Woodland Heights Wants to Keep Charm

Walking down the tree lined streets of Woodland Heights feels like stepping back in time-to an era when horse drawn carriages brought milk in bottles before tea time. A group of residents wants to preserve this character through historic designation. Like in many similar communities, it highlights the tension between historic charm and individual rights. Melissa Galvez travels to Woodland Heights in the latest in the KUHF NewsLab series, "Exploring Houston."

"Mine is a one story, brick Craftsmen bungalow, it's got its all original hardwood floors…"

For 17 years, Megan Mastal has lived in Woodland Heights, a small residential neighborhood just west of I-45, and just north of I-10. Tonight, she and the Civic Association have organized a meeting to educate residents about an on-going project: getting historic designation for their neighborhood.

"One of the reasons why I was attracted to this neighborhood, is it's charm. For Houston it's a pretty old neighborhood, more than 100 years old, and there's a lot of Craftsmen bungalows, people know each other…there's a lot of opportunity to share and be a real community.  So we're very interested in protecting that."

"If everyone grabs something to eat and drink, we're going to get started in just a sec…"

Residents sip gazpacho and munch on eggplant tapenade as Courtney Tardy, from the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, explains what historic designation means.  Residents must get approval from a city historical commission if they want to make structural changes to the front of the house, like adding doors or demolishing a wing.  They can do what they want with landscapes or interiors. Tardy says the city will work with residents to keep the character of the neighborhood intact:

"So you're going to see if there are lot of front porches. You might replicate a front porch. You might add a second story onto a block of one story homes, but you mayt do that in the rear of the house where it can't be seen from the front."

And in a typically Houston move, there is an opt out clause-if you wait 90 days, you can do whatever you want.  Civic Association volunteer Sharon Greiff says that leaves people plenty of flexibility:

"Well I want to be able to paint my house purple with pink polka dots. Actually, that doesn't stop you-well, the good taste stops you, but not historic designation."

The Woodland Heights subdivision is close to getting the designation.  41% of residents have signed the petition since October of last year. But in many people's minds, there may still be a tension between preserving historic charm-and preserving individual rights.

"I guess, though, if I have mixed emotions about it, it's because I'm not a big fan of people restricting my freedom to use my property the way I want."

Matt McCracken lives in large forest-green house with red and beige trim, and a welcoming porch.  He supports historic designation, but he echoes the sentiments of residents who may not be comfortable with the idea:

"When I bought my house here, I didn't sign on for having restrictions on modifications to my house. My house was built in the ‘30's, and has been added on to over the decades.  And if I want to do another addition, I want to have that freedom to do so."

"It was built in 1912…"

Sean Haley is a block captain for the historic designation project.  He says all but two residents on his block have signed, but he doesn't know about other areas.  He hopes that his neighborhood can be a model for others in Houston:

"Somebody has to at least make a presence so that we can maybe set an example, and hopefully Houston will try and save what we've got from the past.  We don't have that much!"

In a city like Houston, many residents will likely want to preserve their right to do what they want with their own property.  History buffs hope they can strike a compromise to preserve some sense of their charming streets.

From the KUHF NewsLab, I'm Melissa Galvez.