Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A History of Lake Thicket

Lake Thicket is not just some nice man-made water feature.  It is the historical confluence of Buffalo Bayou (the banks of which the City of Houston was founded on in 1836) and Langham Creek until about 70 years ago.  At that time the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers channelized both of these waterways while concurrently building Addicks and Barker Dams to help protect the City of Houston from flooding.

With Memorial Drive being extended in the 1950’s out to its present terminus at what is now SH6, the area became positioned for development.  Memorial Thicket began in 1979 with the initial plan to not only develop the current neighborhood, but to also develop around Lake Thicket.

With the downturn in the Houston economy for new residential housing in the 1980’s, the developer of Memorial Thicket sold to the Atlantic Richfield Co. (“Arco”) in 1984 over 20 acres that had not been developed.  This sale included the undeveloped residential lots on the east side of Windbreak Trail.  In 1985 Arco finished construction of a building with approximately 350,000 sq. ft. and 600 parking spaces.  It was also that year when control of Memorial Thicket Homeowners Association (“MTHA”) passed from the developer to the residents.

Shortly thereafter an opportunity presented itself for MTHA to acquire additional property for housing development, ensure that the Memorial Drive frontage would not be owned by third parties who might commercially develop it, and acquire cash in the process.  In exchange, ownership of Lake Thicket would be given up, but since the lake was separated from the rest of Memorial Thicket by the property Arco had purchased from the developer, it was not as critical as the other properties for the future development of Memorial Thicket.

So in 1987 MTHA exchanged Lake Thicket for Arco’s land at the south end of its property.  This newly acquired property was then exchanged with a housing developer for the approximately two acres of undeveloped land fronting Memorial Drive on both sides of Memorial Thicket's entrance and cash.  The developer then built 10 homes, which helped spread out MTHA’s fixed costs, at what is now the southern end of Plainwood Dr.  A portion of the cash received from the developer was used to construct the current guard house and the metal decorative fence on the newly acquired frontage and the remainder was placed in reserves.

As part of the foregoing transactions, MTHA negotiated an easement with Arco for use of the lake for a minimum of 15 years and certain rights thereafter.  MTHA agreed to and to date has kept an insurance liability policy on the property for the benefit of the property’s owner.

Arco undertook adding filtration, pumps for circulation and water jets to the lake.  Arco stocked the lake in the 1980's with striped bass, perch, bluegill, and catfish, some of which reached quite a large size.  The caretaker often fed the catfish by hand and could even pet them.

All of the animals on the property have been cared for seven days a week for many years (holidays included) by the building’s tenants and by people in the neighborhood and community.  Even now, the ducks are fed by three community residents seven days a week.  In fact, during the years between 2002 and 2009, a duck rescuer/rehabilitator who lives in Magnolia was allowed to use the property to place some of the ducks in the Houston area that were in need of a good home.  Today care of the ducks is problematic since, for the first time in memory, public access to the lake has been restricted, even though site construction does not affect the lake area.

The building became the headquarters for Vastar Resources Inc.  As part of a restructuring in 1993, Arco formed Vastar, which was its natural gas exploration and production subsidiary.  Vastar went public in 1994, but Arco retained over 80% ownership.  BP Amoco purchased Arco in 2000 and the remaining public ownership of Vastar that same year.

BP Amoco subsequently leased the property to Global Marine, Inc.  Global Marine and Santa Fe International Corporation merged in November 2001 to form GlobalSantaFe Corporation with the property being its headquarters.  In 2007, GlobalSantaFe was merged with Transocean Ltd., which was the name of the merged company.

In the interim, Lexington Realty Trust, a REIT, acquired the property in a sale-leaseback arrangement with BP Amoco.  Lexington took out a mortgage with an affiliate of Allstate Insurance Company.  The Transocean lease ended in September 2009, and the property has remained vacant since.  The maturity date of the mortgage was October 2009.  With no tenant and no cash flow, Allstate took over the property from Lexington.

On February 24, 2012, SCD Memorial Lakes I, LLC (an affiliate of Skanska) purchased the approximately 21 acres at 15375 Memorial Drive on which Lake Thicket is located with plans to demolish the building and replace it with Class A office space and perhaps multifamily housing.

On just the other side of Memorial Drive from Lake Thicket, ExxonMobil Chemical enhanced the portion of Langham Creek that flowed across its property.  The two resulting lakes were stocked with fish and aerated to prevent algae growth.  In addition, the wildlife on the site has been protected and added to over the years.  Most recently, the site became home for baby screech owls that were abandoned by their parents during the 2011 drought.  The entire 35 acre site was made a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the Wildlife Habitat Council in 2010.  This required researching and documenting the site history and developing wildlife projects that included ExxonMobil employees and other members of the Houston community.

Lake Thicket in turn serves as a wildlife habitat and shares wildlife with the ExxonMobil Chemical site and with Terry Hershey Park.  Approximately 60 animal species have been identified in the Lake Thicket habitat in the past few years.  These include migratory birds as well as permanent wildlife residents near the lake.

The lake has a surface area of approximately two acres and has provided the surrounding community with a buffer from flooding.  For example, in the April 2009 rain event, only a few homes in the neighborhood experienced structural flooding.  Lake Thicket and the building’s below-grade garage retained many acre feet of water that Buffalo Bayou could not handle at that point.  Without that retention, flooding might have been more severe.

To call Lake Thicket a “retention basin” is a pejorative.  The “pond” as Skanska is wont to call it has a name and that name is and has been “Lake Thicket” for decades.  We hope that the new owner will not dismiss years of history for self-serving reasons.  That is not conducive to becoming a part of the Memorial community.

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