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Abbott says he wants a list from Turner

A list of funding priorities, he says. Because he’s passive like that.

Answering Houston’s latest complaints over funding for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts, Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday told Mayor Sylvester Turner the state can step up with more money as soon as the city gets a list of its top needs to the state.

Let’s meet quickly, Abbott said, as the deadline for an initial wave of federal funding is Friday.

After some verbal back-and-forth between the two leaders in recent days over funding for debris removal among other costs, Abbott wrote a four-page letter to Turner late Tuesday outlining seven different federal programs under which Houston will qualify for additional hurricane relief — from small-business disaster loans to special unemployment assistance to funding to help with food and housing needs.


“The Economic Stabilization Fund (the official name of the Rainy Day Fund) is a limited resource, and so it is imperative we understand the statewide financial situation before draining the fund only to learn of more financial obligations,” Abbott said in his letter.

“As of now it would be impossible to determine the highest and best use of ESF, because we do not yet know the extent of the losses . . . Texas should first use the full array of state financial resources and federal resources already available already available to us to respond to our current needs.

“Those tools should sufficient to respond to our needs, and Texans’ needs, until the next (legislative) session at which time a supplemental budget can be passed to pay for the expenses Texas has incurred. That supplemental budget will almost assuredly require using money from the Rainy Day Fund.”

See here for the background. I have no idea if Abbott felt a sensation akin to “shame” or “political pressure”, or if this story follows on the heels of the other one simply because there was information made available subsequently that added to the original picture. Be that as may, to address the substance of Abbott’s letter, let me first point you to this story in the Press:

Turner did give Abbott at least three specific examples of how Houston could use the Rainy Day Fund money in his letter Monday. For one, debris removal is projected to cost Houston $25 million, since FEMA is picking up 90 percent of the projected $250 debris removal tab. Turner has said structural damage to city buildings is now in the ballpark of $175 million — but meanwhile, the city’s flood insurance plan capped out at $100 million. In order to extend the plan through April 2018, so that the city still has flood insurance should another tropical storm make landfall this year, that’ll cost $10 million. The city must also pay a $15 million insurance deductible to recover on damages.

The mayor’s spokesman, Alan Bernstein, said that if the state were to hand over the $50 million to cover these insurance and debris removal costs, that is all the city is asking for and there will be no need to raise taxes.

$50 million is less than half of a percent of the total fund.

Is that list-y enough for you, Greg? Author Megan Flynn did a nice job of talking to some fiscal conservative types, none of whom could think of a good reason not to tap into the Rainy Day Fund for this. Note also that allocating $50 million from the $10 billion fund would “drain” it in the same way that spending a nickel on a piece of gum would “drain” a $10 bill.

The Chron editorial board, which reaches back to the 70s for a good analogy, also has a few minor corrections for our only Governor.

The governor rejected Turner’s request. He and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, another Houstonian, have said the mayor can use funds held by Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones for Harvey cleanup and recovery efforts. They’re mistaken. TIRZ bond funds are legally restricted to the use for which they were issued.

The governor has said the mayor’s request is unprecedented. Again, he’s mistaken. In 2013, the Legislature tapped into the Rainy Day Fund to help the Bastrop area recover from devastating wildfires. Bastrop County residents will tell you those fires were bad, but they didn’t cause damage expected to top $150 billion. That’s the toll Harvey wrought.

The governor has said the state has given Houston money. Again, he’s mistaken. The money that’s come our way is FEMA money destined for Houston and passed through the state, which keeps more than 3 percent for administrative costs. No state money has been allocated to the city for Harvey recovery.

Other than the folly of calling either Abbott of Patrick a “Houstonian” – Abbott has lived in Austin for all 20+ years of his political career, while Patrick is a “Houstonian” in the way all rich old white guys in the far flung master-planned communities and who think all cities are cesspools of crime and corruption because they don’t have enough rich old white guys like them living in them – I agree. What Abbott wants more than anything is a pretext to not do anything. If these falsehoods don’t work, I’m sure he’ll have others at the ready. The Observer has more.

Uptown lawsuit filed

I suppose we should have expected something like this.

The city’s Uptown Development Authority and the economic development zone that feeds it were created in violation of the Texas Constitution, two critics allege in a lawsuit that seeks to void all resulting actions and block Uptown from collecting or spending another dime.

The Galleria-area agency’s controversial, $200 million effort to widen Post Oak Boulevard and add dedicated bus lanes down the middle is a key focus of the lawsuit. It was filed Wednesday on behalf of restaurateur Russell Masraff and condominium resident Jim Scarborough, who was also was a plaintiff in another, since-dismissed lawsuit seeking to block the bus plan.

The suit argues that Uptown officials repeatedly violated the Texas Open Meetings Act in pricing and purchasing land to widen Post Oak – including tracts in which some Uptown board members had a financial interest – and that the agency’s subsequent decisions should be voided or reversed, to the extent possible.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Joe Larsen, said he views the filing as having broader significance beyond the bus plan.

“We’re asking the court to order Uptown to make no further payments because all the money involved has been collected through an unconstitutional tax regime,” Larsen said. “The bottom line is the Constitution requires equal taxation.”

He added that the only reason tax increment reinvestment zones, or TIRZs, “are not unconstitutional is that there’s a different provision in the Constitution that allows them.”

“In order to meet that other provision in the Constitution that allows TIRZs to be constitutional, they have to be in an area that’s ‘blighted, undeveloped or underdeveloped,’ Larsen asserted. “That’s it.”

This is not the first lawsuit related to this project; that one was subsequently dismissed, though without a comment on its merits. In this case, the plaintiffs asked the judge for an injunction blocking the Uptown Development Authority from spending money or issuing bonds while the litigation was in progress, but that request was denied. I feel like it’s also in the Constitution that we cannot have a non-freeway expansion transportation project in this town without at least one lawsuit. I’m not qualified to assess the legal argument being made here, so instead let me bring you a video of “Uptown Funk”, since that song has been lodged in my brain since this story first broke.

With all due respect to “Uptown Girl”, I say this song should be played at the beginning of all court hearings in this case. Who’s with me on this? Swamplot has more.

My vision for Metro: Buses


I’ve said before that I would have some suggestions for new Metro Board Chair Carrin Patman and her team as they take their places. This post is where I start sharing those suggestions. The idea is to focus on proposals that I believe are doable in the current political and economic climate, in the short term as well as in the longer term. Ideally, all of these things could at least be begun by the end of Mayor Turner’s second term in 2023. Some of these things can be done by Metro on its own, but many will require at least some level of cooperation with one or more other agencies. in all cases, the goal is to get more people to use Metro. As always, your feedback on these ideas is welcome.

Let’s start with the backbone of the system, the local bus service. The good news here is that Metro’s current bus system map is basically as good as it’s going to get to maximize ridership, which by the way continues to improve. The bad news is that this means Metro has less control over what it can do to improve the bus system further. But the other good news is that the means by which they can improve the system further, and thus get more people to use it, are clear and easy to understand.

Really, it all comes down to two things: Sidewalks and bicycles. The new bus system does a really good job of getting you from one neighborhood or part of the city to another. But you still have to get yourself to your bus stop from your point of origin, and from your bus stop to your final destination. When your bus stop is on a well-maintained sidewalk, with safe street crossings, this is easy. When it’s not, it’s a strong disincentive to use the bus in the first place. The 85, for example, is a frequent route that runs along Washington Avenue, a part of town with a lot of destinations close together and a shortage of parking. It also has some of the crappiest sidewalks for a neighborhood that really ought to be pedestrian-friendly. People won’t take the bus if they think it’s not easy to get to or from the bus stop. Bad sidewalks are a big hindrance to bus ridership.

To their credit, Metro knows this. I feel reasonably confident saying that the Metro board will do what it can to work with the city of Houston as it plans out its Rebuild Houston projects (assuming the Supreme Court lets it), which now that the city operates under Complete Streets guidelines, means that sidewalks will receive proper attention. The budget that Council just adopted includes Metro money for each Council district earmarked for infrastructure repairs, so those pieces are in place. Metro also needs to work with Harris County, especially now that the Commissioner of Precinct 1 is and will be willing to work on infrastructure inside Houston, with the various TIRZes, HISD and the other school districts, and any other entity that is able to put up a few bucks to re-pour a sidewalk. Harris County Commissioners Court – all four precincts – really needs to be in on this, since it was the county’s insistence that the 2012 sales tax referendum bar using marginal revenues for light rail that helped lead to the bus system re-do. Put some skin in the game, Commissioners Court. These are your residents, too.

As far as bicycles go, we know that more and more people are riding their bikes to bus stops, then using the bike racks on them to get their bikes to their stop. This has the effect of extending the bus network, since it’s a lot easier and faster to ride a bike a mile to a bus stop than it is to walk that far. The city of Houston and to a lesser extent Harris County have done a lot to build up their bike infrastructure, and thanks to the Bayou Greenways bond issue plus the legislation to allow bike trails on CenterPoint rights of way, there’s a lot more of that to come. Metro needs to be part of the planning process so that bike trails that connect with high-frequency bus routes get priority, and to ensure that connectivity between trails and bus routes is always taken into account. Metro should also be at the table when the next phase of BCycle is being planned, to ensure that kiosks are deployed at or near bus stops and train stations whenever possible.

Speaking of the trains, while the bus system redesign was done in part to maximize the use of the new train lines, I feel like there’s a lack of information at train stations about what bus stops and bus routes are nearby. As an example, I’ve taken the train to the Wheeler station/transit center recently a couple of times to get to an appointment out near 59 and Kirby. From Wheeler, I could reasonably take either the 25 bus along Richmond, or the 65 bus along Bissonnet. The problem was that when I got out at Wheeler, I had no idea how to find a stop for either of these buses. Turns out, the 65 is right there, while the 25 (at least westbound) required walking over some pedestrian-unfriendly turf to get to a stop on Richmond just east of the downtown spur. I was able to figure it out for myself, and I’m sure the Metro trip planner could have helped, but a little signage at the station would have been very nice. A little signage at every station, showing you exactly where the nearest bus stops are and which ones go to which destinations, would be even nicer.

Anyway, that’s a brief overview of what Metro and its new Board and Board Chair should focus on to improve the bus service even more. I’ll refer you back to this post by Chris Andrews from two years ago, right when the bus system makeover was first announced, for some further thoughts; pay particular attention to the bolded paragraph in his Conclusions at the end. Next we will talk about how Metro can do more to market itself.

Memorial residents file lawsuit over flooding

This ought to be interesting.

A group of residents sued the city of Houston and one of its local redevelopment authorities Wednesday, alleging that they approved commercial development in the Memorial City area without requiring adequate storm water mitigation, resulting in increased flooding in residential neighborhoods.

Claiming federal and state constitutional violations, the west Houston group Residents Against Flooding, joined by several individuals, is seeking to require the city to prioritize neighborhood flood relief by expediting drainage projects in residential areas and halting commercial building permits for projects on large lots unless those developments are found to not increase residential flood risks.

The plaintiffs also are looking to bar the redevelopment authority for Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone 17 from executing new private development agreements until further drainage infrastructure improvements are made to residential areas.

“The defendants’ actions and inactions — knowingly sending stormwaters into the residential neighborhoods that lack adequate infrastructure, without mitigation or necessary infrastructure improvement, and favoring projects for the private commercial interests at great expense to the residential interests — should shock our collective conscience,” the plaintiffs wrote.

See here for some background. You can see a copy of the lawsuit here; the plaintiffs had threatened last month that this was in the offing. There’s a good summary of what it’s all about at Swamplot – short answer is that the plaintiffs aren’t seeking damages, but to undertake and/or finish previously recommended drainage mitigation projects, and to put a halt to commercial development permits in the area until those projects have been done. I have no idea what their odds of success are, but I will be keeping an eye on this. The Press has more.

Council unanimously passes Turner’s first budget

Good job.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner achieved his goal of securing unanimous passage of his first general fund budget Wednesday morning, a month ahead of the typical schedule and after an unusually brief and uncontentious discussion of council members’ proposed changes.

The $2.3 billion general fund budget, which pays for most basic city services with revenues from taxes and fees, represents only the second budget cut for Houston in two decades. The first came after the 2008 nationwide financial crisis.

“It’s not my budget, it’s our budget,” Turner told City Council. “There are fewer than 20 amendments today, which I think speaks to the collaborative nature of the partnership we have. I want to thank you for the trust you’ve placed in me.”


Turner’s budget proposal in general , which spends $82 million less than was budgeted in the current fiscal year, despite an additional $27 million for employee raises and an increase of $29 million in pension payments, cuts 54 vacant positions and includes roughly 40 layoffs.

The document pulls $10 million from reserves, makes $56 million in permanent changes, mainly cuts within departments, and relies on $94 million in one-time fixes to bridge the $160 million gap the city had faced between its revenues and expenses.

The Mayor’s press release is here, and a longer version of the Chron story is here. This is the “easy” budget, in the sense that it doesn’t yet do anything related to pensions, and was able to use a number of one-time items to help boost revenue and mitigate the need for deeper cuts. Next year will be harder, especially if sales tax revenue continue to sag. The relative ease and widespread harmony with which this budget was passed gives Turner some momentum and a fair amount of political capital to deal with that budget as it comes. The Press has more.

Turner announces his budget

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Utilizing a shared sacrifice approach, Mayor Sylvester Turner today unveiled a proposed Fiscal Year 2017 General Fund budget that eliminates a projected $160 million shortfall that was the result of cost increases, voter imposed revenue limitations, a broken appraisal system and the economic downturn. The budget totals $2.3 billion, which is about $82 million less in spending than the current FY2016 appropriation. The decrease was accomplished while still meeting $60 million of contractual and mandated cost increases the City is forced to cover in FY2017. The mayor is unveiling his preliminary budget plan more than a month ahead of the normal schedule and has requested accelerated City Council approval in an effort to send a positive message regarding City budget management.

“This was the largest fiscal challenge the City has faced since before the Great Recession,” said Mayor Turner. “By bringing all parties to the table to engage in shared sacrifice, we have closed the budget gap and started addressing the long-standing structural imbalance between available revenues and spending. Each City department, the employee unions, the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones, City Council and various other parties have worked together to identify cost savings and efficiencies while preserving a healthy fund balance, minimizing employee layoffs and maintaining the City services our residents rely on and deserve.”

Due to an arrangement negotiated by the mayor, the City’s tax increment reinvestment zones will send $19.6 million back to the City to help cover increased operating costs citywide. The rest of the budget gap was closed utilizing a combination of savings from debt restructuring, spending reductions, revenue from anticipated land sales and a small contribution from the City’s fund balance. Even with this fund balance contribution, the City’s savings account will remain well above the threshold necessary to satisfy the credit rating agencies.

The budget includes the elimination of 54 vacant positions and 30 to 40 layoffs, most of which the mayor hopes to accomplish through attrition. There are no significant reductions to park and library operations, which have been hit hard in the past and there will be no layoffs of police officers or fire fighters. There is funding included for an additional police cadet class, for a total of five classes and the mayor continues to look for ways to streamline operations to get more officers back on the street.

The budget was balanced using both recurring and non-recurring initiatives. If non-recurring items had been taken off the table, there would have been drastic cuts in City services and another 1,235 City employees would have lost their jobs.

The recurring initiatives mark the start of institutionalizing a new way of running City government. The elimination of redundancies and increased efficiency in operations has generated $36.2 million in recurring annual savings. In addition, the TIRZs will continue to contribute at least $19.6 million in subsequent years. Yet to come is a new approach for the City’s pension liabilities. Productive discussions are underway with stakeholders and I am committed to having an agreement ready to take to the legislature by the end of this year.

“I strongly urge City Council to resist the urge to tinker with this budget,” said Turner. “Even one small change will upset the delicate balance we’ve achieved as a result of shared sacrifice and put the City at risk for a credit rating downgrade. This plan prepares us for the additional fiscal challenges anticipated in FY18 while also improving public safety, increasing employment opportunities and meeting the critical needs of the less fortunate in our city.”

City Council is scheduled to vote on the budget May 25, 2016, nearly a month ahead of last year. The new fiscal year begins July 1, 2016.

Details are here, and the Chron story on the budget is here. I confess, I’ve only scanned the details so far – sorry, but it was a long week, and it’s been a busy weekend. I am sure there will be plenty of opportunity to discuss the details between now and May 25. Have a look for yourself and feel free to tell us what you think.

Criminal complaint filed over Uptown land acquisition

All righty then.

A consultant who represents property owners in the Galleria area has filed a criminal complaint with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, alleging the Uptown Development Authority and related entities broke state open meetings and disclosure laws in relation to acquiring property for a dedicated bus lane project.

The complaint, filed last week with District Attorney Devon Anderson’s office, concerns meetings held by Uptown officials to discuss right-of-way purchases along Post Oak Boulevard to make the bus project feasible.

The transit project, which also involves Metro and the Texas Department of Transportation, would connect a future Bellaire Transit Center with the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610, stopping at dedicated platforms along Post Oak.

Wayne Dolcefino, president of Dolcefino Consulting, said Uptown did not create any records of the so-called Right-of-Way Committee meetings, including dates, agendas or minutes.

“We believe that’s a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act and have now formally asked the district attorney to investigate,” according to a statement released this week by Dolcefino’s consulting firm. His complaint also raises questions about potential conflicts of interest among board members who own or are affiliated with companies that own real estate on Post Oak.

Uptown official John Breeding said his organization has not broken any rules. He said the meetings did not include a quorum and no action was taken.

“Our attorneys … they tell us such committee meetings don’t have to be posted,” said Breeding, president of the Uptown Houston District and administrator of the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone and Uptown Development Authority.

Long story short, this is just another skirmish in the fight between the Uptown Management District and its plans to remake Post Oak Blvd and build a BRT line, and some Uptown business interests that hate the idea and have been fighting it like a pack of crazed weasels. It’s all going to culminate in a lawsuit, unless one of the shots that the opponents have been firing manages to take the project down before a suit gets filed. I rather doubt this complaint will lead to anything, but hey, you never know.

Mayor Turner releases transition team report

From the inbox, a glimpse of what to expect in the near to medium future from Mayor Turner.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner has released a 17-page report that details the work of his transition team chaired by businessman and long-time civic advisor David Mincberg. More than 250 Houstonians from all walks of life participated. They have submitted policy recommendations on 13 different areas:

  • Comprehensive Financial Reform
  • Criminal Justice
  • Economic Opportunity
  • Education
  • Housing
  • Houston Airport System
  • Public Health
  • Public Safety
  • Public Works
  • Quality of Life
  • Rebuild Houston
  • TIRZs
  • Traffic and Transportation

“I want to thank this group for their hard work,” said Mayor Turner. “They dedicated countless hours of their personal time to this process. Some of these recommendations can be implemented sooner than others. They are constructive suggestions that will be helpful as I continue to put together my plans for Houston.”

The Chron story on this is here, and the full report is here. It’s worth your time to look at. It’s mostly a checklist, with the current status (“done”, “in progress”, or “under consideration”) for each item. Some of these items, like the Public Health category, have gotten very little attention before now. Those of you that want to see the TIRZ system overhauled will find much in there to contemplate. I don’t know what the time frame is for these things – obviously, for stuff like financial reform, the horizon is much shorter than for some others – and it’s not clear just how much “consideration” some of these things will get, but keep this handy for when you hear of a new initiative or proposed ordinance. Most likely, it’s on here somewhere, so we can’t say we haven’t been advised.

Layoffs are coming

It’s gonna suck, though hopefully not as hard as last time.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday that a still undetermined number of city employees will be laid off in the coming months, making his first formal acknowledgment that Houston’s projected $126 million budget gap can’t be closed by July without personnel reductions.

Though Turner did not provide an estimate of the number of employees at risk, personnel costs comprise more than 63 percent of the city’s general fund operating budget. Because another 19 percent of that money is set aside for debt payments, spending cuts need not go deep before they touch workers.

“It’s going to be very difficult to balance the budget at the end of June without some layoffs,” Turner said. “The question will be, how many there will be. I’ve taken no departments off the table. The only thing I will not do is I will not lay off a police officer.”


Noting that job cuts inherently mean cuts to city services, Turner sought to assure that his efforts to seek concessions from the leaders of the city’s economic development zones, pension boards and other groups are progressing well. He said he also is examining other ways to cut costs, such as restructuring the city’s debt.

Never missing a chance to repeat the refrain first issued in his inaugural address last month, Turner stressed that he also has asked City Council members to join in this “shared sacrifice.”

Beginning Tuesday and continuing at Wednesday’s council meeting, Turner hand-delivered letters to the 11 district council members. The notes, which he jokingly dubbed “Valentine’s cards,” told the council members he seeks to cut funds they use to support projects in their districts from $1 million to $250,000 in the upcoming budget, saving more than $8 million, in part, to avert additional layoffs.

“My hope is that we can put forth a budget that minimizes the number of layoffs, and that’s why I’ve asked everyone to engage in shared sacrifice,” Turner said. “It’s very difficult to tell people that they’re going to be laid off if we hold on to everything that we have.”

Mayor Turner has already asked Council to clip their discretionary budgets, because a little bit here and a little bit there may make the big pain a little smaller. I assume “economic development zones” means TIRZes, so I’ll be interested to see what that entails, and if the usual suspects start screaming bloody murder about the stupid revenue cap. If Turner can negotiate a minimal cost of living increase for the firefighters’ pension and/or a larger contribution from them as was the case with last year’s pension deal, that’s all to the good as well. We can’t do anything about the revenue cap now, but it will be on the horizon. If the general consensus is that Turner has done what he can to control spending (even though that has nothing to do with the rev cap), that may make it a little easier to get a revision to the cap passed. For now, anything that can be done to minimize job losses will be appreciated. I don’t envy him the task.

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.

Uptown BRT construction begins

I’m really rooting for this to succeed.

Dignitaries will gather Monday to symbolically start construction of wider sidewalks and dedicated bus lanes meant to enhance Post Oak Boulevard and offer improved transit service, even as some residents and business owners continue fighting to block a project they consider a huge mistake.

Though it has passed a number of government hurdles, the $192 million project has faced increasingly stiff headwinds as opponents question the decision-making process as well as the data justifying the bus lanes.

Plans call for adding two dedicated bus lanes – one in each direction – along the center of Post Oak. Riders would board and exit the buses at stations, similar to how light rail operates. Special lanes also would be added along Loop 610 between a future Bellaire Transit Center and the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10.

Post Oak would be widened, without reducing the current number of general use lanes.

The project is led by Uptown Houston, the management district for the Post Oak area. The Metropolitan Transit Authority would operate the bus service. Funding comes from local, state and federal sources, and the project has been approved by Uptown Houston’s board, the Houston City Council, the Houston-Galveston Area Council and Texas Department of Transportation.

It has faced some political hurdles, despite broad agreement that peak-hour traffic congestion on Post Oak was hindering the area’s ability to further develop. Supporters said transit was the logical next step, noting that in most other U.S. metro areas, Uptown’s job and business scene would make it the urban core and a transit hub. Its employment numbers are on par with downtown Denver’s.

“I think it is the correct solution,” said John Breeding, the president of Uptown Houston. “But it is not that I think it – it was voted on by public agencies and planners looked at it.”

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s now a dispute over projected ridership numbers, which are being recalculated by Metro as a result. I have no idea what ridership numbers will be, but I see no reason to be pessimistic. People will use it if it provides a worthwhile service. It may take some time to build, and it will definitely help if the Universities line ever gets built and gets connected to it, but if I worked in the traffic congestion hellhole that is the Uptown/Galleria area, I’d sure be interested in an alternative to driving. We’ll see how it goes.

The latest Uptown fuss

I suppose I need to say something about this.

Two members of an economic development board pushing a plan to run a center bus lane along Uptown’s Post Oak Boulevard have financial ties to companies that will be paid for land in the project’s right of way.

Earlier this year, Uptown Chairman Martin Debrovner and secretary and treasurer Kendall Miller disclosed financial interests in two of the more than 30 parcels the board will purchase with public funds to expand Post Oak.

Collectively, three companies that own property along Post Oak – Weingarten Realty Investors, WMJK and Hines Interests – stand to receive about $6 million of the roughly $47 million budgeted for right-of-way acquisitions if average appraisals done by an outside company last year hold.

A third member of the Uptown development board, Louis Sklar, filed a similar affidavit earlier this year because he is a former senior executive at Hines Interests. But according to his affidavit, he does not make enough of his current income from the company or own enough stock, for instance, to have a “substantial interest” in the company as defined by state law.

The board members appear to have followed state law; they have not voted on items with specific or special financial benefit to them, instead voting more broadly to support the bus plan.

Critics contend that the financial disclosures should have been filed in early 2014, when a consultant’s report was issued listing the properties to be purchased along retail-laden Post Oak Boulevard.


Any appraisal above $500,000 and any offer that exceeds fair market value by more than $50,000 requires Federal Transit Administration approval. As for why the affidavits weren’t filed sooner, Breeding said they waited until right-of-way offers were imminent.

“Our board of directors is much more concerned about (conflicts of interest) than just your average person,” [Uptown President John] Breeding said. “Really, from the very beginning, we said, ‘How can we do this and how can we support it and how can we set up a system that is as transparent and as free from conflict as possible?’ Honestly, it comes up all the time because we build roads and streets in the area.”

Not really clear to me what the scandal is supposed to be. One would expect that members of the Uptown Management District would own property in Uptown, and some of that property will be bought for right of way purposes. Yeah, TIRZes are often more opaque than they should be, but that’s not what is being argued about here. If this is the worst thing that the Uptown opponents have to say about the project, it ought to be very smooth sailing from here.

What kind of Memorial Park do you want?

Council is set to vote on the Memorial Park Conservancy plan, whether you like it or not.

Joe Turner does not want more drawings gathering dust on a shelf.

Houston’s parks and recreation director inherited more than a few unrealized master plans when he was hired 10 years ago. Now he’s shepherding the most complex one yet, a detailed plan to restore, improve and maintain Memorial Park, the largest and most heavily used green space in the city.

Thomas Woltz describes his blueprint as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help save a green space three times bigger than New York’s Central Park. It doesn’t lack for ambition, restoring the ecosystem, shifting several ballfields to the park’s northeast corner, increasing parking spaces by 30 percent and creating two dramatic land bridges spanning Memorial Drive that reconnects the park’s major sections.

“We feel like we’ve enlarged the park without any land acquisition,” said Woltz, a partner in one of the nation’s premier landscape architecture firms, Nelson Byrd Woltz.

But it’s an election year, and vested interests around the park are taking aim at new ideas they don’t like. Tuesday is the last day for public comment on the plan.

Then, on Wednesday Mayor Annise Parker and City Council will be asked to vote on the plan, 18 months after they unanimously approved its creation. The plan was created through a partnership of Turner’s department, the Memorial Park Conservancy and the Uptown Houston tax increment reinvestment zone, which committed $3.2 million in financing for the plan.


In addition to the land bridges, the plan’s most ambitious ideas involve infrastructure, including fire suppression and irrigation systems, stormwater management and a 30 percent increase in parking spaces. Those projects would happen first. They fall within the realm of the TIRZ, which by law can support infrastructure only with the tax money it collects.

In interviews with the Houston Chronicle, Woltz and Sarah Newbery, Uptown’s park project manager, have said the tab might be $300 million, but last week they were loath to use any figures.

Newbery said the plan simply tries to define goals for what the park should become over time, if and when funding become available to build the things it proposes. If council approves the plan, the team soon will address where and how to begin, calculate costs and put every item through “a measured and thoughtful public process,” she said.

See here and here for some background on the plan; see here, here, and here for background on the TITZ part. The plan has its share of controversy, from the land bridge to the parking plan to the bayou erosion remediation. This Hair Balls post about yesterday’s Council public session covers a lot of the concerns. I’m generally favorable, though I share a lot of the concerns about the bayou. Be that as it may – you know what’s coming, right? – there’s nothing in this story to indicate what any of the Mayoral candidates think about this. Memorial Park is a crown jewel, and this is a huge undertaking that will happen on the next Mayor’s watch. Wouldn’t it be nice to know if they approve or disapprove, and what their concerns are?

An Uptown BRT skeptic

Here’s one guy who doesn’t like the idea.

Ridership models developed by the Uptown TIRZ board project that the new bus route will carry 10,000 riders per day in 2018. This estimate is outrageously inflated, given that the more than 30-year-old Park & Ride system only carries 16,000 riders per day, most of whom are downtown-bound. This has been tried before. Since 1985, Metro has rolled out seven Park & Ride routes to the Galleria. Last month, they cancelled the sixth route (Kingsland to NW Transit to Uptown) due to low ridership. The sole surviving Park & Ride route to the Galleria (Kuykendahl to Greenway to Uptown) is classified as “poor-performing,” carrying an average of only 220 people per day to both districts.

Major Galleria-area employer Apache, initially in favor of the project, now opposes it. The company surveyed its employees and asked how many would drive to the Northwest Mall and then board a bus to the Post Oak Central offices. Not one Apache employee was interested in doing so. Not one. Why has there never been a well-reasoned, comprehensive survey of Galleria employees as to their expected usage of such a project?

Parking in the Galleria is convenient, readily available and reasonably affordable. This is the complete opposite of the downtown area. Even in the parking-challenged downtown, over the past five years, Park & Ride participation rates are falling, from 38 percent to 28 percent. Metro’s entire Park & Ride system consists of 29 lots. Despite a 30 year-plus operating history, 23 of its 29 lots operate at 55 percent or less of capacity.

What will this Guide Way project do to Post Oak, Houston’s Rodeo Drive? I believe it will ruin it. Look what happened to the merchants on Main Street. Look what’s happened to the Central Business District regarding crosstown traffic.


Uptown, Metro and the city are talking about condemnation proceedings taking place before a final plan has been produced. This is par for the course. Another example of Metro’s “Ready. Fire. Aim.” approach: Recently, a long-known environmental hazard interrupted construction of the Harrisburg Line of light rail. Believe it or not, the meandering East Side Metro trains don’t run the full length of the Harrisburg route. When did the poor planning method become an accepted standard?

I am convinced that people decide to work and (increasingly) live in the Galleria area due to the ease of access to retail, including restaurants and grocery stores. Completely dedicated bus lanes/guide ways make no sense to any student of public transportation unless they are of the BRT (bus rapid transit) variety. These lanes are definitely not, despite having been initially designated as such. BRT lanes are dedicated and do not stop for traffic.

The piece is such a mishmash of unsourced assertions, tangents, and failure to address items that have already been raised during the process that it’s hard to know where to begin. The main thing to me is that nowhere does the author suggest any alternatives to the BRT line as a way of dealing with Uptown’s crushing traffic congestion. I came away with the impression that his preference is to do nothing because there is no problem to be solved. I don’t even know how to respond to that, so let me just state a few basic principles. Traffic is bad. It’s a problem now, and it will limit future growth and economic opportunities. Building more road capacity, especially non-highway road capacity, is not an option to alleviate the mobility issues we have now or the ones we will continue to have if we do nothing. The best way to create more capacity is to create options for people who could get where they need to go without using their car. This means mass transit, bike trails and lanes, better and safer sidewalks, and the like. Not everyone will use these things, maybe not even a majority of people. But many people will use at least one of these options at least some of the time, and every time they do it means less traffic for those who can’t or won’t do anything other than drive. Maybe this plan isn’t the best of all possible plans. I’m sure there are ways it could feasibly be better, and I have no doubt there will be implementation and operation problems to deal with. But it is a workable plan that addresses the main issue, that there isn’t enough room for all the cars that want to be in Uptown now, let alone the ones that will want to be there in the future. If you want to argue against it, I’d appreciate it if you came up with your own workable alternative to it.

Like a bridge over Memorial Park

Some fascinating ideas for ensuring the long-term health of Memorial Park.

Today Memorial Park is a land divided.

The city’s premiere park stretches across 1,500 acres, almost twice as large as New York’s Central Park. But to Thomas Woltz of the internationally renowned landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, it feels much smaller. Over time the land has been divided into 24 tracts by roads, an elevated railroad, a power easement and recreational amenities.

That could change during the next 20 years if a long-range master plan being proposed by Woltz’s firm is adopted next spring by the Houston City Council. Hired in 2013 by the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, the Uptown Houston tax increment reinvestment zone and the privately funded Memorial Park Conservancy, the firm is nearly three months into a 10-month design process.

At a public meeting Wednesday, Woltz presented his firm’s initial design strategies and the reasoning behind them – ideas driven by previous public input and a year’s research by a team of about 70 local experts in fields like soil science, ecology, history and archaeology.

He shared maps, drawings and aerial views to explain the park’s ecological and cultural histories, also unveiling a dramatic solution to one of the landscape’s biggest problems. He’s proposing a grass- and tree-covered land bridge, 800 feet long, that would rise gently across Memorial Drive, over a tunnel, to reconnect the park’s north and south sides.

While it’s not realistic to remove the street, which is crucial to Houston’s traffic circulation, the land bridge is “a kind of triumph … the park wins,” Woltz said.

The current pedestrian bridge on the park’s western side, completed in 2009, was an important first gesture toward stitching the park’s landscape back together, Woltz said. “This land bridge builds on that beginning at a much larger scale.”


Project director Sarah Newbery of Uptown Houston said the Uptown Houston TIRZ is committed to spending $100 million to $150 million on the restoration projects and infrastructure; a figure that could change with property values. Memorial Park Conservancy executive director Shellye Arnold said her group is studying how much it can raise in the next 10 or 20 years toward the effort.

“But we think of this in terms of a 100-year or 75-year plan. We’ll execute large parts of it in the next three to 15 years; but there can be a road map for the next generation as well.”

Woltz expects to reveal designs that incorporate Camp Logan remnants at the next public meeting on Nov. 10.

“We’re looking for ways the landscape could function as a memorial to the soldiers and maybe even reveal some of the grid,” he said.

A Jan. 12 meeting is titled “Spaces and Places: How Will It Look?” The final March 9 meeting promises a more comprehensive revealing of the plan.

See here, here, and here for some background. The TIRZ in question is also the one helping to fund the Uptown BRT line. Some more material from the architect is here. What do you think about this? Link via Swamplot.

Holmes Road

It kind of blows my mind that something like this could be the case in 2014 in Houston.

Holmes Road

Holmes Road in south Houston, for a stretch, feels less like a city street and more like a weathered country road in Central Texas, even though NRG Stadium and the Texas Medical Center shimmer in the distance.

On the surface, there is no reason this accessible area – over 1,400 acres – should be the city’s largest single mass of undeveloped land.

The problem lies underground. Neither the city nor private developers ever extended sewer service to the area, leading developers to skip it in favor of other sites with more infrastructure and lower up-front costs.

Houston and Harris County officials propose to remedy that by burying an $11 million sewer line along Holmes Road.

The project is still being negotiated but is scheduled for 2016, the same year Holmes is slated to be widened and rebuilt and when Buffalo Speedway is to be extended south through the area.

“A lot of migration in terms of development has moved south to the Pearland area, and I don’t think it’s because the developers desire to be in Pearland,” said Houston’s deputy director of development, Gwen Tillotson. “I just think it’s because we did not have the adequate infrastructure. The longer we delay moving forward on this project, the more opportunities for development we stand to lose.”

Linda Scurlock, president of the South Houston Concerned Citizens Coalition, has lived in the area for 37 years. Holmes Road, she said, has been an eyesore for many of those years, so isolated it invites illegal dumping.

“We’re close to the Medical Center, we’re close to Reliant (NRG) Stadium, we’re close to 610, we’re close to the Beltway, we’re close to 288,” Scurlock said. “We see those as pluses, and we can’t see why there has not been development out here. If you have the infrastructure there, then I think development will come.”

You know how I suggested we build more places to live proximate to the Medical Center as a way of coping with its mobility needs? This is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about. I had suggested it for the undeveloped land along Hiram Clark, but if you look at that Google maps image I provided with that post, you can see the gigantic plot of land south of Holmes Road mentioned in this story as well. I didn’t suggest it as a target for development in my post because I figured it had to be a park or something – it was just too big. You know that former KBR site in the East End that everyone was talking about awhile back? It’s 136 acres, which is to say one tenth the size of this plot. If this expanse of land south of Holmes Road were in the process of being developed right now, you think that might have an effect on Houston’s housing shortage? This is a smart move by the city, and I’m glad to see Harris County playing a role in it as well. I look forward to seeing what eventually comes out of this.

Hiram Clarke TIRZ

I think this will be a good thing.

CM Larry Green

CM Larry Green

The Houston City Council and the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court approved a plan this month to boost development in Houston’s southwest corner with the creation of a tax increment reinvestment zone.

Under a tax increment reinvestment zone, property taxes generated within the zone’s boundaries are frozen at a set level. As development occurs and property values rise, tax revenues above that level are funneled back into the zone to pay for public projects in hopes of attracting further development.

Over 30 years, the new Hiram Clarke/Fort Bend-Houston zone is expected to divert $141 million in tax revenues into such projects as road repairs, converting utility easements into park space or coordinating with developers to transform South Post Oak, Chimney Rock, Hiram Clarke and West Fuqua into commercial thoroughfares.

“See all the vacant land we have here? All of the development we could have along here?” [Vivian] Harris asked, pointing to an empty lot where tree branches obscure a faded real estate sign.

Harris, who sought the same types of projects in her decades as a community leader with several civic organizations, credits her new boss, District K Council Member Larry Green, with pushing for the creation of the zone.


Green looks at the new zone as an assurance his district will see the same level of city investment as the 24 other areas with intact zones.

“This area has been neglected in regard to infrastructure improvements,” Green said. “We’ve gotten a lot of residential development, but our commercial is slow coming. If we incentivize it, they would come.”

Joshua Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit that represents developers, said the reinvestment zone, coupled with changes to the city’s development rules and a new state-created management district, could bring developers back within city boundaries by proving Houston is as committed to maintaining the area as the neighboring suburban governments.

“Many businesses are choosing to go across the highway to Pearland,” Sanders said. “Once you push that far out … all these suburbs have invested more recently in infrastructure than the City of Houston has.”

I’m very much in favor of efforts to revitalize areas like Hiram Clarke and the Fifth Ward. It’s great that there’s a lot of demand for housing in certain parts of town, but what’s being built in these neighborhoods is by definition high end. If we want the city to be affordable and available to everyone, we need to build housing in the open spaces and the parts of town that aren’t already premium priced. That’s going to mean some investment in infrastructure, but let’s face it, that’s way overdue in places like Hiram Clarke. This is a step in that direction, and I’m glad to see it.

The Uptown plan is as much about HOV as it is BRT

Maybe more.

Most discussion of the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone’s plan, which goes before City Council this week, has been about a proposal to annex Memorial Park into the zone and spend $100 million restoring the drought-stricken park. The centerpiece of the zone’s plan, however, is a $187.5 million vision to widen and rebuild Post Oak Boulevard with dedicated bus lanes in the middle, build 7,500 feet of elevated bus lanes on the West Loop, and finance a transit center and parking garage at Westpark and the West Loop.

“We’re doing a lot to improve streets in the Uptown area to help make it more convenient for people to get around, but getting to the Uptown area, we’ve done about all we can with the automobile,” said John Breeding, director of the Uptown zone. “What we need to do is find some way to grow our transportation supply, and that is by bringing in transit.”

Breeding stressed that Post Oak’s existing six lanes and protected left turn lanes would be preserved.

More than 65 percent of Uptown workers live to the southwest and northwest in areas served by HOV lanes and Metro’s park and ride service, Breeding said, but just 10 of 300 daily park and ride buses visit the Galleria; most go downtown.

“We are badly underserved right now,” said Kendall Miller, an Uptown zone board member. “We have some local routes that kind of go through us, we have some van pools that are organized by the big companies. It’s very ad lib.”

About 37 percent of all downtown workers take a Metro vehicle to work, Breeding said, and 62 percent of them make more than $80,000 a year, showing people choose transit for many reasons and that everyone from oil executives to retail clerks would use the buses if they served Uptown.


Metro board member Christof Spieler said about half the people who live in areas served by park and rides use the service, adding that Metro has long wanted to add Uptown to that list.

“It’s never been possible because, in order to get from the Northwest Transit Center or the Southwest Freeway to Uptown, those buses would have wound up stuck in same traffic with everyone else,” he said. “I really think this is a game-changer for transit in one of our most important job centers.”

City Councilman Oliver Pennington, who represents the area, said Greater Houston Partnership data show there are almost 200,000 jobs in his district, 91 percent of which are filled by workers living elsewhere, creating “a terrific traffic nightmare.” The proposed transit plan would make the area more competitive and more livable, he said.

“I’m a firm believer that we need some things to show what a great city we are. I think it will not only serve the people, but it will show the world that Houston is doing things for its citizens. We need some physical evidence of the kind of life that we enjoy here.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I think this is the first mention I’ve seen of elevated bus lanes for the West Loop, which would enable the park and ride buses to avoid the traffic of the Loop and thus be more attractive to potential riders. It certainly makes sense to expand the park and ride network into Uptown, and I do think it will be heavily used once that happens. Having the support of CM Pennington makes approval of the TIRZ expansion very likely, though I’m sure there will be some lively discussion given the Memorial Park concerns that have been raised.

Expansion of the TIRZ is still a necessary condition for any of this to go forward. Funding for this plan is dependent in part on a grant from the Houston-Galveston Area Council Transportation Policy Council, which has not yet approved said funding but could take the matter up once soon.

The proposals could come for consideration before the regional group’s Transportation Policy Council – the body responsible for allocating the federal grants – on May 24 or June 28, said Alan Clark, H-GAC’s transportation director.

“The council allocated around $400 million in grants at its April 26 meeting. The projects in question were not slated for action, but money was held back so these projects can be considered,” Clark said.

Before the proposals go for a TPC vote, an H-GAC advisory committee will consult with the Texas Department of Transportation about one phase of the plan that would involve linking bus service on Post Oak to Metro’s Northwest Transit Center, Clark said.

Current ideas include creating a grade-separated bus way above the main lanes of Loop 610 that would be connected to a Post Oak transit line, he said.

“Because this (the connection between Post Oak and the Northwest Transit Center) is so integral to the overall plan and its anticipated benefits, the Technical Advisory Committee wants to do further study,” Clark said.

Again, I feel confident that this will go through, but it’s fine if H-GAC wants to take its time and think about it some.

One other point to stress about all this is that by extending Metro’s park and ride network into Uptown, which includes the BRT lanes on Post Oak, we are also building for even more expansion and connections in the future. The Westpark transit center would obviously be of use when the University line finally gets built. If there is ever a commuter rail line along US 290, the Northwest transit center, which is the northern endpoint of this project, would be the gateway from it into Uptown. Adding a node to a network has value beyond the node itself. This plan has a lot to offer for Uptown, but it’s potentially very good for the big picture as well.

Memorial Park will not become the Riverwalk

Council will vote on the proposed Uptown/Memorial TIRZ this week, which may or may not put an end to some of the wild speculation about what expanding the Uptown TIRZ boundaries to include Memorial Park may mean.

Imagine you’re jogging through Memorial Park, squinting past rows of neon signs in front of fast food joints, the music from bars in a kitschy corridor akin to San Antonio’s Riverwalk barely audible over the roar of nearby bulldozers.

This is the dystopian portrait some citizens paint of a proposal to annex the park into the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. They say the move is a takeover of the city’s most precious green space by an unelected board, and fear the process could result in disruptive projects being built before the public has a chance to weigh in.

The problem with this view is that there is no evidence to support it, as city leaders repeatedly have said; Mayor Annise Parker bemoaned the “really goofy theories” that have been swirling.

Adding the park to the nearby Uptown zone is simply a way to funnel $100 million during the next 27 years from one of the city’s richest redevelopment boards into a park ravaged by the 2011 drought and in need of erosion control projects, irrigation, a new jogging trail and other repairs, officials say. Though the Uptown zone or Memorial Park Conservancy may take the lead on select projects, officials stress any improvements in the park must be specified in advance and approved by the city Parks and Recreation Department and by City Council.

Parker pointed out the Uptown zone already is working in a small portion of the park in its boundaries, and that a similar arrangement is succeeding in Emancipation Park.

That has not stopped Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, whose District C includes Memorial Park, from fielding numerous calls and emails from concerned residents.

“What I want to hear from you is that we’re not looking at Ferris wheels along Memorial Park, fast food restaurants lining Memorial Park,” she said to parks director Joe Turner at a hearing last week. “We’re not looking at any of the kinds of things that really would destroy the integrity of the park if this program goes through.”

Turner assured her no such plans are being discussed. The only specific project on the table today is the Uptown zone contributing $1 million toward a new master plan for Memorial Park, which he said would include ample time for public comment, including at least four public meetings, in addition to several hearings before City Council.

The concern about “neon signs” and comparisons to the Riverwalk come straight from that Lisa Falkenberg column about whether there is sufficient transparency built into the TIRZ plan:

They make some important points – none better than Olive Hershey, the stepdaughter of Terry Hershey, the determined conservationist and life member of the conservancy who fought government agencies trying to pave parts of Buffalo Bayou in the 1960s.

“There’s been virtually no disclosure of the real details of this scheme and the public stands to lose any meaningful control of an irreplaceable park in our public lands and waterways,” Hershey told the council Wednesday. “Memorial Park must not be turned over to a group of bureaucrats who may have little understanding of how to nurture and defend this fragile jewel. If the city needs money to reforest the drought-damaged landscape there, it seems a shame to basically turn the park over to TIRZ 16 because the city can’t afford to protect the remaining trees.”

She wondered aloud whether the powerful influence of developers and other interests over a relatively few conservancy members could lead to “neon signs” along trails and retail developments similar to San Antonio’s Riverwalk. The mayor dismissed such scenarios as “far-fetched” and stressed that the park can only be used for “park purposes.”

I didn’t address this when I wrote about it then because it seemed a bit ridiculous to me. I understand the concerns about transparency and public input, but I just don’t find the scenario being put forth here as remotely realistic. If there were ever even a rumor of this sort of thing being proposed or in the works, people would storm city hall with pitchforks and torches. Nobody who could be elected to anything in Houston would allow this to stand. I don’t understand where this is coming from. There may be less-farfetched things that could happen, but I don’t know what they are, and it’s still not clear to me what level and form of public input would be acceptable to assuage these fears – I still haven’t seen any suggestions to that effect. As noted in the story, the TIRZ meetings are open to the public, and five of the eight members are appointed by the Mayor and Council, which gets back to that pitchforks and torches thing. I totally get the desire to ensure that Memorial Park is preserved. I’m right there with that. I just want to know what the remedy is that would also allow for the needed improvements and infrastructure repairs to be made to the park.

Looking forward on Memorial Park

Meet Shellye Arnold, the new Executive Director of the Memorial Park Conservancy.

Shellye Arnold

There is no doubt that it is a pivotal moment for the 89-year old-park. Decimated by the drought of 2011, Memorial Park lost thousands of trees. The conservancy – whose stated mission is to “restore, preserve and enhance Memorial Park for the enjoyment of all Houstonians, today and tomorrow” – has a lot of work to do.

Arnold brings an exceptional skill set to the task. Her expertise in strategic planning, team building and leadership was honed over a 20-year career at Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer Corporation and the management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company.

Previous to accepting the position with the conservancy, Arnold volunteered her time as both a writer and a speaker for the Parks by You Parks Bond Initiative, which passed in November 2012, providing $166 million in parks funding.

Jim Porter, board chair of the Memorial Park Conservancy and a certified Texas naturalist, feels confident that they have the right person for the job.

“Shellye has a history of getting things done and delivering results,” he said.


She notes that it was human intervention that uniformly forested Memorial Park with pine trees so heavily to begin with and that even before the drought, many of the park’s trees were already approaching their life expectancy.

About 15,000 new trees have been planted thus far. But there is also a need to restore and enhance the natural balance of the park on a larger scale. As Arnold notes, “you can’t water a forest.”

The diversity of Memorial Park with its three distinct eco-systems – East Texas Piney Woods, Post Oak Savanna and Coastal Prairie – will help sustain it. Clearing out non-invasive plants, which compete for water and sunlight, and planting native grasses are some of the items which could help with the restoration.


Arnold is supportive of the TIRZ proposal, in part because Mayor Parker is clear that Memorial Park will not be commercialized. It will remain a park, which is in line with the Hogg family stipulations when they made the land available to the city of Houston.

She sees potential down the road for linking the park to Uptown for cyclists. There has also been feedback about connecting Memorial Park to Buffalo Bayou, thereby giving people more access to the 150 mile trail system that is being completed through the Parks Bond Initiative.

Making those connections would be awesome, and very useful. Wouldn’t it be nice to have ways to get to Memorial Park that don’t involve driving? Throw in the Uptown BRT line and hopefully someday the University Line, and you’ve greatly expanded the bike-to-the-park range. That’s down the line, to be sure, but this is a long-term project. KUHF has more on what is being considered for the park.

Shellye Arnold is executive director of the Memorial Park Conservancy, a group that works with the Houston Parks Department to fundraise for the park. Driving west on Woodway, she pulls over to a spot where the park meets Buffalo Bayou and points out an area where TIRZ 16 money is already allocated for an erosion project.

“We’re looking at a big pipe that carries water down into the bayou. And what happens with the water is that it causes erosion, it causes the land around it to erode into the bayou itself. And over time, it eats and eats away at the bayou, so what we’re looking at is probably hundreds of feet of erosion from the banks of the bayou that has been caused over years of time.”

As for what else the money might do, nobody knows for sure because the master plan hasn’t been developed yet. As Arnold points out, there’s only a plan to make a plan.

“There are things that people have expressed that they’d like to do. There are many people that would like to put a prairie on the utility easement area. That’s a great example. Those are things that could be considered in the context of a master planning process, which will take, you know, will take some time.”

Council will vote on the TIRZ next week, on Wednesday. We don’t need to have a master plan by then, but some kind of vision or outline would be nice.

Have your say on the Uptown/Memorial Park TIRZ

From the inbox, and the office of CM Oliver Pennington:

CM Oliver Pennington

CM Oliver Pennington

To the Residents of District G:

As many of you are aware, the May 1, 2013, Council Agenda contained several items related to the Reinvestment Zone Number Sixteen (Uptown Zone), also known as TIRZ 16. Included on the agenda today were Items 15 (enlarging the TIRZ boundaries), 15a (extending the duration of the TIRZ), 15b (authorizing the issuance of bonds by the TIRZ) and 15-1 (adding land to the Harris County Improvement District No. 1, also known as the Uptown Management District). Those Agenda Items, and the back-up provided by the administration, can be viewed at this link:

At the City Council Meeting this morning, Council Member Pennington made a successful motion to delay further consideration of these 4 agenda items for two weeks so that these matters can be presented to and discussed at a Committee Meeting. That will allow the public to fully learn the plans relating to the Post Oak METRO project and the re-forestation of Memorial Park.

There will be a presentation regarding TIRZ 16 at the Budget & Fiscal Affairs Committee Meeting on Tuesday, May 7, 2013, at 10:00 A.M. The Public is invited to attend and there will be an opportunity for all concerned citizens to speak at the meeting. The meeting will be held in Council Chambers, located at City Hall, 901 Bagby, 2nd Floor, Houston, TX 77002.

So if you share Lisa Falkenberg’s concerns about this TIRZ, here’s your chance to put them on the record. You might even suggest some ways that your concerns could be addressed. If you can’t make it to this meeting, my advice is to send an email to Mayor Parker and the members of the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee with your feedback. You can find Council member contact information here. As they say, speak now or forever hold your peace.

Questions about the Memorial Park part of the Uptown/Memorial TIRZ

Lisa Falkenberg reports that some people have raised questions about the Memorial Park part of the Uptown/Memorial TIRZ.

Reforestation is sorely needed in a park devastated by hurricane damage and drought. This is a great deal, city leaders and supporters say, a great way to restore our crown jewel to its former beauty. And we should all trust the Memorial Park Conservancy – a private body whose members aren’t elected and which acts as both fundraiser and watchdog for the park – to make it happen.

But some meddlesome environmentalists aren’t so trusting. This week, they walked into City Hall and demanded the public have a say, a real say, in the deal. They asked for details beyond a press release. They asked for more than a couple of weeks to sort it out and read the small print.

When they were assured by Mayor Annise Parker and some City Council members that the city would have to sign off on any decisions, the environmentalists continued to argue that the public should be involved from the get-go. Not after the fact. Not left holding a rubber stamp.

After all, it’s a public park, a very special one with a rare wildness that offers a unique escape in a city as large as Houston. It belongs to all of us, they say. It is not for sale.


There are details in a “Letter of Intent” on the project that didn’t make it into the press release. The letter outlining details of the plan states that the Conservancy would be responsible for major decisions including design, bidding, and managing construction projects in the master plan. The city would later have to approve those decisions, but it’s unclear if that leaves enough time for a thorough public vetting.

A troubling section of the letter called “Coordination of Public Relations” points out that the conservancy isn’t subject to public information requests. And the agreement would require all parties – even the public ones that are subject to information requests – to coordinate through private parties before disclosing any information to the public.

When I asked Joe Turner, Houston’s parks director, about that provision, he said it had been awhile since he’d read the letter. He said he’d read it and get back with me if he had anything to add. He didn’t call back.

“The public is a missing piece of this organization. It’s political appointees, private nonprofits and a TIRZ. Where’s the public?” Evelyn Merz, with the Sierra Club, told me. Merz said she’s “appalled” by the plan, but not because she doubts the motives of conservancy members.

“I know they care about the park. That’s not the issue. Are they the same as the public? I would say they aren’t,” she told me.

My first thought upon reading this was to wonder what kind of public input on the management of Memorial Park exists now. If the TIRZ were to go away, I presume the Conservancy would still be responsible for major decisions concerning the park and any attempt to reforest it via grants and private donations, just as it has always been. If the public has been involved in that in any substantive way, I couldn’t tell you what it is.

The difference here is the addition of public funds via the TIRZ. Public money requires public accountability, so it is perfectly reasonable to demand that. Unfortunately, just as there’s no mention of what public involvement currently exists for Memorial Park governance, there is no mention of what type of new or further involvement would make the Mayor’s proposal acceptable. Falkenberg notes that Council would have to approve any decisions made by the Conservancy, but what is being asked for is involvement in the process, before the signoff. I think that’s a fine idea, I’d just like to know what that involvement might look like.

I sent an email to Ms. Merz to ask her what she would like to see done to involve the public more directly, but I didn’t get a response. It’s not unreasonable to me for the Mayor to suggest that Council signoff on any proposal gives the public a voice in the process, but it’s also not unreasonable for Ms. Merz to suggest that the public should have its say earlier in the process, while the ideas are still being debated and proposed. I suppose the ordinance that creates the TIRZ could put some requirements on how the Conservancy operates – open meetings, outreach via social and traditional media for feedback, etc. Again, it’s not clear to me what the specific concerns are. I wish Falkenberg had considered that question. Maybe she felt she didn’t have the space for it in her column, but she does have a Facebook page for her column as well as a long-dormant blog, so she did have avenues to explore it that wouldn’t have cost her space in the news hole. Maybe she’ll write a followup, I don’t know. Campos has more.

UPDATE: Here’s an FAQ about the TIRZ proposal that Campos forwarded to me. Note the following:

How will transparency in the development of the Master Plan be ensured?

The process for creating the Memorial Park Master Plan will follow the same pattern that the Buffalo Bayou Master Plan was developed under. Public meetings will be held during the draft stages; drafts will be circulated for public comment and prior to any finalization of the Master Plan by the consultants selected a public meeting will be held. After that the Master Plan will be brought to the City’s Quality of Life Committee for review and then to City Council for final consideration.

Seems pretty reasonable to me. What do you think, Lisa?

For the Uptown/Memorial TIRZ

Ed Wulfe never mentions Mattress Mack or his recent diatribe in the Chron about the proposed Uptown/Memorial Park TIRZ, but his op-ed in the Chron is clearly aimed at countering naysayers like Mattress Mack.

Uptown is one of the most successful mixed-use urban environments in the United States and a leading economic driver of Houston; yet, Uptown has been historically underserved by public transportation. This is a major concern expressed by employers in the area or those considering a new location in Uptown because a functional and efficient means of mobility for their employees is critical to productivity and an ability to retain and attract workers.

More than 75,000 people work at the 2,000 plus businesses in approximately 23 million square feet of offices, 5 million square feet of retail and 7,000 hotel rooms. Sixty-five percent of Uptown’s workforce currently lives in the Sugar Land, Westpark, Katy or Cypress areas, and the ability and need to connect workers to Uptown is an ongoing and increasing challenge.

This plan, while primarily designed to serve the workforce of the Uptown area, also enables movement to, from and through the corridor more efficiently in both directions.

The widening of Post Oak Boulevard will allow for construction of bus rapid lanes within a landscaped median while still preserving six lanes totally dedicated for automobile traffic.

The plan is designed to connect with Metro’s Northwest Transit Center and the proposed Westpark Transit Center. Exclusive bus lanes will remove buses from general traffic lanes while augmenting pedestrian access. The existing traffic signal system and left turn lanes will remain as is, and Post Oak Boulevard’s signature oak trees will be preserved.

The plan before City Council has evolved based on growing transit needs in and around Uptown, and discussions with the city and the Memorial Park Conservancy to ensure the restoration, preservation and improvement of Memorial Park, a major amenity and connector to downtown Houston.

Two points come to mind. One is that this plan isn’t just about Uptown mobility, it’s also about reforesting Memorial Park, which abuts Uptown to the northeast. Mack never touched on this in his rant, but the two are a package deal. There may be a way to fund Memorial Park reforestration that doesn’t involve Uptown, though such a thing isn’t on the table as far as I know, and one could argue that the Uptown mobility part of this plan should be removed, but then what does Uptown get out of it? Basically, this is the plan to reforest Memorial Park. If you approve of that idea but don’t like the other parts of the plan, then you need to propose an alternative plan. What other options are there?

Point two is that the same thing holds true for Uptown mobility. Mattress Mack, as is often the case with opponents of mass transit in general or to specific plans, doesn’t offer a competing vision for Uptown. The closest he comes to that is at the end of his piece when he says “More than 80 percent of our region lives and works in the suburbs, so obviously that is where we need to concentrate our efforts”, which is both a dubious statistic (he gives no citation) and beside the point – it’s not the city of Houston’s responsibility to abet mobility in the non-Houston suburbs, though plenty of our Harris County tax dollars do just that. Assuming that you agree that doing nothing is not a good option for Uptown, what would you do to improve mobility there? Remember, this isn’t just about building dedicated lanes for BRT on Post Oak, it’s about connecting Uptown to the greater Metro park and ride network, via the Northwest and Westpark transit centers. If you don’t support that, what do you support?

Anyway, the plan is still in flux, as Council has not had a chance to discuss it yet. The BRT plan depends in part on grant funding from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, but that funding has not been approved and may not be guaranteed despite strong support from the Greater Houston Partnership. It’s possible this could all fall apart, in which case Mack will have ranted for nothing. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but nothing is certain until it’s done.

The Uptown/Memorial TIRZ

Big projects, big plans, big funding mechanism.

Transit and trees – things that make urban areas move quickly and look pretty – are the centerpieces of a $500 million project that would remake the Uptown area and reinvigorate Memorial Park.

Mayor Annise Parker and other officials announced a plan Thursday that would fund construction of a mass transit corridor on Post Oak Boulevard and kick start much-needed reforestation efforts at one of the city’s signature parks.

“We’re coming together around a really unique opportunity and a unique proposition to link what’s happening in the Galleria area and what’s happening in one of Houston’s most beloved parks,” Parker said.


The estimated cost of the local park and transit projects is $556 million over a 25-year period. Funding would come from property taxes generated as a result of incremental growth in property values within the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone No. 16, which encompasses the Galleria and surrounding area.

The project is dependent on City Council extending the boundaries of the Uptown zone. The 1,503 acres of Memorial Park would be annexed into the TIRZ 16, as it’s known. There will be a public hearing on the plan on April 24.

If progress continues as expected, buses could start running in late 2017.


The plan to enhance the park would first involve removing dead trees, bushes and invasive plants that compete with trees for water and sunlight, said Shellye Arnold, executive director for Memorial Park Conservancy. Erosion control and the re-establishment of native grasslands would follow.

Up to 15,000 seedlings and trees have already been planted since January.

Basically, this is the city’s part of paying for the Uptown BRT line. As reported elsewhere, the estimated cost for that is $177.5 million, of which the city is kicking in $92 million; the rest will come from state funds and an H-GAC grant that uses federal money. Obviously, that means Memorial Park will get the bulk of the TIRZ funds, which makes sense given the 25-year time frame mentioned in the story since the Uptown BRT construction should be done by 2017. Not clear when the Uptown construction would start, but I figure that will come out during the discussion. I can’t wait to see what Helena Brown will make of this. See the Mayor’s press release for more.

One thing I haven’t seen mentioned in stories about the Uptown transit project is to what extent bikes will be part of the vision. Once BRT is in place here and Uptown is integrated with Metro’s park and ride network, you would think that accommodating bikes as a way to extend the reach of these things would be desirable. I haven’t seen Uptown mentioned as a future site for B-Cycle, but 2017 is far enough away, and there are enough other obvious expansion points for bike sharing that it may just not be on the radar yet. But I figure we ought to at least acknowledge the possibility now so that we will be ready to plan for it when it’s more timely.

An opponent for the Controller

Big Jolly reports on a new candidate.

There are two powerful elected positions in the City of Houston: Mayor and City Controller. So naturally I was curious when I heard that someone was going to challenge the incumbent Controller Ronald Green. Meet Bill Frazer. The press release announcing his candidacy stated:

“The Controller is an elected position and should report directly to the voters, not to the Mayor or to City Council. The office should serve as a watchdog for the taxpayer dollars and not as a rubber stamp. It’s vitally important to make sure that Houston taxpayers are fully informed on a timely basis about all spending programs. I will make sure there is more transparency and easier access to the City’s financial information.”

Bill Frazer

Well, that was a good start – no elected official should serve as a rubber stamp for anyone. And the fact is that the City of Houston’s finances are a mess right now. And frankly, in four years, the incumbent, Ron Green, has done nothing to help. I mean, like, literally zero. So I decided to meet the challenger and find out if he is for real or a pretender. Fortunately, he’s the real deal – his qualifications for this job cannot be challenged.


Mr. Frazer is a past President of the Houston CPA Society and has served on the Board of Directors of the Texas Society of CPAs for the past 25 years. As such, he is in a position to be able to tell us the true position of the finances of the City of Houston. Although those finances are bleak, he didn’t come across as an alarmist at all. In fact, he seemed to approach the problem as something that can be solved if politicians are truly transparent and willing to fix them. I think that his frankness is rare these days – are you as tired as I am of “chicken little” forecasts?

When I pointed out to him that the incumbent has touted “transparency” in his tenure, Mr. Frazer objected, stating that transparency is more than simply putting out a report on Friday afternoon at 5:30pm with details buried in the content of a large “report”. For instance, did you know that the property valuation that the City of Houston can tax has declined by 14% during the period between 2003 and 2012? I surely didn’t – it is because of TIRZ’s and other “exemptions”.

The worst statistic that Mr. Frazer showed me was the increase in the amount of money that the City has paid in “fees” to service the City’s debt under the incumbent’s reign: the City has gone from paying $2.53 million per $1 BILLION in floating rate debt to paying $10.19 million. Why?

The full press release can be seen here. Frazer doesn’t have a webpage that I can find, and his personal Facebook page, which was created on February 19, is limited to friends, so this is all I know about him. I will note that his claim about property valuations appears to be wrong, according to one of the commenters on that post who did a little digging, and that explanation about TIRZes doesn’t jibe with my understanding of how they work. Perhaps this is a transcription failure on Big Jolly’s part, I don’t know. Be that as it may, as I noted the last time the subject of an opponent for City Controller Ronald Green came up, an incumbent Controller hasn’t faced opposition since 1997, when Sylvia Garcia defeated Lloyd Kelley.

Could this be the catalyst for Astrodome redevelopment?


A new beginning?

The city of Houston and Harris County are preparing to create a mammoth, two-part economic development zone covering more than 11 square miles along the South Loop and at the northeast end of downtown.

The plan stems from a deal the two governments struck three years ago to secure a new soccer stadium east of downtown for the Dynamo, and it could pave the way for long-discussed capital projects, such as the redevelopment of the Astrodome or a city-county inmate booking center.


Reliant Park will be included in the southern portion of the zone, which could pave the way for redevelopment of the Astrodome, which has not been home to a sports team in 12 years and has been deemed unfit for occupancy since 2009. Also within that portion of the zone would be the 104-acre former home of AstroWorld.

The northern portion of the zone includes an area near the current County Jail complex, where a joint city-county inmate booking center, rejected by voters in 2007, could be built.

[Commissioner El Franco] Lee said his colleagues on Commissioners Court first must agree to join the Greater Houston Zone but said the Dome may be the largest beneficiary if the plan is approved.

Every option to renovate the Dome, presented as part of a Reliant Park master plan earlier this year, ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Simply razing it would cost an estimated $64 million.

“The biggest issue was dollars, and that will remain an issue, so having a buildup of those kinds of dollars will make it just that much more attractive to do on a large scale,” Lee said. “This can be a source of funds that does not put a strain on any existing revenues to do existing things.”

Basically, this is a big TIRZ, and the genesis of it all is the Dynamo Stadium deal. City Council has to draw the boundaries under state law, and Council will take the first step on this plan when they vote on whether to set a public hearing to seek input on the plan. Once that happens, I figure things will move quickly. How long till the County is in a position where it can finally do something about the Dome, that remains to be seen.

Leland Woods

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leland Woods, south of Cheeves at Little York

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

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

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

BBVA Compass Stadium

Dynamo Stadium gets a new name.

When the Dynamo first approached BBVA Compass before breaking ground on their new stadium, the two-time MLS Cup champions were looking for a loan to help finance the construction of the club’s venue on the East End.

Now, the bank will have its name and a note on BBVA Compass Stadium, which is set to open on May 12.

“I think the amazing thing is not that they financed it,” said Tim Leiweke, the president of Dynamo co-owner Anschutz Entertainment Group. “It’s not that they’re putting their name on it, but they’re the architects of how we ultimately figured out a way to pay for this without the taxpayers having to write a check. That’s where their real strength was.”


The Dynamo’s BBVA Compass loan covered the $20 million that was set aside through the inter-local agreement on the tax increment reinvestment zone (TIRZ) for infrastructure improvements on the site, which the city bought for $15.5 million under Mayor Bill White’s administration. Because the $20 million from the TIRZ is accumulated over years, the team needed to take a loan on the money last February in anticipation of getting the funds in the future.

A little more than 10 months after securing that loan with BBVA, the organizations furthered their relationships by announcing a 10-year, $20 million naming rights deal Wednesday.

Good for them, but if it’s all the same to you, I’ll keep calling it Dynamo Stadium. I’ve used that name for too long to change now. Be that as it may, congrats to the Dynamo getting this done. I look forward to their grand opening of the new digs/

Downtown shuttle service to return

Do you miss the free trolleys that used to run downtown? A new version of that service is set to debut in the spring.

The Houston Downtown Management District, funded through tax assessments on downtown properties, plans to launch a free bus service called Greenlink to ferry employees and residents along a 2.5 mile route starting in spring.


Metro’s downtown trolley service stopped rolling in 2005, after a 50-cent fare introduced in 2004 caused ridership to plummet. At its peak, Metro’s service had 28 vintage trolley buses, five routes and more than 10,000 daily riders.

In the meantime, the city passed an ordinance requiring cabs to charge a flat $6 within downtown, and pedicab and jitney companies such as Rev Eco-Shuttle have sprouted to meet the demand. “It could impact us but I think it’s good to always have options,” said Erik Ibarra, head of Rev Eco-Shuttle, adding that some if his riders have told him they miss the free trolley.

The district’s route is designed to connect convention-goers and office workers in southwest downtown to more retailers and restaurants such as Macy’s, Houston Pavilions and The Shops at Houston Center, [Bob Eury, executive director of Downtown District] said. “Depending on where you are, it’s a pretty big hike from southwest downtown to a store or restaurant.”

You can see a map of the new service’s route here; for comparison purposes, here’s a map of the downtown tunnel system, which I daresay can get you most of the places the shuttle can. I worked downtown for awhile during the run of the original trolley service. It was cool, but I was generally too impatient to wait for it – unless I saw it coming as I walked by the stop, I just kept walking to wherever it was I was going. I expect that I’m the exception and not the rule, so I figure this service will be popular. As Erik Ibarra said, it’s good to have options.

Does it count if it’s a TIRZ?

Well, this is interesting.

As the city of Houston seeks to close a $21 million budget gap in the next eight weeks, it is counting on selling a public building to one of its own redevelopment agencies.

And while the proposed $5 million deal with the Midtown Redevelopment Authority would offer the city deadline budget relief, it also could delay planned public improvements to the neighborhoods the authority serves along Main Street between downtown and the Texas Medical Center.

“Shifting it from one government entity to another is, to me, an accounting device that I’m uncomfortable with,” Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck said Tuesday. Part of the tax increment reinvestment district the authority manages is in her District C. “To me, it’s not a real sale.”

While I understand CM Clutterbuck’s concerns, all I can say is that if that’s how she feels she should avert her eyes to what the Legislature is about to do. They use accounting gimmicks that would make a Hollywood executive blush.

Neither the authority nor the city’s chief redevelopment officer would explain the transfer of the property or what the plans are for what is now a city permitting building, though last week a city economic development official said he believes the authority will resell the property to a private developer.

A mayoral spokeswoman said plans would be outlined on Friday with the release of next week’s council agenda.


The redevelopment authority has its own budget, separate from that of City Hall, and its own board of directors that approves projects. That board unanimously approved the purchase of the city building last week.

This is clearly not what TIRZes normally do. If they’ve got a plan or a buyer, then I suppose it’s all right. But it does look funny and CMs Clutterbuck and Wanda Adams, who also has a piece of this TIRZ in her district, are right to ask questions about it. We’ll see what the Mayor and the TIRZ have in mind.

Council gives final approval to Dynamo Stadium deal

The last hurdle has officially been cleared.

With two unanimous votes at City Council on Wednesday, the Dynamo cleared the last public hurdles they need to build their new stadium on the East End.

“I think it’s a very important step in the right direction and brings us much closer to finalizing all the pieces to the puzzle,” Dynamo president Chris Canetti said. “Our organization is very thankful to both the city and the county’s elected officials on the support of this project.”

The Dynamo will hold a groundbreaking ceremony Saturday from 2-4 p.m. It was originally scheduled for last Saturday, but was postponed for a variety of reasons, including a potential conflict with the Houston Marathon.

The Dynamo are investing $60 million of the cost to build the $95 million stadium. On Wednesday, Council approved what is estimated to be a $3 million rebate for the Dynamo over 30 years on projected sales tax. Council also approved the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) that is part of the inter-local agreement between the county and city.

Apparently, the rebate deal didn’t cause any particular heartburn on Council, so either they had some idea it was coming or decided it was OK regardless. Congrats to the Dynamo, and I hope things warm up a bit for them before the groundbreaking.

The Dynamo Stadium rebate plan

Well, this is interesting.

The city is poised to strike a 30-year deal giving back $3 million in projected sales tax to the Houston Dynamo as they prepare to construct their $60 million stadium.

City officials say the tax rebate always has been a part of the deal that kept the team from leaving Houston, one that will make the city and county owners of a new sports stadium for which they did not have to pay.

The rebate will amount to $3 million over 30 years, said Houston Chief Development Officer Andy Icken, a primary negotiator for the city on the deal.

“This was viewed as a trade-off to get this much public infusion for a stadium that, in the end, is getting donated to us,” Icken said. “We were never going to go into this unless there was a substantial private investment in the project.”

Icken said the deal mirrors sales tax rebates the city gave the Houston Texans when it negotiated over the future Reliant Stadium.


Icken denied that the rebate is a new element of the deal, pointing to a December memo he sent City Council members in which he said council would be asked to vote “to reimburse the team for a portion of sales and liquor taxes collected by the operations of the stadium.”

Councilman Mike Sullivan, who voted for the main elements of the deal struck last year between the city and Harris County, said he did not recall any discussion of such a rebate. “I think this evolved as negotiations have taken place with the city and the county, and we’re really just now seeing the changes,” he said.

First I’ve heard of it, too. It’s not really clear to me what this is about. It’s still the case that the Dynamo are spending the vast majority of the money to build the stadium, and it’s still the case that the deal is a good one overall, but the timing on this is lousy. The only thing I can say in its favor is that at least it came out before tomorrow’s Council vote.

Dynamo Stadium groundbreaking delayed

Groundbreaking for Dynamo Stadium was originally scheduled for this Saturday the 29th, but due to a delay with City Council it has been put off till next week.

Because the city council has not yet voted on the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) that is part of the inter-local agreement between the county and city, the Dynamo’s owners weren’t comfortable proceeding with the ceremony even though councilman Mike Sullivan and other city officials were confident that everything will be approved.

“This date was a moving target from the day we penciled it into the calendar,” Dynamo president Chris Canetti said. “We anticipated the possibility that it would change. We were pushing the envelope a little bit with this timeline, but we are not far off.

“We’ll set another date in the next few days. This does not have any impact on our construction timeline and planned opening of April 2012.”

Commissioner’s Court unanimously approved the TIRZ during Tuesday’s meeting, but the Dynamo were hesitant to proceed because the TIRZ issue wasn’t added to the City Council’s agenda for Wednesday’s meeting. The issue had to be placed on the agenda by last Saturday for this week’s meeting, but it will be placed on next week’s agenda.

Look for it to happen next Saturday, the 5th. Assuming the item makes it onto Council’s agenda and doesn’t get tagged, of course.

Council approves Dynamo Stadium deal

Two down, one to go.

The Houston City Council unanimously approved an agreement this morning that is expected to pave the way for a new professional sports stadium for the Houston Dynamo and the Texas Southern University football team.

Although some council members voiced concerns about the finances of the $95 million public/private project, many came to view the deal to be in the city’s best interest.


The next step in the process will be Tuesday at Harris County Commissioners Court when the deal has to be approved by the county.

The first step was the Sports Authority agreeing to be the landlord. For those who are mumbling about spending money on a stadium at a time like this, note that the city spent the money to buy the land for the stadium site two years ago, and that part of the deal with the county is for them to kick in for half of that. In addition, having the Dynamo spend $60 million or so to build the stadium, at a time when the city has been bleeding construction jobs seems like a pretty decent little stimulus project to me. Just something to consider.