Northline Community targeted for revitalization

Houston Chronicle, October 18, 2016                         

The Northline neighborhood, where Spanish is the primary language and small wood-framed homes dominate the landscape, has become a focus of community planners who want to help preserve what works in the area as it prepares for what may be inevitable change.

A large majority of residents say they would highly recommend the neighborhood and do not want to leave, according to the State of the Northline Survey to be presented Saturday to the community's leaders. Yet, crime has increased, population has declined and a majority of residents pay more than 30 percent of their incomes on housing costs. Roads, sidewalks and drainage system are outdated.

In Northline, home of the eponymous mall just north of the 610 Loop and between the Hardy Toll road and Interstate 45, property values have steadily risen. Swaths of land remain undeveloped, and the light rail could eventually be a harbinger of new things to come.

This type of change in a neighborhood has its drawbacks.

"We call it the double-edged sword," said Jenifer Wagley, deputy director at Avenue Community Development Corp. "We want to bring needed improvements and better sidewalks. But that also makes it more appealing for outsiders to move in. We want to improve the area and not displace the strong community already there."

The survey by Avenue CDC and the Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston is a first step to working toward revitalization.

The community development groups are focused on the part of Northline south of Tidwell, where there is less development. Avenue CDC has previously worked in the nearby Near Northside neighborhood, where the group has a community engagement and affordable housing strategy, as well as in the First Ward.

Susan Rogers, director of the UH design center, said the Northline area grew between the 1950s and 1970s and enjoyed its heyday when the mall was built. It has since changed. Rogers said sidewalk and road infrastructure needs improvements. She also notes a lack of parks and gathering places where the community can come together.

Between 2010 and 2014, the population of the group's focus area declined by 1,000. Crime in the neighborhood declined overall, but safety issues persist, particularly at the intersection of the North Freeway and Crosstimbers, the survey found.

Meanwhile, 90 percent of residents surveyed said they are satisfied living in the neighborhood; 84 percent said would recommend the neighborhood to a friend; and 79 percent said they want to continue living there.

"In my mind, the real challenges are bringing the community together socially and to make a dent in getting more expenditures on the public investment in the infrastructure in the neighborhood," Rogers said.

Maria Aguirre-Borrero, the CDC's community coordinator for the Northline area, said safety is an issue, but neighbors do not necessarily flag it as one of their principle concerns.

"They have grown used to living this way," Aguirre-Borrero said. "They do not notice the issue anymore."

Rogers also added that an increase in housing vacancy may be a sign that speculators or investors are entering the market.

The homeownership rate is also sinking compared to other neighborhoods.

She said that in 2006, 142 mortgages were issued in the area. In 2014, there were only 14 issued. Proportionally, that's is far greater drop than the Texas average. The area has 47 percent renters, and 24 percent of homeowners in the focus area pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

Rogers said these issues could be a problem for the Northline area long-term.

Avenue CDC was awarded a Wells Fargo Regional Planning Grant to take on the project. Next year, the group plans to roll out a road map of how the community would like to see the neighborhood improved and transformed.

"It's a community that has been there a long time. Yet it doesn't have a strong sense of identity," Wagley said.

"The people here love their kids, churches and culture. There is so much beauty up there and we hope through the process the residents will feel pride in their place and learn how to navigate the less desirable parts of the community," she said.

This process of revitalizing and protecting the overlooked neighborhood goes hand in hand with Mayor Sylvester Turner's focus on so-called "complete communities." The plan is a shift to focus urban development on lower-profile neighborhoods where new development and infrastructure improvements have been lacking.

A half-dozen neighborhoods are being identified from a larger set in which the city can encourage new development, potentially through the use of economic development tools such as 380 agreements.

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