By Jeffrey Steele, Contributing Writer
For traditionally car-loving Houstonians, the East Downtown (EaDo) neighborhood is quite a revelation. A backwater warehouse district just a few short years ago, EaDo has morphed into an edgy residential district of short blocks, inviting sidewalks and other traits of a walkable urban community.
The latest step forward for EaDo has been completion of Capitol Oaks, a 120-residence community developed by InTown and designed by Lovett. The development recently garnered a prestigious 2011 Development of Distinction Award from the Urban Land Institute (ULI). “It shows a very credible developer is investing in the future of EaDo by developing very nice residential properties in a dense environment that’s attractive to new residents,” EaDo district manager Tina Araujo says of Capitol Oaks.
The area east of downtown Houston was originally called the Third Ward, and subsequently known by the nicknames East End, Chinatown and Old Chinatown. Over its history, it was home to African-Americans, then Italians and later Asian residents. But after the 1987 opening of the George R. Brown Convention Center, the district was cut off from downtown, and not long after became a neglected warehouse and manufacturing district, Araujo says.
The return of residents to EaDo began early last decade, with the building of the Lofts at the Ballpark near Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. Since then, extensive repurposing of existing industrial facilities has taken place, along with the building of block after block of new construction homes, chiefly owner-occupied condominiums priced at $250,000 to $350,000, Araujo says.
The area is ideal for those seeking an enclave where folks are reliant only on their feet for mobility. “The things that make areas vibrant are people, and a very pedestrian-oriented environment where there are short blocks, sufficient sidewalks and slow traffic,” Araujo says. “We have a potential for creating a very dynamic place for people to live. … St. Emanuel Street is going to become a major destination not only for visitors to George R. Brown conventions, but for Houstonians to go eat, have coffee or stop in after an Astros game.”
Fueling the metamorphosis has been the creation of a nascent bar and restaurant scene, the Columbia Tap Trail and the Main Street METRORail line.
Jim Olive, a photographer and member of the executive board of the East Downtown Management District, moved to EaDo eight years ago, when it was still blighted. He says commercial development is occurring in a north-to-south orientation. “On the north side, where a wine bar opened, and where Epicurean is, they’re fulfilling the needs of the apartment residents of the area, who are pretty much young professionals. And we‘re also getting empty nesters in there,” he says. “We feel it’s becoming one of the hot neighborhoods.”
As for Araujo, she hopes the neighborhood tagged “the Art and Soul of the City” doesn’t become just a passing fad. “The thing I fear is it will grow too rapidly,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s the hottest in Houston, because that sounds like a trend. I don’t want it to feel trendy. I want it to be a natural progression, the way real neighborhoods have always evolved.”