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Heights Boulevard

On getting to walkable urbanism

This story about neighborhood opposition to the Kroger 380 agreement doesn’t quite get at what I think are the key issues that need to be discussed.

[O]pponents of both the Wal-Mart and Kroger deals say suburban-style big-box stores don’t fit a widely-held urban vision for Washington Avenue Corridor. They’d like to see more incentives offered for development by small businesses or in more needy neighborhoods.

“It’s a lost opportunity for how we should be developing our urban space,” said Tom Dornbusch, who lives in Woodcrest. “Why don’t we incentivize something appropriate for these sites rather than just servicing the frontage roads on I-10?”

That five members of Houston City Council opposed the Kroger deal at least shows that neighborhood activists have “raised the consciousness” of some council members since the Ainbinder agreement was approved, Dornbusch said.

Dornbusch is an officer in the Washington Avenue Coalition/Memorial Park Super Neighborhood Council, a coalition of homeowner groups well-versed on planning and quality of life issues in this redeveloping area west of downtown. These groups helped raise matching funds for a Liveable Centers Study of the Washington Avenue Corridor.

Former City Councilman Peter Brown, an architect and urban planner with nonprofit Better Houston, has aided their planning efforts.

Like Dornbusch, he thinks the area is well-suited to become a teeming urban landscape that accommodates both pedestrians and transit, either rail or streetcar, which the neighborhoods have embraced.

But right now, economic development favors “the lands, Pearland, Sugar Land and the Woodlands,” Brown said, and that brings big-box stores to the fore.

“These are the kinds of things that city policy needs to consider, and it is evolving. It is evolving toward smaller urban growth. We’re just not there yet,” Brown said.

The issues here, at least as I see them, are whether it’s a good idea for the city to pursue 380 agreements of any kind in areas where development is likely to occur naturally, and whether the developments that are being pursued in these two 380 locations are suitable and desirable from an urbanist perspective. I can’t quite tell from the story whether Dornbusch and Brown are evaluating these deals separately or lumping them together. As I see it, the two sites are fundamentally different. There’s no reason why the Ainbinder/Washington Heights property couldn’t or shouldn’t be connected to and a key part of the walkable urban vision for the Washington corridor. It abuts a neighborhood to the west and apartments to the south – there used to be apartments to the east as well, but they were torn down to make room for more suburban-style development – and is certainly close enough to be reachable from a future Inner Katy rail line stop or streetcar stop at Heights Boulevard. With the West End Multipurpose Center and some townhome development already there, and who knows what to come in where the Center Street recycling center currently is, the Ainbinder location could be an epicenter of a real urban neighborhood. Instead, it’s going to be more like a sinkhole, separating places that should be connected, and that’s just a shame and a wasted opportunity.

The Kroger location, on the other hand, seems to me to be a much better fit for a supermarket or other car-oriented shopping center. Its neighbors are things like Arne’s, the Sawyer Heights Target center, Party Boy, and a truck depot. Where Yale and Heights have sidewalks that can connect the Washington Heights site to either side of I-10 if you ensure there’s a safe pedestrian crossing there, Studemont has no sidewalk from I-10 north to Stude Street, and from Hicks south to Center there’s only a very narrow sidewalk on the east side of the street. The eventual connection of Summer Street ought to be walkable, but Studemont will still serve as a dead end for anyone on foot. Otherwise, it’s basically cut off from Washington to the south and the Heights to the north. Who would ever walk there? With a long-term plan and control of most of the property between I-10 and Center, and Studemont and Sawyer, you could build something urban, but how likely is that to happen on its own? Washington Heights is close to that, or at least it was before Ainbinder screwed it up. Sawyer Heights isn’t.

Because of that, I don’t have any philosophical objections to a grocery store going in at that location, even though I know it’s going to mess up traffic. The question about 380 agreements is going to be more in the forefront – litigation will do that – but I don’t want to lose sight of the suitability question. I think it’s the more important discussion to have.

The Ainbinder traffic impact analysis for the Height Wal-Mart

When last we discussed the Heights Wal-Mart development, we were awaiting a traffic impact analysis (TIA) on the roads around the site, which was to be done on behalf of Ainbinder, the developer of the project. For your perusal, here is the TIA of the Wal-Mart development. I want to quote you a paragraph from the executive summary:

The results of this traffic engineering study indicate that the construction of IH-10 frontage roads and resulting changes in traffic patterns will impact both mobility and traffic operations within the study area on a much greater scale than the new trips generated by the proposed Washington Heights development. Furthermore, it was found that the addition of the proposed retail development is not expected to cause a significant reduction in LOS beyond what is expected for year 2012 No Build conditions.

“LOS” is “level of service”, and it refers to the congestion and wait-time conditions at intersections; they are given grades from A (always smooth flow, no problems at all) to F (“Unstable traffic flow. Heavy congestion. Traffic moves in forced flow condition. Average delays of greater than one minute highly probable. Total breakdown.”) based on what is observed or projected. What Kimley-Horn, the firm that conducted the TIA for Ainbinder, is saying is that the intersection of Yale and the under-construction I-10 service roads will start off as an F even if the Wal-Mart site is still an empty lot in 2012.

Does that sound credible to you? It doesn’t to me. I used to take Height Boulevard south past I-10, for several years after dropping my kids off at preschool. It was not unusual for me to have to sit through one light cycle on Heights, but that was because the duration of the green light for the southbound approach at I-10 West was only about 15 seconds. (Believe me, I timed it myself out of frustration more than once.) The folks coming from the I-10 West service road, who were the bulk of the traffic and were mostly turning left (south) onto Heights had a nice long light, and had no trouble. (A corollary to this was that the green light for the southbound approach at I-10 East, which included a protected left, was much longer. This was the only way onto I-10 East between Yale and Studemont, so a fair number of vehicles turning left from the I-10 West service road turned again onto the eastbound service road.)

The point I’m making is that before the current construction, the traffic at this intersection wasn’t bad. Most of it was for vehicles getting on and off the freeway. On Yale, traffic was even less of an issue, as there was only one light, where the westbound service road dead-ended into Yale. A few people going south on Yale would turn left at the un-signaled intersection onto the eastbound service road, but my observation was that most people heading south on Yale were aiming for either Washington Avenue, or points south, where Yale merged into Waugh Drive. This was also the only way to get onto Memorial Drive west, as that entrance is inaccessible from Heights/Waugh southbound.

What would make traffic at Yale/I-10 so much worse once there’s a service road there to connect to points west, or to handle people now exiting at Yale? Obviously, people will use this to get onto I-10, but one presumes these people are currently using either the entrance at Studemont or the entrance at Durham/Shepherd. The people who will some day exit at Yale are presumably now exiting at Studemont, making the U-turn, then turning left at either Heights or Yale. We’ve already established that pre-construction this was no big deal. Where’s all that extra traffic going to come from? Other than some reshuffling from Studemont and Durham/Shepherd, it’s not obvious to me. It’s not like there will be more residences or businesses putting traffic onto Yale by 2012.

Well, except for the one factor that this TIA wants you to think won’t be much of one, that being the Wal-Mart development. But if Yale at I-10 was going to be a nightmare anyway, then it’s not their fault, is it? How fortunate for them that TxDOT is there to take the hit for this.

Anyway. There’s a lot more to the TIA, but a couple of other points need to be mentioned. One is that the 380 agreement the city signed with Ainbinder doesn’t mention the service roads, or the intersections at Yale and Heights. The stuff that Ainbinder agreed to do as part of the 380 involve widening Yale between the train bridge and Koehler so as to allow a left turn lane into the development, and adding a left turn lane from Heights onto Koehler once the apartments in between have been torn down. The TIA suggests adding as mitigations a right turn lane from Yale onto I-10 service road westbound, and a left turn lane from Heights to I-10 westbound, but as neither of the 380, it’s not clear who would pay for them. With the TIA claiming that Ainbinder’s development would not be responsible for this traffic, don’t expect them to make any offers. Oh, and the TIA doesn’t include their full data sets, and this report apparently differs from a previous one. We’re taking their word for it on this.

Another point, separate from the traffic issues, is that the bridge on Yale between Koehler and I-10, the one that goes over the bayou, has a gross weight limit of 40,000 pounds. This wasn’t discussed before because the sign indicating this weight limit isn’t easily visible from the street. Here’s a photo so you can see what I mean. The tare weight, which is to say the empty weight, of a typical 18-wheeler is 30,000 to 36,000 pounds, and the legal maximum is 80,000 pounds. That would seem to be a problem, given the limitations of that bridge. How many 18-wheelers a day come into a Wal-Mart facility?

All of the documents linked in this post, as well as this summary doc, which notes these and other issues, came to me via RUDH. There will be a public meeting tomorrow, January 26, to discuss these items:

PUBLIC MEETING
WEDNESDAY JAN. 26th
6:30 to 7:30 PM
Council on Alcohol & Drugs
303 Jackson Hill Street
Houston, TX 77007

Here’s a map to the location. See you there.

Where’s Wal-Mart?

Wal-Mart has bought a tract of land near the Heights.

The store would be part of a larger development just south of Interstate 10 near the northwest intersection of Yale and Center.

[…]

A development site plan obtained by the Houston Chronicle shows a 152,015-square-foot Walmart flanked by a parking lot for 664 cars and additional retail spaces for a bank, fast-food restaurant and other stores.

[…]

Retail sources said the new Walmart likely would be one of the chain’s Supercenters, which average 185,000 square feet and combine full grocery and general merchandise, according to the company’s website.

In addition to serving residents in the Heights and other surrounding neighborhoods, the new store would seek customers from a growing population around the Washington Avenue corridor.

Swamplot and Prime Property have more on this. Here’s the question I have: How are people going to get to this place?

Google map view of the area

Google map view of the area

Here’s a link to that Google map; click the thumbnail for a larger image. The only real access to this site will be via Yale. The freight train tracks to the south completely cut off traffic except at Heights, Yale, and Patterson off to the west. Note that Bonner, the west end of this site, dead ends at the tracks. You can’t walk there from Heights Blvd except from Center. Koehler, to the north, only connects at Patterson. How are people going to get there?

You could, I suppose, connect the two pieces of Bonner, which would help. (Would the developer pay for that, I wonder?) You could also connect Bonner and maybe Bass Court to the eventual I-10 service road extension that will link Durham/Shepherd to Watson/Sawyer. (Note that as of today, you can only access Yale from I-10 on the westbound side.) I don’t know what the timeline is on any of these things, nor do I know if such connections are part of TxDOT’s plan. I do know that if you’re depending on Center Street to move traffic, I’d be worried. Center is a narrow little road on which traffic flow can be impeded by someone parking, and it’s used by a lot of trucks because of the various industrial sites that remain in the area. I figure the developers have a plan for all this, I just can’t quite picture it myself.

Finally, I have to wonder what the Super Neighborhood 22 folks think of this. It doesn’t seem to fit in with their vision for the Washington corridor. I’m getting an Ashby Highrise feeling about this. Typically, there’s already a Stop Heights Wal-Mart Facebook page. I don’t much care for Wal-Mart and don’t foresee myself shopping there – our Costco membership and the Target on Sawyer meet our needs quite nicely, thanks – but it doesn’t offend me that they’re looking at this parcel. I just don’t see how they’re going to make it work.

One more thing:

H-E-B said it recently made an offer on the Ainbinder parcel but was later informed that a counteroffer from Wal-Mart Stores was accepted, spokeswoman Cyndy Garza-Roberts said.

“We will continue to look for sites to bring an H-E-B to the Heights,” she said.

No question that there’s a crying need for a grocery store around there. If the Wal-Mart in question includes groceries, that may ameliorate the complaints somewhat. But the questions about how do you get there from here would remain had H-E-B won the bid. Marty Hajovsky and Nancy Sarnoff have more.

CIP meeting for District H

I don’t know how widespread the email distribution list is for this sort of thing, so consider this to be a public service announcement for District H in Houston:

City of Houston Capital Improvement Plan Meeting for District H

Hosted by Council Member At Large Melissa Noriega and City of Houston officials

Thursday, January 29, 2009
6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
West End Multi Service Center
170 Heights Blvd
Houston, TX 77007

Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) meetings are held every year to inform citizens of upcoming projects scheduled in their respective communities. The meetings also afford citizens an opportunity to voice their concerns and address their respective City Council member and City of Houston officials.

For more information and specific details of the Capital Improvement projects in your area, please visit: www.houstontx.gov/cip/09cipadopt/index.html.

If you have any questions, contact Cecilia Ortiz at 832-393-0945 or Cecilia.Ortiz@cityofhouston.net

The West End Multi Service Center is between Center Street and I-10 on the northbound side of Heights Boulevard, just north of the Art Car Museum. I cannot be there for this – I have a prior engagement – but I feel confident that most if not all of the declared and prospective candidates for the open Council seat will be in attendance. Seek them out and get an early start on figuring out who you want to vote for in May.