Tragedy Averted on Memorial Drive?

For once, Houston took preventative action. No telling how many lives were saved.

Tragedy Averted on Memorial Drive?
The site of the Champlain Towers South partial collapse in Surfside, Florida. Credit: NIST

Something about the horrific collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Florida a few months ago set a bell ringing faintly in my mind, and finally, took shape as an actual memory: that would be the demise of the Park Memorial Condominiums, a lovely 4.5-acre garden complex that once stood on the rolling hillocks just across Memorial Dr. from Buffalo Bayou, at the intersection of Detering Street.\

Though the saga began only 13 years ago, it now seems entirely forgotten. Such is life in Amnesiaville.

A quick recap, as chronicled by Swamplot:


In the summer of 2008, a safety inspector from the City of Houston decreed that many of the units were in danger of collapsing down on the complex’s parking garage. The owners sought a second opinion from an independent inspector, whose findings concurred with those of the city inspector.

Instead of doing nothing, city officials fanned out through the complex slapping orange notices on the door of every unit, ordering residents out on something like six weeks’ notice. Which was pretty generous, and scary, as the inspectors’ had found that the garage “may experience catastrophic failure at any time.”

Which did not sit well with some of the condo owners, a few of whom kvetched in the comments to Swamplot’s stories. And they did have a point — they were stuck with mortgages on unlivable properties.

Wrote one:

I live here and I am devastated that we are having to move. It is really sad. I am lost for words other than to say that darn the guy who called the city. Most of us knew we were going to have to move and going about it this way just forces us to make rush decisions to buy or get into an apartment. And yeah it definitely suxs that we have to pay two mortgages!

Apparently, they were also still stuck with property taxes and maintenance fees as well. In the heart of the city, even ghost condos need to be maintained. By mid- November, all the owners were gone after a quick court battle went the City’s way. (A few stuck it out Japanese soldier on isolated island outpost style, right up to the moment the Cut out the lights and shut off the taps.) And there was a false dawn two years later when a different judge ruled that because not all of the units were atop the parking garage, and thus not in danger of collapse, the City had erred in condemning the entire complex. However, by that time, most if not all of the units had been ransacked by plunderers or ravaged by Mother Nature.

Looky-loos, yours truly included, along with my son, saw it as prime Urban Guerrilla Exploration material. You could just browse through each unit at will, and while most were empty, some looked as though their owners had just up and left. One man left behind a huge collection of 1980s-vintage computer games and a tranche of gay porn. Swamplot readers pointed out that you could use the time-lapse slider on Google Earth to see the swimming pool turn from turquoise blue to pea-soup green over the course of that most fateful year of 2008.

Luckily for the 108 owners, Park Memorial stood on prime property, and more than two years after their forced exodus, former owners were able to recoup some of their losses when a Dallas developer bought the property and slapped a newer, denser (372 units as opposed to 100 in the old days), presumably safer complex on the site. But not without drama: construction workers dug up a partial human skeleton while excavating the northeast quadrant of the site. Though the site was rumored to have been an ancient Indian burial ground — how else to explain the curse? — HPD had other ideas. They opened it up as a cold case, before determining that the body had arrived their peacefully, many years ago, but not before European settlement.

Instead, the site was partially built atop Crooms Cemetery, an African American burial ground from the early 20th Century, mainly used by congregants and once-nearby Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church.

Here’s “Gus Allen” of Swamplot:

By 1980, a whitewashed title — and an apparently incomplete buried-body-removal workflow — somehow allowed the property to become a portion of the site of the Park Memorial Condominiums in Rice Military. Now that the messy ownership battles, the lawsuits, and the crumbling vacant buildings have been cleared, former residents and neighbors may start to imagine that it was the ghosts of these twice-buried bodies that ultimately sent the park-like complex at the corner of Detering and Memorial to hell in a handbasket. A representative of JLB Partners, the developer currently building a less park-like 372-unit multi-story apartment building and 7-level parking garage on the cleared site, says the cemetery didn’t come up in the company’s archeological survey of the site.

Two years later, while under construction, the $50 million Axis Apartments went up in smoke in one of the most spectacular infernos Houston has seen in this century.

She Didn't Start the Axis Apartments Fire, but She Was Trying to Fight It |  Swamplot

Like Park Memorial, it too was partially built atop an African American burial ground.

So…maybe knock that off, Houston developers?

And kudos to the City of Houston for having the courage to stand up to well-heeled property owners for once. It’s what has to be done — this is a decision that must be taken out of the hands of the property owners, for as we have seen, they will dither until the bitter end.

John Nova Lomax is a cranky, middle-aged, Bayou City scribe / Gulf Coast Bullshitter. He speaks grackle and lives in a cabin on a river.