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Galleria

Day One of reopening

Just a reminder, this is where we started.

Texas reported 50 more COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, the most in any one day since the state reported its first deaths in mid-March.

The state also reported it had added more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 to its total of 28,000 — the biggest one-day increase in infections since April 10.

The numbers came out less than 9 hours before Gov. Greg Abbott was set to lift restrictions on many businesses, allowing malls, movie theaters, retail stores and restaurants to begin operating at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Those businesses can only operate at 25 percent of their maximum capacity for the next two weeks under Abbott’s phased re-opening plan. After that, if things are going well, Abbott has said he will increase the limit to 50 percent occupancy.

[…]

“Understand that Texas has either the 3rd or 4th best — meaning lowest — death rate in the United States,” Abbott said in a television interview on KVUE, an ABC affiliate in Austin. “Texas never has had a situation like New York, like California, like Washington, like Louisiana, like New Jersey, like Michigan, like Illinois with deaths. We’ve never had capacity strains on our hospitals like those states.”

But over the last two days, Texas reported more than 90 deaths from the disease, state records show. That number did not include another six deaths from Harris County, according to an independent tally by Hearst Newspapers.

On Wednesday the state reported 42 people had died. In the previous week the total deaths were 25 per day, on average.

Cheerful, I know. To be fair, the total on any one day is not itself that useful – it’s the trend, the rolling average over several days, that really matters. The point here is that we were not on a steady decline to begin with. Looking at the Trib’s chart, we’re still going up. Some of that is because of more testing, though we’re still at a pathetically low level of testing. If we can ever get to an adequate level, maybe then we’ll know how it’s truly going.

In the meantime, just because we can open doesn’t mean we will.

Arrows on the floor show customers which way to walk. Sanitizing stations appear on the walls. Signs advise shoppers to wash their hands.

On the first day that Texas’ stay-at-home order expired and non-essential retailers were allowed to reopen under social distancing protocols, customers, business owners and employees alike braved a new world together — six feet apart and at 25 percent capacity.

Most of Houston’s Galleria Mall, a massive up-scale mall that typically attracts 30 million visitors a year, stood empty. The majority of the mall’s 400 storefronts kept doors locked. Tables and chairs in the food court are missing, since only to-go orders are allowed. Kiosks that normally sell jewelry, perfume and gifts are draped with black cloths.

But lights flickered from some retailers, where masked workers stood anxious as the clock neared 11 a.m., when they would open their doors. Employees went about their business in the minutes leading up to the reopening; at ba$sh, a women’s clothing retailer, workers prepared the store with new inventory, pulling a rolling rack of flower-print dresses for display. Then, a handful of customers began to trickle in.

Mall general manager Kurt Webb said many tenants are anxious to get back to business, but he’s not expecting them to do so all at once.

“Early on, we’re OK with that,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re giving everyone enough space and earning people’s confidence that malls are a place the community can come and feel safe.”

Extra masks and sanitizing wipes are available for shoppers on the mall’s third floor office. But earning consumer confidence back will be a tough sell, particularly in malls. Only about a third of U.S. consumers feel safe going to the store right now, according to a Deloitte survey of consumer behavior.

[…]

Labor advocates and pro-business groups alike largely advised against the re-opening.

The Greater Houston Partnership, a business-financed economic development group, discouraged Houston companies from returning to the office if possible on the first day that the stay-at-home order had expired in Texas. Bob Harvey, the CEO of the GHP, said in a statement that office-based employees have been able to carry out tasks remotely for some time, and there is, “no need to add fuel to the fire,” when it comes to COVID-19 transmission.

Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy criticized the opening as a “premature green light,” if the state does not allow employees to refuse work if their employer does not meet safety standards in the pandemic.

Also not rushing to reopen:

When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in late March deemed churches to be “essential” services and superseded bans on in-person religious gatherings in Harris and other counties, many local congregations opted to stick with online services and follow the advice of public health experts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

A month later, Abbott has cleared the way for churches, synagogues and mosques across the state to resume larger gatherings as part of a plan announced Monday to restart Texas’ economy.

But there is far from a consensus among local religious leaders over whether now is the time to throw open church doors, even with Abbott’s social-distancing recommendations. A group of more than 80 Christian churches across greater Houston has signed a statement saying they would not hold in-person services during May.

“We believe that in-person gatherings for worship that are larger than 50 persons should not take place in April or May. We will not have in-person worship but will continue offering worship online,” said the statement. “In making this decision, we have the unanimous support of the leaders of the Texas Medical Center who strongly recommend these actions for all the faith communities of Greater Houston.”

Since the statement went out on Friday, about 25 more churches have added their signatures, according to Scott Jones, as resident bishop of the Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.

“We can see clearly at this time that resumption of larger group gatherings should not happen in the next six weeks,” the statement reads. “Deciding when to resume in-person worship for larger gatherings should be evaluated as new information about the rate of new cases and the availability of testing is available.”

Not every church leader agrees. Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop for Galveston-Houston, which includes 1.7 million Catholics, announced Wednesday evening that masses would resume this weekend with social distancing.

Second Baptist Church, which counts tens of thousands of Houstonians as members, said it will resume services at its campuses — again with social distancing — on May 9. The church said it may add new services to allow congregants to worship while remaining 6 feet apart.

And then there’s restaurants:

Dozens of Houston restaurants will reopen for dine-in service on Friday, May 1.

This list includes almost exclusively locally owned establishments from across a variety of price points and parts of Houston. That’s not necessarily the case in other parts of Texas; our sister site in Austin declined to publish a similar list of restaurants because “our story would largely consist of mega-chains or restaurant groups based in other cities.”

Those who choose to dine out this weekend will find restaurants to be different places than they were in February. Per regulations from Texas Governor Greg Abbott, diners will not be able to use valet parking. They will be expected to wash their hands upon entering a restaurant. Once seated — at parties no larger than six and at least six feet away from other tables — they’ll find that shared condiment dispensers such as ketchup bottles and salt shakers have been replaced by single-use, disposable items.

Picos has installed plexiglass partitions at the bar and in between some tables to separate both staff from diners and diners from each other. Many restaurants are limiting restroom occupancy to one person at a time, with a staff member monitoring the area to enforce social distancing. Contactless payment via Venmo or another app may be strongly encouraged.

Similarly, most restaurants have not only explicitly endorsed the Texas Restaurant Association’s Texas Restaurant Promise that recommends daily health screening of employees and frequent sanitizing of common areas but have also told CultureMap that their employees will be wearing masks and gloves when they interact with customers. Patrons should also strongly consider face coverings when they’re not eating to help prevent spreading the virus.

While the decision to reopen or patronize a restaurant’s dining room is controversial — one Instagram follower got blocked for a message that simply read “restaurants = death” — many people are ready to dine out. Representatives tell CultureMap that both Tony’s and Steak 48 are mostly booked for both Friday and Saturday, and Federal Grill had no trouble filling its available tables when it reopened last weekend.

I’m not, at least at this point, going to judge any business that felt they needed to reopen, or any person who wanted to patronize them. We are going to have to figure this out one way or another, and maybe at least we’ll get a better handle on how to do this by actually doing it, however risky or ill-advised it may be. I reserve the right to judge the hell out of anyone or any business that doesn’t reel it back in if it becomes clear that’s what we need to do, or who refuse to consider how their actions may affect others. I judge the hell out of these people, for example.

Speaking of which

Gov. Greg Abbott moved Friday to open up parts of the Texas economy, but he continues to get pressure from many Republicans to move faster even as Democrats have warned him to slow down.

Several conservative state legislators began a letter-writing campaign calling on Abbott to reopen other sectors of the economy — notably hair salons, barbershops, and bars.

“It is confusing to Texans that they have been allowed to congregate en masse at grocery stores and other big box stores since this crisis began, yet they are barred from patronizing a local barber shop or salon, for example, where they are served individually by professionals trained in sanitation and where they can social distance from other customers,” State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, wrote in a letter to Abbott on Thursday.

She’s not alone. Other lawmakers from around the state have been sending in letters as well and taking to social media to prod the governor to open more businesses.

State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, took to Facebook to post a story about a Dallas salon that tried to open in defiance of Abbott’s orders to remain closed but was later forced to shut down.

“Greg Abbott Respectfully, ENOUGH!!! You are the only one that can STOP this!!! ENOUGH!!!” White wrote.

Abbott has said he, too, wants to see barber shops and hair salons open “as quickly as possible.” In an interview on KSAT in San Antonio on Thursday, he said he’s working with health officials to determine when those businesses can reopen safely. He said in those settings, workers and customers are in such close contact that they have to get the precautions right to prevent a flare-up of coronavirus infections.

“The decisions we make are based upon data as well as input from doctors,” Abbott said.

The hills some people pick to die on, perhaps literally. I do not understand.

Let’s close on a better note:

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday announced a fourth step to the mitigation plan she unveiled earlier this week to help reopen and restart Houston’s economy.

The mitigation plan announced earlier this week calls for expanding testing, contact tracing and treatment options. The fourth step announced Friday, what Hidalgo called the fourth “T”, is teamwork from residents to continue practice social distancing, wear face coverings and to remain vigilant of the virus, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to lift the stay-at-home order and reopen some businesses.

“We can’t ignore what is right around the corner,” Hidalgo said of a possible resurgence of the virus. “Some see today as a day of celebration…my message to them is not so fast.”

[…]

“Reopening doesn’t mean mission accomplished, it doesn’t mean the virus goes away,” Hidalgo said.

At least someone is keeping her eye on the ball.

Uptown BRT pushed back to July

Sigh.

Opening day for Houston’s first bus rapid transit line has been pushed back to mid-summer as construction enters the final steps along most of the route before reaching a three-month testing period.

Service is expected to start no earlier than July, said Tom Lambert, CEO of Metropolitan Transit Authority. That is four months later than the March opening officials predicted in mid-2019, the result of some construction delays and the desire to test more of the system at once.

“Until you get the whole corridor lined up, you really can’t deliver the service the way it is intended,” Lambert said.

[…]

Though riders will experience the bus service as a single rapid transit route from Metro’s Northwest Transit Center north of Interstate 10 to a new transit center along Westpark Drive — primarily along bus-only lanes along Loop 610 and in the center of Post Oak — the path involves five different projects, built by different public entities.

That includes the new transit center taking shape along Westpark, now expected to finish in March, that Uptown and transit officials view as a major hub for buses.

Work on the Post Oak lanes mostly is complete, according to John Breeding, executive director of the Uptown Houston Management District, which rebuilt the road and led efforts to add transit to the area.

Construction continues, however, on the elevated busway that will carry the BRT service from Post Oak north along Loop 610 before reconnecting the buses with North Post Oak. Work on the $58 million busway, developed by the Texas Department of Transportation, is expected to finish by the end of March, TxDOT spokeswoman Emily Black said.

Testing in earnest can only happen along the line with the Post Oak and busway portions complete, Lambert said.

The previous update, which did note that there were these other parts that weren’t done yet, still had March for the grand opening. So much for that. If this means it will all open at once and not in a piecemeal fashion, I suppose that makes more sense. But as with all construction projects, you just want it to be over with.

Uptown BRT line update

It’s coming, it’s coming. Hold your horses.

The new year will come with a new sight in Houston: Big gray buses bounding along a dedicated lane on Post Oak through Uptown.

For the first few weeks, however, people will not hop aboard, as transit officials test the new buses and routes to ready it for a March 2020 opening.

Testing could start sooner, but Christmastime in Uptown means a slight wait for the debut of bus rapid transit in the region.

“Because of all the activity surrounding the Christmas decorations going up in that area, we can’t begin testing now,” said Tracy Jackson, spokeswoman for Metropolitan Transit Authority. Testing, she said, will start in January.

[…]

Getting full use out of the BRT service along Post Oak, however, requires a handful of other projects that will not be finished when buses start rolling. That will lead to detours on the north and south ends of the service for months.

Where the Post Oak lanes end near Loop 610, the Texas Department of Transportation will take over with an elevated busway that rises in the middle of the freeway and then swings over to the southbound side along its own overpass.

The busway, expected to cost $58.4 million, will give the large buses continuous dedicated lanes from Richmond to North Post Oak. It remains on track to open along with the Post Oak lanes because it has not faced the lengthy delays of the street-level work.

Meanwhile, Metro last month approved a $10.9 million project to connect the end of TxDOT’s busway with the Northwest Transit Center, which also is being rebuilt.

The 1.4 mile extension of the dedicated bus lane along North Post Oak is expected to be completed in about a year, around the same time as the new transit center, said Roberto Trevino, Metro’s executive vice president for planning, engineering and construction.

The new lanes will replace the existing median along North Post Oak on the bridge spanning Interstate 10, then continue south. To fit the lanes on the existing bridge, Metro would take up some of the space now used for a bike lane along the span.

“We are going to come back with a separate structure for that use,” Trevino said, noting TxDOT is still assessing plans for the new pedestrian bridge.

See here for the previous update, in which we were introduced to the term “MetroRapid”. Note that the expected opening date then was also March of 2020, so everything remains on track, as it were. I had a training class in the Galleria area a few weeks ago and got a good up-close look at the stations at Post Oak and Westheimer. I wish I’d taken a picture of it. If this had been in operation, I’d have had more lunch options readily available to me, I’ll say that much. Getting those extensions built will be nice, but I think the big deal will be when the BRT line that is the successor to the Universities light rail line gets built. That will be the connection of this line to the Main Street line, and will finally provide something like what the 2003 referendum once promised, before cost concerns and John Culberson got in the way. I don’t know what the time frame is for that yet – Metro Chair Carrin Patman is quoted saying this is a priority, but that’s all we know right now – but I can’t wait to see it happen. Not having to drive into the Galleria would be awesome.

Meet MetroRapid

That’s the new, official name for the Uptown BRT line.

Station names along the Post Oak dedicated bus lanes will have a familiar ring for riders, transit and Uptown officials decided, as they inch toward opening the region’s first foray into BRT in the coming months.

Eight stations along Post Oak will have mostly non-commercial names, aimed at helping travelers navigate the new bus line. Uptown Houston Management District is building the $192 million project, which started work in 2016 to add a dedicated bus lane in each direction in the center of Post Oak from Loop 610 to south of Richmond.

The southern end of the project will be a new transit center, which will re-route buses from the existing Bellaire Transit Center. The new site, which Metropolitan Transit Authority officials are likely to approve July 31, along with the station names, will be called the Uptown/Westpark Transit Center. It is located at Westpark Drive, just west of Loop 610 where a new ramp is under construction along Interstate 69 as part of the total rebuild of the freeway interchange.

Officials also said they have settled on MetroRapid as the name of the service, which will use large buses but offer trip times and frequencies similar to rail. The Post Oak line will not have all the elements of bus rapid transit, such as priority at all traffic lights, but will be, for most purposes, rapid service.

Though the bus project was devised and supported by officials with the management district, the board of which are major landowners or work for developers along Post Oak, station names largely avoided commercial ties.

“Where possible, the street is the major defining characteristic of a station name,” said John Breeding, president of the management district.

As a result, the stations mirror the names of cross-streets, such as San Felipe, Westheimer and Richmond.

[…]

Tentative plans call for the Westheimer and Alabama stops to have “Galleria” as part of their names, as both are within walking distance of the mall. Breeding said Uptown officials also are working with The Galleria to enhance pedestrian access from the stations to various entrances.

Service is now expected to begin in March of 2020, which is a year later than it was expected to begin the last time an opening date was announced. The HOV lane part of this project is also moving along, also with a 2020 start date. I’m ready to see what it all looks like.

The Complete Transportation Guide To Super Bowl LI

For which the tl;dr version is don’t drive in or near downtown if you can at all help it.

More than 1 million people are expected to converge on downtown Houston during the week leading up to Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5, officials emphasized Tuesday as a transportation guide for the festivities was unveiled for visitors and locals alike.

[…]

The transportation guide – part of a #KnowBeforeYouGo social media campaign – details options for efficient movement around downtown, Midtown, the Uptown-Galleria community and areas surrounding NRG Stadium, the game venue. The manual can be found at www.housuperbowl.com/transportation – which is an area of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee website.

Among new features for 2017:

There will be prepaid downtown daily parking available beginning in January via the committee’s app for motorists to reserve spaces for light rail passes.

Super Bowl Live downtown will feature a bike valet for those who prefer to travel on two wheels.

Free shuttles will circulate in downtown and Midtown; an Uptown-Galleria area link to downtown from Feb. 1 to Feb. 5 is $2 each way.

A game-day shuttle between the Galleria area and NRG Stadium will be $2 each way.

Metro will have extended rail hours from Jan. 28 to Feb. 5 beginning around 4 a.m. and running until at least midnight daily.

Click here for the official guide. My advice, if you work downtown, is to take the week off. I’m already getting a cold sweat thinking about how many tourists I’m going to have to dodge in the tunnels at lunchtime. A staycation is sounding pretty damn good the more I consider it. If you must come downtown, Metro or a bike are your best bets to not be part of the problem. The Press and Write On Metro have more.

The reverse Ashby

You have to admit, this is kind of clever.

Sue me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

UberEats expands

Good news for those of you who like having food delivered.

Uber

A larger section of metro Houston now can use Uber’s meal delivery service seven days a week and with more dining options through a new app.

A new UberEats app, separate from the Uber ride-sharing app meal ordering customers have used, launches Tuesday.

“Houstonians have embraced UberEats, but we also know that with a separate app, we are able to give users a better experience,” said Sarah Groen, general manager for UberEats Houston.

As of the app’s launch, 100 restaurants are participating. More are being added to the list, Groen said.

The service’s operation hours have been extended beyond midday weekdays to daily between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Users will be able to browse menus and order food from participating restaurants, and track drivers bringing their food. The service area has expanded beyond downtown and Midtown, and now includes the Galleria area, The Heights, Montrose, Rice Village, West University and Upper Kirby.

Those areas have shown large demand for UberEats, where the company has received many requests from people asking for service, Groen said. In January, the company did test runs in the new areas and registered high demand.

See here for the background. I’m still not the kind of person who likes to order food for delivery, so I’m still not in their market. But if you are, and you live in these areas, then these are good days for you. The Houston Business Journal and the Houston Press, both of which have maps of the expanded service area, have more.

Can you ever truly “fix” the 59/610 interchange?

I kind of think the answer is “No”, but they’re going to try anyway.

With Houston choking on traffic congestion from Clear Lake to Jersey Village, an infusion of $447 million in state funds promises relief sooner than expected at three notorious freeway bottlenecks.

That sum amounts to more than one-third of $1.3 billion allocated to relieve congestion in major Texas cities where officials announced targeted projects Wednesday. As a result, major upgrades to the Loop 610 interchange with U.S. 59 near Uptown and widening of Interstate 45 south of Houston and Interstate 10 west of Katy will happen years before initially predicted.

“The sooner you can get it constructed … chances are it will be a lower price as opposed to a higher price,” Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said. “And the faster drivers receive relief.” Construction will stretch from 2017 to 2021.

Tasked in September by Gov. Greg Abbott to address congestion in the state’s five largest metro areas, state transportation officials directed $1.3 billion to Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth. The spending plan requires approval by the Texas Transportation Commission, likely next month.

Commissioner Bruce Bugg led various sessions in the five metro areas, consulting with local TxDOT officials and others to find projects that could get the state the most bang for its buck now.

[…]

At peak times, some segments of Houston freeways have average speeds slower than most cyclists. Along southbound Loop 610 from Interstate 10 to Post Oak in the Uptown area, the average speed between 4:45 p.m. and 6 p.m. dipped below 12 mph in 2015, down from about 15 mph in 2014 and 18 mph in 2013.

The difference in evening northbound traffic is greater, with average speeds between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. below 20 mph, compared with about 45 mph or more in 2013 and 2014.

Initially, Lewis said, TxDOT planned to rebuild the 610-59 interchange in phases as funding allowed.

The focus on congestion, and voter approval in 2014 and 2015 of new road spending, changed that strategy. The congestion-relief money includes $132 million for this project, making it possible to rebuild the entire interchange at once.

That means new lanes and more effective ramp designs will arrive sooner, although congestion is likely to be even worse during construction.

The three projects were selected because they can provide substantial relief for drivers and were planned and approved so that construction could start in a few months.

I’m pretty sure George Orwell’s actual vision of the future was a human foot stomping on a brake pedal forever, but I could be wrong about that. In any event, my skepticism about this is based on the fact that you can only have so many lanes exiting the first freeway, and only so many lanes entering the second freeway. The 59/610 interchange backs up in all directions because you have multiple lanes of cars trying to cram themselves into one exit lane. TxDOT could certainly add a second exit lane, like it has for I-10 at 610, but that only helps so much if there’s room on 610 for twice as many cars to enter at one time. There’s only so much water you can pour into a bucket, you know? And all of this is before you take into account induced demand or complicating factors like people wanting to enter and exit at Richmond and Westheimer. I’ve no doubt that TxDOT can do things to make this interchange better, though honestly I think they’ve already done a lot with the dedicated flyway to Westheimer and the separation of traffic there. I don’t think they can “solve” it in any meaningful sense, and when you add in the four years of pain from the construction, you have to wonder just what the return on this investment will be. Maybe they’ll prove me wrong. Ask me again in 2021 and we’ll see.

Would the elevated 610 lanes really reduce congestion?

Color me skeptical.

The elevated lane design, officials said, would allow traffic headed around the loop, and not into the Uptown area, to flow more freely. The lanes would have no access to exits for San Felipe, Westheimer, Richmond or U.S. 59.

Moving that through-traffic to the express lanes would open up space for local traffic on the existing Loop 610 lanes, TxDOT officials said.

The plans have reignited fears about the effects of a double-decker freeway on the area and Memorial Park. Proposals for two tiers of freeway traffic have run into staunch opposition twice in the past 25 years.

Residents and leaders of the Memorial Park Conservancy – a nonprofit that helps protect and manage the park – are taking a close look at the latest proposal. Local landowners and businesses also are monitoring the project, said John Breeding, president of Uptown Houston and administrator of the area’s tax increment reinvestment zone.

“Noise and the visual are the biggest issues,” Breeding said.

[…]

Because of limited space, TxDOT said only one lane to and from the elevated lanes would be practical and help control traffic flow. The absence of a second lane, however, creates a bottleneck where the lanes rejoin the rest of Loop 610.

Others criticized the plan for not having direct access to I-10.

“That’s a big loss,” frequent Loop 610 and I-10 driver Jason Wilkinson said. “Everybody that needs to go downtown, you’ve just made it so they can’t use it.”

TxDOT officials this week extended the deadline for comments from Dec. 28 to Jan. 8, spokesman Danny Perez said.

Though officials have said the lanes may be tolled, recent infusions of cash to transportation funding via voter-approved changes in state budgeting could mean the express lanes stay free.

Pending state and federal approvals, construction could begin in two or three years, provided TxDOT and local officials devise a way to pay for it.

The lanes, estimated to cost $250 million, are not included in regional transportation spending plans approved by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out much of the state and federal money meant for congestion relief.

See here and here for the background. I guess I just don’t believe this will work. The particulars of getting the people who want to pass through the 59-to-10 part of the West Loop (how many such people are there?) onto and off of the express lane or lanes will cause confusion and likely some backups all on their own. Getting to the I-10 exit on the northbound Loop, and to the 59 exit on the southbound side, will still be a mess. And I say again, ain’t no way this comes in at $250 million. It’s just a question of how much of an underestimate that is. I get why people find this enticing – who wouldn’t like to think that we can reduce traffic on the Loop? – I just don’t buy it. It’s false hope. Sorry.

Elevating the West Loop

I suppose this was inevitable.

Planners on Dec. 10 are scheduled to detail plans for elevated managed lanes along Loop 610, from north of Interstate 10 to U.S. 59. Long constrained by the development and parkland along the freeway, the Texas Department of Transportation project aims to put elevated lanes in the middle of the freeway, within the existing right of way, for 3.7 miles.

The meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. at the Junior League of Houston, 1811 Briar Oaks Lane.

[…]

Relieving traffic, especially where drivers enter and exit in the bustling Uptown area and merge to and from U.S. 59, is a huge priority for regional transportation officials.

Drivers, meanwhile, said they’d welcome anything that offers a faster trip.

“Anything over what’s there now would be an improvement,” said Jason Weiss, 29, who drives the Loop to work daily.

Relief, however, will be years in coming. Construction of the lanes, expected to cost $250 million, isn’t expected to start for at least two years. Funding would likely come from tolling the lanes.

I was a little confused at first by the description of “from north of Interstate 10 to U.S. 59”, thinking that maybe they meant this would be along the North Loop, but no: It’s the northern half of the West Loop, from the Southwest Freeway to I-10, exactly where the traffic is the worst. It’s also separate from the Metro HOV plan that is part of the whole Uptown BRT package.

And there’s no freaking way this would cost $250 million. Maybe they mean that’s the out of pocket money for TxDOT, with the rest of it financed by future toll revenues, but come on. Anyone who believes that is the real cost also probably still believes that the Katy Freeway expansion came in under the original $1 billion estimates for it.

Will this help make traffic better? In the sense that it will make cars move faster along this stretch of the Loop, the answer is most likely Yes, at least for awhile. Mostly what it will do is shift the effect of that traffic elsewhere, which will in turn be exacerbated by the higher level of throughput on the West Loop. More vehicles passing through the West Loop per minute and per hour means more vehicles exiting the West Loop per minute and per day onto 59 and I-10 and surface roads like Westheimer and San Felipe. None of those roads are going to have any extra capacity, so what do you think will be the end result? This is basically the same as the effect of the Katy Freeway widening on I-10 between 610 and I-45, which is why it is so much busier these days, and why the streets that connect to it, like Studewood and Yale and Shepherd, are also so much busier. If you’ll be just passing through, it ought to make for a more pleasant experience. But sooner or later you’re going to exit, and that’s when it will catch up to you.

Reimagining Richmond Avenue

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mattress Mack’s Uptown rant

There’s a lot missing from Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale’s screed in the Sunday op-ed pages.

When you get right down to it, the recent announcement that the Uptown Houston Management District wants to spend $177.5 million to “redesign and widen” Post Oak Boulevard and build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system through the heart of the Galleria area tells you everything you need to know.

What does it say?

It tells you that here in the fourth-largest city in America, our Metropolitan Transit Authority is so tarnished by corruption and scandal, so riddled with $1.3 billion in debt, and generally so ineffective that they now must rely on a local taxing district to do their job.

So one “rogue” organization, as Mayor Annise Parker referred to Metro back when she was running for office, is passing the baton of an incredibly expensive and very ineffective transportation program to an even less transparent organization – the Uptown District.

Folks, this is not progress. It’s government at its worst.

First, if the Uptown District wants Metro to provide bus service up and down Post Oak, they could do that right now without spending an additional dime. But this isn’t about buses.

It’s about paving the way for light rail and helping the contractors and developers who live off city contracts and make generous campaign contributions.

I wish I could quote the whole thing, because it’s a masterpiece of unfocused anger, buzzwords, and vague accusations. It could easily have been a transcript from a talk radio segment. But let’s discuss some of the things that aren’t in this piece.

First, McIngvale’s antipathy to the Uptown Line goes back at least three years, when he and some other Galleria-area businesses, aided by one of the anti-rail-on-Richmond agitators, threw a fit about a design for the Uptown Line that had come to light a few months before. It’s curious that he spends as much time as he does raging about Metro and Mayor Parker and Washington, DC (?!?) since the main driver of the BRT effort, as well as the earlier Uptown Line design, is the Uptown Management District. Management districts are government-created entities, and there are certainly issues about the powers being granted to these unelected bodies, but all that escapes Mack’s wrath.

Second, Mack misses the point about bus service in the Galleria area. The idea here is to provide a dedicated right of way to the BRT buses, as is the case elsewhere with light rail and would be/would have been the case with the Uptown Line, so that they are not stuck in the awful traffic that currently snarls mobility in the region. A lot of people live and work in Uptown, and of course a lot of other people come into Uptown to shop or do business. Some number of the trips they take during the say is from one Uptown destination to another. Ideally, the Uptown BRT line would provide a viable alternative to them to driving from point A to point B, which in turn would help un-snarl things a little more. A BRT line could make such a trip quicker than driving, factoring in walking and waiting on the one hand and navigating a parking structure on the other. A bus line using the same streets as your car cannot.

Third, remember that part of the Uptown plan includes tying the Uptown district into Metro’s park and ride system, which Mack never mentions in his jeremiad. While it’s not clear (at least to me) how this will be done, it should be obvious why this is a good thing. Having the BRT line in place so that one isn’t stranded during the say will make using the park and ride service that much more attractive. Add bike sharing to the mix, and you can make non-car transit into and out of the Uptown area, and around it for those who live there, viable in a way that it just isn’t right now. How can this not help with mobility?

Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, the voters did approve the Metro 2012 Solutions plan, which included a light rail line in Uptown, back in 2003. We’re not going to get exactly that with the Uptown BRT line, though we may yet someday, but as is so often the case with opposition to this and to the University Line, those expressing that opposition simply ignore that electoral result. This is the vision people voted for. For a variety of reasons, some of which can be blamed on Metro and some of which cannot, that vision still isn’t and may never be completely fulfilled. But that vote mattered, and the default direction should towards its fulfillment, not away from it.

The Bellaire “urban transit village”

Very interesting.

Nearly a year in the drafting, a sweeping change to Bellaire’s zoning laws creating an “urban transit village” where there is now a collection of nondescript warehouses will soon be before City Council.

On Nov. 1, the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission unanimously voted to recommend Council approval of the zoning ordinance they’ve has been working on since February with Gary Mitchell of the firm Kendig Keast, which had helped design Bellaire’s comprehensive plan five years ago.

Before the vote, the commission held a public hearing on the proposal. While members of the public were present at many of the marathon workshop sessions the commission held throughout the process, this was the first opportunity they had to speak directly on the proposal.

The warehouse district, previously called a Retail Development District in the city’s zoning plan, is a 28-acre area near the intersection of the Southwest Freeway and Loop 610. It includes a site where preliminary plans by Metro call for a light-rail station on Westpark where the regional transit agency hopes to connect the University Line with the Uptown Line leading into the Galleria.

This is the same basic location as the one-time proposed alternate site for Dynamo Stadium. The proximity of a future Universities Line rail stop was a key feature in that proposal as well.

Richard Franke, a Bellaire resident who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in May, said that the proposed ordinance was “an extraordinary effort.” Still, he peppered the commissioners with a list of questions he’d prepared.

“How will the legitimate interests of taxpayers be protected?.” he asked. “What if it reverts to an apartment complex? It’s clear that the residents of Bellaire clearly prefer detached, single-family housing.”

Responding to Franke, [Bellaire community development director John McDonald] said that while the quiet suburban lifestyle may have served Bellaire well in the past, recent trends in development throughout the greater Houston region have shown that a more “urbanized” form is beginning to take hold.

If Bellaire wants to attract new residents, particularly young professionals, it needs to seriously begin considering new forms of development, he said.

That’s almost shockingly forward-thinking of Bellaire. Who knew they had it in them? I hope Houston is paying attention.

We need more early voting locations

Greg made an observation about the District H result that I’d like to explore a bit.

Yolanda’s early numbers were a little surprising as it would have meant a runoff between her and Ed if those numbers held. But even more surprising than that was Welsh leading the E-day returns with 36% to Ed’s 29%.

I was at Maverick Welsh’s return-watching party on Saturday night, and I can tell you that this wasn’t unexpected at all by his crew. They knew that the early voting locations were in parts of the district that were less favorable to Welsh, and they planned to make up the difference on Election Day itself. Which is exactly what happened, as turnout in the Heights was heavier than in other areas. I was a little surprised at how much ground he made up, but the final result wasn’t that surprising.

While I don’t think there was much that could be done about it for an election of this kind, I do think in general that there is a real need for more early voting places. In particular, I think there’s a need for more EV locations inside employment centers, because I think having more of them near where people work would make voting a lot easier. Moody Park is closer to where I live than any other EV location, but I never used it before this election because it’s not convenient to my daily commute; I work southwest of where I live, and Moody Park is northeast from my house. I generally vote at the Multipurpose Center on West Gray because it’s between where I live and where I work, or at the Fiesta on Kirby because it’s walking distance from where I work.

Unfortunately, as the trend towards more early voting continues, those locations become less convenient because the lines are so long. Here’s the early voting by location for this past November. The Multipurpose Center had by far the most votes cast of any EV location. When you realize that it serves basically the entire Montrose/Upper Kirby/Greenway area, and likely a good chunk of the Galleria area, that’s no surprise. Where else are all those people going to go?

The two State Rep districts that have only one EV location and which had the largest number of early votes cast were HDs 134 and 136. The former encompasses the Greenway Plaza area, and the latter includes the Galleria area. Yet neither of those highly dense business districts has an early voting location of their own. Looking at the EV map from November, all of that area is served by the West Gray MSC, which I believe is why it is so ridiculously crowded all the time. I say this has to change.

What makes sense to me would be a new location in the Greenway area, and a new location in the Galleria area, one in HD134 and one in HD136. I don’t know what the requirements and restrictions are on EV locations, but if I could just wave a magic wand I might pick something like the Houston Intown Chamber of Commerce building at 3015 Richmond, and something in the vicinity of San Felipe and Post Oak. Again, I don’t know what the details are, but geographically speaking that’s what I have in mind. Bonus points for locations that will be served by the eventual light rail expansion, as these would be.

None of this would have changed the calculus of the District H special election early voting, of course. You’d have needed an EV location in the Heights for that, and that really doesn’t make sense given that HD148 already has two EV sites, which happened to be the two District H sites as well. But a lot of people, all throughout early voting, expressed surprise to me that the West Gray MSC wasn’t open for this. They didn’t think about it not being in H, they thought about it as being the one place they’ve ever gone to vote early. It’s time for there to be more places like that.

UPDATE: Marc Campos suggests that the reason Heights turnout was so much bigger on Election Day was because voters there didn’t want to cross I-45, which he calls “the Mexican-Dixon line”. I’m sure that has something to do with it, but again, I think people go where it’s convenient to their daily routine, which neither Ripley House nor Moody Park are for me, or likely for anyone who lives west of I-45 and works south of where they live. During the afternoon, traffic on I-45 North becomes appreciably worse north of downtown. Who wants to deal with that if they don’t have to?

UPDATE: Greg adds on.

UPDATE: To clarify something here, I do not claim that the early voting locations had any effect on the total turnout in this election. Rather, I believe, as does Marc Campos, that the fact that Maverick Welsh did better on Election Day had to do with where the early voting locations were. I also believe, as I wrote in this post, that there should be more early voting locations, including some in high-density employment centers, since I believe that people vote early where it is convenient for them.

We need more early voting locations

Greg made an observation about the District H result that I’d like to explore a bit.

Yolanda’s early numbers were a little surprising as it would have meant a runoff between her and Ed if those numbers held. But even more surprising than that was Welsh leading the E-day returns with 36% to Ed’s 29%.

I was at Maverick Welsh’s return-watching party on Saturday night, and I can tell you that this wasn’t unexpected at all by his crew. They knew that the early voting locations were in parts of the district that were less favorable to Welsh, and they planned to make up the difference on Election Day itself. Which is exactly what happened, as turnout in the Heights was heavier than in other areas. I was a little surprised at how much ground he made up, but the final result wasn’t that surprising.

While I don’t think there was much that could be done about it for an election of this kind, I do think in general that there is a real need for more early voting places. In particular, I think there’s a need for more EV locations inside employment centers, because I think having more of them near where people work would make voting a lot easier. Moody Park is closer to where I live than any other EV location, but I never used it before this election because it’s not convenient to my daily commute; I work southwest of where I live, and Moody Park is northeast from my house. I generally vote at the Multipurpose Center on West Gray because it’s between where I live and where I work, or at the Fiesta on Kirby because it’s walking distance from where I work.

Unfortunately, as the trend towards more early voting continues, those locations become less convenient because the lines are so long. Here’s the early voting by location for this past November. The Multipurpose Center had by far the most votes cast of any EV location. When you realize that it serves basically the entire Montrose/Upper Kirby/Greenway area, and likely a good chunk of the Galleria area, that’s no surprise. Where else are all those people going to go?

The two State Rep districts that have only one EV location and which had the largest number of early votes cast were HDs 134 and 136. The former encompasses the Greenway Plaza area, and the latter includes the Galleria area. Yet neither of those highly dense business districts has an early voting location of their own. Looking at the EV map from November, all of that area is served by the West Gray MSC, which I believe is why it is so ridiculously crowded all the time. I say this has to change.

What makes sense to me would be a new location in the Greenway area, and a new location in the Galleria area, one in HD134 and one in HD136. I don’t know what the requirements and restrictions are on EV locations, but if I could just wave a magic wand I might pick something like the Houston Intown Chamber of Commerce building at 3015 Richmond, and something in the vicinity of San Felipe and Post Oak. Again, I don’t know what the details are, but geographically speaking that’s what I have in mind. Bonus points for locations that will be served by the eventual light rail expansion, as these would be.

None of this would have changed the calculus of the District H special election early voting, of course. You’d have needed an EV location in the Heights for that, and that really doesn’t make sense given that HD148 already has two EV sites, which happened to be the two District H sites as well. But a lot of people, all throughout early voting, expressed surprise to me that the West Gray MSC wasn’t open for this. They didn’t think about it not being in H, they thought about it as being the one place they’ve ever gone to vote early. It’s time for there to be more places like that.

UPDATE: Marc Campos suggests that the reason Heights turnout was so much bigger on Election Day was because voters there didn’t want to cross I-45, which he calls “the Mexican-Dixon line”. I’m sure that has something to do with it, but again, I think people go where it’s convenient to their daily routine, which neither Ripley House nor Moody Park are for me, or likely for anyone who lives west of I-45 and works south of where they live. During the afternoon, traffic on I-45 North becomes appreciably worse north of downtown. Who wants to deal with that if they don’t have to?

UPDATE: Greg adds on.

UPDATE: To clarify something here, I do not claim that the early voting locations had any effect on the total turnout in this election. Rather, I believe, as does Marc Campos, that the fact that Maverick Welsh did better on Election Day had to do with where the early voting locations were. I also believe, as I wrote in this post, that there should be more early voting locations, including some in high-density employment centers, since I believe that people vote early where it is convenient for them.