After years of attempts, redevelopment of former St. Elizabeth's Hospital begins
Robert Downen, Staff writer
Sep. 24, 2021Updated: Sep. 24, 2021 8:33 p.m.
The renovation of the former St. Elizabeth’s Hospital into mixed-income housing began Friday, marking the latest chapter for the historic Fifth Ward building that has sat vacant for a half-decade.
The three-acre property on Lyons Avenue is being redeveloped by the nonprofit Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corp. with plans for about half of the 179 apartment units to be reserved for people with low incomes.
Mayor Sylvester Turner and other local leaders praised the project at a Friday groundbreaking event.
In the surrounding blocks, however, many longtime residents were less enthralled.
Though they welcomed the much-needed investment in the neighborhood, some were concerned that it may ultimately drive up housing and other local costs and attract residents who are unfamiliar with — and thereby less invested in — the surrounding community.
“I guess it’ll be good,” said Larry Smith, a 69-year-old retiree who lives nearby. “We haven’t had anything down here for a while.”
His sentiment was shared by others who grew up in the historically Black area, and have watched subsequent generations flee the neighborhood for more up-and-coming parts of town.
The neighborhood is among Houston’s poorest, with a median household income that’s half of the citywide average of $52,300 in 2019, according to census data.
Some neighbors said they would have preferred if the property was redeveloped to help struggling local businesses or as a community center. .
“I feel kind of negative about it because it is definitely going to affect me,” said Johnnie Taylor, who has owned a home across the street for three decades.
The project has inconvenienced her already. On Friday, someone parked in front of her garbage cans, and the elderly woman needed someone to help move them so they wouldn’t be missed when trucks made their stops later in the day.
Taylor, 82, grew up in Fifth Ward. She has tracked years of attempts by the city and developers to try to redevelop the eyesore that, prior to its bankruptcy in the 1980s, provided health care to minority communities on the city’s East Side.
It later housed an addiction treatment facility, the Barbara Jordan Recovery Center, which was shut down by the state in 2014 amid an investigation into Medicare fraud by its parent company.
Taylor said she understood the need for more housing in the area, but feared the project could increase gentrification and drive out longtime residents who don’t own homes.
“But I’m not going to let it upset me, because it is what it is,” she said. “This is a money world, and the little people like me don’t have a voice.”
Asked about those concerns, Kathy Flanagan Payton, president of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corp., said the nonprofit is “committed to economic integration, which suggests housing for various income levels” and have reserved half of the first 85 units for those with low incomes.
“Just as we are concerned about gentrification in neighborhoods we want to avoid concentrating poverty in the same neighborhoods,” she said in a statement. “Fifth Ward represents an opportunity for us to get it right."
The project has been delayed by neighborhood opposition. It stalled in 2018 when opponents blocked state tax credits on a technicality.
The Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corp. later obtained nearly $24 million from the city in Hurricane Harvey recovery funds, as well as a federal grant and private financing.
The proposal was later adjusted to reduce affordable units and significantly increase market-rate apartments by constructing another building on the site.