The Houston Avenue hullabaloo

It seems like every new Mayor makes at least one dumb self-inflicted error early on in their tenure, because being Mayor is hard and there are lots of things that need to be done with priority. I’d say this goes into that column for Mayor Whitmire.

Mayor John Whitmire

Houston Public Works announced Thursday that the cost of restoring Houston Avenue after Mayor John Whitmire ordered the street returned to its previous condition will be around $230,000 – more than double the expense of installing the new medians in December.

More than two weeks following the start of work removing the medians and curbs, officials finalized the cost of reconstruction. In addition, public works said an overhaul of the asphalt surface along the street is planned – for an additional $500,000.

Comparing that with the initial $100,000 cost to install the medians, critics of Whitmire’s decision – who argued it was a rush to judgment – said the updated cost is unfortunately borne by city residents and visitors.

“Reactionary politics has a hefty price and a lack of planning results in wasting taxpayer dollars,” said Gabe Cazares, executive director of the advocacy group LINKHouston, which argues for more walkable and bikeable streets.


Though just a three-block stretch of road northeast of the central business district, the happenings on Houston have led to questions about other upcoming projects, funded locally and with federal dollars. While signaling that he wants to hear more feedback from residents, Whitmire has not said whether any reviews he has requested will affect other projects.

As those reviews and Houston Avenue redo proceeds, Cazares said the hope is the kerfuffle over Houston Avenue can act as a “learning opportunity,” for officials “to hear all of the perspectives of the community, and not just those with whom they agree.”

There’s a lot of backstory to this that I didn’t have the time or space on the blog to cover as it was happening, but there are a couple of stories about it all linked in this post about the new Metro Chair. This story here notes that Mayor Whitmire cited an incident involving a Metro bus running into the median as a reason for ordering the removal, but Metro’s own investigation later concluded that the cause of the accident was driver error and it could have been avoided. This too speaks to the Mayor’s rush to action rather than seek input and make a more studied decision. The issue here isn’t really whether this median on Houston Avenue made sense, it was about the dumb and needless way in which the decision was made to rip it out just a few months after it was installed.

We know Mayor Whitmire has been in politics forever, and even his critics would agree that he knows how things work and has learned from his experiences over the years. I say that to say that I hope he learns quickly from this experience, because he’s already stirred up a constituency that likes to speak up and make themselves known. There’s also, I’d venture to say, a non-trivial amount of overlap with those folks and the people who voted for Whitmire last year. And there are also more reasons to be concerned.

Houston’s former chief transportation planner David Fields was forced out of his job, city documents obtained by Axios show.

The big picture: Fields’ sudden departure came a month after Mayor John Whitmire took over City Hall with a different vision for Houston’s transportation future from that of his predecessor, Sylvester Turner, who hired Fields in February 2020 to help usher the city away from car dependency.

Driving the news: Axios obtained an interoffice memo from Planning and Development Department interim director Jennifer Ostlind that shows Fields resigned Feb. 5 “in lieu of termination of employment.”

When Fields resigned from his role in the department, Whitmire’s director of communications Mary Benton told the Houston Chronicle that “he was not asked to resign.”

“The mayor was not part of the discussion with David Fields,” Benton told Axios late Friday. “I was told that he was not asked to resign. I was not part of the conversation with the planning director or [interim] planning director.”

Ostlind did not respond to requests for comment.

The intrigue: During one of Fields’ last public appearances at a Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting Jan. 24, he indicated he had been told to continue business as usual.

He was out of a job less than two weeks later.

Again, it’s not about the decision itself. Mayors bring in new people, that’s totally normal. But saying this person who had been working to change the city’s operating assumptions about transportation hadn’t been asked to resign when he totally had been is again a dumb unforced error and more reason for people who liked the new direction and also voted for Whitmire to be concerned. Is anyone likely to change their vote in 2027 over the forced exit of David Fields? No, but these are the bricks from which narratives are built. Now would be a good time to stop adding to that foundation. Houston Landing has more.

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One Response to The Houston Avenue hullabaloo

  1. David Fagan says:

    These medians were a bad decision and it doesn’t take a focus group to figure that out. This is a major access to the Dart street maintenance facilities where all fire apparatus get maintenance. Narrowing the Houston Avenue intersection for these apparatus was not a wise decision for a street as narrow as Houston Avenue, especially when it goes under the railroad tracks. I’m happy to see it gone. I watched the construction and I’m watching the removal and I like the removal better, though the comedy of the situation is not lost.

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