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Elsewhere in Houston

What’s going on with the Astrodome?

It’s on the back burner for now.

Still here

A $105 million county-approved plan to renovate and build parking at Houston’s most famous relic has been put on pause since the plan’s most prominent advocate, Republican Ed Emmett, lost his seat last fall to Democrat Lina Hidalgo.

Hidalgo, who took the reins as Harris County’s chief executive in January, said making progress on issues such as bail reform and flood control are more pressing than breathing new life into the Astrodome.

Work on the Astrodome has ground to a halt, and it’s not clear when — or if — the renovation plan spearheaded by Emmett will be picked back up again.

“There are no other updates or changes at this time, but the Astrodome is forever part of our history,” Hidalgo said in a written statement. “Right now, we are focused on transformational actions that will improve the daily lives of our residents.”

Hidalgo stressed that the county has boosted its flood control capacity, enhanced its environmental monitoring capability and fixed a broken bail-bond system.

“Until we can make sure that the Astrodome plan makes fiscal sense and makes sense for our community, no major steps will be taken with regard to the project,” she added.

[…]

Workers did complete some initial stages of Emmett’s plan, such as finishing the first phase of a program to strip asbestos from some parts of the stadium.

County officials finished drawings and specifications for the first phase of the restoration, but they shelved a meeting to present it to the state historical commission for approval.

The cost of that early work was just under $8 million. Most of that money — more than $6 million — went toward design and construction document fees. The asbestos program cost close to $2 million.

“In the future, we’ll come back and look at all of this,” said county engineer John Blount. “I understand people say, ‘Well, what about the Astrodome?’ No one’s forgotten about the Astrodome.”

The last update we had was before the election, so that’s about where we are now. It was clear from the way Judge Hidalgo campaigned that the Astrodome was not high on her list of priorities, so none of this is a surprise. I do think Commissioners Court will return to this in the next couple of years, but it’ll be on Judge Hidalgo’s timeline. If you’d prefer something else, I recommend attending a Commissioners Court meeting and airing your views there. The Press has more.

Good luck avoiding mosquitoes

You can’t stop them, you can only hope to contain them.

Living in an area with so many mosquitoes means local officials can’t just ignore them, right? Harris County tries to lower the number of bugs both by spraying and introducing natural predators. The county can’t eradicate them entirely, but it can try to control bugs that have tested positive for diseases like the West Nile virus.

In Harris County, the mosquito problem peaks during the late summer months.

“It spikes up August and September, when it’s high time for hurricane weather that may trigger mosquito breeding to occur,” said Eddie Miranda, a Harris County Public Health spokesman.

Public health trucks rumble through the streets, spraying low-dose pesticides like pyrethrin and malathion to poison mosquitoes. It doesn’t hurt humans to the same degree, although people sensitive to pesticides should go indoors when crews come around. Crews spray one or twice a week in some parts of Midtown, downtown and the Northside.

The county has an app (iOSAndroid) that lets residents enter a ZIP code and find out where spraying is planned. It also includes a digital form to request mosquito breeding site inspection.

There are also other new, natural strategies from county teams to eliminate the pests, such as introducing carnivorous plants and predator bugs to chew them up. Which is good, considering a recent study found a species of mosquitoes found in the South are laying eggs that are better able to survive winter months.

[…]

The New York Times’s Wirecutter has good options for mosquito repellants that aren’t meant to be applied to flesh. Top among their recommendations are Thermacell products, which release a scent-free vapor into the air and rids the immediate vicinity of mosquitoes.

You can spray and kill clouds of mosquitoes in your yard with pyrethrins spray, which targets the nervous system, but it won’t do much for repelling bugs. Citronella candles are also bunk — researchers have disproven the myth that the smell turns mosquitoes off.

Eliminate any still water that’s been outside your home for more than two days. Harris County Public Health recommends replacing the water in your pet’s bowls and birdbaths frequently to avoid mosquito larvae. Check flower pots, open barrels and toys as well.

Bugs need a cozy hiding place such as leaves clogging storm drains. The county recommends sweeping up the first signs of autumn to keep larvae from having a place to feed.

The story has more info about staying skeeter-free – wear long sleeves and long pants, always a delightful prospect in the Houston summer, and slather yourself with DEET – but do mind thosen prevention steps. The big guns around here include high tech traps, dragonflies and damselflies, and mutant mosquitoes. We’re playing the long game, y’all.

Party Boy bye-bye

Sad.

This October may be the last year the view south of I-10 across from the Heights is a giant orange pumpkin.

The property housing Party Boy at 1515 Studemont, where an inflatable pumpkin is displayed atop the building each Halloween, is up for sale.

The owner of the store, a go-to spot for spooky costumes and all manner of party supplies, is asking $10.5 million for the site, according to listing broker Jeff Trevino.

“It’s an icon and 300,000 cars drive past it every day,” said Trevino of Endurance Properties. “It has stayed high and dry through all of our high-water events.”

The store’s operations are housed in a two-story, 20,000-square-foot warehouse building and an adjacent 7,000-square-foot structure. The site is about 70,000 square feet — or 1.6 acres.

This area just west of downtown has been booming. Party Boy has become surrounded by new developments and construction.

“It is probably one of the last high-profile corners in that corridor that is open and ready to change hands,” Trevino said.

In addition to housing a haunted house that snarls up traffic on Studemont at I-10 every hear for about two months, they have a fantastic costume rental place in a separate building in the back end of the property. The story doesn’t say, but I sure hope that finds a new home.

A construction crew recently carved out what I assume is a couple of parking places in front of the lot. I don’t know if this is related to the forthcoming sale or not, but they’re there now. I’ve no doubt that the owners will make a ton on the sale, and I’m sure whatever rises in its ashes will be in high demand, but right now all I can think of is that once again the Heights is about to become a little less cool than it was before. Such is life.

One more thing:

You’re welcome.

The city bird of Houston

Let’s tackle a serious question, shall we?

Mike Mills/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Houston Audubon Society seeks your nomination for the Bird of Houston, a bird you believe symbolizes the spirit of our Bayou City.

Asking you to nominate the city’s emblematic bird is part Houston Audubon’s 50th anniversary and its enduring pride in the community’s natural beauty, amazing bird life, and extraordinary people.

So many birds to choose from. In a city with habitats as varied as woodlands, bayous, creeks, ponds, marshes, urban skyscrapers, and tree-lined neighborhoods, it’s not surprising that more than 300 species of birds could be present during any season of the year.

Not to mention perhaps six or more species of birds visiting your backyard birdfeeders.

I guess “mosquito” will not be accepted as an answer. My vote is in the embedded image, but if you have a more sensible idea, go here and tell the Audubon folks. You have until July 15, so don’t delay.

Astrodome song

A little bit of nostalgia for you today.

Misty air conditioned memories...

Like many of us, Bruce Robison has driven by the Astrodome and gotten emotional.

He is of that age — born in 1966, one year after the Dome opened — that gives him a genuine reverence for the Eighth Wonder of the World.

When he was young, Robison moved from boomtown Houston to small-town Bandera in the Hill Country. But as was the case with many Texans, the Astrodome still earned a special place in his heart.

Robison saw quarterbacks, left fielders, horses, bulls, motorcycles, demolition derby cars and monster trucks. He says he even saw what was touted as the biggest ape in the world at the Astrodome.

His father was at the Game of the Century between UH and UCLA. That game brought college basketball to a national audience and a huge stadium for the first time.

While most of us just wax nostalgic over the stadium that was once Houston’s claim to fame, Robison figured he should put his thoughts on wax.

Thus was born the song “Astrodome,” which the award-winning tunesmith has turned into an eye-catching video project.

The short film of the song is a unique blend of archival footage from the good ol’ days with clips from inside the Astrodome as it is now. Unique animation brings to life a place that has long been dead.

Here’s the video:

I’m not from here, and the Dome was hardly a novelty by the time I got here, but I still have my own fond memories of the place. But nothing lasts forever, and unlike most other retired stadia, the Dome will get a chance to have a second act. And we’ll always have our own remembrances of the place.

We’re still #4

We’ll probably be that for awhile.

According to the new report from the Greater Houston Partnership, the domestic population growth for the Houston region has slowed down over the last eight years. The report, which is based on population estimates data from the U.S. Census Bureau released this spring, cited factors such as the downturn of the oil and gas industry and Hurricane Harvey as reasons for the slump.

“At the current pace, Houston won’t overtake Chicago for another 25 years,” the GHP stated in a July 2019 Economy at a Glance report.

Another notable trend the report found is that international migration to the Houston region has outpaced domestic migration over the last eight years, meaning more U.S. residents are moving to Houston’s outskirts while immigrants are moving to the city.

[…]

One-third of the metro Houston population now lives outside of Harris County, according to the report. Harris County accounted for all of the negative losses in domestic migration for the region from 2016 through 2018 – more than 100,000 residents. No other Houston area county experienced a loss in domestic migration, according to the report.

In fact, domestic growth into Houston’s nine surrounding counties has picked up over the last decade. Fort Bend County was ranked as the nation’s No. 10 fastest growing county from 2010 to 2018; while Montgomery was ranked No. 18; Waller No. 41,; Chambers No. 52 and Brazoria No. 83, according to the report.

“Harris County, with two-thirds of the region’s population, captured only 56.3 percent of the region’s growth over the past eight years,” the report stated. “The suburban counties, with one-third of the region’s population, captured 43.8 percent of the growth.”

It doesn’t really matter when, or even if, Houston passes Chicago to become the third largest city in America. This isn’t a race, and there’s no winner or loser. Growth trends can change on a dime, too, so the same kind of report made in, say, 2024 might well give a very different timetable. What does matter is how we respond to and plan for the effect of these growth trends. What can and should the city of Houston do to attract migrants, and retain existing population? Remember, population is representation, which is to say political power. How can the region react and get on top of housing, transportation, and flood mitigation needs in a coordinated way? We’ve had decades of growth in the Katy Prairie area that have had all kinds of negative effects downstream. We can’t afford to continue that. Part of the challenge here is precisely that there isn’t much in the way of regional authority. Needs and solutions don’t end at county lines, so more and better cooperation is needed. These are the things we need to be thinking about and acting on.

Biking and breweries

Actually, this makes perfect sense.

This started off in the gray area between a good idea and a bad one. Two years ago, Jason Buhlman and Brian Kondrach got about 30 of their friends together for an afternoon of two-wheel tourism, in which they aimed to bike between as many breweries as possible in one day.

“At the time, there were only eight breweries that we could do inside the Loop,” Kondrach explains to a group of prospective riders on a sunny Saturday afternoon in late June. “It took us 14 hours. We were way too drunk. It was a mess.”

“A mess,” echoes Buhlman, who is standing just to the right of Kondrach, wearing a baseball T-shirt with the motto, “Wheels Down, Bottoms Up,” printed across his chest.

“So we put some rules on it,” Kondrach continues. “We made it so it was only 45 minutes at each stop – just one pint each, and then we move. And we added two breweries and did it again six month later.”

The ride was still fun. But much less … sloppy. And that’s when Buhlman and Kondrach realized that a curated version of this could potentially lay the groundwork for a business that could combine two of their loves: Craft beer and bicycles.

Then last May, their business, Tour de Brewery, was born. Rather than 10 breweries in an afternoon, they offer shorter tours in distinct pockets of the city, featuring about three breweries apiece.

[…]

Across Houston, breweries are becoming more bike-friendly. At Saint Arnold, a BCycle bike-share station opened earlier this Spring; there are plans to unveil one at 8th Wonder by the time the summer is through; and hopes of opening a third in Sawyer Yard, in close proximity to three breweries. And some of the city’s breweries are forming bike teams, and hosting bike crawls of their own. But as all this happens, it raises one big question: Should people hop on bikes after drinking?

“We’ve have people approach us and ask, ‘Why would you put a station at Saint Arnold or 8th Wonder?’” says Henry Morris, a spokesman at BCycle. “And the answer is, well, they have parking spaces. People drive there and drive back and they’re expected to be responsible. So if you take a bike share to a brewery and you have too much to drink, you should call an Uber home.”

That’s why the guys at Tour de Brewery emphasize that their outings are about discovering new beers.

“If you’re going to bike and drink, it’s important to remember that it’s a tasting experience,” says Jessica Green, director of development for Bike Houston, which is on track to add 50 miles of bike lanes to the city this year, including a stretch that will help cyclists close the gap between 8th Wonder and Saint Arnold. “Have one beer, and then ride. And the riding will help you metabolize the alcohol. But don’t drink more than a beer or two an hour, which is when you get into getting drunk.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these breweries are neighborhood institutions as much as anything else, in the spirit of the old corner bar. They draw their customers mostly from their nearby surroundings, not the wider region. Also, and especially for the breweries in the inner core, parking is at a premium. That’s a combination that incentivizes biking, on both sides. For sure, as the story notes, you should imbibe carefully if you do this. Honestly, though, the same would be true if you drove. So plan your route, pick your spots, maybe give Tour de Brewery a look, and enjoy your afternoon.

Downtown post office redevelopment update

Remember the big post office at the north end of downtown? It was sold a few years ago and slated for redevelopment, and after a few years that project is getting ready to get started.

Photo by Houston In Pics

Lovett Commercial, the Houston-based company that purchased the property in 2015, plans to keep the structure and, with the help of historic tax credits, transform it into a coworking, shopping and culinary destination with a concert venue, hotel and rooftop farm. The ambitious project, which will fill more than 550,000 square feet of space, will be called POST Houston.

“We envision a catalytic development that will create something very unique, not only from an adaptive reuse standpoint, but what POST will offer in terms of showcasing the talent and entrepreneurial spirit of Houston’s diverse population,” said Frank Liu, Lovett’s president.

The developer and architects on the project say it will reinvigorate this quieter, more industrial northern part of downtown. The site is near the corner of Franklin and Bagby, across Buffalo Bayou from the bulk of the city’s office and residential towers. The location may prove challenging in one sense, but it is also a benefit.

The site offers postcard views of the Houston skyline, which will be highlighted from a rooftop park with restaurants, shaded greenspaces and an organic farm.

“It’s a site where you feel like Houston is a really urban place. Standing on it you have a view of downtown, Houston feels so metropolitan,” said Jason Long, a partner with OMA, an international architecture partnership founded by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rem Koolhaas. The company is designing POST Houston, along with local firm Powers Brown Architecture.

[…]

By repurposing the 57-year-old building, a state historical landmark, Lovett was able to earn federal and state historic tax credits.

“Many residents of Houston have some sort of memory of the Barbara Jordan Post Office while it was in operation. Combining the building’s original Cold War-era design with modern architecture will make the building stand out for generations to come,” Frank Liu said in an email. “We’re breathing new life into an already iconic building and reintroducing it as a vibrant addition to Downtown.

The building was in use as a post office until 2014, when mail processing was consolidated into a north Houston facility. It was named after Barbara Jordan, a Houston native who was the first black woman from the South elected to Congress, and Lovett intends to incorporate some sort of monument to Jordan, who died in 1996, in the new design.

Lovett bought the property in 2015, a year after the city abandoned a bid to buy it as a potential new location for HPD headquarters and the municipal courts. As noted, the site was put up for sale in 2009, as part of a nationwide divestment of properties by the USPS. There’s been a lot of talk about what this place could be, now we’ll finally get to see what it will be. The story has some of those details, but I just want to see it for myself when it’s done.

Happy (bike) trails to you

Trails connecting to trails. It’s a beautiful thing.

With roughly four miles of new trail in the neighborhood along Sims Bayou and a electric transmission route, officials in southern Houston’s Five Corners District as well as park advocates said they expect a lot more running.

“It really is a milestone and I think it is going to open up all kinds of possibilities for us to complete the system and demonstrate that people will use these corridors,” said Beth White, CEO of Houston Parks Board, the nonprofit spearheading the Bayou Greenways 2020 effort.

The trail runs north of Sims Bayou for about 1.5 miles, parallel to Hiram Clarke Road to West Airport. The path, open to walkers, runners and bicyclists, runs along a CenterPoint Energy utility easement. A host of destinations, including three schools, and hundreds of single family homes are within 1,500 feet of the trail, the first in the city to run along a utility easement.

Perhaps more critically than what is along the route, is the connection it provides to the trail system along Sims Bayou, recently spruced up and expanded with nearly 2.6-mile segment featuring vibrant murals. The new portion runs from Heatherbrook Drive to Buffalo Speedway. Though unconnected to the rest of the trail system, the two southwest Houston segments offer some relief from on-road riding, and greatly expand the number of people who can easily and safely travel to Townwood Park near Orem and Buffalo Speedway without a car.

[…]

Getting even this short segment of utility easement trail open, however, has been a long journey. City and CenterPoint officials celebrated an agreement in 2014 that untied some of the thorny issues related to public use of the utility right of way. The deal even became the template for state legislation passed in 2017 allowing counties and municipalities to partner with companies for combined use trails along power line routes.

“In a built-up city you have to take advantage of every corridor that you can,” White said.

Then slight delays set in for the first trail, from working out the final language of cooperative agreements to planning and design approvals. By 2017, the connection still was just a blueprint.

The slow-going hasn’t dampened expectations for more connections, more miles of bayou and utility easement trails, providing more people easy access to trails, White said. The parks board remains on pace for its 2020 goal of 150 miles of trail along seven Houston bayous, she said.

I hadn’t realized it from the story, but looking at the map made me realize this is a connection to the Sim Bayou trail, using the utility easement so it’s still off the street. The original bill that allowed for bike trails on CenterPoint rights of way was passed in 2013, and the great thing about it is that these easements generally run north-south, while the bayous go more or less east-west. That would allow for a real connected network and a whole lot more of the region that could be safely biked off-road. I hope we hear about a lot more of these getting finished up soon.

Anadarko anxiety

We know how you feel, The Woodlands.

Occidental last month agreed to buy Anadarko for $38 billion, outbidding the much bigger oil company Chevron. The looming question is whether Oxy will maintain a presence in The Woodlands or move out entirely, relocating the Anadarko employees it opts to keep on the payroll to Oxy’s new headquarters in Houston’s Energy Corridor.

With Oxy under increased pressure to cut both costs and the massive debt it will take on to complete the acquisition, it’s a decent bet that layoffs are coming and Anadarko’s twin-towers headquarters — the tallest buildings between Houston and Dallas — could end up for sale. Oxy recently bought ConocoPhillips’ old headquarters in the Energy Corridor, a campus of low-rise buildings on 62 acres that can accommodate up to about 4,000 people, according to ConocoPhillips.

Oxy, which plans to relocate there from Greenway Plaza, could move its 2,000-plus employees and still have room to fit much of the Anadarko workforce if it sells The Woodlands property, appraised at about $12 million, but likely worth much more on the open market. Anadarko, which first moved to The Woodlands in 2002, is Montgomery County’s largest private employer with nearly 2,000 full-time, local workers.

“It’s a huge impact to have that many people working and living here,” said J.J. Hollie, president and chief executive of The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce. “Losing that would cause ripples we’d certainly feel.”

It’s not that long ago that Anadarko abandoned their office space in the Greenspoint area to move into that then-shiny new building in The Woodlands; they built a second tower a few years after that. Looks like we’ve come full circle. I’m not worried about The Woodlands – there needs to be a lot more businesses leaving town before they have anything to worry about – but I’ll feel bad for any small businesses that depend on Anadarko employees and will suffer in their absence. Sorry this may happen, y’all, but it’s the world we live in.

New fronts in the war on mosquitoes

Science marches on.

In the center of Anita Schiller’s dragonfly-ring-clad hand, a dragonfly nymph is scooting around.

The dedicated naturalist and entomologist is explaining how the insect (which is a water-dwelling dragonfly with gills before it grows wings) expels water from its posterior in a squirting fashion. She laughed and called it “fart propulsion.”

Schiller is leading a team of four from the Harris County Precinct 4’s Biological Control Initiative through a man-made flood control site at the corner of Spring Cypress Road and Telge Road. They are releasing dragonfly and damselfly nymphs into the water, along with carnivorous plants, to help reduce the infectious mosquito population.

“What we’re bringing in will help stack the deck against mosquitoes,” Schiller, director of the initiative, says. “Mosquito suppression is built into the design of the project.”

The Biological Control Initiative started in 2012 with a mission to “find native agents to benefit from the locally adapted phenotype” to counter the mosquito population.

So, what exactly does that mean?

The agency rears human-friendly biological agents, such as dragonflies, damselflies and carnivorous plants, in a lab to be released into the wild to control the blood-sucking and potentially diseased mosquitoes that afflict Southeast Texas year round.

Dragonflies are robust, while damselflies are more dainty-looking. But both are ferocious eaters as adults and gleaning eaters as nymphs.

Introducing native and naturally flood-resistant plants into wetlands and areas of unavoidable standing water gives a larger return-on-investment than just a pesticide approach, Schiller says. The plants also don’t require regular maintenance.

The initiative has also garnered attention for its introduction of “mosquito assassins” in the Houston area. These mosquitoes, which are typically larger than other native species, do not feed off humans and instead work to eliminate the dangerous mosquitoes, such as Asian tiger (Aedes albopictus), southern house (Culex quinquefasciatus) and yellow fever (Aedes aegypti) mosquito larvae.

As the story notes, Harris County is also using mosquito traps and mutant mosquitoes to control our skeeter population. It’s a big deal, because mosquitoes mean Zika, and standing water means mosquitoes. Do your part to combat the buzzing menace by emptying out whatever pots or containers you have in your yard that fill up with rainwater after a storm. The BCI will take it from there.

Saint Arnold’s silver anniversary

A very happy anniversary to them.

There is nothing particularly unique about the start-up story behind Saint Arnold. [Founder Brock] Wagner, 54, had been working as an investment banker when he decided to chuck the suit and tie and try to open up a brewery. It’s the same origin story repeated on what feels like a weekly basis here in Houston these days, as side-hustle brewers ditch their full-time corporate gigs to start small brew shops. This year alone has seen similar tales told at both True Anomaly Brewing and Walking Stick Brewing Co.

What sets Saint Arnold’s story apart is the fact that it’s been able to survive all these years, even through a long period during which the state of Texas had some of the nation’s most antiquated brewery laws. When Wagner sold his first keg of beer on June 9, 1994, it was illegal to sell beer on-site. Or offer tours. He had to rely on sales at bars, but he wasn’t even allowed to promote those.

“The laws in Texas made it so the chances are, you weren’t going to survive,” he says now. “And that is why we’re the oldest craft brewery in Texas. It’s not because we were first. We weren’t. It’s because we outlasted everyone else.”

[…]

“There was a time, in about 1995 or 1996, that there were actually a lot of brew pubs in Houston. And every single one of them failed,” Wagner says. “We’d get together every month at our locations, and we’d share information and drink beers together. Then that went away for the longest time because if you were going to have a Houston craft brewers’ meeting, it would be me sitting at a bar by myself.”

He blames the laws, among other things. So he split his focus. Wagner began lobbying the Legislature to loosen up the arcane laws, nabbing a huge victory in 2013, when brewers won the right to sell beer on premises. At the same time, the brewery doubled down on consistency of beer and quality. Wagner pushed his brewers to make sure each new recipe met two criteria: It made you want to order a second, and it had some sort of “wow factor” — maybe extra-dry hops, a rush of citrus — that set it apart from other beers already on the market.

But what really enabled Saint Arnold to shift gears from surviving to thriving, as it now produces 70,000 barrels a year, Wagner says, is the idea that the brewery belonged to more than just him.

I’ve been a fan and customer of Saint Arnold since the days at the old location off 290 when tours were still free and the line to get in wasn’t that long. (Heck, I had my 40th birthday party at the old location.) The current location north of downtown is a gem, and I love that Brock Wagner supports other breweries, especially those opened by former employees of his. Craft breweries belong to neighborhoods, and there’s plenty of room for more of them in our ginormous metropolitan area. They should all hope to be as good, and as consequential, as Saint Arnold. Cheers, y’all.

Houston’s up-and-down population growth

It was up and now it’s down.

San Antonio gained 24,208 residents between July 1, 2016, and July 1, 2017, annual population estimates just released by the federal agency show. That amounts to an average of 66 people per day, the Census Bureau said.

The surge pushed the city’s population above 1.5 million for the first time. That marks an increase of almost 185,000 people in the city limits since the 2010 census.

San Antonio remains the seventh-largest city in the country. Its latest population estimate is 1,511,946.

[…]

By contrast, growth in Houston, which just a few years ago seemed poised to take over Chicago’s position as the third-largest city in the U.S., has hit a snag with fewer and fewer people moving there.

Houston added just over 8,000 residents, placing it seventh in growth among other Texas cities like Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas and San Antonio.

For five consecutive years from 2011 to 2015, Houston remained in the top three cities that had added the most people. But now the Bayou City — known for its sprawl and elastic economy — has fallen behind a trend that began in 2016 when Houston first showed signs of slowing down. The city recorded four consecutive years of averaging more than 30,000 new residents between 2011 and 2015.

[Texas State Demographer Lloyd] Potter says the substantial change in Houston growth is perplexing.

No demographic breakdown is available for the city population data just released, so there’s no way to know the ages, races, ethnicities or genders of San Antonio’s or Houston’s newest residents.

Couple things here. These are estimates based on available data, not on a count. They’re usually pretty good, but they’re not the official Census totals like what we will get next year, and they can be off by some amount. This is one reason why getting the most thorough and accurate count we can is so important, because every resident we overlook results in lost resources for the city. There’s no obvious reason for the deceleration – it could be just a blip – and it’s too soon to call it a trend, but it definitely bears watching.

Because, of course, Houston’s population growth affects its finances in more ways than just Census apportionments. The dumb and arbitrary formula used in the revenue cap combines population growth and inflation rate to set a limit on how much of a revenue increase the city is allowed to have. It doesn’t matter if new things are being built and old things are being renovated and upgraded, either we fall below the limit set by this number cooked up by the likes of Paul Bettencourt and Bruce Hotze or we are forced to throw away a few million dollars via a property tax rate cut that no one will notice. The whole point of the revenue cap is to constrain the city’s ability to provide services. It’s stupid policy pushed by people who did not and do not have Houston’s best interests at heart. And it has us stuck hoping this slowdown in population growth is just an aberration, because it will increase the pressure on our city finances if it is not.

Kinder Houston Area Survey 2019

It’s one of the best things about Houston, year after year.

As Houston recovered from last week’s punishing rains, Rice University researchers reported Monday that public concern about flooding has diminished, while residents are ambivalent about certain policies aimed at easing the problem.

Researchers compiling the Kinder Houston Area Survey asked residents what they considered Houston’s biggest problem, and the share who named flooding this year fell to 7 percent from 15 percent last year. Only 1 percent cited flooding as the top problem in 2017, before Hurricane Harvey deluged the state with unprecedented amounts of rain.

Typical of human nature, the preoccupation with flooding fell with time, survey author Stephen Klineberg said. In each of the past three years, the most commonly cited top problem facing the Houston area was traffic, a frustration that residents confront daily.

“It is fair to say that the salience, the preoccupation with flooding, has gone down,” Klineberg said, “because it’s been a year and a half since Harvey.”

[…]

The 2019 results generally paint a portrait of an increasingly accepting and liberal place. The local economy is more stable. We are embracing our diversity.

But it also points to pressing problems: Financial insecurity, a failing education system and a shrinking determination to face flooding head-on. “The big story overall is the jury is out on Houston,” Klineberg said. “We understand better than we have before the challenges that we face.”

The city’s future, he says, hinges on the solutions in which area leaders invest.

[…]

Other findings: Support for immigration and gay rights continues to grow. So does the percentage of those who say they are friends with people of different ethnicities.

Klineberg’s big concerns include what he sees as the education system’s failure to prepare students to work. Jobs increasingly require a post-secondary education, he writes, and fewer Harris County residents are achieving this goal.

The survey shows that area residents, especially African American and Hispanic respondents, recognize this need for further education. And unlike in the past, more people than not think schools need more money — something Klineberg says is “a powerful kind of transformation.”

Financial insecurity is another concern. Nearly four in 10 reported that they did not have $400 in savings for an emergency. One-fourth said they did not have health insurance.

The city’s diversity and its challenges with education and jobs are likely to ripple across the country, in Klineberg’s view. “We’re there first,” he said. “We are a model for what is going to happen across all of America.”

The finding that support for various flood mitigation proposals has waned is the topline attention-getter, but it doesn’t surprise me that much. Not because I’m cynical, but because these things are hard to do. No one makes foundational changes without resistance and reluctance and false starts. People are going to be ambivalent and have buyer’s remorse. The best thing to do is to do things that will have the greatest positive impact, and ride it out till people get acclimated to it. That’s just life. As for everything else, there’s a ton to read on the general Houston Area Survey page and the 2019 Houston Area Survey page. Check ’em out.

Missing In Harris County Day

I had no idea this was a thing.

Last year, 40,175 children were reported missing in Texas (over 9,600 of these from the Greater Houston area). And while many of these cases ended up solved, as of December 31, 8,360 missing persons cases (children and adult) remain open in the state. Hoping to bring these numbers down, Texas Center for the Missing (TCM) — in conjunction with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, Houston Police Department, and the South Texas Human Rights Center, among others — is hosting Missing in Harris County Day this Saturday, April 27.

According to TCM Chief Executive Officer Beth Alberts, Missing in Harris County Day was started in 2015 by Dr. Sharon Derrick, then a Forensic Anthropologist with the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. Alberts said Derrick wanted to replicate a similar event held in New York that was able to successfully match DNA from family cheek swabs taken at the event to unidentified remains in morgues and graves around the country.

In Missing in Harris County Day’s four-year history, it has solved 13 cold missing persons cases, the oldest of which was over 20 years old.

When asked about what happens at the event, Alberts said, “Families will arrive on Saturday and complete a missing person report (if they have not already done so) giving law enforcement detailed physical description of the person, the time/date/location and clothing description when last seen. That information will be entered into the appropriate agency’s database and uploaded to the National Crime Information Center database. DNA collected that day will be cross-referencing with existing DNA in national databases.”

See here for the details. The event is tomorrow from 10 to 3 at the Children’s Assessment Center Training Center, 2500 Bolsover Street, Houston, TX 77005, which is in the Rice Village. There’s some things you need to bring if you want to participate, so click over and read the instructions. I wish everyone who does this the best.

Curbside glass recycling is back

Hooray!

ScruggsImage3_ThreeWasteBins

Houston residents can resume putting glass in their curbside recycling bins, city officials said Thursday at the opening of a recycling facility in northeast Houston.

The new plant, outfitted with advanced technology including a glass cleanup system, is operated by FCC Environmental Services, a Spanish firm that received a 20-year, $37 million deal to handle the city’s curbside recycling. With the plant’s opening, Mayor Sylvester Turner has effectively capped what proved to be a years-long struggle over the city’s recycling program, generated by plunging commodities prices that coincided with multiple tight city budgets.

The funding constraints prompted Turner to strike a two-year deal with the city’s longtime recycling provider, Waste Management, in which the city accepted only paper, cardboard, plastics and metal cans in the green bins used for its curbside recycling program. The move lowered processing costs under the stopgap deal before the city inked a long-term contract with FCC.

To recycle glass, residents for the last three years were required to drop off their containers at the city’s neighborhood depositories. Those facilities remain open, but residents can immediately begin recycling their glass curbside, Solid Waste Management Director Harry Hayes said.

[…]

Under the contract with FCC, the city pays a maximum of $19 per ton to process recyclables in a weak commodities market, limiting its liability when prices decline. The city would recover a larger share of the revenue if prices for recycled material improve.

The city also owns the $23 million, 120,000-square-foot plant under the contract, though FCC will continue to manage operations and maintenance. On Thursday, the firm’s CEO, Pablo Colio, said the facility’s opening marked “the first of many (milestones) to come from our partnership” with Houston.

See here and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. I’m just glad to have this back, and I’m glad the city has a workable deal in place. Hopefully, the market for recyclable material will improve and make this even better.

Explode, rinse, repeat

Here we go again.

A massive explosion at a chemical plant in northeast Harris County on Tuesday killed one person and sent two others to the hospital in critical condition, sparking a blaze that sent yet another plume of dark smoke into the sky and forcing residents to temporarily shelter in place.

The fire, ignited by a flammable gas called isobutylene at the KMCO chemical processing plant in Crosby, marked the third time in 17 days that a smoggy cloud of smoke emanated from a Houston-area chemical facility.

It is the first chemical fatality at a Houston-area plant since 2016, when a worker died in an incident at PeroxyChem in Pasadena. In 2014, four workers died at a DuPont plant in La Porte.

Responders extinguished the KMCO fire late Tuesday afternoon, while on-scene investigators with the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office began conducting interviews to determine where the fire started and what caused the gas to ignite.

“There’s a lot of hot metal in there,” said Rachel Moreno, a fire marshal spokeswoman. “Until it’s safe for our guys to go in, they’ll continue doing interviews of everybody that was at work.”

The response will stretch Harris County’s resources, Moreno said, as the fire marshal’s office begins its second major investigation in less than three weeks. The site of an even larger conflagration at Intercontinental Terminals Co. in Deer Park less than 15 miles away on March 17 remains too unsafe for investigators to visit.

[…]

KMCO, a subsidiary of an Austin private investment firm, produces coolant and brake fluid products for the automotive industry, as well as chemicals for the oil field industry. Its facility, which has a history of environmental and workplace safety issues, sits about 13 miles away from the ITC plant, where Harris County officials continued to detect carcinogenic benzene this week.

The KMCO plant is less than three miles from the Arkema facility where a series of explosions spewed chemicals and sickened residents after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Let’s talk about that history, shall we?

“As long as I’ve been doing environmental work for Harris County, I’ve been involved in case with this company, either with the previous owner or the current owner,” said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section. “And I’ve been doing this for close to 30 years. This company has been around forever causing trouble.”

[…]

On Christmas Eve 2010, a runaway reaction sent three employees at the plant to the hospital. Workers there couldn’t lower the pressure in a reactor and, as they tried to fix a clogged line, they accidentally mixed a caustic solution with maleic anhydride, a normally stable chemical. The result was an explosion and fire. An explosion in 2011 sent two more workers to a hospital.

[…]

Since 2009, KMCO has paid out more than $4 million in fines or criminal penalties to local and federal regulators.

In 2017, the company pleaded guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Air Act filed by the Environmental Protection Agency and was ordered to pay $3.5 million. The violations were in connection to an explosion at its Port Arthur facility and air emissions at the Crosby plant.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued dozens of violations to KMCO since 2010 and fined the company about $250,000.

The facility is currently not compliant with the federal Clean Water Act. KMCO was in violation of the act for seven of the last 12 quarters, records show. It violated the Clean Air Act three times in the last 12 quarters. EPA data shows the facility also violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in February 2018. That law regulates how facilities handle hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste.

[…]

Harris County first sued KMCO in 1987. The company was ordered to pay $49,750 for violations of the Texas Water Code.

The county sued the KMCO plant in 2008 for spills and fumes that gave neighbors headaches. The lawsuit ended in 2009 with a permanent injunction requiring KMCO to pay $100,000 in civil penalties and to give investigators easy access to the facility and prompt notification of releases.

The county sued again in 2013; that case is still ongoing. Owens said the county attorney’s office is still deciding whether to add Tuesday’s incident to the existing case or bring a separate case against the company.

“While there’s been actions before, it hasn’t been sufficient,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy group. “We should, in the 21st century, be able to prevent these kinds of things from happening.”

A Houston Chronicle report from 2016 found that there’s a major chemical incident every six weeks in the greater Houston area.

You’d really like to think that we could prevent this kind of thing from happening, wouldn’t you?

Sunday, this editorial board demanded that state officials hold polluters accountable — and not just after a disaster.

We didn’t expect to be repeating ourselves so soon.

But this is what happens in a state where environmental regulators are toothless tigers. Where the TCEQ trusts polluters to police themselves — in part out of necessity, since lawmakers don’t adequately fund the agency. Where violators avoid sanctions and routinely endanger Texans’ health without our knowledge. Where Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton talk tough, maybe even file a lawsuit after an incident makes headlines, but look the other way when the smoke clears.

At this rate, the smoke will never really clear. There will be another fire. And another.

Another round of parents fearing for their children’s safety. Another community fearing the effects of chemicals and pollutants they can’t pronounce. Another black eye to Houston’s already bad reputation as a place where one shouldn’t breathe too deeply, a place where profits outweigh concern for public health.

As we’ve pointed out, Texas facilities in 2017 reported releasing more than 63 million pounds of unauthorized air pollution — including chemicals linked to cancer, heart attacks and respiratory problems, according to a report by Environment Texas. But, in the past seven years, TCEQ issued fines in less than 3 percent of such events.

“These repeated, disastrous fires and explosions can no longer be called isolated incidents,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, told the editorial board Tuesday. “The Texas petrochemical industry has a serious, chronic problem, and Texas workers and citizens are paying the price. How many people have to die, get hurt, get cancer or suffer respiratory failure before the state takes this seriously and overhauls our broken system of oversight?”

Texans, these are questions for Abbott and our other state leaders. It’s up to us to demand the answers.

The only way to get the answers you need is to vote for those who will give them to you, and against those who won’t. If the choices aren’t clear by now, I don’t know what to tell you.

Another AstroWorld auction

Warm up your credit cards.

Could be yours

If your wallet is as deep as your love for Houston’s AstroWorld, you’re in luck.

An online auction is selling off a little more than 300 items from the theme park that closed its gates in 2005. From character statues to giant welcome signs, now is the time to grab your piece of Houston history.

The number of items available is expected to at least double in the coming days, according to Ken Spicer, president and head auctioneer of SITE Auction Services.

[…]

SITE Auction Services is selling the items through an online venue but plans on holding a live, in-person auction on Saturday, Feb. 23 at Emiliano’s Sports Bark at 7710 East Freeway.

The bar will have the items on display during the week leading up to the auction.

The online auction catalog is here. We last had an AstroWorld auction back in 2006. Who knows when you may get another chance? Don’t miss out.

Architect hired for Ismaili Center construction on Robinson Warehouse site

This is the most exciting bit of local news I’ve seen in years.

What once was there

The worldwide Ismaili Muslim community announced Wednesday it is moving forward with plans to make Houston the site of its first U.S. cultural center and to create an architectural landmark in the heart of the city that will reflect a spirit of tolerance, diversity and learning.

London-based Farshid Moussavi Architecture has won the commission to design the important new building on a high-profile, 11-acre site at the southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose Boulevard. A rising star who also has taught for more than a decade at her alma mater, Harvard University, she was selected from a star-studded selection list of finalists that included David Chipperfield, Jeanne Gang and Rem Koolhaas.

“The rigorous competition was a vivid illustration of the global stature that an Ismaili Center holds in the architectural and built environment community, and of the attractiveness of Houston as a destination city for world-scale architecture,” said Dr. Barkat Fazal, president of the Ismaili Council for USA.

Houston’s Ismaili Center, the seventh globally, will be the institutional, intellectual and cultural center for the Shia Ismaili Muslim community in the U.S.

[…]

The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the Houston property in 2006 and in 2011 donated the seven monumental artworks — Jaume Plensa’s “Tolerance” sculptures of kneeling figures — that are situated just across the street in Buffalo Bayou Park.

Moussavi said she was honored to partner with the Ismaili Muslim community. “Our team brings a broad perspective, with diverse skills and experience in international practice, scholarly research, multidisciplinary thinking and delivering cultural projects successfully in the U.S.,” she said. “It will bring Houston’s diverse communities together in a unique space for cultural, educational and social activities.”

This site has been vacant for twelve years now, since the old Robinson Warehouse was demolished to make room for this very long-awaited Ismaili Center. I have no idea what too it so long to begin to happen – as the story notes, it will still be a few years before construction is done – but after at least one false start, here we finally are. It’s almost as hard for me to believe this site will finally be redeveloped as it is for me to believe that this amazing piece of real estate has been left fallow for over a decade. Maybe now some other famous empty lots, including one just up the road a bit on Allen Parkway, will finally see new life as well. I wish them all good luck.

Does the Astrodome redevelopment need air conditioning?

I hadn’t thought about this, to be honest.

Also not air conditioned

As work continues on the initial stages of preparing the Astrodome for its new life as a parking and events venue, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised questions last week about the costs associated with redeveloping the former sports stadium.

Harris County’s new judge, who recently toured the property with officials from NRG Park, said she learned that the $105 million the county allocated to the redevelopment project did not include air conditioning.

“I’m looking to make sure the current plan is fiscally responsible and that it will get us to a point where the Astrodome is self-sustaining,” she said in an interview on Houston Public Media’s “Houston Matters.”

Hidalgo declined to comment further, but current and former county officials said the renovation costs were never meant to include traditional air conditioning. Rather, the climate inside would be maintained by a mechanical forced-air ventilation and convection-based system designed to keep the inside of the building more temperate when it is hot or cold outside.

“The thought process was that further phases would bring in air conditioning,” said County Engineer John Blount, who is managing the project.

[…]

For Ed Emmett, Hidalgo’s predecessor, the Astrodome project was never about nostalgia, but to keep the integrity of the NRG complex intact. The county has a contract with the rodeo and the Texans to maintain NRG Stadium in first-class condition.

“Those tenants are going to start coming to the county saying we need this or that upgrade. There’s no revenue source to provide those upgrades without the Dome,” Emmet said.

As far as the air conditioning, he said the idea was to make the space usable, “but not necessarily at 72 degrees.”

“My purpose from day one was to create nine acres of indoor space protected from the weather, where it would be preferable than being outside,” Emmett said.

I mean, it kind of makes sense. It just has to be cool enough, and contrary to popular belief it’s not always summer here. Seems a little weird to be talking about it now, but whatever.

Will we address the unincorporated problem?

The Chron proposes an agenda item for the Lege.

Unincorporated Harris County

The challenges of unincorporated Harris County are nothing new. For decades neighborhoods have sprouted up in the vast prairie west of Houston without any formal municipal governmental structure. Special districts have provided basic needs, such as neighborhood streets and water. The county government picked up the rest — notably law enforcement and roads. No mayors. No city halls. No local sales taxes.

This model is becoming unsustainable. If grouped into a single city, the total population of unincorporated Harris County would be the fifth largest in the United States. Issues like infrastructure costs and upkeep, law enforcement and the basic duties of government are piling up, and commissioners court lacks both the funds and the statutory authority to deal with it all.

Meanwhile, obscure rules written in Austin prohibit these neighborhoods from forming their own cities, which could levy sales taxes and pass ordinances. Already existing cities are hesitant to annex special districts, which often have long-term debt.

So why would the Legislature finally address this big-picture issue after ignoring it for so long?

Hurricane Harvey revealed the weaknesses of these special districts to meet residents’ needs and the ongoing fight over property taxes has the county looking for another way to pay for services.

Formal studies, notably from the Kinder Institute, are being published about the problems in these areas — and potential solutions.

The status quo in the unincorporated county can’t go on forever, and only Austin can change it.

I basically agree with the premise, but I seriously doubt anything will happen this session. This wasn’t a theme that Judge Lina Hidalgo campaigned on, and I expect she’s got her hands (and the county’s lobbyists’ hands) full right now. More to the point, it’s not clear what kind of legislation would be proposed to remedy the problems. Something like this needs to have a vetting period, with opportunities for public input, since any change would affect how current residents of unincorporated Harris County would be affected.

There’s an analogy here to the oft-lamented-by-the-Chron system of partisan judicial elections. What we have now is flawed, and it’s easy to say there must be a better way, but it’s all vaporware until something specific gets proposed and advocated. My suggestion would be to lobby Commissioners Court to put together a committee to study the options and propose something that can be turned into a bill one of our legislators can author for 2021. Something concrete has a chance to be enacted, so start with that and maybe we can actually make a change happen.

Better sidewalks needs to be everyone’s job

It’s the only way we’re going to make progress.

Houstonians annoyed by cracked, missing or buckled sidewalks along their streets may be surprised to learn that city rules make residents responsible for fixing them.

At the urging of council members three years ago, Houston Public Works tried something new, launching a program that let homeowners get quotes for sidewalk repairs from city-approved contractors, then pay for the fix.

Though 155 residents signed up and 105 got cost estimates, only two agreed to pay the bill — likely because the average quote was $5,000.

Public Works officials acknowledge the city’s involvement added overhead that resulted in estimates double or triple what a resident otherwise would pay. The program has been scrapped.

Still, city officials say adding more sidewalks is a worthy goal. The issue, Public Works Deputy Director Jeff Weatherford said, is that Houston has no sidewalk repair budget and sets aside just $2.6 million a year to add new sidewalks through a few targeted programs. Compare that with the $83 million needed to fulfill 580 pending requests for new sidewalks.

“There’s a funding shortfall,” Weatherford said. “We’d love to expand it, we’re having conversations about different ways to expand it, we’re looking at priorities for grants, other alternative funding sources. But until we’ve worked out a way to get that, it’s going to be a balancing act.”

Residents can apply to have up to four blocks of sidewalks added near schools and along major streets, but typically must wait three to five years. Residents with disabilities also can apply to have up to 1,500 feet of sidewalks built around their homes. These Pedestrian Accessibility Reviews, which have produced about 75 finished sidewalk projects in the last five years, get top priority.

[…]

Advocates with the 6-year-old Houston Complete Streets Coalition want to work toward a sidewalk plan for the city, assessing the presence and condition of existing sidewalks, compiling the resulting information in a database and using it, alongside identified priorities, to guide decisions on where to install and repair sidewalks.

Michael Huffmaster, who leads the group of civic clubs known as the Super Neighborhood Alliance and represents that group on the coalition, said one proposal is to incorporate public facilities like community centers, libraries and parks into the program that adds sidewalks around schools.

“It’s up to City Council to fund sidewalks at a level that makes a meaningful contribution to the needs of the city,” Huffmaster said. “It’s sad that we put the burden of the sidewalk on the adjacent property owner because it’s an improvement that’s within the public right of way. Mobility in the city, pedestrian safety, should be priorities.”

Weatherford said he does not oppose adding facilities like libraries to the school sidewalk program or the idea of a sidewalk plan, but he said the funding question must be solved first, lest the backlog of unfunded sidewalk requests swell and the new plan sit unused on a shelf.

I have two thoughts about this. One is that the city should revisit that Public Works program, but in a style similar to one that already exists for financing the installation of solar panels: Have the city pay for the work up front (floating a bond if need be for the capital costs), then letting homeowners who get their sidewalks fixed pay that back via a charge added to their monthly water bill. The overall amount the city would have to borrow isn’t that much, and individual homeowners ought to be able to pay it off in three years or so; payment options can be given for that. I don’t see a down side to this.

I would also expand upon the Super Neighborhood Alliance idea. How can we get other government entities involved? As I have said several times before, the city of Houston is also (almost entirely) within Harris County. Metro has done some work at and around bus stops since the 2012 referendum giving them a larger share of the sales tax revenue. I’d like to see that continued and expanded with the 2019 referendum. HISD and the other school districts should kick in for better sidewalks around their schools, as a matter of student safety. H-GAC should seek out state and federal grant money for sidewalks. This still needs to be a primary responsibility of the city, but there’s no reason it has to be the city’s sole responsibility. If we want to solve the problem, we need to make it everyone’s priority.

It’s tree-recycling time

Here’s what you need to know.

You have nearly three weeks to do this. Don’t miss out.

RIP, Ray Hill

We have lost an icon.

Ray Hill

Ray Hill was in the cross hairs, and if the Louisiana hitmen actually showed up in Houston to rub him out, he wanted the media to be wise to what had happened. Hill breathlessly related the menace, obviously delighted that he could be the target of such a delicious conspiracy. Every UPS deliveryman, every knock on the door might be a summons to eternity. He’d hunker down in his apartment until we talked again — if we talked again.

Hill exuded drama like some people sweat. Whether he was telling tales of his career as an East Texas teenage evangelist or his escapades as a jewel thief, Hill kept an eye peeled for the best presentation. And as one of the city’s most visible advocates for gay, lesbian and inmate causes, he rarely failed to sharpen his talent to entertain into a formidable weapon.

Hill, who late in life eschewed leadership roles in activist circles to hone a career as a monologuist — a dramatic undertaking that gained him appreciative audiences in New York, Pennsylvania and New England — died of heart failure in hospice care Saturday. He was 78.

A legend in his own right — and in his own mind — Hill’s business card described his profession as “citizen provocateur,” a proudly worn label he received from a Supreme Court justice after a long-ago legal battle with the cops.

“I was born to rub the cat hair the wrong direction,” he once said.

Excerpts don’t do the man justice, so go read the whole thing, then go read Lisa Gray’s pre-obituary of Hill that came out on Tuesday. I met Ray a couple of times but didn’t really know him, which makes me kind of an outlier since basically everyone knew Ray Hill. The late Carl Whitmarsh called Ray “Mother” in his emails, a tribute to Ray’s role as an originator of LGBT activism in Houston. You can’t tell the story of Houston without at least a chapter on Ray Hill. He may be gone, but his legacy will live on. Rest in peace, Ray Hill.

The timeline for the Astrodome

Work will get started after the Rodeo.

Soon to be new and improved

According to Ryan Walsh, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation and NRG Park, the final phase of asbestos abatement is scheduled to get underway at the Dome next week and should continue until the end of the year. The work is being done by county engineers deep in the walls of the disused landmark.

“That work will take several months up until the rodeo moves in,” Walsh said Wednesday.

Construction on the project is expected to end in February 2020 and Walsh said this week that soon he will receive a more detailed construction schedule for the months and years ahead.

After the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo concludes its 2019 season more intensive work is expected to begin on the Dome. The rodeo has “gate to gate” coverage of the NRG complex during rodeo season.

I for one am looking forward to seeing what this finished product looks like. I’m also looking forward to an end of the griping about what has and has not happened to and for the Dome, what should have happened instead of this plan, etc etc etc. Not that any of that is likely to happen, but I still look forward to the end of it.

Robot sex brothel update

It’s all about the permits.

The City of Houston ordered a Canadian company called KinkySDollS to stop the construction of a so-called robot brothel for not having the appropriate permit.

The city, which told the Chronicle this week that they are reviewing ordinances to restrict this kind of enterprise, sent building inspectors to issue a “red tag” to stop work after they noticed they didn’t have the required permits.

To continue construction, the KinkySDollS company will have to first “apply for a demolition permit and submit plans,” said a spokesperson from the mayor’s office.

[…]

They began to build the business in what was previously a hair salon on Richmond, close to Chimney Rock in the Galleria area. Space is located on the second floor of a building and has around 2,500 square feet, according to the salon owner who used to rent that spot.

The concept of the KinkySDollS adult business is similar to a showroom where human-like dolls are erotically displayed and can be rented to be used in private rooms at the location by the hour or half hour. The dolls are made of synthetic skin materials with highly articulated skeletons.

See here for the background. We now have the details about what an effort to ban these places might look like.

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask the City Council this week to change Houston’s rules on sexually oriented businesses, a change that could prevent a proposed “robot brothel” from opening near the Galleria.

[…]

Traditional sexually oriented businesses like strip clubs long have been prevented from operating within 1,500 feet of churches, schools, day cares, parks and residential neighborhoods — and city-owned Anderson Park is just a few hundred feet from KinkySdollS’ proposed storefront.

The portion of the ordinance Turner wants to revise addresses “adult arcades,” where customers view adult content using an “arcade device.”

The council would amend the definition of an “arcade device” to include not just machines displaying video but also “anthropomorphic devices or objects,” and would prohibit “entertainment with one or more persons using an arcade device on the premises.”

In short, the business could sell the dolls at its proposed location – such models reportedly sell for about $4,000 — but repeated-use rentals would be banned.

I suspect I’ll get my wish to see some litigation come out of this. Beyond that, I don’t really have anything substantive to say, but boy is it going to be hard to resist the temptation to blog about these stories. A style point question: Does it make more sense to say “robot sex brothel”, or “sex robot brothel”? I can make a case for either one, but I feel like we should strive to define a standard, so future generations won’t be confused. Please indicate your preference in the comments.

We need to talk about the robot sex brothel

I can’t avoid it any longer.

In a surprise reveal last week, a Toronto businessman announced that he would be opening the nation’s first robot sex brothel in Houston.

The business, set to open its doors later this month or in early October, will allow customers to rent or purchase a robotic sex doll that, according to the company’s founder, is “warm and ready to play.”

As you might imagine, people had opinions about this.

KinkySdollS, a Canadian company that opened the first North American robot brothel last year in Toronto, unofficially announced via Facebook last month that its first enterprise outside Canada would be in Houston, confirming on the company website that the business was “coming soon” to the Bayou City.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city is currently reviewing existing ordinances — or will consider drafting new ordinances — that could restrict or regulate such enterprises.

“This is not the kind of business I would like to see in Houston, and certainly this is not the kind of business the city is seeking to attract,” Turner said in a written statement to the Houston Chronicle.

[…]

The brothel would apparently not be illegal under current laws, according to experts.

“Unfortunately, there are currently no laws in the U.S. to prevent the sale of the type of dolls intended for this ‘robot brothel,’” said Houston attorney Richard Weaver, who specializes in business law.

“Unless a new ordinance is passed, this business will likely open and operate in Houston,” Weaver said.

Albert Van Huff, a Houston attorney who is familiar with Houston’s sexually oriented business ordinances, said that robot brothels would likely fall under the city’s definition of an adult sexual operation, however, and could likely be regulated for visibility and distances from schools, churches and other religious facilities.

I’ll be honest, I kind of want there to be some litigation over this, just so I can read the briefs and see the arguments. You just know there’s an attorney somewhere who’ll be thinking “three years of law school and months of cramming for the bar exam, for this”. Reading the story, it sounds like there’s a solid public health argument for not allowing the dolls to be rented. Beyond that, I confess I don’t quite get all the fuss. In the year of our Lord 2018, I’ve got bigger things to worry about.

Deterring dumping

Tough problem, good use of technology.

[Radny] Scales, a Harris County Environmental Crimes Unit lieutenant, and his team of nine investigators depend heavily on video cameras to crack down on illegal dumping, a crime that disproportionally affects the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

The City Council voted last month to add 22 cameras to create a portfolio of nearly 150 total. Precinct 1’s nearly $600,000 program also includes a fleet of drones, as well as several full-time employees.

It’s paying dividends: A two-year program started in 2016 to catch those who illegally dump their trash in remote locations across Houston yielded 694 investigations and 396 charges.

“It’s been working for the city as a whole — better than what we thought,” said Jerry Davis, the councilman for District B, who initiated the program to catch illegal dumping.

The majority are people charged in the crime are private citizens: The average offender is a 50-year-old who dumps 75 pounds of waste, according to statistics the county provided. Contractors looking to dodge the expense of paying to throw away their garbage at a designated facility account for just 20 percent of offenders.

[…]

Beyond just being eyesores, illegal dumping sites present serious consequences, including being safety hazards and serving as a breeding ground for potentially disease-ridden mosquitoes, snakes and other wildlife. Dumping sites can also contribute to flooding and could potentially have a serious impact in future weather disasters.

“When you have drains that have been stopped up because people put furniture and tires and plastic, it’s going to cause flooding,” [Precinct 1 Constable Allen] Rosen said.

Illegal dumping is a big problem in some parts of the city, and has been for a long time. Video cameras are basically the only realistic hope for catching the perpetrators in the act, but it takes a lot of them because stuff gets dumped all over the place. It’s good some real resources being put into this, because it’s a real quality of life issue for a lot of people. I hope this is big enough and sustained enough to put a serious dent in the problem.

Checking in on Pasadena

How’s it going over there?

A year into his four-year term, [Pasadena Mayor Jeff] Wagner says he is focused on unifying a city whose ethnic and socioeconomic inequities were displayed before a national audience during the 2016 trial over a redistricting lawsuit. Current and former city officials say Wagner’s more conciliatory style serves him well in achieving this goal, but they differ on how much progress he’s made.

Pasadena, like Houston, has a strong-mayor system of government. Isbell, who led the city off-and-on from 1981 to 2017, came to symbolize its reputation for intolerance and inequity as witnesses in the redistricting trial testified that the city had systematically neglected the needs of its mostly Latino northside neighborhoods.

In January 2017, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal found that a revised council district system, initiated by Isbell, intentionally diluted the influence of Latino voters. The city, under Isbell, promptly appealed.

Last September, in what was arguably the most consequential decision of his first year in office, Wagner dropped the appeal. The city agreed to continue electing all eight council members from districts, and to pay a $1 million settlement to the Latino plaintiffs.

Isbell, who left office because of term limits, criticized Wagner’s decision, saying he believed the city would have prevailed on appeal. In an interview last week, however, Wagner said ending the case was an essential step in bringing the city together.

“I didn’t feel that we (the city) had done anything wrong,” said Wagner, 54, a retired Houston police officer. “But I felt we had to get out of it as quickly as we did.”

[…]

Former Councilwoman Pat Van Houte, who continues to keep a close eye on city affairs, offered a mixed assessment of Wagner’s first year leading the city.

“This mayor started with certain promises and he has fulfilled some,” she said, among those dropping the redistricting lawsuit. “He has shown some leadership skills.”

Van Houte said she had been disappointed, however, with some of the administration’s priorities, including the golf course improvements rejected by the council last week.

“The city has been spending quite a bit of money on buildings, and not much in neighborhoods getting the streets and sidewalks done,” she said.

Cody Ray Wheeler, one of three Latinos now on the City Council, was one of Isbell’s harshest critics. On the day of Wagner’s inauguration, Wheeler expressed optimism that Wagner would be more attentive to the needs of northside residents.

It hasn’t worked out that way, Wheeler said last week.

“I went in optimistic, but it feels after a year that it’s the same old thing with a new, smiling face in front of it,” Wheeler said.

As an example of continued inequities, Wheeler offered data about the city’s neighborhood network program, which provides grants to community organizations for neighborhood improvements. During the trial of the redistricting case, witnesses testified that Isbell’s administration had used the program as a political tool, steering grants to groups that were then encouraged to help get out votes for initiatives the mayor favored.

Wheeler did not allege that the practice has continued under Wagner. He said, however, that wealthy, mostly Anglo neighborhoods south of Spencer Highway had received more than $65,000 in grants, while areas north of Spencer had received about $3,000.

“This is a huge disparity in the way the city is handing out grant funds,” Wheeler said during Tuesday’s council meeting.

Settling that redistricting lawsuit was a big deal, and Mayor Wagner deserves credit for that. Sounds like there’s still a lot of room for things to get better. Fulfilling the promise made about bringing transit to Pasadena would be a big step in that direction, but it’s not the only one that could be taken. Maybe Mayor Wagner will make some progress on that on his own, and maybe he’ll need a push from the voters next May.

Paying to park at Memorial Park

Let the pearl-clutching begin!

A quarter of the parking spaces at Memorial Park will be metered starting later this year, as the city and the park’s nonprofit operators scrape together dollars for maintenance amid an ambitious renovation.

Visitors who park near the golf clubhouse, the tennis center, the gymanisum and pool, and the new parking lots being completed near the renovated Eastern Glades area will need to pay $1 per three hours of parking.

The Memorial Park Conservancy expects the new meters to net $135,000 in the fiscal year that starts July 1, rising to $375,000 annually in about four years; both figures account for paying off the up-front cost of the meters.

Shellye Arnold, president of the nonprofit Memorial Park Conservancy that took over the park’s operations and began fundraising to implement a new master plan three years ago, said declining funding for public spaces has made parking revenues a key revenue source for parks across the country. It costs about $2 million a year to run Memorial Park, she said.

“There are two realities that make Memorial Park different than most other parks in Houston in regard to the needs of care and maintenance. One is its sheer size; at 1,500 acres, it’s nearly twice the size of (New York’s) Central Park,” she said. “Also, what we heard in the master planning was that Houstonians don’t want to commercialize this park. When you do that, it limits your ability to collect concessions and revenues to operate.”

In all, 572 of the nearly 2,250 spaces at the park will be metered. About 60 percent of the parking spots north of Memorial Drive will remain free; all the spots south of it will.

A buck for three hours, and 75% of the spaces will remain free. Seems like no big deal to me, but of course it’s got a certain former Mayoral candidate all indignant. Because free parking in Houston is our God-given Constitutional right, or something like that. This is a good idea, both as a funding source for the Conservancy, and also as a way to ensure that parking spaces open up on a regular basis. Honestly, they could have charged more – like, a buck for two hours, or two dollars for three hours – and it would still be a good deal. Complain if you want, but parking there, like parking downtown, is a scarce resource, and putting a (very modest) price on it just makes sense.

Demography and our destiny

Trends keep on trending.

Harris County continues to grow more diverse, with population increases among every ethnic and racial group, except non-Hispanic whites between 2016 and 2017, according to data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In Harris County, 43 percent of the population now identifies as Hispanic, while the share of residents who report they are non-Hispanic whites now sits at 29.7 percent. A year prior, the rates were 42.5 percent and 30.2 percent respectively, representing a continuation in a years-long trend.

Some of this is due to the fact that the number of people who identified as non-Hispanic whites has decreased by 17,000 residents — likely due to outward migration – while the population for minority groups has steadily grown. Because Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race, Census respondents are able to select a race, as well as whether they are Hispanic or non-Hispanic.

“All of the other groups experienced population increases,” said Molly Cromwell, a demographer at the Census Bureau. “The ‘two or more races’ group had the fastest growth, at 2.5 percent, adding over 2,000 people last year. And Asians had the second-fastest growth rate of 1.7 percent, adding more than 6,000 people in Harris County last year.”

“The census has this projection for what America will look like in 2050, and it’s basically the picture of Houston today,” said Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University, and founding director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “And this pattern is exactly what you would expect this year: No increase among Anglos, and a continuing gradual and consistent increase of other populations.”

We’ve seen some of this before. The out-migration pattern is worth watching – Dallas County has experienced something similar in recent years, which has limited its growth – and of course international migration will be a huge variable at least until we get some sanity back in the federal government. None of this changes the basic patterns, it just slows things down a bit. The Trib has more.

Hempstead landfill officially dead

Hooray!

Waller County leaders and residents on Monday cheered a Georgia company’s decision to abandon plans for a 250-acre acre landfill near Hempstead, saying they look forward to moving beyond an environmental fight that has dominated public debate for seven years.

Green Group Holdings LLC said in a news release Monday that it was dropping its remaining court appeals and withdrawing any pending requests for approval, citing public opposition and the prospect of a court battle that could go on and on.

“When I looked at the length of time that it would take to go through the permitting process if we were even successful in court and just the level of opposition and divisiveness this has caused in the local community, I just came to the conclusion that we should dismiss the appeals that are pending in the court system and withdraw any other efforts on our part to continue to permit and operate a landfill on this property,” said David Green, the company’s CEO, in a phone interview.

The move ends a bitter fight over the landfill proposal — one that led to a court verdict that past county commissioners failed to show transparency, the ouster of commissioners who backed the project, a well-funded movement to oppose the plan and numerous court rulings blocking the plan.

[…]

Green said the company would still pursue other potential locations for the landfill. He said he believes a solid waste disposal site is needed in Texas because of its expanding population and natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey.

“I hope and really do feel like this facility could’ve been designed and operated safely, but this has been such a fatiguing and expensive journey for all of the participants,” Green said. “It’s time to put this behind us, so we at Green Group can focus on our other projects that we have.”

Here’s the Green Group press release. It was the recent ruling by a Travis County District Court judge that upheld the denial of a new application by the TCEQ to build the landfill that led to their retreat. They may pursue other opportunities elsewhere in the state, but at least now local communities have a playbook for how to fight back. The rest of us can commit to generating less waste if we want to give communities like Hempstead a hand going forward. No one should be faced with the prospect of having a landfill in their backyard.

That’s the Texas State Historical Astrodome to you, pal

It’s got a marker and everything.

All this and history too

More than 56 years after ground was broken on what would become the world’s first domed stadium, the Astrodome is now a bonafide recorded Texas historic landmark.

Installed on the stadium’s southwest end, a Texas State Historical Marker it will be visible for years to come just yards from neighboring NRG Stadium. The $2,000 price tag for the marker was picked up by the Houston Astros, who called the Dome home for decades before moving to Minute Maid Park across town.

[…]

The Dome has already been declared a state Antiquities Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The marker further solidifies its place in history and its permanence. The text mentions the part that the Dome played in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when it housed 16,000 refugees from the violent storm that hit New Orleans.

The 2017 state antiquities landmark designation provides special safeguards against demolition and requires Texas Historical Commission approval for any future changes.

See here for some background. I know some people don’t like the Astrodome redevelopment plan. Like it or not, your choices are the plan that’s been approved, some other plan that has not been vetted or approved, and going back to doing nothing and letting it rot. Which, now that I think of it, may be expressly forbidden by this latest designation. Point is, the Dome ain’t being demolished. Get used to it.

It’s hard being pregnant in Harris County

We need to figure this out.

Life-threatening, pregnancy-related complications — the iceberg beneath the surface of the U.S. maternal health crisis — are on the rise in Harris County, according to a new report.

The report not only confirmed the Harris County rate is worse than that of the state and nation, it found that it increased more than 50 percent between 2008 and 2015. Texas’ rate of life-threatening, pregnancy-related complications went up 15 percent in the same time period.

“In subtle and unintentional ways, women’s health in Harris County has been subjugated to the health of babies so profoundly that the health of women of childbearing age is often not prioritized,” says the report, a project of the Houston Endowment.

Dr. Lisa Hollier, a Houston obstetrician-gynecologist and a co-chair of the task force that produced the report, said Harris County’s high rates “point to the need for greater intervention to promote safety around the time of delivery. Such complications are 50 times more common than pregnancy-related deaths, but don’t get near the amount of attention.”

Hollier and Dr. Cecilia Cazaban, the report’s principal investigator, said it is unclear why Harris County’s rate is increasing at such a high rate. They said that analysis is next on tap for the task force.

[…]

The new report focuses on severe maternal morbidity, the term for conditions that require such treatment as a respirator or blood transfusions or hysterectomy during delivery or in the immediate hours thereafter. It can lead to maternal death, but even when the patient survives, it can cause damage, such as kidney or heart failure, sometimes requiring lifelong treatment. It also is costly to the patient and health care system.

Harris County’s rate of severe maternal morbidity in 2015 was 2.4 percent, meaning there were 238 cases for every 10,000 deliveries. The 2015 rate was 1.97 in Texas and 1.46 in the United States.

See here for some background. The task force website is here, though I don’t think this report is on there. I hope there’s no need for me to say anything more than we really need to understand this problem so we can solve it.