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Anadarko anxiety

We know how you feel, The Woodlands.

Occidental last month agreed to buy Anadarko for $38 billion, outbidding the much bigger oil company Chevron. The looming question is whether Oxy will maintain a presence in The Woodlands or move out entirely, relocating the Anadarko employees it opts to keep on the payroll to Oxy’s new headquarters in Houston’s Energy Corridor.

With Oxy under increased pressure to cut both costs and the massive debt it will take on to complete the acquisition, it’s a decent bet that layoffs are coming and Anadarko’s twin-towers headquarters — the tallest buildings between Houston and Dallas — could end up for sale. Oxy recently bought ConocoPhillips’ old headquarters in the Energy Corridor, a campus of low-rise buildings on 62 acres that can accommodate up to about 4,000 people, according to ConocoPhillips.

Oxy, which plans to relocate there from Greenway Plaza, could move its 2,000-plus employees and still have room to fit much of the Anadarko workforce if it sells The Woodlands property, appraised at about $12 million, but likely worth much more on the open market. Anadarko, which first moved to The Woodlands in 2002, is Montgomery County’s largest private employer with nearly 2,000 full-time, local workers.

“It’s a huge impact to have that many people working and living here,” said J.J. Hollie, president and chief executive of The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce. “Losing that would cause ripples we’d certainly feel.”

It’s not that long ago that Anadarko abandoned their office space in the Greenspoint area to move into that then-shiny new building in The Woodlands; they built a second tower a few years after that. Looks like we’ve come full circle. I’m not worried about The Woodlands – there needs to be a lot more businesses leaving town before they have anything to worry about – but I’ll feel bad for any small businesses that depend on Anadarko employees and will suffer in their absence. Sorry this may happen, y’all, but it’s the world we live in.

New fronts in the war on mosquitoes

Science marches on.

In the center of Anita Schiller’s dragonfly-ring-clad hand, a dragonfly nymph is scooting around.

The dedicated naturalist and entomologist is explaining how the insect (which is a water-dwelling dragonfly with gills before it grows wings) expels water from its posterior in a squirting fashion. She laughed and called it “fart propulsion.”

Schiller is leading a team of four from the Harris County Precinct 4’s Biological Control Initiative through a man-made flood control site at the corner of Spring Cypress Road and Telge Road. They are releasing dragonfly and damselfly nymphs into the water, along with carnivorous plants, to help reduce the infectious mosquito population.

“What we’re bringing in will help stack the deck against mosquitoes,” Schiller, director of the initiative, says. “Mosquito suppression is built into the design of the project.”

The Biological Control Initiative started in 2012 with a mission to “find native agents to benefit from the locally adapted phenotype” to counter the mosquito population.

So, what exactly does that mean?

The agency rears human-friendly biological agents, such as dragonflies, damselflies and carnivorous plants, in a lab to be released into the wild to control the blood-sucking and potentially diseased mosquitoes that afflict Southeast Texas year round.

Dragonflies are robust, while damselflies are more dainty-looking. But both are ferocious eaters as adults and gleaning eaters as nymphs.

Introducing native and naturally flood-resistant plants into wetlands and areas of unavoidable standing water gives a larger return-on-investment than just a pesticide approach, Schiller says. The plants also don’t require regular maintenance.

The initiative has also garnered attention for its introduction of “mosquito assassins” in the Houston area. These mosquitoes, which are typically larger than other native species, do not feed off humans and instead work to eliminate the dangerous mosquitoes, such as Asian tiger (Aedes albopictus), southern house (Culex quinquefasciatus) and yellow fever (Aedes aegypti) mosquito larvae.

As the story notes, Harris County is also using mosquito traps and mutant mosquitoes to control our skeeter population. It’s a big deal, because mosquitoes mean Zika, and standing water means mosquitoes. Do your part to combat the buzzing menace by emptying out whatever pots or containers you have in your yard that fill up with rainwater after a storm. The BCI will take it from there.

Saint Arnold’s silver anniversary

A very happy anniversary to them.

There is nothing particularly unique about the start-up story behind Saint Arnold. [Founder Brock] Wagner, 54, had been working as an investment banker when he decided to chuck the suit and tie and try to open up a brewery. It’s the same origin story repeated on what feels like a weekly basis here in Houston these days, as side-hustle brewers ditch their full-time corporate gigs to start small brew shops. This year alone has seen similar tales told at both True Anomaly Brewing and Walking Stick Brewing Co.

What sets Saint Arnold’s story apart is the fact that it’s been able to survive all these years, even through a long period during which the state of Texas had some of the nation’s most antiquated brewery laws. When Wagner sold his first keg of beer on June 9, 1994, it was illegal to sell beer on-site. Or offer tours. He had to rely on sales at bars, but he wasn’t even allowed to promote those.

“The laws in Texas made it so the chances are, you weren’t going to survive,” he says now. “And that is why we’re the oldest craft brewery in Texas. It’s not because we were first. We weren’t. It’s because we outlasted everyone else.”

[…]

“There was a time, in about 1995 or 1996, that there were actually a lot of brew pubs in Houston. And every single one of them failed,” Wagner says. “We’d get together every month at our locations, and we’d share information and drink beers together. Then that went away for the longest time because if you were going to have a Houston craft brewers’ meeting, it would be me sitting at a bar by myself.”

He blames the laws, among other things. So he split his focus. Wagner began lobbying the Legislature to loosen up the arcane laws, nabbing a huge victory in 2013, when brewers won the right to sell beer on premises. At the same time, the brewery doubled down on consistency of beer and quality. Wagner pushed his brewers to make sure each new recipe met two criteria: It made you want to order a second, and it had some sort of “wow factor” — maybe extra-dry hops, a rush of citrus — that set it apart from other beers already on the market.

But what really enabled Saint Arnold to shift gears from surviving to thriving, as it now produces 70,000 barrels a year, Wagner says, is the idea that the brewery belonged to more than just him.

I’ve been a fan and customer of Saint Arnold since the days at the old location off 290 when tours were still free and the line to get in wasn’t that long. (Heck, I had my 40th birthday party at the old location.) The current location north of downtown is a gem, and I love that Brock Wagner supports other breweries, especially those opened by former employees of his. Craft breweries belong to neighborhoods, and there’s plenty of room for more of them in our ginormous metropolitan area. They should all hope to be as good, and as consequential, as Saint Arnold. Cheers, y’all.

Houston’s up-and-down population growth

It was up and now it’s down.

San Antonio gained 24,208 residents between July 1, 2016, and July 1, 2017, annual population estimates just released by the federal agency show. That amounts to an average of 66 people per day, the Census Bureau said.

The surge pushed the city’s population above 1.5 million for the first time. That marks an increase of almost 185,000 people in the city limits since the 2010 census.

San Antonio remains the seventh-largest city in the country. Its latest population estimate is 1,511,946.

[…]

By contrast, growth in Houston, which just a few years ago seemed poised to take over Chicago’s position as the third-largest city in the U.S., has hit a snag with fewer and fewer people moving there.

Houston added just over 8,000 residents, placing it seventh in growth among other Texas cities like Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas and San Antonio.

For five consecutive years from 2011 to 2015, Houston remained in the top three cities that had added the most people. But now the Bayou City — known for its sprawl and elastic economy — has fallen behind a trend that began in 2016 when Houston first showed signs of slowing down. The city recorded four consecutive years of averaging more than 30,000 new residents between 2011 and 2015.

[Texas State Demographer Lloyd] Potter says the substantial change in Houston growth is perplexing.

No demographic breakdown is available for the city population data just released, so there’s no way to know the ages, races, ethnicities or genders of San Antonio’s or Houston’s newest residents.

Couple things here. These are estimates based on available data, not on a count. They’re usually pretty good, but they’re not the official Census totals like what we will get next year, and they can be off by some amount. This is one reason why getting the most thorough and accurate count we can is so important, because every resident we overlook results in lost resources for the city. There’s no obvious reason for the deceleration – it could be just a blip – and it’s too soon to call it a trend, but it definitely bears watching.

Because, of course, Houston’s population growth affects its finances in more ways than just Census apportionments. The dumb and arbitrary formula used in the revenue cap combines population growth and inflation rate to set a limit on how much of a revenue increase the city is allowed to have. It doesn’t matter if new things are being built and old things are being renovated and upgraded, either we fall below the limit set by this number cooked up by the likes of Paul Bettencourt and Bruce Hotze or we are forced to throw away a few million dollars via a property tax rate cut that no one will notice. The whole point of the revenue cap is to constrain the city’s ability to provide services. It’s stupid policy pushed by people who did not and do not have Houston’s best interests at heart. And it has us stuck hoping this slowdown in population growth is just an aberration, because it will increase the pressure on our city finances if it is not.

Kinder Houston Area Survey 2019

It’s one of the best things about Houston, year after year.

As Houston recovered from last week’s punishing rains, Rice University researchers reported Monday that public concern about flooding has diminished, while residents are ambivalent about certain policies aimed at easing the problem.

Researchers compiling the Kinder Houston Area Survey asked residents what they considered Houston’s biggest problem, and the share who named flooding this year fell to 7 percent from 15 percent last year. Only 1 percent cited flooding as the top problem in 2017, before Hurricane Harvey deluged the state with unprecedented amounts of rain.

Typical of human nature, the preoccupation with flooding fell with time, survey author Stephen Klineberg said. In each of the past three years, the most commonly cited top problem facing the Houston area was traffic, a frustration that residents confront daily.

“It is fair to say that the salience, the preoccupation with flooding, has gone down,” Klineberg said, “because it’s been a year and a half since Harvey.”

[…]

The 2019 results generally paint a portrait of an increasingly accepting and liberal place. The local economy is more stable. We are embracing our diversity.

But it also points to pressing problems: Financial insecurity, a failing education system and a shrinking determination to face flooding head-on. “The big story overall is the jury is out on Houston,” Klineberg said. “We understand better than we have before the challenges that we face.”

The city’s future, he says, hinges on the solutions in which area leaders invest.

[…]

Other findings: Support for immigration and gay rights continues to grow. So does the percentage of those who say they are friends with people of different ethnicities.

Klineberg’s big concerns include what he sees as the education system’s failure to prepare students to work. Jobs increasingly require a post-secondary education, he writes, and fewer Harris County residents are achieving this goal.

The survey shows that area residents, especially African American and Hispanic respondents, recognize this need for further education. And unlike in the past, more people than not think schools need more money — something Klineberg says is “a powerful kind of transformation.”

Financial insecurity is another concern. Nearly four in 10 reported that they did not have $400 in savings for an emergency. One-fourth said they did not have health insurance.

The city’s diversity and its challenges with education and jobs are likely to ripple across the country, in Klineberg’s view. “We’re there first,” he said. “We are a model for what is going to happen across all of America.”

The finding that support for various flood mitigation proposals has waned is the topline attention-getter, but it doesn’t surprise me that much. Not because I’m cynical, but because these things are hard to do. No one makes foundational changes without resistance and reluctance and false starts. People are going to be ambivalent and have buyer’s remorse. The best thing to do is to do things that will have the greatest positive impact, and ride it out till people get acclimated to it. That’s just life. As for everything else, there’s a ton to read on the general Houston Area Survey page and the 2019 Houston Area Survey page. Check ’em out.

Missing In Harris County Day

I had no idea this was a thing.

Last year, 40,175 children were reported missing in Texas (over 9,600 of these from the Greater Houston area). And while many of these cases ended up solved, as of December 31, 8,360 missing persons cases (children and adult) remain open in the state. Hoping to bring these numbers down, Texas Center for the Missing (TCM) — in conjunction with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, and the South Texas Human Rights Center, among others — is hosting Missing in Harris County Day this Saturday, April 27.

According to TCM Chief Executive Officer Beth Alberts, Missing in Harris County Day was started in 2015 by Dr. Sharon Derrick, then a Forensic Anthropologist with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. Alberts said Derrick wanted to replicate a similar event held in New York that was able to successfully match DNA from family cheek swabs taken at the event to unidentified remains in morgues and graves around the country.

In Missing in Harris County Day’s four-year history, it has solved 13 cold missing persons cases, the oldest of which was over 20 years old.

When asked about what happens at the event, Alberts said, “Families will arrive on Saturday and complete a missing person report (if they have not already done so) giving law enforcement detailed physical description of the person, the time/date/location and clothing description when last seen. That information will be entered into the appropriate agency’s database and uploaded to the National Crime Information Center database. DNA collected that day will be cross-referencing with existing DNA in national databases.”

See here for the details. The event is tomorrow from 10 to 3 at the Children’s Assessment Center Training Center, 2500 Bolsover Street, Houston, TX 77005, which is in the Rice Village. There’s some things you need to bring if you want to participate, so click over and read the instructions. I wish everyone who does this the best.

Curbside glass recycling is back

Hooray!

ScruggsImage3_ThreeWasteBins

Houston residents can resume putting glass in their curbside recycling bins, city officials said Thursday at the opening of a recycling facility in northeast Houston.

The new plant, outfitted with advanced technology including a glass cleanup system, is operated by FCC Environmental Services, a Spanish firm that received a 20-year, $37 million deal to handle the city’s curbside recycling. With the plant’s opening, Mayor Sylvester Turner has effectively capped what proved to be a years-long struggle over the city’s recycling program, generated by plunging commodities prices that coincided with multiple tight city budgets.

The funding constraints prompted Turner to strike a two-year deal with the city’s longtime recycling provider, Waste Management, in which the city accepted only paper, cardboard, plastics and metal cans in the green bins used for its curbside recycling program. The move lowered processing costs under the stopgap deal before the city inked a long-term contract with FCC.

To recycle glass, residents for the last three years were required to drop off their containers at the city’s neighborhood depositories. Those facilities remain open, but residents can immediately begin recycling their glass curbside, Solid Waste Management Director Harry Hayes said.

[…]

Under the contract with FCC, the city pays a maximum of $19 per ton to process recyclables in a weak commodities market, limiting its liability when prices decline. The city would recover a larger share of the revenue if prices for recycled material improve.

The city also owns the $23 million, 120,000-square-foot plant under the contract, though FCC will continue to manage operations and maintenance. On Thursday, the firm’s CEO, Pablo Colio, said the facility’s opening marked “the first of many (milestones) to come from our partnership” with Houston.

See here and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. I’m just glad to have this back, and I’m glad the city has a workable deal in place. Hopefully, the market for recyclable material will improve and make this even better.

Explode, rinse, repeat

Here we go again.

A massive explosion at a chemical plant in northeast Harris County on Tuesday killed one person and sent two others to the hospital in critical condition, sparking a blaze that sent yet another plume of dark smoke into the sky and forcing residents to temporarily shelter in place.

The fire, ignited by a flammable gas called isobutylene at the KMCO chemical processing plant in Crosby, marked the third time in 17 days that a smoggy cloud of smoke emanated from a Houston-area chemical facility.

It is the first chemical fatality at a Houston-area plant since 2016, when a worker died in an incident at PeroxyChem in Pasadena. In 2014, four workers died at a DuPont plant in La Porte.

Responders extinguished the KMCO fire late Tuesday afternoon, while on-scene investigators with the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office began conducting interviews to determine where the fire started and what caused the gas to ignite.

“There’s a lot of hot metal in there,” said Rachel Moreno, a fire marshal spokeswoman. “Until it’s safe for our guys to go in, they’ll continue doing interviews of everybody that was at work.”

The response will stretch Harris County’s resources, Moreno said, as the fire marshal’s office begins its second major investigation in less than three weeks. The site of an even larger conflagration at Intercontinental Terminals Co. in Deer Park less than 15 miles away on March 17 remains too unsafe for investigators to visit.

[…]

KMCO, a subsidiary of an Austin private investment firm, produces coolant and brake fluid products for the automotive industry, as well as chemicals for the oil field industry. Its facility, which has a history of environmental and workplace safety issues, sits about 13 miles away from the ITC plant, where Harris County officials continued to detect carcinogenic benzene this week.

The KMCO plant is less than three miles from the Arkema facility where a series of explosions spewed chemicals and sickened residents after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Let’s talk about that history, shall we?

“As long as I’ve been doing environmental work for Harris County, I’ve been involved in case with this company, either with the previous owner or the current owner,” said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section. “And I’ve been doing this for close to 30 years. This company has been around forever causing trouble.”

[…]

On Christmas Eve 2010, a runaway reaction sent three employees at the plant to the hospital. Workers there couldn’t lower the pressure in a reactor and, as they tried to fix a clogged line, they accidentally mixed a caustic solution with maleic anhydride, a normally stable chemical. The result was an explosion and fire. An explosion in 2011 sent two more workers to a hospital.

[…]

Since 2009, KMCO has paid out more than $4 million in fines or criminal penalties to local and federal regulators.

In 2017, the company pleaded guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Air Act filed by the Environmental Protection Agency and was ordered to pay $3.5 million. The violations were in connection to an explosion at its Port Arthur facility and air emissions at the Crosby plant.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued dozens of violations to KMCO since 2010 and fined the company about $250,000.

The facility is currently not compliant with the federal Clean Water Act. KMCO was in violation of the act for seven of the last 12 quarters, records show. It violated the Clean Air Act three times in the last 12 quarters. EPA data shows the facility also violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in February 2018. That law regulates how facilities handle hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste.

[…]

Harris County first sued KMCO in 1987. The company was ordered to pay $49,750 for violations of the Texas Water Code.

The county sued the KMCO plant in 2008 for spills and fumes that gave neighbors headaches. The lawsuit ended in 2009 with a permanent injunction requiring KMCO to pay $100,000 in civil penalties and to give investigators easy access to the facility and prompt notification of releases.

The county sued again in 2013; that case is still ongoing. Owens said the county attorney’s office is still deciding whether to add Tuesday’s incident to the existing case or bring a separate case against the company.

“While there’s been actions before, it hasn’t been sufficient,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy group. “We should, in the 21st century, be able to prevent these kinds of things from happening.”

A Houston Chronicle report from 2016 found that there’s a major chemical incident every six weeks in the greater Houston area.

You’d really like to think that we could prevent this kind of thing from happening, wouldn’t you?

Sunday, this editorial board demanded that state officials hold polluters accountable — and not just after a disaster.

We didn’t expect to be repeating ourselves so soon.

But this is what happens in a state where environmental regulators are toothless tigers. Where the TCEQ trusts polluters to police themselves — in part out of necessity, since lawmakers don’t adequately fund the agency. Where violators avoid sanctions and routinely endanger Texans’ health without our knowledge. Where Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton talk tough, maybe even file a lawsuit after an incident makes headlines, but look the other way when the smoke clears.

At this rate, the smoke will never really clear. There will be another fire. And another.

Another round of parents fearing for their children’s safety. Another community fearing the effects of chemicals and pollutants they can’t pronounce. Another black eye to Houston’s already bad reputation as a place where one shouldn’t breathe too deeply, a place where profits outweigh concern for public health.

As we’ve pointed out, Texas facilities in 2017 reported releasing more than 63 million pounds of unauthorized air pollution — including chemicals linked to cancer, heart attacks and respiratory problems, according to a report by Environment Texas. But, in the past seven years, TCEQ issued fines in less than 3 percent of such events.

“These repeated, disastrous fires and explosions can no longer be called isolated incidents,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, told the editorial board Tuesday. “The Texas petrochemical industry has a serious, chronic problem, and Texas workers and citizens are paying the price. How many people have to die, get hurt, get cancer or suffer respiratory failure before the state takes this seriously and overhauls our broken system of oversight?”

Texans, these are questions for Abbott and our other state leaders. It’s up to us to demand the answers.

The only way to get the answers you need is to vote for those who will give them to you, and against those who won’t. If the choices aren’t clear by now, I don’t know what to tell you.

Another AstroWorld auction

Warm up your credit cards.

Could be yours

If your wallet is as deep as your love for Houston’s AstroWorld, you’re in luck.

An online auction is selling off a little more than 300 items from the theme park that closed its gates in 2005. From character statues to giant welcome signs, now is the time to grab your piece of Houston history.

The number of items available is expected to at least double in the coming days, according to Ken Spicer, president and head auctioneer of SITE Auction Services.

[…]

SITE Auction Services is selling the items through an online venue but plans on holding a live, in-person auction on Saturday, Feb. 23 at Emiliano’s Sports Bark at 7710 East Freeway.

The bar will have the items on display during the week leading up to the auction.

The online auction catalog is here. We last had an AstroWorld auction back in 2006. Who knows when you may get another chance? Don’t miss out.

Architect hired for Ismaili Center construction on Robinson Warehouse site

This is the most exciting bit of local news I’ve seen in years.

What once was there

The worldwide Ismaili Muslim community announced Wednesday it is moving forward with plans to make Houston the site of its first U.S. cultural center and to create an architectural landmark in the heart of the city that will reflect a spirit of tolerance, diversity and learning.

London-based Farshid Moussavi Architecture has won the commission to design the important new building on a high-profile, 11-acre site at the southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose Boulevard. A rising star who also has taught for more than a decade at her alma mater, Harvard University, she was selected from a star-studded selection list of finalists that included David Chipperfield, Jeanne Gang and Rem Koolhaas.

“The rigorous competition was a vivid illustration of the global stature that an Ismaili Center holds in the architectural and built environment community, and of the attractiveness of Houston as a destination city for world-scale architecture,” said Dr. Barkat Fazal, president of the Ismaili Council for USA.

Houston’s Ismaili Center, the seventh globally, will be the institutional, intellectual and cultural center for the Shia Ismaili Muslim community in the U.S.

[…]

The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the Houston property in 2006 and in 2011 donated the seven monumental artworks — Jaume Plensa’s “Tolerance” sculptures of kneeling figures — that are situated just across the street in Buffalo Bayou Park.

Moussavi said she was honored to partner with the Ismaili Muslim community. “Our team brings a broad perspective, with diverse skills and experience in international practice, scholarly research, multidisciplinary thinking and delivering cultural projects successfully in the U.S.,” she said. “It will bring Houston’s diverse communities together in a unique space for cultural, educational and social activities.”

This site has been vacant for twelve years now, since the old Robinson Warehouse was demolished to make room for this very long-awaited Ismaili Center. I have no idea what too it so long to begin to happen – as the story notes, it will still be a few years before construction is done – but after at least one false start, here we finally are. It’s almost as hard for me to believe this site will finally be redeveloped as it is for me to believe that this amazing piece of real estate has been left fallow for over a decade. Maybe now some other famous empty lots, including one just up the road a bit on Allen Parkway, will finally see new life as well. I wish them all good luck.

Does the Astrodome redevelopment need air conditioning?

I hadn’t thought about this, to be honest.

Also not air conditioned

As work continues on the initial stages of preparing the Astrodome for its new life as a parking and events venue, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised questions last week about the costs associated with redeveloping the former sports stadium.

Harris County’s new judge, who recently toured the property with officials from NRG Park, said she learned that the $105 million the county allocated to the redevelopment project did not include air conditioning.

“I’m looking to make sure the current plan is fiscally responsible and that it will get us to a point where the Astrodome is self-sustaining,” she said in an interview on Houston Public Media’s “Houston Matters.”

Hidalgo declined to comment further, but current and former county officials said the renovation costs were never meant to include traditional air conditioning. Rather, the climate inside would be maintained by a mechanical forced-air ventilation and convection-based system designed to keep the inside of the building more temperate when it is hot or cold outside.

“The thought process was that further phases would bring in air conditioning,” said County Engineer John Blount, who is managing the project.

[…]

For Ed Emmett, Hidalgo’s predecessor, the Astrodome project was never about nostalgia, but to keep the integrity of the NRG complex intact. The county has a contract with the rodeo and the Texans to maintain NRG Stadium in first-class condition.

“Those tenants are going to start coming to the county saying we need this or that upgrade. There’s no revenue source to provide those upgrades without the Dome,” Emmet said.

As far as the air conditioning, he said the idea was to make the space usable, “but not necessarily at 72 degrees.”

“My purpose from day one was to create nine acres of indoor space protected from the weather, where it would be preferable than being outside,” Emmett said.

I mean, it kind of makes sense. It just has to be cool enough, and contrary to popular belief it’s not always summer here. Seems a little weird to be talking about it now, but whatever.

Will we address the unincorporated problem?

The Chron proposes an agenda item for the Lege.

Unincorporated Harris County

The challenges of unincorporated Harris County are nothing new. For decades neighborhoods have sprouted up in the vast prairie west of Houston without any formal municipal governmental structure. Special districts have provided basic needs, such as neighborhood streets and water. The county government picked up the rest — notably law enforcement and roads. No mayors. No city halls. No local sales taxes.

This model is becoming unsustainable. If grouped into a single city, the total population of unincorporated Harris County would be the fifth largest in the United States. Issues like infrastructure costs and upkeep, law enforcement and the basic duties of government are piling up, and commissioners court lacks both the funds and the statutory authority to deal with it all.

Meanwhile, obscure rules written in Austin prohibit these neighborhoods from forming their own cities, which could levy sales taxes and pass ordinances. Already existing cities are hesitant to annex special districts, which often have long-term debt.

So why would the Legislature finally address this big-picture issue after ignoring it for so long?

Hurricane Harvey revealed the weaknesses of these special districts to meet residents’ needs and the ongoing fight over property taxes has the county looking for another way to pay for services.

Formal studies, notably from the Kinder Institute, are being published about the problems in these areas — and potential solutions.

The status quo in the unincorporated county can’t go on forever, and only Austin can change it.

I basically agree with the premise, but I seriously doubt anything will happen this session. This wasn’t a theme that Judge Lina Hidalgo campaigned on, and I expect she’s got her hands (and the county’s lobbyists’ hands) full right now. More to the point, it’s not clear what kind of legislation would be proposed to remedy the problems. Something like this needs to have a vetting period, with opportunities for public input, since any change would affect how current residents of unincorporated Harris County would be affected.

There’s an analogy here to the oft-lamented-by-the-Chron system of partisan judicial elections. What we have now is flawed, and it’s easy to say there must be a better way, but it’s all vaporware until something specific gets proposed and advocated. My suggestion would be to lobby Commissioners Court to put together a committee to study the options and propose something that can be turned into a bill one of our legislators can author for 2021. Something concrete has a chance to be enacted, so start with that and maybe we can actually make a change happen.

Better sidewalks needs to be everyone’s job

It’s the only way we’re going to make progress.

Houstonians annoyed by cracked, missing or buckled sidewalks along their streets may be surprised to learn that city rules make residents responsible for fixing them.

At the urging of council members three years ago, Houston Public Works tried something new, launching a program that let homeowners get quotes for sidewalk repairs from city-approved contractors, then pay for the fix.

Though 155 residents signed up and 105 got cost estimates, only two agreed to pay the bill — likely because the average quote was $5,000.

Public Works officials acknowledge the city’s involvement added overhead that resulted in estimates double or triple what a resident otherwise would pay. The program has been scrapped.

Still, city officials say adding more sidewalks is a worthy goal. The issue, Public Works Deputy Director Jeff Weatherford said, is that Houston has no sidewalk repair budget and sets aside just $2.6 million a year to add new sidewalks through a few targeted programs. Compare that with the $83 million needed to fulfill 580 pending requests for new sidewalks.

“There’s a funding shortfall,” Weatherford said. “We’d love to expand it, we’re having conversations about different ways to expand it, we’re looking at priorities for grants, other alternative funding sources. But until we’ve worked out a way to get that, it’s going to be a balancing act.”

Residents can apply to have up to four blocks of sidewalks added near schools and along major streets, but typically must wait three to five years. Residents with disabilities also can apply to have up to 1,500 feet of sidewalks built around their homes. These Pedestrian Accessibility Reviews, which have produced about 75 finished sidewalk projects in the last five years, get top priority.

[…]

Advocates with the 6-year-old Houston Complete Streets Coalition want to work toward a sidewalk plan for the city, assessing the presence and condition of existing sidewalks, compiling the resulting information in a database and using it, alongside identified priorities, to guide decisions on where to install and repair sidewalks.

Michael Huffmaster, who leads the group of civic clubs known as the Super Neighborhood Alliance and represents that group on the coalition, said one proposal is to incorporate public facilities like community centers, libraries and parks into the program that adds sidewalks around schools.

“It’s up to City Council to fund sidewalks at a level that makes a meaningful contribution to the needs of the city,” Huffmaster said. “It’s sad that we put the burden of the sidewalk on the adjacent property owner because it’s an improvement that’s within the public right of way. Mobility in the city, pedestrian safety, should be priorities.”

Weatherford said he does not oppose adding facilities like libraries to the school sidewalk program or the idea of a sidewalk plan, but he said the funding question must be solved first, lest the backlog of unfunded sidewalk requests swell and the new plan sit unused on a shelf.

I have two thoughts about this. One is that the city should revisit that Public Works program, but in a style similar to one that already exists for financing the installation of solar panels: Have the city pay for the work up front (floating a bond if need be for the capital costs), then letting homeowners who get their sidewalks fixed pay that back via a charge added to their monthly water bill. The overall amount the city would have to borrow isn’t that much, and individual homeowners ought to be able to pay it off in three years or so; payment options can be given for that. I don’t see a down side to this.

I would also expand upon the Super Neighborhood Alliance idea. How can we get other government entities involved? As I have said several times before, the city of Houston is also (almost entirely) within Harris County. Metro has done some work at and around bus stops since the 2012 referendum giving them a larger share of the sales tax revenue. I’d like to see that continued and expanded with the 2019 referendum. HISD and the other school districts should kick in for better sidewalks around their schools, as a matter of student safety. H-GAC should seek out state and federal grant money for sidewalks. This still needs to be a primary responsibility of the city, but there’s no reason it has to be the city’s sole responsibility. If we want to solve the problem, we need to make it everyone’s priority.

It’s tree-recycling time

Here’s what you need to know.

You have nearly three weeks to do this. Don’t miss out.

RIP, Ray Hill

We have lost an icon.

Ray Hill

Ray Hill was in the cross hairs, and if the Louisiana hitmen actually showed up in Houston to rub him out, he wanted the media to be wise to what had happened. Hill breathlessly related the menace, obviously delighted that he could be the target of such a delicious conspiracy. Every UPS deliveryman, every knock on the door might be a summons to eternity. He’d hunker down in his apartment until we talked again — if we talked again.

Hill exuded drama like some people sweat. Whether he was telling tales of his career as an East Texas teenage evangelist or his escapades as a jewel thief, Hill kept an eye peeled for the best presentation. And as one of the city’s most visible advocates for gay, lesbian and inmate causes, he rarely failed to sharpen his talent to entertain into a formidable weapon.

Hill, who late in life eschewed leadership roles in activist circles to hone a career as a monologuist — a dramatic undertaking that gained him appreciative audiences in New York, Pennsylvania and New England — died of heart failure in hospice care Saturday. He was 78.

A legend in his own right — and in his own mind — Hill’s business card described his profession as “citizen provocateur,” a proudly worn label he received from a Supreme Court justice after a long-ago legal battle with the cops.

“I was born to rub the cat hair the wrong direction,” he once said.

Excerpts don’t do the man justice, so go read the whole thing, then go read Lisa Gray’s pre-obituary of Hill that came out on Tuesday. I met Ray a couple of times but didn’t really know him, which makes me kind of an outlier since basically everyone knew Ray Hill. The late Carl Whitmarsh called Ray “Mother” in his emails, a tribute to Ray’s role as an originator of LGBT activism in Houston. You can’t tell the story of Houston without at least a chapter on Ray Hill. He may be gone, but his legacy will live on. Rest in peace, Ray Hill.

The timeline for the Astrodome

Work will get started after the Rodeo.

Soon to be new and improved

According to Ryan Walsh, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation and NRG Park, the final phase of asbestos abatement is scheduled to get underway at the Dome next week and should continue until the end of the year. The work is being done by county engineers deep in the walls of the disused landmark.

“That work will take several months up until the rodeo moves in,” Walsh said Wednesday.

Construction on the project is expected to end in February 2020 and Walsh said this week that soon he will receive a more detailed construction schedule for the months and years ahead.

After the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo concludes its 2019 season more intensive work is expected to begin on the Dome. The rodeo has “gate to gate” coverage of the NRG complex during rodeo season.

I for one am looking forward to seeing what this finished product looks like. I’m also looking forward to an end of the griping about what has and has not happened to and for the Dome, what should have happened instead of this plan, etc etc etc. Not that any of that is likely to happen, but I still look forward to the end of it.

Robot sex brothel update

It’s all about the permits.

The City of Houston ordered a Canadian company called KinkySDollS to stop the construction of a so-called robot brothel for not having the appropriate permit.

The city, which told the Chronicle this week that they are reviewing ordinances to restrict this kind of enterprise, sent building inspectors to issue a “red tag” to stop work after they noticed they didn’t have the required permits.

To continue construction, the KinkySDollS company will have to first “apply for a demolition permit and submit plans,” said a spokesperson from the mayor’s office.

[…]

They began to build the business in what was previously a hair salon on Richmond, close to Chimney Rock in the Galleria area. Space is located on the second floor of a building and has around 2,500 square feet, according to the salon owner who used to rent that spot.

The concept of the KinkySDollS adult business is similar to a showroom where human-like dolls are erotically displayed and can be rented to be used in private rooms at the location by the hour or half hour. The dolls are made of synthetic skin materials with highly articulated skeletons.

See here for the background. We now have the details about what an effort to ban these places might look like.

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask the City Council this week to change Houston’s rules on sexually oriented businesses, a change that could prevent a proposed “robot brothel” from opening near the Galleria.

[…]

Traditional sexually oriented businesses like strip clubs long have been prevented from operating within 1,500 feet of churches, schools, day cares, parks and residential neighborhoods — and city-owned Anderson Park is just a few hundred feet from KinkySdollS’ proposed storefront.

The portion of the ordinance Turner wants to revise addresses “adult arcades,” where customers view adult content using an “arcade device.”

The council would amend the definition of an “arcade device” to include not just machines displaying video but also “anthropomorphic devices or objects,” and would prohibit “entertainment with one or more persons using an arcade device on the premises.”

In short, the business could sell the dolls at its proposed location – such models reportedly sell for about $4,000 — but repeated-use rentals would be banned.

I suspect I’ll get my wish to see some litigation come out of this. Beyond that, I don’t really have anything substantive to say, but boy is it going to be hard to resist the temptation to blog about these stories. A style point question: Does it make more sense to say “robot sex brothel”, or “sex robot brothel”? I can make a case for either one, but I feel like we should strive to define a standard, so future generations won’t be confused. Please indicate your preference in the comments.

We need to talk about the robot sex brothel

I can’t avoid it any longer.

In a surprise reveal last week, a Toronto businessman announced that he would be opening the nation’s first robot sex brothel in Houston.

The business, set to open its doors later this month or in early October, will allow customers to rent or purchase a robotic sex doll that, according to the company’s founder, is “warm and ready to play.”

As you might imagine, people had opinions about this.

KinkySdollS, a Canadian company that opened the first North American robot brothel last year in Toronto, unofficially announced via Facebook last month that its first enterprise outside Canada would be in Houston, confirming on the company website that the business was “coming soon” to the Bayou City.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city is currently reviewing existing ordinances — or will consider drafting new ordinances — that could restrict or regulate such enterprises.

“This is not the kind of business I would like to see in Houston, and certainly this is not the kind of business the city is seeking to attract,” Turner said in a written statement to the Houston Chronicle.

[…]

The brothel would apparently not be illegal under current laws, according to experts.

“Unfortunately, there are currently no laws in the U.S. to prevent the sale of the type of dolls intended for this ‘robot brothel,’” said Houston attorney Richard Weaver, who specializes in business law.

“Unless a new ordinance is passed, this business will likely open and operate in Houston,” Weaver said.

Albert Van Huff, a Houston attorney who is familiar with Houston’s sexually oriented business ordinances, said that robot brothels would likely fall under the city’s definition of an adult sexual operation, however, and could likely be regulated for visibility and distances from schools, churches and other religious facilities.

I’ll be honest, I kind of want there to be some litigation over this, just so I can read the briefs and see the arguments. You just know there’s an attorney somewhere who’ll be thinking “three years of law school and months of cramming for the bar exam, for this”. Reading the story, it sounds like there’s a solid public health argument for not allowing the dolls to be rented. Beyond that, I confess I don’t quite get all the fuss. In the year of our Lord 2018, I’ve got bigger things to worry about.

Deterring dumping

Tough problem, good use of technology.

[Radny] Scales, a Harris County Environmental Crimes Unit lieutenant, and his team of nine investigators depend heavily on video cameras to crack down on illegal dumping, a crime that disproportionally affects the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

The City Council voted last month to add 22 cameras to create a portfolio of nearly 150 total. Precinct 1’s nearly $600,000 program also includes a fleet of drones, as well as several full-time employees.

It’s paying dividends: A two-year program started in 2016 to catch those who illegally dump their trash in remote locations across Houston yielded 694 investigations and 396 charges.

“It’s been working for the city as a whole — better than what we thought,” said Jerry Davis, the councilman for District B, who initiated the program to catch illegal dumping.

The majority are people charged in the crime are private citizens: The average offender is a 50-year-old who dumps 75 pounds of waste, according to statistics the county provided. Contractors looking to dodge the expense of paying to throw away their garbage at a designated facility account for just 20 percent of offenders.

[…]

Beyond just being eyesores, illegal dumping sites present serious consequences, including being safety hazards and serving as a breeding ground for potentially disease-ridden mosquitoes, snakes and other wildlife. Dumping sites can also contribute to flooding and could potentially have a serious impact in future weather disasters.

“When you have drains that have been stopped up because people put furniture and tires and plastic, it’s going to cause flooding,” [Precinct 1 Constable Allen] Rosen said.

Illegal dumping is a big problem in some parts of the city, and has been for a long time. Video cameras are basically the only realistic hope for catching the perpetrators in the act, but it takes a lot of them because stuff gets dumped all over the place. It’s good some real resources being put into this, because it’s a real quality of life issue for a lot of people. I hope this is big enough and sustained enough to put a serious dent in the problem.

Checking in on Pasadena

How’s it going over there?

A year into his four-year term, [Pasadena Mayor Jeff] Wagner says he is focused on unifying a city whose ethnic and socioeconomic inequities were displayed before a national audience during the 2016 trial over a redistricting lawsuit. Current and former city officials say Wagner’s more conciliatory style serves him well in achieving this goal, but they differ on how much progress he’s made.

Pasadena, like Houston, has a strong-mayor system of government. Isbell, who led the city off-and-on from 1981 to 2017, came to symbolize its reputation for intolerance and inequity as witnesses in the redistricting trial testified that the city had systematically neglected the needs of its mostly Latino northside neighborhoods.

In January 2017, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal found that a revised council district system, initiated by Isbell, intentionally diluted the influence of Latino voters. The city, under Isbell, promptly appealed.

Last September, in what was arguably the most consequential decision of his first year in office, Wagner dropped the appeal. The city agreed to continue electing all eight council members from districts, and to pay a $1 million settlement to the Latino plaintiffs.

Isbell, who left office because of term limits, criticized Wagner’s decision, saying he believed the city would have prevailed on appeal. In an interview last week, however, Wagner said ending the case was an essential step in bringing the city together.

“I didn’t feel that we (the city) had done anything wrong,” said Wagner, 54, a retired Houston police officer. “But I felt we had to get out of it as quickly as we did.”

[…]

Former Councilwoman Pat Van Houte, who continues to keep a close eye on city affairs, offered a mixed assessment of Wagner’s first year leading the city.

“This mayor started with certain promises and he has fulfilled some,” she said, among those dropping the redistricting lawsuit. “He has shown some leadership skills.”

Van Houte said she had been disappointed, however, with some of the administration’s priorities, including the golf course improvements rejected by the council last week.

“The city has been spending quite a bit of money on buildings, and not much in neighborhoods getting the streets and sidewalks done,” she said.

Cody Ray Wheeler, one of three Latinos now on the City Council, was one of Isbell’s harshest critics. On the day of Wagner’s inauguration, Wheeler expressed optimism that Wagner would be more attentive to the needs of northside residents.

It hasn’t worked out that way, Wheeler said last week.

“I went in optimistic, but it feels after a year that it’s the same old thing with a new, smiling face in front of it,” Wheeler said.

As an example of continued inequities, Wheeler offered data about the city’s neighborhood network program, which provides grants to community organizations for neighborhood improvements. During the trial of the redistricting case, witnesses testified that Isbell’s administration had used the program as a political tool, steering grants to groups that were then encouraged to help get out votes for initiatives the mayor favored.

Wheeler did not allege that the practice has continued under Wagner. He said, however, that wealthy, mostly Anglo neighborhoods south of Spencer Highway had received more than $65,000 in grants, while areas north of Spencer had received about $3,000.

“This is a huge disparity in the way the city is handing out grant funds,” Wheeler said during Tuesday’s council meeting.

Settling that redistricting lawsuit was a big deal, and Mayor Wagner deserves credit for that. Sounds like there’s still a lot of room for things to get better. Fulfilling the promise made about bringing transit to Pasadena would be a big step in that direction, but it’s not the only one that could be taken. Maybe Mayor Wagner will make some progress on that on his own, and maybe he’ll need a push from the voters next May.

Paying to park at Memorial Park

Let the pearl-clutching begin!

A quarter of the parking spaces at Memorial Park will be metered starting later this year, as the city and the park’s nonprofit operators scrape together dollars for maintenance amid an ambitious renovation.

Visitors who park near the golf clubhouse, the tennis center, the gymanisum and pool, and the new parking lots being completed near the renovated Eastern Glades area will need to pay $1 per three hours of parking.

The Memorial Park Conservancy expects the new meters to net $135,000 in the fiscal year that starts July 1, rising to $375,000 annually in about four years; both figures account for paying off the up-front cost of the meters.

Shellye Arnold, president of the nonprofit Memorial Park Conservancy that took over the park’s operations and began fundraising to implement a new master plan three years ago, said declining funding for public spaces has made parking revenues a key revenue source for parks across the country. It costs about $2 million a year to run Memorial Park, she said.

“There are two realities that make Memorial Park different than most other parks in Houston in regard to the needs of care and maintenance. One is its sheer size; at 1,500 acres, it’s nearly twice the size of (New York’s) Central Park,” she said. “Also, what we heard in the master planning was that Houstonians don’t want to commercialize this park. When you do that, it limits your ability to collect concessions and revenues to operate.”

In all, 572 of the nearly 2,250 spaces at the park will be metered. About 60 percent of the parking spots north of Memorial Drive will remain free; all the spots south of it will.

A buck for three hours, and 75% of the spaces will remain free. Seems like no big deal to me, but of course it’s got a certain former Mayoral candidate all indignant. Because free parking in Houston is our God-given Constitutional right, or something like that. This is a good idea, both as a funding source for the Conservancy, and also as a way to ensure that parking spaces open up on a regular basis. Honestly, they could have charged more – like, a buck for two hours, or two dollars for three hours – and it would still be a good deal. Complain if you want, but parking there, like parking downtown, is a scarce resource, and putting a (very modest) price on it just makes sense.

Demography and our destiny

Trends keep on trending.

Harris County continues to grow more diverse, with population increases among every ethnic and racial group, except non-Hispanic whites between 2016 and 2017, according to data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In Harris County, 43 percent of the population now identifies as Hispanic, while the share of residents who report they are non-Hispanic whites now sits at 29.7 percent. A year prior, the rates were 42.5 percent and 30.2 percent respectively, representing a continuation in a years-long trend.

Some of this is due to the fact that the number of people who identified as non-Hispanic whites has decreased by 17,000 residents — likely due to outward migration – while the population for minority groups has steadily grown. Because Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race, Census respondents are able to select a race, as well as whether they are Hispanic or non-Hispanic.

“All of the other groups experienced population increases,” said Molly Cromwell, a demographer at the Census Bureau. “The ‘two or more races’ group had the fastest growth, at 2.5 percent, adding over 2,000 people last year. And Asians had the second-fastest growth rate of 1.7 percent, adding more than 6,000 people in Harris County last year.”

“The census has this projection for what America will look like in 2050, and it’s basically the picture of Houston today,” said Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University, and founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “And this pattern is exactly what you would expect this year: No increase among Anglos, and a continuing gradual and consistent increase of other populations.”

We’ve seen some of this before. The out-migration pattern is worth watching – Dallas County has experienced something similar in recent years, which has limited its growth – and of course international migration will be a huge variable at least until we get some sanity back in the federal government. None of this changes the basic patterns, it just slows things down a bit. The Trib has more.

Hempstead landfill officially dead

Hooray!

Waller County leaders and residents on Monday cheered a Georgia company’s decision to abandon plans for a 250-acre acre landfill near Hempstead, saying they look forward to moving beyond an environmental fight that has dominated public debate for seven years.

Green Group Holdings LLC said in a news release Monday that it was dropping its remaining court appeals and withdrawing any pending requests for approval, citing public opposition and the prospect of a court battle that could go on and on.

“When I looked at the length of time that it would take to go through the permitting process if we were even successful in court and just the level of opposition and divisiveness this has caused in the local community, I just came to the conclusion that we should dismiss the appeals that are pending in the court system and withdraw any other efforts on our part to continue to permit and operate a landfill on this property,” said David Green, the company’s CEO, in a phone interview.

The move ends a bitter fight over the landfill proposal — one that led to a court verdict that past county commissioners failed to show transparency, the ouster of commissioners who backed the project, a well-funded movement to oppose the plan and numerous court rulings blocking the plan.

[…]

Green said the company would still pursue other potential locations for the landfill. He said he believes a solid waste disposal site is needed in Texas because of its expanding population and natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey.

“I hope and really do feel like this facility could’ve been designed and operated safely, but this has been such a fatiguing and expensive journey for all of the participants,” Green said. “It’s time to put this behind us, so we at Green Group can focus on our other projects that we have.”

Here’s the Green Group press release. It was the recent ruling by a Travis County District Court judge that upheld the denial of a new application by the TCEQ to build the landfill that led to their retreat. They may pursue other opportunities elsewhere in the state, but at least now local communities have a playbook for how to fight back. The rest of us can commit to generating less waste if we want to give communities like Hempstead a hand going forward. No one should be faced with the prospect of having a landfill in their backyard.

That’s the Texas State Historical Astrodome to you, pal

It’s got a marker and everything.

All this and history too

More than 56 years after ground was broken on what would become the world’s first domed stadium, the Astrodome is now a bonafide recorded Texas historic landmark.

Installed on the stadium’s southwest end, a Texas State Historical Marker it will be visible for years to come just yards from neighboring NRG Stadium. The $2,000 price tag for the marker was picked up by the Houston Astros, who called the Dome home for decades before moving to Minute Maid Park across town.

[…]

The Dome has already been declared a state Antiquities Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The marker further solidifies its place in history and its permanence. The text mentions the part that the Dome played in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when it housed 16,000 refugees from the violent storm that hit New Orleans.

The 2017 state antiquities landmark designation provides special safeguards against demolition and requires Texas Historical Commission approval for any future changes.

See here for some background. I know some people don’t like the Astrodome redevelopment plan. Like it or not, your choices are the plan that’s been approved, some other plan that has not been vetted or approved, and going back to doing nothing and letting it rot. Which, now that I think of it, may be expressly forbidden by this latest designation. Point is, the Dome ain’t being demolished. Get used to it.

It’s hard being pregnant in Harris County

We need to figure this out.

Life-threatening, pregnancy-related complications — the iceberg beneath the surface of the U.S. maternal health crisis — are on the rise in Harris County, according to a new report.

The report not only confirmed the Harris County rate is worse than that of the state and nation, it found that it increased more than 50 percent between 2008 and 2015. Texas’ rate of life-threatening, pregnancy-related complications went up 15 percent in the same time period.

“In subtle and unintentional ways, women’s health in Harris County has been subjugated to the health of babies so profoundly that the health of women of childbearing age is often not prioritized,” says the report, a project of the Houston Endowment.

Dr. Lisa Hollier, a Houston obstetrician-gynecologist and a co-chair of the task force that produced the report, said Harris County’s high rates “point to the need for greater intervention to promote safety around the time of delivery. Such complications are 50 times more common than pregnancy-related deaths, but don’t get near the amount of attention.”

Hollier and Dr. Cecilia Cazaban, the report’s principal investigator, said it is unclear why Harris County’s rate is increasing at such a high rate. They said that analysis is next on tap for the task force.

[…]

The new report focuses on severe maternal morbidity, the term for conditions that require such treatment as a respirator or blood transfusions or hysterectomy during delivery or in the immediate hours thereafter. It can lead to maternal death, but even when the patient survives, it can cause damage, such as kidney or heart failure, sometimes requiring lifelong treatment. It also is costly to the patient and health care system.

Harris County’s rate of severe maternal morbidity in 2015 was 2.4 percent, meaning there were 238 cases for every 10,000 deliveries. The 2015 rate was 1.97 in Texas and 1.46 in the United States.

See here for some background. The task force website is here, though I don’t think this report is on there. I hope there’s no need for me to say anything more than we really need to understand this problem so we can solve it.

Reinventing Jones Plaza

Big changes coming to downtown.

Jones Plaza, the often-empty, 1.5-acre public space at the heart of Houston’s Theater District, may finally become a true people magnet courtesy of the second face-lift in its 51-year history.

This time, Houston First Corporation, which operates the plaza for the city, hopes to create an event and dining area that reflects the artful vitality of the plaza’s prime location — a place that will be welcoming day and night for area employees as well as theater patrons and downtown residents.

[…]

Officials said the redevelopment will cost about $25 million, most of which will be raised privately. The Downtown Redevelopment Authority has contributed $5 million. Houston Astros owner Jim Crane and his wife Whitney, along with the Astros Foundation, have contributed $1 million and will spearhead a capital campaign to raise the remaining funds.

With construction slated to begin next month, the project could be complete by late 2020.

Mayor Sylvester Turner called the plaza project a “game-changer” for downtown.

A major initiative of the Theater District Master Plan adopted in 2015, this redevelopment may finally solve a conundrum that has dogged the plaza from since it opened in 1967, in spite of its location next to the Alley Theatre and Jones Hall. Jones Plaza has long been like a forgotten ornament in the city’s jewel box because it was built above the district’s parking garage. Its stepped plaza design, necessary to accommodate the structure below, made access difficult for some. And it’s always been a hard place to beautify with shade trees and plants, since there’s not much soil to work with.

The site was best utilized from the late 1980s through the 1990s as the venue for Thursday night Party on the Plaza concerts that were not a particularly good fit for the surrounding fine arts venues. The Party on the Plaza brand has since been revived and relocated to Avenida Houston in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center.

I have some fond memories of those old Party on the Plaza events. Sure would be nice to find a purpose for Jones Plaza again. I look forward to seeing how this turns out.

Happy tenth birthday, Discovery Green

What a great addition it has been.

Discovery Green opened a decade ago this weekend, drawing 25,000 people to the long-dormant east side of downtown to gawk at parading Clydesdales, dogs in costumes, a puppet show, a magician, musicians and dancers.

Skeptics said the 12-acre green space in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center would become a homeless encampment, that no suburbanite would drive all the way downtown to see a park, that the $125 million the city and philanthropists had jointly invested would prove to be a waste.

They were wrong.

Visitor counts immediately outstripped consultants’ projections, which leaders had worried might be too optimistic. Today, more than 1.2 million people visit the park’s 1-acre lake, its playground and interactive water feature, its restaurants, amphitheater, dog runs and public art installations, its summer putting green and winter ice rink.

Many visitors are drawn by the 600-some free activities the park hosts annually — from regular yoga, Zumba and salsa classes to film, beer and margarita festivals, 5K runs and even a contemporary circus. Others are out-of-towners meeting Houston for the first time with a stroll through the park, the organizers of the event they’re attending having seen Discovery Green as a key part of city boosters’ pitches for major conventions, Final Fours, All-Star games and Super Bowls.

Bob Eury, executive director of the Downtown Management District, said the space has succeeded by functioning as both the city’s backyard and its front door, drawing Houstonians and conventioneers alike.

“It’s really performing every bit the way the founders intended, in that it was this civic lawn that was just a great urban park that people who live in the neighborhood can use, but it’s also something that people from the entire city and region can enjoy,” Eury said. “That was the vision, and it really has achieved that.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but some of that skepticism of Discovery Green was rooted in political dislike for then-Mayor Bill White. Not all of it – this was a new and untested thing being done downtown, where many previous attempts at luring in people outside of business hours faltered – but some of it was. My kids are older now so we haven’t found many reasons to visit lately, but we went there a lot when they were little. It was a great place for the young ones – the playground was super, and there was just lots of room to run around and have fun. It really has been a game-changer for Houston – can you imagine downtown without Discovery Green now? – and I’m so glad Mayor White had the foresight to push for it. May there be many more happy years to come.

Harris County is not growing the way it used to

And the reason for that is that people aren’t moving here the way they used to. Quite the opposite, in fact.

There’s been a lot of publicity lately about the fact that in the last couple of years, Harris County has not been the population growth machine it’s been in the past – while nationwide the suburbs are now growing faster than core urban areas.

As we reported not long ago, the most recent Census estimates show that metro Houston fell far behind metro Dallas in population growth last year, after several years in the No. 1 spot. Meanwhile, the Census found that last year Harris County fell far behind Maricopa County, Arizona, which is now the No. 1 county in the nation for population growth. And recently the respected demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution found that population growth in core urban areas like Harris County has now fallen behind growth rates in the suburbs, the exurbs, and rural areas.

Further analysis by the Kinder Institute finds that underlying all three of these trends are two striking facts: First, the decline in population growth in metropolitan Houston is all occurring in Harris County. And second, that decline in population growth is due entirely to a striking reversal in domestic in-migration in Harris County. Natural increase (births over deaths) and international migration are holding steady, but in 2017 far more people moved out of Harris County to go to other places in the United States than moved into Harris County from other places in the United States, according to the recently released Census data.

Clearly, many of these out-migrants may simply be going to the Houston suburbs. But the population dynamics in the suburbs have not changed much in the last couple of years. And the idea that Harris County is losing domestic migrants flies in the face of Houston’s own self-image. After all, the idea that you live off of natural increase and international migration – while losing your own residents to other places – is often viewed in Houston as a California kind of thing, not a Texas kind of thing.

Click over and read on for the charts and the details. For Harris County, both natural population growth – i.e., births minus deaths – and international migration have held steady, and those numbers are enough so that even with more people moving out rather than moving in, Harris County is still growing, just more slowly than it was as recently as 2014. But natural growth is contingent on having a young population, which we have in part because of migration, and with the lunatic xenophobe in the White House right now I wouldn’t bank on these things continuing as they have, at least in the near-to-medium term. Population is power in our world, so if these trends continue then we may see Harris County lose influence relative to the big suburban counties as the city of Houston has lost influence relative to the county in the past couple of decades. If this is a trend, it’s the beginning of one, so it may still be a blip and there may be things we can do to affect it. I’d say it’s worth our time to try and figure this out.

It’s not easy being green

I have mixed feelings about this.

The “Blue Trees” artist has stirred up a hive of trouble for Houston’s parks and recreation department, complaining that the city plagiarized an installation he created five years ago by re-painting the same grove of crepe myrtles. This time, the trees are a vivid green.

Konstantin Dimopolous, who engaged dozens of volunteers to help make “Blue Trees Houston” in 2013, said the harmless paint formula he shared was developed over many years and is his intellectual property.

Parks department officials beg to differ, pointing out that trees have been painted for centuries, across cultures.

“We thought we did our homework,” said Abel Gonzales, the parks department’s deputy director of greenspace management. He said he cleared the green paint project last October with parks department planners who told him there were no other active agreements for art among the crepe myrtle groves within the traffic cloverleafs at Waugh Drive and Allen Parkway.

He chose the same area Dimopolous had used because it’s a high-profile location, he said, and also because crepe myrtles have smooth trunks that make them easier to paint than, say, oak trees.

[…]

Dimopolous said he was not after money or a lawsuit, but he did want an apology — and he wants the green paint removed, because people think the new work is his.

“It looks horrible, and it really has no relevance anymore here,” said Dimopolous, who is in Houston working on a large commercial commission. He is building “Windgrass,” a tall, stick-like kinetic sculpture for Bridgeland, next to entrance signage for the 11,400-acre, master-planned community along the Grand Parkway near Cypress.

Gonzales and others in the parks department aren’t likely to concede that they’ve done anything wrong. “We’re sorry he’s upset, but no one even thought about him,” Gonzales said.

One of the Parks people, who wasn’t in Houston when Dimopoulos did his installation in 2013, said she came up with the paint for this work on her own via trial and error. On the one hand, I agree that painting trees isn’t a new or unique idea, and the fact that an artist once did this doesn’t preclude anyone else from ever doing it. On the other hand, it would have been nice to give the guy a heads-up, especially since it’s the same location and he’s back in town on another project. Beyond that, I say I was glad to see the new painted trees when I first spotted them a few weeks ago, and I hope to see more art like this elsewhere in the city. Glasstire and It’s Not Hou It’s Me have more.

“We (Heart) Houston” someplace else

Your favorite Instagram spot is moving to a new location.

The “We Love Houston” sign you’ve seen either near I-10 or in Instagram selfies is on the move.

Artist and die-hard Houstonian David Adickes told Chron.com in previous interviews that he planned to move the work, which features concrete letters ranging from 5 to 9 feet tall, separated by a 9-foot-tall heart, from a spot just south of I-10 East near Yale to more hospitable surroundings for the art and its fans.

Housing development behind the installation had cluttered the sentiment since it appeared back in the summer of 2013. It used to be at his former art studio SculpturWorx off Summer Street, near his Beatles statues and presidential heads.

[…]

According to KTRK-TV the signage is moving to a promenade near the 8th Wonder Brewery, which is the current home of the towering Fab Four statues. Chris Alan, who runs the Houston pop-culture site It’s A Houston Thing, told the outlet that this way Houstonians will be able to safely take pictures in front of it.

That’s something that Adickes had always wanted anyway. He is a fan of people of all walks of life enjoying his outsized art.

See here for some background. My fandom of all things Adickes is well known, and that includes this particular piece. Which was near where I live, but as of Sunday is not any more. I’ll miss it now that it’s fone. Here’s a map showing the new location. Having it at a brewery does have some advantages, and maybe now I’ll remember to get a picture in front of it.

Another designation for the Astrodome

It’s quite the historic place.

All this and history too

The famed Astrodome will be designated as a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark — the highest honor the state can bestow on a historic structure.

The marker will finally and officially tell the story of the “Eighth Wonder of the World” and, hopefully, create a snapshot destination.

“The dome has never had an actual historical marker,” said Mike Vance, a member of the Harris County Historical Commission which is the local arm of the Texas Historical Commission.

The Texas commission approved the stadium in January among 172 new historical markers statewide for 2018.

[…]

The Astrodome received its strongest protection in a 2017 state antiquities landmark designation, which requires clearance from the Texas Historical Commission for any alterations. Becoming a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark adds another measure of protection.

“It’s a higher standard you have to reach to qualify for that kind of marker,” said Vance. “That means that it’s a building and it has to be intact in the judgment of the Texas Historical Commission — and the dome, thankfully, is.”

In addition, the sign’s unveiling will be “something tangible and visible,” unlike the antiquities designation, Vance said.

So let’s get a couple of things straight at this point.

1. There’s no way the Astrodome gets demolished. You can argue that it was wrong to pursue these historic designations, and you can argue (incorrectly) that the Dome should have been demolished after the 2012 bond referendum was voted down, but those ships have sailed. The Astrodome is basically in the same class as the Alamo now. It’s not getting demolished.

2. Given #1, that means the choices before us are Do Something, and Keep Doing Nothing. It should be clear to all that nobody wants to Keep Doing Nothing. Ed Emmett certainly doesn’t want to do nothing, and the people who are most vocally opposed to the plan that Emmett has put forward are the ones who are most vocally upset about the state of the Dome now after years of nothing being done. Nobody wants to do nothing.

3. So, one way or another, we are going to do something about the Dome, and that means that one way or another we are going to spend some money on doing something about the Dome. The something that is on the table and currently in progress is the Emmett plan. One argument being made by those who don’t like the Emmett plan is that we should have a public vote to approve spending money on the Dome before we do so. I oppose this for two reasons. One is that we don’t as a matter of course have public votes to approve the spending of money by government entities. We vote to approve the borrowing of money, but not the spending of money. I have zero interest in setting that precedent, and I can’t think of a single reason why anyone of a progressive bent would want to set that precedent, either. And two, public votes like this have become little more than preludes to litigation over the result of those votes, often on ridiculous pretexts and often taking years to resolve. You want to ensure that nothing continues to get done on the Dome for another five or ten years, maybe more? Insist on a vote before authorizing any money to be spent on it. It’s more effective than any filibuster.

Oh, no, Shipley’s

Disgusting.

Three former Shipley Do-Nuts employees are suing the company’s owner for allegedly groping them and making racist remarks, accusations that are consistent with a bevy of civil rights lawsuits filed by former workers since 2004.

The women claim that Lawrence Shipley III “regularly subjected them to unwelcome touching, other inappropriate physical behavior and unwelcome sexual comments,” according to a lawsuit filed in Harris County on Friday against the donut company and its owner.

“(Shipley) hugged Elizabeth Peralta tight across her front and touched her rear and buttocks,” the suit says. “He stared at her breasts and crotch areas. He spanked her rear.”

The other plaintiffs allege similar action from Shipley while working at the Houston-based chain’s North Main Street location. During one incident, plaintiff Esmeralda Sanchez claims Shipley did not punish a male supervisor who made sexual innuendos to her, instead saying that the way she dressed encouraged the behavior. They seek more than $1 million in damages.

The three women are also plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit filed against the company last year for failing to pay overtime, an allegation that’s been lodged many times against the company in suits.

In an email Sunday, Lawrence Shipley said his accusers were caught “red-handed in an elaborate corruption scheme whereby they duped the Shipley companies and more than 20 franchisees out of legitimate delivery and freight services for their own financial gain.”

“And if I were to become somebody I’m not and stumble over to the dark side, it wouldn’t be with these low lifes,” he wrote. “What a baseless, pathetic accusation. That’s my comment.”

An attorney for the three women said it was unclear what Shipley meant in his statement. Karla Evans Epperson said she was not aware of any legal actions against her clients that would explain Shipley’s comments. Two of the women worked in housekeeping, and the other did clerical work, according to the first suit.

Epperson said she wasn’t surprised by Shipley’s comments, though.

“This isn’t his first rodeo,” she said.

There’s more, so go read the rest. That North Main location is where I take the girls for donuts when they convince us to buy them. Not anymore. I will not darken the doorstep of a Shipley’s till this jackass has sold his shares and they have put in real reforms to treat their employees better and prevent crap like this in the future. What a damn shame.

TCEQ rejection of Hempstead landfill application upheld

Sweet.

StopHwy6Landfill

A yearslong battle over the construction of a landfill in Hempstead has come to an end for now after a judge ruled in Austin on Friday that Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s decision to return the landfill’s application should be affirmed, according to court records.

Texas Commission on Environmental Quality had already rejected Pintail Landfill’s second application to build, but the company wanted that decision overturned. The trial took place on Thursday in Travis County’s 250th Civil District Court, where Judge Karin Crump the next day issued her ruling.

“It’s another court victory. It’s been a very long fight,” said Waller County Judge Trey Duhon. “From the beginning we were very clear, that this was absolutely one of the worst spots that you can possibly locate a landfill.”

The landfill, which would be built north of Hempstead off Texas 6 in Waller County, has been opposed for years by community members because they felt it would negatively affect their water supply and economic future. A local group, Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, has actively worked against the construction of the landfill, raising more than $2 million for the cause through community garage sales and other fundraisers.

See here for the most recent update. You would think this would be over by now, but the judge’s ruling can be appealed, so it ain’t over yet unless Green Group throws in the towel. One hopes this time the message will sink in. Congrats to CALH for the latest victory.

Mayor proposes new floodplain development rules

Good idea.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday proposed tightening development rules to strengthen Houston’s defenses against flooding, the city’s first concrete step to change building practices since Hurricane Harvey inundated hundreds of thousands of homes last August.

Turner’s proposed changes would require all new buildings outside the floodplain to be elevated two feet above the ground, and all new construction within the 500-year floodplain to be lifted two feet above the projected flood level during a 500-year storm. Current rules stipulate that buildings be constructed one foot above the flood level in a 100-year storm.

The mayor also intends to make builders redeveloping large parcels of land provide more stormwater detention than city rules currently require.

“We have had floods in each of the last three years, with Harvey being the worst. There will be other epic rainstorms, and they probably will arrive a lot sooner than 100 years or 500 years from now,” Turner told City Council. “As we build back from the damage to existing homes, we have to build forward to prevent future homes from flooding.”

City officials expect to release proposed legal language in the coming weeks, then submit the new rules for City Council consideration by mid-February. If approved, there likely would be a months-long grace period before the laws take effect, Turner said.

Though not final, the city’s intended overhaul of development rules would be more extensive than those Harris County approved last month.

See here and here for the county’s development changes. As the owner of a pier-and-beam house, I have to say I don’t understand why more houses aren’t built that way, but maybe with this change more of them will be. This won’t be transformative – it only applies to new development – but you have to start somewhere, and given that we didn’t start this years ago, the next best time is now. I look forward to seeing the details.