The proposed Riverside Terrace historic district has longtime residents fighting for their neighborhoods

To understand why a proposed historic district in Riverside Terrace has broken out in an unlikely battle that pits neighbors against each other in the historic black enclave, consider 2506 Rosedale.

The columned brick house was once home to the family of Mack Hannah Jr., a longtime regent from Texas Southern University and civil rights leader whose business ventures made him one of the richest black men in Texas until his death in 1994.

The house is now owned by Asif Mahmood, a neighbor who oversees a complete overhaul of the property and is involved in a bitter battle over the proposed historic district he has championed.

Mahmood, who applied for the historic designation last year after moving to the neighborhood in 2018, wants to preserve the wood-filled area, which he said “is slowly being discovered.” Some neighbors agree with the proposal. Many reject.

The issue has ravaged the normally quiet Third Ward neighborhood, which has led to widespread opposition among residents – most of them black, many of them with deep roots in Riverside Terrace – who say the proposed historic district is not necessary and will increase expenses and property values. They fear the move could evict longtime residents.

It has also raised questions about the role of conservation in a city based on a swamp, where old buildings are rare and new construction is the norm.

Residents and city officials are divided: Is the proposed historic district an instrument of gentrification or a bulwark against it?

The story of the proposed Riverside Terrace historic district is a story of Houston’s changing face. It involves six months of bureaucratic quarrels, hundreds of frustrated residents and at least one dead homeowner who participated in absentia.

A story of change

One recent morning, the sidewalk outside 2506 Rosedale was buzzing with trucks. A mover loaded dirt into a dumper and slowly removed a small mountain of dirt to make room for a circular driveway. More than a dozen contractors prepared the construction of the empty house, its windows opening to reveal an almost total gut renovation.

A window was marked with red marks, which increased the chance that there had been a breach of code of some kind.

It is unclear how Mahmood intends to use the house, one of several he owns in the proposed district. He declined to comment for this article. Neighbors say he can rent the house as apartments or on Airbnb; he already runs several in the neighborhood, property records show.

Had he not asked to make Riverside Terrace a historic district, his acquisition of these properties might not have attracted attention.

After all, the district has seen its share of change. Built in the early 20th century, it was once called the “Jewish River Oaks” for its predominance of Jewish families, which at the time were excluded from tonier parts of the city.

In the early 1950s, a white secretary bought a home on behalf of cattle farmer Jack Caesar. When the deal was completed, the secretary transferred the deed to Caesar, who as a black man is believed to be the first to integrate the predominantly Jewish quarter. Shortly after, someone detonated a bomb on Caesar’s porch, blew out the windows, and destroyed the porch.

Over the next few decades, wealthy black homeowners – who are still excluded from deed restrictions – from buying homes in affluent neighborhoods like River Oaks – became the majority. In recent years, residents have seen modern, metal-clad apartments spread into nearby areas, raising concerns that something similar could happen to their neighborhoods.

In December, three homeowners – led by Mahmood – asked the city to consider 51 homes as historic landmarks. The designation comes with tax benefits, but requires homeowners to get permission for projects that will change the exterior appearance of their properties. In a vote in February, too few homeowners approved the designation. The city changed the boundaries of the district to include only 18 homes to achieve a majority, as permitted by city bylaws.

The question now goes to the city council, which will consider whether to give final approval on June 8th.

The wishes of the community

The case goes to the city council, which is mixed in controversy. It is about the city’s inventory of the district’s supporters and opponents. A lawyer hired by the Riverside Civic Association has found seven alleged violations of the city’s ordinance governing historic districts that, if proven true, could remove the proposal altogether.

In a door-to-door poll in the district, two supporters told the Houston Chronicle that they voted yes as a means of preserving the neighborhood’s architectural continuity. Martha Failing, who has lived since 2015, said she was trying to prevent a future “glass-and-steel” structure with “prickly overhangs” being built on a nearby vacant lot.

A resident, former city council member, Jew Don Boney, voted yes withdrew its support earlier this month. The city rejected his change of heart, as the civic association says in a document prepared by its attorney is a violation of a state law that allows a homeowner to “withdraw consent” during the case.

“I was not aware of the negative impact this would have on society and the African Americans who have lived in Riverside Terrace for generations,” Boney wrote in an email to city officials, explaining his decision. “I understand now that this … does not reflect the wishes of the community, but only a few.”

Neighborhood opponents worry that it will limit their ability to modify or sell their homes and increase the cost of routine window, roof and exterior repairs.

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