Westbury activists enlist HHA to continue popular garden

September 4, 2012

Westbury activists are wondering if Houston Housing Authority’s plans to expand low-income housing might come at the expense of a community garden that has helped bring diverse neighborhoods together, including some the agency aims to serve.

Gardeners learned recently that HHA could be eyeing their plots for a new apartment project when surveyors came out to mark the seven-acre property that includes the Westbury Community Garden at 12500 Dunlap.

HHA owns the land, but it has served as welcome green space for both multi-family and single-family homes in the surrounding neighborhoods along U.S. 90 near Hillcroft for about 30 years, said Becky Edmondson, president of Westbury Civic Club. The community began leasing the property in 2009 and started Westbury Community Garden the following year. All 62 plots are in use, said Dita Gary, who co-chairs the garden organization.

“We’re in the hot season now. Most people are growing things like basil, which likes the hot weather, and okra. I’ve got an almost native squash that’s doing quite well,” Gary said.

She’s looking forward to the fall season. That’s when the garden really gets going, she said.

But HHA’s mission doesn’t involve providing park space. Its lease with the community has a 180-day no-cause cancellation clause.

That’s not to say HHA is planning to build a housing complex on the property any time soon.

But it has put the brakes on a planned expansion of the garden.

Edmondson and others with ties to the neighborhood, including Houston City Councilmember Larry Green, met with HHA President and CEO Tory Gunsolley and HHA commissioners Lance Gillam and LaRence Snowden to air their concerns over the agency’s plans for the property.

“They’re listening to us, and we have a lot of people working on our behalf,” said Edmondson.

Gunsolley said the recent survey is part of a due diligence process to identify and categorize what property the agency does have available for future projects.

HHA’s 2013 draft plan, which has been the subject of recent public hearings, calls for it to build between four and six affordable housing projects, Gunsolley said. A 252-unit complex would be the maximum size project the agency would underwrite, he said. A project that size would typically require more than a seven-acre site, he noted.

“When we found out they were concerned, we asked how can we help and come up with a more permanent solution,” Gunsolley said.

“We are trying to work something out. We can’t give away the land, and if they (the community) can’t afford the land, that’s how they end up with a temporary lease that can be cancelled in a short amount of time,” he added.

Still, there’s no guarantee that HHA won’t on the site in the future.

“Right now, we haven’t made a determination. Until we do our due diligence, we can’t say we will build there or not,” Gunsolley said.

Edmondson at least is relieved that the agency is listening to the community’s concerns.

“Adding a 250-unit apartment doesn’t fill a need we have in the neighborhood,” she asserts. “We have all the housing we need.”

She said residents have been hoping that the recent demolition of an aging apartment complex at 12540 Hillcroft, which fronts the garden site, would usher in new retail development such as a grocery store or something that would better serve the neighborhoods.

Part of the area, including Houston’s second-largest subdivision, Westbury, is in the Brays Oaks Management District.

Richard Rodriguez, the district’s director of services, said the area has about 23,000 apartment units in 115 complexes. Of those, more than 6,000 are unoccupied.

Next door to the garden is a complex with more than 900 units that has only 60 percent occupancy.

“There’s plenty of existing apartments,” said Rodriguez. “Everybody wants to go to the new, nice shiny complex, so you just wind up pulling occupants from the older ones.”

He adds, “The management district is working closely with Larry Green’s office to find alternative sites and support the community garden.”

Original article by Robin Foster
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