July 14, 2008
Time to say good-bye to the Kirby trees

The fight over Kirby Drive's trees is over, and like it or not, the project is going forward.

Work will begin Monday on the contentious Kirby Drive reconstruction project between Westheimer and Richmond with a design that retains none of the 135 trees lining the thoroughfare, leaders of the project said Friday.

The trees, most of which were planted 20 years ago by the nonprofit group Trees for Houston, will be replaced by at least 148 smaller trees, said leaders of the Upper Kirby District, the tax-supported group overseeing the project.

The project will provide improved drainage and better mobility as well as safe and attractive spaces for pedestrians in an area attracting dense, high-rise development with a pedestrian focus, said Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, who represents the area.

But William Coats, an attorney who founded Trees for Houston and has worked for months to persuade district and city officials to save at least some of the trees, said the design was disappointing.

"They could have saved $2 million worth of mature trees," Coats said. "Instead, we're going to spend $1.2 million for trees that won't provide shade for 15 years. That's not good government."


Clutterbuck said it's important to remember that the street is being rebuilt to accommodate a new drainage system.

"First and foremost, this is a drainage project," she said. "If you've ever been stuck on Richmond during a thunderstorm, you probably had to wait a while" for the water to subside.

A key feature of the design for the six-lane thoroughfare is a central, landscaped esplanade that will provide a safe harbor for pedestrians crossing the busy roadway, said Rob Axelson, chairman of the Upper Kirby Improvement District.

Clutterbuck said district officials were able to persuade city officials to design the street with narrower lanes than is typical, leaving more room for pedestrians.

The sidewalks will be at least 5 feet wide while the entire "pedestrian way," a space that includes trees, benches and other features, will range from 13 to 13 1/2 feet, said Travis Younkin, the Upper Kirby District's projects coordinator.

Coats, however, said the design continues to be focused on the needs of motorists rather than pedestrians.

"We don't seem to have enough understanding of the need in the modern city to develop elegance in the pedestrian realm," he said.

I believe more could have been done to accommodate pedestrians, whose numbers I expect to grow in the coming years, but that ship has sailed. Let's make sure the promises we did get to plant new trees and optimize the redesigned space for walkers will be delivered.

By the way, the drainage project on Kirby south of 59 has now progressed as far as Sunset, and is heading into the really heavily trafficked part of that street. These are not good days to be driving on Kirby.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 14, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston
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