CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — The Hillcrest-Washington Coles neighborhood has long been the subject of intense discussion since the route for the new Harbor Bridge project was announced.
While the area also is surrounded by "Refinery Row" and Interstate 37, the new Harbor Bridge project is now perhaps the neighborhood's most visible symbol of change -- but not the sole cause of it.
Hillcrest's evolution from a thriving Black community to a near-ghost town has been a story decades in the making.
"In the past 10 years, the residential population of the Northside area has decreased as industrial activity increased and has encroached on traditional residential areas," TxDOT stated in a 2003 feasibility study related to the new bridge's construction. "To the west of the Northside area, refinery expansion has resulted in the removal of a number of houses."
As industry claimed properties and tore down homes, the new Harbor Bridge has forced the Hillcrest and Washington Coles neighborhoods to continue to weather the storm of growing industrialization.
In the 4000 block of Sam Rankin Street is where Unity Chapel Funeral Home owner Gwendolyn Coleman has operated her business for more than 20 years.
She said that the Northside was once a prosperous area that fostered growth and community – but now, that community has become hard to find.
“That bridge, that construction of that bridge -- which is not completed yet -- has devastated the community and so many lives,” she said.
Coleman said that the construction of the bridge has not only damaged a community that she has long served, but also made it more difficult for her to earn a living.
“They cut off certain areas into our community," she said. "There were some mornings where I didn't know how I was going to get to my own office.”
Sustained by faith
Even though Coleman said she has had her fair share of hardships because of the bridge, St. Matthew Missionary Baptist Church Associate Pastor Clarence McGill said that his church has managed to survive the industrialization – through faith.
“Pretty large membership -- I believe God has sustained this church for this long, and I think he will continue to do that,” he said.
St. Matthew has been a pillar of the Northside community for more than 150 years – something McGill said has been difficult due to the bridge's progress in recent years.
“With the bridge, you know we started to see a decline," he said. "That's because people have decided, you know, it's easier, more convenient to stay at home and worship."
Former Corpus Christi City Councilman David Loeb was in office when the initial conversations for the new Harbor Bridge were being discussed. Loeb told 3NEWS that with a project as big as the Harbor Bridge – some level of discomfort is to be expected.
“This is the largest construction project we've ever had in this community,” he said.
Loeb acknowledged that while the project has caused growing pains for the community, the decision to build the new bridge was rooted in sound judgment.
“It's not a fun thing to live through, but the bridge was -- the old bridge was going to wear out and needed to be replaced," he said.
The Red zone
When the bridge was initially being built, the Texas Department of Transportation had four options for the layout of the bridge: the orange, green, blue and red options.
In a statement sent to 3NEWS from TxDOT, the Red alternative was chosen for a number of reasons.
The Red Alternative
· Best meets the need and purpose and objectives;
· Preserves much of the existing connectivity to the facility from adjacent neighborhoods including accommodating bicycle and pedestrian modes of travel to and from the adjacent communities;
· Maximizes the engineering considerations for safety;
· Accommodates the navigational transportation needs of the Port of Corpus Christi; and
· Received official endorsement by Corpus Christi MPO, the city of Corpus Christi, the Port of Corpus Christi Authority, Nueces County and San Patricio County.
However, the Red option left many of the area's remaining citizens at a loss, leading to a civil-rights complaint against the project in 2015.
"A Title VI complaint on behalf of the neighborhood residents was submitted to the Federal Highway Administration in March of 2015, The Voluntary Resolution Agreement (VRA) was developed to resolve the complaint in addition to the mitigation already outlined in the EIS. The Record of Decision (ROD) was signed in January 2016 and summarizes information in the EIS, including required mitigation and other environmental commitments," read the statement.
Studies, neighborhood outreach and resource guides produced by TxDOT have highlighted the history of the Northside community as it relates to the current Harbor Bridge. For more information, click here.
While the Red alternative was considered the most viable, St. Matthew's Deacon Maurice Wilson said that participating in the Hillcrest-Washington Coles Voluntary Relocation Program was bittersweet for him.
Wilson grew up in the Hillcrest neighborhood and said he participated in the buyout because he was able to see the writing on the walls.
I knew that as the Port -- plants, refineries grew -- being only less than 100 yards from an international port the value of that property is endless," he said. "And I know it's a matter of time."
Wilson told 3NEWS that despite willingly selling his childhood home, seeing the final result was heartbreaking.
"I wasn't prepared to see it all go," he said.
The current completion date for the new Harbor Bridge is slated for 2025.
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