At one point Park Blair wanted to buy up the whole block.
Now he’s blocked in.
Blair, a Heights resident and the owner of the Berryhill restaurants, bought a piece of property across from the East 11th Street location in 2007. That same year he purchased another plot of land two lots to the west, and he said his plan at the time was to assemble contiguous lots between Beverly Street and Oxford Street, with the hope of developing it or selling it to someone else who would do the same.
But his vision fizzled out, Blair said, in part because some of those commercial properties cannot be accessed through the alley that runs behind them. The fenced backyards of some of the residential properties on the opposite side of the alley extend through them, essentially blocking off the alley.
Blair ended up selling one of his properties, the corner lot across from Berryhill that was not obstructed, to Frost Bank in 2019. He said at least one potential buyer has backed away from purchasing the other lot, which contains a warehouse at 620 E. 11th St., because alley access is impeded.
“This is big for me,” he said. “It’s affected four real estate deals for me and cost me money. ... I just want the alley to be accessible.”
Blair has tried to get the City of Houston to intervene and remove the obstructions, but to no avail. He said the city flagged them for eventual removal three times during the last 12 years, although nothing came of it and the obstructions remained.
More recently, Blair was told the matter is out of the city’s hands. In a Dec. 22 email he provided to The Leader, Blair was told by Assistant City Engineer Hien Pham that Houston Public Works had not accepted the alley for maintenance as a public alleyway, meaning it is private and not under the city’s purview.
Only three alleys in the Heights, a neighborhood full of them, are on the city’s list of public alleys.
“While we support development and improvements within our communities; this alley has not been accepted for vehicular traffic or surface use and therefore the city is not willing to remove other property owners’ structures to facilitate access,” Pham wrote in the email. “However, I encourage you to work with (your) neighbors to find a resolution that works for all parties involved.”
Should the city be involved in resolving disputes between property owners that revolve around the use of an alley? Should it help ensure property owners’ legal rights to their land, particularly when those owners are paying property taxes to the city?
Blair’s case is an example of how the city’s stance on Heights alleys, which was amended by then-City Engineer Joe Myers in August 2019, has affected residents and business owners in the neighborhood as well as real estate transactions. Heights homeowners have since been asked to improve the drainage infrastructure in the alleys in exchange for permits to build structures that require alley access, while at the same time the city has taken a hands-off approach when it comes to alley encroachments.
The city’s position also seems to be shaped by the question of alley ownership. Former City Engineer HoJin Lim, who was reassigned after The Leader published two previous stories about the alleys in late November, said their underlying fee is owned by the heirs to O.M. Carter, who platted the neighborhood in 1892. In recent years, Carter heirs in Michigan, Nevada and Pennsylvania have transferred their rights and interests in a few Heights alley properties to developers and in one case the city, according to Harris County property records.
Stakeholders in the neighborhood, including the Houston Heights Association, have asked city leaders to provide more clarity about the alleys, how they can be used and who is responsible for maintaining them. A spokesperson for Houston Public Works said the issue will be addressed in the spring by the Houston City Council’s Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure Committee.
City council member Abbie Kamin, who represents the Heights as part of District C, said in November that she is “working with city departments to address this holistically, so that District C residents aren’t left to fend for themselves when someone else impedes access to an alley.”
Gus Olivares, who owns the commercial property just to the east of the lot Blair has been unable to sell, said he also wants to sell but has been unable because of the encroachments in the alley. Like Blair, Olivares said he has asked the city to intervene.
Wayne Rentfro, who owns the commercial property on the opposite side of Blair’s, is not affected by the aforementioned alley encroachments between 11th and 10th ½ streets but said he thinks the passageway should be open for common use. He said the alley was “totally open” when he bought the property in the 1980s, with the obstructions having materialized when many of the adjacent homes were built earlier this century.
Rentfro said at one point he had an ongoing dispute with a former homeowner on the opposite side of the alley, with law enforcement authorities having been called out on multiple occasions. He said those authorities told him at the time, “Do what you need to do to get to your property. It’s an alley.”
“In my opinion, they don’t have the legal right to what I call permanently block it,” Rentfro added. “If they can honestly say that we don’t mind (people) coming through here, but we want some sort of controlled access, that might fly.”
A current homeowner on the other side of the alley, who asked to remain anonymous, said the city flagged the obstructions for removal during the early part of 2019 and subsequently solicited feedback about the issue from the homeowners on the block, a group that includes Blair. The homeowner said many of the neighbors met shortly thereafter, although Blair was not among them, and agreed they wanted to keep the alley in its present condition because of the potential for crime and because they did not want business-related traffic in a residential area.
A letter expressing that position was sent to the city in June 2019, the homeowner said.
“We were saying, ‘All of us have talked about this and don’t want it changed,’ ” the homeowner said.
Blair said he has not talked to the fellow homeowners on his block about the alley obstructions, like he was encouraged to do by the city. The other homeowner indicated that such an interaction could potentially be helpful, saying, “If someone came and talked to me, I would talk to them.”
Blair said he doesn’t understand why the city won’t get involved and why it doesn’t want to promote more commercial development in the Heights, saying it would make the area even more attractive and result in more tax revenue for the city. He also wondered what would happen if there were a fire on the block or a problem with an existing utility in the alleyway, such as a sewer or gas line or transformer, since part of the alley is blocked off.
He said he has considered taking some sort of legal action to clear the obstruction, and there is a precedent that suggests such a measure could be successful. A state district court in 1998 ruled in favor of Premier Victorian Homes, which sued nearby property owners and the city over obstructions in a Heights alley abutting its land.
The court’s judgment said, in part, the alley was “declared publicly dedicated pursuant to the map or plat thereof” and the homebuilder had “full rights of ingress and egress, including vehicular access, through the alley.”
According to the interactive map on the website for the Harris County Appraisal District, the homeowners’ properties on 10th ½ Street do not include the alleys they share with the commercial properties on 11th Street.
“We don’t want rights to take over the alley,” Blair said. “We just want rights to be able to get through the alley.”