HOUSTON – December 4, 2018 – As a neighbor to the Colorado River and set in the bayou country southwest of Houston, Wharton, Texas has long endured the realities of flooding. Hurricane Harvey, however, proved to be a different matter – and compounded with prior flood-related damage – the city found nearly half of the homes in its West End neighborhood damaged or destroyed by fall of 2017. Residents were forced to move elsewhere because no other housing options existed. Understanding that now was the time to turn this tide if the city was to rebound fully and thrive in the future, Gulf Coast Medical Foundation, The Mary Louise Dobson Foundation and the Wharton Economic Development Corporation invited the Houston District Council of the Urban Land Institute (ULI Houston) to convene regional expertise in a Technical Assistance Panel (TAP) to study specifically the Spanish Camp Road corridor (The Corridor) and West End neighborhood and offer recommendations to grow, renew and revitalize the area.
Wharton’s West End Corridor: A Roadmap Forward is a comprehensive report of the history and current challenges Wharton is facing and offers a strategy for residents and local leadership as they consider their options for outlining Wharton’s future.
Wharton TAP Panel Co-Chair Diane Schenke said “There was a strong desire by the leadership of Wharton to not only rebuild their city, but to do so in a purposeful, resilient way for the benefit of their long-term development and sustainability. As members of ULI Houston we were pleased to work collaboratively with them and with the West End Community to reimagine new potential for the neighborhood and the city.”
The seven-member panel toured the Corridor and West End neighborhood, met with City leadership, residents, and business owners and were briefed on the history of the area. Collectively, the resulting insights revealed a number of challenges and opportunities including:
Insufficient housing to meet demand. Homes which have been damaged by repetitive flooding are slowly being repaired and what remains is often substandard. Few multi-family options are available and there is also an unmet demand for quality senior housing.
Difficulties with titles/deeds. Many homes have been handed down through generations of family members without complete documentation. When current homeowners are unable to produce a clear title or deed, it complicates their ability to seek financial assistance to make flood-related repairs to their homes.
Reduction in population. Families who relocated away from the city after Harvey have become settled in new jobs and schools, and the result is declining enrollment and workforce that negatively impacts the City.
Federal funding for levee is secured. Following Hurricane Harvey, the $13.9 billion allocated to fund flood mitigation projects nationwide resulted in a $73.29 million appropriation for the Wharton component of the USACE’s Lower Colorado River Basin Flood Damage Reduction Project, which will provide the City of Wharton with levees, sumps, and channels, to be constructed in four phases.
City-owned property. The City owns lots which could be utilized for immediate development of both single and multi-family homes to create new housing.
High-potential for retail. Residents are eager for shopping and restaurant options. Entrepreneurs, including some currently operating out of their homes, could fill in commercial space to respond to these needs.
Dedicated community. At 9,000 residents, Wharton is not a large town, but residents are dedicated and passionate about their community – they want to stay and to see it succeed.
With the levee project fully funded, the City, which had been pursuing the project for eighteen years and setting aside funds to serve as a potential match, can shift some or all of the saved potential matching funds to other critical projects, which may include:
Investing in the West End: The remaining residents do not have the resources to build and rebuild on their own. The City should coordinate to obtain state and federal funding, as well as private investment.
Addressing Housing in the West End: The City should assist existing homeowners with repairing and renovating their homes. Once the new levee is complete, the City should begin additional new construction efforts with a mix of viable housing options.
Incorporating placemaking: As it was simply stated “make it nice.” A welcoming entrance to town, sidewalks, streetscaping, lighting, and similar improvements are needed to enhance day to day life for residents and encourage visitors.
Active community involvement: Wharton residents want to be involved in the issues affecting their community and want to have a say. The City needs to make an effort to communicate and listen with all residents. Teaming with local nonprofits may be one way to dive deeper and reach a broader audience.
Hiring paid and volunteer staff: To keep the project on track and on point, the panel suggests a fulltime, paid position to lead efforts alongside a selected taskforce.
Chad Odom, Executive Director of the Wharton Economic Development Corporation said, “Even before Hurricane Harvey, the leadership in Wharton was prepared to embrace a visionary approach to re-investing in the city. After the disaster we are appreciative to have been able to pull in the expertise of ULI’s Technical Assistance Panel allowing us to garner regional expertise and gain some perspective for what we can do – both as businesses and residents – to make Wharton more resilient and put us on a path toward growth for the future. This report both affirms some of our strategic moves and offers suggestions into areas we had not yet considered.”
ULI Houston’s Technical Assistance Panels (TAPs) are one way for the organization’s members to give back to the Houston region. TAPs provide objective, multidisciplinary advice on land use and real estate issues and are comprised of real estate professionals across multiple disciplines who have addressed similar issues.
The Wharton TAP included: Wharton TAP Co-Chair Andre Brumfield, Urban Strategies & Design Leader, Principal, Gensler; Wharton TAP Co-Chair Diane Schenke (retired), most recently President, Greater East End Management District; Michael F. Bloom, Department Manager, Sustainability Practice, R.G. Miller Engineers; Lance Gilliam, Partner, Waterman Steele Real Estate Advisors; Eta Paransky (retired), most recently Assistant Director, Multifamily Division, Housing and Community Development, City of Houston; Steve Spillette, President, CDS Community Development Strategies and Stan Wall, Partner, HR&A Advisors, Inc.
About the Urban Land Institute
The Urban Land Institute (www.uli.org) is a global nonprofit education and research Institute supported by its members. Its mission is to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide. Established in 1936, the Institute has nearly 40,000 members representing all aspects of land use. The Houston District Council is ULI at the local level, facilitating the exchange of ideas and the transmission of ULI best practices. ULI Houston has nearly 1,000 members, who come together at educational programs and other events to share experiences and learn from each other.