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Fifth Ward

So can we call the Metro bus system reimagining a success yet?

If no news is good news, then Metro is swimming in good news, because I haven’t seen much coverage of its new bus system rollout since the opening days. Perhaps all that concern (expressed by one person) about disaster and mass firings was a tad bit overblown. I don’t want to jinx anything, but if there’s a disaster out there in the bus lanes, it’s an awfully under-reported disaster.

I did see one negative story, to be sure.

HoustonMetro

Just northeast of downtown, in Houston Fifth Ward, it’s difficult to find a fan of the new network.

There are few shaded bus stops here. At the corner of Jensen and Lyons, what appears to be a temporary bus stop sign is attached to a pole on a yellow stand. A rider took cover in the shade of a nearby tree — a shelter from the unrelenting sun.

“They need to do something out here,” said Sherry Green, waiting on the #11 Lyons bus to take her to work in the med center.

The lack of shelters is a problem, according to Joetta Stevenson, of the Fifth Ward Civic Association and the Super-Neighborhood Council. But there is more, she says, that needs to be addressed.

The area depends heavily on public transit and has for generations. “Buses aren’t an amenity, they’re a necessity,” she said. And some of those bus routes by which people would set their watches have changed. “We knew where the buses would take us and now it’s total chaos and confusion. People don’t know and they don’t understand,” Stevenson said.

Outside the community center, seniors whose day revolves around the activities inside, complain that they’ve waited longer for buses for two days. One man said he boarded the bus he always took, but suddenly it took him to somewhere he’d never been before.

The makeover is a change for METRO, and it appears, for a lot of people in Fifth Ward. A METRO app that explains what buses will take you where and when is available, but few seniors at the community center have a smartphone or the interest in using an app.

METRO CEO Tom Lambert said the agency met with Fifth Ward community groups earlier this year. He said new bus shelters are in the works for the area — nearly 40 by the end of next year. He sees the shelters as a way to encourage more ridership in Fifth Ward.

In response to the complaints and confusion expressed about the new routes, Lambert said METRO is addressing the issues constantly, refining and correcting to make it work for those who use it.

So two issues – the lack of shelters, and some people not liking the new system and/or not knowing about it beforehand. The lack of shelters isn’t actually related to system reimagining. It’s a longstanding issue that Metro plans to address (as noted above) thanks to the additional sales tax revenue it receives thanks to the 2012 general mobility provision referendum. Perhaps that could be accelerated a bit, but those shelters weren’t there before system reimagining and wouldn’t be there today if the old map were still in place. I guess if you’re doing a story about people being unhappy with Metro you go with what they tell you, but this is a tangent and not actually germane to the issue.

As for people complaining about waiting longer for buses, it’s hard to know what to make of that without knowing any details. How long are we talking, and how long were they used to waiting? Which bus line are we talking about? Maybe there was a problem that day, maybe it was a matter of good or bad luck with timing, maybe it was a perception issue more than anything else, or maybe there used to be more than one line that ran along the street in question and now there’s just one so your odds of getting lucky on the timing have diminished. Perhaps if the reporter doing this story had checked on any of that she could have attempted to answer some of those questions objectively, or at least provided the information I’m talking about so someone else could look it up. Without it, all I can do is speculate.

I don’t want to minimize the confusion issue. If you’re not on the Internet, I expect the change would be especially confusing, since you wouldn’t have been easily able to try and figure it out beforehand. I don’t know how much engagement Metro had in the Fifth Ward – one meeting? more than one? – but it would be a good idea to schedule a few more, to make sure everyone now understand how the new system works. We always knew this was going to be hard. The fact that things seem to be going well overall doesn’t change that, and it doesn’t get anyone off the hook for fixing the problems that remain. This is fixable, and I do believe that the people in the Fifth Ward and elsewhere will find that the system overall is better and more useful to them. But we do have to get over the initial bumps first.

That’s it for negative stories that I’ve seen so far. For what it’s worth, since the Fifth Ward is a predominantly African-American neighborhood and since there have been questions about how Metro’s service will change in areas like that that are transit-dependent but not heavily populated, I checked a couple of the African-American news sites to see if they had anything my Google searching might not have picked up. Both the Defender and the Sun Times had Day One stories about the unveiling of the new network, but nothing after that that I could see. Make of that what you will. And now that I’m thinking about it, I haven’t seen anything about the often-controversial flex zones, either. Again, maybe there’s stuff happening that isn’t being reported, but I can’t know what I can’t find.

Other stories: Kyle Shelton rode the bus on Day One with his one-year-old, and came away impressed.

We arrived at our bus stop at 8:11. A southbound 56 bus, headed in the opposite direction, rolled by as we approached the curb. The northbound – the bus we wanted – was running a couple of minutes behind schedule, but given the massive overhaul of an entire system of buses that had begun just a few hours earlier, we were patient. Ultimately, we only waited about 10 minutes for our ride.

I noticed that as our bus arrived a second southbound went by. Those buses were less than 15 minutes apart, yet on the same route last week those gaps were closer to 30 minutes.

We rode for free, since METRO is offering complimentary rides all week on local buses and the rail line to promote the changes. Our route took us within steps of the Bayou. We walked across the Montrose pedestrian bridge and watched dogs in the nearby dog park. Our outdoor trip also took us along pathways to Waugh Drive. We grabbed a coffee at Whole Foods and ultimately did a circuit back to Montrose Boulevard.

Our walking route was about the same distance that we cover in our neighborhood most mornings. Only this time, we got to do it along one of Houston’s best landscapes. And we didn’t have to worry about parking.

As we started our walk along Dallas Street back toward Montrose, I saw a southbound 56 bus – the one we needed to take – roll by. Last weekend I would have cursed under my breath knowing that the next bus wouldn’t rumble past for at least 30 minutes. This weekend we just kept walking knowing another would be there soon.

We were at the stop at Dallas and Montrose for no more than three minutes before the next bus arrived. We were home in five more minutes. Our son was down for a nap almost exactly one hour after we left the house to catch the initial Bayou-bound bus.

In the time that we were out, I counted six 56 buses going north and south, including the ones we rode in each direction. Assuming I missed a few when we did our Whole Food circuit, METRO was right on pace with its promised frequency of a bus every 15 minutes.

The 56 runs along Montrose/Studemont/Studewood, which makes it the closest bus route to my house. I have to say, I’ve seen a bunch of these buses go by as I’ve been going about my business. Reading this account made me realize that my best bet for getting to the Art Car Parade next year is likely going to be hopping one of these buses. The possibilities here are definitely intriguing.

Moving on, here’s Raj Mankad:

I am a daily rider and I happened to benefit from the irrational inefficiency of the old system. Two different and relatively frequent buses passed by my house on the way to Downtown. In the new system, only one relatively frequent bus serves my street. Wasted resources like the doubled-up bus lines by my house were distributed to a grid that brings high-frequency lines to our multiple job centers and densely populated areas. I am willing to give up a little service to my street if the whole system works better for me.

The morning of my first ride I experienced some confusion. The bus blew by me as I tried to find a stop on a long, previously unserved stretch by my kids’ school. (Note to METRO: Please put a stop for the 44 at Houston Avenue and Bayland.) It was a minor inconvenience. I waited in a shady spot, the next bus arrived in about 15 minutes, and I transferred to the train at the Downtown Transit Center.

At a table of friendly if harried METRO representatives, I picked up a copy of the new METRO system maps. Designed by Asakura Robinson, METRO, and Traffic Engineers Inc., the new maps are a huge improvement. One bus rider claimed that the old maps were deliberately designed to confound you. Living carless in Houston can be so alienating that you start to believe that METRO’s failures are a nefarious plot. I never looked at the old maps. Taking the bus was a form of mysticism for me. You relied on your intuition. The new maps are so clear they are a revelation. Houston almost makes sense.

The old bus lines were like coils that had been pulled out and stomped on. The ends spiraled around neighborhoods and the middles jogged back and forth across the street grids. Having every bus converge Downtown doesn’t make sense when our city is a multi-nodal conurbation, as Rice School of Architecture professor Albert Pope puts it. Why should I have to travel Downtown from the Heights to get to Uptown?

The new maps are beautiful to behold because the designers had a far more rational and orthogonal set of lines to work with. The Frequent Network map is the piece de resistance. Job centers, parks, freeways, and bayous are shown with the right line weights and opacities at a legible scale. You see our key assets with transit links in the foreground — a view I much prefer to the decontextualized spiderweb of freeways normally used to represent Houston. (The clarity of the map also reveals the service gaps on the east side.)

The Park & Ride, Express, and Key Local Routes map is also gorgeous. Finally, you can see that we already have a commuter system to build on. This new map would have been helpful when I rode the 292 from Missouri City to Rice University for a year, and when I figured out how to get to Galveston by bus.

The 44 is an alternate option for me to get home from work – the 30 would drop me closest to home, but the 44 would do in a pinch. Reading Raj’s story made me look again at the very useful interactive service map and realize that if I wait at Capitol and Smith for a bus going home, I’d actually have three options – the 30, the 44, and the 85 down Washington, connecting to the 56. Given that the 30 is the least frequent of these, that makes my odds of a reasonably short bus trip home on the days when I don’t have the car after work (I carpool with Tiffany, and she sometimes needs to make other trips before going home) are quite a bit better than I thought, and better now than they were before reimagining. Not too shabby there. Oh, and the rest of the article is a really nice story about a rider Mankad met on the way home. Do be sure to read it.

So that’s where we are now. I’ll keep an eye on this in case it falls apart tomorrow. Have you tried the new bus system yet? If so, what do you think?

Metro board approves updated bus reimagining plan

With some provisos.

Despite vocal opposition, Metropolitan Transit Authority board members tentatively approved sweeping changes to the bus route system that restructure routes and change daily habits for nearly everyone who uses a bus today. The approval authorizes staff to move forward with scheduling and other features, but it doesn’t close off public comment.

“We can continue to work with the community and continue to work with elected officials,” said board member Christof Spieler, one of the champions of the so-called reimagining plan.

Community leaders and elected officials asked Metro to delay their decision for a month.

“Once you vote on it, they are in concrete,” said state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Democrat who represents large portions of northeast Houston affected by the service changes.

Board members settled on letting staff move forward, but in a way that permits concerned riders to voice their opposition over the next two months.

[…]

To pull off the major changes, staff will have to plan schedules for 270 routes. Some have different hours for weekdays and weekends, while others have peak schedules when ridership is highest. It is expected to take months to finalize the work, then hold more public meetings to gauge reaction before switching to the new routes in June.

Metro will continue to solicit input from the public on the plan, and will continue to make adjustments as they go. A lot of the opposition came from residents of the Fifth Ward, and a lot of their concern had to do with the proposed flex routes, which are a new and unproven idea in Houston though they’ve been used elsewhere. The Fifth Ward has a population that is both transit-dependent and shrinking, which is a tough problem to grapple with. As Christof Spieler points out in the story, there are places in Houston like Gulfton that are of a similar socioeconomic profile and equally transit dependent but which have much denser populations. These areas, which have been underserved by Metro in the past, stand to be big winners from the new bus service. How do you balance the needs while staying within the budget? There are no easy answers. Metro’s press release is here, Texas Leftist has more.

The Metro board took action on a couple of other items as well. The Highwayman reports:

Metro moved forward with other issues, but many uncertainties remain. Board members approved resolving a spat between Metro and the Texas Department of Transportation over a planned elevated bus lane along Loop 610 in the Uptown area.

The elevated lane is part of a project, led by the Uptown Houston Management District, involving dedicated bus lanes and rapid service along Post Oak Boulevard. TxDOT, which previously committed $25 million to the elevated lane, asked Metro for assurances that the project was not a precursor to rail development.

Metro officials balked at the TxDOT agreement, fearing it violated the 2003 referendum voters approved for rail projects in the Houston area. Thursday, Metro chairman Gilbert Garcia proposed approving the agreement, with the caveat that Attorney General Greg Abbott verify it doesn’t violate the referendum.

“I don’t want Metro for any way to be the reason this project is not going forward,” Garcia said.

The board also agreed that any future rail development along Post Oak would require voter approval.

Meanwhile, after acknowledging delays in opening the new Green and Purple light rail lines, Metro officials said they expect both new lines will open April 4. The delay was caused by downtown hotel construction that severed a chilled water line that required repairs to the rail system, and problems with axle counters along the lines caused by a manufacturer’s defect.

See here for the background on the former, and here for the latter. I hate giving in to the TTC’s strongarming, but the project does need to go forward, and Metro was in a precarious position. At least they have an option if the AG opinion goes their way. As for the new opening date for the Harrisburg and Southeast lines, all I can say is that I sure hope this is the last time it needs to be pushed back. Metro’s press release on that is here.

On schools and neighborhoods

Efforts to revitalize neighborhoods in the Fifth Ward are running into HISD’s proposal to close five schools.

Nearly half the students who attend Nathaniel Q. Henderson Elementary School live steps away from campus in an aging, rundown apartment complex. The neighborhood, in Houston’s historic Fifth Ward, is at a crossroads.

The city is seeking a federal grant to help fund a multimillion-dollar makeover of Cleme Manor Apartments, even as school district officials consider closing N.Q. Henderson Elementary due to low enrollment.

Parents and elected officials in the area say they see a contradiction, with the high-poverty neighborhood northeast of downtown teetering between deterioration and revitalization.

“If there’s no school, how am I going to draw more people in this area?” City Councilman Jerry Davis asked the school board this month. “We need to work together. We can’t have one entity going out doing good works and not the other.”

Henderson Elementary is one of five campuses on HISD’s potential closure list. After hearing from the public at a series of meetings, the district plans to reveal any changes to the proposal next week. The school board is set to vote March 13.

One of HISD’s smallest elementary schools, Henderson enrolls roughly 360 students. About 170 live at Cleme Manor Apartments, a development for low-income tenants on Coke Street, a crosswalk away from Henderson.

In early February, the city’s housing department gave notice that it is seeking final approval for a $3 million federal grant to renovate Cleme Manor. The project, according to the notice, would promote affordable housing and “encourage economic revitalization for Houston’s near north-side.” The funds would come from a grant dedicated to recovery after Hurricane Ike.

[…]

The city also is considering pursuing a federal grant to help fund more than 160 single-family homes that would be scattered across the Fifth Ward, said Stedman Grigsby of the Housing and Community Development Department.

Justin Silhavy, the demographer for the Houston Independent School District, said he is in regular contact with city officials and knows about the planned projects. However, he said, he doesn’t expect the number of children in the general area to grow significantly.

Several schools around Henderson Elementary also are underpopulated. HISD’s rezoning plan could help fill Pugh and Bruce elementary schools – each less than two miles from Henderson – though students could end up choosing to attend other campuses under the district’s transfer policy.

See here and here for the background on HISD’s plan. For this part of the plan, HISD would send Henderson students to two other nearby schools, both of which are also underpopulated. The problem is that the area has been steadily losing people for years now. I believe the Fifth Ward is ripe for the kind of redevelopment we’ve seen in Midtown and EaDo, but I have no idea what the timeframe is for that, and there’s no guarantee that will lead to an increase in the kid population. So I get why HISD is proposing these closures – as the Chron editorialized, the objective case is good, but community engagement has been sorely lacking. Even then, it’s a tough thing to close schools. The effect on a neighborhood where a couple hundred kids already attend a given school is profound and disruptive, and in this case is in conflict with the larger goal of attracting people back to that neighborhood. I’d like to know what an alternate plan, one that involves investing in these schools to entice students, perhaps students that don’t currently attend an HISD school, to enroll there might look like before I’d be willing to sign off on closing them.

Food deserts and booze bans

It’s complicated.

A city ordinance intended to keep alcohol sales at a distance from schools and churches could be relaxed for grocery stores in an effort to alleviate some of the so-called “food deserts” that plague poorer neighborhoods across Houston.

The City Council is expected to take up the proposed revisions this week in hopes of removing one of the many barriers keeping Houston’s struggling neighborhoods from landing large groceries, which experts say must offer beer and wine to be competitive.

The idea is to make more locations available for supermarkets in areas where residents lack access to fresh, healthy foods. Studies have linked food deserts to diet-related diseases, as well as higher food prices for the residents in such areas.

University of Houston researchers have estimated 26 percent of Harris County residents, most in low-income areas, lack access to healthy food, slightly above the national average.

One of those areas is Houston’s Fifth Ward. The neighborhood just northeast of downtown is home to scores of stray dogs, liquor stores, abandoned buildings, illegal dump sites strewn with tires, and many churches. The historic neighborhood is not home to a large grocery store that stocks what residents consider reliably good, fresh produce.

A city ordinance currently prohibits the sale of alcohol within 300 feet of churches, public hospitals and most private schools, and within 1,000 feet of public schools and some private schools.

In Fifth Ward, these restrictions mean full-size groceries cannot build on many of the tracts large enough to hold them, since churches often sit right across the street.

“To have a grocery store with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, everything, it would attract people to move into the area,” Fifth Ward civic activist Kathy Blueford-Daniels said. “It would have a positive impact on the community because people wouldn’t have to travel so far. A lot of the people here still ride buses.”

[…]

Many of the multi-acre sites suitable for a grocery store are on major thoroughfares, precisely where churches and schools tend to locate, said Councilman Stephen Costello, who has worked on the food desert problem.

“We started plotting out all the areas we wanted to focus on and started plotting where the churches and schools were and realized, ‘Wow, we’re limiting exactly where we can put these stores,’ ” Costello said. “Some of these grocery stores, a small part of their sales is going to be alcohol, it’s just a part of their business plan. We had to figure out a way that, if we allow for the encroachment, it’s only for grocery stores that predominantly sell nothing but food.”

Maybe it’s because I’m not particularly religious, but I don’t quite get the restriction on alcohol sales near churches. I get it for schools, but for churches that seems more like a Prohibition-era remnant of official disapproval rather than a piece of coherent public policy. It’s not a huge deal, but this sort of restrictions should not in any way impede the goal of enabling grocery stores to be built in neighborhoods that really need them. I’m sure Council will figure it out.

Fifth Ward revitalization

I’m very glad to see this renewal project going on it the Fifth Ward.

But now the stains of that past are being scrubbed clean by the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation with what it calls the Lyons Avenue Renaissance.

The multimillion-dollar project aims to attract new businesses and homeowners to one of Houston’s oldest neighborhoods. It’s being funded in part by grants from Starbucks, Reliant Energy, the city of Houston, Mission of Peace, the NBA and Gulf Coast Community Services Association.

Since May 2012, abandoned lots have been cleaned, parks and homes have been constructed and retail spaces are being built along the Lyons Avenue Corridor, which stretches from Waco Street to Jensen Drive. Along with the main office for the Lyons Avenue project, two accountants and a hairdresser have opened for business.

“We are looking at creating a community of transition and a community that has life and sustainability,” said the Rev. Harvey Clemons, project chairman. “You cannot build it for yesterday. You must build it for tomorrow.”

[…]

During NBA All-Star weekend, basketball stars joined volunteers to build a new playground in the Lyons corridor for the newly named Legends Play Space. Due later in April is the solar-powered splash pad donated by Reliant Energy. Both are just a part of the revitalization efforts in the Lyons neighborhood.

A new 10,000-square-foot city library, a health and wellness facility, about 100 units of housing for independent living seniors and mixed-income residents and the restoration of the historic Deluxe Theater are also expected to be completed by 2015.

So far the redevelopment corporation has spent more than $2 million in renovations. The entire project is estimated to cost $30 million.

What I like most about this is that it has the approval and participation of neighborhood residents. Renewal and redevelopment shouldn’t mean that the people who already live there get priced or bought out. There are plenty of places in Houston to get a McMansion or a townhome with gold bathroom fixtures. There’s not nearly enough places with affordable housing. Ideally, projects like this can help make it be that the children who grow up in the Fifth Ward will want to, and be able to, live there as grownups. Maybe even entice some former children of the Fifth Ward to come back there, since as the story notes the area has seen its population shrink and change in recent years.

The project expects a 4 to 6 percent population growth once the first phase is completed, said Kathy Flanagan Payton, CEO of the redevelopment corporation.

A grocery store and shopping center also have been discussed.

“People don’t want to live where they don’t have amenities,” she said. “It’s a food desert here because they don’t have available groceries within a five-mile radius.”

Housing is nice, but amenities are critical. Nobody wants to drive to another part of town, especially in Houston traffic, to go to the grocery store if they don’t have to. I look forward to seeing the next phase of this project.

On helping District B

District B Council Member Jerry Davis is taking a direct approach to improving his district.

CM Jerry Davis

Davis hopes to inspire through his do-it-yourself approach a strengthened ethic of self-reliance. The answers to the challenges of District B, and there are many – high poverty, low graduation rates, abandoned homes, illegal dumping and crumbling streets – often lie with the residents of the district, not with City Hall, he said.

Davis is trying to fix District B one lot at a time. He frequently goes into the field in khakis or shorts to do trash pickups and weed lots. He is trying to find a way to make free estate planning advice available to reduce the number of homes that fall into decay once the family matriarch dies without a will. He has convened a task force to strategize ways to combat illegal dumping. He has formed a District B advisory council, not just to get feedback on what needs fixing, but to ask attendees what they intend to do about the issues they raise. On Saturday, he led a march at Tidwell Park to promote literacy in a district where just 31 percent of residents have high school diplomas.

His approach differs in emphasis from that of his predecessors. Jarvis Johnson, who served six years as District B councilman until last December, lauded his successor’s willingness to toil in the trenches. Johnson himself focused much of his energy on wooing developers. It is a matter of impact, Johnson explained.

“I didn’t want to chase my tail. The only way you change a community is by creating development,” Johnson said. Cutting weeds down works for a short time, Johnson said. Then the weeds grow back.

“When you can build on a vacant lot, it no longer is a weeded lot. It no longer is a dump site,” he said.

Johnson talks about luring a Joe V’s discount grocery store and a residential development known as Leland Woods to the district more than he does about his cleanup days.

Carol Mims Galloway, the District B councilwoman from 2000-2005, made roads, bridges and drainage her main concern. The district became the leading recipient of city capital improvement project funds on her watch.

“If you don’t lay the foundation, how are you going to attract businesses?” Galloway asked. She questioned whether Davis had a true feel for the district given that he only recently returned to live there. Even as he campaigned for office last year, Davis continued to claim a homestead property tax exemption on a house in Pearland.

There’s merit in both approaches, but it’s also somewhat of a chicken-and-egg question. District B needs cleanup and infrastructure, and it also needs to attract not just new businesses but new residents. The Fifth Ward will be the last bastion of affordable property in the urban core. It’s very much in the city’s best interest to help District B flourish. We can argue about the details later, but let’s get a commitment to the goal first.

Ike rebuilding funds finally coming

About time.

More than 3½ years after Hurricane Ike, a high-ranking federal housing official and Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday that $151 million in federal disaster relief money is on the way to four areas of Houston to rebuild or repair homes and apartments.

“It’s about time we get this taken care of,” Parker said. “Because of the enormous devastation caused by Hurricane Ike, there’s still too many Houstonians and whole neighborhoods that are reeling from the impact.”

Houston housing officials scattered the previous $87 million in Ike housing money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development across the city. This time, they have chosen to channel the money to Acres Homes, Independence Heights, a northeast Houston crescent centered around the Fifth Ward, and Sunnyside/South Park/South Union in hopes of contributing to neighborhood redevelopment, as well as fixing individual homes.

Residents of those neighborhoods, assembled under the aegis of the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), which advocates for low-income people, have protested at City Hall about the pace of relief.

The federal money was allocated to the state.

“The state has been slow on that (passing the money to Houston) in the past,” said Mercedes Marquez, a HUD assistant secretary who attended the announcement. She said, though, that since last summer, when the state put the General Land Office in charge of Ike funding, the pace has “dramatically improved.”

Here’s the Mayor’s press release about this. The way that federal funds for Ike recovery have been disbursed has been controversial from the beginning. Here’s a Houston Tomorrow story from January 2010 that gives some of the details. I don’t want to look back at all that, I want to look forward, and when I do what I see is a tremendous opportunity for the city to help revitalize some historic neighborhoods that really need the help. I hope infrastructure improvements, whether through these funds or through the startup of Rebuild Houston, are a major component. In addition to contributing to the real estate recovery in Houston, if we do this right we can make some low-cost and underpopulated parts of town more attractive to developers, and thus draw people looking for housing closer in and inside city limits instead of the far-flung suburbs. There’s so much potential for good here, but job one is helping out the residents in these neighborhoods who have waited far too long for the assistance they’ve been owed. Let’s take care of them and go from there.

Still waiting on the new density rules

With all that went on last year in Houston, one item that had been on the table was a revision of Chapter 42, to redefine the rules about density and other codes for developers. The planned revisions never made it to Council for a vote, and the city is starting over with a new cast on Council to get this going again.

Developers and city officials say the first major revisions since 1999 to the city’s density rules, known as Chapter 42, are necessary to accommodate the next wave of Houston’s growth. U-Haul recently announced that Houston is the No. 1 destination in the country for movers for the third straight year.

Projections are for Houston’s population to grow by more than 27,000 people a year in coming decades.

Without rule changes, they will not find affordable places to live in Houston, Mayor Annise Parker warned.

“We have to continue to find ways to preserve a range of housing opportunities for our residents. We don’t want to become a city where if you have lots of money to spend you can find a place to live and if you have very little money to spend you (don’t) have good housing stock available,” Parker said.

The heart of the Chapter 42 amendments is taking the cap of 27 houses per acre that exists inside the Loop and extending it out to the Beltway. That would allow many more houses to be built than currently allowed on typical 5,000-square-foot lots.

“We’re not getting new single-family residential being built from 610 to the Beltway,” said Joshua Sanders, a lobbyist for developers. “We’re losing a lot of our population to the county and to the surrounding cities.” That means longer commutes and fewer city property tax revenues.

Increased density means cheaper houses because developers can fit more of them on the same piece of land. Depending on the location and the type of dwelling, the new rules could knock $100,000 off the sales price, Sanders said.

This story is more a recap than a report of something new, so I don’t have anything new to add as well. I will simply note again that there’s more empty, or at least greatly underdeveloped, space in Houston than you probably think. I’ve gone on at length about the Fifth Ward, but recent travels around the city doing interviews have reminded me of other areas that are as wide open, in places like Sunnyside and Hiram Clarke. My point is that the city of Houston already has a lot of room to accommodate that projected growth and more. Some of it absolutely needs to be in the form of more dense development, but some of it also needs to be taking advantage of this existing space. What both of these have in common is a need for improved infrastructure to make them viable and desirable. If we don’t solve these problems, we’re going to lose out to the places that have solved them.

Our diverse region

Cool.

The Houston region is now the most ethnically diverse large metropolitan area in the country, surpassing New York City.

Two suburbs – Missouri City and Pearland – have become even more diverse than the city of Houston. Other suburbs aren’t far behind.

These findings are from a report released Monday by Rice University researchers, based on an analysis of census data from 1990, 2000 and 2010.

“We are a little United Nations,” Pearland Mayor Tom Reid said. “You go to one of our neighborhoods, and there will be a person from Nigeria living next to somebody from India, living next to somebody from Mexico and somebody from Louisiana.”

The report also found that while residential segregation has dropped over the past 20 years, it remains highest within the city of Houston; most suburban neighborhoods are less racially segregated.

Report co-author Michael Emerson, co-director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice, said poverty, aging housing and larger concentrations of minority groups all contribute to continued segregation in Houston.

New neighborhoods often attract people from a range of racial and ethnic groups, he said. “There’s no history that says, ‘You can’t come here.’ ”

Greg addresses that point.

Obviously, some of what leads to remnant segregation of Houstonians is that you have major parts of town fully developed and that have had multiple generations living in close proximity. So it seems logical that some areas of Third Ward and River Oaks would remain as they are. And as you build up undeveloped areas around those parts of town, the pool of buyers is generally going to be more diverse. That’s why you see pockets of Hispanic neighborhoods near Katy and newer Asian home-buyers filling in the area between Alief and Sugar Land, as well as between Alief and Willowbrook Mall. The fact that there was plenty of open space to develop creates this, in other words.

Greg has time series demographic maps to show how the region has changed over the last 30 years. It’s my observation that we’re going to start to see some of this change being driven in the older African-American neighborhoods like the Fifth Ward as well. That area has been losing population over the years, and as that happens more space opens up, which along with its proximity to downtown will begin to make it more attractive to developers looking for affordable parcels of land. In some other places, open space has been there all along but has not been used. Go drive Hiram Clarke from US90 to Fuqua to see what I mean. In another 20 years, I think we’ll see quite a bit more change. The full Kinder Institute report is here if you want more.

Where the poverty is

It’s all around us, but more in some places than in others.

The number of Houston-area residents living in very poor neighborhoods almost doubled over the past decade, which researchers say increases their risk for unemployment, health problems and crime.

The neighborhoods identified in a Brookings Institution study of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas are concentrated in Houston’s inner city, with smaller pockets across the region.

Some of the increase came as rising unemployment pushed people already living in those neighborhoods below the poverty level. Researchers say the lack of affordable housing in more affluent neighborhoods likely contributed to the increased concentration of the poor, as well.

Many of these high-poverty neighborhoods – defined as those in which 40 percent or more of the residents are poor – have been the focus of renewal efforts for years.

“The Fifth Ward is void of jobs,” said Jarvis Johnson, whose City Council district includes the neighborhood east of downtown, home to several of the high-poverty census tracts cited in the study. “There aren’t any commercial grocery stores. There aren’t any places where young people can get a job.”

[…]

Kathy Flanagan Payton, who grew up in the Fifth Ward and now runs the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corp., said poverty too often leads to powerlessness.

“Poverty weakens the voice of the people,” said Payton. “It dampens the overall spirit of the community.”

Like Councilman Jarvis, she said the neighborhood is hurt by the lack of retail.

“No money is being spent in the community,” she said. “It’s all spent outside the community.”

I see that as being more effect than cause. Most of the money spent at a given business doesn’t necessarily stay in the community. Taxes go to the city and state, TIRZes aside. The owners and employees will spend their wages and profits where they live, which may or may not be in that community – if the business is not locally owned, much of its revenue may not even stay in the city.

Of course, having retail means having jobs, which certainly benefit the community, and it means having amenities that make people want to live there. It’s hard to attract people to a neighborhood that doesn’t have grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, dry cleaners, etc etc etc. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem – businesses don’t want to be where there isn’t an established market, and people don’t want to live where there’s nothing to do and no place to go.

The good news for the Fifth Ward, as I’ve said before, is its status as the last bastion of cheap real estate inside the Loop. Sooner or later, I believe, it will become attractive to the speculators and pioneer gentrifiers. The neighborhood appears to be ready for that.

[Payton’s] group builds affordable housing and is involved in efforts to renovate the DeLuxe Theater on Lyons Avenue, which Texas Southern University will use for classes and performances.

The goal isn’t to bring back the old Fifth Ward, which was the heart of African-American life in the 1940s and ’50s, Payton said, noting that it is now about 40 percent Latino.

“We’re trying to diversify the community, both socially and culturally,” she said, “to improve the overall economics that will lead to much-needed retail and bring jobs.”

I hope to see it happen. See here for more on the national story.

The Fifth Ward

Lisa Gray writes about a popular art project making a reappearance in a new place.

Six years ago, the white guys – Dan Havel and Dean Ruck – smashed up a couple of other bungalows, and in the process, created Inversion, one of the most astounding of pieces of art that Houston had ever seen. A giant horizontal vortex, made from the bungalows’ own wood siding, seemed to rip through the houses – a sight that literally stopped traffic on Montrose Boulevard.

It was public art that the public loved. People who never set foot in galleries asked their neighbors whether they’d seen it. Parents snapped photos of their kids crawling into the funnel’s mouth; dog owners snapped photos of their mutts peeking out the little hole at its tail. Pranksters stuck Realtors’ signs out front. Inversion appeared on Christmas cards, newspapers, magazines and the TV news. And naturally, it was a Web sensation.

But it was easy, too, to read meaning into the spectacle. Montrose, like other neighborhoods, was gentrifying fast. Its bungalows and other old houses were disappearing; townhouses and highrises seemed to appear overnight, out of nowhere. The time-space continuum seemed in flux. The past was being sucked into the future. A vortex was ripping through.

[…]

Fifth Ward Jam, as Havel and Ruck call the piece they recently finished, isn’t at all a copy of Inversion. Jam is made from one bungalow instead of two, and it has multiple vortexes, not just one. In front of all the wooden chaos, there’s an area that could serve as a stage. But anyone who remembers Inversion will immediately recognize Jam as its kin.

The main difference, really, is the site: The Fifth Ward is wildly different from arty, gentrifying Montrose. In the past decades, change has crept in, here and there – a new-ish apartment complex sits directly across Lyons Avenue from Jam – but the neighborhood remains much the same: mostly African American, mostly poor. Weedy lots and vacant houses are problems here; gentrification and whirlwind change are not.

One of the things I like about doing candidate interviews is that they give me an opportunity to visit different parts of the city. To interview the candidates in District B, I made several visits into the Fifth Ward, which is a neighborhood I can’t honestly say I’d been to before. One of these interviews took me past Fifth Ward Jam, which was cool to see. But what really struck me as I drove around was how close this all was to downtown. Gentrification and whirlwind change may not be a part of the Fifth Ward today, but I think it’s inevitable, and frankly is probably just around the corner. If you look at the neighborhoods surrounding downtown, it’s what’s left for redevelopment. The Heights, the Washington corridor, Neartown, the Museum District, Montrose, and Midtown are all pretty much built out – for sure there’s little if any cheap property available in any of them. EaDo and the Near Northside are getting there. But east of 59 and north of I-10, it’s as Gray describes it. If you’re a real estate developer, you’ve got to see the potential there.

And, while I get what Gray is saying about an absence of change in the Fifth Ward, the Census number suggest otherwise. Take a look at the demographics of the neighborhood and how they compare to a decade ago:

------------------------------------------------------------------ Hispanic Afr-Am Asian Anglo Tot. Pop ------------------------------------------------------------------ 2000 7,943 (36.3%) 13,464 (61.5%) 62 (0.3%) 327 (1.5%) 21,879 2010 8,735 (45.3%) 9,739 (50.5%) 85 (0.4%) 556 (2.9%) 19,288

That’s quite a bit of change. In particular, I find the drop in the number of African-American residents stunning. The fact that the population declined overall, by more than ten percent, is further evidence to me that the area is ripe for redevelopment. Who’s going to be there to resist it?

Just so we’re all clear, the data above refer to the highlighted area in this map:

The Fifth Ward

The yellow area at the southern end is Census Tract 2114, and it’s likely a leading indicator for the Fifth Ward as a whole:

Tract 2114 -------------------------------------------------------------------- Hispanic Afr-Am Asian Anglo Tot. Pop. -------------------------------------------------------------------- 1980 421 ( 8.2%) 4,664 (90.8%) 10 (0.2%) 36 (0.7%) 5,137 1990 554 (14.4%) 3,228 (84.2%) 28 (0.7%) 24 (0.6%) 3,837 2000 921 (25.4%) 2,609 (72.1%) 17 (0.5%) 59 (1.6%) 3,620 2010 1,310 (35.5%) 1,986 (53.8%) 70 (1.9%) 288 (7.8%) 3,690

Note the jump in Anglo population, which while still quite small in absolute terms seems likely to grow, as this portion of the Fifth Ward abuts and arguably overlaps EaDo. As with the greater Fifth Ward, the African-American population has dropped off considerably, while the Hispanic population has increased, though not nearly enough to make up for the African-American decline. It will be very interesting to see how the population mix in this area changes over the next decade. Speaking of which, here’s a comparison of the Fifth Ward’s demography from 1980 and 2010:

Fifth Ward 1980

Fifth Ward 2010

Areas with an African-American majority are colored black in the maps above; those with a Hispanic majority are brown, with an Anglo majority are red, and with no majority are either yellow or green, depending on your monitor settings. Like I said, this area has already seen a lot of change, more than you might have thought if your frame of reference is like mine. I believe this change will be more visible to those of us who do not live there in the coming years.

All Census data and images come courtesy of Greg Wythe, whose wizardry in these matters regularly amazes me. My sincere thanks to him for helping me illustrate the point I wanted to make. Finally, on a side note, Robert Boyd highlights another eye-catching piece of art in the Fifth Ward, and JR Gonzales has some excellent photos of the area from the 1950s. Check ’em out.