This past Sunday night, the Houston Fire Department battled a blaze in the abandoned townhomes on Aqua Vista Street in Forest Cove. Since Harvey, the townhomes have been uninhabitable. 240,000 cubic feet per second roaring down the West Fork of the San Jacinto destroyed their structural integrity, literally ripping some of the buildings in half.
Since then, the townhomes have borne the marks of looters, squatters, drug dealers, vandals and illegal dumpers. When FEMA came to Houston to create a video about the horrors of Harvey and the need for flood insurance, they used these townhomes as a backdrop.
Ironically, the townhomes have also become a case study in how quickly properties can deteriorate when left unattended.
Then on Sunday, someone or something reduced most of one complex to ashes. The cause of the fire has not been determined at this time. It is the second fire in this complex this year; in January, the Houston Chronicle reported another.
Remaining Buildings a Magnet for Decay
In recent months, the once-attractive townhomes have become an embarrassment. Despite efforts by the City to clean up the area, it has become a fertile dumping ground for old tires, used furniture and landscape waste.
What Next for West Fork?
Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) is buying out the townhomes and demolishing them, building by building, as quickly as they can. Matt Zeve, Deputy Executive Director of HCFCD said, “HCFCD owns all but three units in the building that burned. We’ll expedite the remaining purchases and proceed with demolition ASAP.”
That raises the obvious question, “What will become of this area?”
Planning a Rebirth…Within Some Limits
Flood Control notes that legal restrictions exist. Says Zeve, “The properties purchased with FEMA grant assistance must remain as open space in perpetuity. Open space can include parks, flood reduction projects, grazing, and more. (See the attached FEMA deed restrictions and compatible uses.)
HCFCD will own the land in perpetuity. However, HCFCD has the ability to transfer the property to another public entity or conservation agency. Maintenance agreement options also exist.
Community and natural values will factor into the process. However, whatever is decided it must meet FEMA’s deed restrictions.
FEMA deed restrictions define compatible uses.
“The Property shall be dedicated and maintained in perpetuity as open space for the conservation of natural floodplain functions. Such uses may include: parks for outdoor recreational activities; wetlands management; nature reserves; cultivation; grazing; camping (except where adequate warning time is not available to allow evacuation); unimproved, unpaved parking lots; buffer zones; and other uses consistent with FEMA guidance for open space acquisition, Hazard Mitigation Assistance, Requirements for Property Acquisition and Relocation for Open Space.”
Buildings Prohibited With a Few Exceptions
No new structures or improvements may be erected on the Property other than:
- A public facility that is open on all sides and functionally related to a designated open space or recreational use;
- A public restroom; or
- A structure that is compatible with open space and conserves the natural function of the floodplain, including the uses described above, and approved by theFEMA Administrator in writing before construction of the structure begins.
Public May Be Part of Process
Because HCFCD owns the property, community values will be considered in its future. However, the question is larger than the land that HCFCD will own. It also involves land that Romerica currently owns as well as surrounding vacant properties along Hamblen. Many suggestions have come forward so far.
- Harris County Precinct 4 will build a park with a boat launch near US59
- Houston Parks Board has proposed building a greenbelt to connect Kingwood with a greenway system across the river.
- Residents have suggested buying up the Romerica land, putting a conservation easement on it, and turning it into additional park land.
- Jennifer Sheridan, a local resident and realtor, proposed turning part of the area into a giant community food garden, like this one in Atlanta.
- Bayou Land Conservancy would like to conserve any wetlands in their natural state, and turn the rest of the floodplain land into parks.
These are all great ideas. They could reduce flood risk AND re-establish the reputation of Kingwood and Forest Cove as two of the most enviable places to live in the City of Houston.
It’s time to start the conversation now. I hope all stakeholders can come together to create a master plan for the area bordering the West Fork along Hamblen.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/2/2019
672 Days after Hurricane Harvey