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Montrose

Your Super Bowl AirBnB dream probably did not come true

Alas.

Vacation rental websites like Airbnb and Home Away still have pages of listings available for this weekend. Many are asking well over $1,000 per night for, in some cases, run-of-the-mill two-bedroom apartments.

Data from Airbnb Thursday show the typical price of booked listings in Houston for the Super Bowl is $150 per night. Listings within a 5-mile radius of NRG Stadium get a slight premium: $200 per night.

The most popular Houston neighborhoods for guest arrivals included Montrose, the Medical Center area and the Greater Heights.

See here and here for the background. That story was from Thursday, so I suppose it was still possible for some desperate last-minute renters to come in and sweep up those unclaimed listings at the listed rates. I kind of doubt it, though. Turns out, unless you have a particular kind of high-end property to rent out – and a particular kind of high-end renter looking for that kind of property – AirBnB is going to be the cheap alternative to a hotel, not the expensive alternative. Maybe next time, y’all.

Now is the time to rent out your house

If it was your plan to do that, anyway.

The teams playing in next month’s Super Bowl [are now set] and the final rush for last-minute lodging will be in full swing.

That also means more house and apartment rentals will hit websites like Airbnb, VRBO and Austin-based HomeAway, which says demand for Houston-area vacation rentals has shot up by more than 1,300 percent. Rates for homes near NRG Stadium are averaging $2,000 per night.

HomeAway listings include an array of properties, from a “mini yacht” docked in Kemah for $375 per night to a three-bedroom traditional in West University with a pool for $4,600.

Local listings on Airbnb have also shot up, increasing 50 percent from Oct. 1 to Jan. 1 to 5,700 listings.

On HomeAway, there are 637 properties listed and as of Thursday, 84 percent were booked.

See here for the background. Looking at the chart at the end of the story, there are a lot of my Heights neighbors renting out their houses, with even more folks in Montrose doing so. Hope the money’s worth the trouble.

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.

Reimagining Lower Westheimer

This ought to be interesting.

Lower Westheimer is one of Houston’s most well-known streets, but on some fronts its reputation isn’t a positive one. Narrow and bumpy, the street is both a hub of retail and recreation activity and also a harrowing bike or automobile trip from time to time.

Everyone has a story or a suggestion of how to make it better – and next week the city is going to carve out time to listen to them in hopes of improving one of Houston’s premier streets.

“That is one of the most economically vibrant, critical corridors in the city,” said Geoff Carleton, principal at Traffic Engineers Inc., a local transportation planning and consulting firm. “The priority there should be the place-making and developing walkability where it helps keep that tax base in place.”

As part of ReBuild Houston, officials are considering design changes for the street, a months-long process started by an advisory committee, moving to public comment on Monday evening. Officials guiding the process said while no final designs will be shown for what Westheimer should look like from Shepherd to Main. Westheimer turns into Elgin at Bagby.

“We will be presenting background material and existing conditions information and asking the public for their preferences and priorities,” said Matthew Seubert, a senior planner with the Houston Planning and Development Department.

Swamplot has a map of the area in question. One of the things hampering transit in the area is the curve in the street between Mandell and Commonwealth, combined with the narrow lanes that make it impossible for one of the articulated (i.e., longer and higher-capacity) buses to run on Westheimer. That’s a problem, given how busy that bus line is. Seems to me the obvious solution is to reduce Westheimer to one lane each way for that stretch. It’s functionally one lane each way between Hazard and Mandell anyway, thanks to there being on-street parking. I’m sure the subject will come up, and you can make your own voice heard at that public meeting. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of this.

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.

Hey look, a Regent Square update

Sometimes I forget this is still a thing.

In 2007, longtime urbanites said goodbye to the Allen House Apartments, a decades-old complex along Dunlavy just south of Allen Parkway. The multiblock property was a Houston institution, housing hundreds of college students, senior citizens and professionals behind brick walls and wrought-iron balconies that gave it a decidedly New Orleans feel.

The demolition of most of the units there – while marking the end of an era and eliminating scores of reasonably priced inner-city apartments – was done to make way for a more modern development covering 24 acres of prime property. The land has sat mostly dormant during the years following the initial announcement, but several new signs point to a coming revival of the project, Regent Square.

The development was the subject of a meeting Wednesday night of the North Montrose Civic Association. Scott Howard, the association’s treasurer, presented details about the project to residents. He said he had met with an official from the Boston-based development company earlier in the week.

“They’re ready to go,” Howard said, explaining how the project had been shelved during the recession. He showed off booklets the developer had passed along containing renderings and site maps. It was dated Nov. 16, 2015.

Howard told the group, which was meeting in the library of Carnegie Vanguard High School in the Montrose area, that the project would contain 400,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, 240,000 square feet of office space, 950 multifamily units and 4,200 parking spaces.

Plans for an Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, an entertainment concept that combines a movie theater and dining, in Regent Square are still in the works, as well.

“Alamo is coming to Regent Square,” Neil Michaelsen of Triple Tap Ventures, owner of the Houston locations, said Thursday in an email.

See here for prior updates. The last news we heard about this was almost three years ago, when the announcement was made about the Alamo Drafthouse. The developers did recently finish off a high-end apartment complex a bit down the street on West Dallas, so they haven’t been completely inactive, but I think it’s fair to say the main event has taken a lot longer than anyone might have expected. At this point, I’ll believe it when I see it.

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

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

I did see one negative story, to be sure.

HoustonMetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving on, here’s Raj Mankad:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting the historic preservation ordinance

This sort of thing is always fun.

Houstonians who live in historic districts, including the Old Sixth Ward, the Heights and the High First Ward, weighed in this week on proposed updates to the city’s rules that create areas preserved from most demolition and new construction, agreeing with some proposed changes, pointing out loopholes for unwanted development and taking the opportunity to complain about the current process.

The proposed revisions to the historic ordinance, which would enable creation of a process to create and manage historic districts, were presented in summary at a public hearing Wednesday night. The meeting was part of the efforts of the Planning and Development Department and the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission to refine the ordinance.

[…]

The ordinance, updated in 2010, created permanent protections for historic structures in the 22 designated districts and established a process for creating a district. The proposed changes strive to streamline approvals for requested changes within a district, provide guidance to the commission and create a more efficient process.

Many of those issues came to light Wednesday, even as it was acknowledged that historic districts are some of the strongest land-use laws Houston offers to property owners. A large contingency showed up from the Old Sixth Ward, one of the oldest districts. The neighborhood is near downtown, with houses dating back to the 1800s.

Resident Jane West asked the panel to consider how new construction is monitored in historic districts. She cited an instance in which a noncontributing structure was demolished but then replaced with a building that was larger than what was there before.

“We want to make sure the districts are a shield for neighborhoods, not a sword for developers,” West said.

Others from various districts in Montrose, the Heights and First Ward complained of the vague design requirements, the lack of term limits on the historic commission panel and the seemingly arbitrary process for approvals.

See here for the last update. All things considered, this has been fairly low-key. People can get mighty exercised about this, but at least by this story it sounds more like grumbling than outrage. I suppose that could change when the HAHC presents its recommendations at the next meeting, on August 5. But for now, this seems manageable.

Meanwhile, in other preservation news:

The Heights Theatre anchors a strip of vintage buildings converted into restaurants and small shops on buzzing 19th Street, its red-and-white Art Moderne sign a beacon to the neighborhood since the theater opened its doors nearly 90 years ago and screened a silent Western for 20 cents a ticket. Today, it’s a home for art exhibits and special events and could soon be hosting concerts.

In downtown Houston, the three-story building at 308 Main blends in on its block of colorful and thriving Victorian commercial buildings, the last vestiges of Main Street’s 19th century past. Evenings these days, its balcony and downstairs bar draw young professionals to the to the nightlife offerings along the street.

Both the downtown and Heights buildings survived fires over the decades and have seen many businesses and concepts come and go, as interest waxed and waned in their respective neighborhoods. Both survive as destinations, thanks in part to their historic feel.

On Wednesday, a unanimous Houston City Council granted both structures the strongest form of historic protection in free-wheeling, tear-down Houston. Members voted to make the Heights Theatre, 339 W. 19th, and the Victorian at 308 Main protected landmarks. Two houses built by famed architects also were granted landmark status.

The commercial buildings on Main and on 19th received the highest level of protection in the city with “protected landmark” designation. This means the facade of the structures cannot be altered without approval and they cannot be torn down, except in cases of extreme hardship for the property owner.

The protected status is more sweeping than historic landmark, in which owners can tear down or alter their properties after a 90-day waiting period to allow time for negotiations with preservationists.

Built in 1929 with a Mission-style stucco façade, and updated in 1935 with an Art Moderne-style exterior, the Heights Theatre was partially destroyed by arson in 1969 and sat vacant until the late 1980s. It has since gone through a series of uses, including an antique store.

The property will soon be sold and become a music venue, said current owner Gus Kopriva, a Heights resident who has owned the property with his wife Sharon for 25 years.

The couple sought the landmark status to make sure the property was protected before it was sold to another owner. It currently serves as an art gallery and event space. Preservation was a stipulation in the sale of the building.

“The theater has always been an icon of the Heights,” Kopriva said. “It was important to us to make sure it was preserved.”

Cool. I’d love to see that place get used for something along the lines of its original purpose. And it’s great when the owners see historic designation as an asset. I look forward to seeing what its next phase looks like.

One way to lower speed limits

Purple City makes an interesting observation.

One of the quieter actions of the late Parker administration has been to slowly alter speed limits from 35 or 40mph to 30mph. These reductions aren’t based on an engineering study or field measurements, but on a creative interpretation of state law. Texas sets the default urban speed limit at 30mph in lieu of a study justifying higher speeds. The City is interpreting that to post 30 on roadways which were formerly determined to be safe at 35 or 40.

I first began to notice this about a year ago, and had it confirmed by sources within PWE last summer. Thus far, it seems to be restricted to thoroughfares inside the Loop. The existing signage is allowed to disappear (through collisions, failure, theft, etc). When most of the old 35/40 is gone, the road is re-signed at 30. This provides a more gradual transition period than simply changing the signs out overnight.

Recently, I noticed that all of the 35mph signage is missing between Allen Parkway and IH-10.

He’s got a Google Maps image with the various sections of Studemont/Montrose highlighted to show what the speed limit is on each. It’s signed for 35 between Allen Parkway and Westheimer, but either signed for 30 or not signed elsewhere. Unless the next Mayor changes direction, my guess is that at some point in the not too distant future, this road will have a 30 MPH speed limit all the way.

And you know what? That’s just fine. Twenty-five years ago, when there was little retail or residential development north of Westheimer, a 35 MPH speed limit was reasonable. Nowadays, with pedestrians and bikes and cars slowing down to turn into driveways and side streets, a slower speed makes a lot more sense. Slower speeds save lives, and the streets in Houston’s dense urban areas aren’t just for cars any more. We should be updating the speed limits on these streets to reflect that.

De-industrialization update

The transformation of the Montrose/Heights border area will soon be complete.

After 100 years on Washington Avenue, the Detering Co. has sold all of its prime near-downtown property and relocated to north Houston.

The Houston-based building materials supply company had occupied 5.4 acres of land and some 70,000 square feet of headquarters space at 3028 Washington just east of Studemont. The acreage was divided into three properties and sold to three buyers, according to J. Michael Boyd, principal of Boyd Commercial/CORFAC International, who represented the Detering Co. in the sales.

Luxury homebuilder Sullivan Brothers Builders purchased a small parcel at 2900 Hicks. Dallas-based apartment developer JLB Partners bought almost 3 acres at 3028 Center. And the remaining site fronting Washington Avenue site is scheduled to close at the end of the month. Boyd declined to disclose the final buyer before the sale became final.

The redevelopment of the Detering site is indicative of the land use changes underway in this part of Houston, where many properties have gone from industrial to retail or residential.

The shift has been building for many years, with some of the most recent deals including the sale of the Grocers Supply tract on Studemont and a 21-acre nearby site occupied by floor manufacturer Tarkett USA.

Detering recently moved to its new facility, 107,000 square feet on a 19-acre site at 6800 Helmers near Irvington and the North Loop. Sellers were Quasar Land and Irvington Holdings. The company demolished a building on the property. Detering is also renovating a 25,000-square-foot building on the property that it plans to occupy as well.

The move was compelled by Detering’s growth plans and a “disjointed” Washington Avenue facility that included multiple buildings, said Boyd, who also represented the company in its expansion and relocation.

The Washington property had been held by the Detering family since the early 1900s, when Herman Detering ran a grocery store there. His son, Carl, opened the building supply company on the land in 1926.

See here, here, and here for other examples of this kind of change in the area. I’ll be interested to see what this eventually gets named. The area between Washington Avenue and I-10 has always been kind of a no-man’s land, neither Montrose nor Heights. That was as much due to the non-residential nature of the place as anything. With that changing, we’ll see how that gets reflected in the name. My guess is it’ll be Something Heights because pretty much everything else has been named that way, but maybe they’ll surprise me. Prime Property has more.

Economic segregation in cities

From Wonkblog:

Concentrated poverty is one of the biggest problems facing cities today, as more of the urban poor become isolated in neighborhoods where the people around them are poor, too. Growing economic segregation across cities, though, is also shaped by a parallel, even stronger force: concentrated wealth.

A new analysis from Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, which identifies the most and least economically segregated metropolitan areas in the United States, makes clear that economic segregation today is heavily shaped by the choices of people at the top: “It is not so much the size of the gap between the rich and poor that drives segregation,” they write, “as the ability of the super-wealthy to isolate and wall themselves off from the less well-to-do.”

Florida and Mellander created an index of economic segregation that takes into account how we’re divided across metro areas by income, but also by occupation and education, two other pillars of what we often think of as socioeconomic status. Among the largest metros in the country, Austin ranks as the place where wealthy, college-educated professionals and less-educated, blue-collar workers are least likely to share the same neighborhoods.

Notably, that top-10 list has four Texas metros. The Washington metro area comes in just behind these big cities, as the 26th most economically segregated in the country, out of 359 U.S. metros. Orlando, Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis, meanwhile, are the least economically segregated among the metros with at least a million people.

Before calculating their combined index, Florida and Mellander also looked at separate measures of segregation by income, education and occupation, and an interesting pattern arises across all three. Within a given region, such as Washington, we can think about income segregation, for example, in at least two ways: To what degree are the wealthy isolated from everyone else? Or to what degree are the poor concentrated in just a few parts of town? The wealthy can be highly segregated in a metro area (occupying just a few neighborhoods), even while the poor are pretty evenly dispersed (with low segregation).

The interesting pattern: By income, the wealthy (households making more than $200,000 a year) are more segregated than the poor (families living under the federal poverty line). By education, people with college degrees are more segregated than people with less than a high school diploma. By occupation, the group that Florida has coined the “creative class” is more segregated than the working class.

The problem of economic segregation, in other words, isn’t simply about poor people pushed into already-poor neighborhoods — it’s even more so about the well-off choosing to live in places where everyone else is well-off, too.

Click over to see the charts. The Trib and the Chron both reposted this story, while the Statesman reported on it; it would be nice if one or more of them did some followup to examine the particulars in some more detail. I haven’t read through the study yet, but intuitively it feels right, and at least as far as inner Loop Houston goes, I’d say gentrification is a big driver of it. The increased desirability of neighborhoods like Montrose and the Heights have transformed them from bastions of cheap housing with scattered pockets of poshness to exactly the kind of segregated areas Florida and mellander describe, where lot value alone far exceeds what used to be the cost of a typical house. I don’t know what if anything can be done about this, but I do think it’s an issue that the Mayoral candidates ought to be talking about, since it really is changing our city in a fundamental way. What do you think?

Robinson Warehouse, eight years after

From the Free Press Houston Worst of 2014:

What once was there

WORST WASTE OF SPACE: CORNER OF ALLEN PARKWAY AND MONTROSE

In 2006, The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the massive swath of land at the Southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose. This sprawling piece of property is centrally located, is adjacent to some of Houston’s most beautiful natural landscapes, and could serve so many important purposes.

For nearly 10 years, there have been rumors that this property would be developed into one of the largest mosques in Texas, and I am excited for the controversy that will most definitely ensue once that begins to happen. But that said, having such a huge property with huge potential stay dormant and fenced off in the interim is a missed opportunity.

If I had my way, folks would be allowed to play soccer there, a massive urban garden could be temporarily installed, and the space could serve as a rad destination along the Art Car parade route.

It was just before Thanksgiving in 2006 when I first noticed the demolition equipment out in front of this old, abandoned warehouse at the aforementioned corner. It had been a sad bit of urban decay for as long as I’d been aware of it, and as I obsessively documented over the ensuing two months, it vanished, leaving behind a large green field and the promise of something that would eventually be built. For awhile, the space – which goes all the way from Allen Parkway to West Dallas – was open, and was used a few times as parking for the Art Car Parade. Now it has that ugly hurricane fence around it – presumably, for liability insurance purposes – and Lord only knows what its future might hold. I’ve never heard a peep about its status in all this time.

Personally, I like author Omar Afra’s vision for the space, but there are plenty of other possibilities as well. Just about anything would be better than the unusable nothing that is there now. I wish there were something the city could do to entice the current owners to either do something with it or sell it to someone else that will.

Redefining residential streets

Streets are about more than just cars. Where the rubber will meet the road on this, as it were, is on busy residential streets like Dunlavy in Montrose, where new city planning codes will have an effect.

Dunlavy is, at least in theory, a four-lane street between Allen Parkway and U.S. 59. Some drivers question whether the outside lanes really count.

Uneven gutters, often filled with debris or small mounds of dirt deposited by passing cars and trucks, line the traffic lanes. Cyclists willing to brave the road dodge potholes and passing cars. Trucks, and most cars, tend to stay in the inside lanes.

“It is not effectively working as a four-lane roadway,” said Amar Mohite, who manages the transportation group in Houston’s planning department.

So in a departure from what many consider the Houston model, the city is calling for reducing the space for cars and trucks. Plans for Dunlavy, along with a handful of other street segments between River Oaks, downtown and U.S. 59 and along the Washington Avenue corridor, will decrease driving room in favor of retaining trees and making parking, bicycling and walking easier.

The proposals, part of a list of amendments to the city’s transportation plan, guide future construction and give developers an idea of what to expect. The changes would appear in the 2014 major thoroughfare and freeway plan.

What’s significant, officials said, is the decision to reduce driving lanes in some spots. The traditional Houston method of improving a four-lane road – turning it into a five- or six-lane road – is falling out of favor in many neighborhoods, with residents reluctant to lose more private land to roads.

[…]

Residents along Dunlavy, and generally around Neartown, told planners they wanted their streets maintained to allow for biking and walking, rather than widened to accommodate more traffic.

“What we said was, make it a neighborhood where you could ride your bike or take a walk,” said Greg LeGrande, president of the Neartown Association, a coalition of civic groups.

Here’s a map, for those of you not familiar with the area. Let’s be very clear about something: Dunlavy is not a thoroughfare. It’s a residential street, with stop signs, houses, cars pulling into and out of driveways, bikes, and pedestrians. Other than a brief stretch just north of West Gray by the post office where it is striped for two lanes on each side, it really is just a little one-lane-each-way road, meant for neighborhood traffic at neighborhood speeds. What distinguishes it from the other little north-south roads between Shepherd and Montrose that cross over US 59 is 1) it goes all the way to Allen Parkway, which gives it easy access to downtown and Upper Kirby, and 2) it has no speed humps. Those things help attract traffic to it, and people treat it like it’s meant for that kind of traffic. My friend Andrea, who used to live on Dunlavy near Gray, would complain bitterly about the drivers that zipped past her house at 40 MPH plus. That’s not what that street is for.

So I’ll be very interested to see what the city proposes to do. I predict there will be lots of whining, mostly from people who don’t live on or near Dunlavy. The city’s planning department will host an open house in late June to explain the amendments, and City Council is expected to consider the changes in September. One thing I’m not sure about is how they propose to make Dunlavy more bike-friendly while reducing the lane widths yet maintaining street parking. As I think about it, it should be doable – Dunlavy really is four full lanes wide, even if it’s almost never used as a four-lane road; there’s plenty of space between moving vehicles and parked cars – I’m just not sure how to visualize it. I look forward to seeing the proposal.

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.

Parking Panda

Interesting

Parking Panda, an online parking reservation system, launches Tuesday in Houston and Dallas. The site’s already up and running, taking reservations for lots around many area venues, including Minute Maid Park, Reliant Stadium and the Toyota Center.

The concept is pretty simple: Go online, find the parking lot you want, based on price and location, and reserve a spot. In some cases, Parking Panda co-founder Nick Miller said, people can even reserve a select spot.

In places where parking can be problem, like around a Texans game, having a guaranteed spot removes the hassle of hunting around or timing your arrival to find a close enough spot. Even if you’re ten minutes late, the spot is there waiting for you.

In Washington, D.C., where Miller said the company has seen one client use the service 125 times in the past year, the use is branching out beyond major venues to include parking around museums and entertainment districts.

That could be where things head in Houston, too, he said. Take the crowded Montrose corridor or Washington Avenue, where the city recently enacted strict parking rules. Before heading out for the night, someone potentially could find a spot ahead of time and leave the car there for the evening.

[…]

Major events and large parking garages aren’t the only places touched by the technology gains in parking. Though the bulk of the business is commercial lots, Miller said Parking Panda has some spot sellers who are, essentially monetizing their driveways.

“We have people who are making a couple hundred dollars a month,” he said.

Not everyone has a driveway worth renting, but for those in high-density areas, or near offices, the opportunity is out there.

The larger point, Miller and others say, is cities have finite space to store cars. If someone who lives a block or so off Westheimer is commuting downtown, someone in Sugar Land who works off Westheimer may be willing to rent the vacant driveway during the day to guarantee a spot.

I guess this is our week for vehicle-related innovations. It’s an interesting concept, and you can see what they have available for Houston here. I’m thinking the rent-your-driveway option might be quite appealing for events like the Art Car and Pride parades, if one lives in those areas. For that matter, I’m thinking some of my neighbors who live close to White Oak might check this out – if people are going to be parking in front of their houses anyway, they may as well make their driveway available and earn a few bucks for it. What do you think?

What’s in a neighborhood name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

OST/South Union, too

OST/South Union, too

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The townhomes are indeed coming

I have three things to say about this Lisa Gray column.

The dark side of density

“So the bad stuff we’re going to see today,” I asked, “it’ll be a cautionary tale for the suburbs?” I was driving west from downtown on what I thought of, privately, as the Terror o’ Townhouses Tour, a sort of scared-straight exhibit for suburbanites like me, who haven’t realized what a boring-sounding change to city development rules may be about to unleash on our outside-the-Loop neighborhoods.

David Robinson and Jane Cahill West were my guides. As neighborhood activists, they’d both seen firsthand how, 14 years ago, a similar change to Chapter 42 of the city of Houston ordinances made high-density development possible inside Loop 610, transforming entire neighborhoods lot by lot. One-story houses with yards gave way to townhouses so quickly that it became disconcerting to drive down a street you hadn’t seen in a while.

“Yeah,” Robinson said from my Hyundai’s back seat. “We’re interested in how the city is going to educate the suburbs.” (Robinson, an architect, is one of those civic activists who seem to be everywhere: head of the Neartown Association, former president of the Super Neighborhood Association, former member of the planning commission, a candidate for City Council, veteran of a bazillion stakeholders’ committees.)

“Just getting the word out is a problem,” said West in the front seat. (Her résumé is as overstuffed as his: vice president and resident expert on development for the Super Neighborhood Alliance, recent president of Washington Ave/Memorial Park Super Neighborhood Council, a former board chair of the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone for the Old Sixth Ward, and on and on.) “It’s a tough subject to cover.”

“They’re getting hit by a tidal wave,” said Robinson.

1. Some neighborhoods have had it worse under the previous tweaking of Chapter 42 than others. The West End/Rice Military area had the worst of all possible worlds – narrow streets, drainage ditches with no sidewalks, lax or nonexistent deed restrictions, small lot sizes, and initially affordable property values that made it so alluring to developers that wanted to cram as much living space onto the land as they could. Montrose at least generally had sidewalks, and the Heights generally had either sidewalks or deed restrictions, sometimes both. Nobody really knows what will happen to the parts of Houston that will now be subject to the same density rules as the Inner Loop, but if you live in a decent neighborhood in Houston but outside the Loop and are worried about the possible consequences in your area, I’d advise looking at your deed restrictions pronto. You may be protected from some of the rapaciousness that so changed the landscape in the inner core, but it’s best not to make assumptions about that.

2. The problem isn’t so much density as it is density plus car dependence. Montrose was always supposed to be a walkable neighborhood, and to a large extent it still is, which helps it remain as desirable a place to live as it is. Where it all goes wrong is not when you have more residences on a block than before but more cars that need to be parked than the block can handle. Houston has taken a lot of strides towards being less car dependent, at least in the areas most affected by the increased density, since the last revision of Chapter 42, with things like light rail and a vastly expanded bike infrastructure, but as long as every residence with multiple inhabitants of driving age has at least one car for everyone of driving age in it, these problems become intractable. Housing and transportation are two sides of the same coin, and we can’t solve one without the other.

3. For all of the problems that increased density have brought to these historic neighborhoods, we shouldn’t overlook all of the good that has happened in them. I lived in Montrose from 1989 to 1997. When I first went hunting for rental housing with two friends who would be my roommates back in 1989, there were plenty of cheap options to pick from. Unfortunately, they were cheap because they were mostly rundown old houses in sketchy neighborhoods – burglar bars were a prime feature on many of the places we looked at. The Heights was a place that single women were told to avoid because it was too dangerous. I don’t know about you, but on the whole I’d much rather have the Inner Loop of today than the Inner Loop of 25 years ago. I’d much rather have growth than decay. We absolutely need to learn the lessons of the past changes to Chapter 42, and work to fix the things that have gone wrong while working to avoid making the same mistakes elsewhere. But for all the issues, Houston is a much better place economically, culturally, and politically if it’s a place that people want to live in and can afford to live in. That above all is what we need to work towards.

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.

Alamo Drafthouse at Regent Square

This is an interesting development.

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, which is opening its second area location Thursday in Vintage Park Shopping Village, just announced that it will open a third location in the Inner Loop mixed-use project Regent Square, where it will also show outdoor movies in a park there.

[…]

At Regent Square, occasional outdoor movies will be among such other park activities as concerts and farmer’s markets, said James Linsley, president of its Boston-based developer, GID Development Group.

The park plaza will feature a portable movie screen and serve as “another anchor,” Linsley said.

“Since Alamo Drafthouse is the premier theater operator, we thought we should collaborate with them on programming the outdoor movies,” he said.

The 4.2 million-square-foot Regent Square project, already under construction, will include a 21-story luxury apartment high rise at 3233 West Dallas and other retail and residential components.

The Alamo Drafthouse, part of the project’s phase 2, will begin construction later this year.

That’s very cool, and I’m certainly happy that I’ll have the chance to visit an Alamo Drafthouse without having to take a road trip, but I shudder to think what traffic will be like once that’s been built. West Dallas and Dunlavy aren’t exactly major thoroughfares, and the proximity to Allen Parkway will make this even dicier. I foresee a traffic light on Allen Parkway at Dunlavy when this is built, which totally ruins the Allen Parkway Psalm. Alas.

As long as I’m talking about parking, let me be the first to suggest that this new Alamo Drafthouse do what it can to provide bike parking, preferably in a covered location. The area around Regent Square is already densely populated, and I’d bet that folks who live around there would be willing to bike in. Hell, if the traffic is as heavy as I suspect it will be, it’ll probably be quicker to bike there if you live within a one mile radius or so. There will be a B-Cycle kiosk nearby, at the Sabine Bridge; perhaps a second location at the theater is a good idea, as well. Paging Laura Spanjian…

Alamo Drafthouse had previously announced plans for a Midtown location at a proposed development on Louisiana, but [Neil Michaelsen, CEO of Triple Tap Ventures, owner of its Houston-area locations] said his group now is “reviewing alternate sites in Midtown for an Alamo and is committed to bringing the concept to that market.”

That announcement was last May. I wonder what happened to make them change directions so quickly. Still, between that and the other new high-end theater mentioned in the story, which will be on Westheimer just inside the Loop, there will be more close-in movie options than we’ve had in a long time, at least since the days of the old Bellaire Theater.

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.

Apartment boom coming

I have many things to say about this.

High occupancies and rising rents for apartments are driving a new wave of development in Houston’s high-end urban neighborhoods.

More than 3,500 units in a dozen complexes are under construction primarily inside the 610 Loop and around the Galleria. Nearly 8,700 more are proposed, according to Houston-based Apartment Data Services. Most, if not all, are being planned with top-notch finishes and high-dollar rents.

The flurry of activity is meaningful after a period where construction was virtually nonexistent. Amid the nation’s economic crisis, developers couldn’t get loans to start new construction and the appetite for apartments soured as renters moved in with relatives or doubled up in units.

But with the local job market beginning to recover, demand has been ramping back up, and the numbers of available units are dwindling. Few are concerned about a glut.

“If we ever needed construction, we need it now and need it soon,” said Bruce McClenny, president of Apartment Data Services.

Most of the units won’t be ready until late 2012 at the earliest.

The print edition of this story, which ran on Sunday, included a completely inaccurate map that among other things confused Weslayan with Shepherd and Richmond with both Bissonnet and Allen Parkway. I eventually gave up trying to make sense of it.

Among the projects listed were several of the longstanding vacant lots that I’ve noted from time to time. One that is actually under construction is the Ashton Rice Village, formerly the hippie bohemian attorney Sonoma development. Two others that are listed as “proposed” are Regent Square, home of the former Allen House apartments, which claimed last year that it would break ground in 2012, and the infamous Ashby Highrise, which may have lawsuit issues of its own to deal with. Not included: The site that used to house The Stables restaurant, which was torn down nearly five years ago. I have absolutely no idea what is going on with that site and when if ever something will be built there. At the time, one of the buyers said “We’ve acquired a crucial one-acre parcel in the Med Center area, which is hard to do”. You’d think by now someone would want to do something with it.

About two thirds of the 37 properties shown on the crappy map are in the rectangle bounded by the West Loop, I-10, the Southwest Freeway, and I-45. In other words, basically Montrose, Rice U/Med Center, Upper Kirby, West U, and River Oaks. If all of these projects get built, and all of the apartments get leased (I know, not going to happen) you’re talking 20 to 25 thousand more people in the area. As these are mostly high-end places, you have to wonder what effect this will have on the demographics and the politics; most of this territory is in the court-drawn HD134, and in the new City Council District C. Greg often talks about the re-honkification of the Heights. This isn’t the Heights, and this area was pretty Anglo to begin with, but there’s likely to be an effect nonetheless.

(Alta Heights, at 141 Heights Blvd, is the closest project listed to the Heights proper. This is basically across the street from the Ainbinder Wal-Mart site, and used to be a low-income apartment complex.)

With all this dense construction taking place in an already crowded part of town, you would hope that the need for more and better transit would be seen as increasingly urgent. Some of these projects will be close to the Universities rail line when it finally gets built, but a lot more than that is going to be needed to handle this and to allow for future projects like them. I’ll say again how nice it would be if the county, instead of spending gazillions of dollars on a road to nowhere to accommodate people that might live there 20 years from now, spent a few dollars helping to improve mobility where people are right now.

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.

Why HEB is not like Wal-Mart

I read this story about how residents near the old Wilshire Village Apartments site, where HEB plans to build a new store, will be voting on possible designs for that new store, and I wondered what might have been.

Residents who live near the corner of Alabama and Dunlavy, the site of an H-E-B scheduled to open next year, also are having their say on other store-related matters, such as whether or not to have bold colors on the outside of the building or install a large canopy for shade in front of it.

The San Antonio-based grocer is going to unusual lengths in an effort to make people in the area comfortable with having an H-E-B as a neighbor.

“We always ask for community input, but this time we took it to a whole new level,” said Scott McClelland, president of H-E-B, Houston. The company has never before allowed residents to vote on their favorite design scheme, he said.

When the chain announced its plans for the store in April, there was opposition from some residents. A number of them had wanted a park on the 8-acre wooded site. A group called the Montrose Land Defense Coalition formed to champion the park idea.

H-E-B has been meeting with residents to hear their concerns. “We’ve been impressed with H-E-B — they have truly listened to the community,” said David Robinson, president of the Neartown Association, a collection of 21 Montrose area civic groups and other organizations.

[…]

Smart retailers encourage community involvement, said Kit Yarrow, a professor of business and psychology at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. It is more crucial than ever for companies to get the neighborhood on board, she said, because consumers have unprecedented voice today: “The Internet has given them the power to rally from their homes with minimal effort.”

The consumers’ ability to be heard by H-E-B gives them a sense of ownership for the project, which Yarrow said moves the dialog from defensive to collaborative: “It helped change the topic from ‘Should we build?’ to ‘How should we build?’ ”

Other retailers prefer the “We don’t care what you think” approach. I wonder why they don’t have as positive a relationship with the public as some other firms do. In the end, residents got to vote on the design this past weekend; see here for the winner.

What if they built it someplace else?

For better or worse, the argument against the Washington Heights Wal-Mart mostly boils down to the fact that it’s an inappropriate location for a suburban-style big-box store. There are also concerns about traffic, and about the nature of Wal-Mart, both in terms of its business practices and its 24/7 operations, all of which have helped generate the pushback from residents in the area. The argument for Wal-Mart, beyond the basic belief that developers should be mostly free to develop what they want where they want, is that the city and the immediate area would benefit economically from its presence, as a provider of jobs and of affordable merchandise. The vacant lot sitting there now isn’t doing anyone any good, and there are people nearby who would like to shop and work there. There are nuances and variations and whatnot to each argument, but that’s more or less what they come down to.

If you agree that these are the main points, then you might observe that the Yale/Koehler property isn’t the only vacant lot in this part of town. What if Ainbinder or some other developer had picked a different location for a Wal-Mart? I got to wondering about that. Here’s the result of that little thought experiment:

Empty lot #1: Sonoma/Bolsover

Of the places I have in mind, this is the hardest to imagine being proposed as a Wal-Mart site, never mind one actually being built there. None of the streets that surround it are capable of handling the kind of traffic a Wal-Mart generates. There are many large retailers nearby – high-end grocers Rice Epicurean at Holcombe and Buffalo Speedway, Kroger Signature and HEB on Buffalo Speedway between Bissonnet and Westpark; CVS stores on Kirby in the Rice Village and at 59, and on Greenbriar at Holcombe. The immediate area is relatively wealthy, so both the customer base and the pool of potential employees is smaller. They would likely be at least as hostile to the idea of a Wal-Mart as they were to the Sonoma project and to the Ashby highrise. Other than it being a vacant lot, I can’t think of a good reason why a Wal-Mart would ever be proposed there.

Empty lot #2: The Stables

Conversely, this seems like the best fit. With access from Main and Greenbriar, traffic would be much less of an issue. Lots of apartments nearby, in the mid- and lower-income ranges, so there should be a solid customer and employee base. Extra points for being close to the light rail line, making it easier for employees to get there via transit. It’s mostly surrounded by Medical Center structures (more potential customers), with the only adjoining neighborhood being north of Main Street, so there would likely be little political pushback. There are similar retailers nearby – the Fiesta at Old Spanish Trail and Kirby, the CVS at Main and Kirby, and the Target at Main just west of Kirby are all within walking distance – but Wal-Mart didn’t get where it is by shrinking from a little competition. Whatever traffic issues there are would annoy me – I’m mostly thinking of people turning left on Greenbriar as they pass Main heading south – but beyond that I can’t think of a strong reason against it. This location just makes sense.

Empty lot #3: Allen House/Regent Square

Possibly the largest lot on my list, though it’s split by West Dallas, so that would present some challenges. Mostly good access from Dallas and Dunlavy, plus eastbound on Allen Parkway; entering from or exiting to the west on Allen Parkway would almost certainly require adding a traffic light, which is of course an abomination. There’s some nearby retail – a Kroger Signature at Gray and Woodhead, the future Whole Foods at Dallas and Waugh, just across the street from a CVS – but not that much. There’s a fair amount of low-income housing in the immediate area, and I’d bet The Center would be interested in possible employment opportunities for the people they serve. On the other hand, this location is also right next door to River Oaks, and they might not be too hot to have a Wal-Mart right there.

Empty lot #4: Robinson Warehouse

The only lot among the four that wasn’t originally intended to be some kind of high rise/mixed use development. About a half mile away from Empty Lot #3, so all of the same things apply to it, though it’s farther from River Oaks and closer to many apartments and lower income housing east of Montrose/Studemont. Easier access, from Dallas, Montrose, and the existing intersection/traffic light at Montrose and Allen Parkway, but possibly the largest impact on traffic, as both Montrose and Dallas get mighty busy at rush hour.

So there you have it. Obviously, none of these sites were bought (and none of the then-existing structures demolished) with the idea of putting up a big-box store. But with all of them being fallow for three years or more, possibly much more as things stand, who knows what might happen. The question is, whatever your opinion may be of the Washington Heights Wal-Mart proposal or the now-approved 380 agreement, what would your reaction be if that same project were to be suddenly relocated to one of these places? Discuss in the comments.

The HEB and the Wal-Mart

As we know, the site of the old Wilshire Village Apartments was bought by HEB a few months ago. Some area residents were not terribly thrilled at the idea of a new supermarket at that location and organized to have a voice in what happened there. Recently, HEB released a proposal for that site that addresses a number of the concerns that had been expressed, and everybody appears to be happy with what they’ve put forth. Makes you think that maybe, just maybe, there’s hope for such a happy ending for the “Heights” Wal-Mart. Stranger things have happened, right? So far, though, it’s not looking too good for that.

And in a somewhat related tangent, Prime Property and Swamplot have news about the other new Wal-Mart, the one that will be next to the Marq-E center on I-10 at Silber. Hard to believe I’ve survived all these years in this town without being a five-minute drive away from Wal-Mart, and by the end of next year there will be two such places, assuming all goes as planned. I think I’ll go renew my Costco membership to celebrate.

“HEB with a Montrose feel”

The West U Examiner gives us an update on the plans for an HEB where the Wilshire Village Apartments used to be.

Having recently closed its land deal for the property at Dunlavy and Alabama streets, H-E-B will be putting the finishing touches on three grocery store designs to be considered at the site.

The price paid for the property was not disclosed. There is no timetable yet for selecting a plan or to begin building at the site, spokeswoman Cyndy Garza-Roberts said.

During a meeting with the Neartown/Montrose Super Neighborhood in mid-May, H-E-B representatives said residents in the area and other concerned parties in the community would have an opportunity to voice preferences on the final design.

“Once we have them (the plans) ready, we will work with homeowners associations and (neighboring) St. Stephen’s Church,” Garza-Roberts said. “We are very confident they will be pleased. It’s going to be unique and compliment the Montrose feel.”

We’ll see what the neighbors, some of whom are quite skeptical about HEB’s plans, think of this. I’ve expressed some of the same concerns about this as I have about the “Heights” Wal-Mart. The HEB location is on streets that are at least somewhat better suited for the kind of traffic it’s likely to see, and it has the bonus of being near a future University Line rail stop, so the situations aren’t identical, but they are similar. If HEB can convince the locals that they can make this work in a way that won’t be too disruptive, maybe there’s hope for Wal-Mart as well. Maybe. I look forward to seeing what they have to show.

A Montrose/Studemont walkability update

Back in 2008, I put together a photo essay on density and walkability in Montrose, in particular on Montrose/Studemont between West Gray and Washington. It included this photo, taken in front of what was then the old Ed Sacks Waste Paper site:

Legacy at Memorial

Before

Well, the Sacks site is gone, and in its place is a new high rise, Legacy at Memorial, which opened a couple of months ago. Here’s what that same location looks like today:

Now this is what a sidewalk should look like

Now this is what a sidewalk should look like

Now that’s more like it, isn’t it? Getting rid of the wall certainly helped, and a nice wide sidewalk is always good to have. There’s another cool feature about this sidewalk, for which I’ve put more photos beneath the fold. Click on to see them.

(more…)

Council passes demolition moratorium for historic properties

Houston City Council has taken a step forward to providing stronger protection for historic properties.

City Council passed a temporary law today that puts a moratorium on demolitions in Houston’s 15 historic districts.

The city’s 15-year-old preservation ordinance has allowed a property owner to proceed with a renovation, demolition or relocation in one of the districts after a 90-day waiting period — even if the change had been rejected by the Houston Archeological and Historic Commission.

After today, the commission’s ruling will stand as the city makes permanent changes to the law.

The vote was 13-1 in favor, with Council Member C.O. Bradford the lone “No”; CM Mike Sullivan, who had previously voiced some objections to the law, was absent. I had thought this would be more contentious, but maybe that will come when the permanent ordinance gets debated. I’m glad to see this happen, and I look forward to that discussion. Along the way, Council also designated First Montrose Commons as a historic district. One subdivision of my neighborhood is also working on that. Quite the change for Houston, isn’t it?

Are they finally building something on the Robinson Warehouse site?

Remember the Robinson Warehouse? It’s been more than three years now since the old building at Montrose and Allen Parkway was demolished, and the site has been fallow ever since. But in the last week or so, some signs of life, or at least impending construction, have appeared.

What are they building here?

What are they building here?

I guess they're the ones to ask about it

I guess they're the ones to ask about it

You may recall that the land had been bought by the Aga Khan Foundation with the intent of building a Muslim Ismaeli center there. After all this time, I have no idea if that’s still the plan and it just took them longer than they might have thought to get it going, or if the property has changed hands and something else is about to be built. Anybody know what’s up? Swamplot to the white courtesy phone, please.

The Montrose Land Defense Coalition

That’s the name of the group that’s not so much fighting against the proposed HEB on the old Wilshire Village location as they are (in their own words) “concerned with the degree to which communities have a say in the development of land directly adjacent to their places of residence” and are seeking “a development solution for this valuable tract that will best benefit businesses and the communities that surround it”. I certainly support that, and I’ll say again that I don’t quite understand why HEB thinks that site would be a good one for one of their stores. So far at least, no politicians have gotten involved in this. I’ll be very interested to see how some of them respond to this, and at what point. Swamplot and Prime Property have more.

All your empty lots are belong to HEB

The empty lot that once housed the Wilshire Village apartments will be bought by HEB.

Cyndy Garza-Roberts, director of public affairs for H-E-B, said the company is studying the feasibility of the acquisition and didn’t have an estimated closing date.

Garza-Roberts also couldn’t say when a store might be built on the site, but she said the company has identified a need for one there.

“We feel there are customers in that area that H-E-B can serve,” she said.

I don’t quite get that. There’s a Fiesta right across the street, the Whole Foods on Kirby and Alabama and the Kroger on Montrose and Fairview are less than a mile away, and the new HEB at 59 and Buffalo Speedway is maybe a five minute drive, with another Kroger right across the street. It’s not like there’s a dearth of food-buying options in the area. They say they perceive a need, but I’m not sure why.

I do know that if I were still living in that area, I’d be more than a little concerned about the traffic this might generate. It would probably make a lot of sense from a throughput perspective to extend one or more of the currently cul-de-sac’ed streets just west of the property into the future parking lot, but I’m sure the residents of those cul-de-sacs would hate that idea with a passion. They’re not too happy with this as it is.

Maria-Elisa Heg recently formed the Montrose Land Defense Coalition to call attention to the property and attract investors who might be interested in buying it with the city of Houston for use as a public space.

The coalition says a major supermarket there could increase traffic and hurt area businesses.

Heg, who rents an apartment in the neighborhood, said she and other residents would prefer the land be turned into a park with a cafe and a small commercial space where artists could sell their work.

More on that here. I suppose on the bright side, if this thing does get built, it’ll also be a short walk away from the eventual Mandell light rail stop on Richmond, so perhaps they’ll get more of a pedestrian patronage than one might think. Beyond that, it’s still weird to me. We’ll see how it goes.

Three cheers for Montrose

Always nice to get recognition.

Montrose, the central Houston community known for its diverse lifestyles, vibrant street life and stately historic homes, is being honored by the American Planning Association today as one of the country’s 10 great neighborhoods.

Houston’s sprawl, absence of zoning and reputation for haphazard development might make its recognition by the national planning establishment something of a surprise. Yet the qualities cited in the award for Montrose — its walkable street grid, carefully preserved historic districts and eclectic mix of homes and businesses — reflect Houston’s preference for private rather than government-imposed planning, experts said.

In the early 20th century, long before it became the focus of slum-clearing urban renewal projects or the heart of Houston’s gay and lesbian community, Montrose was an elite master-planned suburb, said Stephen Fox, a Rice University architectural historian.

“Its planning has really come from the developers of the individual subdivisions rather than representing any public policy,” Fox said.

[…]

“It doesn’t have to always be a prescribed method of growth,” [David Robinson, the president of the Neartown Association] said. “It’s organic. The street grid, the sidewalks have meant that without zoning and for the most part without restrictive covenants, the area has been able to grow and adapt.”

The street grid — a web of straight streets with short blocks and none of the cul-de-sacs favored in suburban neighborhoods — has helped keep Montrose walkable since the days when people stepped off streetcars and walked to homes or shops, Robinson said.

David Morley, a research associate at the American Planning Association, said Montrose’s pedestrian-friendly nature was an important factor in the award.

“It’s one of the few places in Houston where people get out of their cars and walk around,” Morley said.

Congrats to Montrose and kudos to the APA for making such a good choice. I hope that as Montrose continues to gentrify and densify that its basic infrastructure needs are met so that it may be a great place where people want to live for many years to come. Hair Balls has more.