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Scenic Houston

Beautifying Broadway

Sounds like a good idea to me.

Not that Broadway

Broadway between Hobby Airport and Interstate 45 may offer a first impression of Houston to first-time visitors, but not the one many civic boosters would like.

The 2 miles along the main road between the airport and the highway include strip developments and aging apartment complexes. Grassy medians along the road are scattered with few trees and shrubs. Little landscaping or lighting welcome travelers or residents coming home.

“Tired” is one word used to describe the area by Anne Culver, the president of Scenic Houston, a nonprofit working to raise $7.5 million to upgrade the area.

“You only have one shot at a first impression,” Culver said. “For many coming to Houston, that first impression is Broadway. … It’s not welcoming.”

Civic leaders envision a Broadway lined with oaks trees, flowers and shrubs in median. Gravel pathways and benches would be placed along the road in the now patchy esplanades. Art Deco-style LED lights would illuminate newly paved walkways and crosswalks.

The push to improve the street comes as Hobby is expected to bring an estimated 1.5 million new passengers annually into the area once its international terminal opens in the fall and as the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston nears.

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Scenic Houston and the Hobby Area Management District, the district set up to boost economic development in the area, say it’s the right time to do whatever they can to make the area look as good as it can. They have set out a $7.5 million plan for trees and LED light fixtures up and down the roads. Along the esplanades, gravel and walkways would wind in between benches, flowers and the new lighting. Sidewalks would be improved. The groups are working to raise money from private donors and some funding will come from the management district.

“This was a great opportunity to step into the breach,” Culver said. “If you’re coming in from the airports, the first impression for miles is that the city is unattractive.”

I’d argue that the stretch of I-45 in from IAH, with its unending stream of used car lots, strip clubs, and billboards, is the uglier and worse-impression-making of the city’s entry points. At least Broadway provides a nice view of Sims Bayou. Still, I take their point. Any reasonable thing we can do to make the city look better is worthwhile. Given that TxDOT is already paying to rebuild the street, it makes all kinds of sense to make the upgraded street more functional, which in itself should help to make it more attractive. I tend to fly United so I don’t get this way that often, but I will look forward to seeing how this turns out.

Metro moving forward with advertising

This has been in the works for a long time.

Depending on what Metropolitan Transit Authority officials decide regarding a new revenue plan, your light rail trip could end at the Taco Bell Station, or some similarly named stop.

Officials in early 2013 are expected to receive more information on a revenue plan exploring potential corporate partnerships and advertising. Board members, at a meeting in November, stressed they are considering options carefully, knowing any talk of adding ads to the sides of buses will raise concerns.

“The only reason why we are considering this is because there are potential benefits to our riders and the public,” board member Christof Spieler said during a recent committee meeting.

Allowing advertising could generate up to about $10 million a year for the agency, which has a roughly $300 million operating budget.

Limiting ads to corporate sponsorships, such as renaming routes or lines, and minimal branding might bring in about half that sum, according to analysts with the consulting firm IMG Worldwide.

Critics of advertising proliferation in Houston worry that if Metro opens the door to some advertising, it will set back anti-billboard efforts.

“This is a city where you form your impressions through a windshield,” said Anne Culver, executive director of Scenic Houston, a group focused on eliminating what it considers visual blight in the city.

“Houston has a great tradition of keeping the city free of billboards and of visual clutter,” said Ray Hankamer, a Scenic Houston board member. “This is the camel getting its nose under the tent.”

Like I said, this has been in the pipe for a long time. Last discussion of it that I’m aware of was in October of 2010, with a story from earlier that year referring to 2005. It came up before then in November of 2008. I have been a proponent of this all along, first suggesting that Metro put ads in its light rail cars in 2007. I respect Scenic Houston and I support their work, but I disagree with them on this. I don’t see it as being anything like billboards, which had been permanent fixtures in many neighborhoods. Putting signs on the sides of buses, or on bus shelters, isn’t going to change your view. The “naming rights” concept is new and I’ll admit to having a bit of unease about it, but in a world where every stadium, arena, and concert venue is named for this corporation or that utility, it’s hard to get too worked up about in. As I’ve browsed my archives on this, it seems like the reluctance to go forward has been one part resistance from City Council, and one part disinterest from outgoing CEO George Greanias. Neither Council members nor the interim Metro CEO were quoted in this story, so we’ll have to see what those potential obstacles look like this time around. For the record, I hope Metro goes forward with it. It makes good sense, and if they’re serious about building the University Line, then every extra dollar matters.

More signage regulation coming

First, they came for the billboards. Then they came for the attention-getting devices. Now in the crosshairs: Roof signs and other potential menaces to Houston’s natural beauty.

The city of Houston is poised to pass a major revision to its decades-old ordinance governing more than 60,000 signs on display at area businesses, proposing numerous changes that supporters hope will improve the city’s appearance.

Critics agree that the changes will be vast — eliminating roof signs, regulating electronic displays and diminishing the maximum allowable height and square footage of on-premises signs by nearly half in certain cases — but strongly oppose the changes because they could hurt small businesses and initiate a citywide makeover they say Houston does not need.

The debate has sparked age-old tensions about the character of Houston, and whether the laissez-faire approach that has governed its appearance, leading to a little-controlled bonanza of signs and development — is ideal for the city’s future.

“People come here and they are consistently shocked by the city’s appearance and they often ask us how we let this happen to our city,” said Anne Culver, executive director of Scenic Houston, an organization that advocates for more regulation of signs and billboards. “Site consultants say all the time that they’re told not to put Houston on their lists because of pollution, the heat and how it looks. This is a step in the right direction.”

Michael Berry, a former city council member who has spoken against the measure on his radio show, said the timing of the changes — coming in one of the worst economic downturns in a generation — could not be worse.

“Houston didn’t grow so big so fast because of an activist City Hall,” he said. “Less government, no zoning, low taxes and a strong business climate may be ‘ugly’ to some, but that’s why we’ve prospered. This will hurt small business at a time when they are struggling.”

I cheered the billboard ordinance. I’m more ambivalent about the AGD ordinance, but am okay with it. This one, I’m not so sure about. I guess I just don’t perceive the problem. Maybe I just don’t notice the types of signs and displays in question, or maybe I do notice them and am just not all that bothered by them, I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a case to be made that Houston would be more aesthetically pleasing with a stronger ordinance in place, and I’m sure the existing one needs some kind of updating, but the case for this particular revision is not self-evident to me. Given the recent loss in court over enforcement of the to-be-updated AGD ordinance, I’m leery of something as broad as this. I’m not saying I can’t be convinced that this is a worthwhile pursuit, but someone is going to have to make an effort to do so.

Having said that, Berry’s lame, archaic, knee-jerk sloganeering is about the least credible argument you could use to dissuade me. Let’s put aside the fact that this is about the worst time in my memory to make the “regulation is bad” claim as an axiom. Even if it is the case that in whatever history of Houston Berry has in mind a “non-activist” City Hall contributed to the city’s growth in the past, why is that necessarily the case now? We all know how much, and how rapidly, Houston has changed in recent years. Who’s to say the way we’ve always done things is the way we should always keep doing? That’s granting Berry’s premise about Houston’s governance, which may or may not be on point anyway.

The proposed changes were produced over the course of a year by a 14-member task force that included city officials, commercial real estate agents and representatives from the sign-making, restaurant and apartment industries. Task force members said the proposals represented a compromise between business interests and consumers, and many stressed that the new requirements will not be imposed on businesses with existing signs. Only new developments and businesses greatly remaking their signs will have to comply with the new regulations, which would go into effect Sept. 1, if passed.

The measure appears to have the support of council members, who last week noted the array of stakeholders who participated on the task force. The proposed rules sailed through council’s Quality of Life Committee in May.

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Despite efforts by city officials, some industry officials have spoken out against the changes, in some cases even though it was not immediately clear how their companies would be affected. Several officials representing national pharmacy chains such as Walgreen’s asked City Council not to pass the ordinance last week, citing concerns over the new electronic sign rules.

Some commercial real estate agents have speculated that Houston will lose a perceived advantage from developers eager to do business in a place with few regulations.

Mike Harp, development director for Cedarwood Development, a commercial real estate company, said businesses with existing signs would have an advantage over competitors that come into the market after September. In particular, he said, there are not adequate provisions for exceptions to the rules.

“I can agree that we need our rules to be stiffer, but when you turn it over to a bureaucracy and administrative people, you very much lose your edge, in my mind,” he said. “It’s a problem if you set down a black and white ordinance that may not apply common sense to a specific site.”

I can accept the argument that Houston’s current regulations may be attractive to some developers. It does not necessarily follow that this is a net positive for Houston. Maybe a more stringent set of rules would have a greater benefit, in terms of people and businesses wanting to relocate here. That’s Anne Culver’s argument, and it’s one I’m receptive to, but I’m also receptive to Mike Harp’s point about the new ordinance possibly favoring existing businesses over new ones. I can see the pros and cons, I’m just not sure which set is bigger. I’d like to hear more about this. What do you think?