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Elsewhere in Houston

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.

The Alley Theater debacle

What a mess.

More than a dozen current and former Alley Theatre employees say the outgoing artistic director, Gregory Boyd, created a toxic work environment at the city’s most renowned theater, describing him as a tyrant who frequently singled out young female actresses for verbal abuse.

The allegations against Boyd, who abruptly retired this week after a 28-year Tony-winning run at the Alley, focus primarily on bullying and abusive behavior directed at young women under his direction on the stage.

Emily Trask, a member of the company for nearly two years, said she quit the Alley in April after reporting to three members of management that Boyd had bullied her, screaming “What the f— is wrong with you?” at a rehearsal, called her a “stupid c—” while giving another actor stage direction and twice touched her buttocks inappropriately.

“I felt I had no choice but to leave what was my dream job,” she said, citing “harassment and what I felt to be an unsafe environment.”

Boyd did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations.

A second actress, who asked not be identified for fear of retaliation, shared a similar story.

The actress said Boyd pinched her buttocks once on stage and once while she was making coffee in a break room. He made sexual comments about her to other actors, she said, and talked about the way she dressed and screamed at her on stage for the smallest of missteps.

“It was a very scary place to work for me,” she said, “a very hostile place.”

Like Trask, she said she complained to management, but nothing happened. “It was like it just got swept under the rug.”

The theater’s administrators and board president declined to answer questions about the allegations against Boyd, 66, who was widely considered the most influential figure in Houston’s theater scene. Boyd was just one year into a five-year contract and was paid at least $420,000 in the fiscal year that ended in June 2016, according to the company’s tax records.

[…]

The Houston Chronicle started interviewing Alley employees in November as the “Me Too” movement spread nationally and current and former employees complained about Boyd . On Dec. 20, the Chronicle asked to review the Alley’s financial records under a state law that requires certain disclosures by nonprofits. The theater declined to produce the records electronically; a date stamp indicated it printed them out on Dec. 29, but the theater told the Chronicle they were ready on Jan. 4.

The Alley’s press release, issued Tuesday, said Boyd had planned to retire last fall but delayed the announcement because of Hurricane Harvey.

“Leading this extraordinary theatre company in this wonderful city for over a quarter century has been an artistic dream fulfilled,” Boyd was quoted as saying in the press release. “With the marvelous efforts of the artists, staff, and Board, we created a state of the art theatre-making complex with performance, production, and administration all in a brilliant, expansive space that welcomes theatre-goers in a unique and exciting way. The Alley’s achievements have been a great source of satisfaction for me and I look forward to new achievements to come in the next era.”

ABC-13’s Miya Shay has been reporting on this as well. The sudden retirement of a 28-year artistic director of the city’s best-known theater, without any fanfare of advance notice or plans for a sendoff by itself raises suspicions, and I suspect there’s still more to the story to come. First and foremost are the questions about how this went on for so long without anyone at the Alley taking action.

The board of the Alley Theatre announced plans Friday to create a special committee to evaluate “the workplace environment” after the Houston Chronicle reported that more than a dozen current and former employees said former artistic director Gregory Boyd had fostered a toxic, abusive culture for decades.

In a 79-word statement, the board did not mention Boyd by name and did not directly address the Chronicle’s report, published Friday, which included interviews with actors and actresses who said Boyd had screamed obscenities at them during rehearsals. Two actresses alleged that Boyd also touched them inappropriately on their buttocks.

“During this transition to new artistic leadership, the Board of Directors has renewed its commitment to providing a dignified and respectful workplace,” the statement said. “The Board has also appointed a special committee to assess the workplace environment and deliver recommendations to ensure the Alley Theatre continues to be a destination for world-class talent.”

[…]

“I think the Alley owes Houston a tremendous apology for misusing the community’s trust and for covering up reprehensible behavior,” said Michael Dragoni, who was Boyd’s assistant from 1996 to 1998 and described the job as “an almost non-stop abusive situation.”

He said he saw Boyd berate actresses and touch a former staff member on her thigh inappropriately until she stood up and left a rehearsal.

“They have known about the toxicity from the beginning, and multiple leaders over the years have turned a blind eye and allowed things to get completely out of control,” Dragoni said.

Greg Lasley, who worked at the Alley from 2006 to 2011 as a bartender, described a “conspiracy of silence there.”

“People would complain, the board would show up and squash the complaint,” Lasley said.

Tony Bradfield, co-owner of Tenenbaum Jewelers, a longtime supporter of the Alley, expressed dismay at the accounts of an oppressive environment.

“I don’t think anyone of either gender, women mostly, should have to go through any of that,” Bradfield said. “I feel strongly about that.”

The Alley’s administration has not offered any response to the allegations against Boyd beyond Friday’s statement.

Here’s the Alley’s board of directors. I agree with Michael Dragoni, but an apology isn’t enough. The Board was clearly part of the problem. If they really want to make amends and move forward, those who were part of the problem should not be part of the solution. Most if not all of them should make plans to step down and let someone else clean up this mess. I hate to see a cultural jewel like the Alley go through such turbulence, but they brought this on themselves by failing to take action on this long-standing and well-known-to-them problem. They need to take the resolution to this seriously. I hope they do.

A better BARC

This is good to see.

As recently as three years ago, Houston’s animal shelter put down half of the dogs and cats that came through its doors in a busy month.

Now, five times in the last year alone, the city’s Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care finished a month having euthanized fewer than 10 percent of the animals it took in, achieving, at least momentarily, the coveted “no-kill” label that animal rights activists have sought for years.

BARC is a rare bureaucratic success story, having evolved over the last decade from an embarrassment for city leaders and the cause of outright rage among animal activists to a broadly respected facility that has managed to get ever-increasing numbers of animals into the hands of rescue groups or new owners.

The shelter’s progress even led the City Council to increase its budget by $2.6 million a few years ago to help answer more of the 55,000 calls citizens place to BARC each year.

Now, shelter leaders and their nonprofit partners confront a once-unthinkable milestone: Could Houston’s pound achieve “no kill” status?

[…]

“Our rescue partners have played a major role in how far we’ve come thus far and will continue to play a role in continuing to increase those live release numbers,” [Ashtyn Rivet, the facility’s deputy assistant director] said.

Chief among those partners is Rescued Pets Movement, a local nonprofit that gets $75 in city money for every animal it takes from BARC and relocates, often out of state, to a foster group or a new home. The group has handled more than 22,000 animals for BARC during their roughly four-year partnership.

A key reason for BARC’s low kill rate in recent months, Rivet added, is a burgeoning partnership with Houston Pets Alive! and its more established cousin, Austin Pets Alive!, a group that was instrumental in helping that city achieve no-kill status several years ago.

That nonprofit has taken 975 animals from BARC since August, only 14 percent of which were in good health. Avoiding having to put down ill animals will be a key way to further boost BARC’s live release rate, Rivet said.

Just getting BARC to a point where it is fully functional was a big win. Getting it to full no-kill status would be amazing, and a very worthy goal for which to aim. Kudos to all for the major progress.

Downtown of the Future

It’s very futuristic.

City planners’ ambitious 20-year vision for downtown Houston includes more of everything that has transformed the central business district into a more vibrant destination.

More apartments, restaurants and shops. More walkable parks and attractions. More innovative startups and Fortune 500 businesses.

But with new technological advances and cultural shifts, Central Houston Inc. also envisions a future when downtown denizens overwhelmingly use driverless cars, electric vehicles and ride-sharing apps to get around.

“By starting now and working together, we can position downtown to be a leader in connectivity innovation and adapt to these new changes,” Central Houston President Bob Eury said as he unveiled the “Plan Downtown” vision at the organization’s annual meeting Friday.

Central Houston imagines a downtown featuring electric vehicle charging stations, dedicated lanes for autonomous buses, and pickup and drop-off zones for ride-sharing vehicles and autonomous taxis.

Sidewalks will have digital “way-finding stations” with maps to help visitors navigate downtown. Public Wi-Fi will extend to pedestrian walkways, parks and other public spaces, Eury said.

What will be absent from downtown’s streets of the future? Traffic lights.

“With autonomous vehicles, there’s no need for traffic signals,” Eury said. “We should be planning for streets of the future, which may not have street lights.”

I wish there were a black-and-white newsreel to accompany this, like the ones from the 50s that talked about what the world would be like in the year 2000. You’ll have to use your imagination when you read the report for that. Nancy Sarnoff, Swamplot, BisNow, and the Houston Business Journal have more.

Freedmen’s Town may get UNESCO designation

That’s cool.

For all the years the historic bricks of Freedmen’s Town in Fourth Ward were questioned, devalued and disturbed, a new international spotlight is bringing a renewed appreciation for the strenuous efforts to validate, treasure and preserve them.

UNESCO – the Paris-based cultural arm of the United Nations – is considering Freedmen’s Town for its Slave Route Project, which is a registry created in 1994 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization of historically significant sites that tell the global story of the trade in human labor.

Jane Landers, the U.S. envoy for the Slave Route Project, spent three days last week in the Houston area learning about Freedmen’s Town and other sites that can be combined for a nomination.

“It’s a project to memorialize sites around the world where slaves had an impact. Africans that were torn from their homes and transported across the Middle Passage to sites all over the world were dispersed, but created unique communities often wherever they went. The slave route is to acknowledge that and to mark it,” Landers said. “My job is to find places like this that deserve to be preserved and memorialized and to help people make a nomination.”

[…]

Landers said she was impressed by the documentation of Freedmen’s Town, particularly the archaeology and Texas Historical Commission markers. She said the case for the proposal has been made through decades of preservation work. Now, that effort and evidence needs to be packaged.

“There is certainly enough research and history here that it should have a tremendous reception,” she said. “If it were just a place where you knew there once were slaves who became free, there are those all over the South. You have to have all the research and the investment and the community that this has to make it a viable project.”

Texas has only one World Heritage Site among two dozen in the United States. The San Antonio Missions, including The Alamo, were designated in 2015 after a decade of persistence by preservationists and officials.

It’s unclear to me how long this process might take or what the criteria are for receiving the designation. Also unclear is whether this designation would offer any form of enforceable protection for the historic site, which has been greatly threatened by gentrification. Regardless, it would be a well deserved honor if it happens.

Should we remove the concrete from White Oak Bayou?

That’s an interesting question, one worth considering, if there’s a way to pay for it.

A feasibility study conducted for the Harris County Flood Control District and released Friday offers three options to do just that.

What it does not offer is a way to pay for the three alternatives, which range from $30 million to simply remove the concrete to $60 million to re-contouring the channel to connect the bayou with publicly owned parks and open land above and below the waterway.

The question is particularly significant after Hurricane Harvey laid bare weaknesses in the local flood control system: nearly 180,000 buildings exist in floodplains, a handful of channel widening projects are halted with lack of federal funding and the flood control district struggles to stretch $60 million every year to service a county of more than 4 million people.

[…]

If the concrete removal is pursued, it would be the first such attempt to revert dozens of miles of concrete-lined channels that crisscross Houston to their natural aesthetic, building on recent widespread momentum to undo the utilitarian past. The concrete was laid as part of a massive flood control effort in the middle of the last century to straighten and channelize the bayous with an eye toward speeding stormwaters’ rush downstream, eventually to the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay.

The idea of removing the concrete and restoring the bayou to a more natural state comes two years after a $58 million project created 160-acres of green space near downtown in Buffalo Bayou Park. That project was paid for largely through private donations, including a $30 million catalyst gift from Kinder Foundation in 2010. The flood control district contributed $5 million.

For White Oak, however, it’s unclear who would pay for a bayou project that would take several years to complete and cost at least $30 million without significantly reducing flood risks.

The feasibility study presents three alternatives for a portion of White Oak Bayou between Taylor Street and Hogan Street: simply removing the concrete and excavating the channel; removing the concrete and connecting the bayou with city park space north of the bayou; removing the concrete and connecting the bayou to both the city park land and land owned by the Texas Department of Transportation to the south.

The first and cheapest option would cost roughly $30 million, the middle about $42 million and the most expensive option around $60 million.

Sherry Weesner, administrator and president of the Memorial-Heights Redevelopment Authority, which paid for the feasibility study said the group wanted to make sure, if and when the flood control district considered replacing the concrete, that it examine the idea of removing the concrete, as well.

Weesner said the authority currently does not have funding to pay for even the cheapest of the three proposals.

“By funding this study, we were able to say ‘Look at the possible options,'” Weesner said. “That way, everyone can make the best decision as to what’s best for the region in the long term to decide what to do when you need to do it.”

You can read the full report here. I think there’s value in doing this, but it’s hard to argue that it should have priority over any flood mitigation work. Maybe if the MHRA can raise private funds to cover a portion of the cost, as was the case with the Bayou Greenway Initiative, or if it can be tied to a flood mitigation project, then this would make sense now. Otherwise, it’s probably something to file away for another time.

The Acre

Meet downtown’s newest park.

As park spaces go, Houston’s newest urban oasis is a mere postage stamp, occupying just over an acre of privately held land, developed with private money. But in post-Harvey Houston, the value of every inch of permeable green space suddenly seems more evident.

Known as the Acre, the signature piece of Brookfield’s $48.5 million renovation of One Allen Center on the west side of downtown opens Monday. The park contains a wide-open plaza and a linear lawn that will seat up to 1,500 people for special events such as concerts.

[…]

To squeeze out more space for the Acre, Brookfield reduced One Allen Center’s ground floor and re-created it as a “glass box” that will soon have a chef-driven restaurant with views of the park, helping to draw more people toward the space.

“It’s almost like a give-back to the city: Taking building away to create an opportunity for outdoor space,” said landscape architect Chip Trageser, a managing partner with the Office of James Burnett, which designed the Acre and is consulting with Brookfield on the center’s master plan.

Trageser’s team planted 171 new trees, including pistachios, elms and overcup oaks. “As everyone in Houston knows, you’ve got to have shade to have any chance of being outside,” Trageser said. “It’s really about creating a micro-climate that feels great in July and August.”

The image above is a picture I took from the skyway leading into One Allen Center. I’ve been walking above the site of this park all through its construction phase, though I’d had no idea this was the intended purpose before the Chron story was published. It’s a cool thing to do – downtown can always use some green space – though I’m not sure how many people are just going to wander in and sit on a bench. The story says there’s going to be a restaurant going into the OAC building, so perhaps we’ll see more people using the new space once it opens. Whatever the case, I hope it’s a success.

Calling all artists!

The city of Houston has an opportunity for you.

A photo I took of an artist working on an Ann Richards portrait in the Heights

The City of Houston is gearing up to add another thirty-eight artworks to street-side traffic signal control cabinets throughout Houston and is encouraging artists to submit qualifications for the opportunity to create a mural. Known as “Mini Murals”, Houston now has over 170 new original artworks in neighborhoods throughout the city that have been funded by Mayor Sylvester Turner and City Council, as well as private sponsors.

“This program is a tremendous success on every level,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Community murals enrich our neighborhoods, represent the diversity of our community and employ the talents of Houston artists. People love them and we have had a lot of positive response, so we want more artists to join the roster.”

Mini Murals will soon be popping up in many of Houston’s neighborhoods including Acres Homes, Central Southwest, East End, Gulfton, Heights, Near Northside, Second Ward and Third Ward.

The City of Houston has contracted with UP Art Studio for program management and is partnering with the minority-owned business to expand the artist roster. Managing Partner, Noah Quiles, of UP Art Studio said, “We are excited that the City of Houston continues to be supportive of this project and sees the value in emphasizing public art through this and other public art projects. We work hard to leverage what the City does with other sponsorships and a lot of groups see a Mini Mural as a great way to give back to the community. The cost to sponsor a Mini Mural is $2,500 and we have had management districts, neighborhood associations, corporate partners, individuals, and others sponsor murals.”

If you are an artist interested in joining the registry, you can find the Open Call guidelines available here. Artists will need to submit their qualifications, including work samples, a letter of intent, and previous work experience. The deadline to submit your application will be no later than August 11, 2017 and all artists will be notified of results by August 31, 2017.

UP Art Studio will convene a panel of art experts, community stakeholders, artists and City representatives to review all submissions and select artists for the registry.

I love this project, which has been turning those big ugly traffic control cabinets into something colorful and creative. If you know someone who’s got the talent, point them in this direction. According to the application, the job pays $750 per cabinet plus $250 for supplies. The Chron, which has a bunch of images of other such cabinets, has more.

More on Heights alcohol vote 2.0

From the Heights Examiner (now a section of the Wednesday Chron), the reasons why restauranteurs want in on the action.

But the possible reversal of the century-old prohibition on restaurants would mean more than just no longer having to sign a slip of a paper before being served, said Morgan Weber who owns Revival Market on Heights Boulevard, Coltivare on White Oak Drive and Eight Row Flint on Yale Street.

“When we opened Coltivare we always knew this was just going to be one of the hassles and hoops we have to jump through,” said Weber. “What we didn’t know was what a legitimate pain it would be and how much it eats into your bottom line – reality sets in and that’s a different story.”

Weber said the private club model – that exists as a nonprofit, meaning they must have a board of directors for the entity – requires his restaurants maintain a separate bank account for alcohol sales and that the money from those sales cannot be withdrawn without a meeting of the board and a vote. Due to intricacies of the rules, alcohol sales from Coltivare sat in the bank for one full year before Weber and his team were able to withdraw the funds. Further, he can’t have his alcohol inventory delivered to his business. He has to send an employee to go pick it up. And he has to pay more for that inventory than other restaurants and bars in Houston who can sell alcohol under standard Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission rules. He said he pays barely above retail for liquor, beer and wine.

Just based on buying alcohol at that rate, Weber estimates he’s losing 7 to 8 percent from his bottom line. That doesn’t take into account added labor for separate bookkeeping and trips to pick up inventory.

It’s not as easy as just charging more for cocktails, either, he said. Because patrons have an upper-limit to what they’ll pay for a martini, he can’t charge $14 at Eight Row Flint when Anvil in Montrose is charging $10.

See here for the background. I’m not in any way involved in the restaurant business, so I have no idea if Weber is reporting accurately or if he is exaggerating in some way, but if he’s telling it like it is then I can certainly understand his (and presumably others’) motivation. I have friends who live in the dry zone and I know some of them are not happy about this. I get that, but I can’t bring myself to endorse any of Texas’ antiquated and byzantine booze laws. I feel the same way about this as I do about the shamelessly rent-seeking beer distributors. These laws are anti-consumer, and they should be consigned to the scrap heap.

We could have another Heights alcohol vote

Sure, why not?

Heights voters last fall lifted a 105-year-old ban on the sale of beer and wine at grocery stores, but customers still must join a private club if they want to drink alcohol at area restaurants or bars. That means submitting a drivers license for entry into a club database.

The Houston Heights Restaurant Coalition petition would lift that requirement, leaving the historically dry portion of the Heights nearly wet. Liquor sales at grocery and convenience stores still would be banned.

“While we were doing (the petition) last year, a couple of restaurants came around and said, ‘Hey, we’re here too,'” said Bryan Poff, a project manager for Austin-based Texas Petition Strategies, which is managing the petition drive. “As soon as they saw how much support beer and wine got … that was all they needed.”

[…]

Morgan Weber, co-owner of Coltivare and Eight Row Flint, said allowing restaurants and bars to sell alcohol more freely would improve the customer experience and help streamline operations.

“It’s not ideal from our perspective, because instead of really being able to make a great first impression … the first thing out of our mouth when you order alcohol is that we need to see your drivers license,” Weber said. “It’s right out of the gate kind of negative.”

Weber also pointed to Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission rules that require restaurants and bars looking to sell alcohol in dry parts of the Heights to establish a separate non-profit or association to receive the proceeds of alcohol sales and pay for the private club’s operation.

See here for coverage of last year’s effort. I supported that effort (though I couldn’t vote for it, as I don’t live in that part of the Heights), as I generally support efforts to undo dry restrictions. This particular restriction is kind of silly – as noted in the story, restaurants can sell booze, they just have to collect your name and drivers license info for their “private club” to do it. I’m sure there will be opposition to this – I knew plenty of people who were against last year’s referendum, and I doubt they’ll be any happier with this one – though Bill Baldwin won’t be leading it. My early guess is that it will succeed if it gets to a vote, but we’ll see. Swamplot and Eater Houston have more.

Super Bowl economic impact was about what we expected

Not too bad.

The receipts are in, and February’s Super Bowl LI appears to have been a substantial boon for Houston — albeit with slightly less spending than expected.

Gross spending during the nine days of Super Bowl programming, minus the amount of usual tourism displaced by the event, came to $338 million, according to a consultant retained by the Host Committee. That’s a bit off the $372 million originally projected by the same firm, Pennsylvania-based Rockport Analytics.

The discrepancy occurred because the costs of goods and services were lower than expected, even though the number of out-of-town visitors was higher than anticipated, at 150,000, according to Rockport Analytics. In particular, visitors spent about half of what was expected on rental cars because of the availability of car-sharing service Uber and special Metro routes.

Host Committee Chairman Ric Campo, the CEO of apartment developer Camden Properties, said that should still be counted as a win for Houston, since it allowed more people to come to the party.

“One of the things that the Host Committee really worked hard on was affordability,” Campo said. “We didn’t want you to have to go to Discovery Green and spend $100 to feed your family.”

The total impact includes $228 million spent on wages and $39 million spent on state and local taxes. Although that number was about $6 million lower than projected, it was more than enough to pay back the state for the $25.4 million the state advanced the Host Committee, with $15 million in proceeds.

[…]

In addition to the financial impact, officials played up the the game’s halo effect for the city’s image, and the benefit of catching the interest of potential customers. Houston First President Mike Waterman said several of the 16 convention organizers he brought down to see the event have committed to bringing conventions to the city.

“We weekly get customers coming to Houston and saying they saw us shine during the Super Bowl, and now they’re interested in booking a meeting here,” Waterman said.

Let’s hope Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick don’t ruin that by forcing a bathroom bill down our throats. The one economic impact estimate I saw before the Super Bowl pegged the haul at $350 million, so it was pretty darned close. I’m glad all these people came to visit, I’m glad they had a good time (and spent some money), and given that we’re preparing a bid for the 2024 Super Bowl, I hope they’ll want to come back. Assuming our leadership doesn’t take the good impression they went away with and turn it into trash.

Kinder Houston Area Survey 2017

Here’s the press release.

The majority of area residents don’t just feel okay about living in Houston – they would choose to stay in the Bayou City even if given a choice to move, according to the 2017 Kinder Houston Area Survey. The 36th annual survey also revealed that traffic continues to be the dominant concern, people are less worried about crime and are increasingly supportive of immigration and gay rights.

Rice University Sociology Professor Stephen Klineberg, founding director of Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, conducted the survey and will publicly release this year’s findings today at the annual Kinder Institute Luncheon at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Houston. Tom Bacon, founder of Lionstone Investments, will be the inaugural recipient of the new Stephen L. Klineberg Award for his work as chair of the Houston Parks Board and his leadership of the Bayou Greenways 2020 Project. The award recognizes an individual who has made a lasting positive impact on Greater Houston.

Life in the Houston area

Traffic continues to be the biggest problem facing people in the Houston area, according to 24 percent of this year’s survey respondents. Another 16 percent mentioned the economy and 15 percent crime. Despite these concerns, more than two-thirds of all area residents in 2017 said they would stay in the Houston metro area even if they could choose to move away.

Area residents’ preference for alternatives to car-dependent sprawl continues to grow. By 56 percent, the respondents in 2017 were more likely than at any time since the question was first asked in 2007 to say that they would prefer to live in “an area with a mix of developments, including homes, shops and restaurants.” Forty percent would prefer a “single-family residential neighborhood.”

“These shifts reflect the very different life circumstances of Americans today,” Klineberg said. “The number of families with children living at home continues to decline across the country – replaced by empty nesters and young creatives, and by single-person and elderly households. So it’s not surprising that, even in Houston, people are looking for more compact urban neighborhoods.”

There’s a lot more, beginning with the 2017 survey homepage here, multiple Urban Edge posts about the survey here, and two Chron stories to boot.

Harris County’s growth slows

We’re still growing, we just didn’t grow as fast last year as we had in previous years.

After eight straight years of boom – adding more new residents than any county in the nation – Harris County in 2016 felt some of the oil bust’s sting.

The county gained a total of about 56,600 people last year, a decline of 37 percent from the previous year, placing it behind Arizona’s Maricopa County, which added nearly 81,400 new residents.

The decline was largely attributable to the fact that for the first time in years more people – about 16,000 – left Harris County than moved here from elsewhere in the country, according to Census data released Thursday.

Despite the losses, Harris County held on to its No. 2 position in the nation in overall growth thanks to the number of people moving here from abroad and the number of births.

The greater Houston region, which includes The Woodlands and Sugar Land, also saw the total number of new residents fall by about 21 percent to just over 125,000 in 2016, the lowest in at least the last four years.

[…]

State demographer Lloyd Potter said Houston’s population growth is also powered by its high birth rates, especially among its young, rapidly expanding Hispanic population.

“The net out domestic migration was pretty substantial,” Potter said. “That’s kind of impressive, to still have the second-highest numeric growth. You would have expected it to slip a little more than that.”

Stephen Klineberg, a Rice University sociology professor and founding director of its Kinder Institute for Urban Research, pointed to the fate of other cities that have seen similar dramatic job declines such as Detroit, where Wayne County last year lost about 7,700 residents, the most in the nation after Chicago’s Cook County. Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, has in the past called for more visas for high-skilled immigrants for the Detroit area, citing the population losses and need for an economic jump-start.

“This is a powerful reminder of how much Houston benefits from immigration,” Klineberg said.

We sure do, in many ways. The flip side of that is that we have a lot to lose if immigration is curtailed the way Dear Leader Trump and his minions want to. Even with them being 0 for 2 on travel bans, we’re already seeing the effect of that. We’ll just have to see what the numbers look like next year.

You can’t talk about population growth without talking about redistricting. Texas is on track to get more Congressional seats in the 2020 reapportionment, probably two or three. It seems likely that the greater area, if not Harris County itself, will get a bigger piece of the Congressional pie. Of more interest is whether Harris County will remain at 24 members in the Legislature, or if it will go back to having 25 members. Too early to say, and things can certainly change, but it could happen. Keep that in mind as we go forward. This Chron story and the Trib, both of which have charts, have more.

Houston’s tourism business

People like to spend money here. In particular, people from Mexico like to spend money here.

Mexicans are the largest group of international tourists who visit Houston – and recently, their numbers have grown. In 2015, Houston received 2.5 million international tourists, 1.8 million of whom came from Mexico.

In 2016, the convention and visitors bureau launched a campaign, “Hola Houston,” to promote the city as a cultural and culinary destination.

“We aimed to increase the number of Mexican tourists to 2 million by 2018,” said Jorge Franz, the bureau’s vice president for tourism, “but we are already well beyond that mark for the year 2016.”

Mexican tourists also spend the most money of all Houston’s visitors. In 2015, on an average two-night trip, each spent an average of $1,253.

Franz said that Mexican tourists love shopping in the Galleria and at the area’s suburban outlet stores.

Many also visit the less- crowded luxury boutiques and designer shops of the upscale River Oaks District shopping complex. Mexican shoppers “typically go after the luxury brands,” says Jennifer Rivera, marketing manager for the River Oaks District. “They are big shoppers of Dolce & Gabbana, big shoppers of Hermés, and huge shoppers of Canali and Dior.”

According to the story, some twenty thousand Mexican nationals were in Houston for the Super Bowl. The story doesn’t give a cumulative annual number for the revenue the city and the greater region derive from all this, but between hotel taxes, rental car taxes, sales taxes, and just a whole lot of stuff being bought, I think we can assume it’s a decent chunk of change. Now ask yourself, what would the effect be if all this activity were to be dramatically scaled back, due to some combination of further restrictions on immigration and the well-heeled travelers of Mexico deciding they just don’t need this crap, as some of them featured in the story say is the case for them? It would not be good. If that happens, you can thank Dear Leader Trump and the people like Dan Patrick (are you paying attention, Texas Association of Business?) who enable him.

Your Super Bowl AirBnB dream probably did not come true

Alas.

Vacation rental websites like Airbnb and Home Away still have pages of listings available for this weekend. Many are asking well over $1,000 per night for, in some cases, run-of-the-mill two-bedroom apartments.

Data from Airbnb Thursday show the typical price of booked listings in Houston for the Super Bowl is $150 per night. Listings within a 5-mile radius of NRG Stadium get a slight premium: $200 per night.

The most popular Houston neighborhoods for guest arrivals included Montrose, the Medical Center area and the Greater Heights.

See here and here for the background. That story was from Thursday, so I suppose it was still possible for some desperate last-minute renters to come in and sweep up those unclaimed listings at the listed rates. I kind of doubt it, though. Turns out, unless you have a particular kind of high-end property to rent out – and a particular kind of high-end renter looking for that kind of property – AirBnB is going to be the cheap alternative to a hotel, not the expensive alternative. Maybe next time, y’all.

Welcome to Houston, y’all

Lots of visitors in town this week. Our goal is for them to leave with a positive impression.

With the city’s third Super Bowl a week away, Houston appears ready for its close- up.

The national press has taken turns lauding America’s fourth-largest city as a burgeoning 21st century cosmopolis. No longer is Houston dismissed as a frumpy, misbegotten oil town lacking class or curb appeal.

Mayor Sylvester Turner predicts a big revelation for those unfamiliar with the city’s evolution.

“They’ll be surprised with the parks, the green space, the museums, the amount of attention that we give to the arts,” Turner said. “They’ll be surprised by how downtown, for example, has been transformed. I think they’re going to be really blown away by the 10,000-plus restaurants and everything that we have to offer in this city.”

For someone who spends most of his days dealing with problems, Turner clearly loves the opportunity to play booster-in-chief. For so long, Houston has had to take it on the chin, slapped with one insult after another for all the things it is not. This week, he plays offense.

“Most people assume that we are a cowboy hat, cowboy boots, oil-and-gas town,” Turner said. “We are that, and so much more.”

It feels kind of perverse to be talking about this stuff when there’s so much to be outraged about, but Houston will be around a lot longer than Dear Leader will, and the Super Bowl really is a unique opportunity for a city to market itself. And if one of the impressions that our visitors come away with is that we as a city care about social justice, well, that’s a fine thing. So let’s show our guests all the ways that Houston shines.

Astrodome gains antiquities status

Nice.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

The aging behemoth billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World has joined the revered ranks of the Alamo and State Capitol as an honored historical site.

Just days before a crowd of more than 70,000 files past for Super Bowl LI in neighboring NRG Stadium, the long-vacant Astrodome has won the coveted designation as a state antiquities landmark.

The distinction – which has been awarded to the Alamo, the Capitol and the Cotton Bowl, among others – brings special protection against demolition for the nation’s first fully enclosed, domed sports stadium.

But it won’t hinder the $105 million plan to renovate the once-proud facility, which has been officially closed to the public since 2009, officials said.

“It is an iconic structure,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who has long championed the venue. “The Astrodome literally changed the world of sports and entertainment and it helped put Houston and Harris County on the global scene.”

The Texas Historical Commission voted unanimously Friday to grant antiquities status, which had been sought for nearly three years by two Houston-area residents who hoped to preserve the facility.

“I was jumping up and down and running around my house telling my husband and everybody when I saw it on Twitter,” said Cynthia Neely, a writer and film producer who along with former Exxon engineer Ted Powell of La Porte filed the voluminous application, paid the fee and lobbied around the state to save the dome.

“It was a total surprise,” she said. “We’re just your average citizens.”

[…]

The designation will mean the dome cannot be “removed, altered, damaged, salvaged or excavated” without first obtaining permission from the commission, officials have said.

This process got started back in 2014, though it’s been in limbo since then as well. I’m not sure what the practical effect of this designation is since there are no current discussions about demolishing the Dome, but if that does ever come up again, it will be a lot harder to do. In the meantime, the parking lot plan moves forward, presumably with the blessing of the Historical Commission, and the Dome will play a minor part during the Super Bowl. So at least there’s one nice thing happening in the world. Swamplot and Houstonia have more.

More flood mitigation coming

This is ambitious.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

After local leaders stood on the banks of Brays Bayou to celebrate a creative agreement that is expected to speed up work on a long-delayed effort to lessen the risk of flooding in southwest Houston, some angry Meyerland-area flood victims peppered them with questions.

The press conference was called to tout a plan under which the city of Houston would borrow $46 million from the state, give the cash to the county to speed up work on Project Brays, then be reimbursed later with federal dollars.

City officials hope to repeat that process for two other bayous – White Oak and Hunting- ultimately forwarding the county about $130  million.

For more background on this effort, click here. For more information on another recent flooding initiative Mayor Sylvester Turner and his “flood czar,” Steve Costello, announced, click here.

And for more information about Project Brays, visit this county Flood Control District page.

[…]

Turner — who, like flood control officials — was mobbed by residents after he stepped down from the podium, answered questions for several minutes before departing.

“There’s no question that there are frustrations and I understand the frustrations,” the mayor said. “Nobody wants their homes flooded once, four times or seven times. And that’s why the city, in an unprecedented move, took the lead and borrowed the $43 million. Now we have certainty that this project will be completed.”

Harris County Flood Control District Director Russ Poppe said his agency expects to complete channel widening through Meyerland to Fondren in the next two years. The city loan, which will be used chiefly for downstream bridge replacements, is important, he said, because bridges that are too low can create significant backups, heightening the flooding risk for those upstream.

The Mayor’s press release is here, and as you can see there are statements from multiple other elected officials, at different levels of government. The plan, which has received preliminary approval from Council, is a bit convoluted, but it’s also an example of Mayor Turner leveraging his experience in the Legislature to forge complex agreements. Homeowners who have been badly harmed by recent floods had some understandable questions about how all this will affect them, not all of which are addressed by this plan. Still, I think we can all agree that bayou improvements are a key component in flood mitigation, and streamlining the process to make it happen more quickly will help. It would be nice if we could come to a similar consensus about preserving flood plains and wetlands, but one step at a time. The Press has more.

Now is the time to rent out your house

If it was your plan to do that, anyway.

The teams playing in next month’s Super Bowl [are now set] and the final rush for last-minute lodging will be in full swing.

That also means more house and apartment rentals will hit websites like Airbnb, VRBO and Austin-based HomeAway, which says demand for Houston-area vacation rentals has shot up by more than 1,300 percent. Rates for homes near NRG Stadium are averaging $2,000 per night.

HomeAway listings include an array of properties, from a “mini yacht” docked in Kemah for $375 per night to a three-bedroom traditional in West University with a pool for $4,600.

Local listings on Airbnb have also shot up, increasing 50 percent from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1 to 5,700 listings.

On HomeAway, there are 637 properties listed and as of Thursday, 84 percent were booked.

See here for the background. Looking at the chart at the end of the story, there are a lot of my Heights neighbors renting out their houses, with even more folks in Montrose doing so. Hope the money’s worth the trouble.