Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

urbanism

RIP, Peter Brown

A dedicated public servant and a heck of a nice guy.

Peter Brown

Former Houston city councilman, mayoral candidate and civic leader Peter Brown has died, his family said Tuesday.

Brown, an architect and urban planner, was 81.

“A loving father, committed public servant, and fearless advocate, former Council Member Brown passed on to the next life the same way he lived in this one – surrounded by his family in the city he loved most,” his son, the elected City Controller Chris Brown, said in a statement.

“The Brown family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts and prayers, and asks for privacy during this very difficult time.”

You can see Chris Brown’s statement here. After the 2009 Mayoral election, Peter Brown went back to his roots, talking about urban design and making city streets safer and more user-friendly for people on his Pedestrian Pete website. He was a visionary and an advocate for building a better city to the end. Rest in peace, Pedestrian Pete.

What Houston is showing to Amazon

Meet the Innovation Corridor.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The Acre

Meet downtown’s newest park.

As park spaces go, Houston’s newest urban oasis is a mere postage stamp, occupying just over an acre of privately held land, developed with private money. But in post-Harvey Houston, the value of every inch of permeable green space suddenly seems more evident.

Known as the Acre, the signature piece of Brookfield’s $48.5 million renovation of One Allen Center on the west side of downtown opens Monday. The park contains a wide-open plaza and a linear lawn that will seat up to 1,500 people for special events such as concerts.

[…]

To squeeze out more space for the Acre, Brookfield reduced One Allen Center’s ground floor and re-created it as a “glass box” that will soon have a chef-driven restaurant with views of the park, helping to draw more people toward the space.

“It’s almost like a give-back to the city: Taking building away to create an opportunity for outdoor space,” said landscape architect Chip Trageser, a managing partner with the Office of James Burnett, which designed the Acre and is consulting with Brookfield on the center’s master plan.

Trageser’s team planted 171 new trees, including pistachios, elms and overcup oaks. “As everyone in Houston knows, you’ve got to have shade to have any chance of being outside,” Trageser said. “It’s really about creating a micro-climate that feels great in July and August.”

The image above is a picture I took from the skyway leading into One Allen Center. I’ve been walking above the site of this park all through its construction phase, though I’d had no idea this was the intended purpose before the Chron story was published. It’s a cool thing to do – downtown can always use some green space – though I’m not sure how many people are just going to wander in and sit on a bench. The story says there’s going to be a restaurant going into the OAC building, so perhaps we’ll see more people using the new space once it opens. Whatever the case, I hope it’s a success.

Harvey’s car carnage

Lot of people lost their wheels in the floods.

More than a week after Harvey slammed Houston, wreckers like Bryan Harvey are still hauling cars and trucks from flooded neighborhoods to dealerships or to vast fields where insurance adjusters can assess the damage. Harvey killed at least 70 people, destroyed or damaged 200,000 homes — and inflicted an automotive catastrophe on one of America’s most car-dependent cities.

The Houston area has lost hundreds of thousands of cars, says Michael Hartmann, general manager of Don McGill Toyota of Katy, a city of 17,000 about 30 miles west of Houston. “We have a shortage of rental cars and people not sure how to go about handling claims and just what to do with their lives.”

The wreckage has forced Houstonians to scramble to try to rent or borrow cars or to work from home — if they can. Some have it worse: They can’t return to work until they resolve the transportation problems, depriving many of them of income and slowing the city’s return to business as usual.

[…]

Houston is used to flooding. But it had never seen anything like Harvey, which dropped a year’s worth of rain onto the metro area. Flooded roads and neighborhoods left cars submerged and, in most cases, impossible to salvage.

“Almost every square inch of your vehicle has wires in it,” says Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst at Cox Automotive. “The materials are often flame-retardant, but they are not waterproof.”

Cox estimates that up to 500,000 cars and trucks were damaged or destroyed, amounting to nearly $5 billion in damage. Auto insurance claims have reached 160,000, according to the Insurance Council of Texas. Cars are being taken by the hundreds to a make-shift lot at the 500-acre Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, about 35 miles east of town. Most of the time, the insurance adjusters shake their heads at the damage Harvey has wrought and declare the cars a total loss.

“Put yourself in the shoes of the adjuster,” says Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the Texas insurance council. “He’s just seen, say, a 2015 Toyota Camry. He knows this vehicle has been underwater for six days. They can look at it, but they know water is all throughout that vehicle. They know it is totaled … He’s going to see the same vehicle many times.”

Many insurers are reluctant even to try to repair cars that risk further problems and repairs later.

In the meantime, there’s a desperate shortage of rental cars. Enterprise Holdings, which includes the Enterprise, National and Alamo brands, has moved thousands of vehicles to southeast Texas and plans to have brought in at least 17,000 by the end of September. The Avis Budget Group, which operates Avis and Budget, is moving 10,000 vehicles into the affected areas, waiving late fees, one-way rental fees and rental extension fees in and around Houston.

Pro tip: Don’t buy any used cars in Houston for at least the next year. If we’re going to do any big-picture radical rethinking of how Houston is built and configured post-Harvey, building a region that has more robust transit and is thus less car-dependent would be on the to-do list. Harvey was exceptional, but it’s not like we haven’t had plenty of “normal” flooding events that have caused some amount of havoc with people’s vehicles. I really don’t expect much in the way of big-picture radical rethinking to happen, but in the event I’m wrong and it does, put this down for the record.

Kinder Houston Area Survey 2017

Here’s the press release.

The majority of area residents don’t just feel okay about living in Houston – they would choose to stay in the Bayou City even if given a choice to move, according to the 2017 Kinder Houston Area Survey. The 36th annual survey also revealed that traffic continues to be the dominant concern, people are less worried about crime and are increasingly supportive of immigration and gay rights.

Rice University Sociology Professor Stephen Klineberg, founding director of Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, conducted the survey and will publicly release this year’s findings today at the annual Kinder Institute Luncheon at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Houston. Tom Bacon, founder of Lionstone Investments, will be the inaugural recipient of the new Stephen L. Klineberg Award for his work as chair of the Houston Parks Board and his leadership of the Bayou Greenways 2020 Project. The award recognizes an individual who has made a lasting positive impact on Greater Houston.

Life in the Houston area

Traffic continues to be the biggest problem facing people in the Houston area, according to 24 percent of this year’s survey respondents. Another 16 percent mentioned the economy and 15 percent crime. Despite these concerns, more than two-thirds of all area residents in 2017 said they would stay in the Houston metro area even if they could choose to move away.

Area residents’ preference for alternatives to car-dependent sprawl continues to grow. By 56 percent, the respondents in 2017 were more likely than at any time since the question was first asked in 2007 to say that they would prefer to live in “an area with a mix of developments, including homes, shops and restaurants.” Forty percent would prefer a “single-family residential neighborhood.”

“These shifts reflect the very different life circumstances of Americans today,” Klineberg said. “The number of families with children living at home continues to decline across the country – replaced by empty nesters and young creatives, and by single-person and elderly households. So it’s not surprising that, even in Houston, people are looking for more compact urban neighborhoods.”

There’s a lot more, beginning with the 2017 survey homepage here, multiple Urban Edge posts about the survey here, and two Chron stories to boot.

Complete Communities

Mayor Turner makes an announcement about a new program for revitalizing some core neighborhoods.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to focus Houston’s community development efforts on five low-income neighborhoods as part of his Complete Communities initiative announced Monday.

The program comes without a price tag or implementation timeline, and the mayor has committed no additional money for housing and community development.

Instead, Turner said the city will redirect 60 percent of its local and federal housing dollars to the five pilot neighborhoods: Acres Homes, Gulfton, Second Ward, Northside Village and Third Ward.

That amounts to roughly $34 million annually, if federal funding remains steady, on top of $28 million in available local housing funds.

“We recognize that this effort will not transform neighborhoods immediately, nor will it be a panacea that eliminates challenges neighborhoods face,” Turner said. “But they will see an intense, concentrated effort by many partners to enhance their quality of life and improve their living conditions.”

The city intends to finalize development plans for each of the five neighborhoods in January, after several months of community engagement. Turner said programs could include additional heavy trash pickup, weed abatement, sidewalk construction or single family home repair – things the city already does in neighborhoods across Houston.

“These short-term projects will generate enthusiasm and serve as a catalyst for support from outside organizations and the local community,” the mayor said.

Asked how he would respond to other disadvantaged neighborhoods eager for investment, Turner said, “We see you and hear you, but when you look at what we will do in these respective pilot communities, I think communities will be willing to wait for the transformation that will take place.”

See here for the Mayor’s press release. Leah Binkovitz the The Urban Edge adds some more detail.

Turner cited a slew of private entities involved in the effort including the Greater Houston Builders Association, Commonwealth Funding, Wulfe & Co. and Midway Companies. He didn’t elaborate on the exact nature of those partnerships.

Though the city’s investment period was open-ended, the mayor said his administration will focus on short-term projects, like heavy trash sweeps, park and community center repairs, enhanced weed abatement and improved sidewalks and street lighting, as well as home repairs and public art to highlight the transformations underway.

Turner also promised longer-term gains like improved educational outcomes, access to quality grocery stores, better drainage and the creation and preservation of affordable housing.

“I’m not placing any limit on it,” said Turner. “We stay until we reach that benchmark.” Specific benchmarks for each neighborhoods have not yet been identified.

The city will finalize its plans for each neighborhood by January 2018, after a community engagement process, according to the city. “This not a one-size fits all approach,” the mayor said.

[…]

Monday’s announcement came after Turner faced criticism earlier this year for city decisions that effectively barred low-income housing from wealthy Houston neighborhoods, according to a federal investigation. Citing his decision to table the low-income housing tax credit project proposed at 2640 Fountain View in a census tract that was almost 90 percent white, the federal housing department said that decision and others were based, in part, on racially-motivated opposition from community groups. But instead of crafting a corrective plan, the city has vehemently denied the findings, and Turner has asked the agency to rescind it.

Simultaneously, Turner has moved forward on his Complete Communities initiative, arguing that low-income Houstonians should not have to move from largely low-income communities to reap the benefits often associated with wealthier neighborhoods, often labeled as “high opportunity” communities.

“I vowed that we cannot allow Houston to be two cities in one, a city of haves and have-nots,” Turner said.

There are still a lot of details to work out, and a number of similar neighborhoods that would presumably be next on the list after these five. The goal here is to upgrade the infrastructure in these neighborhoods, making them better for existing residents, who haven’t seen a lot of investment from the city, while also making them more attractive to the kind of businesses that thriving neighborhoods need, all while (hopefully) not causing appraisals to soar or the kind of developers who would raze everything in order to build luxury condos to swoop in. Easier said than done, but the goal is a good one. All parts of the city need maintenance and new investments, and there’s a lot of room for infill development to ensure the city remains a vibrant alternative to outward sprawl. I look forward to seeing how this goes.

Bike plan vote delayed

What’s another two weeks?

Houston’s long-term plan for improving bicycle routes around town will wait a couple more weeks after a handful of elected officials voiced various concerns.

City Council members Greg Travis, Michael Kubosh, Steve Le, Mike Knox and Dave Martin tagged the proposed Houston Bike Plan on Wednesday morning, delaying its approval for at least two weeks.

The plan, which doesn’t commit money but does guide future projects as the city proceeds with road work, lays out an ambitious plan for hundreds of miles of high-comfort bike lanes in Houston, meant to make bicycling safer and more appealing to residents.

Work on the plan began roughly 18 months ago and has been through various drafts with input from city and community officials.

See here for some background, and here for the plan itself. If you’d like a more executive-summary view of it, see this Offcite post from last year, and this Kinder Institute blog post from Wednesday. At some point, part of the solution for traffic has to be getting some cars off the road, and the best way to do that is to give more people more non-car options for their daily travels. Note that you don’t need someone to completely give up their car to have an effect here – trading in some of your car trips for non-car travel helps, too. Let’s get this done, y’all. The Chron editorial board agrees with me on this.

What makes transit successful?

It’s pretty basic, as this report lays out.

A new report released [Tuesday] by TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to improving urban mobility, finds that developing transit in walkable areas and offering frequent, fast bus and rail service is the key to increasing urban transit ridership.

The report, “Who’s on Board 2016: What Today’s Riders Teach Us About Transit That Works” draws on results from three focus groups and a survey of 3,000 people in 17 U.S. metropolitan areas with varying levels of transit development and ridership. It builds on the findings from TransitCenter’s first Who’s On Board report released in 2014—the largest-ever attitudinal survey of transit riders—which showed that Americans from coast to coast think about and use public transit in remarkably similar and often unexpected ways. The latest edition of the Who’s On Board series offers several core findings to inform how government agencies and elected officials approach transportation, land use, and development policy:

  • The most important “first mile/last mile” solution is walking. The majority of transit riders, including 80 percent of all-purpose riders, typically walk to transit. This finding underscores the importance of putting transit stations in busy, walkable neighborhoods; building offices and housing within walking distance of transit; and providing more and safer pedestrian routes to transit.
  • The two most important determinants of rider satisfaction with transit are service frequency and travel time. The availability of information and conditions at the station or stop were also important, suggesting that real-time information and shelters are important amenities for transit agencies to provide. On the other hand, power outlets and Wifi were rated the least important items out of a list of 12 potential service improvements.
  • There are three common patterns of transit use: occasional riders who take transit once in awhile, commuters who take transit regularly but only for work, and all-purpose riders who take transit regularly for multiple purposes. Transit agencies should strive to grow this third category of rider, as they are the most reliable and financially efficient customers to serve. All-purpose riders are more prevalent where it’s easy to walk to transit, and where transit is frequent and provides access to many destinations.
  • Transit riders are sensitive to transit quality, not “captive” to transit. For decades, transportation professionals have talked about two kinds of transit riders: car-owning “choice riders” who use transit when it meets their needs, and carless “captive riders” who will use transit regardless of its quality. Who’s On Board finds that the “captivity” of carless riders is severely overstated. People who live and work near better transit ride transit more often, whether or not they own cars. When transit becomes functionally useless, there are very few people who will continue to use it; agencies can take no one for granted.

Who’s On Board offers several recommendations for local governments and transit agencies to improve transit service, including creating dedicated lanes to reduce travel time, improving frequency on routes with high ridership potential, and zoning to concentrate development around transit corridors.

“There’s no magic bullet for transit, but there are some simple rules. Make it easy for people to walk to transit, put it close to important destinations, and make transit frequent, fast, and reliable,” said Steven Higashide, Senior Program Analyst for TransitCenter and leader of the foundation’s opinion research program. “Transit lines that don’t follow these rules–like commuter rail with parking lots at every station or slow streetcars that don’t connect to other transit–tend to perform poorly. Frequent transit networks in walkable neighborhoods reduce reliance on cars, spark economic growth, and create vibrant urban places.”

“Who’s On Board shows that discussions about transit often ignore what really drives transit ridership. In Houston, we bucked the trend by redesigning our entire local bus network to improve frequency and travel time—and total ridership is up more than 10 percent,” said Christof Spieler, a Houston METRO Board Member. “If every city followed the report’s advice and focused transit investments on frequency, travel time, and walkability, we could make transit useful to millions more people across the country.”

The full report is available for download here.

More information about the report is available here. If you look at the Recommendations on page 12 of the report, you’ll see that pretty much everything there was implemented by Metro in its bus system redesign. The main thing that still needs to be done, which is the first recommendation for local governments on page 13, is improving sidewalks. Every dollar that we can reasonably spend towards that goal will be worth it. Read the report and see what you think. The Chron story on this is here, and Urban Edge has more.

East End former KBR site sold again

I’d forgotten all about this.

When a sprawling tract of land lining Buffalo Bayou east of downtown hit the market three years ago, some of Houston’s most prominent observers of urban development put forth ideas about what could be done with the 136-acre site boasting both water and skyscraper views.

Visions for the property included repositioning existing buildings as cutting-edge workplaces, adding townhomes and apartments along tree-shaded streets where trolleys could shuttle people to and from downtown, and creating spots where Houstonians could rent bikes and take canoes into the bayou.

Now, with the recent sale of the property, some of those visions may start to take shape – though they could be years away.

An affiliate of Houston-based Midway, the company behind CityCentre, GreenStreet and other local mixed-use developments purchased the site in May, property records show.

The seller, William Harrison, a wealthy Houstonian with business in energy and real estate, bought it in late 2012 from KBR. The engineering and construction company had owned the onetime office and industrial complex since 1919, when the company was Brown & Root. Most of the buildings there have been demolished.

[…]

Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, lauded Midway for its focus on park space, including a project the company is developing in the Upper Kirby neighborhood next to a park that’s been around for more than 60 years.

The partnership owns an easement on the property that will allow it to expand its hike and bike trail system through it.

“It’s been a coveted spot for some time just because of its size,” Olson said. “I don’t know if there’s a site that big in the inner city.”

See here and here for the background. People were excited when the property was sold in 2012, then it continued to sit there undeveloped for almost four more years before being sold again. Maybe this time will be different, though with the current state of the local economy and the housing market, it’s hard to imagine anything happening in the short term. Swamplot and The Urban Edge have more.

Appeals court reverses Ashby damages award

It’s kind of amazing to me that the Ashby Highrise saga is still a newsmaker.

Sue me!

In a major ruling that could stymie future legal challenges against developers, a state appellate court has reversed a key portion of the 2014 judgment awarding damages to residents opposed to the controversial Ashby high-rise.

Neighbors of the residential tower proposed for 1717 Bissonnet at Ashby had claimed it would reduce the value of their homes, intrude on their privacy and create a slew of other problems. A judge in Houston two years ago concluded there was no way to legally stop the project.

But he said the residents were entitled to $ 1.2 million in damages, even though construction had yet to begin.

The eagerly awaited opinion filed Thursday in the 14th Court of Appeals is a big win for the Houston development community and it brought the partners involved a sense of vindication as they prepare to move forward with the project.

“A decision to uphold damages in this type of case would have set a dangerous precedent for urban growth and economic prosperity, not just in the city of Houston but throughout the state of Texas,” Matthew Morgan of Houston-based Buckhead Investment Partners said Friday. “We are grateful to the Texas Court of Appeals for making it clear that zoning by nuisance law is not how things get done in Houston, Texas.”

The reversal applies to damages awarded to 20 homeowners near the site at 1717 Bissonnet and Ashby where Buckhead has been planning a 21-story residential tower the company said it still plans to build in the leafy neighborhood near Rice University.

[…]

Thursday’s opinion also reversed the ruling that the developers would have to pay the homeowners’ legal fees.

The appeals court affirmed the remainder of the judgment, including the trial judge’s refusal to grant an injunction halting the project.

In recent years and likely a result of the earlier Ashby ruling, property owners in Houston’s urban core have filed lawsuits to stop developers from building.

If the court had upheld the damages, it would have set a precedent for future cases, said Matthew Festa, a professor at Houston College of Law who specializes in land-use issues and who testified for the developers’ side during the December 2013 trial.

“Basically it would have hung a million-dollar price tag on the building permit,” he said.

A copy of the decision is here. The original ruling was made in 2014, and we are past the tenth anniversary of this case. As the story notes, the residents could try again after the thing gets built and it is shown to lower their property values, but who knows if that will ever happen? Despite the setback, as a Swamplot commenter notes, they’ve delayed the project well past the real estate boom time in Houston, and if nothing else bought themselves at least a decade of not having this highrise as their neighbor. Not that bad an outcome no matter what happens next, really.

Reimagining Lower Westheimer

This ought to be interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turner reiterates the need to rethink transportation

New audience, same theme.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s transportation future – and perhaps its economic vitality – relies on more options than new freeway lanes to make room for more cars, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

“The solution is to increasingly take advantage of other modes of travel,” Turner told business and elected leaders at a lunch event hosted by Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston Region.

The mayor, who has talked about a transportation “paradigm shift” since taking office in January, mentioned a laundry list of mobility projects that Houston must embrace, ranging from regional commuter rail to improved pedestrian access.

Nothing by itself can abate Houston’s growing congestion, the mayor acknowledged, but together the options could reform how people travel. Also, he favors a better balance of state and federal transportation funding, which heavily supports highways over public transit in the region.

“We will have to make choices on how to use limited space on streets to move people faster,” Turner said, noting that nine out of 10 working residents in the area rely on their own vehicle to get to and from work.

Houston today – and in the future – is a far different place than the one its highways initially served. Rather than a development pattern focused solely on downtown, Houston is an assortment of small, concentrated job and housing centers. Turner said the city’s transportation should reflect that by offering walkable solutions and local streets capable of handling the traffic in places such as the Texas Medical Center and Energy Corridor.

“We can connect the centers together with regional transit,” Turner said. “We need to focus our limited funding in these areas.”

[…]

As mobility options increase, the mayor said it will be up to officials to focus attention where certain transportation solutions can do the most good and ignite the least political furor.

“I will not force light rail on any community that does not want it. I will not do it,” Turner said. “We must stop trying to force it on places that do not want it and give it to neighborhoods and people in this city who want it.”

Minutes after his speech concluded, listeners were already dissecting the mayor’s statement on light rail and its obvious reference to the decadelong discussion of a proposed east-west rail line along Richmond Avenue to the Galleria area.

See here for thoughts expressed by Mayor Turner to the Texas Transportation Commission in February. I wouldn’t read too much into that comment about “forcing” rail into places that don’t want it. For one thing, the opposition to the Universities line has always been loud, but there’s never been any evidence that it’s broad. The evidence we do have suggests there’s plenty of support for that line in the neighborhoods where it would run. In addition, recent remarks by Turner-appointed Metro Chair Carrin Patman suggest the Universities line is still on the agenda. Perhaps there’s a disconnect between the two – in the end, I can’t see Metro putting forth an updated rail referendum that includes the Universities line over Mayor Turner’s objection – but I doubt it. I would just not read too much into that one statement without any corroborating evidence. Houston Tomorrow, which has video and a partial transcript of Mayor Turner’s remarks, has more.

Beyond that, this is good to hear, and even better to hear more than once. The reality is that as with things like water and energy, there is only so much room to add new road capacity, and it starts getting prohibitively expensive, in straight dollar costs as well as in opportunity costs, to add it. It’s far cheaper to conserve the capacity that we already have, which in the case of transportation means getting more people to use fewer cars. I talked about all this at the start of the Mayoral race last year, and I’m heartened to see that Mayor Turner’s priorities have been in line with many of the things I was hoping for. A lot of this talk still needs to be translated into action, but you can’t have the action without the talk first, to make people aware of the issues and get them on board with the solutions. The Mayor has done a good job of that so far, and it’s great to see.

Will the Ashby highrise ever get built?

Who knows?

Sue me!

Penelope Loughhead’s house in the leafy neighborhood near Rice University abuts the land where, nearly a decade ago, a proposed high-rise sparked a land-use battle that resonated citywide and throughout the local development community.

This week marks two years since a judge ruled the proposed Ashby tower could go forward after a monthlong trial and jury verdict that agreed with residents that the 21-story tower would be a nuisance to surrounding property owners. The judge agreed to some of the roughly $1 million in damages jurors assessed against Houston-based Buckhead Investment Partners but denied residents the permanent injunction they were seeking to halt the project.

Yet the 1.6-acre lot sits empty as both sides await a decision on their appeals.

“It feels like we’re in limbo,” Loughhead said. “We’re in the dark. We know they are allowed to build, but no ground has been broken.”

The developers declined to comment, citing the ongoing appeals process. They did not answer questions about the status of the project, although they previously told the Chronicle that the construction was moving along despite the appeal.

[…]

Attorneys for both sides made their cases during an appellate hearing in September. A decision could come down any day, attorneys say.

In documents filed with the 14th Court of Appeals, the attorney for the developers, Raymond Viada, argued against the damages that jurors awarded 20 residents who live near the Ashby project’s 1717 Bissonnet address. He wrote, in part, that the developers altered plans for the project after the jury’s decision and before the injunction hearing. Therefore, the project discussed in trial, which was ruled by the jury to be a nuisance, was no longer what his clients were proposing.

Viada wrote that the developers, who have already invested $14 million in the project, changed plans to reduce lighting from the garage, place planters on the amenity deck to add privacy and reconstruct its foundation to limit the impact of damage to surrounding homes. He wrote that the developers expect to net $72 million in profit if the project is not stopped.

See here for all the Ashby blogging you can stand. As I said the last time, it really boggles the mind to realize how long some lots in extremely desirable parts of town have been empty. The old Robinson Warehouse, Allen House, The Stables, and Ashby sites have been fallow for going on ten years. They remained unbuilt through a multi-year real estate boom that was especially hungry for inside-the-Loop properties. Now, in the midst of a low-oil-price downturn, it’s hard to imagine any of them changing status any time soon, and that’s without taking the Ashby lawsuit appeals process into account. I keep thinking that one of these days something will change, but all I’ve gotten for my trouble is that much older.

The Ashby legacy

What hath it wrought?

Sue me!

The plot of land where developers promised the so-called Ashby high-rise would be built in an affluent neighborhood still sits empty.

Yet the 1.6-acre lot at 1717 Bissonnet, which in 2007 sparked a battle that came to symbolize the impact of a lack of formal zoning in Houston, is still high on the minds of land-use experts, city leaders and developers grappling with development policy around the region, an expert panel said Monday.

“We are watching for the repercussions going forward,” said South Texas College of Law professor Matthew Festa, who specializes in land use. “We start in a city without a formal zoning code. But we have a lot of those types of rules.”

[…]

Festa said that with the various land use restrictions in Houston, in the form of minimum-lot sizes, historic districts and residential buffer ordinances, the region has “de-facto zoning.” This has led to many questions and sets up battles over where to build and about density versus preserving what is already there.

He said there are equity issues on both sides.

“Wealthy neighbors pass the hat and hire top-notch attorneys. What happens to the ones that don’t have those resources?” Festa said. “Nowhere is this stuff more intense than land-use battles.”

[…]

There is also an ongoing battle over a proposed affordable housing complex in a neighborhood between Tanglewood and the Galleria. That Houston Housing Authority project is a test case for new federal pressures and a Supreme Court decision that requires that affordable housing is built in high-opportunity neighborhoods, said Kyle Shelton, a researcher with the Kinder Institute at Rice University.

“It intimately ties into the same debate as Ashby,” Shelton said. “It raises the question for Houston: Does this ‘de-facto zoning’ get us a Houston that works for everybody? Ashby provided an interesting contradiction for Houston.”

Festa, who testified for the developers’ side during the Ashby trial, said he has watched the case since the beginning. He said the property rights issue is a sensitive one because people will sense a threat to their homes, their biggest purchase and largest asset.

“Land use really does motivate people,” he said. “It’s the communities that we live in.”

As noted in the story, one of the legacies of the Ashby highrise is the reverse Ashby lawsuit that was recently filed. You have to wonder if we’d be having these issues now if we’d passed that zoning referendum in the 90s. Be that as it may, I still believe the following: One, the Ashby location was a terrible place for a 21-story high-rise. This Swamplot comment puts it in a way that I hadn’t previously considered but which makes perfect sense. Two, we really need to revisit this issue as a city. What are the legitimate ways that a homeowner or neighborhood can oppose a proposed development near them? Combat by lawsuit isn’t doing anyone but the lawyers any good. And three, will the inner city’s best known long-vacant sites like the Ashby location and the Robinson warehouse ever get redeveloped? Now that we’re on the downslope of the last economic boom, it’s hard to see why anything would change if it hadn’t during the good times. The Robinson site will “celebrate” ten years of nothingness in January (the Ashby site will hit that mark later next year). When you consider how much construction has occurred around it in that time, it’s almost mind-boggling. Maybe they’re just cursed, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens next when there’s a ruling in the Ashby appeal.

The reverse Ashby

You have to admit, this is kind of clever.

Sue me!

A Houston developer has filed a pre-emptive strike against the owners of a luxury high-rise near the Galleria to head off an “inevitable lawsuit” over its plans to build a tower next door.

“We’re a little bit in shock,” said Karen Brown, president of the Cosmopolitan Condominium Association, which is now a defendant in a lawsuit filed by the developer this week in Harris County.

Brown said Wednesday that her group met with the developer, Dinerstein Co., several times to discuss homeowners’ concerns over the size of the proposed tower, its proximity to their own 22-story building, and related traffic and safety issues. She said the association wants the building to be half as tall and 100 feet farther away.

“They want to build a 40-story building 10 feet from us,” Brown said. “We think that’s unreasonable.”

But she said she was surprised to learn that the owner of the lot next door, an affiliate of Dinerstein Co., had filed suit against her group.

The dispute concerns a proposal to build a high-rise condo on the northwest corner of Post Oak and San Felipe, adjacent to the Cosmopolitan, 1600 Post Oak Blvd. The developer purchased the 1.5-acre parcel, currently a shopping center, last year.

In its lawsuit, the developer is asking for a declaratory judgment prohibiting the homeowners association from asserting a nuisance claim for the construction of the tower. It also wants a judge to declare that the association does not have standing to assert an action “based on alleged violations of city ordinances.” Attorney’s fees are also being sought.

The developer claims in the lawsuit that it addressed concerns raised by the condo owners by modifying the proposed building’s design. The changes included lowering the height of the parking garage, allowing it to line up with the Cosmopolitan’s garage; moving the building’s cooling systems to the roof; and designing the structure so views from the Cosmopolitan would be less obstructed.

Basically, “we’re suing you before you can sue us”. Well, the best defense is a good offense, so one can see the allure. Nancy Sarnoff adds a few details.

“It’s an interesting strategy for the developer to file first and to be the plaintiff,” said Matthew Festa, a South Texas College of Law professor who specializes in land-use issues.

But other than the role reversal, “it’s replay of the Ashby,” said Festa, referring to the nearly 10-year-old case in which homeowners opposed a developer’s fully entitled plans to build a residential tower in their upscale neighborhood near Rice University.

[…]

In a paper presented at a land-use conference in Austin last year, Houston real estate lawyer Reid Wilson wondered if nuisance law could become a routine land use weapon to oppose new development in what he calls “nuisance zoning.”

“Nuisance law is intended to protect an owner from adjacent uses which substantially interfere with the owner’s use and enjoyment of their land,” he said. “The problem is that nuisance is determined by a judge, so a developer never knows for sure if the ‘nuisance zoning’ will apply until the judge rules.”

In the Ashby case, the plaintiffs argued multiple claims, including that the high-rise would worsen traffic and block sunlight, and that its construction would damage the plaintiffs’ house foundations.

Wilson, whose firm defended the Ashby developer in litigation, said nuisance law needs to be clarified. He hopes the pending opinion in the appeal will do just that.

See here for all my prior Ashby blogging, and here for more on the appeal of that verdict, which who knows when will be resolved. I’m just gonna keep the popcorn warm and see how this goes. Swamplot has more.

What do you do with a problem like I-10?

From a conversation that Cite Editor Raj Mankad conducted with Andrew Albers and Ernesto Alfaro, who co-teach a survey of landscape architecture at the Rice School of Architecture.

Mankad: Let’s come back to I-10 and the failure of its…

Alfaro: … hubris …

Mankad: … its massive expansion. We talked about designers finding opportunities in the most problematic of sites. What is the opportunity there?

Albers: There is a bottleneck that exists at the reservoirs in the Energy Corridor. The Energy Corridor has been a huge economic driver for the city. And where Eldridge Parkway meets I-10 and then Memorial Drive is at its heart. These intersections are routinely blocked with traffic creating quality of life issue for those who find themselves in the area. Partially in response to these concerns, The Energy Corridor District assembled a team to investigate the future of the corridor. The district commissioned a master plan to address these and other issues.

This master plan documented ideas that could be implemented throughout the city. Very simple ideas that have been around since the birth of cities. Greater connectivity. Parallel roads. The answer is not more lanes, the answer is more options. The plan looks at ways to transform the existing infrastructure that we have—park-and-ride lots and bus lanes. METRO can adjust them to create a system that offers options and that gets people away from the reliance on the single-occupant car.

A circulator bus would move people around the Energy Corridor. If you go to lunch in the Energy Corridor, you have to get to your garage, get out of your garage, drive to where you want to go, find parking. By the time you have done that, it is 30 minutes. Then you have to repeat the whole process coming back. Your lunch hour is consumed by going and coming. So take that out of the equation with a circulator bus.

Instead of driving to the Energy Corridor, maybe you could get on a bus and come to the Energy Corridor, get off at the park-and-ride, get on a circulator bus, and get to where you are going. So it is about making linkages, creating different approaches to the problem of traffic.

Additionally, I-10 serves as a manmade barrier to pedestrians and bicyclists. The Energy Corridor is split between north and south by I-10. The scale is so immense. The plan looks at ways to links these parts of the city back together; for pedestrians; for bicycles; and for alternative transportation.

Mankad: I understand that the big detention basins and drainage ditches scooped out for the I-10 construction could provide more opportunities for cyclists and pedestrians at Langham Park. There is always this positive and negative, this yin yang, especially with hydrology.

Alfaro: If it we were to get crazy about I-10, imagine rail or bus rapid transit going through the center in both directions to get all those commuters in and out, parks on either side, and provide the connectivity elsewhere. You would have these amazing green spaces in the middle of I-10. That’s what I would want. Make it a landscape. Use the terrain, use the topography. Screw it.

The Energy Corridor is itself seeking feedback on this issue, so it’s not just the pointed-headed academics who are thinking about these things. The travel-to-lunch problem that Albers describes is even worse when you consider that a lot of those trips involve taking indirect, roundabout routes because you can’t get from Point A to Point B directly thanks to the presence of I-10. Circulators would help a bit with traffic, and would also enable more people to take transit to work in that area, as would making life easier for pedestrians. We do a lot of things to facilitate highway driving in this town, and a lot of those things have negative effects on local traffic that we just haven’t given any thought to in the past. The Energy Corridor is trying to deal with those effects now, as well they should. I look forward to seeing what they do.

The Purple City plan for I-45

Check it out.

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

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

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

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

Other cities want to be like Houston

For parks and landscaping.

The word “infrastructure” typically conjures up images of towering buildings, layered freeway interchanges and heavily monitored drainage ditches; concrete, cars, trucks and impressive feats of engineering that attempt to mold the natural world and resources to fit human needs.

Houston, the fourth largest city in the U.S., has long been hailed, and criticized, for such accomplishments, but a shift in social, political, and economic values has strengthened lesser-thought of elements of city infrastructure: parks and green space. Architectural and engineering professions in Houston have been historically bolstered by energy and the wealth it has pumped into the city, but the recent downturn in oil prices and a more diversified Houston economy has led the city to focus on what the landscape architect can bring to table.

Just like “infrastructure,” the term “Houstonization” has begun to mean something completely different. Cities across Texas and the nation, including San Antonio, are taking a closer look at the Bayou City and how the Sun Belt’s biggest metropolis, now 180 years old, has done an about-face to embrace the natural environment as cultural and economic assets to retain and attract residents. Literal mud holes and parking lots have become world-class parks.

[…]

Like most paradigm shifts, it took an “aligning of the planets,” said Cultural Landscape Foundation President and CEO Charles Birnbaum in the ornate lobby of Hotel ZaZa Thursday evening. He would later reiterate this concept for conference attendees next door in the auditorium at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Those “planets” are core patrons – the bureaucratic (city), the civic (philanthropist/corporate) and the citizen patron. The key for Houston, as other cities, has been another three-piece vocabulary, the public-private partnership, the so-called “P3.”

Just as these patron planets aligned for the rise of the highway and construction cranes, they have aligned for green space, Birnbaum said. “People are hungry and ready for parks.”

Houstonians – along with national and international consultants – are currently turning an urban golf course into a botanical garden; they’re redesigning, reconnecting and expanding Memorial Park and its arboretum; they’re connecting 150 miles of bayou trails; and developing engaging programming to activate its 371-and-counting parks.

“It takes big civic ideas and the patronage muscle to pull it off,” Birnbaum said.

That’s a report from a recent landscape architect’s conference that was held in Houston. OffCite was all over this as well. Lots of good reading there if you’re interested.

They also love us for bus system reimagining.

Was it hard to persuade people to focus on rerouting bus lines?

They had us all put together a list of, what are things you’d like to see done. This was on my list. It took about three years for the agency to be convinced to do it.

There was a lot of focus on the fact that ridership was dropping. I was actually offering up a solution that addressed that problem.

It probably didn’t hurt that it was budget friendly?

It’s funny when you look at this. Why haven’t more agencies done this? Because on the surface it’s a no-brainer: make a system better without putting money into it. In the end we put a little bit of money into it, but using your current resources to do more seems like it’s something everybody would be doing. But it turns out it’s actually really rare.

[…]

So Houston is open to change and your project has been a progressive triumph. But is the city ever going to reach that urban planning “nirvana”?

Yes. I think we’re actually getting there. There are people from all over the United States looking at Bayou Greenways as a model, looking at Discovery Green and Market Square. We’re a city that has suddenly ended up in the national spotlight when it comes to urban planning, and that’s really interesting because 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, we were the joke at the beginning of every urban planning presentation.

Yes, I distinctly remember the slide in those presentations.

It’s funny. One of the most famous pictures is that picture of downtown Houston covered in surface parking lots, and that’s where Discovery Green is now.

Some of the things we got held up for as being bad, like the lack of zoning, I think are turning out to be advantages. The good restaurant scene we have actually has something to do with the fact we don’t have zoning.

It’s really odd, parks people are looking at Houston, development people are looking at Houston, transit people are looking at Houston.

That’s got to feel pretty good.

It feels pretty darn good.

That’s from an interview with recently reappointed Metro board member Christof Spieler. Spieler has previously said that other transit agencies are closely watching the new bus network rollout – one agency that is considering something similar was here in town on the day that the new maps were implemented, for a firsthand look at how it went. As Spieler says, that feels pretty darn good.

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 living

It’s a thing that is happening.

Home to the city’s glittering epicenter of retail, with a dramatic skyline dominated by the towering Williams Tower and other office buildings, Uptown Houston is best known for the places where people work and play. Increasingly, it’s a place where people want to live as well.

A $1.7 billion investment in condominium towers and apartments over the last five years there has pushed residential development past retail as a percentage of overall real estate. Uptown is now 28 percent residential, compared with 25 percent retail.

Leaders at Uptown Houston, which runs the tax increment reinvestment zone and management district there, say residential opportunities are still in their infancy. Another 4,000 living units are under construction.

“Office, residential, retail and hotel all sort of blend and work together to create an urban neighborhood,” Uptown Houston president John Breeding said. “I think we’ve reached a new level of urbanization.”

The office market still dominates in Uptown, which ranks among the top 15 biggest office centers in the nation. Office makes up 37 percent of the district.

But residential is on the rise. O’Brien’s complex recently opened at 1900 Yorktown, the eight-story building advertising units with built-in wine cellars, oak floors and a large “Vegas-style” pool.

Announced residential projects in the Galleria area include a 26-story development called Belfiore being built at Post Oak Lane and South Wynden Drive, and a 28-story condominium tower called Astoria on Post Oak Boulevard. The Wilshire, a 17-story condominium project, and the SkyHouse River Oaks apartments replaced a 1960s-era apartment complex on Westcreek, now adjacent to the recently opened River Oaks District.

[…]

The regional housing market, long dominated by spacious single-family homes in suburban areas, is evolving as buyers increasingly are attracted to urban locales where it’s possible to walk to nearby attractions, said Jacob Sudhoff of Sudhoff Properties, a high-end real estate brokerage firm specializing in condo sales.

The Uptown-Galleria area is ground zero for this change as international buyers, oil executives and downsizing empty nesters trend toward the luxury for-sale units.

“Houston has finally turned into a condo market, and in the past we never were,” Sudhoff said. “There’s a correlation between amenities, walkability and the location of these condominiums.”

I think it’s a good thing that formerly non-residential areas such as Uptown now feature actual residences. The best way to avoid and reduce traffic is for people to be places where they don’t need to get into a car to go about their business. This is why things like sidewalks, bike paths, and transit matter. Some number of people who work and shop in the Uptown area have no choice but to drive there. If the people who do live there or live close to there can do those things by walking, biking, or taking Metro – and if there are more of those people to begin with – then they’re not competing with the folks who have to drive for space on the Loop. (I’ve made the same argument about parking for bikes at restaurants.) Doesn’t that make sense? Now if we could figure out how to get some more affordable housing into and around places like Uptown, then we’d really have something. I’m sure the next Mayor will get right on that.

Downtown post office has a buyer

Redevelopment, here we come.

Photo by Houston In Pics

Lovett Commercial, a Houston-based developer of neighborhood shopping centers and urban redevelopments, is under contract to buy the downtown post office property and potentially turn it into an urban complex of shops, offices, housing and perhaps a hotel.

“It’s extremely rare to find a 16& acre parcel in any major U.S. downtown,” the company said Monday in a statement emailed to the Chronicle by vice president Burdette Huffman.

Conceptual plans are still being devised, but the company said it expects “to attract multiple uses such as retail, creative office, residential and/or a boutique hotel. Tenants that we have visited with are extremely excited about the project, its location and the possibilities.”

Lovett is also exploring ways to reuse portions of the site’s existing buildings, which sit on the northwestern edge of downtown, just north of Buffalo Bayou and across from the Theater District.

[…]

Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, was pleased to hear of the company’s plans.

“I think Frank Liu is a real visionary,” Olson said of Lovett’s president, who also develops urban housing. “I think he’s willing to think outside the box.”

She said the plans are in line with the type of mixed-use development the partnership recommended more than a decade ago in a comprehensive master plan for the bayou.

Olson recalled several years ago during a bayou-related focus group when multiple prominent developers called the downtown post office property “the key site for development along the bayou.”

See here, here, and here for an abridged history of this site. It has always seemed to be destined for some form of mixed-use development, with a bit of speculation about it as a transit hub thrown in for flair. There’s not a whole lot immediately around it, so it will be interesting to see if this project spawns other development, or if this project is executed as something that is intended to be a stand-alone destination. What would you like to see in this space?

Downtown post office set to close

The end of an era approaches.

Photo by Houston In Pics

Thousands gathered at 401 Franklin Street in downtown Houston to celebrate the opening of a new facility trumpeted as an “ultra-modern” marvel, the hub for the mail that would flow in and out of one of America’s fastest growing cities.

Inside the rugged Brutalist building, a lattice-like grid of thin masonry, postal workers were expecting to sort through the millions of pieces of mail that would pass through the facility every year. Engineers touted the building’s efficient heating and cooling system, and employees zipped across the facility on electric buggies. The city’s postmaster said then, in 1962, that the facility “would establish a criterion for other post offices to copy.”

But on Thursday, 53 years after the ballyhooed opening of the Houston Post Office, the lunch hour traffic was sparse – a few police officers mailing Mother’s Day packages home, a lawyer, a family seeking passports and a few others.

On May 15 at 7 p.m., retail operations at the facility will cease permanently, yet another effect of the United States Postal Service’s struggles with rising debt and a sharp decline in business as clients turn to the Internet and private mail couriers.

[…]

Six other post offices were targeted for relocation in Houston in the past, including the Third Ward’s historic Southmore Station, University Station, Greenbriar Station, Julius Melcher Station, Memorial Park Station and Medical Center Station, and cuts have also slowed delivery times. A massive outcry prompted the postal service to halt its plans to shutter the Southmore Station facility, which stands at the address of Houston’s first sit-in demonstration.

But agency critics and Houstonians said Thursday they would be mourning the loss of the building and the move.

“Every time a post office closes, big or small, I think it’s a loss to the community and country,” said Steve Hutkins, creator of Savethepostoffice.com. “If it’s a big one, like the Houston one, it’s clearly a big (loss), and it’s about diminishing quality of postal service in the country.”

The downtown post office has been on the block since at least 2009. The city considered putting in a bid for it last year, possibly as a new location for HPD and the municipal courts, but dropped the idea shortly thereafter in the wake of wailing and gnashing of teeth by developers who had been eagerly awaiting its appearance on the market. The Urban Land Institute hosted a design contest for the site in 2012 to generate some ideas about how to use the space – at one point, a transit center was envisioned as an anchor for it – but I rather doubt we’ll get anything other than high-end apartments or condos, possibly with some retail/restaurant space on the bottom, like with the Rice Hotel. But first, it needs to be sold. I’ve no idea when that might happen. Swamplot has more.

More I-45 stuff

From The Highwayman:

Public meetings meant to debut the massive plan to remake Houston’s downtown freeway system might be coming to an end, but it’s hardly the last chance residents will have to poke and prod the plans.

Years of work remain on the $6 billion-plus project that shifts Interstate 45 to the east side of the central business district and sinks I-45 and U.S. 59 so the freeways act as less prominent barriers. By moving the freeway, Texas Department of Transportation officials are also eliminating the elevated portion of I-45 along Pierce. The Pierce Elevated would then be removed, or perhaps turned into a park or green space as some are suggesting.

[…]

A fifth set of meetings — the first public meetings on I-45 were held in 2011, though some discussions date to 2003 — is likely next year, when officials will unveil their draft of the technical plan for the freeway.

Despite a lot of attention on the major components of the plan, such as moving the freeway, some important details are tiny (in comparison) fixes to local intersections. A sweeping ramp from Chartres Street that connects to I-10 and I-45 is an example, officials said. The ramp, which makes a high arc with tight curves, slows traffic and leads to a difficult merger with the freeway.

Redesigning that ramp helps move traffic, which helps all lanes flow more effectively.

There is a similar potential ripple effect from the new design that will ease congestion throughout the Houston region, said Quincy Allen, district engineer for TxDOT’s Houston office. After looking at some of the proposals, he said he is confident traffic on U.S. 59, Texas 288 and Interstate 10 will improve because of a better connection to I-45.

“Every one of these legs is getting something fixed on it,” he said.

Swamplot has a TxDOT-produced video that shows what the new highways will look like; a few stills plus typically snarky comments are here, and the full slidewhow from whence that came is here. It’s a little hard to wrap your mind around all of it; doing a before-and-after might have been more helpful. Purple City has a good explanation of why traffic through downtown is so bad now. I can only imagine what it will be like during the construction. Even with that, the downtown real estate set is all in. Be careful what you wish for.

I’ll close with a bit from the most recent email from Jim Weston of the I-45 Coalition:

For Segment 2 – (610 to I-10) – I suggest that you understand clearly some of the proposed changes:
1) Houston Avenue will no longer connect from White Oak to N. Main – Won’t that force a substantial increase of traffic thru Woodland Heights for no reason?
2) Why does TxDOT remove the current highway entrance from Houston Ave and reroute it to North Street? That will destroy acres of trees and route more traffic thru Germantown Historic District for no reason.
3) TxDOT says that the “Main Lanes will be elevated” between 610 and Cavalcade – What does elevated mean? The Main Lanes are currently at ground level.

Public comments will be accepted through May 31. Go to http://www.ih45northandmore.com/ and tell them what you think.

Pierce Skypark

How’s this for a big idea?

“Imagine something big,” says John Cryer, an architect at Page Southerland Page. “Really big.”

He’s talking about the Pierce Elevated Freeway, the raised stretch of I-45 that hooks around the west side of downtown Houston. With an eye toward improving traffic flow, the Texas Department of Transportation is proposing to re-route I-45 — and to do so in such a way that would leave the roughly two miles of the Pierce Elevated out of a job.

And that, say Cryer and other urban dreamers, could be a huge opportunity for Houston. What if, instead of tearing down the Pierce Elevated at an enormous cost, the freeway structure became the base for an elevated linear park — a Houston version of New York’s High Line or Paris’s Promenade Plantée?

Pierce Skypark,” Cryer and two other Page architects call the idea. He, Tami Merrick and Marcus Martínez have been working on it pro bono, hoping that a powerful public or private entity would take the idea and run with it. Their presentations have been received warmly: Pierce SkyPark’s Facebook page has more than a thousand “likes.”

Martínez’s dream-big conceptual sketches give a sense of the proposal’s size and potential. The park that he and the rest of his team imagine would be 1.97 miles long, and cover 37.7 acres — an astonishing swath of parkland so near downtown. By comparison, New York’s High Line, built atop an unused freight-rail line, is significantly shorter (only 1.45 miles) and much, much skinnier (13 acres).

Besides the obvious paths for bikes and pedestrians, Martínez says, there’d be room atop the Pierce Elevated to install all sorts of attractions. Maybe a golf range; or a bike-in theater; a conference center; gardens; or a greenhouse for native plants to be installed along Buffalo Bayou.

It sounds a little crazy, but as the story notes, such things do exist elsewhere, with the High Line in New York being a prominent recent example. I would think the main objection to this would be that if the Pierce were to be torn down when TxDOT rebuilds I-45 is that downtown would gain a huge swath of newly developable real estate, which in today’s market would be worth a ton of money. But Piece Skypark as envisioned could be a truly massive amenity for the city, and it wouldn’t necessarily preclude development on or underneath it. I’d at least like to see the idea get discussed and taken seriously. We have two years or more before anything starts to happen. What’s to lose by considering all options? Check out Pierce Skypark’s Facebook page and give it a like if you’re interested.

TxDOT reveals its I-45 plan

Wow. Just, wow.

A massive reconstruction of Interstate 45 through most of Houston would topple one of downtown’s most frustrating barriers – the Pierce Elevated – and move the freeway east of the central business district.

That’s just one of the major changes Texas Department of Transportation officials included in the $6 billion-plus plan to be unveiled Thursday. It would make I-45 practically unrecognizable to those familiar with its current downtown-area configuration.

Two managed lanes in each direction will be added to the freeway between the Sam Houston Tollway and U.S. 59 south of the city’s central business district. Planners recommend moving I-45 to the east side of the city’s core, a change that an analysis suggests could increase downtown freeway speeds. Officials called it a once-in-a-lifetime change that would increase mobility and improve the city center.

“After having those freeways in the city for the better part of 70 years, it’s challenging and exciting to have the opportunity to come back and reshape how they fit,” said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District.

The first of three public meetings this month [was] scheduled for Thursday night, when residents and businesses will get their first detailed look at the plans. In 2013, when neighborhood leaders got a look at early versions, some feared the reconstruction would leave a big, concrete scar across their communities.

“I am really looking with dreaded anticipation for what they are going to propose,” said Jim Weston, president of the I-45 coalition, a group of residents tracking the freeway project. “There’s a lot of engineering and lots of questions about the design that really, I feel, TxDOT hasn’t answered.”

Remaking I-45 will take years, with numerous public meetings and more detailed analysis remaining. Officials said it is too early to pinpoint an exact cost, but transportation officials predict all of the work will cost “north of $6 billion,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for TxDOT’s Houston office.

The final cost will be determined by when officials can start construction, likely in phases starting in downtown Houston after 2017. The central business district parts of the plan alone will cost about $3 billion.

Much of that cost comes from moving the freeway. Eventually, I-45 will move from the west side of downtown and follow the same route U.S. 59 does now east of the George R. Brown Convention Center, according to the plans. The two freeways will split where they now cross near Pierce Street.

Perhaps just as importantly, transportation officials are designing segments of the new or combined freeways as depressed roadways, meaning local street traffic flows above them, similar to U.S. 59 west of Spur 527. East of the convention center and between Cavalcade and Quitman streets, the space above the freeways could be developed as open green space or a park-like setting.

See here and here for the most recent updates. The public meeting documents are here. I’m still working my way through them. I’m happy that the roundabout idea appears to be kaput, but there’s a billion details to work out, and until we really understand what this is all about, it’s impossible to say if this is good, bad, or indifferent. I’m more hopeful now than I was before, but I need to read the docs and hear what the folks who have followed this more closely than I have are saying. And – and I really cannot say this often enough – we need to know what the Mayoral candidates think about this. Forget pensions and potholes, if this project goes forward more or less as detailed here, this will be the defining issue of the next Mayor’s tenure. What is your impression of this?

One way to lower speed limits

Purple City makes an interesting observation.

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

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

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

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

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

Economic segregation in cities

From Wonkblog:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reimagining Richmond Avenue

Remember the Richmond Strip? If you were here in the 90s you probably do. You also probably haven’t been out there since the 90s. Now there’s a plan to restore some of the luster to that part of town.

It was along this stretch of Richmond Avenue that revelers rushed out to celebrate after the Rockets won two NBA championships in the mid-1990s. The annual St. Patrick’s Day parade drew ample crowds to the six-lane street and to bars like the Yucatan Liquor Stand. Every weekend, partygoers found a vibrant scene of restaurants and dance clubs, arcades and two-stepping joints.

Widely referred to as the Richmond Strip, the area – just past the Galleria from Chimney Rock to Hillcrocft and from Westpark to Westheimer – was the place to see and be seen for much of the 1990s, a flashy drag of bars, clubs and restaurants seen as the Houston’s answer to Sixth Street, Beale Street and Bourbon Street.

Now the largely abandoned entertainment district is a focal point for city and business leaders in the area, hoping it can shake its forlorn image and draw on the energy of nearby businesses and retail opportunities along nearby Westheimer in the Galleria area.

“It only takes driving up and down the streets in the area to see the problems that exist,” City Councilman Mike Laster, who represents the area, said Tuesday.

[…]

“We want the area to overcome the negative image,” said Daniel Brents, chairman of the Urban Land Institute panel commissioned to study the area.

The panel, which includes real estate experts, landscape architects and urban planners, presented a general concept to revitalize the area at a community meeting on Tuesday. They interviewed business owners and neighborhood groups as part of the study. A primary suggestion was to make better use of existing tools such as management districts, tax increment reinvestment zones and other incentive programs to help spur development.

John Dupuy, a landscape architect with TBG Partners, noted the disparate land uses in the area that was originally meant for single-family homes but evolved over time. He cited a few current bright spots, including new townhome developments, a group of exotic car dealerships and custom car shops and an immigrant community that recently created an independent soccer league.

“We wanted to find a way to make these anchors more significant and tie them together,” Dupuy said. “We want to make corridors clean, safe, walkable and successful streets.”

Problems identified by the panel include infrastructure, drainage and a lack of lighting. The group’s interviews with interested parties also found that a lack of open space, parks and safe sidewalks hampered development.

There’s a great then-and-now slideshow here, and you can see a copy of the plan here. I doubt the Strip will return to its past glory as an entertainment destination, but there’s no reason why it can’t be an attractive and enticing part of town again. It’s a great location, between the Galleria and the Energy Corridor, and it’s got a lot of potential. I look forward to seeing what they make of it.

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Quality of life and other issues

Preliminaries
Transportation
Public safety

A few quick hits on topics that didn’t fit elsewhere.

Making Houston affordable again

Remember when Houston was an inexpensive place to live? If you haven’t been here at least a decade – more like two decades, for some neighborhoods – you probably don’t. The transformation of so many parts of Houston, especially the Inner Loop, has been a big positive in many ways, but it’s come with a big price tag. Many longtime residents of many established and historic areas have been forced out, and the vast majority of housing construction today is high end. Houston’s longstanding reputation as an affordable place to live is no longer valid, and it’s having an effect. If nothing else, you have to wonder what will happen to some of these luxury apartment/condo complexes if the price of oil stays down around $50 a barrel. Mayors of course are limited in what they can do about this sort of thing, but there are some good policy ideas to encourage affordable housing development out there. I’d at least like to know that the Mayoral candidates consider this to be something worth thinking and talking about.

Historic preservation

In 2010, City Council passed a historic preservation ordinance, after a lot of work, debate, and contentiousness. Four years later, that ordinance is still a work in progress, with tweaks being made to help developers and homeowners better understand what it means and how to follow it. What sorts of “tweaks” would the Mayoral candidates like to see made to this ordinance? More broadly, and as a tangent to the point about how many established neighborhoods have been transformed by the recent real estate boom, what can – or should – be done to protect the interests of longtime residents in these neighborhoods and the houses that gave them their character in the first place? How do you balance their interests with those of developers?

One Bin For All

I trust everyone is familiar with the One Bin For All proposal. Last year, the city received numerous RFPs to build the kind of all-in-one plant that would revolutionize solid waste management and forever put to rest Houston’s abysmally low recycling rate. At this point, we don’t know where that stands, and while Mayor Parker and Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian have steadfastly advocated for this idea, they have also said that if it isn’t feasible then the city won’t pursue it. Many environmental groups – though not all – have been critical of the One Bin plan, preferring that the city do more to expand single-stream recycling. This is a big decision that Mayor Parker and City Council will eventually make. What direction do the Mayoral candidates want them to go? Who likes the One Bin idea, and who is skeptical of it? For those in the latter group, what would they do to increase recycling in Houston? If One Bin isn’t the answer, what steps can the city take beyond encouraging recycling – such as reducing the amount of food waste being sent to landfills – to do better and spend less on garbage?

State versus city

I discussed the threat of so-called “sanctuary cities” legislation in the Public Safety entry, but that is far from the only bill that seeks to limit or dictate what cities like Houston would be allowed to do by the Legislature. From payday lending to equal rights ordinances to plastic bags to who knows what else, the Lege – egged on by Governor Abbott – has declared war on local control. Are any of the Mayoral candidates – other than Rep. Sylvester Turner, who can safely be assumed to be dealing directly with these issues – even thinking about this stuff? Because if they wait until the voters are presumed to be tuning in, it will be too late. We need to be hearing from these guys now. If they don’t like some of the items on the Legislature’s to do list, they need to say so now. If they do like these things, then we need to hear them say that, too. Either way, now is not the time to be silent. If any of these bills pass, it will have a profound effect on Houston. The next Mayor of Houston might want to get out in front of that.

I could go on, but I think that will do for now. I realize this is a long campaign, and I realize the average voter is assumed to have the attention span of a gnat. I also realize that some of these candidates don’t have fully fleshed-out positions on everything yet, though let’s be honest here – most of the declared candidates – three of whom so far are repeat customers – have been running for Mayor for many years now. They’ve just made it official now that they can raise money. They’ve all got advisers and consultants and political directors and what have you out the wazoo. Let’s put some of that brainpower to the test. Anyone can be against potholes. I want to know what these guys are for, and it’s neither unfair nor too early to start asking where they stand, at least in general, on these issues. I hope you’ll join me on that, and will do the same for the issues that are important to you.

From industrial to residential

More changes coming to my neck of the woods.

Some of the old warehouses lining a stretch of Sawyer Street across Interstate 10 from the Heights are being primed for new development, as this First Ward area continues to morph from industrial hub to an upscale artsy neighborhood.

Houston-based Lovett Commercial is transforming a 1950s warehouse at Sawyer and Edwards into Sawyer Yards, which will have about 40,000 square feet of space for restaurants, retail or offices.

The company is looking to fill another 5-acre parcel at 2000 Taylor just south of I-10 at Spring Street. The property is across from the Sawyer Heights Target.

H-E-B quashed rumors that it was considering opening a store there, though the grocery chain has been looking around.

“That’s not a piece of land we’re looking at,” said spokeswoman Cyndy Garza-Roberts. “We’ve had an interest of moving into the Heights area for several years now. We just have not been able to identify a location.”

Jon Deal, who has developed artist studios in the area, is planning another project at the old Riviana rice facility at Sawyer and Summer.

The project is called the Silos on Sawyer, and it will include artist studios, creative workspaces and some retail.

The main building contains more than 50,000 square feet.

Deal said he, Steve Gibson and Frank Liu of Lovett Commercial own – separately or in partnerships – at least 35 contiguous acres in the area.

They hope to master-plan the acreage.

“Ideally we’re going to be a campus-type creative community,” Deal said. “It’ll look and feel like a master-planned development in the end, although it’ll keep its raw edge.”

The area is part of a cultural district recognized by the state, Deal said. The program is not currently being funded, he said, but when it is, it will allow artists to seek grant money.

There’s an awful lot of activity going on in this general area, which stretches from Studemont to Houston Avenue between I-10 and Washington Avenue. I consider it a positive for the most part – the existing industrial area didn’t exactly add much to the quality of life in the larger area, and a lot of it is not actively used now anyway – but there are concerns. Mostly, traffic on the north-south streets – Studemont, Sawyer, and Houston – is already a problem, and there are limited options to ameliorate it. Sawyer, for example, is a narrow one-lane-each-way street south of the Target retail center, and as you can see from the embedded image or this Google Map link, there aren’t any other options thanks to the active freight train tracks, which by the way regularly block traffic on Sawyer and Heights. (This is part of the corridor that would be used for some variation of commuter/high speed/light rail, if and when it ever happens.) There is at least the off-road Heights bike trail along Spring Street that connects the area to the Heights (passing under I-10) and downtown (passing under I-45), and there is a sidewalk along Sawyer; it definitely needs an upgrade, and there’s a lot of potential to make it much nicer when the properties west of Sawyer get sold for development, but at least it’s there. The potential exists to turn this part of town into a compelling modern urban residential/mixed-use area. In the absence of any unified vision for the myriad developers to draw inspiration, I hope at least no one does anything to permanently derail such a thing.

Robinson Warehouse, eight years after

From the Free Press Houston Worst of 2014:

What once was there

WORST WASTE OF SPACE: CORNER OF ALLEN PARKWAY AND MONTROSE

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

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

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

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

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

Heights-Northside mobility study

Mostly of interest for folks in my area, here’s the city’s report on mobility for neighborhoods in the upper left quadrant of the Inner Loop.

HeightsNorthside

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study

The Planning and Development Department, in partnership with the Department of Public Works and Engineering and Houston-Galveston Area Council, is pleased to announce that the Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility study has been finalized and can be downloaded (see links below).

After an extensive public comment period, the City received 125 comments regarding study recommendations, and letters from area organizations. Over the last several months, the project team has worked with City staff to evaluate all comments and provide responses to questions that were raised. Where appropriate, recommendations were modified to ensure that all final recommendations resulting from this study best serve the needs of the City and community, alike.

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study
Download Full Version (31 MB)

Download by Chapter:
I. Introduction
II. Existing Conditions
III. Community Involvement
IV. Defining Future Mobility Conditions
V. Changing Mobility Considerations
VI. A Balanced Approach: Corridor Sheets
VII. Outcomes
VIII. Next Steps

Appendix A: Data Collection
Appendix B: Thoroughfare Types
Appendix C: Transit Analysis
Appendix D: Hardy-Elysian Option Considerations
Appendix E: Travel Demand Results

Here’s the project website, which has archives of past community meetings and won’t be around much longer. I was alerted to this by Bill Shirley, who highlighted the following bit from the Corridor Streets section that was of interest to me.

“Pedestrian facilities along Studewood Street are in great condition north of White Oak Drive, but virtually nonexistent along the 4-lane segment of the roadway south of White Oak Drive which includes a 4-lane bridge. However, the use of this segment by pedestrians is evident by foot paths flanking both sides of the corridor. The contra-flow lane confuses drivers who are not familiar with its function, and additional signage could help mitigate this issue. The contra-flow lane also causes problems at major intersection due to the lack of protected lefts. At its northern boundary, the corridor terminates into a 6-legged intersection with E 20th/N Main Street/W Cavalcade Street. The current intersection configuration creates confusion, particularly for the pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate.”

I wrote about this awhile back, in the context of the new housing development that will be coming in across the street from the Kroger at Studemont and I-10, and how that area could be a lot more desirable, and a lot less of a burden to vehicular traffic, if that sidewalk were finished and bike options were added. The latter is known to be coming as part of the Bayou Greenways initiative, and it’s exciting to see that the sidewalk is at least on the drawing board as well. I don’t know how long term some of these projects are, but I’m looking forward to them.

Is this the end of the two-car household?

From Streetsblog:

While predicting continued global growth in car sales as countries like India and China become more affluent, KPMG’s recent white paper about trends affecting the car industry [PDF] sees different forces at work in the United States.

In the U.S., says KPMG, car sharing companies like Zipcar, on-demand car services like Uber, and even bike-share will eat away at the percentage of households owning multiple vehicles, especially in major cities. Today, 57 percent of American households have two or more vehicles. KPMG’s Gary Silberg told CNBC that the share of two-car households could decrease to 43 percent by 2040.

In this scenario, KPMG predicts that the rise of “mobility services” will displace car ownership by providing similar mobility but without the fixed costs. The typical new car now costs $31,000 but sits idle 95 percent of the time. Given other options, Silberg told CNBC, many Americans will be happy to avoid that burden.

Other contributing factors flagged by KPMG include increasing urbanization, telecommuting, changing travel preferences among younger generations, and growing traffic congestion in big metro areas.

I’m a little surprised that driverless cars aren’t mentioned here, since that observation about vehicle idle time and its implications for vehicle and ride sharing is a common feature of stories about driverless cars. Make of that what you will.

The Highwayman, who shared that Streetsblog link, looks at this from the local angle.

Some of the services mentioned are already up and running in Houston, and expanding their footprint rapidly. ZipCar is downtown and spreading to other areas, and Uber has stuck around as Houston enacted new laws governing paid rides. In fact, after sort of anchoring its operations within Loop 610, Uber has expanded its footprint (the Uberprint? Ubersphere?) to suburban communities. Wednesday morning, Uber vehicles were available in Katy, Cypress and Tomball (I would have looked at more suburbs, but I got scared they were tracking me and closed the app and considered burning my smartphone).

Still, a lot of Houston isn’t exactly built for just walking down the block and grabbing a ZipCar or hoping an Uber is nearby. Huge swaths of the region are residential, and workers can commute for miles. Many two-income families might hang onto cars. It’s more likely that those living closer in will be less inclined to maintain a two-car household. In the suburbs, not exactly ripe for ridesharing, the change might be in households going from four vehicles to two rather than from two to one.

One possible implication of this KPMG report is that it may lead to greater demand for housing that is closer to employment, retail, and entertainment centers, which today would mean more urban-centric housing, though going forward this may include a good chunk of the more mature suburban areas, as many of them are trying to create urban-like centers within them. I’ve made this point myself in talking about the possible benefits of services like Uber. One reason why far-flung suburban development has been popular is because the cheaper housing more than offsets the larger expenditures needed on transportation. The greater the potential savings on transportation costs, the more attractive closer-in living will be. There are a ton of variables here, so making anything but the vaguest of predictions is dicey business, but this is something to keep in mind. Cities like Houston that are concerned about losing population (and with it political power) to their surrounding suburbs ought to see about doing what they can to facilitate transportation alternatives that allow people to get away from the one-car-per-adult model for living.

Houston needs a swimming hole

A fascinating proposal from Gray Matters.

The good idea: Houston needs a great big swimming hole.

Idea guys: Monte Large and Evan O’Neil, of Houston Needs a Swimming Hole.

Where the idea came from: Enduring the Houston heat. Large, an urban real-estate developer, doesn’t have a car and bikes everywhere. One summer day, the friends asked each other a series of questions while sweating in a coffee shop:

“What if Houston still had the Shamrock Hotel pool?

“What if Houston had a Barton Springs?

“Or our own beautiful big swimming hole in the middle of the city?”

Neither Large nor O’Neil is into the sport of swimming. Their hobby, they say, is helping Houston be cool.

Large and O’Neil recognize several realities about their hometown. Houston is a subtropical environment; it is very close to, yet painfully far from the ocean; and improbably, the city has become a leader in the use of green technology.

They researched available technology and decided that an enormous natural pool that filters the water with plant material would be a symbol of “the marvel Houston is becoming.” According to their research, there are more than 20,000 natural pools across Europe. Managed properly, natural swimming pools have clear water and require no chemicals to maintain. Instead, they are self-cleaning: cattails, water lilies and other water plants serve as natural filters.

Their website has more information. I drafted this awhile ago and hadn’t gotten around to scheduling it for publication, and in the meantime the guys behind this idea have created a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to do a feasibility study. They hope to collect $30K by January 9, and as of this publication were more than 10% of the way there. I’ll probably toss in a few bucks myself.

Anyway, these things are apparently more common than you might think. I’m sure the idea guys will encounter plenty of skepticism as they present this idea, though they say on that Kickstarter page that they have received a lot of positive feedback, which is encouraging. Hey, if such a thing can be built elsewhere – in Austin, in Minneapolis, in Brisbane – then why not here? What do you think about this? Give their Facebook page a like if you approve. Swamplot and Gray Matters have more.