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Germantown

More on the proposed I-45 changes

Offcite reads the documents and provides some bullet points.

1. I-45 Would Rival I-10 in Width

The plan would dramatically widen I-45 to more than 30 lanes in certain sections. North of 610, I-45 would rival the Katy Freeway in its expanse. Though the west side of I-45 at Crosstimbers is largely vacant, TxDOT plans to take major right of way east of I-45 where many businesses thrive, including the Culinary Institute. The greater capacity to move automobiles might be accompanied by increased cancer risk and asthma for Houstonians generally, and for those living close to the path in particular.

2. I-69 Would Be Sunken through Midtown and Museum District

All of I-69 from Shepherd to Commerce Street would be sunk as deep as 20 feet below grade. That is to say, all the above-ground sections in Midtown and the Museum District (Greater Third Ward) would be sunken and widened, radically transforming the landscape in these neighborhoods. As Tory Gattis notes, the plans would eliminate the bottleneck at Spur 527.

3. TxDOT Would Demolish Apartments, Public Housing, and Homeless Services in EaDo

Lofts at the Ballpark, Clayton Homes (public housing), and the SEARCH building (a 27,000-square-foot facility for services to the homeless that is just now breaking ground) are in the path of the widened I-45/I-69 freeway east of Downtown, and will be torn down at the expense of taxpayers.

[…]

6. New Slimmed-Down Bridges for Cars to Cross Buffalo Bayou

The section of the “Pierce Elevated” over Buffalo Bayou would be rebuilt with new Downtown connectors that TxDOT alternately describes as “parkways” and “spurs.” Though the official rendering is dull, the public-private partnerships that have rebuilt the parks along the bayous might help bring about new iconic bridges for cars. A Sky Park in this location is unlikely because moving traffic across the bayou is considered a major priority for many stakeholders.

That’s a lot of real estate that could be sacrificed for this project, if it comes to pass – as the story notes, funding has not yet been secured for it. The bridges will be a contentious issue, at least in my neighborhood. Already there’s a disagreement between those who applaud and advocate for the closing of the North Street bridge, and those who want to maintain it so as not to cut off a large segment of the neighborhood from the east side of I-45. There are also some potentially good things that could happen, as item #2 points out. I’ll say again, if this goes through it will be the most consequential event of the next Mayor’s tenure. Sure would be nice to know what that Mayor thinks about it, wouldn’t it?

Germantown gets historic designation

Congratulations to what may be the last historic district created in the city of Houston.

The first historic district created under a stricter rewrite of Houston’s preservation ordinance passed City Council on Wednesday, though conservationists predicted future districts will be scarce even as they cheered the milestone.

With council’s 11-5 vote, Germantown Historic District – nestled between Interstate 45 and Houston Avenue, with Alma to the north and Woodland Park to the south – becomes the city’s 20th protected historic neighborhood.

Mayor Annise Parker devoted time and effort in 2010 to strengthening the city’s previously toothless preservation ordinance, which allowed historic structures to be razed even if the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission disagreed.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to be using the historic preservation ordinance that much; we had captured many of the historic districts,” said Parker, who lives in Westmoreland Historic District. “I hope more neighborhoods use it.”

[…]

Wendy Parker led the effort to create the Germantown district, the name of which stems from the presence of German farmers in the area north of White Oak Bayou in the late 1800s, according to the city planning department.

“We started to see town homes pop up and historic homes being knocked down at will without any consideration for the history of them or necessarily the condition,” she said. “We wanted to stop that process and make sure the architectural character of the neighborhood was kept.”

See here to learn more about Germantown, which is just east of the Woodland Heights – basically, it’s the neighborhood in the triangle formed by Houston Avenue, I-45, and White Oak – and see CultureMap for more, including a Google Map view of Germantown if you still can’t visualize where it is. I met Wendy Parker at an I-45 public forum last year, and I know one of the reasons she was pushing for this was as a defense against proposal to expand I-45 that would require condemning property in Germantown. I hope this does it for them.

I-45 again

I went to the open house for I-45 on Tuesday night to see what was going on, since we didn’t have much information about what the current state of TxDOT’s thinking is about this. Apparently, there isn’t a set plan yet. They’re soliciting input and have a five-year timeline before coming to a Record of Decision in 2016 for the project. What that means is that it’s important to start giving them feedback now. I would recommend you attend tonight’s open house if you didn’t make it on Tuesday, and bookmark the North Houston Highway Improvement Project website, where you can also go to give feedback. That website is still under construction, but there is supposed to be a comment form up there; you can also send email with your input.

One thing that I gleaned from talking to people, including Viula from The Heights Life: Apparently, TxDOT is saying that they do not intend to acquire any further right of way for the section of I-45 between Quitman and Cavalcade. If you go to the History section of the NHHIP website, you will see that this comes from the November 2005 final North-Hardy Planning, Alternatives Analysis Report:

As a result of public comments on the Draft report, the Draft Recommended Alternative from Downtown to Beltway 8 was revised. The Final report states:

“It is the goal of TxDOT to remain within the existing right-of-way of IH 45 as improvements to this congested freeway corridor are designed and developed. The existing right-of-way south of IH 610 is limited and multiple design options will need to be explored to remain within the existing right-of-way. Design options could include: reduced shoulder width requirements; reduced or eliminated frontage roads; cantilevered frontage roads, elevated roadway sections, and other creative engineering techniques. These options along with the feasibility to add capacity to the Hardy Toll Road will be thoroughly explored during preliminary engineering and preparation of the environmental document for this project.”

During the approval process for the Final report for the Highway Component, TxDOT agreed to the following project goals when the preliminary design and environmental document preparation phase begins:

– Stay within the existing IH 45 right of way between Quitman St. and Cavalcade St., except at intersections where turn lanes may be needed.

– Minimize effects on quality of life issues of the residents and neighborhoods in the project area.

– Study Hardy Toll Road as an alternative route for additional lanes.

– Evaluate use of tunnels as an alternative in areas of constrained right-of-way.

That’s good news for our neighborhood, but still leaves a lot of room for disruption elsewhere. To me, it remains the case that widening I-45 north of downtown is just going to result in bigger traffic jams through downtown on the Pierce Elevated. It also remains the case that there is a fair amount of underutilized capacity on the Hardy Toll Road, and that the eventual extension of the Hardy into downtown ought to help ease I-45’s woes a bit. The TxDOT folks I talked to couldn’t really address that as it’s not their project, but I note that construction for it is scheduled to start in 2013, meaning it will likely be done before there’s a ROD on I-45. Something to keep in mind. There are also freight rail tracks alongside the Hardy that I bet would make for a decent commuter rail line; if you’re going to make a comment to TxDOT – and you should – you should emphasize that, since they claim to be open to all possibilities at this point. That also apparently includes tunneling, but I didn’t see Gonzalo Camacho there, so who knows if this is still being pushed by anyone.

Since the NHHIP website is pretty bare right now, I thought I’d scan the handouts I got and post them here for your perusal:

TxDOT NHHIP handout, page 1

TxDOT NHHIP handout, page 2

TxDOT NHHIP handout, page 3

There was also a lady there representing Germantown, the little historic development nestled in between I-45, Quitman, and Houston Avenue that would have been wiped off the map if the proposal that was once floated to redirect I-45 down Houston Avenue had ever been taken seriously. While I think that was never likely to be considered, the folks in Germantown are taking no chances and are seeking historic designation from the city as an extra layer of defense. Here’s her handout:

Germantown historic designation, page 1

Germantown historic designation, page 2

Finally, on a related note, a hot idea these days among urbanist types is that cities should consider dismantling the highways that run through them. Yglesias explains the basic logic:

[T]he purpose of a highway is to make it easy to travel long distances in short periods of time. But the central fact about cities is that almost by definition they’re not far from downtown. When you build a freeway that leads from downtown, through residential areas, out to the suburbs what you’re doing is making it easier to get to stuff downtown without living in the city. If you replaced the freeway with a normal at-grade road, suddenly it would make more sense to live closer to downtown. The idea of urban freeway construction was to preserve the vitality of downtown areas at a time when more people wanted to move out to the suburbs. But trying to preserve downtown at the cost of eliminating your residential neighborhood’s core advantage — it’s easy to get downtown! — was fantastically short-sighted.

That sound you hear is heads exploding all over Texas. While I think this is an idea that deserves a fair amount of serious debate, there’s an inescapable fact about the freeways in our fair city, and that’s that they are a necessity for hurricane evacuation. As such, there really isn’t a case to be made for it here. Personally, I’d be delighted if we could just avoid building more freeways in the middle of nowhere to accommodate people who don’t live there yet and instead focused our resources on making it easier and more convenient for those who do live in the urban core to get around without having to use the freeways, thus freeing up more space on them for those who must. That would be a win-win if we ever did it.