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EaDo

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.

East End former KBR site sold again

I’d forgotten all about this.

When a sprawling tract of land lining Buffalo Bayou east of downtown hit the market three years ago, some of Houston’s most prominent observers of urban development put forth ideas about what could be done with the 136-acre site boasting both water and skyscraper views.

Visions for the property included repositioning existing buildings as cutting-edge workplaces, adding townhomes and apartments along tree-shaded streets where trolleys could shuttle people to and from downtown, and creating spots where Houstonians could rent bikes and take canoes into the bayou.

Now, with the recent sale of the property, some of those visions may start to take shape – though they could be years away.

An affiliate of Houston-based Midway, the company behind CityCentre, GreenStreet and other local mixed-use developments purchased the site in May, property records show.

The seller, William Harrison, a wealthy Houstonian with business in energy and real estate, bought it in late 2012 from KBR. The engineering and construction company had owned the onetime office and industrial complex since 1919, when the company was Brown & Root. Most of the buildings there have been demolished.

[…]

Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, lauded Midway for its focus on park space, including a project the company is developing in the Upper Kirby neighborhood next to a park that’s been around for more than 60 years.

The partnership owns an easement on the property that will allow it to expand its hike and bike trail system through it.

“It’s been a coveted spot for some time just because of its size,” Olson said. “I don’t know if there’s a site that big in the inner city.”

See here and here for the background. People were excited when the property was sold in 2012, then it continued to sit there undeveloped for almost four more years before being sold again. Maybe this time will be different, though with the current state of the local economy and the housing market, it’s hard to imagine anything happening in the short term. Swamplot and The Urban Edge have more.

The draft bike plan is out

Here it is, in all its glory. I encourage you to look at the draft plan and play with the interactive map. Then, when you start to feel overwhelmed and wish someone would explain it all to you, go read Raj Mankad’s story in Offcite, which does exactly that.

The last time Houston made a bike plan was 1993. Many of the streets declared official bike routes then are among the least safe places to bicycle. Take Washington Avenue. Every few hundred feet, a yellow sign with an image of a bicycle declares “Share the Road.” The street, however, has no dedicated bicycle path — not even a narrow one. Cars race down the 12-foot-wide lanes feebly painted with ineffectual “sharrows” that have faded from the friction of tires. Only “strong and fearless” cyclists, who represent less than one percent of the total population, attempt such routes.

The signage on Washington is visual clutter, or worse. It sends the wrong message to potential cyclists, according to Geoff Carleton of Traffic Engineers. If the city designates a route for bicycling, he says, it should be comfortable enough for “enthused and confident” riders, not just the spandex-clad racers in pelotons. Ultimately, says Carleton, a city’s bike facilities fail unless they can reassure the largest segment, as much as 65 percent of the total population, of potential cyclists: those who self-identify as “interested but concerned.” (The other group is the “no-way no-hows.”)

The Houston Bike Plan, a new draft released by the City of Houston, details just such a future. Made public and presented to the Planning Commission, the plan was crafted by Traffic Engineers, Morris Architects, and Asakura Robinson, a team comprising most of the designers behind METRO’s New Bus Network, a dramatic reimagining and restructuring that’s receiving national attention for its success. A grant to BikeHouston from the Houston Endowment provided part of the $400,000 budget for the new plan with additional funds coming from the City, Houston-Galveston Area Council, and the Houston Parks Board.

The process involved extensive community outreach across class, race, gender, and ethnicity, as well as a study of all existing plans made by the city, management districts, parks, livable center studies, and neighborhood groups. The resulting draft is more a fresh start than an elaboration of the 1993 precedent.

The plan begins with an assessment of where we are today and makes distinctions between high- and low-comfort bike lanes. Only the high-comfort routes are kept in the plan moving forward.

As the plan’s introduction states, Houston has “made great strides in improving people’s ability to bike to more destinations.” The plan also notes changes in attitude and ridership levels, calls out “Sunday Streets … a great example of encouraging more people to get out and be active on Houston streets.” The most substantial improvement comes by way of Bayou Greenways 2020, the 150 miles of separated trails and linear parks along the bayous. (See our coverage of the 2012 bond measure funding this project, the progress of its construction, and the transformative impact it could have on our region.)

Approximately 1.3 million people — six out of 10 Houstonians — will live within 1.5 miles of these bayou trails when they are completed, but traversing those 1.5 miles can be a major challenge. When you map out this and other projects in the works, you see islands of bicycle-friendly territory and fragments of high-comfort bicycling facilities. Because the bayous run east-west, a lack of north-south routes could leave cyclists alone to contend with dangerous traffic and car-oriented infrastructure.

“If we do nothing beyond what is already in progress, we will have 300 miles of bikeways,” says Carleton, “but it won’t be a network.” Thus, the draft plan focuses on links that would build that network.

Ultimately, the vision is for Houston to become by 2026 a Gold Level Bicycle Friendly City according to the standards of the League of American Bicyclists. Currently, the city is Bronze Level.

Here, the plan is broken down into three phases: 1) Short-Term Opportunities, which could solve problems quickly and relatively inexpensively; 2) Key Connections, which are high-impact improvements that would require more investment; 3) Long-Term Houston Bikeway Visions, which are true transformations of infrastructure that would require substantial investments of money, time, and labor. Below, we look at each stage as a whole and at few routes in particular as examples.

Go read the fuller explanation of what those things mean, then look at the map to see where they fit in. A lot of the short-term opportunities include finishing the planned trails along the bayous and taking advantage of streets that have more capacity than traffic to turn a lane into a dedicated bike line like what we have on Lamar Street downtown.

Here’s a snip from the map that I took, which focuses on the parts of this plan that most interest me. Green lines are off street, blue lines are streets with dedicated bike lanes, and fuscia represents streets where bikes and cars can coexist in reasonable fashion. The thicker lines are what exists now, and the thinner lines are what’s in the plan. I’ve filtered out the long-term visions, so what you see are the short term and key connection opportunities:

BikePlanSmallView

A few points of interest:

– Note the continuation of the MKT Trail due west at TC Jester (it currently continues along the bayou), following the existing railroad tracks, then turns south through Memorial Park and on down, via the existing CenterPoint right of way. I think all of that is included in that 2012 bond referendum, but don’t hold me to that. Note also the connection from Buffalo Bayou Park to Memorial Park, which just makes all kinds of sense.

– The blue line that runs north-south is at the top the existing bike lane on Heights Blvd, which then continues on to Waugh, serving as a connection to the Buffalo Bayou trail. I’ve noted before how while I’d like to be able to bike that way, it’s just too hairy once you get south of Washington Avenue on Heights. As Raj notes in his story, this would involve some road construction to make it happen, but boy will that be worth it.

– Other blue east-west bike lane additions include (from the bottom up) Alabama, West Dallas/Inwood (connecting to an existing on-street path), Winter Street, White Oak/Quitman (a convenient route to the North Line light rail), and 11th Street/Pecore. I can testify that there is already a bike lane drawn on Pecore east of Michaux, but it needs some maintenance. 11th Street west of Studemont can have some heavy car traffic – people regularly complain how hard it is to cross 11th at the Herkimer bike trail – so I’ll be very interested to see how the plan aims to deal with that.

– Downtown is in the lower right corner of the picture, with Polk and Leeland streets targeted for connecting downtown to EaDo, and Austin and Caroline streets for downtown to midtown. These will no doubt be like the existing Lamar Street bike lane, where the main investment will be in paint and those big raised bumps.

Those are the things that caught my eye. Again, I encourage you to look it all over. The short term and key connection opportunities are fairly low cost all together, with some of the funds likely coming from the 2012 bond and the rest from ReBuild Houston. From Chapter 6 of the plan, on Implementation:

While a significant number of projects have dedicated funding identified for implementation over the next five years, including projects in the City’s CIP and the Bayou Greenways 2020 projects, the City of Houston budget projections indicate that there will be challenges in identifying additional resources, either in personnel, capital, or operations and maintenance to advance many additional components of the plan forward in the near term. Opportunities to leverage existing resources to meet the goals of the plan are important. Additional resources will likely need to be identified to implement many of the recommendations in the HBP in addition.

The Mayor’s press release identifies some of the funding sources being used now for this. Take a look, see what you think, and give them feedback. The draft plan exists because of copious public input, and that input is still needed to take this to completion.

B-Cycle expansion coming

Good.

Houston area officials are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into widening Interstate 45, and they could be paying much more for even larger upcoming projects along the corridor.

But a comparatively-paltry sum is about to boost bike sharing in Houston in a big way.

The same transportation improvement plan aiming $140 million at I-45 includes $4.7 million meant to expand the B-Cycle program in the city. The plan is set for discussion Friday by the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council.

The money, including a 21 percent match from B-Cycle, will add stations in the Texas Medical Center and Rice Village in one phase, increase density in the downtown and Midtown area from the Med Center in another, before expanding east and southeast to EaDo and the University of Houston and Texas Southern University area.

“By the time this is finished, our goal is to go from 29 stations and 210 bikes to 100 stations with 800 bikes,” said Will Rub, director of Houston B-Cycle.

[…]

Having 800 bikes at Houston kiosks would build on what supporters have said is strong use of the bikes by Houston residents and visitors. From January to July, more than 60,000 bike checkouts occurred. The theory, following on similar reaction in Denver, is more stations and bikes exponentially increase use, provided the stations are where people want to go.

See here, here, and here for some background. According to the Mayor’s press release, about $3.8 million is coming from H-GAC, and the rest is from B-Cycle, which as he story notes has generally covered most of its operating costs. Having more stations will make B-Cycle a lot more usable; I personally have had a couple of recent occasions where I needed to get somewhere on the edges of downtown from my office, but the nearest B-Cycle station was far enough away from my destination that it wasn’t worth it. Especially now with the rerouted buses and the new rail lines, expanding B-Cycle access will make transit that much more convenient as well. I look forward to seeing where the new kiosks go. The Highwayman has more.

On using B-Cycle

The Chron had a nice lifestyle section story about B-Cycle last week.

B-cycles are appearing all over downtown and Midtown. You may have seen them, parked at racks with self-serve kiosks, where riders are able to enter their payment information, detach the bike and go.

B-cycle is a program of Houston Bike Share, a nonprofit organization funded by federal grants. The program started in May 2012 with 18 bikes planted at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston City Hall and Market Square. Success was immediate. Today 173 bikes are available at 21 stations in downtown, Midtown and Montrose, with more planned.

Will Rub, the director of Houston Bike Share, is passionate about the program.

“Our prices are so much better than most other cities’. Denver carries an $80 annual cost and a weekly rate of $20; New York’s annual rate is $95 while the weekly is $25. You can rent a Houston B-cycle bike for as little as $5 for 24 hours; $15 for seven days and $65 for a year,” Rub said.

But there’s a catch: “You can only use the bike for one hour at a time.”

That means someone who wants to ride a B-cycle to work must pick up a bike in the morning and park it when he arrives at his destination. He must use another bike to ride home in the afternoon.

Because the bikes are linked to computers, Rub can track who takes a bike at any given time and where he drops it off. He said several residents of the Sabine Lofts near the Sabine Street Bridge will pick up bikes about 7:30 a.m., ride for four to six minutes, then leave them at buildings downtown. The stations are open 6 a.m.-11 p.m. daily, though bikes can be returned at any time.

Not a whole lot there that would be news to anyone who has been paying attention to B-Cycle. I suspect this was an introductory story for those who haven’t followed it closely – Page One of the lifestyle section will do that. I don’t have any particular analysis of it, I just wanted to note that having moved to a downtown office a couple of weeks ago, I finally got a chance to break in my own B-Cycle membership. I rode to and from Phoenician Market for lunch. That would have been a ten-minute-plus walk for me, not terribly inviting in the heat, but was much quicker and less arduous on a bike, since the nice thing about riding is that you create a breeze for yourself. My way of thinking of this is that having B-Cycle available – there’s a kiosk two blocks from my office – enables me to expand my range of lunch possibilities. I can get farther in a short time span, with my car being an impractical option (and sometimes an unavailable one, if Tiffany needs it at lunchtime). I’ve got my eye on the Food Truck Park and Stanton’s City Bites for the future. Maybe the north end of Midtown – there’s a bunch of stuff there on West Gray, just south of I-45. All practical and doable with a bike, but not by any other means. I’m getting enthusiastic thinking about it.

On a related note, I had a doctor’s appointment last week. My doctor’s office is 1.3 miles from where I work, according to Google Maps. Way too far to walk, and a big hassle to drive since it means going from one multi-story parking lot to another – and having to pay for the privilege at my destination – but a snap on a bike. To avoid any concerns about securing the bike or keeping it longer than the 60-minutes-free period, I rode from one kiosk to another, which was four blocks away from the office. Given that I’d have had to walk four blocks to get my car anyway, my trip took no more time than driving would have, and it was free. You just can’t beat that.

Does this fit into the Chron’s critique of B-Cycle as “toys for urban bohemians” rather than “legitimate transportation”? Well, beyond the fact that if I’m a bohemian then the term has lost all meaning, how is this not “legitimate” transportation? These destinations are all too far to walk, but are within five minutes of my B-Cycle kiosk. It’s still a car off the street, even if it’s not at rush hour, and even if the thought of driving to one of these places – after walking four blocks to my parking garage, and not having any guarantee of finding parking at some of these destinations – is ludicrous. It makes downtown a better experience for me as an employee there, and though I do have a car available to me because I carpool with my wife, B-Cycle makes taking transit to downtown more attractive, since you needn’t feel as limited for lunch options. That’s my point about the Uptown transit plan, and why I think B-Cycle expansion out there will help address Judge Emmett’s concerns about people not wanting to give up their cars. I bet if it was pitched properly, you might be able to get the Uptown Management District and/or some of the businesses there to kick in for a piece of the cost to put kiosks there. It’s good to have options, and B-Cycle provides them.

What’s in a neighborhood name?

Keep Houston Houston has had enough of “fake” neighborhood names.

“Lower Westheimer” – This does not actually exist, it’s just Montrose. Or “The Montrose” if you wish to rebel against popular linguistic conventions without going full retard.

If Google says there's a Neartown, there's a Neartown

If Google says there’s a Neartown, there’s a Neartown

“Neartown” – This also does not exist, it’s just Montrose. This appears to have been an 80′s or 90′s era attempt to rebrand Montrose as something other than Montrose, and only appears on official documents. Even the Realtors don’t use it, and Realtors tend to be on the forefront of linguistic murderation (see: “Craftsman”). It should be scrubbed completely from the record.

“Washington Heights” – Again, this does not actually exist. There are legitimate grounds for nitpicking over what to call the small finger of the original Heights plat that extends south of IH-10, but this is a miniscule area – and in any event, if it’s part of The Heights, then it is simply The Heights. If you live off Washington, you live off Washington. If you live in an area covered by another historical name, like “Rice Military” or “Cottage Grove,” that works too – although I’ve always tended to look askance at people who use sub-neighborhood names. It’s as if they’re too elitist for general neighborhood or street names. “Oh you live in Avondale? Tell me more.” However, Washington Heights is right out.

OST/South Union, too

OST/South Union, too

“EaDo” – Seriously? No. No, no, no, no, no. The proliferation of faux New York City style names needs to stop, and it might as well stop here. You can say “Eastside,” or you can say “Third Ward.” There’s no other cutesy names to mine from (like “Cottage Grove”) because historically speaking, no one lived there.

Now, some might argue that this isn’t actually Third Ward. These people are wrong. If you want to see what is and isn’t the Third Ward, walk into Ninfa’s on Navigation and scope the map they’ve got hanging up front by the waitstand. Now find the area to the immediate east of Downtown. See what ward it’s in? Yep. You in the Tre, homie. You too, Eastwood.

“OST / South Union” – This is another one of those names, like “Neartown,” that appears to have been an attempt at top-down rebranding when the Super Neighborhoods were drawn up. But everything west of Cullen and south of Griggs is pretty clearly “Yellowstone” (or “The Yellowstone”), and with all the development focused on Palm Center this will probably end up being the default name for the Griggs/MLK intersection, which was originally part of the South Park plats. There is no other unclaimed land to apply this moniker to, so let’s throw it out along with the rest of ‘em.

I grew up on Staten Island, the last and least of New York City’s five boroughs. To the rest of the world, we simply say we’re from the Island when asked of our origins, but to fellow Islanders we say what neighborhood we’re from. The local newspaper, the Staten Island Advance, is obsessively meticulous about identifying the neighborhood for each person, business, or event it reports on. A part of my eighth grade social studies curriculum was the history and geography of New York City in general, and of Staten Island in particular. Our teacher, Mr. Kapacinski, showed us a map of the Island with each neighborhood detailed. I don’t recall if we were ever tested on that, which is just as well because there’s dozens of those neighborhoods and you can drive yourself crazy trying to remember where Castleton Corners ends or where Dongan Hills begins, but there was a time when I was reasonably proficient with it.

The thing about that map, though, is that it was completely subjective. No one had ever done an official survey and determined exact boundary lines. As Mr. Kapacinski told us, each neighborhood was what the people that lived there called it. Any Islander worth her salt can tell you what her own neighborhood is, but only the most hardcore can say with confidence what and who else is or is not in that neighborhood. Some older neighborhoods like Tottenville or Stapleton, one-time home of the Stapes, are fairly well-defined, but thanks to the housing boom that followed the construction of the Verrazano Bridge in 1964, there’s a whole lot of people living in places that were once empty. Those places needed to be called something, and as there’s no Department Of Neighborhood Names to rely on, what they decided to call themselves is what the rest of us now call them. If that area used to be known as something else back before it was developed, well, that’s the way it goes.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying that I disagree with Keep Houston Houston on this. Frankly, given how dynamic and ever-reinventing Houston is, I don’t see the point in saying that there is none but The Heights or The Montrose or The Third Ward, and any newfangled names are an abomination before me. Sure, some of these names are shameless attempts to glom onto the cachet of an area that has never extended to that particular location before – there’s a reason why every development on the outskirts of The Heights calls itself Something Heights – but it does at least serve the purpose of pinpointing where it is. The Third Ward is a pretty expansive place, encompassing a lot of what now really are separate and distinct neighborhoods. I don’t think anyone objects to the moniker “the Museum District”, even though it’s technically in the Third Ward. Why should EaDo be excluded from polite conversation? It maybe too cute a name for one’s tastes, but it’s nowhere close to the Museum District in location or character. Let it be its own place, I say. And if next month someone plans an EaDo Heights development – that big former KBR property is going to be called something else someday – I can live with that, too.

Note, by the way, the embedded pictures above. They’re clipped from Google Maps, the result of searching for “Neartown, Houston” and “OST/South Union, Houston”. With all due respect to KHH, if Google says something exists, I say that’s a pretty strong prima facie case for it. I’ll stipulate that the others remain figments, at least for now, but thirty years on I’ll stick with Mr. Kapacinski’s rule: A neighborhood is what the people there call it. You may not like the names they’ve picked, but as with old school grammarians and the word ain’t, it’s a fight you’re going to lose.

Since I started writing this post, KHH posted a followup that was largely in response to this riposte from John Nova Lomax at Houstonia. KHH takes the beginning premise in some other directions, and since I don’t want to rewrite all this from scratch I’ll just leave that be. Really, I just wanted to say that one can’t dictate neighborhood names, and that especially in a city that changes as much as Houston does you should expect the names to change as well. Finally, if your objection is that a lot of these new names are just marketing efforts by realtors and/or developers, isn’t that how most of the old neighborhoods got their names, too? If the likes of “EaDo” and “Washington Heights” really are ephemeral, then in the fullness of time we’ll all forget they ever existed. If not, who cares how they came to be named?

That big East End KBR site has been sold

There’s one less huge tract of land on the market these days.

A Buffalo Bayou-front parcel spanning 136 acres just east of downtown has found a buyer.

The mostly vacant tract is under contract and expected to close by the end of the year, said Davis Adams of HFF, the commercial real estate firm listing the property. He would not identify the buyer.

KBR is the longtime owner of the land at 4100 Clinton, east of Jensen Drive. The site is the former headquarters of the global engineering and construction firm. KBR has been moving workers away from the site for years and put the property on the market over the summer.

The sale has been long anticipated by real estate developers, bayou enthusiasts and residents of the East End.

Many hope to see the land redeveloped with a combination of uses, including high-density residential, retail and parks that take advantage of the nearly mile-long stretch of Buffalo Bayou frontage.

See here for the background. Some people would like for this land to be used for a university. I don’t really expect that to happen, but we’ll find out soon enough.

What would you do with 136 acres near downtown?

Something urban, mixed-use, and transit-oriented, one hopes.

A rare opportunity lies in 136 acres just east of downtown Houston.

The Buffalo Bayou-front parcel, a longtime industrial and office complex, went on the market earlier this summer – a move bayou enthusiasts, East End residents and real estate developers had been anticipating for years.

Some of them say the expansive property – even larger than the former AstroWorld site off the South Loop – offers a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to create a multiuse development incorporating the cultural influences of downtown, the East End and other surrounding historic neighborhoods.

Architect and urban planner Peter Brown envisions a “town center” where a mix of housing types, offices, shops and cultural attractions encircle a central green space.

Those most familiar with the area cite a lengthy wish list, from groceries to book stores to new recreational facilities. City Councilman James Rodriguez, who represents that part of town, would like to see “shops, rooftops and various other amenities for our East End community.”

And he is hardly alone in taking note of the nearly mile-long stretch of bayou frontage. That combination of proximity to water, combined with skyline views, ups the ante.

“People are drawn to cities that offer urban vitality in a natural setting – New York and its harbor, Chicago and its lakefront, Denver and its mountains, Austin and Lady Bird Lake,” said Guy Hagstette, project manager of Buffalo Bayou Park and ex-director of Discovery Green.

I can’t tell exactly where this is, as no street information is given in the story, but give the description, the photo above, and the suggestion made later in the article by Christof Spieler of a streetcar connection to the EaDo/Stadium light rail station, I can sort of guess; I’d say it’s more or less north of that station, looking at the East Line rail map. It’s clear that a development like this, when it happens, will have a transformative effect on the area. Whether that’s good or bad will depend entirely on what ultimately gets built. The Chron solicited a lot of good feedback from a variety of people – former CM Peter Brown had so much to say they wrote a separate article to capture it all – but in the end I don’t know how much effect anything but what the people who buy the land want to do with it will have. We better hope they get it right.

Couple things to add. One, don’t underestimate the value of abutting the Buffalo Bayou. It’s a great natural resource, and many of Houston’s best neighborhoods are built around bayous. If my estimate of where this is and my reading of this Houston Bikeways map is correct, there’s already a bike trail along the bayou in place for the future residents, employees, and shoppers of this location. That would be a nice, convenient way to get into downtown without having to pay to park. Similarly, a streetcar connection to the Harrisburg and Southeast light rail lines would be an excellent addition and would make the development much more transit-accessible. A short streetcar line could be put in for a fairly small amount of money – the 3-mile-long line that Fort Worth eventually decided not to install had a price tag of $88 million. A line from this development to the EaDo/Stadium station would be not nearly that long and would probably only require one car. It could be paid for by the city, Metro, and the developer – I can’t think of a better use of a 380 agreement than that.

Finally, something I’ve said before but cannot be said too often is that Houston has a lot of empty spaces and underpopulated areas in it that can and really should be pushed for development as residential or mixed-used properties. Many of them can use existing infrastructure, though improvements will need to be made. Many already have access or proximity to transit, which would allow for denser development. There are a lot of places that can be developed that are close in to downtown or other employment hubs like the Medical Center or Greenspoint. The city has advantages that the increasingly far-flung reaches of unincorporated Harris County do not, and it really needs to prioritize making affordable housing available inside its boundaries for people who would prefer to live closer in, and to make it an attractive alternative to those who might not have thought about it otherwise. Population is power, and if the city isn’t growing it’s going to be losing out. There’s plenty going on for the high-end buyer and that’s good, but it’s a small piece of the market. The KBR site is a great opportunity, but it’s far from the only one. The city needs to find ways to get as many of those other opportunities going as it can.

We need a much fuller public conversation about the homeless feeding ordinance

As Neil noted, some of us had the opportunity on Friday to ask Mayor Parker questions over lunch on Friday. Not surprisingly, the homeless feeding ordinance came up, and we spent quite a bit of time discussing it. The Mayor shared a lot of information about the ordinance and its history, most of which I’d say none of us knew about before. I don’t know if she changed anyone’s mind – Neil, clearly, remains unconvinced about it – but I certainly felt like I understood it better afterward, and I daresay everyone else there did as well.

That’s good for us, but everything we heard needs to be much more widely disseminated and discussed, because as I’ve been saying there’s really only been one side of this issue out there for people to hear. I wasn’t taking notes and I don’t want to attribute anything to the Mayor that I can’t be sure about, so I’ll be brief and broad about what I heard. There were numerous meetings with various stakeholders such as organizations that provide services for the homeless as well as neighborhood interests, all of whom wanted to encourage a more efficient means of providing services to the homeless and to deal with some of the problems that they were facing with the way things were currently being done. The ordinance passed unanimously out of committee; it was only after it passed out of committee that the crap hit the fan. Mayor Parker said they were completely blindsided by the opposition, and dropped the ball in responding to it.

I certainly agree with that, and as I said before, there’s plenty of blame to go around for that. But even if there weren’t now a movement to try to repeal that ordinance, we would still need to be talking about what it is and isn’t, and why it was brought up in the first place. I’ve been complaining about how no pro-ordinance voices have been heard in the coverage of this story, so I made an effort to try and find a few such voices. One person I heard from lives in EaDo near Congress and St Emanual where there’s a soup kitchen that draws a large crowd at night. He named several problems that he has had to deal with, including trash – both he and Mayor Parker cited a figure of $175,000 that the East Downtown Management District has had to pay to clean up the trash resulting from food distribution; people urinating on his and other people’s property since there isn’t any other place for them to go; traffic being blocked by the sheer number of people showing up to be fed; and drug dealers showing up to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the large crowd. The gentleman stressed that he wants homeless folks to get the help they need, but not literally in his front yard. (My paraphrase, not his words.) He said he testified for the ordinance before Council and that he believed it would help him with his situation.

I also received the following statement from Advantage BMW, which is on West Gray at Caroline:

Advantage BMW is located in an area with a significant homeless population (1300) and a concentration of 15 non-profit agencies that provide services to them. Yet, many well-meaning citizens drop by to provide them with food. This sometimes occurs even when they are in-line for services from one of the nearby non-profits.

Due to our location, we see many citizens dropping by and offering food and supplies to our homeless neighbors. This creates a sense of chaos that includes litter, unhygienic conditions and a desire to remain in the area.

Our company, like so many other businesses, is committed to caring for Houstonians. However, we believe that the Ordinance recently passed by City Council is a step in the right direction to coordinate services in the best interests of those that need them most.

I had a few other inquiries out about this, but these are the responses I was able to get. You can make of them what you will, and however you take their words the ordinance that was actually passed may or may not be a good idea and may or may not achieve the goals that they hope it will. I’m just trying to understand this a little better, and to do that I need to know more than I did at the time this thing passed. What I’ve learned is that there’s a neighborhood aspect to this that has otherwise been completely ignored in the reporting. Whatever else you may think about this ordinance, neighborhoods asking for help dealing with their issues is as common an occurrence at Council as anything. Again, you can evaluate their claims as you see fit, and you can agree or disagree with the remedy that has been passed. All I’m saying is that we can’t have a productive conversation about how we got here and where we should go from here without having full information. I hope I’ve helped take a small step towards achieving that. I hope others will join me in that.

Downtown living

There are two things about this Chron story about the residential population of downtown that I find curious.

Twenty-five years after the residential development of downtown Houston began in earnest, fewer than 4,500 people reside in the city’s central core, an area bounded by Interstates 45 and 10, and U.S. 59.

The exact number isn’t clear – the 2010 Census found fewer than 3,500 people, once those in the county jail and a federal detention center are discounted.

That would be fewer than 1,300 new residents over the past decade, or an average of just 130 people a year.

Advocates for downtown suggest the true number is closer to 4,300, when people who live downtown while working a temporary job are included.

But even that falls far short of the once-heady dreams for downtown, with predictions that the population would approach 20,000 by 2025.

Blame the recession, as financing stalled for projects to convert existing buildings to apartments or to build new high-rises.

And blame the growth of neighborhoods surrounding downtown. Midtown and EaDo, just east of downtown, have added several thousand residents in the past decade.

They are close to downtown, but land costs – and apartment rents – are lower.

For one thing, I’m curious about the calculations made in this article. It was just two months ago, in the sidebar to a story about infill growth, that the Chron told us that ZIP code 77002, which mostly covers that I-10/I-45/US59 area, grew by 28% to nearly 17,000 residents. This isn’t an exact comparison – 77002 includes turf a bit north of I-10, a little patch east of 59, and bits south and west of 45. It doesn’t include the far northeastern corner of “downtown” as defined here, near where 59 and 10 cross. The tiny 77010 ZIP code, which is more or less where Discovery Green is, is also downtown. Still, that’s a big discrepancy. If the figure cited in the earlier Chron story is accurate, then surely it’s not the case that 75% of 77002 lives in those small areas outside the three freeways. But then if that’s the case, how are they counting the population in this story? Something’s not right here.

The other thing about this that I found curious was the glass-half-empty tone. So what if “downtown” has seen slow population growth? There’s plenty of growth all around downtown, in Midtown and the Fourth Ward and EaDo. Maybe all of those folks can’t easily walk to work like the true downtowners can. But some of them are able to, and most of the rest can easily bike or take a short bus ride. Some can take the light rail, and others will be able to soon. And as the story notes, there’s a lot more to do downtown than there used to be, even if it’s declined a bit from its peak due to the recession. If you’ve lived here long enough, think back to what downtown was like 20 years ago. Not even close, right? The measure of the area is a lot bigger than one number. I don’t see what the problem is.

The EaDo decade

Things are looking good for a wave of development in East Downtown, a/k/a EaDo.

Discussions are under way for a six-block-long linear park in EaDo, and there is talk, still in the early stages, of a 1,000-room convention hotel.

The area has already seen plenty of apartment complexes built in the past few years, and a music venue and bars have also popped up. But it also has its share of warehouses, vacant lots and boarded buildings.

The more residential density in the area, the greater the chance it will also produce a thriving entertainment district, [Anita Kramer, senior director of retail and mixed-use development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.] said.

“EaDo has all the potential in the world,” said David Cook, executive vice president and shareholder at the Cushman & Wakefield real estate firm.

“I see the same kind of blossoming in EaDo as we saw in Midtown.”

EaDo is a triangle-shaped area bounded by U.S. 59, the Gulf Freeway and the Union Pacific rail line running from Cullen to Congress. The soccer stadium, clubs and the planned promenade and the hotel under discussion are in the section closest to downtown.

EaDo land prices have increased dramatically recently, Cook said – to the $50-per-square-foot range, about the same as in Midtown, from around $25 to $30. By comparison, Cook said, land is about $400 per square foot downtown.

The area has already seen fairly significant growth this past decade. I believe that it will see a lot more, and will establish itself as a significant population center. Proximity to downtown is a valuable thing, and while there are still corridors close to downtown that have room for development, EaDo has the most in one place. There’s one thing that might hold it back, however.

“A complete redevelopment in EaDo is likely more long-term than short-term, but all indicators are positive,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker said.

She added, “I do believe Highway 59 creates a visual and psychological barrier, and it is quite possible there will be a thriving downtown and EaDo side by side.”

The city will try to bridge that barrier with improved lighting and sidewalks and street signs to help people find their way under the overpass, she said.

Here’s a radical suggestion: Rebuild that stretch of US59 so that it’s underground instead of above it. You know, like it is from Midtown to 610, where you’ll note that neighborhood development is more continuous. It’s not a panacea – I-45 still serves as a barrier north of downtown even though it’s a trench and not an overpass; there is an alternate suggestion for that as well – but I’m willing to bet it would help. That would cost a boatload of money, of course, for which the federal government would need to pick up the tab, but why not see what support might exist for it? If it gets anywhere, maybe we can try to do the same for the Pierce Elevated next. It won’t change history, but it would still be a good idea.

Infill growth

Anyone who’s been watching Washington Avenue has seen this.

From downtown through midtown and along Washington Avenue, a population growth spurt has taken off since 2000.

One buzz word to describe what’s going on is “infill,” said Jerry Wood, previously Houston’s deputy assistant director for planning and development and now an independent consultant advising the city on census issues.

Wood said that infill, or the use of vacant land in an otherwise built-up area, has happened in such neighborhoods as Rice Military (between Westcott and Shepherd south of Washington), First Ward (near Houston Avenue north of Washington) and Cottage Grove (both sides of Interstate 10, between Shepherd and Hempstead Highway).

“In Cottage Grove, three-and four-story townhouses are replacing bungalows at a high rate,” Wood said. “That’s been true throughout that ZIP code.

They’re also replacing a lot of empty lots and vacant buildings. The growth in that part of town is astonishing, and for the most part good. The main downside, as noted in the story, is that the infrastructure has not come close to keeping up. Most of the streets parallel to Washington are very narrow, with no sidewalks and drainage ditches. Parking is a big problem, and there’s often no room for cars driving in opposite directions to get past each other. (Yes, this includes all of the streets around the Wal-Mart site.) The area desperately needs a comprehensive transportation solution to help deal with this.

The print version of this story had a chart listing population change in several area ZIP codes. Here’s a reproduction of that:

ZIP Code 2000 Pop 2010 Pop % Change ========================================= 77002 13,159 16,885 28% 77003 9,137 10,168 11% 77006 18,861 19,337 3% 77007 22,619 30,538 35% 77008 28,661 30,502 6% 77009 42,474 38,172 -10% 77010 76 366 382% 77018 27,094 25,804 -5% 77019 15,871 18,946 19% 77098 12,355 13,508 9% Total 190,307 204,226 7%

77010 is a tiny area, just a few blocks, on the east side of downtown; Google Maps centers it on Discovery Green, which says to me that the population growth there is likely the result of the One Park Place tower. 77002 is the rest of downtown and a little bit of midtown; if you picture the area in the middle of the Loop that’s bounded by 45, 59, I-10, that’s more or less 77002. 77007 is basically Super Neighborhood 22, which is the main focus of the story. 77019 is River Oaks/north Montrose and most of Midtown, and which includes Estates at Memorial, while 77098 includes 2727 Kirby. Finally, 77003 is EaDo and the Harrisburg area, which I’ll bet shows double digit growth in the next Census as well.

What’s truly curious to me is the two ZIP codes that show negative growth. 77009 is all of the Heights plus a roughly equivalent area east of I-45, which includes places like the Near Northside and Lindale Park. I’ll admit to not being as familiar with the eastern half of the area as the western part, but I cannot fathom it losing over four thousand people this decade. I see fewer vacant lots, not more, and the gentrification of the Heights has brought a little baby boom with it. 77018 is more or less Garden Oaks/Oak Forest, and while its loss is smaller, I don’t understand it, either.

One possible clue to what’s happening may be in the other way the data was presented, in terms of the ethnic makeup of these areas:

Ethnicity 2000 Pop 2010 Pop % Change ========================================= White 84,281 101,825 21% Hispanic 82,379 71,076 -14% Black 18,084 20,470 13% Asian 3,113 7,199 131%

The increase in white population is easy to believe, as is the increase in Asians. It’s the decline in the Hispanic population that’s strange. You can see a graphic representation of this for the whole county at Greg’s place. Obviously, some of the Latino growth in the burbs is fueled by inner city folks moving outward in search of affordable houses and better schools. I have to wonder if some of it is also due to insufficient participation in the Census. All I can say is that I just don’t believe 77009 lost ten percent of its people. I hope a review of the Census process leads to an adjustment of these numbers.