Feature Photo (above): The retail strip on the north side of the 2900 block of White Oak Drive is part of an assemblage of properties acquired by Houston development Jesse Levine. Image: Google Streets.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Houston (Harris County) — The Heights lost Fitzgerald’s, one of the district’s fave entertainment scenes, neighbors are angry, and a Houston developer and co-founder of a cool automated garage company is paying the price; amid a barrage of public opposition, the Planning Commission agreed to make him burn another $75,000 in carrying costs by deferring an application that is most likely certain to pass, eventually.
Jesse Levine, co-founder of Easy Park LLC, has bet heavily on the commercial viability of White Oak Drive in Houston Heights. He spent millions redevelopment a retail strip mall on a two-block stretch on the north side of White Oak Drive in the 2800-2900 blocks.
He followed that move by purchasing a deep lot across the street, 2805 White Oak, where he announced plans in May to construct a 10,000-square-foot neighborhood retail center. Construction on the strip to be known as South Heights on White Oak has since been completed and Levine plans to turn the shops over in a few weeks to several tenants that have signed leases and are ready to complete the interiors.
Around the same time Levine acquired 2805 White Oak, he also acquired 2706 White Oak at the northwest corner of White Oak and Studewood Street, much better known as Fitzgerald’s, a popular two-story commercial building known for its live entertainment since 1977. Fitzgerald’s last concert was its Dec. 13, 2018 New Year’s Eve party. It has since been demolished.
An April 2017 concert at Fitzgerald’s, a popular Heights venue that closed Jan. 1, 2019. Courtesy: Google Streets/Hubi Ocampo. Below: Properties highlighted have been acquired by Jesse Levine companies.
Created with GIMP
Along with the Fitzgerald’s property acquisition, Levine acquired three single family lots directly north of Fitzgerald’s and that has everything to do with his current headache. Levine’s plans are to include the single family lots into a site for an automated parking garage that will hold up to 290 vehicles.
He sought a new plat to combine lots, but the neighbors submitted a Special Minimum Lot Size (SMLS) Area application to keep the neighborhood intact and it included the residential lots Levine acquired. On Sept. 5, the Planning Commission acted to recommend to City Council to remove Levine’s lots from the SMLS, but this still requires Council action.
Jesse Levine argues his case before the Planning Commission while staff planner Aracely Rodriguez looks on. Image: Houston video archives.
Levine then sought a work around by requesting a variance based on vested rights. Prior to the neighbor’s SMLS application, he had already spent about $30 million in the neighborhood, much of that expense and the agreements with tenants depended on the promise of adequate parking in the near future.
“The lots were purchased as part of a very expensive assemblage of lots that took place prior to the submission of application #749, which includes the former Fitzgerald’s site and the adjacent retail development along White Oak Drive,” a letter drafted by planning and landscape architect M2L Associates Inc. stated in part. M2L and a Houston land use law attorney Omar Izfar (Wilson, Cribbs + Goren) were hired by Levine’s for this project.
“The owner has spent approximately $9.5 million on this assemblage, which includes acquisition costs, architectural design and engineering costs for the entire site, which includes the land subject to the replat. The owner has also spent an additional $3.2 million on design, engineering and other work as well as equipment necessary to construct the parking garage proposed for the site, all prior to the submission of application #749.
“The current retail along White Oak Drive has been under parked for years, and the project, including the $3.2 million parking garage equipment, is intended to add parking needed to comply with City of Houston parking rules. In addition, the Owner has spent approximately $1.6 million on a new construction retail building (which will cost more than $3 million when completed) along White Oak Drive.
Architectural rendering of the new retail center constructed at 2805 White Oak Drive.
“Since the submission of the SMLS, the owner has incurred an additional $720,128 cost from ongoing project design, engineering, and carrying costs.”
City staff recognized the construction of a parking garage on a lot that has an SMLS action pending is infeasible and recommended a 2-week delay at the Oct. 17 Planning Commission hearing for the purpose of obtaining proof from Levine of the alleged incurred expenses. Levine and his attorney presented a summary statement of expenses but had no original documentation.
Neighbors spoke against the project and Easy Park employees spoke in its favor, including one who noted that a fully automated garage is one-third the gross square footage of a conventional garage because there is no need for drive lanes, wider parking space to accommodate pedestrians, or stairwells.
Levine began his own remarks by predicting the City Council would not consider putting a controversial issue on the agenda until after local elections. He said further delays incur $130,000 in carrying costs every four weeks, and insisted his property rights were fully vested before the neighbors’ application was submitted.
Commissioner Ian Rosenberg recognized in his comments that the redevelopment of existing commercial buildings, the construction of a new commercial building and the land acquisition of Fitzgerald’s and the properties to the north were self evident and proof of good faith.
“And by building an automated garage, they are much more dense and I think it is the more urban thing to do,” Rosenberg said.
However, he was the only commissioner to vote against the deferral.
View of Fitzgerald’s (since demolished) at the corner of White Oak and Studewood. The proposed parking garage would extend up Studewood to the next intersection north. Image: Google Streets.
Adolfo Pesquera (Reporter/Editor) is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.