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Elsewhere in Houston

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.

Be careful what you flush

Yeesh.

Grease blockages are the main cause of Houston’s epidemic of sewer overflows, a problem so widespread that it has drawn the city into negotiations with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The multibillion-dollar enforcement action that could result – likely increasing residents’ water bills – would be aimed at limiting raw sewage spills by replacing pipes and ramping up maintenance and education.

Houston, in other words, has enough sewer problems without residents making things worse.

The Department of Public Works and Engineering pamphlet, for instance, also urges residents to stop flushing paper towels, baby wipes and diapers. Many “flushable” products carry that label because they won’t plug a toilet, not because they won’t block a city sewer pipe, Houston’s wastewater division director Jason Iken said.

Any modern toilet will flush a tennis ball, for instance. But for that 2.7-inch diameter ball to avoid plugging a sewer line – most of which are 8 inches in diameter – that pipe had better be free of grease, mud and tree roots.

That’s not the half of it.

Microwaves, bowling balls, rolled up carpets, shopping carts, car bumpers, water heaters, tires, two-by-fours, hard hats, fence pipes, Beanie Babies (when those were hot) – even, city records show, “body parts” have turned up in Houston’s sewers – though Iken said that last one did not ring a bell. Larger items aren’t flushed, of course, Iken said, but tend to find their way into larger pipes via vandals or careless work crews.

Given that a big part of the problem here is simple ignorance, perhaps what is needed here is a public service campaign to deliver the message of Things You Should Not Wash Down Your Drain Or Flush Down Your Toilet. A few Youtube videos, promoted on social media, would probably get some attention and do at least a little good, at a reasonable cost. Just a thought. In the meantime, put grease and those “flushable” baby wipes in the trash, OK? Thanks.

Who wants to rent their house out to Super Bowl visitors?

I don’t, but some people hope to make a lot of money renting theirs.

With the Super Bowl heading to Houston next month, locals are starting to see dollar signs as well, hoping to cash in on visitors’ willingness to pay thousands to rent their homes or apartments during the biggest football game of the year.

While Beyonce isn’t likely to hit up Airbnb this year – she’s hails from Houston, after all – plenty of other celebrities will need places to stay. So will countless corporate executives with sky-high lodging budgets, and, of course, all the others simply unable to get a hotel room in town.

Exactly how many takers, and how much they’re willing to spend, will become clearer after the participating teams have been determined. In the meantime, a couple of thousand hopeful Houstonians already are checking their emails waiting for the alert that shows their place has been booked during the game.

“My hope is the market is going to get really tight for premium properties,” said Michael Salinas, a CPA who’s listing his three-bedroom townhouse in Montrose for $3,699 a night during Super Bowl LI.

Local listings on the popular Airbnb rental website have increased 40 percent in just the last two months, the company said.

The city expects about 140,000 out of town guests and there are roughly 84,000 hotel rooms in the metro area, according to A.J. Mistretta, a spokesman for the city’s tourism bureau.

“We believe most properties will be full but there are a lot of factors that play in, including who ends up in the game and how far their fans will travel for the experience,” Mistretta said in an email.

Chris Bisel is listing his four-bedroom Meyerland home for $5,500 per night. With that, Bisel is offering free chauffeur service in his GMC Yukon XL Denali. He hasn’t had any takers yet.

“Frankly, we put it up there at sort of a crazy price just to see what would happen. If we rent the place out for five or six nights, we clear 25 or 30 grand,” he said, enough to pay for the first year of college for his daughter, a high school senior.

[…]

As of Jan. 1, Houston had about 5,700 listings on Airbnb, according to the company’s most recent data, up from about 4,100 listings at the beginning of November.

During Super Bowl weekend last year, Airbnb guests stayed in more than 4,000 listings in the Bay Area, said Laura Spanjian, public policy director for the San Francisco-based company. The average rate was $225 per night.

“There are some very expensive listings, but there are also some very affordable ones,” Spanjian said.

Yes, that’s the same Laura Spanjian who had been the city’s Sustainability Director under Mayor Parker. The wide disparity between what some AirBnB listers in Houston are asking and what people actually got on average in San Francisco makes me think the folks here are dreaming a little too hard, but I guess you never know. Maybe San Francisco had more hotel space available, and maybe fewer people made the kind of last-minute arrangements that can lead to premium prices being charged. I do know people in Austin who have made a bundle renting out their places during SxSW, so it is possible. It’s not practical for me and my family at this time, but if it works for you, go for it. Just avoid renting to Johnny Manziell and you should be fine.

Super Bowl security

There will be a lot. You may or may not get to hear about it.

When an expected 1  million people descend on Houston for 10 days of Super Bowl concerts, contests and championship football, they will be protected – and watched – by a security operation built on secrecy, technology and the combined efforts of dozens of agencies.

Unlike in recent Super Bowls, however, the public here won’t likely see lines of officers with fatigues, military-style rifles and armored vehicles.

The message for visitors? Relax and enjoy the fun.

“We don’t think we need to display a heavy militaristic presence to provide a safe environment,” said Executive Assistant Houston Police Chief George Buenik, who heads the event’s public safety committee. “We are keeping it a lower visible presence, meaning we are not going to be displaying all of our resources and assets, just like we are not getting into numbers or specifics. A lot of our security plan is what we consider confidential.”

[…]

The hype, media attention, massive crowds and more than 100 million expected television viewers make for an over-the-top party but also offer a unique challenge for law enforcement.

Keeping such events safe has grown even more complex in recent years, with the proliferation of terrorist attacks and new technology and social media that can connect or inspire like-minded persons.

The Houston events will be spread out across the city, from the football game at NRG Stadium to live concerts, fan festivals and other events at Discovery Green and the George R. Brown Convention Center 13 miles away.

Lakewood Church – which sits between the two sites in a former indoor sports arena near Greenway Plaza – will host an NFL Gospel Celebration.

Law enforcement agencies have been preparing for the events since not long after Houston was selected in May 2013 to host the big game.

Delegations have been sent to the last three Super Bowls to learn and figure out what might be done differently in the Bayou City. Houston has experience with big crowds, having previously hosted the Super Bowl in 1974 and 2004 and other big events.

The city is expected to spend about $5.5 million, mostly for security, but that is expected to be reimbursed by the game’s host committee.

The federal government also is covering some security costs, with the FBI; Homeland Security; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other agencies participating, though those details are – not surprisingly – not available.

Local preparations have included combing through NRG Stadium and other Super Bowl-related venues and installing additional surveillance cameras in key areas, but authorities decline to reveal exactly what they are doing.

NRG Stadium will be surrounded by a special zone, where police will control foot traffic and commercial vendors. And the nearby Astrodome – which originally had been considered for special events – will remain shuttered.

Flight restrictions will be in place for certain aircraft, and a “No Drone Zone” is expected to be declared, as it has for previous Super Bowls.

And local law enforcement officers are racking their brains to think of new threats they might have missed. Representatives of various local, state and federal entities gathered in recent days in a conference room at NRG Stadium to think up new scenarios and how they would respond.

I don’t remember what the number of visitors for Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 was. I do remember that the number far exceeded the total number of seats available in Reliant Stadium, enough to make me wonder what these people were traveling for, if they couldn’t see the actual game. What I’m getting at is that I don’t know if that “one million people descending on Houston” estimate is realistic or not, but based on past history it is a lot higher than you might think. Regardless, I’m sure we’re all relieved to know that the city will be reimbursed for its police and other Super Bowl security-related expenditures. My general advice to avoid the area at all costs unless you really have to or really want to remains in effect.

The Complete Transportation Guide To Super Bowl LI

For which the tl;dr version is don’t drive in or near downtown if you can at all help it.

More than 1 million people are expected to converge on downtown Houston during the week leading up to Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5, officials emphasized Tuesday as a transportation guide for the festivities was unveiled for visitors and locals alike.

[…]

The transportation guide – part of a #KnowBeforeYouGo social media campaign – details options for efficient movement around downtown, Midtown, the Uptown-Galleria community and areas surrounding NRG Stadium, the game venue. The manual can be found at www.housuperbowl.com/transportation – which is an area of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee website.

Among new features for 2017:

There will be prepaid downtown daily parking available beginning in January via the committee’s app for motorists to reserve spaces for light rail passes.

Super Bowl Live downtown will feature a bike valet for those who prefer to travel on two wheels.

Free shuttles will circulate in downtown and Midtown; an Uptown-Galleria area link to downtown from Feb. 1 to Feb. 5 is $2 each way.

A game-day shuttle between the Galleria area and NRG Stadium will be $2 each way.

Metro will have extended rail hours from Jan. 28 to Feb. 5 beginning around 4 a.m. and running until at least midnight daily.

Click here for the official guide. My advice, if you work downtown, is to take the week off. I’m already getting a cold sweat thinking about how many tourists I’m going to have to dodge in the tunnels at lunchtime. A staycation is sounding pretty damn good the more I consider it. If you must come downtown, Metro or a bike are your best bets to not be part of the problem. The Press and Write On Metro have more.

More bayou bike trails

Nice.

Laying out the particulars for a new trail section along White Oak Bayou, Chip Place saw something out of place where the trail crossed the Heights Hike and Bike Trail near T C Jester.

It was the stairs connecting the two trails.

“Look at that,” Place said, pointing from the new stairs to the stellar view of downtown Houston. “I said ‘Oh my god, we’ve got to capture this.'”

Starting Friday, the stairs – along with two miles of fresh trail to southeast of T C Jester – are ready for runners, cyclists and others who want a new view of the area.

“It is always fun to create a park and see how people will use this,” said Place, managing director of capital programs for Houston Parks Board, the nonprofit that promotes parks in the city.

Part of the parks board’s Bayou Greenways 2020 efforts, the new segment of the White Oak Bayou Greenway runs from Studemont Street and the Heights trail to the T C Jester trail.

[…]

The new two-mile section – minus an unfinished spot below Yale Street – extends the White Oak trail to about 11 miles, making it the largest continuous portion completed thus far. By mid-2017 that will lengthen to 15 miles once key connections to downtown and the trail is extended from Antoine to the city limits. Once all of its segments are connected, Brays Bayou Greenway will be the longest of the trails at 30 miles, from the Houston Ship Channel to Eldridge in far west Houston.

“I really do believe Houston is at such an exciting point in the public realm,” said Beth White, the parks board’s president.

White, who took over the nonprofit nearly six months ago, moved to Houston encouraged by the “vast” opportunity to develop a large-scale trail system.

“All of the things that cities need to be resilient are being looked at,” she said. “Open space, alternatives in mobility, it’s all right here.”

I’ve been watching this go in – you could see the progress of the construction from the I-10 service road as you approach Studemont – and I plan to give it a ride in the near future. The one thing that is unclear to me at this time is whether it connects to the Heights trail, which among other things would connect it to downtown. There’s a separate trail that begins in front of Stude Park and takes a different route into downtown, but this new one stops a little short of that, and would need a bridge across the bayou to make a connection. It’s a good addition to the area, and will provide a non-car means of local travel for folks in the new housing being built on Studemont across from the Kroger.

Hempstead landfill application denied again

Good.

StopHwy6Landfill

A state commission has denied a new application to build a landfill in Waller County, saying ordinances adopted by the county and the city of Hempstead now prohibit a garbage dump in the area.

A highly charged debate over proposals to build a landfill rising as high as 151 feet above ground has been going on for about five years.

The Georgia-based Green Group Holdings, LLC, has pursued the project, while a local advocacy group, Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead, and current local elected officials oppose it.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality last year rejected an original application filed by Green Group, citing an alleged failure of the company to account for how high the water level might get in the area of the proposed Pintail Landfill. The commission returned an appeal of that rejection in the spring, saying it came too late.

The company, meanwhile, went ahead and bought the 723-acre property in June and filed a new application. It reiterated its commitment to meeting required standards and stated a belief that it should be grandfathered in under old laws — before the local ordinances had been adopted to prohibit a landfill at the site, which is north of the city of Hempstead off Texas 6.

But, in a letter dated Thursday, Earl Lott, waste permits director for TCEQ, wrote that the ordinances prevented the agency from granting the new application. For any questions, Lott directed the company to contact its staff attorney.

“We are evaluating all options in light of the recent decision,” said David Green, president of Green Group, in a written statement.

See here for the most recent update, and here for a somewhat hard to read copy of the TCEQ letter. The next step, if there is one, would be legal action to challenge the ordinance. We’ll see what if anything Green Group does.