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We’re gonna need a bigger meeting room

Seems reasonable.

With a newfound public interest in Harris County Commissioners Court meetings, which at times have been so crowded that would-be attendees have been turned away, court members plan to build a larger chamber.

Commissioners Court [asked] County Engineer John Blount to design a new chamber on the first floor of the county administration building at 1001 Preston. The current chamber, on the ninth floor, has a capacity of 90 people. Blount said a first-floor chamber could fit as many as 220.

“We have to get a better courtroom,” Blount said. “If people had to do it again, no one would ever put the highest-occupancy facility on the highest floor of the building.”

The new chamber would occupy the west half of the first floor, which currently houses some employees of the county tax assessor-collector’s office. The office’s customer service windows on the east half of the floor, where residents can pay taxes or register a vehicle, would remain the same.

Blount said the county could design the new chamber in four to six months and complete construction about a year after that. The work would not affect in-progress renovations on the first floor, which include the replacement of exterior windows and doors. Blount said estimating a cost to build a new chamber would be a “pure guess” at this stage,

“There’s not a lot of structural work. It’s pretty straightforward,” he said.

[…]

The Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s office, which protects downtown county properties, said a first-floor courtroom would require fewer deputies, spokesman Kevin Quinn said.

Security staff have to perform extra work on the ninth floor, he said, because the metal detector checkpoint is between the court chamber and the elevators to overflow rooms.

“Every time people come back and forth, they have to be re-screened,” Quinn said.

Seems pretty reasonable to me. The existing space is overcrowded, inconvenient, and requires extra security personnel. The proposed new location will have adequate seating for everyone, will be easier for everyone to get to, will require less security presence, and will be inexpensive to construct. Go for it.

What’s wrong with the I-45 expansion plan?

Urban planner Jeff Speck, in a recent lecture in Houston, lays out the following problems with the planned I-45 expansion:

The brief list of negatives include:

I-45 will wreck your bayou parks.
I-45 will destroy wildlife habitat.
I-45 will make flooding worse.
I-45will impede neighborhood connectivity and access.
I-45 will reduce city revenues.
I-45’s bike facilities are a cruel joke.
I-45’s caps are not likely to succeed.
I-45 is so much money.

Other than that, though, I’m sure it’s fine. Chron writer Allyn West digs a little deeper into that last point.

In 2012, Houstonians were asked to vote on a $166 million proposition to pay for 150 miles of greenways along our bayous. In 2018, Harris County residents were asked to vote on a $2.5 billion proposition to pay for hundreds of projects that would help the entire region with flood control. This year, Metro says it will ask us to vote on a $3 billion proposition to pay for 20 miles of light rail extensions, 75 miles of bus rapid transit and other “systemwide improvements.”

The Texas Department of Transportation, too, is planning to spend $7 billion (and maybe more than that) to rebuild about 24 miles of freeways. The project will reshape roads between Midtown and Beltway 8, some of the most congested stretches in Texas, by merging Interstate 45 with Interstate 69 and rerouting them together northwest around downtown. Unlike with those greenways, flood projects or transit plans, TxDOT never had to ask permission from voters.

Because TxDOT doesn’t have to do that, its massive projects often ignore the reality of people on the ground — the thousands of Houstonians whose neighborhoods will be impacted both directly and indirectly as a result of the I-45 expansion.

“There has never been the same (political) pressure for specificity for highway projects,” Kyle Shelton, the transportation historian and the director of strategic partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, told me. Unlike transit, for example, freeways have historically been viewed and funded as a “public good.”

It should be noted that the city, the county, and Metro were and will be asking voters to authorize borrowing the money needed for those projects. Had they been funded out of their operating budgets, no vote would have been needed. The point West is making is that this makes the politics of these projects very different. TxDOT starts out with the assumption that it can do whatever it wants, as long as it goes through the regulatory approval process. TxDOT is required to solicit public feedback, and they do incorporate that into their designs, but it’s a lot harder to drum up public opposition and basically impossible to kill whatever it is they’re working on. That’s the nature of the system. It’s worth pausing for a moment and thinking about how the system might be different if, say, TxDOT and Metro – and we may as well throw in HCTRA and the other toll road authorities around the state – had identical hurdles to clear in order to build anything. I don’t know what that might look like, but it’s fair to say it would be different.

In the meantime, the final environmental impact statement for the I-45 project is now available on the project website. You have one last chance to give your feedback to TxDOT on it, so get moving before the 17th of March. Speck’s video will be available on the Kinder Institute YouTube channel, so go watch it when you can.

There is no longer a ban on federal funds for rail on Richmond

This is about as bittersweet as it gets.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

There are no plans to build light rail on Richmond, but for the first time in a long time there is nothing stopping Metro from asking for federal funds to help pay for it.

The federal spending bill signed Friday by President Donald Trump, averting a government shutdown, lacks a provision in previous funding plans barring the Federal Transit Administration from funding any part of light rail on Richmond or Post Oak.

The provision was added at least eight years ago by former Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, a fervent opponent of rail plans in the 7th District. Culberson, a member of the House Appropriations Committee that set up the spending bills, added language forbidding use of federal money to “advance in any way a new light or heavy rail project … if the proposed capital project is constructed on or planned to be constructed on Richmond Avenue west of South Shepherd Drive or on Post Oak Boulevard north of Richmond Avenue.”

He was defeated in November by Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, who said last month she aimed to be an advocate for transit.

Friday, she said in a statement she worked with lawmakers “to remove language in the bill that created unnecessary barriers and limited federal funding from coming to Houston for much-needed transportation improvements. Removal of this language will put the power to make decisions about our transit back in the hands of Houstonians.”

This is great, and it’s quite an achievement for Rep. Fletcher to get this done in only her second month in office. It’s just that in a more fair and just universe, we’d already have the Universities line built and would maybe be talking about extending it as part of the 2019 MetroNext referendum, while eagerly looking forward to the forthcoming Uptown BRT line as the completion of the original system. I know, it’s fashionable now to say that we should be wary about investing large sums of money into fixed infrastructure projects like this because driverless cars are coming and will solve all of our problems. My point is we could be celebrating the ten-year anniversary of this line – the Main Street line just turned 15 years old, in case you forgot to send it a birthday card – with millions of passengers having ridden it over that span. People often talk about how the time to have built rail in Houston was years ago. Well, we were on the verge of doing just that following the 2003 election, but politics, shortsightedness, NIMBYism, and the incompetence and mismanagement of the Metro CEO and Board following that election killed this key part of it off. I salute and thank Rep. Fletcher for keeping her word. I just mourn that it comes too late to deliver what had once been promised to us.

Architect hired for Ismaili Center construction on Robinson Warehouse site

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

What once was there

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Joint processing center opens

This was a long time coming, but it should be worth the wait.

More than a decade after city voters approved a bond measure to fund it, Houston and Harris County opened a joint inmate processing center Thursday that officials say will eliminate the redundant practice of booking inmates at the city jail before transferring them to the county lockup.

The downtown center, replete with a digital processing system, open booking areas and dormitory-style units, was designed to be more efficient and to square with the city and county’s evolving attitude on criminal justice, officials said.

“This streamlined, expedited booking process is a true game-changer for Harris County law enforcement families,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez told a roomful of elected officials and law enforcement officers at the new facility Thursday. “Every minute an officer spends escorting a prisoner through the intake process is another minute that they’re off the street keeping our neighborhood safe.”

For years, Houston police have booked suspects at one of two city jails, before transferring them to the Harris County Jail and booking them again. Eliminating the excess work is anticipated to free up about 100 police officers assigned to jail duty.

The city is set to cover 30 percent of the facility’s annual operating costs, amounting to about $14.5 million, said Andy Icken, Houston’s chief development officer.

[…]

The facility’s new digital booking system means officers will be freed from much of the paperwork that typically bogs them down. Officers also no longer will have to escort suspects across public streets, Gonzalez said, because they will be able to park in a sallyport attached to the building. He estimated officers would be in and out of the center within 20 minutes.

The facility, located across from the Baker Street Jail on San Jacinto Street, covers 246,000 square feet and will begin processing detainees Saturday.

See here for the previous update, which was in 2015 when ground was broken following the successful 2013 bond referendum. A 2007 county referendum that would have built more jail space had been voted down, and boy howdy does that look like a good decision in retrospect. This will get people processed through faster, and will cost less to operate. I just hope it won’t be prone to flooding. Kudos all around for finally getting this done.

Does the Astrodome redevelopment need air conditioning?

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

Also not air conditioned

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Have you started avoiding the 59/610 interchange yet?

Better get started.

I-69 at the 610 West Loop is a traffic hot spot in Houston. The two freeway segments that meet at the interchange top the list of the most congested in Texas, according to the Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Danny Perez, a spokesman for TxDOT, says a project the Department has already started is designed to eliminate a lot of the weaving motions that lead to crashes in the hot spot. They want to give drivers more time to make decisions before they have to merge.

“You’ll have increased capacity on connector ramps for instance,” explained Perez. “So if you’re going 610 northbound to 69 going northbound you’ll have a wider connector that will be set further back.”

The project includes higher and wider ramps along with other improvements. Perez says the work could take up five to six years but they’re hoping to finish sooner.

Emphasis mine. See here and here for the background. Note that this is happening as the construction of an elevated busway is already happening. A couple of weeks ago on The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly on Houston Matters, I opined that the end of the construction on 290 just meant that roadwork would shift elsewhere, as roadwork never truly ends but is conserved. It’s like one of the laws of the universe or something. If anyone who was listening to that thought I was joking, well, now you know. Godspeed to us all.

Are we ready for Texas Central?

This is more about the experience than anything else.

Texas Central said it will break ground late next year on the first bullet train line in the United States, which will connect Dallas to Houston, and the train, technology and much of the know-how is coming from Japan.

“We will start the construction next year,” said Masaru Yosano, Chief General Manager of Central Japan Railway Company.

Yosano flies to Texas once a month to help coordinate the project with partners at Texas Central Railway Company, the private firm that’s developing the United States’ first bullet train.

The Texas bullet train, which will be privately funded, has already passed multiple milestones and is currently awaiting final approval from the Federal Railroad Administration.

When that last permission is granted Texas Central said it will then begin looking for financial backers. The firm said it already has options to purchase a third of the land needed and is currently negotiating for the remainder.

[…]

In Japan, the bullet train is not only a source of pride, but a fixture in the culture.

“It’s more spacious than actually sitting in a plane for me,” said Joel Deroon, an Australian living in Japan who uses the bullet train to commute daily. “For airliners you have all the extra added costs [such as] paying for luggage, paying for petrol. On a Shinkansen, no one’s going to check how much your luggage weighs or anything like that.”

So, what’s it like to be on board? Both the economy and First Class cars have high ceilings, wide aisles, and big seats. The cars are configured with two seats on each side of the aisle. Perhaps the biggest difference in the Central Japan Railway’s N700-series is the legroom in both cabins. Unlike an airliner, there’s plenty of extra space to move around.

Onboard restrooms are substantially larger, as well, with a massive handicapped lavatory.

And at 177-miles per hour, the landscape is less of a blur than many would imagine. A bottle of water easily balances on an arm rest.

[…]

One reason the bullet train is so successful in Japan is that riders can easily connect to subways. But Dallas and Houston don’t have that same infrastructure.

So, will it work?

“What happens to that last mile is an opportunity for taxi companies, for Uber, for hotels to build and businesses within walking distance of the terminus to develop themselves,” Swinton said.

The last mile can be lucrative. Not much was around when the Tokyo’s Shinagawa train station was built in the 1990s. But within a decade, skyscrapers had risen around it. Central Japan Railways also makes money leasing space at the station to restaurants, shops, and hotels.

I believe I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had the opportunity to take the shinkansen in Japan. It’s really cool! It’s amazingly quiet, and a very smooth ride. There is a lot more room on the trains than on an airplane – not a high bar to clear, to be sure – and you basically walk onto the platform and board when the train arrives. If you’ve ever taken the light rail line in Houston or Dallas, it’s basically the same as that, which means boarding is quick and efficient and once everyone is on you can just go. There won’t be any security checkpoints like there are at airports. All this means that the total travel time won’t be much more than the actual time on the train. I do think people will like it. The question is getting them to try it, and pricing it in a way that makes it worth doing on a regular basis.

Uptown update

The work is ending, the work continues.

The end is near for construction that has clogged Post Oak and delayed drivers, but the buses at the center of the project will not start rolling for at least another year as officials grapple with roadblocks threatening to push the final route three years past its original completion date.

Months of additional work lies ahead on the dedicated bus lanes in the middle of the street as crews complete the stations that will connect passengers to the rapid transit line. Though once on target to ferry passengers this holiday season, workers still are installing electrical and fiber optics systems so the buses can operate, as they pour the last segments of concrete along the widened roads from Loop 610 south to Richmond.

As a result the buses, which officials at one point had hoped would ferry visitors for the 2017 Super Bowl, will not carry passengers until 2020.

Even when Metropolitan Transit Authority begins operating the buses along dedicated lanes in the center of the street, riders and operators face months, perhaps years of detours at both ends of the project as two Texas Department of Transportation projects take shape.

“It will operate. It just may not be the guideways we want eventually,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

[…]

As Post Oak proceeds, TxDOT is building an elevated busway along Loop 610 so the large vehicles will move from their Post Oak lanes to an overpass that takes them directly to the transit center. Construction, estimated to cost $57.2 million, started earlier this year. Completion is set for late summer 2020, meaning a few months of the large buses slogging north to the transit center.

On the southern side of the bus project, another challenge looms. A massive rebuild of the Loop 610 interchange with Interstate 69, already a year into construction, will worsen as the project moves toward its 2023 completion.

Of particular concern is the timing of work south of Richmond, where Post Oak morphs into the southbound Loop 610 frontage road and goes under I-69 before re-emerging at Westpark Drive. Referred to by transportation officials as the “portal” along with the underpass that carries northbound frontage traffic beneath the interchange, it is the critical link for Post Oak buses headed to the new Bellaire transit center.

We were promised that the service would begin in 2019, but between politics and Harvey and whatever else, that’s the way it goes. Solving the problem of extending this to its intended endpoints at Northwest Transit Center and the to-be-built transit center in Bellaire, that’s the big challenge. Among other things, right now this is the main connection to the rest of the city from the Texas Central terminal. This thing is a big deal, and we’re going to need it to be done right.

What to do with the county courthouse?

Seems like a problem.

More than 15 months after flooding from Hurricane Harvey shuttered Houston’s 20-story criminal courthouse, county leaders say they will begin in January on the first phase of a multi-part $86 million restoration project, which won’t be finished until 2020.

But there is no timetable for the most ambitious part of the project — not scheduled to begin until June 2019 – that would greatly expand the chronically-crowded lobby areas, add more elevators and move critical building machinery out of the basement.

The extensive flood damage to the downtown skyscraper at 1201 Franklin has forced the relocation of hundreds of attorneys and staffers from the courthouse offices of the district attorney, public defenders office and other county departments to far-flung buildings across the city. The closure also forced dozens of courts to locate in other county courthouses, generally doubling up with courts that weren’t damaged, which has disrupted trials and clogged dockets.

The damage has also reignited the debate over the wisdom of making repairs to the critical court complex on the banks of a flood-prone Buffalo Bayou.

“We can’t possibly ask tax payers to foot the bill for redesigning the Criminal Justice Center without knowing the exact cause of the repeated flooding, and what is being done to stop it from happening yet again,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said Friday. “We have to object.”

[…]

“Things are progressing far slower than they should and the direction the county is going is just patchwork, not a long-term solution,” said Chris Tritico, a prominent attorney who has proposed converting the courthouse into an office tower. “We need a long-term solution that will keep us from having to do this again in a few years.”

Tritico’s proposal would be to build a new criminal courthouse across the street where the outdated family law courthouse now stands. That courthouse, which has been deemed a fire hazard because it lacks a sprinkler system, was scheduled for demolition. After the storm, it was pressed into service and now hosts docket calls and jury trials because the main courthouse remains largely unusable.

Tritico said repeated catastrophic flooding, along with long-standing design problems including a small lobby and limited elevator capacity, makes the building unworkable for the hundreds of residents coming who use it every day. The courthouse, which opened in 2000, was closed for a year of repairs after it was damaged by floods during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

“The problem with the Harris County Criminal Courthouse, besides the flooding, is that it’s just not functional,” said the attorney, who is part of the county committee to study the courthouse repairs. “The population of Harris County is increasing, not decreasing, so the number of people coming in that building every morning is going to increase. Until somebody takes a look at that problem, it will always be a problem.”

The fact that no one can say why the building flooded during Harvey is a problem, since if you don’t know the cause you can’t say with any certainty that it won’t happen again. The building has to be downtown near the jails, so relocation options are limited. In the meantime, court is being held all over the place. Good luck getting your arms around this one, Lina Hidalgo.

The state of the high speed rail line

A good long read from the Trib.

Private developer Texas Central Partners LLC plans to build a train that will shuttle people between Dallas and Houston in 90 minutes along a 240-mile route roughly parallel to a highway corridor that normally takes four hours to drive. This new link between two of the largest metropolitan areas in the nation — home to roughly half of the state’s 28 million residents — will help create “a super economy” says Holly Reed, Texas Central’s managing director of external affairs.

Texas Central sees the line as a mammoth example of a private entity addressing an infrastructure demand that government agencies are increasingly unable to tackle — and a chance to hook Americans on an alternative to highways that’s long connected major cities in Asia and Europe.

“There’s no doubt once people ride this train, they will want trains like this to go other places,” Reed adds.

The company’s ambitious vision has arrived just as American cities are starting to grasp the detrimental side effects and financial unsustainability of car-centric infrastructure that’s dominated urban planning since the end of World War II.

Texas Central officials say they have raised and spent at least $125 million, of which at least $75 million has come from Texas investors and individuals. In September, the company announced that it secured an additional $300 million in loans from two Japanese entities. But before Texas Central can create an interstate high-speed network in the United States, it’s got to prove high-speed rail is viable in Texas. Even as the company pushes forward with development — and brings on construction and operations partners — it faces daunting hurdles.

The company is embroiled in legal and bureaucratic debates about whether a private company can use eminent domain, a process that allows entities to condemn land it needs for a project and forcibly buy it from owners who aren’t willing to sell.

At the state Capitol, the bullet train represents the collision of two things that Republicans — who control Texas government — hold dear: private property rights and an unrestrained free market. And for two legislative sessions in a row, the free market has largely come out on top. The project has emerged relatively unscathed after bills aimed at hamstringing or killing it failed to get much traction.

“Big business is a big deal in the state of Texas,” says Kyle Workman, who heads the grassroots opposition group Texans Against High-Speed Rail, an organization that has galvanized rural Texans to lobby local and state leaders to stop the project. Workman says they’ll keep trying when lawmakers reconvene in January.

The political debate is an outgrowth of a larger question confronting a state where most people now live in urban areas: How much should rural residents have to sacrifice to solve problems born in the cities they intentionally avoided or outright fled?

We’re all familiar with the outline of the debate, so read the story for some more details and personal experiences. I do have sympathy for the folks in the rural counties who are in the path of the rail line, but if we were talking about building a new highway, or expanding I-45, no one would blink an eye. I mean, look at how much got bulldozed and paved over during the Katy Freeway widening. There’s a great unmet need for transportation capacity in this state, and given a choice between building high speed rail lines and building more interstate highway lanes, I’ll pick the former 100% of the time. I wish there were a way to do this without taking someone’s property, but until we perfect Star Trek transporter technology, there won’t be. I don’t know what else there is to say.

The timeline for the Astrodome

Work will get started after the Rodeo.

Soon to be new and improved

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

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

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

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

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

Emmett speaks post-bond

With the flood bond referendum safely passed, we now turn to what comes next.

Land and housing preservation is key to the Houston region becoming more resilient, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday, on the heels of last weekend’s vote that approved a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond.

“We need to not fight with nature, we need to live with nature and allow those areas to be green that need to be green, and frankly, allow those areas to be wet that need to be wet and not try and change that,” Emmett said during a luncheon presentation to members of the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

Emmett specifically called for the Katy Prairie, a vast area encompassing much of western Harris and eastern Waller counties, to be maintained and expanded.

“I think that’s a very easy one for the federal government or the state to declare as a nature preserve and just set it aside and move on,” he told the crowd of several hundred developers and real estate professionals in the ballroom of the Junior League of Houston.

[…]

The challenges brought by Harvey will give city and county leaders the opportunity to make positive changes as it recovers, he said.

One such improvement: a better system of urban governance.

If unincorporated Harris County was a city it would be the fifth largest in the U.S.

“We cannot continue to do that,” Emmett said. “We have got to find a way for city for Houston and Harris County to come up with a new structure of urban governance. “I view Harvey as kick-starting a lot of these conversations.”

Preserving the Katy Prairie and other green space was one of the topics I covered with Judge Emmett when I interviewed him about the bond referendum. I agree this is a high priority and I’m glad to hear Emmett talk that way, but let’s be clear that there’s a lot less of it to preserve now than there was 20 or 30 years ago, before Katy Mills and the Grand Parkway were built. We can’t turn back the clock, but the fact that there’s far less of that open space to preserve now means that we have to take it that much more seriously. What’s left is so much more precious to us.

As for the governance issue, I welcome that conversation as well. If there’s going to be an obstacle to the kind of intra-governmental cooperation Emmett envisions, it may well be the Lege, as any new structure to urban governance will likely require new laws, and our Lege isn’t very interested in helping out cities these days. Let’s see what Emmett and the other powers that be in the region come up with, and then we’ll figure out how to make it happen.

In the meantime, the work has begun.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday gave the green light to 16 new flood control projects, three days after voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 billion bond aimed at boosting the region’s protections against future floods.

The projects include de-silting the Addicks and Barker reservoir watersheds, drainage improvements in the San Jacinto River, Cypress Creek, Luce Bayou and Cedar Bayou watersheds, a stormwater detention basin project along Greens Bayou and conveyance improvements on Willow Creek.

“It’s a matter of starting with the low-hanging fruit, the ones that are ready to go, and move forward,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.

As good a place to start as any. There’s a lot more where that came from.

More details on the flood bond referendum

Early voting starts today.

The Harris County Flood Control District on Monday released its complete list of projects that would be funded by the county’s $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond proposal, two days before early voting on the measure begins.

The 237 projects include $1.2 billion for channel improvements, $401 million for detention basins, $242 million for floodplain land acquisition, $12.5 million for new floodplain mapping and $1.25 million for an improved early flood warning system.

Matt Zeve, the flood control district’s operations director, said the vast majority of projects will address problems engineers identified years or decades ago but lacked the funding to tackle. The flood control district’s budget totals just $120 million annually.

“It’s always been OK, how do we afford to solve these problems?” Zeve said. “With the bond, we’ll have funds to solve some of these drainage and flooding issues.

[…]

The bond also would put $184 million, coupled with more than $500 million in outside funding, to purchase around 3,600 buildings in the floodplain. It would not pay for a third reservoir to complement the Addicks and Barker reservoirs in west Houston, but would chip in $750,000 to help the Army Corps of Engineers study the idea.

Thirty-eight projects were added based on ideas from residents at more than two-dozen public meetings this summer. These include $6 million to improve flow in Horsepen Bayou, $15 million to do the same in Brays Bayou and $30 million to design and build new bridges over Buffalo Bayou.

Here’s the updated projects list. I’m sure there will be more added as we go along. I don’t have a lot to add at this time, as I haven’t had a chance to read through it all. The main thing you need to know right now is that early voting for the referendum begins today and runs through the 21st. Hours are a bit odd, so check the map and schedule before you head out.

The World Cup and its possible infrastructure effects

Assuming Houston does get to be a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, that could spur some major projects, for transportation and recreation and who knows what else.

Houston will not receive final word on the bid until 2020 or 2021, but officials remain optimistic the city is a strong competitor for what could be six to eight American cities, each hosting five or six matches over 30 days. That means weeks of hotel stays, restaurant and bar sales and other expenses for visitors.

Ultimately, that could pay off with long-term projects in Houston. Part of the city’s pitch to selectors is use of a new green space east of the George R. Brown Convention Center, a long-sought cap for Texas Department of Transportation’s plans for a redesigned and buried Interstate 45. Though TxDOT plans to spend $7 billion redesigning and widening the freeway, it cannot spend federal or state highway money on park space capping the buried sections.

A local World Cup committee, however, could focus on fundraising and organize and plan a park, [Doug Hall, vice-president of special projects for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority,] said.

“The World Cup Local Organizing Committee would help raise funds for such a legacy project if it becomes a final part of the plan,” Hall said in January when officials were finalizing the city’s bid. “The Sports Authority’s tax funds can only be used on voter-approved projects and all monies are currently pledged to the existing sports stadiums.”

[…]

Only the spot along the convention center has been mentioned as a possible legacy project of a World Cup hosting. Preparations for the World Cup coming to Houston would also include numerous other upgrades and close coordination with Metro because public transit would be crucial to any events.

Metro and local organizers are already discussing some alternatives, officials said, though it will be years before final plans are prepared. In preliminary discussions, Metro has said transporting around half of the 75,000 people expected to attend soccer matches at NRG Park will require extensive bus service, along with possibly running light rail vehicles in couplings of three, as opposed to the typical two vehicles per trip.

Metro is also researching with NRG Park officials a more permanent redesign of its rail stop near NRG Park to provide shelter and possibly seating for passengers as they wait in sometimes long lines as trains depart after events packed to capacity. During major events such as Houston Texans football games and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, riders can sometimes wait 30 minutes or more for room on the train.

Some transit officials during a January discussion said a World Cup event could also spur additional coordination with the city about dedicated bus lanes in more parts of Houston, and perhaps even more.

“I am thinking that would require additional light rail,” Metro board member Troi Taylor said of the potential deluge of visitors for the World Cup.

We’re far enough out from 2026 that anything Metro might propose for the 2019 referendum could be completed by then, though anything that would require federal funds would be up against some very tight deadlines. I suppose work could be mostly done on I-45 by then as well, though I wouldn’t want to bet on that. It’s hard to know without knowing what the specific plans may be, but for sure we should be talking about it now, and working to build consensus for what we can. Anything that develops into a big political fight is a lot less likely to get done.

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.

Just a reminder, the I-45 construction is going to be massive

I can’t quite wrp my mind around the scope of it. I suspect a lot of us feel the same way.

Birds flitting in and out of the grass and trees along this strip of marsh pay no heed to the roar from interstates 45 and 10 on the horizon, but to Houston Parks Board officials the sound is an ominous reminder of what could come.

Defenders of this long-sought “linear park” that leads from the Heights to downtown Houston now see a threat from the Texas Department of Transportation and its mammoth, once-in-a-generation project to relieve chronic congestion along I-45 and on the broader downtown highway system.

The project, already years in the making, reflects unprecedented levels of listening by TxDOT, which fairly or not has a reputation of building through communities rather than with them. Yet concerns linger over this pristine spot on White Oak Bayou, which TxDOT would criss-cross with seven new spans under the current version of its ambitious plan to build Houston’s freeway of the future.

“If that happens, the gateway to White Oak Bayou Greenway will be a freeway underpass,” said Chip Place, director of capital programs for the Houston Parks Board.

The parks board and a handful of other groups — joined by elected officials — have raised these and a number of other issues with the freeway redesign following the release of the project’s draft environmental report. Disenfranchised communities fear rebuilding the freeway and its connector ramps will further cut them off from economic gains so that other people can shave a minute or two from their daily commutes.

Their message is clear: Houston has one chance in five decades to remake the spine of the region’s north-south traffic movements. Good isn’t good enough. It has to address everything to the best of everyone’s abilities.

You can read the rest. We’re two or three years out from the start of construction, which is on a ten-year timeline. I’ll stipulate that TxDOT has done a good job of soliciting and incorporating public input on this thing. It’s just that I don’t think there’s any way to do this that doesn’t fundamentally change the character of every part of town the redesigned highways pass through, and not in a good way – I think the best we can hope for is that it doesn’t do much harm. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go bury my head in the sand for a little while.

County approves Astrodome plan

Like it or not, here it comes.

Take a last look at it

Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with the final design and construction of a $105 million project to transform the cherished piece of Houston’s sporting history into what officials hope will be coveted event space.

“It gives us a huge national story line,” said Holly Clapham, chief marketing officer for Houston First Corp., the city’s main marketing arm. “This, obviously, is a very significant building and we can tell the story of its new life, and serving a new constituency that didn’t know it as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.'”

Construction on the project is expected to begin in October and end in February 2020.

“The first thing we have to do is get it back to where it’s structurally sound,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said after Tuesday’s court meeting. “Nine acres of open space, under cover, in Houston, Texas, is a big deal. We’ve already been contacted by all sorts of groups that want to come use it, so it’s exciting.”

See here and here for some background, though obviously there’s a lot more to this long-lasting story. I like this idea – unlike so many other proposals, this plan makes sense to me, it’s not outrageously expensive, and it keeps the property in the hands of the public. I’m not sure if it will make sense to keep calling it the Astrodome when all is said and done, but we can cross that bridge when we get to it.

Not everyone sees this as I do, of course, and we’ll be hearing plenty from them.

State Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who co-sponsored legislation last year that would have required a public referendum on the Astrodome project, called Tuesday’s vote by Commissioners Court “tone deaf.”

“We just need to recognize the obvious,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “If the county has money to ignore a public vote and refurbish the Astrodome, then they have the capability to offer flooded-out homeowners disaster reappraisal and to cut their property tax rate.”

Bettencourt and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have called on local taxing jurisdictions to allow residents whose homes were damaged by Harvey to have their properties reappraised to reflect their lower values.

Through a spokesman, Emmett called Bettencourt’s remarks “ill-informed” and said the project would allow the county to generate revenue for upgrades to the NRG Complex that otherwise would fall on taxpayers.

See here and here for more on the failed bill to require a vote on something that we wouldn’t normally require a vote on, since no bonds are being floated. The preview story goes into the funding source for the remodel.

In response to Harvey, the county is poised to call a bond referendum of at least $1 billion to pay for flood control projects, and Commissioners Court has imposed tougher regulations on new development in floodplains, as well as authorized up to $20 million to facilitate buyouts of Harvey-flooded homes.

Of the $105 million cost to renovate the dome into convention and meeting space, about a third would come from the county’s general fund, largely made up of property tax revenue. The other two sources — hotel occupancy taxes and parking revenue — would not be used for flood control Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“We’re the third largest county in the country. We’re having to renovate a lot of buildings. This is another building,” Emmett said. “We need to renovate it and make it usable.”

He added that $35 million “does not go very far flood control-wise” when billions of dollars in improvements and repairs are needed.

People are going to have feelings about this, that’s for sure. There’s no direct vote on the Dome plan, but there will be that bond referendum, and Ed Emmett will be on the ballot, so the politics of this could work out in a number of ways. I’ve said my piece. We’ll see what develops from here.

We could be getting to the end of 290 construction

By the end of the year. We think.

Most major construction along the main lanes of U.S. 290 will end in 2018. Every new wide lane open. Every bridge built. Eleven lanes, including a reversible HOV lane, from Loop 610 to Texas 6, and nine lanes from Texas 6 to Waller County. All open by the end of 2018.

“There are going to see stuff open up if we can do it safely,” said Frank Leong, area engineer for TxDOT’s West Harris County office. “The bridges are controlling the schedule right now.”

The last segments to start construction, west of the Grand Parkway, will be the first to open under TxDOT’s current plans. Leong said that stretch, the easiest to build because it required the fewest bridges and fewest utility relocations, likely will open in March or April.

About six months later, if schedules proceed as anticipated, the freeway should be fully open from Loop 610 to the Sam Houston Tollway – including the lengthy work to rebuild all the connections to and from Loop 610, Interstate 10 and frontage road entrances and exits.

Officials said work will speed ahead and the project will be in finishing touches phase by the time Houstonians ring in 2019.

[…]

Crews also are close to opening a major component of the Loop 610 interchange, which will reconnect the HOV lane. The work also coincides with openings planned in January for some of the frontage road access.

“This job is going to open up a lot of things next month,” said Hamoon Bahrami, project engineer for the U.S. 290 project.

The openings also allow work to concentrate in the center of the interchange, where one of the last steps will be returning the connection from northbound Loop 610 to westbound U.S. 290 to the interior of the interchange. Of the major connections between U.S. 290, Loop 610 and I-10, it is the last piece.

The final few months, however, will not be pain-free. In some spots, crews still are hanging beams for some overpasses, which will lead to highway closings and detours. Lanes will remain narrowed in spots for months to come.

It’s ending just in time for the 59/610 interchange work to begin. You didn’t think it was going to be all smooth sailing, did you? Be that as it may, enjoy whatever traffic relief you get when the new and improved 290 opens. Just remember it took less than ten years for I-10 to get all congested again. Happy trails!

Another step in the Uptown BRT process

Gotta build those bus lanes on the Loop, too.

A bus guideway along Loop 610 will cost slightly more than anticipated, based on bids opened Wednesday in Austin.

Williams Brothers Construction, a mainstay of highway building in the area, was the apparent low bidder at $57.2 million, for the project to add two elevated bus lanes along Loop 610 from where Post Oak Boulevard curves beneath the freeway to a planned transit center north of Interstate 10.

The project is separate but aligned with the current construction along Post Oak that will add dedicated bus lanes along the road.

TxDOT estimated the project would cost $54.9 million, meaning the Williams Brothers bid is 4.1 percent over state predictions. Four other companies bid between $57.5 million and $64.7 million for the job.

The lanes would run atop the southbound frontage road of Loop 610 before shifting to the center of the freeway. Construction is expected to take 27 months, officials said last year, meaning an opening of mid-2020 by the time construction starts in a few months.

The rest of the project is scheduled to be finished in 2019. That sound you’re hearing is the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the usual suspects, who are rending their garments at the news that the proposed cost of this piece of the project is a few bucks higher than anticipated. I find this alternately hilarious and infuriating. I mean, 290 and the Loop just north of I-10 is a multi-year and multi-billion dollar disaster area, we’re about to embark on a six-year project to rebuild the 59/610 interchange, and at some point we are going to do unspeakable things to downtown in the name of completely redoing 45 and 59 in that area. Yet with all that, some people lose their minds at the idea of adding a bus lane to one street in the Galleria area. Perspective, y’all. Try it sometime.

HISD proposes to rebuild four schools damaged by Harvey

Seems reasonable.

Students at four storm-damaged Houston ISD elementary schools wouldn’t return to their home campuses until at least 2020 under a district proposal for replacing the structures announced Monday.

The $126-million plan calls for the four campuses — Braeburn, Kolter, Mitchell and Scarborough elementary schools — to be demolished and rebuilt at their current locations. The properties would be elevated to prevent the type of flooding that occurred after Hurricane Harvey, district officials said.

Houston ISD’s Board of Trustees is scheduled to vote on the plan Thursday.

“Based on the catastrophic flood damage and the elevation increase each campus would need to prevent future flooding, we’ve decided that the best use of HISD resources is to rebuild these four buildings,” the district’s chief operating officer, Brian Busby, said in a statement.

Students attending the four schools have been in temporary locations since September, traveling distances ranging from four to 11 miles away from their home campus. It’s not immediately known whether students would remain at the same temporary campuses until the new buildings are constructed.

[…]

District officials expect that virtually all storm-related costs will be covered through insurance, Federal Emergency Management Agency funds and state aid. As the district awaits reimbursement for costs, the $126 million for reconstruction would be paid out of the district’s “rainy day” reserves and Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone funds.

Trustee Mike Lunceford, whose district includes Braeburn and Kolter elementary schools, said decisions about rebuilding schools should be made now, rather than waiting for payments from FEMA and the state. He said he’s supportive of the district’s plan, though he has a few questions about the cost and a separate proposal to change the district’s policies for maintaining reserve funds.

“A lot of people are talking to me, asking if we’re going to rebuild the schools,” Lunceford said. “They definitely need to be rebuilt. Both schools (in my district) have more than adequate population.”

Not using these schools is not an option, and not doing something to mitigate against future flooding, however unlikely another Harvey may be, is irresponsible. The funding should be there, but if in the end HISD has to float some bonds for this, it’s worth it. The Press has more.

County approves floodplain regulation change

Five hundred is the new one hundred.

The Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on Tuesday to make significant changes to the way the county regulates new development, including a slew of new restrictions in Hurricane Harvey’s wake that officials say are necessary to prepare the Houston area for future flooding events.

The regulations will, for the first time in two decades, increase the amount new homes must be elevated to avoid floodwaters, up to 8 feet higher than previously required in some flood-prone parts of the county.

The new rules also would, for the first time, impose regulations in a 500-year floodplain instead of a 100-year floodplain.

See here for the background. This would take effect on January 1, and the idea has support from developers’ groups. A lot more than this will be needed, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Harris County to consider floodplain regulations change

Seems like a good idea to me.

Nearly three months after Hurricane Harvey, Harris County is proposing using 500-year floodplains instead of 100-year floodplains for new development, the first significant overhaul of county elevation requirements in nearly two decades.

The regulations, which still must be approved by Commissioners Court, would force developers to build new homes eight feet higher than previously required in some flood-prone areas.

They would also, for the first time, open up a broader geographic area to regulation by forcing developers building in 500-year floodplains to meet stricter elevation standards. Currently, there is little regulation outside the 100-year floodplains.

“Any time we can figure out how to make our regulations better and our infrastructure more resilient, we want to do it,” said county engineer John Blount. “We don’t want to be permitting houses that would flood. It’s not good for the county. It’s not good for people that are in the houses. You shouldn’t be building houses at an elevation you know they’re going to flood.”

[…]

The newly proposed regulations focus on the booming unincorporated region as opposed to areas within Houston city limits. Unincorporated Harris County has added nearly 1 million people since 2000, more than three-quarters of the growth in the county since 2000.

For some areas along the San Jacinto River, Spring Creek and Cypress Creek, the difference between the new and old regulations — 500-year versus 100-year flood levels — could be several feet of elevation required for new homes, which could increase the cost of development by thousands of dollars.

You can see the proposed new regulations here. This is in line with the larger vision County Judge Ed Emmett proposed in September. If this winds up making some new development more expensive, that’s fine. All that’s doing is more accurately pricing in the flood risk. As the story notes, though, the newest construction in the unincorporated county mostly escaped destruction during Harvey. It’s existing development that was the hardest hit, and that’s going to be a much more difficult and expensive problem to solve. And as Jim Blackburn says in the story, the 500 year zone may not be big enough to address this. Still, this is a positive step, and the Court will take up the proposal in early December.

One more thing:

Meanwhile, the proposed regulations would not govern development in the city of Houston. City regulations require new homes built in 100-year floodplains to be elevated one foot above the 100-year flood level — less than the 18 inches that the county currently requires.

Houston Chief Resilience Officer and “flood czar” Steve Costello said the city has not yet made any proposals regarding new floodplains, but has called a meeting in December among city staff to start the discussion. He said the city would consider the county’s changes.

“There’s no guarantee we will formally adopt everything that they have done,” he said. “Obviously we don’t want different criteria at the end of the day.”

I agree that the city should be in line with the county. I hope we have been involved in the discussion over these changes.

Abandon hope, all ye who drive here

Just stay away. Far, far away.

Houston’s worst chokepoint is about to be a construction zone for the next five or six years, in the hopes that drivers eventually reap the rewards.

Federal, state and local lawmakers gathered Monday on the HOV ramp overlooking the Loop 610 interchange with Interstate 69 near Uptown, to kick off reconstruction of the interchange. Major work is expected to start early next year, with some construction already noticeable, according to Texas Department of Transportation officials.

The interchange is the crossing point for most congested roadway segment in Texas – Loop 610 from I-69 to Interstate 10 – and the third-most-congested segment in the state, along I-69 from Loop 610 to Texas 288. As a result, officials say the interchange is Texas’ worst for slowing traffic to a crawl.

“This project is going to help change that,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for TxDOT in Houston.

The interchange rebuild will make all the ramps between the two freeways in all directions two lanes, add shoulders and rebuild the main lanes of Loop 610 and make other design changes that officials said will help traffic flow through the area.

Work is expected to take six years.

Emphasis mine. My in-laws live near this interchange. We may need to tell them that they have to move. I don’t have any advice to offer the poor wretches who have to travel this way, but I do have one stray observation: It sure would be nice to have some alternate transit options through that area, which don’t depend on road capacity, wouldn’t it? You know, like the University and Uptown rail lines. Maybe next time. In the meantime, avoid if you can. If you can’t, may God have mercy on your soul.

Buffalo Bayou Brewing to build new facility

We remain in a craft beer renaissance.

Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co., which launched nearly six years ago with a beer called 1836 honoring the date of Houston’s founding, is preparing to break ground on a $14 million brewery and restaurant that would be one of the largest and most visible of its kind in the city.

The announcement marks another milestone for the industry, as breweries continue to pop up and civic boosters market them more heavily.

The three-story, 28,000-square-foot Buffalo Bayou Brewing facility is planned for Sawyer Yards, an artist studio-anchored development just south of Interstate 10 near downtown, the Woodland Heights and other bustling neighborhoods. The brewery would boost production capacity significantly and take fuller advantage of state laws that allow it to sell some beer on-site.

Founder Rassul Zarinfar said his business outgrew its original location, a converted warehouse near Memorial Park that is expected to ship about 8,000 barrels this year. The new facility, 3 miles away and expected to open in 2018, will provide immediate relief and could be expanded over time to a 50,000-barrel capacity.

The company has begun the permitting process and expects construction to take nine months.

The new site will include a taproom and 200-seat restaurant that would be larger and more comfortable for visitors, who currently squeeze into an un-air-conditioned corner of the brewery and a small outdoor patio to sample the wares and snack from food trucks.

Full- and part-time employment would approximately double, to about 100, Zarinfar said.

[…]

[Last month], Houston tourism officials began selling one-day, three-day and 90-day Brew Passes at VisitHouston.com that purchasers can redeem for a sample flight of beers and other discounts at six Houston breweries.

Maureen Haley, director of strategic tourism initiatives at Visit Houston, said locals and tourists alike seek out unique experiences.

“As more breweries that have smaller production get into the game, you have to go there to get the beer,” she said.

I’ve been to a few events at the current Buffalo Bayou location. Good beer, but definitely crowded and loud as a result, and parking – it’s on one of the narrow streets a block south of I-10 between Shepherd and TC Jester – is a problem. The new location sounds great, and I look forward to visiting. Also, I need to get a couple of those three-day Brew Passes for the next time my dad is in town. Best of luck with the construction, y’all.

We will never stop widening our highways

Eventually, everything will be used for extra highway capacity.

For people in western Harris and Fort Bend counties, now is the time to sit down with your toddler and ask what kind of Interstate 10 they’d like to have.

Texas Department of Transportation officials, as required by federal policies, are seeking environmental clearance on the project to build two managed lanes along I-10 from Texas 6 to FM 359 in Waller County. The project is expected to begin construction in mid-2030.

That’s not a typo. TxDOT currently plans to open bids on the project in April 2030. Right around the time actor Channing Tatum turns 50.

The project will require about 45 acres of right of way in Fort Bend and Waller counties as the freeway is widened. In some cases, homes and businesses will be affected by the proposed widening.

But don’t worry, no Serious People will find anything to object about that, because it is a Road Project, and That’s Just How These Things Work. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of opportunities to give feedback going forward. If you’re lucky, this will get dragged out in roughly the same way the I-45 widening project has been. But be prepared to gird your loins anyway.

People who oppose the Uptown Line continue to oppose the Uptown Line

Film at 11.

A plan for faster bus service along Post Oak, the centerpiece of a larger project to remake Uptown’s Main Street, continues to divide its supporters and transit skeptics, even as work accelerates and commuters brace for limited lanes through the holiday season.

The latest dust-up over the dedicated lanes is over a request to the Transportation Policy Council of the Houston-Galveston Area Council to commit an additional $15.9 million in federal funding to the project. The Uptown Management District and its associated tax increment reinvestment zone, the agency rebuilding Post Oak, also would commit to an additional $15.9 million.

The council is scheduled to meet and decide the issue on Oct. 27.

The request has drawn ire from skeptics, who contend the two bus-only lanes planned for the center of Post Oak will ruin traffic patterns and draw few riders. Many have called it the latest transit boondoggle for the Houston area, which they say will end up costing taxpayers more and provide limited benefit.

[…]

“This project is on budget and fully funded,” said John Breeding, the management district’s president.

Breeding cast the request as a way to shift more of the funding to federal sources, freeing up local money for additional work related to the project.

The dedicated bus lanes are part of a broader remake of Post Oak. The street will continue to have three lanes in each direction with turn lanes. Officials also are adding landscaping and large trees to provide shade, new pedestrian street lighting and wider sidewalks.

The project budget remains estimated at $192.5 million, though some costs have fluctuated.

I kind of can’t really tell what the fuss is about, since the project remains on budget, but then this is a rail-like project and not a road project, which means the rules are just different. As a reminder, the I-10 explansion cost a billion and a half more than we were originally told it would, and the I-45 project is going to cost billions, with overruns certain to happen as well. Somehow, that sort of thing never bothers the people who so vociferously oppose this kind of construction. Go figure.

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.

The Sports Authority at 20

A few stadia, a little mission creep. Where has the time gone?

As the Harris County Houston Sports Authority celebrated its 20th anniversary Monday night with a reception for current and former directors and board members, it moves into its third decade as a considerably different agency than the one that came into being in 1997.

While the city-county agency continues collecting and distributing the hotel-motel and rental car taxes that funded the billion-dollar construction cost of Minute Maid Park, NRG Stadium and Toyota Center, its more visible function these days is as a sports marketing arm that hopes to bring another NCAA Final Four, an MLB All-Star Game, the Pan American Games and other events to the city.

J. Kent Friedman, the board’s current chairman for more than a decade, jokes while that his predecessors – former Texas Secretary of State Jack Rains and Houston developer Billy Burge – presided over an eventful construction boom from the late 1990s into the early 2000s, his role is considerably less glamorous.

“We’re like the folks with the broom walking behind the elephant,” Friedman said.

It’s a pithy quip for a time frame that involves less flying dirt but still confronts Friedman and executive director Janis Burke with significant decisions and negotiations as the authority hopes to squeeze more years out of three buildings that are, in terms of their initial lease agreements, middle-aged.

Basically, at this point the mission of this committee that was originally formed to get NRG Stadium (née Reliant Sstadium), Toyota Center, and Minute Maid (née Enron) Park built encompasses three things: Handling the bond finances for said stadia, negotiating lease extensions for the occupants of same, and trying to bring big sporting events to Houston. They’ve done a pretty good job with the latter, and I suppose if they didn’t exist some other organization would have to be formed to do that work. I hope they do at least as good a job with item #2, because I don’t want to think about what might happen in the event one of those venues is deemed uninhabitable by its tenant. So good luck with that.

(The story mentions in passing the litigation with HCHSA’s bond insurer, saying they are “three years removed” from it. The last story I saw was that an appeals court had reinstated the lawsuit, which had been previously dismissed. Doesn’t sound like a resolution to me, but I’m too lazy to google around and see if there are further updates.)

Who will rebuild Houston?

Vox points out what should be obvious.

Unauthorized immigrants were crucial to rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. And they are likely to be desperately needed as Texas rebuilds to clean streets, demolish buildings, and reconstruct homes and offices.

But it’s a hostile time to be undocumented in Texas. Even beyond the Trump administration’s harsh rhetoric and actions on immigration, Texas leaders are engaged in a crackdown on unauthorized immigrants, passing a slew of laws to make it harder for them to live and work in the state. In such an environment, these laborers might not stick around for the work that will be needed.

“This could have a chilling effect on the community,” said Laurel Fletcher, a law professor at the University of California Berkeley who studied the working conditions of laborers in New Orleans after Katrina. “A lot depends on what the climate will be like for Latinx and undocumented residents in the greater Houston area.”

[…]

The US unemployment rate, at 4.4 percent, is at its lowest level since the Great Recession started, and construction companies across the country have been struggling to find workers. In August, about 77 percent of US builders reported a shortage of framing crews and 61 percent faced a shortage of drywall installation workers, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

If the story of rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is any indication, undocumented immigrants will be a crucial part of Houston’s recovery.

That assumes a federal government and a state government that aren’t hell-bent on deporting them. If we’re lucky, we might get a bit of benign neglect and some court orders holding back enforcement of SB4. If not, well, I hope no one is in any rush to get their homes repaired.

Having said all that. we should heed what Stace says:

While I appreciate Lisa Falkenberg’s article about the undocumented rebuilding Houston, I’m still irked by the assumption by others that the only reason we need them (at this time) is for cheap, uninsured labor without worker protections. Especially when builders and contractors are the ones crying the loudest as they stand to make the most during the rebuild with this source of cheap labor.

It goes back to why we need more than just a DREAM Act. We need the parents of DREAMers who make up this exploited labor force, too. They must be protected. They must be paid what they’re worth. They must be insured and have worker protections from bosses who will exploit them during these times. Because, suddenly, it seems they’re not taking someone else’s job; they are filling open jobs, if we let them.

Getting the Houston area – and now Florida – rebuilt is a big priority, but there are larger issues that need to be addressed as well. Chris Tomlinson, Stan Marek, and Lisa Falkenberg have more.

Remember the Katy Prairie

From the four things we could have done differently to maybe mitigate some of the worst effects of Harvey:

Preserve and restore as much prairie land as possible

Much of northwest Houston used to be covered in prairie land, where tall grasses could absorb huge amounts of floodwater. But most of it has been paved over in the past two decades amid rapid development and a massive influx of people. Between 2000 and 2010, this part of Houston grew by nearly 70 percent to a population of 587,142 — equivalent to that of Milwaukee. Restoring or preserving prairie can’t prevent flooding altogether, but it can be a tremendous help in mitigating the damage.

Some local officials flat-out disagree with this conclusion; they believe you can erect public works projects to catch and manage runoff — essentially fighting water with concrete — and don’t need more green space.

But the vast majority of scientists believe the region needs to impose stricter regulations on those who want to develop prairie land.

Just a reminder, because I see some variation of this – some more egregious than others – in every story like this one: The vast majority of this development and growth is outside the city of Houston. It affects the city of Houston, but there’s literally nothing the city could have done about it because it’s outside the city’s borders and ETJ. In the case of this story, I would note that while “the region” may need to impose stricter regulations on development, there is no “regional” authority to do that.

Now, let’s be honest enough to admit that even if we had all the green space we had thirty years ago, there’s only so much to be done about nine trillion gallons of water being dumped on you. A storm this size was always going to be a catastrophe, it just might have been a slightly smaller one if we had been smarter and perhaps a bit luckier. We can’t undo what has been done, but we can be more specific about just what paved over these former wetlands.

Torrential rains that flooded hundreds of northwest Harris County homes last week reinforced long-standing worries that development on the Katy Prairie could make future floods more frequent or more severe.

Development encouraged by a planned segment of the Grand Parkway connecting Interstate 10 to U.S. 290 threatens to diminish the environmentally sensitive prairie’s capacity to absorb floodwaters, said Jim Blackburn, an attorney representing the Sierra Club in two related lawsuits.

“The Katy Prairie, for decades, has been our sponge,” Blackburn said, noting that the prairie also provides valuable wetlands and wildlife habitat.

Tension between development interests and environmental and neighborhood groups surfaced in the Sierra Club’s 2007 lawsuit challenging flood plain maps for the Cypress Creek watershed, which encompasses the area where last week’s floods were most severe. The organization has filed a separate lawsuit challenging the parkway.

The developers of the Bridgeland master-planned community intervened in the case last year, seeking to prevent an expansion of flood plain boundaries that would require the company to take expensive steps to offset increased runoff downstream.

An executive of Bridgeland GP, the company developing the 11,400-acre community, said in a Jan. 9, 2008, affidavit that the revisions sought by the Sierra Club would cost the company $28 million in flood mitigation measures that would “adversely affect” the development.

Despite the company’s efforts, the maps are being redrawn under U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s supervision. Rosenthal has stayed the lawsuit until October to allow time to complete the maps, but officials said they aren’t certain when the task will be finished.

Preliminary revised maps shown to the Houston Chronicle by Blackburn and the Harris County Flood Control District show a significant expansion of the flood plain in an undeveloped western segment of Bridgeland’s property and a reduction of the flood plain in other areas.

That story is from 2009. Here’s one from 2011:

Over the decades, this 1,000 square mile sanctuary has largely survived the encroachment of farmers and relentless development pressure from neighboring Houston, thanks in no small part to its dedicated supporters.

But the Katy Prairie has never faced a opponent like the Grand Parkway before. Piece by piece, the Houston area has been building a third — yes, third — bypass for the region. And much to the horror of local environmentalists, the next segment is planned to directly bisect this extraordinary habitat.

Development of this pristine land isn’t just collateral damage — it’s the point of the project. Project sponsors make no bones about it: The 15.2-mile Grand Parkway segment through Katy Prairie is a $462 million development project as much as it is a transportation project. Known as “Segment E,” it would be the third phase in a 180-mile “scenic bypass” for Houston. Each of the 11 segments is considered a separate and “independently justifiable project.”

Billy Burge of the Grand Parkway Association says right now there isn’t much need for Segment E, in terms of traffic. Burge and his colleagues don’t shy away from the fact that the project will generate more car trips and sprawl. In fact, they have what you might call a “build it and they will come” philosophy about road-building and traffic.

“There’s real demand in 15 to 17 years to have this,” said Burge, who chairs the association overseeing the project for the state and the region. “Once that link is completed, you’ll have a steady stream of traffic.”

To hear Burge and his colleagues at TexDOT and Harris County tell it, they are simply trying to get out ahead of what they see as inevitable: sprawl, on top of sprawl, on top of sprawl. But not in a bad way, they say.

“It will increase sprawl but that’s really the reason people come to Houston: to have a big house and a big yard,” said Burge. “You can call it sprawl, or you can call it quality of life.”

If you want to see what will likely replace the switchgrass and wildflowers of Katy, look to the Bridgeland development. This massive, 12,000-acre “new urbanism” development, where homes sell from $160,000 to north of $1 million, stalled in the real estate crisis. Since then, developers have stepped up pressure on local authorities to bring forward highway infrastructure needed to jump start sales.

Anything that we can do to protect and restore the Katy Prairie going forward, we must do. I hope that the scarring experience of Harvey will put enough political pressure on the people who can do something about this to take action. But one thing we can’t do is decide not to build the Grand Parkway. It’s too late for that.

The process for I-45

This time it’s different, more or less.

The region’s largest looming highway project – a massive rebuild of Interstate 45 from the Sam Houston Tollway to downtown Houston – has a lot of people looking into the rear-view mirror, pressing officials to make sure the job does not come with some of the downsides of its predecessors.

Even with the worries, however, the mega-project planned by the Texas Department of Transportation hasn’t been like many others, from the time it has taken to develop to the types of new lanes proposed.

Though often characterized as a bureaucratic behemoth, the state transportation agency has gone to unprecedented levels of public engagement the past three years, taking the designs for adding two managed lanes in each direction to public meetings, community groups, even sitting down with interested stakeholders for one-on-one meetings.

“We’re doing a lot of listening,” said Quincy Allen, district director for TxDOT. “We want to be a good partner, with others, in every sense of the word.”

[…]

Though the goal of many of the proposed changes is to tear down barriers, notably the Pierce Elevated, previous Houston freeway projects around downtown – including Interstate 10, Loop 610 and U.S. 59 – have left some neighborhoods cleaved. The north side, also divided by Buffalo Bayou, has not enjoyed downtown-centered investment as much as Midtown and the Fourth Ward. Bellaire residents and leaders still have bad feelings over how Loop 610 cut through the small city.

Drivers do not want that to happen with the I-45 project, which officials have called a generational project that commuters still could be using 40 years from now. Cutting off neighborhoods or restricting transit options could have devastating consequences.

“The easiest way to destroy a neighborhood is to divide it,” said Seth Hopkins, who lives at Emancipation and Polk, where residents worry they will lose easy access to downtown if Polk and other streets are cut off by the freeway.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. I’ll agree that TxDOT has done a pretty good job taking its time and listening to feedback about the project. I suspect one difference between this and the Katy Freeway widening of 15 years ago is that project had a lot of pressure, from John Culberson and the Harris County Toll Road Authority, to get it done, while the pressure in this one is to slow down and not break anything. But for all that, at some point ground will be broken and people who live and work in the targeted area on the east side of downtown will be affected in ways we don’t know yet. It’s going to be a huge mess, one that may take a decade from start to finish. I appreciate what TxDOT is doing now, but there’s only so much that can be done to soften the impact of this kind of project.

Try to wrap your mind around what I-45 will look like post-construction

Swamplot is here to help.

HAVING TROUBLE SIFTING through some of the massive freeway jumbles in the latest plans for that major I-45 reroute between Downtown and the Beltway? This new video (making the rounds this month as TxDOT hosts a set of public meetings to chat about the project) may or may not help you out. The 10-minute animation shows off what the project plans look like in multicolored, car-spangled 3D action, dragging viewers slowly along the entire project route from Spur 521up to Beltway 8.

The project plans pull 45 over to the east side of Downtown, to line up alongside US 59 and dive underground behind the George R. Brown convention center. Various flavors of new express lanes, managed lanes, managed express lanes, and connectors weave into and out of a massive new 45-59-10 junction as shown above, all labeled by color.

[…]

There’s lot more to parse in the designs — including TxDOT’s estimate that the whole thing will “displace approximately 168 single-family residences, 1,067 multi-family residences, 331 businesses, 4 places of worship, and 2 schools.

There’s a ton of documents and downloadable videos, some of which are embedded at the linked post, at the I-45 project website. About the only thing I’m grateful about my upcoming office move out west is that I won’t have to deal with this horror on a daily basis. Personally, I have a hard time believing that any gains in improved traffic flow will outweigh the costs of executing this massive boondoggle, but maybe that’s just me. Additional views of this colossus from Swamplot are here, and the Chron has more.

TxDOT public hearings on I-45 widening scheduled for May 9th & May 11th

From the inbox, from Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition:

The I-45 Project – Planning Stage is coming to an end!  This next meeting is a HEARING –  much different from the public meetings that TxDOT has been holding.

This HEARING is the last meeting where the public will be heard!  After a short comment period following the hearing, nothing else will go on record on the project.

After the Hearing, the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) will be completed – estimated to be complete next year – in 2018. Then a R.O.D. (Record of Decision) – also in 2018. And TxDOT will immediately start acquiring Right-of-way where needed and finish designs. 1st phase of construction will begin on Segment 3 (downtown) – estimated to start in 2020.

There are only 2 HEARINGS scheduled at this time.  You may remember that normally there were 3 meetings including one held at Jeff Davis High School (now Northside High School).  Northside is currently being renovated so no meeting can be held there.  We are asking TxDOT for a meeting that is convenient to Segment 2… but so far, no luck.

As a quick summary, there are 3 Segments involved in the project – Segment 1 (610 to Beltway 8); Segment 2 (610 to I-10) and Segment 3 (the Downtown Loop).  We are currently in the final year of an approximately 12-year planning phase.   TxDOT has held 4 public meetings – in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015.   Part of this project, is the re-routing of I-45 at Pierce Elevated and moving it to be coincident with I-10 on the north side of downtown and coincident with US-59 on the east side of Downtown.  Directly east of George Brown Convention both US-59 and I-45 will be below-grade.  This is a major project that is estimated to cost between $6 Billion and $7 Billion, WITHOUT right-of-way costs included.

I am part of the I-45 Coalition, which is an all-volunteer group that was formed to address issues related to the planned construction of I-45 and to work with TxDOT to ensure that the pending construction comply with these 3 tenets: (1) No expansion beyond the existing right-of- way (2) Alternative means of transportation must be explored (3) No negative impact on the neighborhoods quality of life.  We have not been very successful in these 3 tenets…but we have helped improve the project.

Regarding ROW in Segment 1 – 212 acres of land will be taken; Segment 2 – 19 acres of land and in Segment 3 – 79 acres of land.

In Segment 2 – the North St. Bridge will be removed.  The main roadway of I-45 will be raised to almost grade level at North St. so it is impossible with the current engineering to have any bridge there.

If you have commented or attended any of the prior meetings before, you should have received, or will soon receive notification via USPS of the 2 meetings locations from TxDOT. Locations and dates are:

Tuesday, May 9th                                                                   Thursday, May 11th

St. Pius X High School                                   Houston Community College – Central Campus

811 W. Donovan Street                                  1300 Holman Street –  San Jacinto Building

Houston, TX  77091                                                   Houston, TX  77004

 

Displays will be available for viewing at 5:30 pm, formal hearing starts at 6:30 pm.

Please review TxDOT’s plan, maps & designs on their website, www.ih45northandmore.com. As of today, the documents that will be shown at the hearing are NOT on the website…but they should be there soon.

I received notification of the meetings in the main on Wednesday. The images embedded in the post are from the I-45 Coalition’s Facebook group. I can’t quite make out the context, so I guess I’ll have to go to the meeting. The www.ih45northandmore.com webpage now has the meeting notice on it, and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement is available as well, if you want a little light reading. If you use I-45 north of downtown at all, you should probably make plans to be at one of these meetings. There’s no next chance to give feedback after this.