Taking a Gamble

Maybe because of my recent real estate adventure I have been thinking about change and permanence in the places we choose to live. Buying a home is a huge investment and we all want our chosen neighborhoods to thrive and prosper. But what happens when it doesn't? Houston is famous for having no zoning, but subdivision deed restrictions and HOAs can be quite strong in preserving property standards and values. Still, we all know of areas that changed for the worse over time. Once nice neighborhoods that have descended into rental hell and too much crime, or become victims of freeway expansions no one would of dreamed of 30 years ago.

Sometimes neighborhoods are revitalized by gentrification where trendy young couples buy and renovate older houses, but the new higher property taxes from rising values are often a burden on long term residents. We are experiencing cheap gasoline at the moment, but far flung neighborhoods with long commutes can suffer when gas prices invariably rise. It is often a crap shoot - will this house in this neighborhood suit my needs as time goes by? Is this a good investment or will I lose money if I have to sell and move?

But what happens when future events are totally beyond your imagination? When you can't control what happens to your neighborhood? When you are at the mercy of the weather and the state? This week we are going to explore a neighborhood that no longer exists.

Brownwood subdivision in 1953 - Google Earth

Brownwood subdivision in 1953 - Google Earth

Thanks to Google Earth we can see how Brownwood subdivision looked in 1953. Surrounded by three bays on the edge of Baytown, Texas, the area was developed after WWII by Humble Oil as an alternative to providing housing for its executives. The petrochemical industry had quickly switched over from war necessities to industrial and consumer supplies such as additives for paint, adhesives, fertilizers and the all important plastics. Brownwood wasn't exclusive for petrochemical industry employees and it quickly built out with waterfront and water view homes. A very nice neighborhood to raise a family.

The same booming industry that provided jobs for the post-war economic expansion needed vast amounts of water for all the plants on the east side. Surface water is much more expensive to process; well-derived water is cheap. So, massive amounts of water were pumped out of the underlying aquifers. And because the area sits on alternating layers of sand and a highly compressible clay, the land began to subside.

At an alarming rate.

Google Earth comparisons from 1953 to 2011.

Google Earth comparisons from 1953 to 2011.

Soon Brownwood had flooding from tropical storms and hurricanes, then over time as the land continued to subside, from high winds pushing the water toward land and finally, even high tides. The civic association fought valiantly for aid and help; a perimeter road was elevated 7 feet so the residents would have an escape route. It too subsided and eventually the protected interior flooded.

All this time the owners could not sell or insure their properties. It became an cheap rental community of adventurous souls who could evacuate at a moment's notice, or had no possessions worth saving.

Photo by Othell O. Owensby, Houston Chronicle

Photo by Othell O. Owensby, Houston Chronicle

There were other subdivisions affected by the subsidence; I can remember weather forecasts of heavy rain events and the residents of Sagemont off the Gulf Freeway would park their cars on overpasses because the homes flooded so often.

The plight of Brownwood highlighted the wide-spread problem of subsidence and led to the eventual creation of the the Harris Galveston Subsidence District to regulate the withdrawal of ground water. Texas has an ongoing battle for water; residential, commercial and agricultural needs all jockey for access.

The final event in Brownwood's sad life was Hurricane Alicia on Aug. 18, 1983. After the storm, the city of Baytown banned human habitation and forced the remaining residents to leave. You can watch this video of how it looked a year and half later.

Houses were bought and bulldozed. The city of Baytown got some funding for marsh reclamation and the Baytown Nature Center was opened in 1994. 

An Osprey surveys the marsh and canal at Baytown Nature Center

An Osprey surveys the marsh and canal at Baytown Nature Center

Today there are birds and wildlife, places to fish and a children's park where houses once stood. Some of the interior streets remain and occasionally you see a row of trees where a house might have stood.

Road to nowhere

Road to nowhere

This was once a subdivision street full of houses... and they looked a lot like yours and mine.

Sunset view of the San Jacinto Monument

Sunset view of the San Jacinto Monument

You can still see the San Jacinto Monument across the bay. The surrounding land there has also subsided. Remember when I went out there a few years ago? I wrote about it in The Startup of 1836.

Great Blue Heron getting a few shaggy feathers in late December

Great Blue Heron getting a few shaggy feathers in late December

But, the birds are happy. We regularly check out the ponds and marsh for herons, egrets,  rails and in the winter, Ospreys. It really is a nice park for birds, and only about 30 miles from my home.

Great Blue Heron and Neotropic Cormorant

Great Blue Heron and Neotropic Cormorant

This Great Blue Heron is perched on a submerged tree that might have been planted in someone's yard. The shallow area near shore has many dead tree stumps. And even the remains of a swimming pool.

Wooden bridge over canal that now bisects abandoned residential street

Wooden bridge over canal that now bisects abandoned residential street

I suppose a lot of people enjoy the nature preserve and park without thinking of its history. It is wonderful the area is home to wildlife instead of becoming a dump or landfill. But I always think about the lost dreams.

Do you remember the Brownwood stories in the news? Do you have any real estate stories? I know several of my readers survived the crash in the early 80s by the skin of their teeth and some help from the major oilcos. I feel fortunate I completed the sale of my townhouse last week because this downturn is going to be felt... sooner or later.

Do you like your neighborhood? What stage do you think you are in? Growth, stability, decline or renewal? Let me know in the comments below.