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What Houston is showing to Amazon

Meet the Innovation Corridor.

Houston leaders hope to entice Amazon with a spot somewhere within the four-mile stretch of the Metro rail line that runs from downtown to the Texas Medical Center, an area they’re calling the Innovation Corridor – and the city’s best shot at winning the Seattle tech giant’s $5 billion second headquarters.

The rail line cuts through a part of Houston that includes some of the city’s largest companies and most prominent health care institutions, as well as Rice University, Hermann Park, the Museum District, Houston Community College, NRG Park and the collection of bars, restaurants and apartment complexes in trendy Midtown, according to a document outlining Houston’s confidential proposal.

City officials won’t say exactly where they want Amazon to plant a campus that could grow to more than 8 million square feet and house 50,000 high-paying jobs. But they have proposed multiple sites within the corridor, a slice of Houston that connects the city’s intellectual and cultural assets in the heart of its ethnically diverse population and bustling business hub.

“What’s remarkable is how concentrated all of this is in a four-mile-long area,” said Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, the group behind Houston’s bid for Amazon. “Innovation Corridor seems to fit. It’s just like, wow, this is what Amazon is looking for.”

[…]

Local leaders have given Amazon its choice of undisclosed sites within the so-called Innovation Corridor, which, according to the document drafted by the Greater Houston Partnership, offers close access to two international airports, three interstates, 3 million workers, plus key game changers in business and an unparalleled array of amenities.

The document’s 32 bullet points highlighted the nearly 100,000 people who work in technology-related fields as well as the region’s low taxes, low cost of living, reasonable housing prices and eclectic neighborhoods and restaurants.

In particular, the document highlighted the city’s racial and ethnic diversity, which, Harvey argued, should appeal to a company that wants to attract millennial workers to a tech industry that has come under fire for its ethnic uniformity, particularly in Silicon Valley.

“As Amazon seeks to diversify its ranks at the executive, manager and professional levels, there is no better place to locate than in Houston,” city leaders said.

I still don’t think Houston’s efforts are going to amount to anything, but hey, it’s worth a shot. Given what Amazon has talked about for their new location, this is probably the best part of town to meet the requirements. Maybe we’ll learn something from the experience for the future.

The Complete Transportation Guide To Super Bowl LI

For which the tl;dr version is don’t drive in or near downtown if you can at all help it.

More than 1 million people are expected to converge on downtown Houston during the week leading up to Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5, officials emphasized Tuesday as a transportation guide for the festivities was unveiled for visitors and locals alike.

[…]

The transportation guide – part of a #KnowBeforeYouGo social media campaign – details options for efficient movement around downtown, Midtown, the Uptown-Galleria community and areas surrounding NRG Stadium, the game venue. The manual can be found at www.housuperbowl.com/transportation – which is an area of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee website.

Among new features for 2017:

There will be prepaid downtown daily parking available beginning in January via the committee’s app for motorists to reserve spaces for light rail passes.

Super Bowl Live downtown will feature a bike valet for those who prefer to travel on two wheels.

Free shuttles will circulate in downtown and Midtown; an Uptown-Galleria area link to downtown from Feb. 1 to Feb. 5 is $2 each way.

A game-day shuttle between the Galleria area and NRG Stadium will be $2 each way.

Metro will have extended rail hours from Jan. 28 to Feb. 5 beginning around 4 a.m. and running until at least midnight daily.

Click here for the official guide. My advice, if you work downtown, is to take the week off. I’m already getting a cold sweat thinking about how many tourists I’m going to have to dodge in the tunnels at lunchtime. A staycation is sounding pretty damn good the more I consider it. If you must come downtown, Metro or a bike are your best bets to not be part of the problem. The Press and Write On Metro have more.

Next B-Cycle expansion approved

Good.

Expansion of Houston’s bike sharing system is pretty much in high gear after City Council on Wednesday signed off on a $4.1 million plan to roughly triple the number of bikes and kiosks.

With the agreement in place, local B-Cycle operators can proceed with their plan to purchase 568 bikes and install 71 new kiosks where people can check out a bike.

By 2018, Houston is slated to have roughly 100 stations and 800 bicycles spread across the central business district, Midtown, Texas Medical Center, Montrose, Rice Village and around the University of Houston and Texas Southern University campuses.

Seventeen of the stations in the medical center and Museum District should be operational by March, said Carter Stern, executive director of Houston’s bike sharing system.

Stern said new stations will pop up in Midtown and the Montrose area in the summer, with stations on the college campuses expected to open in the fall.

“The rest of the allocated stations will occur piecemeal as we finalize locations and secure the matching funding,” Stern said last month.

This expansion was announced in August, with funding coming from a TxDOT grant and the nonprofit Houston Bike Share. Usage continues to grow as well, and in the parts of town where B-Cycle exists and will exist getting around on a bike often makes more sense than driving and parking. I look forward to further growth, and eventual further expansion.

The Purple City plan for I-45

Check it out.

Should a major freeway plan consider the needs of cyclists? Of transit riders?

And if we’re going to tear down and reconstruct the entire downtown freeway network of the fourth-largest city in America, shouldn’t the final result have better geometry than the mid-century structures it replaces?

The PDFs below contain an analysis of Houston traffic patterns, a critique of the current plans for Downtown Houston’s freeway ring, and an alternate proposal. My schematic requires less right-of-way, creates a continuous managed lane network for commuter buses and BRT, and eliminates all left-hand exits, among other improvements.

The plan is here, and a detailed schematic is here. I’ve read the plan and recommend you do as well, there are a lot of interesting and worthwhile ideas in there. Tory Gattis has a bullet point summary as well as the news that this has attracted the attention of TxDOT, which can only be a good thing. I’m still trying to make sense of the schematic, which is quite detailed, so I don’t have any analysis to offer here, but I do hope that we hear more about this, and in particular that we have a much broader discussion about what we want to happen. As Purple City notes in the introduction of this proposal, what we have now is the result of design decisions that were made decades ago. The reality around us has made some of those decisions less than optimal for us. This is an opportunity to completely change downtown and its environs in a way that better suits the Houston we have now, or it’s an opportunity to lock in those decades-old decisions for years to come. This is why I harped so much on this during the election last year. I still think it’s the most important issue that got exactly zero attention from anyone other than me during the campaigns. What do we want these freeways that dominate our city core to look like, and how do we want to interact with them? We need to understand those questions and give them our best answers. Link via Swamplot.

UberEats expands

Good news for those of you who like having food delivered.

Uber

A larger section of metro Houston now can use Uber’s meal delivery service seven days a week and with more dining options through a new app.

A new UberEats app, separate from the Uber ride-sharing app meal ordering customers have used, launches Tuesday.

“Houstonians have embraced UberEats, but we also know that with a separate app, we are able to give users a better experience,” said Sarah Groen, general manager for UberEats Houston.

As of the app’s launch, 100 restaurants are participating. More are being added to the list, Groen said.

The service’s operation hours have been extended beyond midday weekdays to daily between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Users will be able to browse menus and order food from participating restaurants, and track drivers bringing their food. The service area has expanded beyond downtown and Midtown, and now includes the Galleria area, The Heights, Montrose, Rice Village, West University and Upper Kirby.

Those areas have shown large demand for UberEats, where the company has received many requests from people asking for service, Groen said. In January, the company did test runs in the new areas and registered high demand.

See here for the background. I’m still not the kind of person who likes to order food for delivery, so I’m still not in their market. But if you are, and you live in these areas, then these are good days for you. The Houston Business Journal and the Houston Press, both of which have maps of the expanded service area, 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.

UberEats

Some new food delivery options, at least for some people.

Uber

Uber will expand its presence in Houston this week with the local launch of its meal-delivery service, UberEats.

Beginning Thursday, Houston becomes the second city in Texas and the 10th in North America where Uber drivers will deliver meals. Customers in downtown and Midtown can use the Uber app to select from a list of 60 participating restaurants and place orders, said Sarah Groen, general manager of UberEats Houston.

After customers order and pay through the app, the company says an Uber driver will arrive with the food – already in the car in temperature-controlled containers – within 10 minutes.

“We keep that geography fairly small to make sure we can deliver on that promise of 10 minutes or less,” Groen said.

[…]

Several app-based and online food delivery services already operate in Houston and for longer hours. They include GrubHub, Favor and DoorDash.

Groen said Uber Eats differs because of its changing menus. Some participating chefs are creating specific meals for UberEats.

I have no feel for how big a market there may be for something like this. We cook or we eat out – even when we order a pizza, from Pink’s here in the Heights, I pick it up. If you’re the sort of person that is into this sort of thing, then this is good news for you. We’ll see if there are enough such people to make this a success.

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?

Zipcar expands in Houston

Very cool.

A car-sharing service on Wednesday expanded from spots on the Rice University campus to other locations in Houston, providing city residents with another option for transportation.

Zipcar is making available 25 vehicles in 10 different locations in Houston including the downtown area, Mid-town, Greenway Plaza, and Upper Kirby.

“We want the locations to be five minutes walking distance from neighborhoods, so they can see it as their car,” said Kaye Ceille, president of Zipcar. “They also know that the car may be used by their neighbors, and that’s why its car-sharing.”

[…]

Zipcar was introduced to Rice University in 2008, allowing students, staff and faculty to use its services.

Of course I noted Zipcar’s arrival at the time. Here’s more from their press release.

Beginning today, 25 Zipcars are available by the hour or by the day for residents, students, businesses and visitors in the city of Houston. Zipcar’s revolutionary “wheels when you want them” service offers a wide variety of vehicles, from MINI Coopers to pickup trucks, and includes gas, a reserved parking spot, insurance, and 180 miles per day, making it a great option for those looking for convenient and cost-effective transportation. The launch, which makes Houston the company’s 27(th) major metropolitan area, will be supported by a retail office where members can interact with a local team.

Zipcars are parked in prime locations throughout Houston including the Downtown area, Midtown, and Greenway Plaza/Upper Kirby. Zipcar expects to expand the service to additional neighborhoods in the near future. The vehicles are parked in designated parking spots and can be reserved in seconds on Zipcar’s mobile app, online or over the phone. Rates start as low as $9 per hour and $73 per day. Membership information is available at www.zipcar.com/houston.

[…]

Zipcar’s consumer launch builds on its successful program with the city of Houston FleetShare program in which Zipcar technology is embedded in city-owned vehicles, increasing efficiency, accountability and lower overall fleet costs. Zipcar has also offered service to Rice University students on campus since 2009. In addition, the University of Houston and Texas Southern University will be adding Zipcars on and near campus to further provide alternative transportation options to students, faculty and staff. These programs are expected to launch in Fall 2014.

“I want to welcome Zipcar to all of Houston,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “This is another major step forward in Houston’s ongoing effort to change the way we live and get around the City. Sustainable transportation options offer convenience, are less of a burden on our pocketbooks and also have a big impact on our environment.”

Here’s the map of where Houston’s Zipcars currently livel there are actually several downtown spots for them. I’m sure it will expand to more locations soon. I guarantee that being a Zipcar member is cheaper than owning a car, and having that option available will make living and working in these places a lot more attractive. Sometimes you just need a car, but unless you need one every day having Zipcar around makes a lot of sense.

Complete Streets coming

This is good to see.

Houston, long ruled by the automobile, will give more consideration to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists in designing its streets and neighborhoods.

Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday said she is drafting, with public works and planning officials, an executive order stating that the city will adhere to “complete streets” standards. The change could enable some neighborhoods to press for wider sidewalks, shadier streets and bicycle lanes, for example.

“Houston streets can and should accommodate the needs of all users, not just those behind the wheel,” Parker told a crowd gathered for the announcement and the dedication of Bagby in the Midtown area as Texas’ first “green” street.

Parker said she would sign the order after fully briefing the City Council, as early as next week. While the order doesn’t directly affect the rules planners and engineers use, supporters say it changes Houston policies from a narrow focus on moving cars to a broader effort to provide mobility for cars and other means of getting around.

Giving thought to pedestrians can lead to subtle but meaningful changes in the standards the city uses to consider applications for new developments and how streets are redesigned or improved.

“This is a process the people are a part of,” said Jay Blazek Crossley, a member of the Houston Coalition for Complete Streets, one of the groups that pushed for the change.

The new standards will apply to projects and streets within city control. State-maintained freeways, for example, are meant to move vehicle traffic and would be unaffected.

As Stace notes, this has also been a priority for CM Ed Gonzalez, so if you like this announcement, thank him as well. Houston Tomorrow has a quote from the Mayor’s verbal remarks at the event on Thursday that I think captures what is actually being changed here:

Frankly, it’s always been possible to do a Complete Street in Houston, but the default has been let’s get those cars moving. Now we want the default to be a Complete Street and anything different than that to be something that has to be the exception.

That’s the key. The Bagby location in Midtown where the event was exemplifies this, because the developers of that area had to get a variance from the city in order to proceed. Under this change, they would not need a variance but someone who wanted to build something the old way would. That won’t have any immediate effect on existing streets, but as Rebuild Houston moves forward you should expect to see at least some of the affected streets get redesigned to incorporate this new vision. See here and here for a basic primer on what “complete streets” means.

The Mayor’s press release has more, as does the press release from CM Gonzalez. As noted in the story, the Bagby Midtown location also received certification as the first Greenroads Project in the State of Texas. See beneath the fold for that press release, The Highwayman and Texas Leftist for more on what this will mean in practice, here for more on what it was about Bagby Midtown that got it this certification, and here for more on Greenroads.

(more…)

Six new B-Cycle locations announced

From the B-Cycle monthly newsletter:

6 NEW B-stations coming this month!
We are happy to announce our new locations!

When we launched our pilot program in May of 2012 we were anxious and excited to see how Houston would respond to a bike share program. As you are probably aware, the reaction has been incredibly positive and we are now expanding again! We will be installing SIX additional stations later this month!

1. Spotts Park- 401 S. Heights Blvd
2. Taft & Fairview- 2401 Taft St.
3. The Menil Collection/ Alabama & Mandell- 1529 W. Alabama St.
4. Leonel Castillo Community Center/ South St. & Henry- 2109 South St.
5. Milam & Webster- 2215 Milam St.
6. Project Row House/ Holman & Live Oak- 2521 Holman St.

The first three are basically Montrose – the far north end, the east side near Midtown, and farther south – the Leonel Castillo Community Center is north of downtown, just east of where I-10 and I-45 cross, the Milam location is on that dense little patch of Midtown just south of I-45, and the Holman location is east of downtown. As noted on Facebook when they teased the news last week, they’re spreading out from their “established footprint”, and you can sort of get a hint from there where they might go next. The Highwayman has more, including a map that shows all the current and new locations.

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.

Don’t expect B-Cycle in the Heights anytime soon

I know there are a lot of people in the Heights that would like to see some bike share kiosks here, but as The Leader News reports, it will be awhile before that happens.

Although running through arguably the most bike-conscious set of communities in Houston, the bike paths along White Oak Bayou and through the Heights into downtown now primarily sustain a ridership of weekend and evening recreational users, walkers and joggers. (It doesn’t help the White Oak trail that 610/290 construction is closing a big chunk of it from south of the North Loop along T.C. Jester to 34th Street for another year.)

The city of Houston’s B-cycle bike share program largely completed its second phase this week ahead of schedule and now boasts 21 stations and 175 bikes – but they’re all in downtown, midtown, Montrose, the East End and the Museum District-Hermann Park area.

And Will Rub, head of the B-cycle program, says when the third phase is funded, it’s likely to focus on the Medical Center area.

“We might start looking along sites along the Washington Avenue Corridor,” he said, “but that’s down the line.” Way down the line is the Heights, he said.

[…]

Blake Masters, president of the Greater Heights Super Neighborhood, seems strangely calm about the area being passed over so far for the B-cycle kiosks. But there’s a reason.

As part of a Leadership Houston class, Masters studied putting a bike share into Houston before the group learned that the B-cycle program was already on the drawing boards.

“You do have to start somewhere, and to make it succeed, you have to choose the areas with the heaviest pedestrian traffic and people who need to go short distances on congested streets. So far, they’re doing it right.”

He’s encouraged to hear that the Washington Avenue Corridor, which is in his Super Neighborhood, is on B-cycle’s radar. Parts of the Heights would also be “very logical” locations he said, naming the 19th-20th Street, White Oak and Studewood commercial areas. “We’d have to make sure the neighbors are on board with the plans, though,” he said.

This makes sense to me. Bike sharing is for places to which people travel without cars, or for whom it’s inconvenient to get their parked cars for a short trip. That describes places like downtown and the Medical Center, but not the Heights. The Heights is a destination, not a point of origin, for bike sharing; if you’re in the Heights and you want to get somewhere by bike, you probably already have your bike with you. The downtown bike share network, which is somewhat akin to a transit network, is beginning to build spokes out of downtown, with kiosks in Midtown and parts of Montrose. The Washington Avenue corridor, which is directly accessible from downtown, is a natural future spoke of this network. Once this extended network is robust enough to support spokes being built from other spokes and not from the hub, that’s when it will make sense to look at putting kiosks in the Heights, most likely in the locations suggested by Blake Masters. Alternately, as Metro’s re-architected bus route map gets built, or in the event of future streetcar/BRT/light rail construction along Washington, that may make Heights-area kiosks more attractive and useful. The kiosks are coming, I have no doubt about that, but the network isn’t ready for it yet. If you want it to hurry along, do what you can to make the existing B-Cycle network a success.

New bike share kiosks now open

Woo hoo!

Organizers of Houston’s bike-sharing program are excited about an increase in use of the community bicycles since 18 new kiosks around downtown and Midtown opened.

After slow-going last year for the B-Cycle program, use of the bikes increased since the weekend, when word that many of the new stations were open spread on social media sites.

“We have skyrocketed in checkouts,” said Laura Spanjian, Houston’s sustainability director. “Like a 300 percent increase in the last 72 hours.”

[…]

The recent additions expanded Houston’s bike sharing network from three stations and 18 bikes in February to 21 stations and 175 bikes as of Wednesday. Three more stations and more bikes are planned next month, completing the second phase. A $750,000 deal with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas paid for the expansion and operations.

See here for the announcement of the expansion, here for the Mayor’s press release, and here for a map of the kiosk locations. According to Laura Spanjian, who responded to an email question I sent, the Week of March 18, with only 5 stations live, there were 150 checkouts and 84 memberships. The week of March 25, with 21 stations live, there were 500 checkouts and 312 memberships. This week has been even busier, with more than 75 new memberships sold at the weekly farmer’s market downtown. I bought my membership yesterday, too – my office is moving downtown in May, and there’s a kiosk a block from where my office will be. I’m very much looking forward to having non-car options for getting to lunch. As I said in my previous post, there are lots of good options for where to expand next, but let’s see some good numbers here first. I’m encouraged by how it’s going so far.

In the HAUS

Meet Houston’s first housing co-op.

Technically, this is HAUS, the Houston Access to Urban Sustainability Project, a housing co-op for those willing to work for their cheap rent and board by making meals, cleaning toilets and recycling – lots of recycling.

The three founders, who had lived in or visited co-ops in other cities, began working on the concept in 2010. They wanted to create a home that was kind to the environment, affordable and close to public transportation and light rail.

One of them had purchased an old house on Rosalie in Midtown. They wanted to fill it with like-minded individuals who would promise to do things like plant gardens, hang their clean clothes outside to dry and use bikes to get around as much as possible.

“What I love about what they’re doing is they’re walking the talk,” said Laura Spanjian, the city of Houston’s sustainability director, whose job is to focus on helping “green” the city through improving air quality, energy efficiency and recycling, among other efforts.

The house itself is a sharp contrast to the fancy townhomes that have cropped up around it.

[…]

The housemates take their mission seriously.

Everyone who moves in is required to sign a “sustainability pledge.” Applicants must attend at least two house dinners before being accepted.

Everyone shares in running the houses.

Many of the residents hold officer positions to manage such house operations as maintenance, gardening and the kitchen.

The “labor czar” makes sure everyone is doing their share of the housework.

Each person is responsible for contributing five hours of labor to the house per week.

The Press wrote about HAUS back in 2011. They’ve since expanded to a second house. I might have found this appealing when I was single – I had at least one roommate for eight of the ten years I lived here before I was married, and I like the idea behind HAUS. Obviously, this isn’t for everyone. It’s a niche market, but the niche is likely to grow. People are staying single longer, and there’s a lot more interest these days in living in the urban core, near transit, but there’s a shortage of affordable housing, at least at this time. There’s a lot to like about this if you’re a fit for what they’ve got to offer. If that describes you, go to their website and put in an application. I wish these folks all the best.

Why does Midtown need a big box store?

This story is about a forthcoming six-acre “superblock” being developed in Midtown, and about Midtown’s rise as a successful residential/entertainment area. What caught my eye was this bit at the end:

Still, Midtown has yet to see any significant new retail, retail broker Ed Page said, referring to big-box stores like Target, TJ Maxx and Best Buy.

“I believe at some point in time that hurdle will be crossed, and I think there will be a significant retail project down there,” said Page, managing partner of UCR moodyrambin PAGE.

Why does Midtown need someplace like that? Midtown has grown as a dense, reasonably walkable area with convenient access to the Main Street light rail line. Big box development is the antithesis of this. In fact, as Andrew Burleson showed, big box development stops nascent walkable development in its tracks. Why do that to Midtown? It’s not like big box stores are unavailable to Midtowners. All three of the places mentioned in this story have locations near 59 and 610, which is to say a 10 minute or so drive from Midtown. So I ask again, why does Midtown need someplace like that? It makes no sense to me.

Houston Bike Share set to expand

Cool

The plan has always been to expand the program, and Laura Spanjian, Mayor Annise Parker’s sustainability director, first alluded to a search for new locations in early June.

“We’re going to have about 20 new kiosks and about 205 new bikes,” Spanjian now tells CultureMap. That would bring the total to approximately 225 bicycles inside of the Loop.

Spanjian says that the expansion, which was made possible through grant funding, will bring B-cycle sites to high-density neighborhoods with big office buildings and apartment complexes.

Come October, expect to see another 10 downtown kiosks, plus a few each in Midtown, the Museum District and Montrose. A leftover kiosk may be granted to the burgeoning East End.

I inquired with Spanjian about this and was told that so far there are 650 members in Houston B-Cycle and over a thousand check-outs at the three downtown kiosks, not too bad for our wet summer. There will be a full array of stats and numbers relating to the program around the time of the expansion in October. I don’t spend much time downtown but I did see a few people riding by on those easily recognizable bikes on the western end of the Buffalo Bayou trail near Shepherd a few days ago. I expect to see a lot more of them in the fall.

Take the train to your dining destination

Katharine Shilcutt writes about how she gets to some of her favorite restaurants.

When owner Staci Davis decided on a location for her restaurant, Radical Eats, one thing was extremely important to her above all: Davis wanted her vegan paradise to have access to the new Metro light rail North Line that’s currently being built along Fulton. When the line is completed, riders will only have a few short blocks to walk from the Moody Park station to her restaurant. For now, the construction and the dust are a bit of a nightmare, but Davis insists that it’s worth it.

And at the new 8th Wonder Brewery that’s being built in EaDo, the planned Stadium stop on the East End Line will not only service the Dynamo’s shiny new stadium — it will bring visitors to the craft brewery as well as to concert venues like Warehouse Live and restaurants like Huynh.

[…]

I ride the light rail to the Museum District and to Reliant Stadium so that I don’t have to deal with parking. I ride it to my doctor’s appointments or to visit hospital-bound friends in the Medical Center (or to eat at Trevisio) because the only thing more confusing than the hospital corridors themselves is trying to recall where you left your car. I ride it to the Best Block in Houston to see shows at the Continental Club, to get cocktails and coffee at Double Trouble, to eat brunch at Natachee’s or dinner at t’afia. I ride it to the Preston station and get my movies at Sundance or my culture at Jones Hall.

And, as you would expect, I ride it to restaurants up and down the line. People will often complain about walking in the Houston heat — that’s why we have tunnels, after all — but the funny thing is this: You get used to it. Really fast. And walking off a meal is one of my favorite activities to do outside of eating the meal itself. If more of us did this (myself included, as I don’t walk nearly as often as I should), Houston would undoubtedly remove itself from the running each year as the Fattest City in America. Walking is good. Try it.

On that note, we’ve put together a handy visual guide — to scale, no less! — of all the lunching and dining options off the main stops on the light rail. Some will require a bit of a walk (perhaps five blocks at most) while others are literally right in front of the stop itself. If you use it online, you’ll note that you can click on the restaurant names to be taken to a site about the restaurant itself. If you print it out, you can use it as a visual reference when you take your first heady steps into the rail car before it rattles and shakes off into city.

You can see the map here. That’s a link I plan to keep handy for visitors who are staying or doing business downtown or in the Medical Center. Be sure to read through the comments, as several people noted places they overlooked. There will be a version of this map the June 28 dead tree edition of the Press, so look for that as well. This map is just for the Main Street line, but Katherine says (in response to my comment) that they will do this again later for the three that are under construction. I’m looking forward to that.

Couple things to add. One, I totally agree with Katharine about walking and the heat. It really isn’t that bad, especially if the sidewalk you’re on has some tree cover. I’ve been bringing my bike with me to work and using it to get to lunch instead of driving, and I’ve actually been surprised by how little the heat has affected me as I bike around. Sure, I do work up a bit of a sweat, but I haven’t melted yet. And remember, eight months out of the year the weather is generally pretty darned nice here, much better for the most part than in many transit-and-pedestrian cities around the country. This is Houston, y’all. We don’t let a little heat get us down.

If you look at the map, you’ll note that the vast majority of dining locations are at or north of the Ensemble/HCC station. They didn’t bother to extend the map any farther south than the Museum District station, and as someone who works near the Smithlands stop, I can confirm the dismal lack of lunch options in the vicinity. The sheer paucity of eateries in the Medical Center – there’s a Subway and a Chipotle at the Dryden/TMC stop, and pretty much nothing else there or at the other two stops, unless you walk to Hermann Park to go to Little Big’s – is as frustrating as it is confounding. With the thousands of people that work and visit there daily, you’d think some entrepreneur would see a golden opportunity to fill a giant niche. Available space is an issue, of course, but still. That’s got to be a huge potential market. All those people have to eat somewhere. What do you do for lunch if you work in the Med Center?

Alamo Drafthouse coming inside the Loop

Woo hoo!

I am so thrilled to announce that we’re getting two new Alamo Drafthouse locations in Houston! I love living in Houston and I love the Alamo theaters here, and the expansion of the company in this wonderful city is nothing but great news. Northwest Houston is getting a theater, and we’re finally getting that long-coveted inner loop location. It’s a great spot, convenient to downtown, Midtown, museum district, Rice and Montrose and with plenty of room for a beautiful, spacious theater. You guys: this is HUGE!
From the press release:

(HOUSTON, Texas, May 30, 2012) – Triple Tap Ventures LLC, owner and operator of the Houston area Alamo Drafthouse Cinema locations in West Oaks Mall and on Mason Road in Katy, Texas, is pleased to announce it will bring two new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema locations to Houston in 2013.

[…]

The second new Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, scheduled to open after Vintage Park, is a highly anticipated inner-loop location, which will be centrally accessible and located in Houston’s bustling Midtown area. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – Midtown will be located at 2901 Louisiana Street as part of a mixed-use project developed by Crosspoint Properties and, like Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – Vintage Park, will offer state-of-the-art auditoriums featuring 100 percent digital projection and sound as well as an expansive and inviting lobby bar which will be visible from Milam Street and boast panoramic views of Houston’s impressive downtown skyline. In addition, there will be a ground floor lobby entrance leading up to the theatre, which will be located on top of a three floor parking garage.

“We are thrilled and excited to be announcing the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – Midtown and to have the opportunity to bring our unique experience to our existing inner-loop customers as well as introduce the Alamo brand to a new audience,” Michaelsen states. “The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – Midtown will no doubt be the epicenter for movie going entertainment for the 700,000 plus residents living within 15 minutes of the new theater and a must-visit destination for those located around the Houston area. We greatly appreciate our strong relationships with inner-loop organizations such as Aurora Picture Show, the Downtown Management District, Market Square Park, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Whole Foods and many more, and look forward to creating new partnerships with our Midtown neighbors.”

I am over the moon at having this theater nearby. There’s a map of the location at the Chron’s Newswatch blog, and if you zoom and and switch to street view, you can see they’ll be using the space now occupied by some abandoned building. Alternately, you can look at the photos on Swamplot for more. Oh, and they’re a few blocks away from the McGowan light rail stop. Awesomeness all around. Via InnerLooped.

Doing business downtown

I have three things to say about this.

Downtown Houston

Despite public and private attempts to revive a shopping scene downtown, the retail market has struggled.

Some stores like Forever 21 and Books-A-Million have opened, but most of the activity in recent years has come from restaurants and bars.

Turnover has been high.

Last year, 16 street-level restaurants and bars closed, including three that had been open less than a year, according to the Houston Downtown Management District. At least one relocated and a couple of others lost their leases.

“A lot of nighttime traffic has moved over to different parts of town,” said Sherman Lewis, one of the owners of Cabo, a shuttered Mexican restaurant that helped popularize the fish-taco craze.

But even as the market for downtown retail and restaurants remains shaky, and sometimes unsustainable, new businesses continue to open.

Owners now pin their hopes on new residential and office towers, public investment in parks, transportation and the area around the George R. Brown Convention Center, and an overall economic rebound.

The downtown district counted 24 establishments that opened last year, and at least a couple more have opened or will do so early this year. Most are in the food and bar business. One was a large grocer.

[…]

The number of residents has been slow to grow. About 12 years ago, some 3,000 people lived downtown and officials were projecting that number to triple by 2010.

Today it’s around 4,400.

“Everyone has a vision of what they want downtown,” Bob Eury, the district’s executive director, said at a recent business event about the future of downtown. “We’re not quite there yet.”

1. Given the state of the economy, having more businesses open than close in the past year sounds like a win to me. All things considered, it could be a whole lot worse.

2. Having nearly fifty percent population growth over the past decade isn’t too shabby, either, even if it’s well below the rather optimistic projection. As one of the commenters on the story says, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem – people don’t want to move in until there are more amenities, but until the population increases sufficiently there isn’t enough support for those amenities. Part of the issue is getting residential construction off the ground. Discovery Green was a boon for that, and the proposed Convention Center district includes some further residential possibilities. I’d still like to see a focus on making something happen with the derelict properties downtown, as they seem to offer the greatest potential for residential growth.

3. These things do take time. As noted previously, Midtown took the better part of 20 years to get where it is. I don’t know when exactly downtown’s renaissance is supposed to have begun, but by my measure it started after Midtown’s. It’s not there yet, but it’s come a long way.

Leland Woods

I’ve been banging the drum lately about encouraging growth inside the city’s boundaries as a long-term financial management strategy, so I’m glad to see this.

TIRZ 22

Eight years ago, city of Houston officials decided to incentivize the conversion of 80 wooded acres off Little York Road into a 375-home community, a place, in some small measure, to reverse working class flight to the suburbs and turn vacant land into a cluster of property-tax payers.

The idea was to give the area a little shove and hope that once Leland Woods took off, other developers would chase the success without city help and District B in northeast Houston would sprout new neighborhoods.

To seed the new neighborhood, the city put up $1.5 million in redevelopment money toward the land purchase. It resulted in only 41 homes before credit markets dried up and builders fled. The city got the land back, but it was out nearly $120,000 in fees and taxes to do it.

So, when economic development officials asked City Council last week to approve $100,000 to give it another go, even new District B Councilman Jerry Davis confessed to having some initial reservations.

“I want to make sure that myself, as well as other council members, understand that this is going to be a good investment, not a case of throwing good money after bad,” he said.

Davis said he is confident that a second attempt to grow the neighborhood will succeed because the city has one of the nation’s largest home-builders involved. D.R. Horton plans to build at least 44 more homes and is in talks with the city to continue working toward the original vision of Leland Woods. The city searched for a new builder for two years before selecting D.R. Horton.

The council signed off Jan. 18 on moving the $100,000 from some of the city’s other redevelopment zones to restart Leland Woods. The money is to pay for landscaping, parks, fencing, a monument – and to cover interest payments on the bank note the city holds from a previous developer.

I’ve embedded the TIRZ map in the quote above, but to really appreciate this you have to have a view of the area. Here’s a Google map link, and here’s a closeup look at the development area and its environs:

Leland Woods, south of Cheeves at Little York

That’s an awful lot of undeveloped land. There are a number of reasons why unincorporated Harris County has grown more over the past decade than the city, but one prime reason is because there’s a lot more empty space out there that can be easily and inexpensively converted into housing and other development. There’s not nearly as much of that inside city limits, but where it does exist it behooves us to do something with it.

Even successful redevelopment projects take time, officials say. The redevelopment zone in Midtown, for example, is held up as a success story, but it grew slowly in its initial years before ultimately expanding from a tax base of $211 million 18 years ago to $1.3 billion today.

This is exactly what I’m talking about. Midtown was a wasteland when I moved to Houston in 1988. It’s some of the most prime real estate in the city now. Leland Woods may never be that successful, but it sure as heck can be more than it is today. We need it and other places like it to be.

The Midtown arts deal

I have three things to say about this.

A nonprofit group plans to build a community arts complex in Midtown with the help of up to $6 million in reimbursements from the city.

The Houston City Council this week approved a tax reimbursement deal and the $2.5 million sale of 3400 Main, currently a parking lot, to the Independent Arts Collaborative, a group created to run the facility.

The 90,000-square-foot facility will include a performance theater, rehearsal spaces, offices and classrooms, as well as make it easier for various arts groups to work together, said Emily Todd, a board member of the collaborative.

[…]

The Independent Arts Collaborative has raised $250,000 for a down payment and has financed the rest through the International Bank of Commerce. Ensemble/HCC Partners, a partnership that owns two adjacent blocks and of which developer Bob Schultz is a managing partner, is guaranteeing the loan.

The collaborative must now raise the estimated $22 million it will cost to build the project, on the block bounded by Francis, Travis, Holman and Main.

The group’s deal with the city, also known as a 380 agreement, requires the collaborative to raise at least $10 million for design and construction of the project. At least 25 full-time workers must also be employed by the building’s tenants.

[…]

The collaborative intends to deed the finished building to the city. It would then be maintained by the collaborative and managed by Houston First — recently created by the merger of the city’s Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department and the existing government corporation that runs the city-owned Hilton Americas.

According to the agreement, the city believes the project, along with new retail and parking garages on two adjacent blocks, will attract tourism and more development to the area.

Bob Schultz, who developed some of 3600 Main and the site of four businesses on 3700 Main, plans to build office space, retail and some residential units on 3500 Main and the rest of the 3600 block of Main.

1. Now this is what I call a good use of a 380 agreement. It’s helping to facilitate a deal that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, in a location where the development in question will fit with and benefit existing and future neighbors. More like this, please.

2. Clearly, Houston First is going to be about more than just managing the Convention Center. I wonder where else it will turn up. I also wonder if it was essential to this deal, or if it could have happened with the old setup.

3. Revenue from the sale of 3400 Main was part of the fiscal year 2011 budget. Good to see they got it done before the June 30 deadline. Swamplot has more.

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.

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.

Midtown development

The Sunday Chron had a look at some new development coming to Main Street near the Ensemble/HCC station. In it was this observation about what had previously been built in the area:

When the Main Street light rail line opened in 2004, there were hopes that transit-oriented developments would follow, particularly at rail stops, but there has been relatively little growth.

One notable exception is the block next door to the soon-to-open shops at 3600 Main, at the Ensemble/HCC stop: 3700 Main, which houses the Continental Club, the Breakfast Klub, T’Afia, Julia’s Bistro and Mink bar. Four businesses on the 3700 block — the Continental Club, Tacos A-Go Go, Sig’s Lagoon and Big Top Lounge — were developed by Bob Schultz and his partners Steve Wertheimer and Gordon, and investors. Some of those businesses, including the Continental Club, predate light rail.

[…]

Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Main Street Coalition, a group aiming to enhance the street, offered reasons why only a relative few blocks have been developed along the rail line: land speculation, which causes real estate prices to soar and makes development less desirable; the lack of incentives to encourage development; and the recession.

It all depends on how you look at it. Christof Spieler documented in 2007 a whole bunch of new construction and renovation work done along and nearby the Main Street Corridor. The vast majority of it was downtown or in the Medical Center, though there were a few things in Midtown. My own observation is that much of what I’ve seen happen in Midtown, before and since the construction of the light rail line, has happened on the streets near Main Street, but not so much on Main Street. For whatever the reason, that’s been a much tougher nut to crack.

H-GAC Livable Centers Study of the Ensemble/HCC Station Area in Midtown

Tomorrow night at 7 PM at the Trinity Episcopal Church located at 1015 Holman Street at Main (map) is a public meeting for the H-GAC Livable Centers Study of the Ensemble/HCC Station area in Midtown. You can click on the flyer for the details, but the basic idea is to figure out how to enable pedestrian-friendly development around there – more comfortable sidewalks, building regulations that actually allow good urban buildings, holistic parking solutions, that sort of thing. If urbanism is your bag, this is the sort of thing you’ll like, so check it out.

Interview with Carlos Obando

Carlos ObandoWe don’t get a lot of competitive Council race in Houston that don’t involve an open seat. As I’ve noted before, we may get one this year for At Large #5. One of the candidates seeking to unseat incumbent Council Member Jolanda Jones is Carlos Obando, who was the first to announce his candidacy. Obando is a Bellaire native who has worked abroad in the investment industry, and owns his own public relations firm. He was a candidate in the GOP primary for HD134 last year. Obando is a resident of Midtown.

Download the MP3 file

PREVIOUSLY:

Karen Derr, At Large #1
Brad Bradford, At Large #4
Stephen Costello, At Large #1
Lane Lewis, District A
Lonnie Allsbrooks, At Large #1
Noel Freeman, At Large #4
Brenda Stardig, District A
Oliver Pennington, District G
Amy Peck, District A
Herman Litt, At Large #1
Natasha Kamrani, HISD Trustee in District I, not running for re-election
Alex Wathen, District A
Robert Kane, District F
Council Member Melissa Noriega, At Large #3
Jeff Downing, District A
Mike Laster, District F
Council Member Jolanda Jones, At Large #5
Mills Worsham, District G
Rick Rodriguez, At Large #1
Council Member Sue Lovell, At Large #2

REV Houston revisited

REV Houston is back in the news.

The drivers of Rev Houston’s green-and-white shuttles zip through downtown picking up and dropping off passengers for tips. Here’s a tip from city officials: Follow the rules.

To Rev Houston owner Erik Ibarra, his three-vehicle electric fleet — think stretch golf carts — is a carbon-free way to move people around downtown. To city officials, however, Rev Houston is an outlaw company, skirting ordinances to make a buck.

City officers have ticketed Rev Houston drivers at least 15 times this year, and plenty more last year. The citations, which average $150 to $200, are for offenses such as “no taxicab permit” and “no taxicab driver’s license.”

“One of the offenses is ‘no fire extinguisher,’ ” Ibarra said. “Our vehicles don’t have a single drop of combustible liquid, but the city feels we need to have a fire extinguisher. ‘No taxi meter’ is another one. We don’t charge a fare, so why should we have a taxi meter?”

Tina Paez, the city’s deputy director of administration and regulatory affairs, said Ibarra’s vehicles have been cited as taxis because they take passengers.

“If they charge a fare or accept a gratuity, they are a vehicle for hire,” she said. “Even though they don’t technically charge, they come under the ordinance.”

I blogged about them in September, and the issues haven’t changed much since then. I think it’s clear these guys are a breed apart from taxicabs, and I think the city needs to consider addressing them as such. Some regulation is certainly required – ensuring they have adequate insurance, making sure the drivers receive safety training and certification, that sort of thing – but given that their domain is limited to downtown and parts of Midtown, it doesn’t make sense to regulate them like cabs. If they go beyond that area, then they can and should be re-evaluated – a well-written new ordinance can handle that. In the meantime, there has to be a better approach than this.

How to do (and not do) urban streets

neoHouston says:

One of the big problems in development today, in particular in the area of city planning, is distinguishing between good urban infill and mediocre urban infill. At first glance the two may look very similar, but they are not. Good urban infill has a great interface, like what you see in the photo above. Mediocre (or bad) urban infill does not. People don’t want mediocre infill, it adds density without adding vitality. People crave good urban infill, because when you combine density and great interface, you get the best part of urban life – vibrant and healthy street-life.

Click over to see the picture (there are several more) and read the post about how to do urban streets right, how to do it wrong, and how doing it wrong can have negative effects that can cancel out some of what was done right. Excellent post, well worth your time. See also this comment on Swamplot for a coda.

Midtown not feeling the recession

Good to know some parts of town are still thriving.

The recession seems to have forgotten about Midtown.

A drive around the neighborhood reveals forgotten buildings undergoing restoration and new apartments being framed.

This area between the Central Business District and the Texas Medical Center began its transformation in the late 1990s when Post Properties built an upscale apartment complex above street-level retail that’s attracted sidewalk cafes and boutiques. A tax increment reinvestment zone formed in 1995 has helped fuel development by pumping money into the area’s infrastructure.

Matt Stovall, vice president of Midtown property owner Crosspoint Properties, said inquiries to lease office space in the company’s commercial buildings are on the rise.

It’s just too bad that that original Post property remains the only such example of truly pedestrian-friendly mixed use development. If only there was to be a revision to the city codes that governed new development so that policies that encouraged that kind of building could be enacted.

Having said that, as one who remembers what Midtown looked like 20 years ago, when it was used as the filming location for a movie set in post-apocalyptic Detroit, the place is several orders of magnitude better now. We didn’t call it “Midtown” back then – we didn’t call it anything, because there was no good reason to be there. Even if it’s a missed opportunity for urbanism, Midtown is a huge asset to the city now.

Houston attorney Genora Boykins was able to persuade a lender to finance a roughly $2 million bed and breakfast called La Maison in Midtown that has broken ground at 2800 Brazos.

“It was a little challenging early on in the process,” Boykins said. “The thing that made the difference is we really didn’t give up on the vision we have.”

The amount of real estate activity in the area helped too, she said. One of the largest projects is a $39  million apartment complex being developed on Travis by local developer Camden Property Trust. It’s going up just behind the Crosspoint retail and office project that houses acclaimed restaurant Reef.

Boykins and her business partner, Sharon Owens, plan to open their B&B in next year’s first quarter.

The seven-room property will be in a three-story build-ing designed to evoke New Orleans-style architecture. Rooms will run from about $175 to as much as $300 for one of the two suites.

Gotta admire the optimism in that. I’m unsure how good an idea such a B&B would be in good times, but best of luck to ’em. I will note that this location is seven blocks away from the McGowen light rail stop, which will surely be a plus for them. I’d say the Main Street line overall has been a sizable boon for Midtown.

No service for gays

I’d heard bits about this last night on Twitter, but via an email from Carl Whitmarsh I’ve learned the details of a nasty little incident. The following is a press release from the Houston GLBT Political Caucus:

Nearly 100 gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were refused entry to Union Bar and Lounge in Midtown Friday while others were welcomed.

Patrons started lining up at about 9:40 p.m. and were told to wait in line and not allowed inside, even as straight-appearing people were waved through. As the line grew and patrons waited in the rain, employees at the door told those who were that they were maintaining a “ratio.” Later, the bar employees simply indicated they had the right to refuse anyone.

“I was shocked to be a victim of that kind of discrimination in a city like Houston in 2009,” said Neal Falgoust, a Houston law student. “I have never experienced anything like that before in my life.”

A patron who arrived at the bar early reported that the bar was nearly empty at about 9:40 p.m., when gay people started arriving and were stopped at the door.

Gay people continued to line up to the street and around the corner as people who appeared to be straight went to the front and were ushered in. Kris Banks, who stood at the front of the line, said the bar employees were asking the women who were entering with men if the men were accompanying them. If the men were with the women, they were allowed in.

“I arrived and heard that they were not allowing gay men in, so when I got to the door with three women I asked if we would be allowed in, and the door employee said ‘I was told to keep you out,’ ” said Lindsey Dionne. “This was supposed to be a social event, but now it’s political.”

That this kind of discrimination is still legal in Houston makes it more outrageous. A coalition of GLBT rights groups, including the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats, the Harris County Impact Houston and Amicus at South Texas College of Law said Saturday that the incident is proof of the necessity of legal protections for sexual orientation and gender identity for public accommodations.

“Houston is the only major city in Texas without a law that prevents this kind of discrimination,” said Jerry Simoneaux, GLBT civil rights lawyer. “This incident is exactly the reason Houston should implement such an ordinance.”

The event was organized as Houston’s first “Guerilla Gay Bar,” a tongue-in-cheek event that has been popular in other cities in which GLBT individuals come to traditionally straight bars to interact with other communities. Though Guerilla Gay Bars are usually a surprise event in other cities, Houston organizers informed the bar owner in advance out of courtesy and were told they would be welcomed.

One could charitably presume that there must have been some kind of miscommunication between the bar owner and the bar staff. If so – really, whether or not this is so – some kind of apology ought to be forthcoming from the Union Bar and Lounge for its atrocious behavior. I surely hope they don’t want this incident to be seen as typical for their business.

UPDATE: Hair Balls noted the “Guerilla Gay Bar” concept a couple of days ago. There are now two groups on Facebook for those who want to register their disapproval with the Union Bar.

UPDATE: On Yelp, at least one person who was there last night is disputing this account.

Brennan’s to reopen

The venerable Brennan’s of Houston restaurant, which burned down during Hurricane Ike, will reopen later this year.

Alex Brennan-Martin said he wanted to put to rest the rumor that Brennan’s of Houston would never reopen.

It will, in October, 13 months after a fire resulting from Hurricane Ike gutted the historical Midtown structure, home for 42 years of one of Houston’s most popular dining venues.

Standing under a sign above Brennan’s Smith Street entrance that read “Thank You Houston! See Ya’ll Soon!” Brennan-Martin, accompanied by Houston Mayor Bill White, announced that the restaurant will be restored and is expected to start serving turtle soup and Bananas Foster to loyal customers in October.

“It’s a happy day,” said Brennan-Martin, who served a three-course meal of Brennan’s restaurant news on Tuesday morning. Not only will the eatery reopen, providing 125 new jobs for the city, the Brennan’s brand will expand in Houston with two new ventures.

Hair Balls has more. This is great news, for the Brennan family and for the city. Also good to know is that manager James Koonce and his four-year-old daughter, who were severely injured in the fire as they sheltered at the restaurant during the storm, are doing much better. Good luck to all going forward.

More on streetcars and sidewalks

Andrew Burleson had a couple of good posts last week that followed up on Christof’s streetcar suggestions and my post about a KIrby light rail line. Here they are: West Gray Streetcar, in which he takes Christof’s concept for a streetcar line on West Gray and runs with it, and Will and Won’t, which gets into the reasons people walk and don’t walk in Houston. I think he’s right on about this:

My contention is that most people in Houston will walk single-digit block distances without complaining too much. If you get into double digits, most people think it’s too far. I’ve told people before, “let’s walk to the train station, it’s about 8 blocks,” and their reaction is, “woah, that’s a long walk!” I’ve told other people, “let’s just walk to the train station, it takes less than 10 minutes and it’s a lot easier than messing with parking.” That gets a more positive reaction usually. It seems that as you get to about 10 blocks distance people think “that’s pretty far.” If you phrase it as time rather than distance, people usually think 10-15 minutes (which is probably more like 12-18 blocks depending on who is walking) is reasonable, and longer than that is “far.”

In my experience, however, once you’re actually walking, people quickly get tired of it if you’re walking on broken old sidewalks or no sidewalks at all. They’ll almost immediately ask “are you sure we shouldn’t just drive?” But on nice sidewalks, especially when there’s retail opening on to the street and other people out walking, most people will go longer distances without noticing.

That’s something that I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve tried to imagine rail lines along Washington and Kirby, as I’ve proposed them. Washington is a street that should be far more walkable than it is, and I know that it’s in line for a big overhaul in the nearish future, but for now it’s got narrow sidewalks that abut the street, with no grass or anything as a buffer, with utility poles and other obstacles for walkers to dodge. Fixing that, hopefully in conjunction with planning for a rail line, will go a long way towards improving that whole area. (Fixing Studemont as well would go even further.) Kirby is reasonably walkable in most places, and it’s already undergoing a facelift north of 59, but for the rail line I’ve proposed something would have to be done to it between Bissonnet and Richmond, and to Yale Street on the north end of the line. I don’t know what can be done about this now other than talk about it and hope to get other people talking about it, so consider this a contribution towards that end. What parts of town should have better sidewalks than they currently do? Leave a comment and let me know.