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Elsewhere in Houston

We are getting serious about the flood tunnel idea

Now the question is how could we pay for this?

Japanese flood tunnel

A network of eight massive storm water tunnels that drain upstream of and into the Houston Ship Channel could be the key to alleviating flooding in Harris County, flood control engineers announced this week. The scheme looks at how storm water management has traditionally worked here and re-imagines, at a steep cost, how the system could be drastically expanded.

The Harris County Flood Control District, formed in 1937, has long dealt with flooding in two ways: Engineers built channels to move water away and dug detention ponds to store it temporarily. But those methods are increasingly challenging to implement, they say, because so much of the area has been developed. Texas prairie is covered with asphalt, concrete and buildings.

Climate change is also broadening the scale of what the region faces: Rains are likely to be more intense. Hurricanes are likely to be stronger.

And so Flood Control staff for several years studied how tunnels might work to lessen the storm water buildup that accompanies heavy rainfall. On Thursday, the agency released its findings in a detailed report that explains why a $30-billion, 130-mile network of tunnels could be worth the investment. The team says it has more research to do before committing to the idea fully, but the concept checks out so far.

“We have determined that a large-diameter underground tunnel system would significantly reduce flood risk and the number of instances of flooding,” said Scott Elmer, assistant director of operations for the flood control district. “And, as we consider expanding our current flood damage reduction toolkit by investing in a tunnel system, we would gain an additional tool to use in the many areas of our county where the land is densely populated.”

A question ahead is whether people here will support it. Residents and advocates recently called for consideration of a tunnel below Buffalo Bayou instead of a vehemently-opposed federal proposal to dig the bayou deeper and wider. The flood control district’s proposal, of course, takes the tunnel idea much further, marking a shift toward massive, costly solutions that could protect Houston better from worsening weather. It raises familiar issues of risk and environmental harm. It highlights the same complexities of how planners prioritize who to help.

A case in point is the project plan finished last year and making its way through Congress that would create the so-called Ike Dike, featuring a series of towering gates that would cross the mouth of Galveston Bay to defend against hurricane storm surges. Advocates in that case lament the lack of attention to nature-based solutions and the reliance on a band-aid fix to the real issue of human-fueled climate change.

Both the Ike Dike and the tunnel system would require some federal funding and take years to build.

See here for some background, and go read the rest, there’s a lot more to the story. I will note that Austin and San Antonio have similar albeit much smaller tunnels, so this concept is not new or untested. Paying for this would be a challenge – look how long it’s taken to get federal funding for the Ike Dike, which is still not yet assured – and as with the Ike Dike there are questions about how long it would take to build this, what its environmental effects might be, and what other things we can and should be doing right now regardless of whether this thing eventually happens. (For a discussion of that in re: the Ike Dike, listen to this recent CityCast Houston episode.) I’m intrigued by this idea, I think it has promise, but we all need to hear more, and we don’t have a lot of time to spare. Whatever we do, let’s get moving on it.

Monkeypox in the Houston area

Was bound to happen sooner or later.

Two people in the region have tested positive for monkeypox, a viral disease with typically mild symptoms, public health officials with the City of Houston and Harris County announced Saturday.

The Houston Health Department said a Houston resident who had recently traveled internationally had a confirmed case of monkeypox. Hours later, Harris County Public Health said an out-of-state resident who had visited Harris County recently also had a confirmed case. The out-of-state resident is already out of the region and back in their home state.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Texas Department of State Health Services have said the virus does not present a risk to the general public. The CDC’s website says monkeypox is “rarely fatal” and the risk of transmission in the United States is low.

Symptoms can include fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills and exhaustion. It’s most notable symptom is a rash that can resemble pimples or blisters, the CDC said. It can spread from person-to-person through direct contact with the rash or body fluids. It can also spread by respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact or during intimate physical contact.

As of Saturday afternoon, three cases had already been recorded in Texas — not including the two reported in Houston that day — and 114 have been logged nationwide since the first case this year was identified in mid-May.

See here for the background. As noted, it’s not something to freak out about, but do be aware of it and exercise reasonable caution. Mostly, if you have reason to think you might have been infected, contact your local public health department and do what they tell you to do.

Calling all lifeguards

The city needs you.

Lifeguard shortages are keeping most Houston community pools closed as summer arrives with scorching heat and near record-breaking temperatures.

Just 12 of 37 aquatic centers operated by the Parks and Recreation Department are scheduled to open for the season, and even fewer were welcoming swimmers Tuesday. The pools will each operate three days a week on a rotating basis as parks department officials seek lifeguards to fill vacancies.

That ratio marks a slight improvement on last year, when 10 aquatic centers opened amid widespread staffing shortages. City officials blamed the paucity of lifeguards on its inability to recruit high school and college students, who make up the majority of its summertime employees.

“Local high schools and colleges stayed closed to off-campus visitors” due to COVID-19 safety protocols, said Leroy Maura, the director of Houston Parks and Recreation Aquatics. “We were not able to get in and recruit and that put us in this bind.”

The 37 aquatics centers require about 180 lifeguards to operate at full capacity. For decades, Maura said, the department could expect up to 150 of those lifeguards to return for subsequent summers. That changed with the pandemic. In 2021, 40 lifeguards came back. This year, only 24 returned.

[…]

Maura, the aquatics director, asked Houstonians to remain patient as his department recruits more lifeguards. He said he hopes to gradually open more pools as the summer scorches on.

I sure hope so. As the story notes, it’s going to be a hot, hot summer – hell, it already is. The schedule for the city’s polls is here, and you can find information on how to apply for a lifeguard job there as well. If you know someone 16 or older who can meet the requirements, the pay starts at $13.66 an hour. I worked way worse jobs than that back in the day.

Are we going to raise the COVID threat level again?

Maybe, but not yet.

Coronavirus infections are on the rise across Houston, wastewater tracking shows, even as fewer people seek testing two years into the pandemic.

Four months after the city saw record infection rates caused by the highly contagious omicron variant, new COVID-19 cases are once again climbing, according to data collected by Rice University and the Houston Health Department. The most recent sewage samples show increased viral loads at all but a few of the city’s three dozen wastewater treatment plants.

Citywide, the amount of virus particles detected in wastewater is up 242 percent above baseline, with an overall positivity rate of 14 percent. Both metrics increased by about a third over the previous samples, taken in early May. At the 69th street plant, serving much of the Inner Loop, officials said virus levels are 123 percent above baseline, with a 22 percent positivity rate.

Despite the uptick, health officials do not anticipate raising Harris County’s threat level to the highest level. The county’s threat level is currently set at moderate, signally a controlled level of COVID spread.

“Even though we see positivity rates going up, our hospital rates continue to remain low, said Dr. Erika Brown of the Harris County Health Department.

[…]

New of the rise in viral levels in the wastewater comes days after researchers at Houston Methodist reported new insight into how the omicron variant is mutating in Houston and across Texas.

Researchers demonstrated that two dominant sublineages of omicron have developed “unprecedented numbers” of spike protein mutations, leading to increased transmissibility. The mutations also enhance its ability to evade vaccines and the immune system.

This is a press release about the study in question; it’s from late April, which I’d classify as more than “days” ago, but whatever. The COVID levels in our wastewater continue to rise, but if the hospitals are still not seeing an increase in patients, then the threat level will stay where it is. I don’t know how long we can maintain this balance, but I sure hope it continues.

That press release is worth a read:

“One of the surprising findings in this study was that many mutations with critical roles in immune escape in previous variants of SARS-CoV-2 do not play the same roles in immune escape in omicron, and, in some cases, the effects of these mutations are completely reversed,” said Gollihar, who is the head of antibody discovery and accelerated protein therapeutics in Houston Methodist’s Center for Infectious Diseases. “The virus also appears to be stabilizing itself to allow for more mutations to evade our immune systems.”

He said this study is the first to systematically dissect each of the omicron mutations across the entirety of the spike protein. Previous studies miss contextual and long-range interactions across the protein.

“We developed a comprehensive map showing various mechanisms of immune escape by omicron that allows us to identify which antibodies retain neutralization activity against the virus,” Gollihar said. “This and future work will enable clinicians to make informed decisions about the use of monoclonal antibody therapy and aid in the development of next-generation vaccines.”

Having this new information about key features of omicron’s spike protein mutations and how they synergize, Gollihar and his team say it’s possible that the continuing accumulation of mutations may set the stage for greatly altering the equilibrium and stability of the spike protein in a way that allows for new, more virulent strains to develop. Understanding this evolution is critical, they say, to better inform future therapeutic targets and vaccine formulations, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus will continue to evolve with new variants inevitably arising and spreading.

Looking forward, they add, the strategy used in this study also will be applicable to future zoonotic outbreaks and other microbial pathogens, providing a powerful platform for investigating evolutionary trajectories of infectious agents and engineering appropriate and adaptable vaccines.

“We will continue to monitor the virus for changes in the spike protein and add new antibodies to test as they are discovered. Continuing to do so will allow us to design better probes for antibody discovery in hopes of engineering new therapeutics by finding potent neutralizing antibodies across all variants,” Gollihar said. “We have also recently expanded the platform to other pathogens where we hope to stay ahead of other potential outbreaks.”

I’m in awe of the work these folks have done and continue to do – I’m speaking of the researchers worldwide, not just these specific ones. We’re in a constant race with this virus, and so far we’ve been able to keep up. As above, I sure hope that continues, too. Stace has more.

Yeah, we’re still talking about West 11th Street

We can’t help it, sorry.

When Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner assured concerned Heights residents he’d take “a closer look” at plans to reduce 11th Street to one lane in each direction, he likely didn’t expect a sightseeing tour to give him quite the earful.

Wednesday, Turner and a gaggle of city staff took a hour-long tour of 11th where city planners propose taking away a travel lane to improve safety along the street by slowing drivers and adding a separated bike lane in each direction.

Following close by, and often engaging Turner in sometimes contentious conversations, were supporters of the plan on bikes and residents highly skeptical of the proposal, which they say will bring gridlock to a needed local street and pour traffic onto smaller Heights area roads.

[…]

City planners concede traffic flow will be worsened, especially during peak commuting hours in the evening, but that is an acceptable trade-off for a slower, safer street.

It’s not a trade local residents opposed to the project are willing to make. Occasionally sparring with cyclists along for the tour, critics said the city is using specious information about the traffic patterns and crashes to force bike lanes onto the street. With an efficient 11th that acts as a major street, traffic will flood onto nearby streets, making the neighborhood as a whole less safe.

“If they are going to speed here, they are going to speed on our interior streets,” said resident Shayne Stinson, pointing at 11th.

Stinson said much less drastic improvements could make the street safer without sacrificing traffic flow. Along with a safe crossing at Nicholson for bike trail users, he said better signal timing and left turn arrows can better solve the issue. Much of the safety challenge, he said the city’s own data suggests, is at major intersections such as Shepherd and Heights — not along 11th itself.

City officials, however, say the speed on 11th will remain the problem, whether or not left green arrows go in at major streets, or lights added at Nicholson and the bike trail. The way to avoid high speeds is to force passing cars into a single file line and limit turns so the fast lane becomes a thing of the past.

Advocates and pedestrians welcomed the proposed changes.

“When I cross the street sometimes I have to run fast,” said Eduardo Gonzalez, 20, who attends a nearby school.

As a Metropolitan Transit Authority rider, Gonzalez told Turner he supported anything that improved pedestrian access.

See here, here, and here for some background. At this point I feel like I’ve read the same story multiple times, about the city’s plan and the opposition from some folks. I would like to know three things:

1. How big is the opposition to this plan? Last time, I observed that the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage that was listed on their printouts just redirected to a Change.org petition. Now it redirects to this Alliance for Reasonable Traffic Solutions webpage, but that tells me nothing about who is behind the organization. The About Us page doesn’t list a single name or other organization, though they do say they are “an organization made up of a group of Houston & Heights business and home owners who have come together to ensure the safety of cyclists and automobile drivers on the roads of Houston”. The Contact Us page is just a webform, with no street address or email address or phone number or contact name.

I’m not looking to out anyone who’d rather remain anonymous, but I would like to know who a spokesperson is, at the very least. The “about us” page mentions researchers, journalists, civil engineers, and more among its membership, without any way to vet those claims. I would say it all feels extremely astroturf-y to me, except that there are people with their signs in their yards so someone must have a hand in this. And, petty though this may sound, the website is rife with spelling and grammar errors, which actually lends credence to the grassroots claim, since a pro group would have done a better job proofreading the site. Whoever it is, they really don’t like bike lanes. I would like to know who they are.

Oh, and this is in the page source, between “title” tags: “Beyoutiful Anti Aging Studio”. If you open the thehoustonarts.com webpage and hover your mouse over the browser tab, you’ll see that name appear. If you google that, you get a Heights business on 13th Street, which I now realize I’ve driven past a million times on my way to and from Heights High School. Maybe that answers my question.

2. Whoever “ARTS” is, what is their ultimate goal? To completely defeat this plan for 11th Street and maintain the existing street exactly as it is? Or to effect some changes to the plan? If the latter, what do they consider acceptable and unacceptable? I’m an advocate for the city’s plan, but maybe if they’re not going for the maximalist position they have some ideas that I might be open to. (There’s nothing remotely specific on the webpage.) Maybe I’m vastly overestimating who “ARTS” speaks for, but again I see their signs in people’s yards and in front of businesses. They’re far from ubiquitous, but they’re there. So what do they want? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

3. The one concrete suggestion I have seen from opponents who have been quoted in these stories is a traffic signal at Nicholson, where the Heights bike trail crosses West 11th. I realize we’re three years into this project and the design phase is over, but what effect would just this have on current traffic? Is there a more minimal plan that might achieve enough safety gains while addressing the concerns of the opposition? Note that I’m not really interested in this – I think the plan as is will be fine – but in the name of fully exploring this, I’d want to know. If I’ve underestimated the opposition (I will note again that as far as I’m aware no elected official who represents the area has expressed any concerns, which tells me a lot) I’d like to be able to weight my possible fallback positions.

Checking in again on the wastewater

COVID levels keep creeping up.

After the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 hit 1 million deaths on Monday, new data shows numbers on the rise again.

The latest Houston Health Department wastewater results from May 9 show levels are now higher than they were in July of 2020.

The viral load on May 9 was 127 percent higher in comparison to July 6, 2020.

The July 2020 readings serve as a baseline for wastewater testing, since that was during the summer surge of cases.

The positivity rate in Houston is also now at 8 percent. At the end of March, Houston’s wastewater positivity rate was 2 percent.

Since the results are delayed, levels are likely higher now.

Houston Methodist is also reporting a rise in cases over the last two weeks.

[…]

“We have also seen our first cases of BA.4 and BA.5, which we will continue to monitor, since literature suggests these variants escape immunity from previous Omicron infection,” [Dr. Wesley Long of Houston Methodist] tweeted. “Vaccines are still our best defense against COVID-19 along with masking and distancing.”

Long also says while the wastewater levels are nearly 30 percent higher than the July 2020 surge, that the public shouldn’t be fearful, but shouldn’t ignore the trend either.

“The bottom line is, the amount of virus in the community is going up,” Long said. “That’s one thing we know for sure. I wouldn’t be worried, but I would be paying attention.”

There was a story in the Sunday print edition of the Chron about the Houston wastewater tracking, with a byline from the NY Times, but I could not find it online. Note that this KHOU story reports on the May 9 virus level in two different ways, saying that the viral load is “127 percent higher” and also that it is “nearly 30 percent higher”. The latter is correct – the Houston COVID dashboard says that the COVID load is “127% in comparison to the July 2020 level”, which is to say up 27%. Pay attention in those math classes, people.

At this point, until there is a new type of vaccine, we have what we’re going to get. I heard on the CityCast Houston podcast that the vax level in Harris County is about 67%, which is better than it used to be but still too low to really slow things down. What we can do is whatever we can to get the unvaxxed people in our lives to get the shots, and we can get boosted – one if we’re under 50, two if we’re over. Get your kids boosted, which also very much means getting them vaxxed in the first place – only about 30% of kids in this range have had two shots, which is just madness to me. Wear your masks when in indoor public places again, and avoid needless indoor public gatherings. You have to take care of yourself now, so do it. Until it gets worse – and I still hope it won’t – this is the best you can do.

UPDATE: The May 16 numbers are now on the dashboard, and they show that we are at 170% of the July 6, 2020 level. Not great!

Uvalde

I don’t have anything clever or original to say about the horrible tragedy in Uvalde. There’s a vast amount of stories and heartbreaking photos out there, so go and look to the extent that your heart and mental health can endure. I’ll simply note a couple of stories that I think say more about Greg Abbott than any insult I could hurl at him, and the contrast with Beto O’Rourke speaks for itself. I will also co-sign this sentiment, which should serve as a reminder that no matter how little you think of Ted Cruz, he’s worse than that.

There are many things you can do in response to Tuesday’s massacre, and all of them involve getting enough people who have had enough to the polls to throw out the callous nihilists who just don’t care about children being murdered on the regular. There’s also one thing you can do right now that may yield a more immediate effect:

I should note that it’s not clear to me that the city can cancel this convention. There’s a contract that was signed and it spells out the conditions under which one party or the other can back out – I’m not sure what grounds the city would cite. I do know there would be a lawsuit; as you may recall there was one filed in 2020 over the Republican convention in Houston, which the city canceled due to COVID; in the end a federal judge allowed it to happen for sketchy reasons. The city prevailed initially in the state lawsuit but that ruling was vacated earlier this year by the 14th Court of Appeals and the Texas GOP has re-filed its suit. They still may lose, but they’re not done yet, and if the city loses it could be quite costly.

Which doesn’t mean you can’t demand the city find a way to do this anyway. And for sure, you can make sure every one of the ghouls that shows up for that atrocity feels unwelcome while they’re here. I’m just compelled to point this stuff out, it’s what I do. The Chron has more on the planned protest activity. Now go take action and make some good trouble.

UPDATE: Mayor Turner has specifically mentioned the possibility of lawsuits if the city were to cancel the contract with the NRA for its convention. There’s still plenty we can do to make their time here as unpleasant as possible.

2022 Kinder Houston Area Survey

Lots of optimism in here.

Dr. Stephen Klineberg’s final survey of the Houston area leaves him with hope. Yes, residents are concerned about the economy and crime, and their mental health has not improved even as the COVID-19 pandemic has begun to wane, but it’s not all doom and gloom, according to the 2022 Kinder Houston Area Survey released Tuesday.

Shifting attitudes toward public education, diversity and Houston’s place in America’s growth, in particular, give Klineberg reason for optimism — and if there’s anyone here who can claim to be an expert on Houston’s population, it’s the man who has annually written the most comprehensive report on the city’s residents since the survey’s inception in 1981.

“It’s hard to be pessimistic over the long haul in Houston because there’s just so many things happening in Houston. Whatever you’re passionate about or whatever you care about, there’s wonderful things happening in the city, and a population that really cares about Houston and wants it to succeed,” Klineberg said.

Still, there’s no denying that Houstonians have real concerns about the state of the city. Twenty-eight percent of the survey’s 1,958 randomly selected respondents said that the economy was their biggest concern, and crime closely followed with 25 percent.

The pandemic also left lasting scars on residents’ mental health. Seventy-six percent of respondents said that their stress and anxiety have increased, and 57 percent reported feeling increasingly lonely and isolated since the pandemic started over two years ago.

[…]

Nearly two-thirds of Houston-area residents said they support a person’s right to an abortion for any reason, and more than 90 percent said they support it if the person’s health is endangered by the pregnancy.

Klineberg was glad to see, for the first time since the survey began, that a majority of non-Hispanic white people, 51 percent, agree that people of color don’t have the same opportunities as them — a 15 percent rise since 2020. Fifty-seven percent of Hispanic people now agree with that statement, and 17 percent of Black people.

“For the first time over the years of the surveys, majorities in all three of Houston’s largest ethnic communities now agree in acknowledging the racial inequities in access to economic opportunity in American society today,” the report states.

The survey later adds that “area residents of all ethnicities have been giving increasingly positive evaluations to relations among the ethnic communities, and they are more likely than ever before to say that they have close personal friends across the ethnic divides.”

That’s especially important in Houston, says Klineberg, because U.S. census projections show that the rest of the country will mirror Harris County’s racially diverse demographic in the coming decades, according to the report.

“Houston is called upon to be a model for the rest of the nation, to take the lead in building something that has never existed before in human history—a truly successful, inclusive, equitable, and united multiethnic society, comprising virtually all the peoples, all the ethnicities, all the religions of the world, gathered here, in this one remarkable place,” the report states.

Among its most notable finds, for Klineberg, was a big jump in the percentage of people who support “significantly more money” for public schools, up to 67 percent from 55 percent in 2020. In 1995, that number was just 41 percent.

The steady rise in support for education funding signals to Klineberg that Houstonians may be moving away from the industrial mindset during the oil and gas boom of the 1960s and 1970s — when loose regulations, free enterprise and low taxes helped wealthy businessmen flourish, but left many others behind.

“Area residents, who have traditionally been opposed to government intervention of almost any sort, appear to be rethinking their basic assumptions about the nature and causes of poverty in America,” the report states.

See here for what I had on the 2020 Survey. I must have missed the 2021 Survey but I’ve blogged about several others in the past: 2013, 2016, 2017, and 2019. The Kinder HAS page is here, and I recommend you peruse it when you get a minute. As the story notes, Dr. Stephen Klineberg is retiring from Rice after doing this survey work for 40 years, which has been a huge boon for all of us. There’s a nice retrospective of his work here. Enjoy!

We’re still talking about West 11th Street

My neighborhood sure can monopolize the discussion. Sorry about that.

A discussion planned to laud Houston’s efforts to expand bicycling access Thursday turned into a debate on the merits of a two-mile stretch of 11th Street.

The city’s plan to reduce 11th to one lane in each direction from Shepherd to Studewood — cheered by cyclists — has faced late opposition as construction nears. Residents concerned over the traffic impacts of taking away an automobile lane and the benefits of adding protected bicycle lanes used a scheduled discussion about the city’s bike lane progress to reiterate their concerns to City Council’s transportation, technology and infrastructure committee.

Critic Ann Derryberry, who lives near 11th, said numerous residents have raised alarms, concerned that adding bike lanes will force residents to sit in heavy traffic longer, re-route cars onto nearby residential streets, complicate deliveries for area businesses and lead to little safety benefit for cyclists.

“You say it is a protected lane, but it will be mostly painted because of all the driveways and alleys,” Derryberry told council members and their staff, noting the need to paint green warnings where cars and turns will turn across the lane.

Rather than reduce and slow traffic, critics of the plan said the city should commit to cycling and safety improvements elsewhere, and perhaps add a signal at 11th and Nicholson where the Heights Hike and Bike Trail crosses.

Cyclists and safety advocates argue that diverting attention from 11th would be ignoring that the street is the problem and speeds along it are what make traveling by car, bike or foot unsafe.

“Houston has prioritized cars for decades,” said Kevin Strickland, a Heights resident active with various cycling and neighborhood groups. “We have a right to safe streets we are not getting.”

City planners, citing an average speed well above 40 mph — 10 mph over the limit — opted to narrow the street to one lane after three years of discussion with community groups and study. The single lane and a center median with dedicated turn lanes at some locations, planners say, will keep traffic speeds lower and provide room for adding protected bike lanes along 11th. Unlike the four-lane thoroughfare runners and cyclists dart across now, supporters said, narrowing the road also will allows safer crossings, and space at Nicholson to safely wait for oncoming traffic to pass.

To sort out some of the concerns, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he wanted to take “a closer look” at the project, convening stakeholders and city staff for a review. Turner did not indicate any change to the project is forthcoming, or that the delay would offset plans for construction to begin later this year.

See here and here for some background. I’ve noted the opposition to this before, and in the past week I’ve seen some new handouts for them – see here and here for what this latest one was saying. I looked at the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage, and it just redirects to a change.org petition. I’ve also noticed some road signs on 11th with the same information. I have no idea what is meant by the “eliminating turns from White Oak to Michaux” claim, as it makes no sense on its face and doesn’t appear anywhere I can find on the project page. The opposition to this is vocal and they have some organization, though I can’t tell how big they are. If there’s an organized effort in favor beyond what the BikeHouston folks are doing, I’m not currently aware of it. We’ll see what if anything comes out of this review by Mayor Turner, which I believe is supposed to take 30 days.

Missing In Harris County Day 2022

From the inbox:

For those with missing loved ones and those who would advocate for them, an annual event May 14th in Houston is the place to be for resources, awareness, and more.

May 14, 2022, is Missing in Harris County Day (MIHCD).  To celebrate and commemorate this occasion, local, state and national agencies with a mission to find missing persons ask you to attend Missing in Harris County Day on Saturday, May 14, from 10 AM to 3 PM at The Children’s Assessment Center, 2500 Bolsover Street, Houston, TX 77005. MIHCD’s mission is to help those with missing loved ones make connections that can help bring the missing home.

Families and friends of missing persons as well as interested members of the community are encouraged to attend the event to learn how to navigate the missing persons system. Agencies at the event to assist families and friends of missing persons include social service agencies and various missing persons networks, such as Texas Center for the Missing.

The event will feature:

  • Local law enforcement agencies accepting missing persons reports and updates from families of the missing
  • Trained DNA collection specialists collecting voluntary family reference DNA cheek swabs to upload into a national missing persons database
  • Bilingual guides assisting all attendees in the completion of a missing persons report or directing attendees to resources
  • Private roundtable discussion for family members with a missing loved one
  • Panel discussions addressing missing persons issues and more!

Families or friends should plan to bring information to the event for data entry or information updates in the national missing persons database, including:

  • Photos of the missing with identifying features (e.g., tattoos or birthmarks) or personal items (e.g., favorite earrings or shirt)
  • X-rays, dental or medical records
  • Police reports or other identifying documents that can be scanned and placed on file
  • Two biological relatives from the mother’s side of the missing loved one to voluntarily submit DNA samples, if desired

More information is available at: http://centerforthemissing.org/missing-in-harris-county-day/.

Attendees are welcome to wear memorial t-shirts and bring posters, photos, or literature to display to commemorate their missing loved ones on the “Wall of the Missing.” The “Wall of the Missing” is a centralized location at the event for all attendees to view missing persons information. Documents placed on the board will not be returned after the event.

About Missing in Harris County Day

Partners in the Missing in Harris County Day event include the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, Texas Center for the Missing, and The Children’s Assessment Center. Other collaborators and in-kind sponsors of the event include: Alexandria Lowitzer Recovery Fund, Alzheimer’s Association, CODIS, Consulate General of Mexico in Houston, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Doe Network, Galveston County Medical Examiner's Office, Harris County Community Services Department, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, NamUs – National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, Pasadena Police Department, Project Guardian, Project Lifesaver, Texas Equusearch, and TEXSAR Gulf Coast Division. Law enforcement connected to the event will not be checking for citizenship documentation or for arrest warrants.

See here for more. The event takes place on Saturday, May 14, at the The last MIHCD was in 2019; I’m sure you can guess what caused the interruption. The Harris County Institute for Forensic Sciences sent me all of the press information on this. There’s free parking available at the location, so drop by and learn something. Maybe you’ll have some information to impart, who knows.

Along those lines, the IFS also sent me this list of people who have died and are in the county morgue but have not been claimed by their next of kin. It may well be that their families don’t know what has happened to them, which is another way to be missing. If you know anything about any of these folks, call the IFS with what you know at 832-927-5000 – there’s a case number for each.

Ashby Highrise 2.0

It’s baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack!

Did you miss me?

Since a judge sided with developers of the so-called Ashby high-rise in 2016, the grassy lot at the center of one of the most closely watched land-use battles in Houston’s history has sat untouched, surrounded by chain-link fencing.

Now, the owners of the property are resurrecting efforts to build a high-rise residential tower at the corner of Bissonnet and Ashby Street near Rice University. They have brought in a new development team and a scaled-down version of the original plans they hope will win over neighbors who fiercely opposed the earlier iteration.

Hunt Companies of El Paso is partnering with Dallas-based StreetLights Residential to build a 20-story luxury apartment community called The Langley. They plan to break ground in November and complete construction by 2025. The tower is one story lower with 94 fewer units than a 2016 version of the project. The new proposal also features a smaller parking garage at three levels instead of five.

Fewer units mean fewer residents, which the developers hope will ease concerns over traffic on the two-lane streets surrounding the site — a key point of contention for the prior proposal.

[…]

When Buckhead Investment first announced a project in 2007, it quickly drew the ire of residents who argued a high-rise was out of character for the neighborhood. They worried about traffic congestion and plummeting property values.

The opposition sparked a yearlong battle to squash the project through protests and lawsuits in what became a symbol for fighting Houston’s lax zoning. Ultimately a judge sided with Buckhead in clearing the way for the developers to build.

But the legal win for developers came near the bottom of the 2014-to-2016 oil bust, which made it difficult to attract investors to Houston, and the property instead sat undeveloped.

Hunt Companies, however, didn’t shelve the project. The owners kept their original permits up-to-date with routine inspections and permit renewals every few months, said a spokeswoman for Houston Public Works Department. In a statement, the department said the city’s legal team would review an earlier agreement with the project owners to determine how the new proposal might be affected.

The developers have scheduled meetings with the city to determine next steps in the approval process, Meek said.

The prior project was “another developer, from another time. We’re the right developer for this and we’re excited to see The Langley come forth,” Meek said.

See here for all my previous blogging in this epic saga. The photo I’m using in this post, which I’ve used many times before, is of a sign that parodied the iconic and ubiquitous “Stop Ashby Highrise” signs from the height of that controversy. I took that picture in 2007, to give you some idea of the time span. As far as I can tell, the old stopashbyhighrise.org domain is kaput; there’s still a Facebook group whose last post was in 2013, and a #StopAshbyHighrise hashtag, which gave me a chuckle when I clicked on it:

Well, Big Tex Storage is mostly built now, so maybe that’s a positive omen for The Langley, which will always be on the Ashby site as far as I’m concerned. Will the neighborhood residents rise up against it? Will I be forced to undertake another decade-long blogging quest to document it? Tune in and find out. CultureMap has more.

Sunnyside Solar Farm

This is excellent.

Residents of Sunnyside, a historically Black neighborhood in south Houston where the city once ran its largest garbage incinerator, will soon realize a decades-long mission to rehabilitate the former landfill site.

City officials and residents gathered there on Friday to announce that state environmental regulators had approved plans to build Sunnyside Solar Farm, soon to be the nation’s largest urban solar farm, on the site.

The critical state permit will help the project secure financing and partner with energy companies to sell electricity generated by an array of 150,000 solar panels — enough to power 5,000 to 10,000 homes. Construction will begin early next year with plans to start operating by July 2023, city officials said.

City leaders and members of Congress touted the attention the renewable energy project would bring to Houston. The city would be an “epicenter of change” for solar power in urban areas, said Rep. Al Green, who touted a $750,000 federal grant for job training that would benefit the solar farm.

For community members like Renard Roy, however, the project represents a lifetime of tenacious effort by residents to overcome a legacy of discriminatory burdens followed by neglect.

If I’d heard of this before I’d forgotten about it. This Houstonia story from last year has a pretty good overview of what has happened in recent years with this project. You should read the rest of the Chron story I’m quoting from for the deeper history, which is as sad and disturbing as you might think. For this to be the end result of all that is remarkable and worth celebrating. I look forward to seeing the finished product.

Are we about to get more COVID in Houston?

We could be.

New data from the Texas Medical Center shows COVID-19 cases have leveled off over the past week, but some trends suggest the Greater Houston area could be on the verge of seeing higher virus spread.

TMC hospitals reported an average of 351 new cases per day during the week of April 18, the same number it reported during the previous seven-day period. The number of new cases does not include anyone who used an at-home test and did not report a positive result.

Those numbers represent a significant decline from last month, when the hospitals were reporting an average of 2,592 new cases per day.

However, the effective reproduction rate – or the average number of people who will be infected by someone with COVID – increased to 1.0 last week, up from 0.82 one week earlier. The rate essentially measures how well collective behaviors like wearing masks and social distancing are slowing the spread of the virus, with any rate higher than 1.0 meaning that spread is increasing.

The amount of virus being detected at the city of Houston’s wastewater treatment plants has also increased to the highest rate since Feb. 7, according to data from the Houston Health Department. Twenty-one of the city’s 39 wastewater treatment plants saw an increase in viral load in samples that were collected and analyzed April 18. By comparison, 16 plants saw in increase in samples collected and analyzed one week earlier.

The TMC’s weekly update also shows new hospitalizations have increased to an average of 59 admissions per day during the week of April 18, up from 42 the week before. TMC hospitals admitted an average of 89 new patients per day last month.

The data isn’t strongly conclusive, but it’s also early in what could be a trend, and as we know with this virus once you really start to see an uptick, it’s already too late. On the other hand, lots of people have COVID antibodies now, and that plus the number of vaxxed people who haven’t had COVID is probably enough to mitigate any crazy spread, or at least to make it less harmful, at this time. But of course there are still plenty of high-risk people out there, and lots of kids haven’t been vaxxed, and no one wants to get even a mild case of COVID. So, you know, stay cautious. You can still wear a mask even if you don’t have to, and you can get that second booster if you’re eligible. It’s never a bad idea to minimize your exposure to this thing. Stace has more.

Please don’t feed the ducks

Quack.

The City of Houston is asking residents who visit Hermann Park to stop feeding the ducks.

They said the population of domestic ducks has exploded and park workers think it’s because the ducks won’t leave because there’s too much food.

Families in Houston have enjoyed feeding the ducks at Hermann Park for decades. But now, the city says it needs to end.

“For many years people have been bringing bread to the park and feeding the ducks and families like to come and do that,” City of Houston natural resources manager Kelli Andracek said. “But it really has created some problems and the ducks are prolific breeders and the population has gotten a little bit out of control there.”

Not all of them are a problem, but…

“There’s really this one species that has this massive population at the park,” Andracek said.

That would be the muscovy.

They’re the ugly ducklings you see at the park … the ones with the warty-looking faces. The biggest of the bunch were bred for their meat and they’re not supposed to be here.

And they leave a mess.

“There’s duck feces all over the ground because there’s so many of them,” Andracek said.

Basically, the duck population is booming at Hermann Park, which as noted also means that the duck poop is piling up. Muscovy ducks, as we have observed before, are a non-native species that can cause problems in addition to excessive amounts of poop, which is what led to the city of Pearland authorizing more intense methods of dealing with them. (Absolute respect to the Chron headline writer who referred to that situation as a quackmire. Chef’s kiss, y’all.) The city of Houston is hoping that if people stop feeding these ducks, they’ll go away on their own.

Needless to say, some people ain’t having it.

[J]udging by social media responses to KHOU’s news report, it’s going to take a lot more than posted warnings to dissuade some people from the practice.

“All the fkn crime in the city and you’re worried about some ducks being fed!!! Smh,” commented one user on KHOU’s YouTube video of the duck report.

“Just let people take them home,” wrote another. “Free ducks!”

“I will feed the ducks any damn time I want,” wrote user Dave Smiling Coyote.

“These people just wanna ruin the fun!” commented Jerin Browder. “[I’m] going to keep feeding the ducks.”

Naturally, there’s been a conspiracy theory propagated on Nextdoor that has helped inflame the passions of the dedicated duck-feeders, because Nextdoor is the worst. I for one endorse the idea of these folks taking the ducks home with them, though. By all means, take that matter into your own hands.

New variants being detected

Got to keep an eye on that.

Two new omicron subvariants that health officials say are contributing to a COVID uptick in New York State have been identified in Houston, according to researchers at Houston Methodist.

Genome sequencing efforts within the hospital system have detected 83 cases of BA.2.12 and three cases of BA.2.12.1 — two sub-lineages of the dominant variant BA.2 — since the start of the year.

Local case numbers, however, are sitting at their lowest point in nearly a year, according to the Harris County Public Health COVID dashboard, which reports an average of 20 new cases per 100,000 people over the last seven days. That number was as high as 1,256 in mid-January, during the height of the omicron surge.

It’s a different story in New York, which has seen a 70 percent increase in new cases over the two weeks, from a daily average of 3,231 on March 13 to 5,467 on Thursday, according to the New York Times virus tracker.

[…]

Houston wastewater surveillance data show an increasing viral load at a growing number of the city’s treatment plants as of April 4, when samples were last collected.

The city’s wastewater dashboard shows 14 out of 39 total wastewater treatment plants experiencing an increase from the week before, compared to eight on March 28.

The wastewater data is here. As of April 4, the virus level was at 38% of where it was on July 6, 2020, which is the date when this collection project started and is used as the baseline. We’ll have to keep an eye on that of course, but we also have to consider infections versus hospitalizations and deaths. It makes sense to wear a mask in most indoor settings – I do, and plan to continue doing so for the foreseeable future – but it’s not clear yet that we need to do more than that. Other than get vaxxed and boosted, of course, which if you haven’t by now I don’t know what to say to you.

The UH wildlife cameras

I love stories like this.

A duck waddled between the trees of Glenwood Cemetery, not far from where four University of Houston students tied their camera to a trunk.

If the bird came closer to the lens, the device would detect a change of temperature or motion, and snap — start taking photos and providing the undergraduate research team with data. Their work Thursday marked the start of a monthlong survey of wildlife in Houston’s urban landscape, which is part of an ongoing study that has already yielded surprises for dozens of students and faculty at UH.

For instance: Bobcats live in the city limits. So do otters.

“I wasn’t aware of a lot of the animal populations that existed so close to the city,” UH biology senior Kaleb Barnes said at the cemetery, located just over a mile from downtown. “It’s kind of amazing, knowing how they’re able to inhabit the same space as us.”

Creating that awareness is Ann Cheek’s goal. And as leader of the project since it began in spring 2020, she helps students in three of her courses conduct the research and participate in the scientific method from start to finish, via planning, data collection, data analysis and presentations to local ecologists.

“There are lots of wild things living in the city,” said Cheek, an instructional professor of biology at UH. “It’s not just concrete and people.”

The research project, called “Hidden Life of Houston,” is a partnership between the university and the Memorial Park Conservancy. It feeds into a larger study led by the Urban Wildlife Information Network at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Conservation is the focus, with researchers attempting to discover what species live where and whether their appearances follow seasonal trends. Cheek’s teams share that information with Houston environmental groups and give their findings to the Urban Wildlife network, which seeks to determine whether certain species are inherently more common in cities or whether their locations are more isolated.

You can see more about the project here and their photos here. I hope they find a way to set up some cameras in some bayous as well, because I know there will be some spectacular finds there. Whatever the case, this is super cool and I hope they make a ton of discoveries.

More on Lambert Hall and Opera in the Heights

From the Chron, about the forthcoming sale of the Heights Christian Church and its effect on Opera in the Heights, which has long performed at Lambert Hall on the church’s property:

Photo by Djmaschek, Creative Commons license

“The whole reason someone had the idea to start an opera company in a converted sanctuary was because the hall has such wonderful acoustics,” says artistic director Eiki Isomura. “They thought of it as the perfect platform for artists and [a chance] to experience opera in a unique, small, intimate, powerful venue. It would be really hard to replace.”

The notice put Opera In the Heights in the awkward position of needing to plan its 2022-23 season without knowledge of where those performances might take place. Recent rehearsals have been prone to interruptions by prospective buyers touring the Heights Boulevard property, which has been listed for $5 million through the Greenwood King realty firm. (Heights Christian Church plans to merge with the West U-area First Christian Houston.)

“I wish we could wait a little longer because the chance that a buyer wins out who wants to see us stay is not zero, but we can’t wait,” says Isomura. “We have to book dates, we have to book venues. There’s just way too much happening here in town for us to just wait and see.”

Furthermore, “spaces are limited and our support base expects a certain type of opera experience: where it’s just small enough that you feel really connected to the action, and for there to be a decent-sized orchestra,” he adds.

What will most likely wind up happening, according to Isomura, is that Opera In the Heights will at least temporarily become a “nomadic” company, rotating between stages in the area as they become available. It’s early yet, but he’s been looking at two that bear certain similarities to Lambert Hall: the Sterling Stage at Stages’ Gordy theater, which offers both a cozy neighborhood vibe and close quarters with audiences; and Zilkha Hall inside Hobby Center, which would provide an orchestra pit and “feels intimate” despite its larger capacity and downtown location.

The company’s fate may well come down to how the performing arts fit into any potential buyer’s business plan, and Isomura reports there is some reason for optimism on that front. This past Saturday, Opera In the Heights held an open meeting and heard from several people who shared a wish “to keep and develop Lambert Hall as a resource to the community,” he notes.

See here for the background. The best solution would be for Opera in the Heights to continue using Lambert Hall, under whoever the new owner is. It’s a great fit of venue and artist, and it’s one of the things that makes The Heights what it is. But we know that’s not often how Houston operates. I wish Opera in the Heights the best of luck in getting settled for the new season and the longer term.

Here comes BA.2 in Houston

But don’t panic, it’s just a change in the virus composition, not an increase in viral load.

Houston is seeing an uptick in the number of BA.2 cases, with genome sequencing and wastewater testing picking up higher levels this week compared to last week.

The more contagious omicron subvariant was identified in 24 percent of patients who were sequenced at Houston Methodist, a jump from the 1 to 3 percent previously reported. BA.2 was also detected at six wastewater treatment plants on March 21 — the most recent day for which data is available — after the Houston Health Department last week said it had not been detected at any plants.

“Previously, we saw some indications of mutations consistent with BA.2 but were not confident in the determination at the time,” health department spokesman Scott Packard said in an email. “Retrospective analysis indicates BA.2 was likely in the wastewater in low levels starting in mid-to-late January.”

The recent data is the first indication of a significant rise in BA.2 in the Houston-area. Eventually, the subvariant is expected to become the dominant strain here, lining up with the nationwide rate, according to the health department.

[…]

In Houston, the average positivity rate over the last two weeks is 1.8 percent, down from the high 30s in the early January. Wastewater testing shows an increasing viral load at nine wastewater plants, while the remaining 30 are plateaued or decreasing.

“Although BA.2 appears to be more contagious than BA.1, the good news is that countries experiencing a spike in cases are not seeing a proportionate spikes in hospitalizations,” Packard said. “That means being up to date on vaccines (initial shots plus boosters) remains highly effective against serious illness, even with BA.2.”

As a reminder, you can see the Houston wastewater dashboard here. I don’t know how long we will be in this trough, but at least in the short term our vax level plus the sheer number of people who contracted the BA.1 version of omicron should help.

In the longer term, as immunity wanes and new variants pop up, it will be time for more shots. A fourth shot has now been authorized by the FDA for us old folks.

A second round of booster shots was greenlighted for everyone over the age of 50 by public health officials on Tuesday, kicking off the regulatory process for shots to likely be available in pharmacies this week.

Everyone 12 and older is already eligible for a booster shot five months after their initial vaccine series if they received an mRNA vaccine like Pfizer or Moderna, or two months after getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

But for those over 50, determined to be a vulnerable age group, officials at the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have decided the data on waning immunity justifies making another shot available four months after the first boost. And while anyone who meets that criteria can now get another booster, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said it was “especially important” for those 65 and older and those 50 and older with underlying medical conditions.

“This is especially important for those 65 and older and those 50 and older with underlying medical conditions that increase their risk for severe disease from COVID-19 as they are the most likely to benefit from receiving an additional booster dose at this time,” Walensky said in a statement on Tuesday.

My niece is getting married in June in Washington state. I expect all of us who will be there for it and who are eligible for that booster will have gotten it by then. I ain’t messing around.

More eating outdoors downtown

This is a good idea, and I’m glad it’s being continued.

DINING IN DOWNTOWN HOUSTON CAN be a hassle, what with the limited parking and COVD-19 restrictions affecting seating space at so many eateries. Fortunately, the city of Houston is helping to alleviate some of the restaurant seating issues by encouraging businesses to set up space outside on the street, through the program More Space: Main Street.

Downtown Houston lost about a dozen street-level bars and restaurants because of thinned-out crowds during the pandemic, according to the Downtown District. And the Texas Restaurant Association estimates that the state lost 9,000-10,000 restaurants since the start of the pandemic.

First announced in 2020, More Space: Main Street was created as a way to encourage social distancing. Now, the program has expanded another year, allowing restaurants to continue using makeshift patios that take up street space outside the restaurants. The program temporarily closes off select parts of a seven-block stretch of Main Street to automobile traffic to make it safe.

[…]

David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city, says the program has been a boon for Downtown businesses and city officials received positive feedback from the community. Closing off traffic to this vibrant section of Downtown, he says, has made “a more active and interesting Main Street.”

The program was slated to run until the end of this month, but after its latest evaluation by city officials 一 who found that the program’s participants saw an increase in revenue, and customer and employee retention 一 the Houston City Council voted for More Space: Main Street to be extended until 2023.

See here for the background, and here for the city’s More Space: Main Street page. As I said at the time, this makes a lot of sense to me. Houston is pretty amenable to outdoor dining most of the year, and with some added shade or portable heaters as needed it’s almost always viable. Why wouldn’t we want to take advantage of that? I’m at the point where I’d rather eat outside at most restaurants, and will likely continue to be that way well after COVID becomes part of the background. Kudos to the city for a little innovative thinking when it was really needed.

Iconic Heights church for sale

Some neighborhood news that has us all a little worried.

Photo by Djmaschek, Creative Commons license

Heights Christian Church, a community gathering place for more than a century, is selling its historic property and merging with another congregation.

Rev. Amber Mattingly, the pastor at the church at 1703 Heights Blvd., said Tuesday that dwindling membership and financial resources prompted church leaders to vote in early February to merge with First Christian Church, which operates across from Rice University at 1601 Sunset Blvd. Mattingly said the decision also was made to move out of the property on Heights Boulevard, which includes educational buildings as well as Lambert Hall, a 95-year-old performing arts venue that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The 42,600-square foot property, which covers the block between 17th and 18th streets on the west side of Heights Boulevard, was listed for sale about two weeks ago, according to Mattingly, who said the church brought in a grief counselor to help its 14 members cope with the development.

“Even though it was a good decision, there’s a lot to be mourned,” she said.

Leonard Wilkin, the board chair for Heights Christian Church, did not immediately respond to a Tuesday voicemail seeking comment. Mattingly said the leadership at the church, founded in 1912, intends to find a buyer that will continue to use the property in service to the community.

As for the fate of the tenants of the property, including a Spanish-speaking congregation, an art studio, a ballet studio and a nonprofit opera company, that remains unclear. Mattingly said the organizations that rent space at Heights Christian Church have been asked to vacate by the end of July.

Opera in the Heights, which has conducted performances at Lambert Hall since 1996, said in a statement released Friday that it is in “ongoing conversations with several venue operators in Houston to explore our options for next season.” The nonprofit opera company said it also is considering organizing a town hall meeting among its supporters, either in person or virtually, to discuss its next steps.

Lambert Hall is one of those places that makes the Heights what it is. We’re not regular opera-goers, but we’ve seen several Opera in the Height performances there. Both of our girls attended the Art on the Boulevard after school program with the delightful Miss Naomi for years – quite a few of the works they produced are still on display in our house. I don’t know what’s in store for this location, and I totally understand why the church, which suffered greatly during the pandemic, felt the need to do what it’s doing, but it’s hard to see this news and not feel a bit anxious about what comes next. I wish everyone involved all the best, and I hope that whoever buys this property has an appropriate amount of respect for it.

From “Be Someone” to “Vote or Die” to “No War Know Peace”

The latest version of Houston’s most widely seen public art/public forum.

Credit: Marie D. De Jesús/Staff photographer

Chandrika Metivier considers themselves fearless.

Two weeks ago, Metivier was taking a personal safety risk on a bridge above I-45, painting the words ‘No War Know Peace’ in protest of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine where the infamous “Be Someone” graffiti lived for years.

This is the third time the mid-twenty-year-old made the risky decision to change the sign and hopes that by claiming their name to the alteration, along with their recent viral TikTok moment, the Houston-based multidisciplinary artist will control the direction their artistic career will go.

“There’s probably no other way I wanted to emerge into the public eye,” Metivier said. “There have been opportunities to go in a very corporate industry route.”

“I never wanted that.”

Metivier has always been interested in grassroots organizing and calls to action, one of the reasons they first changed the ‘Be Someone’ graffiti to read ‘Vote or Die’ before the 2020 presidential election.

“I really just wanted to empower people to vote,” Metivier said. “I wanted it to be as neutral as possible but also enough to spark conversation. Something about using that slogan, which was coined by Diddy, gets the conversation going. And that’s exactly what happened.”

Metivier said they are fully aware of the risks of vandalizing the bridge. According to the Houston Police Department, the city does have a graffiti ordinance that treats the crime as a misdemeanor if the damage is less than $500, and a felony if damages are more than $500. A spokesperson for the Houston Police Department said that the legality of the ‘Be Someone’ bridge graffiti is tricky because the railway is owned by Union Pacific. The Chronicle reached out to Union Pacific about the graffiti but did not receive a response.

Aside from the legal ramifications, it’s also dangerous, from the painting process to getting there in the first place. “There’s like a two foot gap where the highway is. So you could fall,” Metivier said.

For Metivier, the point of painting messages like “No War Know Peace” is to make a difference.

“There have been times when there have been meaningless messages on the bridge,” Metivier said. “So I’m like, I’m gonna get my message up there because no one else is going to go up there and do it.”

The bridge in question is near where I live – I’ve driven under it a million times. In case you missed it, here’s Vote or Die from 2020. The original “Be Someone” message, which had been there for a long time and which was restored after the 2020 election, has been moved to a new location after being vandalized one time too many. You can see the artist’s Instagram post about the current message. I’m still hoping to read a story about how they get up their and actually do the painting. It’s obviously not for the faint of heart. Whatever the case, I salute you, Chandrika Metivier. Thank you for making Houston a more visually interesting and engaging place.

More on the 11th Street project

The Chron editorial board mostly approves of the city’s plans for 11th Street in the Heights.

Ever since Mayor Sylvester Turner unveiled his Vision Zero Action Plan — an ambitious program to end traffic fatalities by 2030 — the city has focused on priortizing pedestrians and bike lanes in the urban planning process.

The 11th Street redesign reflects these shifting values. We applaud Mayor Turner for pledging to move forward with this project, which will make the corridor safer and more accessible. Judging from all the new development along the nearby MKT trail, the project may boost local businesses. The hope is that in the long run, the city’s incremental approach to street redesign, while frustratingly slow to some advocates, will pay off as more of these projects move through the pipeline. The consequences of not proceeding with this redesign, and thus conceding to the car-centric philosophy that has dominated Houston’s urban planning for decades, will be devastating for the city’s long-term ambition of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

[…]

Local residents have voiced concerns that the changes to 11th Street could send traffic circling onto nearby streets. We share this concern, though slower speed limits and stop signs on those residential streets should mitigate traffic hazards somewhat. [David Fields, chief transportation planner for Houston,] is also bullish on a pilot program the city launched in Eastwood called Slow Streets, which has shown to have some effect on discouraging motorists from driving on local streets. At key intersections in this neighborhood, the city installed simple, movable barriers encouraging through-traffic to take alternate routes. Vehicles traveling to homes and businesses may continue to access these streets, along with all emergency vehicles, and no parking spaces were removed. Fields is pushing to expand the program citywide.

In the big picture, the 11th Street project does more than just fill a gap in the larger bike network; it will mean more people walking and biking around town, frequenting businesses whose clientele would otherwise be limited to the number of available parking spaces. The goal of street design should be to create a community, not just a throughput ferrying motorists from one destination to the next.

See here for some background, and another CityCast Houston podcast for further discussion. I don’t have a good feel for how strong or organized the opposition to this plan is. The comments left on the project information webpage are slightly more pro than con, not that that’s conclusive. I get a bit of a Richmond Rail vibe in that the most vocal opposition appears to be coming from some businesses on 11th and some homeowners near 11th who are worried about traffic diverting to their streets, but the rest of the area is in favor. I could be wrong about that, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about.

The big difference here is that unlike the Richmond battleground of yore, there’s no politician representing the area that I know of that has come out against the city’s plan. I don’t know what CM Karla Cisneros, State Reps. Penny Shaw and Christina Morales, or Sen. John Whitmire think about this, but I do know they’re not making like John Culberson back in the day. That makes a difference, both in that there’s no one in power that Mayor Turner or his representative on the project would need to respond to, and also because it suggests that there isn’t enough of a constituency in opposition for an elected official to have to heed. This could change – for sure, people in my neighborhood know how to make themselves heard – but until and unless I see such a thing, I’m going to consider this a strong favorite to move forward. Which it seems likely to do beginning in the summer.

How low can COVID go?

I feel like this is more a function of time and evolution than anything else, but we’ll see.

New coronavirus cases across the greater Houston area dropped to their lowest level in four months, new data showed Monday, just days after Harris County’s COVID threat level dropped to yellow, signaling the virus is not immediately threatening the capacity of the region’s healthcare system.

The demise of the omicron wave appeared all but complete in the latest numbers from the Texas Medical Center, which collectively admitted 77 new COVID-19 patients daily last week, down 63 percent since February.

Across the region, daily infection rates are now roughly equal to those recorded during the lull that followed the delta wave in late November, before the more contagious omicron variant swept the globe. The figures come as the remaining indoor mask mandates expire across the country and as Americans report feeling increasingly exhausted — or altogether fed up — with pandemic restrictions.

Around 430 people tested positive for COVID each day last week, down 80 percent from last month, Texas Medical Center reported Monday morning.

Houston-area deaths from COVID have plummeted in tandem with falling case counts in recent weeks. A total of 4,288 residents have died since the pandemic began.

The figures confirm Houston is in a period of low transmission. How long it will last is uncertain. Some experts, including Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist with UTHealth School of Public Health, consider omicron’s relatively milder disease a “lucky” happenstance that may not be repeated in future iterations of the virus.

Viral waves typically arrive about six months apart, meaning another surge could begin by summer.

Well, the next wave may already be underway in Europe, though at this point it remains to be seen if it will result in anything like what we have seen before. At some level, if we can get enough people vaxxed and boosted, then at least the next wave should not be as hard on the hospitals and the mortuaries. That’s the goal at this point, minimize the damage. You would hope that by now we’ve learned from our past experience.

The Rodeo is back

Gonna be interesting to see how different it is, if it’s different at all.

And this year, after a one-year hiatus, the rodeo again will be focused on preventing the spread of COVID-19, the virus that abruptly brought the rodeo to a halt nearly two years ago. Masks will be required on public transit to the rodeo’s grounds, where an abundance of hand-washing and sanitizing stations will be positioned throughout. Many concession stands will only accept credit or debit cards instead of cash, and air-filtration systems have been updated to maximize the fresh air flowing inside NRG Stadium and NRG Center.

As the record-breaking omicron surge subsides, rodeo organizers encourage people to follow health and safety guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends that people stay up-to-date on vaccinations and take precaution such as wearing masks in areas of high transmission. People who are feeling ill are encouraged to stay home. More than 100 people a day continue to die of COVID-19 in Texas, with most of those fatalities among the unvaccinated, figures show.

Still, with the pandemic approaching the two-year mark and nearly 64 percent of Texans age 5 and older vaccinated, health experts agree that it’s time for people to return to large events such as the rodeo.

“We are going to have to live with COVID for a while, and I believe that people should be able to establish a new ‘normal’ and enjoy their lives,” said Dr. M. Kristen Peek, interim dean of the school of public and population health at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. “The Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show is an important part of Houston that people go and enjoy — just do it safely.”

After reviewing the rodeo’s eight-page document containing its COVID health protocols, Peek said the added precautions “look appropriate.” She said she is looking forward to attending the rodeo with her family.

“We will definitely be masked,” she said.

[…]

Now, 66 percent of Harris County is vaccinated with at least the primary series of Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, according to Harris County Public Health. The recent wave likely boosted natural immunity, and the community is equipped to handle the event without a major risk, said Dr. Paul Klotman, president and CEO of Baylor College of Medicine.

“The rodeo is in a big venue, so there’s a lot of ventilation and a big space,” he said. “Relative to other gatherings, this one ought to be safer than others. And if you look at some of the (recent) football games, there haven’t been a lot of big outbreaks.”

Klotman and other experts added a word of caution: the pandemic is not over. Vulnerable populations, such as immunocompromised people, still face a heightened risk of severe illness if infected.

“I wouldn’t be going if I lived with somebody who is going through cancer chemotherapy,” stressed Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor.

See here for some background. I’m mostly okay with this, especially for the outdoor parts of the rodeo. We don’t currently have any plans to go to the fairgrounds, but we’re all vaxxed and boosted, we don’t have any immunocompromised people in our daily lives, and the risk being outdoors is fairly low. Honestly, taking the train to and from the event, which is the only way to go for me, feels a lot more risky just because the trains are always super full during Rodeo times. I’d feel more apprehensive about attending indoor events and the concerts, but if we did we’d be wearing our KN-95s, so it’s no more risky than some other things we’ve been doing. I don’t expect this to become a vector for infection, but by all means exercise as much caution as you want. Don’t go if you don’t feel good about it.

The 11th Street makeover

Gonna be interesting to see how this turns out.

A main thoroughfare through Houston’s Heights is the latest street where city officials are preparing for fewer car lanes, in an effort to consider more ways that people get around.

The plan by the city’s planning and public works departments is to transform 11th Street from two vehicle lanes in each direction to one, with bike lanes and occasional turn lanes.

The changes, which city officials argue will not severely impact drivers but will provide huge safety benefits, come as many communities struggle to improve sidewalks and smooth barriers to the use of bicycles and wheelchairs along roads while also providing capacity for cars. A recent plan for Broadway in San Antonio, for example, pitted city and state officials against one another last month over what is the best design for the street.

In Houston, while some have voiced skepticism, there is less political maneuvering as many concede changes are needed along some streets.

Convenient, safe options for walking, running or bicycling in the Heights all run into the same problem as local drivers: 11th Street.

Lined mostly by businesses between Shepherd and Studemont, the street acts as the main east-west road for the neighborhood. Other streets may cover some of the neighborhood, but 20th is the only other major roadway that runs the entire width, mostly straight, with few stops.

As a result, drivers on 11th tend to hit the gas.

“People drive way too fast,” said David Fields, chief transportation planner for Houston, noting average speeds on the street often top 40 mph.

For folks trying to cross at the Heights Hike and Bike Trail near Nicholson, that can pose problems.

“Never mind stopping, people speed up,” Scott Bottoms, 36, said as he waited to cross 11th Tuesday afternoon on his way back to his townhome.

[…]

Some of the biggest coming changes, however, will be at major intersections where the city is hoping to eliminate conflicts. Traffic along Yale is unaffected, but the planned street redo removes left turns at Heights, from all directions. The ensuing lack of left turns could send traffic circling onto nearby streets and force drivers familiar with the area to alter their habits.

Planners defend the decision as one that de-complicates common collision points in the neighborhood. Bike lanes, turning drivers, runners along the Heights Esplanade and proceeding traffic make for a variety of movements, which leads to confusion and close calls, although only a few dozen crashes in the past decade.

Fields said officials still are trying to resolve concerns about sending traffic onto side streets, but will not sacrifice significant safety gains for ease for drivers. The hope, he said, is to balance both, for all road users.

“When we can do something that checks all those boxes, then we think the community will embrace it,” he said.

That was from a couple of weeks ago. This opinion piece from last week addresses some of the issues that opponents have raised.

For starters, this is not a thrown-together plan the city is trying to sneak past neighborhood stakeholders. It’s part of the 5-year-old Houston Bike Plan and the more recent Vision Zero initiative, which aims to eliminate traffic fatalities in the city by the year 2030, and the city has provided traffic data that shows the street is more dangerous and prone to crashes than other roads with similar configurations.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, in a statement provided to The Leader on Wednesday afternoon, reiterated the city’s commitment to “making our streets safer for all” and said the 11th Street project is moving forward.

“(Eleventh Street) is a high-crash corridor with 10 percent more crashes than similar streets across the state,” Turner said. “After three years of significant engagement, including with the council members offices, Super Neighborhood and Houston Heights Association, incorporating perspectives from the community, we are moving towards final design to make 11th St. safer for all.”

The point of the project is to provide protections for cyclists and pedestrians – think moms pushing strollers along the Heights Hike-and-Bike Trail – and to slow down drivers on 11th who have a demonstrated history of driving too fast and making unsafe movements. Let’s not forget the No. 1 priority for the city employees working on this project, which is being funded with taxpayer money, is to keep people from getting killed or seriously injured.

And as I’ve reported during the last three years, Houston Public Works and the city’s Planning & Development Department have held multiple, regular public engagement sessions in which they’ve explained the project and its finer points to residents, businesses and property owners, giving them the opportunity to provide support or criticism as well as suggestions for improving the plan. The city’s planning and traffic engineers have heeded much of the feedback, too, making several tweaks and even broader changes, including during the last few months.

For example, residents did not like the idea of limiting left turns to only two intersections between North Shepherd Drive and Yale Street, because of concerns about increased cut-through traffic on residential side streets. So the city amended the plan and now intends to allow left turns at all but three intersections on that stretch of the project area, which extends east to Michaux Street and then south toward Stude Park.

[…]

[David Fields, the chief transportation planner with the city and the project co-leader,] refuted one of the big concerns expressed about the project, that a street that’s already busy with car and truck traffic will become overly congested. He said traffic counts show the proposed lane configuration will be more than adequate to move vehicles along 11th, even at peak hours. He also said the current four-lane, two-in-each direction setup would not even be on the table if the city were constructing a new 11th Street from scratch, because the traffic counts do not warrant that much lane capacity.

He also challenged the notion that bike lanes are not necessary because people do not frequently ride bikes along 11th, saying that cyclists did not ride along Houston’s bayous until bike lanes were added there. But now that infrastructure is regularly used.

To borrow a line from one of my favorite baseball movies, if you build it, they will come. And why would anyone come while it’s still too dangerous to ride bikes on 11th?

The 11th Street Bikeway is part of a broader initiative to make the city more bike-friendly and to reduce its reliance on automobiles and by extension, fossil fuels with byproducts that pollute the air. There’s a reason why Houston often has hazy-looking skies.

And this particular project will help provide further trail connectivity in the future, with it slated to link up with the bike lanes going in along Shepherd and Durham drives as well as along Interstate 10 in the southern part of the Heights.

See here for more on the project. I’ve noted the Shepherd/Durham plan to make the larger Heights area more bike and pedestrian friendly, which complements this one. The bike trail on Nicholson and the protected bike lanes on Heights Boulevard will also connect the 11th Street lanes to more existing bike infrastructure. That’s kind of the point.

Not everyone is on board with the idea, of course – you can see one example of such pushback in the embedded picture, which I took about two weeks ago. On this past Friday’s CityCast Houston podcast, Evan Mintz noted a similar meeting at Buchanan’s, a block away from Berryhill (both meetings were also noted in the second article). Evan also observed that the response to this project is basically split between the urbanists on Twitter, who love it, and the NextDoor crowd (however you would describe them) who very much do not. Yet another reason I’m glad I quit reading NextDoor all those years ago.

I’m a supporter of this project. Many people, myself included, drive way too fast on 11th Street. I’m not at all surprised that stretch of road is more crash-prone than average. I’m afraid of fatalities, because you do see pedestrians and bicyclists trying to cross the road, as well as other vehicles pulling into and out of parking lots and driveways along the way. For the most part, there’s not nearly enough traffic on West 11th to justify it having two lanes each way. I understand that some people get very upset whenever something comes along to challenge the notion of moving the maximum number of cars along at the maximum speed, but this is a neighborhood. It’s okay to want to let people traverse it by other means.

(If White Oak/6th Street went all the way through instead of truncating just past Yale, maybe this would be less contentious. West 11th is the main east-west route through the Heights, I get it. It still doesn’t have to be a speedway. Also, too, I’m old enough to remember when Heights Blvd was two lanes in each direction. We survived the change to its current one-car-lane-plus-one-bike-lane configuration, we’ll survive this.)

I suspect we’re in for a long battle, and it’s just a matter of time before I see a sign in front of a business somewhere advertising a website for the opposition. I will try to keep you updated on developments.

Et tu, H-GAC?

WTAF?

Houston is slated to get just 2 percent of the regional council’s $488 million tranche for storm mitigation, angering city leaders who say the city consistently has been shorted when it comes to the federal money.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional group made up of representatives from local governments, voted Tuesday to proceed with a funding plan that skirts Houston over the opposition of city officials. The plan still needs state and federal approval, along with a lengthy public comment period, before moving forward.

“This is not the end,” said At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who represents the city on the regional body.

[…]

The dispute centers on federal funding distributed after Harvey and other storms to help state and local governments finance infrastructure to mitigate the risk of future disasters. Last year, the Texas General Land Office announced Houston and Harris County would get none of an initial $1 billion funding round for communities. The agency later reversed course and said it would give Harris County a direct allotment of $750 million. The city is not slated to get any of that money. The city and county had expected to receive about half of the $4.3 billion in total funds, or $1 billion each.

H-GAC then removed Houston and other Harris County cities from its plans to distribute $488 million to local governments. Commissioners said those cities stand to benefit from the separate, $750 million GLO tranche. It is not clear, however, whether any of the money will reach the city’s coffers. The county faces a $900 million funding deficit for its bond program alone and is unlikely to send some of its money to the city, although it may work on joint projects.

“We’re basically penalizing Houston and other cities in Harris County because we might get some benefit from the Harris County money,” Alcorn said. “And we don’t know that yet.”

Houston, which makes up about 30 percent of the regional council’s population base, would get about $9 million under the regional council’s plan, or 1.9 percent.

Chuck Wemple, H-GAC’s executive director, said the board felt Houston would see some of the $750 million headed for the county. He emphasized that there will be time for public comment, and the plan is not yet final.

“I would offer that the complication we have before us today is a result of that $750 million allocation to the county, without any definition of what the expectation is for that money,” Wemple said. “That makes all of our jobs more difficult.”

As the story notes, Galveston and Fort Bend counties will combine to receive about $170 million. Houston had asked for $148 million, in line with its share of the total population in the H-GAC region, and it was voted down. Which means that the other ten counties – Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Liberty, Matagorda, Montgomery, Walker, Waller, and Wharton – get to split up the remaining $300 million. Pretty damn sweet deal for them.

Let’s be clear, that explanation given by Chuck Wemple is absolute self-serving caca. Let me count the ways:

1. Whatever portion of that $750 million that Harris County was given as a consolation prize by the GLO is still a lot less than what Houston as well as Harris County had requested. It doesn’t come close to meeting the need the city has.

2. While I fully expect some of that $750 million that Harris County is getting to be spent inside Houston, the city has no control over where and when it will get spent, and if Harris County decides that a greater portion of its need is outside the city’s boundaries, well, that’s just tough.

3. But even if the city hadn’t been screwed by the GLO, and both it and Harris County were being given a proper share of the relief funds, that still doesn’t make this right. Houston is a part of H-GAC – it’s right there in the name! – and any process that doesn’t allocate these funds in a rational and equitable manner is just wrong. This is not difficult, and the proposal made by CMs Alcorn and Plummer were eminently reasonable.

This is another screw job, and it’s even more disheartening coming from an agency whose entire mission is to serve this region. Part of the problem, as I understand it, is that H-GAC’s governing structure is more like the US Senate than the House, which means that Houston and Harris County get as much representation as the small counties. It’s not hard to see how that math works against us. This is the right response:

Turner, Houston’s chief recovery officer Stephen Costello and other council members also urged a revision, and Turner last week went so far as to question the city’s involvement in the council.

“We got zeroed out by the GLO, and it seems as though we are getting almost zeroed out by the H-GAC,” Turner said last week, when Alcorn broached the issue at City Council. “If they’re going to operate at the exclusion of the city of Houston, then the city of Houston needs to reevaluate its relationship with H-GAC going forward.”

What’s even the point of being in H-GAC if H-GAC is not going to serve Houston’s interests? If they don’t make this right then yeah, let’s get the hell out.

Chip your dogs and cats

It’s the law now in Houston.

The city now will now will require resident pet owners to get microchips for their dogs and cats, and will ban so-called ‘puppy mill’ breeders from providing animals to pet stores.

City Council voted unanimously [last] Wednesday to revise its animal code for the first time since 2014, including those changes and others to try to rein in overpopulation of animals on the city’s streets and in its shelter.

“For the most part, all of these changes were really supported by the animal welfare community, which is great,” said At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who helped craft the revisions.

Pet owners, already required to license pets with the city and prove they have been vaccinated against rabies, now will have to microchip them.

The chip will replace the city’s license and rabies tags and will make it easier to return lost animals to their owners, officials said. Animal control officers will be able to scan an animal’s microchip and return it to its owner without bringing it back to the shelter, easing the burden on that facility.

The city plans to focus on helping residents comply with the new rule initially, rather than concentrating on enforcement, officials said. Shelter employees will spend at least a year educating residents about the changes and providing opportunities to get the device installed before enforcing it. The city offers to install them for $15 and will announce details on future opportunities to do so, likely including chances to get the device for free.

Even when enforcement does begin, it likely will be limited. Many residents do not license their animals with the city and face little consequence, although they can face a fine if their animal runs away and winds up in the city shelter.

The benefit of this for you, the pet owner, is that if your dog or cat gets lost and is subsequently taken to a city of Houston shelter, they’ll be able to ID your pet and contact you to get it. Our dog is an indoor dog who always has his collar and tags on, but he’s been an escape artist in the past and we got him from a shelter after he got away from whoever had him before us. I expect to have a talk with our vet about getting him chipped at his next appointment. The benefit for the city is fewer animals at the shelters, which is a longstanding need. It’s a good idea all around.

The wastewater is once again in our favor

But there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

The latest samples of Houston’s flushed wastewater show diminishing traces of COVID-19 across the region — a promising sign that the highly contagious omicron variant is in retreat.

Hospital admissions are down. Fewer people are testing positive for the virus. And now, the amount of coronavirus in the sewage is falling at all but two Houston wastewater treatment plants. Samples taken from across the city show the virus is no longer proliferating as quickly as it was earlier in the omicron outbreak.

After rising to “unbelievable” heights with omicron’s arrival just weeks ago, the city’s viral load is now falling rapidly, said Loren Hopkins, chief environmental officer at the Houston Health Department.

The level of COVID present in the city’s sewage is now about one-third of that measured at the onset of the omicron peak in late December and early January.

“We had this huge rise to levels we had never seen before,” Hopkins said Wednesday afternoon. “It went up very fast and has been dropping very fast.”

But while the variant may be loosening its grip, levels of the virus remains high. According to sewage testing, there is about as much COVID circulating citywide now as there was during the post-holiday surge a year ago that sickened Houston residents by the thousands and overwhelmed area hospitals.

See here for more on the wastewater tracking project. This metric is in line with other data, but please note what that last paragraph says. I expect this trend to continue, but it’s not far enough down yet that if it were to hit a floor we’d be content with it. Please do continue taking all reasonable precautions. You can see that lovely COVID-in-the-wastewater dashboard here.

River Oaks Theater lives again

Wow.

The curtain is going up on a new era for the vacated River Oaks Theatre.

Kimco Realty, the Jericho, New York-based company that owns the River Oaks Shopping Center where the theater sits, announced Wednesday that the cinema will be re-opening as a showcase for art house and independent films operated by Sugar Land-based Star Cinema Grill, which has eight multiplexes in the Houston suburbs. No date has been set, but it may not open until the end of the year.

[…]

While the three-screen River Oaks is like nothing else in Star Cinema Grill’s cinematic portfolio — the company’s other theaters, such as the 10-screen Springwoods theater that opened in 2019, are sprawling, modern multiplexes located outside the Loop — Star Cinema Grill vice president of development Jason Ostrow says the plan is to keep the River Oaks as filmgoers remember it.

“Star Cinema Grill is a Top 10 blockbuster movie chain. We’re playing top 10 product, and that’s our business, and there’s not a lot of programming creativity that goes into that,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “This is going to be much more of what it was before, finding that specialty content, specialty events and live theater events in a mixed-use venue. Star Cinema Grill is more of the business side, and this will be more of the passion side.”

Star Cinema Grill president and CEO Omar Khan has a special fondness for the River Oaks, Ostrow said. “He’s a local Houstonian. His family has been in the movie theater business for a very, very long time,” he said. “So this is almost kind of like a legacy project for Omar, something that he can keep in his family and pass down, nurture and curate.”

Kimco, which bought out Weingarten last year, wants to turn the shopping center into a recreational destination.

“It’s a place where people on a Saturday will say, ‘Hey, let’s go to River Oaks.’ Not necessarily, ‘Let’s go to a movie’ or ‘Let’s go to this restaurant or that restaurant’ but ‘Let’s go to River Oaks,’” said Andrew Bell, Kimco’s vice-president of leasing. “We’re trying to do things that promote that going forward … (The theater) plays very well into what our overall vision is for River Oaks.”

Kimco, which has a 10-year lease with renewal options with Star Cinema Grill, never had plans to put another form of retail in the building or tear it down. “I never considered it not to be a theater,” said Bell, who grew up in Atlanta and remembers the fight to save the iconic Fox Theater in that city.

The River Oaks will remain a three-screen venue, though the remodeling will include new, larger seats that will probably lessen its capacity. “The decor will feel like you’re in 1930, but it’s going to feel very new and updated and fresh,” Ostrow said. “So we’re designing custom-made seats for this facility that are only going to be in River Oaks.”

The plan also includes a live stage. “We’re going to try to find some other uses within the space for other programming opportunities,” Ostrow said. “Those are all things that are still being hashed out, planned and investigated to what’s actually possible within that space.”

See here and here for the background. I had no idea any of this was in the works, so the story was quite a pleasant surprise. It wasn’t that the old theater had trouble drawing crowds, it was that Weingarten figured they could make more money doing something else on that spot. Which, to be fair, they almost certainly could have done. It will be interesting to see if new landlords Kimco continue to see this as a worthwhile venture even if it’s not as lucrative as it could be. But that (and where all the new people they want to attract will park if they have to drive there) is a problem for tomorrow. For today, celebrate the win. CultureMap and Sarah Gish have more.

Omicron on the decline in Houston

Some good news.

Omicron is receding in the Houston area, new data show, even as hospitals continue to feel the strain of January’s post-holiday bump in COVID-19 cases.

The region’s rate of transmission — a key metric used to gauge how likely an infected person is to spread the virus to others — fell for the third week in a row, health officials reported Monday, fueling hopes that omicron may be on its way out.

The COVID transmission rate across the Houston area was 0.74 last week, meaning the average person who had the virus gave it to one person or less, according to the Texas Medical Center. Spread has remained below 1.0 for two weeks, reflecting omicron’s loosening grip.

New hospital admissions also fell, an encouraging sign after an explosive surge that pushed Texas emergency rooms and intensive care units closer to capacity than at any time during the pandemic. About 2,300 people were hospitalized for COVID in the nine-county region around Houston on Sunday, down 20 percent from two weeks ago.

Houston averaged fewer positive COVID tests last week relative to the mid-January peak. Around 5,400 people tested positive for the virus each day in the greater Houston area, 60 percent as many as the previous week, when the region averaged 9,000 new cases daily, according to TMC data.

That’s good, and it’s consistent with other reporting. We could sure use a bit of a breather. That said, and as the story notes, hospital ICUs are near capacity, and there’s no reason to believe this wave will be the last wave. We still need to get a lot more people vaccinated and boosted. At least on that note, there’s a little more good news.

Earlier this month, Ipsos conducted surveys in Italy and France to gauge the support levels among the populations there for the tough new vaccination mandates that were just introduced. The polling firm shared the data exclusively with Fortune, and the findings surprised not only the pollsters, but also Fortune readers.

As a result, Fortune asked Ipsos to expand the survey to include four new countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia.

The findings were remarkably similar across all six countries. Among the general population, there’s wide support for compulsory vaccination rules. And even more startling, the ranks of unvaccinated see some merit in selective vaccination mandates. For example, there is overwhelming support for requiring teachers and health care workers to get vaccinated across all those polled. Requiring that private sector workers be vaccinated draws less support, but there’s still a majority in all but the U.K.

Even in the United States, where mandate battles have raged from state to state since the early days of the vaccination campaign, a majority of poll respondents are seemingly okay with rules requiring vaccination to enter workplaces, shops, and attend public events. This finding comes as courts across the country, and even the U.S. Supreme Court, strike down a variety of enforcement orders that would have required employees at large businesses get vaccinated, undergo weekly testing, or simply wear a mask.

But what continues to surprise pollsters the most is that the most strident blocs in each country—the unvaccinated—are showing signs that they, too, will go along with tougher measures in certain circumstances.

Call it a case of Omicron fatigue: This highly infectious variant is testing the resolve of even the most dogged anti-vaxxers, the pollsters find.

“They are definitely not a group of people that are hard-core sure they are right,” says Andrei Postoaca, CEO of Ipsos Digital. The data from these surveys tell him that there is probably one-quarter of the remaining unvaccinated who don’t fall into the strident “true believer” category. “More and more are willing to take a jab, are willing to accept a mandatory vaccination. So the question is: Step by step, will you get people to cross the line” and drop their opposition to vaccines and vaccine mandates?

“What I would say is clearly the vaccinated support a decision of mandatory vaccination. And a decent chunk of the unvaccinated in most countries also support it,” Postoaca adds.

The poll suggests that about 13% of unvaccinated Americans are planning to get their first COVID shot. That’s not a lot, but if it’s accurate it would raise the overall vaccination rate in the US by about four points, and that’s not nothing. Here’s hoping.

The Rodeo will (probably) happen

Assuming it all doesn’t go south from here.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Tuesday the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo should proceed as planned, citing a decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“It’s difficult to predict what things are going to look like in a month, but I’m very hopeful,” Hidalgo said. “I hesitate to say A-OK, because I know what our hospitals are facing.”

She did not rule out, however, shuttering the event for the third straight year if trends reverse.

Hidalgo returned the county to its highest virus threat level on Jan. 10, which urges the more than 1 million unvaccinated residents here to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others.

There is growing evidence that the omicron wave is waning in the Houston region. Virus hospitalizations have declined 8 percent since peaking on Jan. 18. Unlike previous surges, the Texas Medical Center has never exceeded its base ICU capacity while dealing with omicron.

Last year’s Rodeo was cancelled, and the 2020 Rodeo, which began just before COVID became a known threat here, ended early, though some argued at the time that decision took too long. Our current numbers are headed in the right direction and should be better in a couple more weeks. I doubt I’d be ready to attend actual Rodeo events or one of the concerts, as those are all indoors, but I expect that going to the fairgrounds for a day of outdoor activity ought to be fine. Especially, you know, if you’re vaxxed and boostered. Wearing a mask, at least when you’re in line and definitely when you’re getting food, would also be a good idea. Do what you think makes sense for your risk profile.

I repeat: We need to get more kids vaccinated

Come on, Houston.

In spite of the spread of the omicron variant, national COVID-19 vaccination rates for children ages 5-11 remain low. The same is true for children in Harris County, according to a Kaiser Health News analysis of CDC data.

Of Harris County’s children aged 5-11, only 18.2% of them are fully vaccinated; 22.2% have received one dose. Pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced the FDA authorization of their COVID-19 vaccine on October 29, 2021.

In Texas, most counties have low vaccination rates. Only 34 of Texas’ 254 counties have child vaccination rates above 10%.

When compared to other counties in the U.S. with child populations over 100,000 Harris County comes near the bottom of the list when ranked by vaccination rate.

At 13% fully vaccinated, Harris County’s child vaccination rate is barely higher than Dallas County’s (11%), lower than Bexar County’s (14%) and is about half of Travis County’s (26%).

That 18.2% cited appears to be a typo – according to both the embedded image in the story and the Kaiser Health News story, the actual figure is 12.8% for Harris. Half of what Travis County has done to this point, in other words. We have to do better than that.

And as a reminder why, there’s this.

Vaccines continued to provide strong protection against death from COVID-19 in December, even against the new omicron variant, according to state data released Friday.

Unvaccinated Texans were 16 times as likely to die from the virus in December, and were two times as likely to test positive for it. That gap has shrunk from the fall, likely due to omicron’s increased transmissibility.

The divide was most evident for Texans between 65 and 75 years old, who were 19 times more likely to die from COVID if they were unvaccinated. Nearly 80,000 COVID deaths have been reported in Texas since the pandemic began, the majority of them in 2021, when vaccines became available. Just under 1,600 deaths were reported to the state in December.

Yes, not being vaccinated is not the same risk for a 5-year-old as it is for a 75-year-old. But still, there are a lot more kids in the hospitals these days, and the little ones can certainly spread COVID to their elders. Get them their shots already.

Spare a thought for the nurses

And do everything you can to avoid getting COVID.

[Kristen McLaury, a nurse and unit manager at Methodist Hospital The Woodlands] treated one of the hospital’s first COVID patients and hasn’t stopped since. She now runs the respiratory unit, where she and her nurses have watched otherwise healthy young people gasping for breath. They’ve put countless people on oxygen, or taken them off life-support. They’ve had to comfort grieving families, and facilitate video calls so no one had to die alone.

She’s risked her own life on the frontlines for nearly two years, and now, watching these hospital beds fill up again, she just feels defeated. In Montgomery County, a conservative, wealthy suburban county northwest of Houston, only 53 percent of its more than 600,000 residents are vaccinated, which is among the lowest rates for Texas counties with populations exceeding 500,000. Less than 16 percent of residents have received a booster shot.

“I work 60 hours a week and I don’t see my child, I don’t see my husband, so that I can come and care for you while you yell at me because you’re upset that you have a disease that I told you how to prevent in the first place,” McLaury said.

As the unit manager, it’s McLaury’s job to keep morale up among the other nurses, a herculean task right now. Like every hospital across the country, they’re facing a nursing shortage, an increase in employee infections and a potentially terminal case of staff burnout.

As the omicron variant surges, Texas is on track to soon surpass its previous COVID hospitalization record, set in January 2021. Then, at least, there was the hope of vaccines on the horizon. Now, nurses like McLaury don’t see much hope at all.

From behind her Houston Astros mask and face shield, she begins to cry.

“It’s real, and maybe it might not be you [in the hospital], but it might be somebody else,” she said. “That compassion, I think, is just gone. The world has become so selfish.”

[…]

“Patients stay in the lobby for my entire shift,” said Meredith Moore, an emergency room nurse. “12 hours. It’s frustrating. It’s hard for them…and they get angry. It’s justified. But who receives that anger? Me.”

Moore has been a nurse for nine years and joined the emergency department here since soon after the hospital opened in 2017. She’s young and energetic, with expressive eyes that communicate exactly what she’s thinking — even behind a mask.

Before the pandemic, Moore loved the fast-paced environment and the feeling of helping people who really needed it. She was especially good at controlling her emotions, a requisite for this job.

“In the ER, you have a patient die on you and you have to go into your next room, and you have to act like nothing is wrong,” she said. “That has gotten more difficult as this has gone on.”

Last week, for the first time, she broke down and cried in the emergency room.

“I had five ambulances that had to have a bed…I had a patient that was circling the drain…I don’t have a nurse to take care of that patient,” she said. “That was the first time in two years I really felt helpless, because if one thing falls, if one person starts coding, it’s all over. It all goes up in flames.”

“I don’t think that people [know] unless you’re on this side,” she said. “I tell my family all the time. I’m glad you don’t know. But that’s a heavy burden to carry.”

The article started with a focus on one of the patients at Methodist Hospital The Woodlands, some unvaccinated dude who didn’t believe in the science of vaccines but was more than happy to trust the science of hospitals. I think we’ve heard enough from people like that. The rest is about the nurses and their experiences, and we need to be more aware of what they’re going through. Go read it.

Have we reached peak omicron?

I sure hope so (fingers crossed).

Omicron’s swift and sudden surge may have peaked, experts said Monday, but hospitals are likely to remain full in the coming weeks, with the highly contagious COVID-19 strain not expected to recede until March.

Two key metrics — transmission rate and wastewater tracking — indicate the variant may be loosening its grip on the Houston area.

Texas Medical Center records show positive case rates are declining. Around 9,000 people tested positive for COVID each day last week in the greater Houston area, down about 40 percent from the previous week, when the region averaged about 13,400 new cases daily, according to TMC data.

But hospitalizations and deaths lag behind new infections, so health care workers still have a challenging couple of weeks ahead, said Dr. David Persse, Houston’s chief medical officer. Intensive care units around Texas are at 92 percent capacity, among the highest levels recorded since the pandemic began.

“It appears that we may have hit a peak,” Persse said. “However, our numbers are still really really high. I hesitate for anyone hearing that we may have peaked to think that its over. It is far from over.”

[…]

Houston’s declining rate of transmission — a statistic used to gauge how likely an infected person is to spread their illness to others — offers some clues. The rate of transmission fell below 1.0 last week for the first time since mid-December, according to new TMC data. That means each infected Houstonian is spreading the virus to less than one other person.

The city’s wastewater offers another optimistic sign of omicron’s decline. The wastewater virus load last week was about half what it was in December, and appears to be falling precipitously from its all-time high recorded on Jan. 7, officials said.

As a reminder, the wastewater dashboard is here. It’s still high, but compare to January 3, and you’ll see how much better things look now. As noted, hospitalizations lag cases, and deaths lag hospitalizations, so while the number of people getting COVID may now be trending down, we’ll still see high levels of hospital bed usage, and a higher death rate for the time being. But at least there we can begin to see the end as well. Hang in there, and stay safe.