So, we may differ on our view of Freeland as an architecturally rich neighborhood, but we do respect the designation given to the neighborhood and appreciate the resident’s passion. We don’t agree with the Freeland mantra that the existing homes must stay “intact” to the exclusion of “new compatible” homes. With the historic designation, a certain responsibility of the homeowners to maintain their historic homes must be a requirement?Â If the home at 536 Granberry continues to sit and decay, then our new compatible home may not have been the enemy after all.
It has been an interesting 6 weeks.Â We have sat mum for most of that time and we needed to respond. Â We truly hope that our frustrations and suggestions will not be taken lightly, but instead will open the door for some positive changes.
Preston and Samantha Wood
Freeland resident Jean Taylor, an organizer of the protests, sends the Woods this reply:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Wood,
Thank you for informing us of your cancellation of the contract on 536 Granberry.Â I’m sorry to hear that you received hateful and threatening emails as that was never the intention of the residents of Freeland Historic District.Â Unfortunately we are unable to control what others (or even some of us) write, especially on public blogs.Â You must understand that you were dealing with the quality of life and property values of the residents.
Although you did state in an earlier email that you would build only one 2-story home, until any such plans were submitted to Randy Pace, or even a meeting held with him to discuss this option, we had to go on the assumption that nothing was changed from your original plan.Â Too many others have made such promises in other areas and when the time came, the original plans were put into affect.
I was not aware that Freeland Historic District is not listed on the Greater Houston Alliance’s web site but it certainly is on the City of Houston’s website where most would go to check for accurate information.Â It is not the responsibility of Freeland HD or any other historic district to have to supply information such as tax advantages or renovation etc., although that was mentioned to you by Freeland residents.Â That is a responsibility of the City of Houston and is plainly posted on the city’s web site and is always available through Randy Pace’s office.Â His contact information is also given on the City of Houston web site.Â Having all of the information on one site such as the one for the City of Houston is much preferable than several that may or may not be updated on a timely basis.
It is true that the City’s historic ordinances are lacking.Â Many of us have been working on trying to strengthen them but at the end of the day it is the City Council and Mayor who make those decisions.Â They have heard our concerns.Â Maybe it would be helpful if others, such as yourself, would also contact the council and Mayor with your suggestions for improving these ordinances.
It is a shame that you only saw our neighborhood as run down “tract houses”.Â You mentioned the lumber yard and vacant lots as not being included in the historic designation.Â That is because that property was never platted as Freeland Addition. It is true that we are surrounded by icehouses, restaurants, and bars.Â You say it as if it makes the neighborhood less desirable.Â Considering the low opinion you have of our homes and area, it is probably for the best that you have decided to build elsewhere.
Photo: Swamplot inbox