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Heights

We Heart Houston…someplace else

A popular piece of public art is looking for a new location.

It’s difficult not to smile while driving east on I-10 when passing the “We Heart Houston” sculpture near the Patterson St. exit in the Heights. Since 2013, the colorful, 20-foot-tall work has been a great sight for those with pride in Houston. However, the sculpture’s days there are numbered.

The good news? Houston is getting a larger, more substantial sculpture touting our arts scene in its place. “Art is Everywhere Houston” is on the horizon, and promises to make an even greater impact.

The “We Heart Houston” sculpture’s new location is currently under consideration according to the artist, 89-year-old David Adickes. A prolific and treasured local sculptor, Adickes has numerous larger-than-life works to his credit including “Virtuoso” at the Lyric Center, the enormous President’s Heads, and the 76-foot-tall Sam Houston on display on I-45 in Huntsville.

Adickes is working with the Houston First Corporation to review options. Houston First is the agency charged with enhancing the quality of life in our city, as well as advancing economic prosperity, and the city’s image with the world.

“At first we thought we would move it in front of the Hobby Center on the slope of Buffalo Bayou,” Adickes said. “As people drove by, the skyline would have formed a backdrop for the piece. It was the perfect spot.”

Well, not exactly perfect, as it turns out. The portion along Buffalo Bayou chosen for the sculpture routinely floods. Decision-makers concluded that it was only a matter of time before a photograph of a half-submerged “We Heart Houston” sign saturated the internet – not exactly an image the city wants to project.

‘My next choice of locations is on the jogging path as it runs near Stude Park in the Heights. People could still see the sculpture from the street as they drive by, and it would lend itself to joggers and people in the park taking selfies. That’s another good solution,” stated Adickes.

Why the big move? Since the sculpture’s placement on Adickes’ 3,000-square-foot sliver of property along the feeder of I-10, a large town home development was constructed be hind the work. Then, another wall was built between the town homes and the sculpture itself. The aesthetics no longer fit, says Adickes

“Another reason we’re moving ‘We Heart Houston,’ is safety,” said Christine West, Cultural Programs Manager with Houston First. “It’s popular, and people want to stop and photograph themselves standing with sculpture, but it’s dangerous to do that where it is. There’s no parking along the feeder road and traffic whizzes by there. Houston First wants to place it where people and families can enjoy it without risk, and we can actively maintain it.”

Sounds reasonable to me. As you know, I’m a longtime fan of Adickes’ work, and my kids love this particular piece, so I’m glad it will be moved to a place that is safer and more convenient for taking pictures. I feel confident it will be making an appearance on my Facebook wall in the near future.

Fiesta down

The Durham/North Shepherd strip, from about 11th Street up, has largely been immune to the implacable Heights-area gentrification machine. That may be about to change.

One of the oldest Fiesta stores is closing at the end of this month, leaving a large Inner Loop site potentially available for redevelopment.

The store at 2300 N. Shepherd is closing for “business reasons,” a company spokesman said Friday.

“It’s an older facility, and we just felt like we could invest the money wiser on some of our other stores,” said Fiesta Mart’s David de Kanter, who believes the store may have opened around 1974.

The grocery chain was founded two years earlier by Donald Bonham and O.C. Mendenhall to cater to Hispanic shoppers.

The building spans nearly 68,000 square feet on a roughly 4-acre property in the northern Heights area, where old industrial and retail properties are being torn down or renovated to make way for trendy restaurants and high-density housing.

Some of that is happening, but on the smaller streets, not on Durham and Shepherd, which are still mostly a collection of car lots, self-storage places, and small businesses. Outside of the one square block between 19th and 20th, these two thoroughfares haven’t changed much at all in the almost 20 years I’ve lived in the Heights. The closure and sale of this Fiesta, which sits on a huge piece of land, represents a unique opportunity for change on a big scale. Whether that happens or not depends in large part on what this property gets developed into. I look forward to hearing what the plans are.

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.

The draft bike plan is out

Here it is, in all its glory. I encourage you to look at the draft plan and play with the interactive map. Then, when you start to feel overwhelmed and wish someone would explain it all to you, go read Raj Mankad’s story in Offcite, which does exactly that.

The last time Houston made a bike plan was 1993. Many of the streets declared official bike routes then are among the least safe places to bicycle. Take Washington Avenue. Every few hundred feet, a yellow sign with an image of a bicycle declares “Share the Road.” The street, however, has no dedicated bicycle path — not even a narrow one. Cars race down the 12-foot-wide lanes feebly painted with ineffectual “sharrows” that have faded from the friction of tires. Only “strong and fearless” cyclists, who represent less than one percent of the total population, attempt such routes.

The signage on Washington is visual clutter, or worse. It sends the wrong message to potential cyclists, according to Geoff Carleton of Traffic Engineers. If the city designates a route for bicycling, he says, it should be comfortable enough for “enthused and confident” riders, not just the spandex-clad racers in pelotons. Ultimately, says Carleton, a city’s bike facilities fail unless they can reassure the largest segment, as much as 65 percent of the total population, of potential cyclists: those who self-identify as “interested but concerned.” (The other group is the “no-way no-hows.”)

The Houston Bike Plan, a new draft released by the City of Houston, details just such a future. Made public and presented to the Planning Commission, the plan was crafted by Traffic Engineers, Morris Architects, and Asakura Robinson, a team comprising most of the designers behind METRO’s New Bus Network, a dramatic reimagining and restructuring that’s receiving national attention for its success. A grant to BikeHouston from the Houston Endowment provided part of the $400,000 budget for the new plan with additional funds coming from the City, Houston-Galveston Area Council, and the Houston Parks Board.

The process involved extensive community outreach across class, race, gender, and ethnicity, as well as a study of all existing plans made by the city, management districts, parks, livable center studies, and neighborhood groups. The resulting draft is more a fresh start than an elaboration of the 1993 precedent.

The plan begins with an assessment of where we are today and makes distinctions between high- and low-comfort bike lanes. Only the high-comfort routes are kept in the plan moving forward.

As the plan’s introduction states, Houston has “made great strides in improving people’s ability to bike to more destinations.” The plan also notes changes in attitude and ridership levels, calls out “Sunday Streets … a great example of encouraging more people to get out and be active on Houston streets.” The most substantial improvement comes by way of Bayou Greenways 2020, the 150 miles of separated trails and linear parks along the bayous. (See our coverage of the 2012 bond measure funding this project, the progress of its construction, and the transformative impact it could have on our region.)

Approximately 1.3 million people — six out of 10 Houstonians — will live within 1.5 miles of these bayou trails when they are completed, but traversing those 1.5 miles can be a major challenge. When you map out this and other projects in the works, you see islands of bicycle-friendly territory and fragments of high-comfort bicycling facilities. Because the bayous run east-west, a lack of north-south routes could leave cyclists alone to contend with dangerous traffic and car-oriented infrastructure.

“If we do nothing beyond what is already in progress, we will have 300 miles of bikeways,” says Carleton, “but it won’t be a network.” Thus, the draft plan focuses on links that would build that network.

Ultimately, the vision is for Houston to become by 2026 a Gold Level Bicycle Friendly City according to the standards of the League of American Bicyclists. Currently, the city is Bronze Level.

Here, the plan is broken down into three phases: 1) Short-Term Opportunities, which could solve problems quickly and relatively inexpensively; 2) Key Connections, which are high-impact improvements that would require more investment; 3) Long-Term Houston Bikeway Visions, which are true transformations of infrastructure that would require substantial investments of money, time, and labor. Below, we look at each stage as a whole and at few routes in particular as examples.

Go read the fuller explanation of what those things mean, then look at the map to see where they fit in. A lot of the short-term opportunities include finishing the planned trails along the bayous and taking advantage of streets that have more capacity than traffic to turn a lane into a dedicated bike line like what we have on Lamar Street downtown.

Here’s a snip from the map that I took, which focuses on the parts of this plan that most interest me. Green lines are off street, blue lines are streets with dedicated bike lanes, and fuscia represents streets where bikes and cars can coexist in reasonable fashion. The thicker lines are what exists now, and the thinner lines are what’s in the plan. I’ve filtered out the long-term visions, so what you see are the short term and key connection opportunities:

BikePlanSmallView

A few points of interest:

– Note the continuation of the MKT Trail due west at TC Jester (it currently continues along the bayou), following the existing railroad tracks, then turns south through Memorial Park and on down, via the existing CenterPoint right of way. I think all of that is included in that 2012 bond referendum, but don’t hold me to that. Note also the connection from Buffalo Bayou Park to Memorial Park, which just makes all kinds of sense.

– The blue line that runs north-south is at the top the existing bike lane on Heights Blvd, which then continues on to Waugh, serving as a connection to the Buffalo Bayou trail. I’ve noted before how while I’d like to be able to bike that way, it’s just too hairy once you get south of Washington Avenue on Heights. As Raj notes in his story, this would involve some road construction to make it happen, but boy will that be worth it.

– Other blue east-west bike lane additions include (from the bottom up) Alabama, West Dallas/Inwood (connecting to an existing on-street path), Winter Street, White Oak/Quitman (a convenient route to the North Line light rail), and 11th Street/Pecore. I can testify that there is already a bike lane drawn on Pecore east of Michaux, but it needs some maintenance. 11th Street west of Studemont can have some heavy car traffic – people regularly complain how hard it is to cross 11th at the Herkimer bike trail – so I’ll be very interested to see how the plan aims to deal with that.

– Downtown is in the lower right corner of the picture, with Polk and Leeland streets targeted for connecting downtown to EaDo, and Austin and Caroline streets for downtown to midtown. These will no doubt be like the existing Lamar Street bike lane, where the main investment will be in paint and those big raised bumps.

Those are the things that caught my eye. Again, I encourage you to look it all over. The short term and key connection opportunities are fairly low cost all together, with some of the funds likely coming from the 2012 bond and the rest from ReBuild Houston. From Chapter 6 of the plan, on Implementation:

While a significant number of projects have dedicated funding identified for implementation over the next five years, including projects in the City’s CIP and the Bayou Greenways 2020 projects, the City of Houston budget projections indicate that there will be challenges in identifying additional resources, either in personnel, capital, or operations and maintenance to advance many additional components of the plan forward in the near term. Opportunities to leverage existing resources to meet the goals of the plan are important. Additional resources will likely need to be identified to implement many of the recommendations in the HBP in addition.

The Mayor’s press release identifies some of the funding sources being used now for this. Take a look, see what you think, and give them feedback. The draft plan exists because of copious public input, and that input is still needed to take this to completion.

What’s coming to the Yale Street post office location

Some more news from my neighborhood.

A Houston developer plans to replace a shuttered U.S. Postal Service building in the Heights with a two-story mixed-use development with space for offices, shops and restaurants.

MFT Interests last month scooped up the full-acre property, and the development company is in the planning stages of bringing a low-rise project dubbed Heights Central Station to the corner of Yale and 11th, said Glenn Clements, the development group’s chief financial officer.

The existing 1970s-era structure will be demolished. The project will include a pair of two-story buildings with office space on the upper floors and retail on the ground. The developers hope to attract professionals and fitness studios in the office space and perhaps two restaurants and up to eight shops at ground level.

The building is not historically significant. But because the site is partially in a historic district, the development may need approval from the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission. Clements said MFT wants the project to have a “retro feeling” to it. The neighborhood was developed roughly between 1900 and 1920, and Clements said MFT hopes the new building would blend in with the older architecture.

“We’re building it in 2016, but it will look like 1916,” he said.

See here for the background. Swamplot reported this a few days earlier, and there’s a lively discussion in the comments about what the parking situation will be like, which ought to be interesting given that both the new Eight Row Flint across the street on Yale and Lola’s on the opposite side of 11th have used the old post office lot as overflow. There’s no street parking on 11th or Yale, and there’s usually not much available on Heights Blvd. Folks who wind up parking offsite are going to need to walk a few blocks, which means that the nearby homeowners are likely going to start complaining. CM Cohen may need to designate a staff member to handle the complaints. Anyway, I look forward to seeing who moves in.

B-Cycle expansion coming

Good.

Houston area officials are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into widening Interstate 45, and they could be paying much more for even larger upcoming projects along the corridor.

But a comparatively-paltry sum is about to boost bike sharing in Houston in a big way.

The same transportation improvement plan aiming $140 million at I-45 includes $4.7 million meant to expand the B-Cycle program in the city. The plan is set for discussion Friday by the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council.

The money, including a 21 percent match from B-Cycle, will add stations in the Texas Medical Center and Rice Village in one phase, increase density in the downtown and Midtown area from the Med Center in another, before expanding east and southeast to EaDo and the University of Houston and Texas Southern University area.

“By the time this is finished, our goal is to go from 29 stations and 210 bikes to 100 stations with 800 bikes,” said Will Rub, director of Houston B-Cycle.

[…]

Having 800 bikes at Houston kiosks would build on what supporters have said is strong use of the bikes by Houston residents and visitors. From January to July, more than 60,000 bike checkouts occurred. The theory, following on similar reaction in Denver, is more stations and bikes exponentially increase use, provided the stations are where people want to go.

See here, here, and here for some background. According to the Mayor’s press release, about $3.8 million is coming from H-GAC, and the rest is from B-Cycle, which as he story notes has generally covered most of its operating costs. Having more stations will make B-Cycle a lot more usable; I personally have had a couple of recent occasions where I needed to get somewhere on the edges of downtown from my office, but the nearest B-Cycle station was far enough away from my destination that it wasn’t worth it. Especially now with the rerouted buses and the new rail lines, expanding B-Cycle access will make transit that much more convenient as well. I look forward to seeing where the new kiosks go. The Highwayman has more.

A brewpub comes back to Houston

In my ‘hood, no less.

beer

A new brewpub will open in the Heights with an accomplished veteran of the Texas craft-beer scene at the helm.

Delicious Concepts Restaurant Group, which owns Lola, Shepherd Park Draught House, Witchcraft Tavern and seven Pinks Pizza locations, announced Monday it has closed its Tex-Mex spot El Cantina Superior near the White Oak dining and entertainment area and will reopen in the same building as a restaurant that makes and sells its own beer on site.

The as-yet-unnamed “American kitchen”-style restaurant will have a pizzeria and butcher shop in-house. But the rotating lineup of lagers, India pale ales and Belgian-style and other beers – including guest beers and beers made in collaboration with other local breweries – will distinguish it from most Houston eateries.

Brewmaster Erik Ogershok, an industry veteran who helped develop the award-winning portfolio of beers at the Hill Country-based Real Ale Brewing Co., joins Delicious Concepts as a partner for this and any future brewing projects.

“This particular part of the project is just the beginning,” he said, declining to elaborate on other plans.

El Cantina Superior, 602 Studewood, had a rocky history after it launched last summer. The restaurant struggled, and Delicious Concepts brought in the management team from F.E.E.D. Texas, including the well-regarded chef Lance Fegen, to retool the menu and supervise kitchen and service.

The ambitious restaurant with colorful, quirky decor earned a positive review from Chronicle critic Alison Cook. But in May, the two restaurant groups suddenly parted ways.

Ken Sheppard, Delicious Concepts’ marketing chief, on Monday acknowledged the problems. He said the restaurant likely opened too quickly and was probably too different and too much larger physically from the others in the group. He said he was proud of El Cantina Superior’s recent work but admitted it was tough to overcome the early travails.

Plus, he said the group has wanted to open a brewpub for “a long time.”

I can attest to the El Cantina’s rocky history. It generated a ton of scathing reviews on Nextdoor Heights when it first opened, then a bunch of “no, wait, it’s really good now” emails after F.E.E.D. took over, and then back to the bad after they left. Our personal experience with the place matches that pattern. It’s a shame as far as that goes, because when it was good it was really good, and there wasn’t anything quite like it nearby. Oh, well. This will be Houston’s first brewpub since 2010 when Two Rows in the Rice Village closed down. There are a lot of good options for both food and beer within walking distance of this location, so they’re going to have to do well on both counts to survive. Not clear when the new place will be up and running, but I look forward to it.

More on the proposed I-45 changes

Offcite reads the documents and provides some bullet points.

1. I-45 Would Rival I-10 in Width

The plan would dramatically widen I-45 to more than 30 lanes in certain sections. North of 610, I-45 would rival the Katy Freeway in its expanse. Though the west side of I-45 at Crosstimbers is largely vacant, TxDOT plans to take major right of way east of I-45 where many businesses thrive, including the Culinary Institute. The greater capacity to move automobiles might be accompanied by increased cancer risk and asthma for Houstonians generally, and for those living close to the path in particular.

2. I-69 Would Be Sunken through Midtown and Museum District

All of I-69 from Shepherd to Commerce Street would be sunk as deep as 20 feet below grade. That is to say, all the above-ground sections in Midtown and the Museum District (Greater Third Ward) would be sunken and widened, radically transforming the landscape in these neighborhoods. As Tory Gattis notes, the plans would eliminate the bottleneck at Spur 527.

3. TxDOT Would Demolish Apartments, Public Housing, and Homeless Services in EaDo

Lofts at the Ballpark, Clayton Homes (public housing), and the SEARCH building (a 27,000-square-foot facility for services to the homeless that is just now breaking ground) are in the path of the widened I-45/I-69 freeway east of Downtown, and will be torn down at the expense of taxpayers.

[…]

6. New Slimmed-Down Bridges for Cars to Cross Buffalo Bayou

The section of the “Pierce Elevated” over Buffalo Bayou would be rebuilt with new Downtown connectors that TxDOT alternately describes as “parkways” and “spurs.” Though the official rendering is dull, the public-private partnerships that have rebuilt the parks along the bayous might help bring about new iconic bridges for cars. A Sky Park in this location is unlikely because moving traffic across the bayou is considered a major priority for many stakeholders.

That’s a lot of real estate that could be sacrificed for this project, if it comes to pass – as the story notes, funding has not yet been secured for it. The bridges will be a contentious issue, at least in my neighborhood. Already there’s a disagreement between those who applaud and advocate for the closing of the North Street bridge, and those who want to maintain it so as not to cut off a large segment of the neighborhood from the east side of I-45. There are also some potentially good things that could happen, as item #2 points out. I’ll say again, if this goes through it will be the most consequential event of the next Mayor’s tenure. Sure would be nice to know what that Mayor thinks about it, wouldn’t it?

You can still ask Metro to make changes to their new bus routes

Chris Andrews highlights a little Metro-related activism going on in my neighborhood.

Residents in the Woodland Heights neighborhood of Houston have initiated a petition to modify the proposed 30 bus route.

Currently, the neighborhood is serviced by the 40 Pecore route. When METRO’s System Reimagining was proposed in early 2015, the 30 Clinton / Ella route was shown to continue on much of the route that is both the current 40 Pecore and 50 Heights routes. Unfortunately, the routes have since changed, leaving Woodlands Heights Residents without transit on Watson / Taylor / Sawyer streets. The originally drawn proposed 30 route was shifted to the east to Houston Avenue. This creates a duplicated north / south service with the proposed 44 Acres Homes route, which incidentally has the same, and if not better, level of service.

Residents propose shifting the 30 route back to the first proposed reimagined route (shown below), providing service to Watson / Taylor / Sawyer streets between Pecore and Memorial Drive. This would continue to provide service to areas serviced by the current 40 and 50 routes. Shifting the proposed 30 route to the west along Watson / Taylor / Sawyer streets would also provide access to the Target-anchored Sawyer Heights shopping center, as well as the 2100 Memorial senior apartments. (I can attest that a healthy number of residents who live at this complex use the current 50 route.)

[…]

METRO will continue to host public hearings regarding the new bus network, with a meeting on Wednesday June 3, 2015 at 6:00 PM, and another on Friday June 5, 2015 at 12:00 PM. Both meetings are scheduled to take place in METRO’s Board Room. View the METRO board meetings and notices page for more details.

Discussion about the disappearance of the 40 route and the subsequent petition first appeared on Nextdoor a couple of days ago. My initial reaction was along the lines of “um, you know that Metro announced these new routes a year ago, and formally gave the go-ahead back in February, right?” Turns out that even at this late date there are tweaks being considered, as you can see in the post above. Adding to the confusion a bit is that the system map displayed on the system reimagining website doesn’t reflect the current status. I like what has been proposed here, and as Andrews found on Twitter, so does Metro Board member Christof Spieler. I’m only a block away from Studewood, however, so this alternative would be great for me. Folks who live closer to the midway point between Studewood and Houston Avenue will be less well off. Make your voice heard while you still have time, that’s the message here. Link via Swamplot.

De-industrialization update

The transformation of the Montrose/Heights border area will soon be complete.

After 100 years on Washington Avenue, the Detering Co. has sold all of its prime near-downtown property and relocated to north Houston.

The Houston-based building materials supply company had occupied 5.4 acres of land and some 70,000 square feet of headquarters space at 3028 Washington just east of Studemont. The acreage was divided into three properties and sold to three buyers, according to J. Michael Boyd, principal of Boyd Commercial/CORFAC International, who represented the Detering Co. in the sales.

Luxury homebuilder Sullivan Brothers Builders purchased a small parcel at 2900 Hicks. Dallas-based apartment developer JLB Partners bought almost 3 acres at 3028 Center. And the remaining site fronting Washington Avenue site is scheduled to close at the end of the month. Boyd declined to disclose the final buyer before the sale became final.

The redevelopment of the Detering site is indicative of the land use changes underway in this part of Houston, where many properties have gone from industrial to retail or residential.

The shift has been building for many years, with some of the most recent deals including the sale of the Grocers Supply tract on Studemont and a 21-acre nearby site occupied by floor manufacturer Tarkett USA.

Detering recently moved to its new facility, 107,000 square feet on a 19-acre site at 6800 Helmers near Irvington and the North Loop. Sellers were Quasar Land and Irvington Holdings. The company demolished a building on the property. Detering is also renovating a 25,000-square-foot building on the property that it plans to occupy as well.

The move was compelled by Detering’s growth plans and a “disjointed” Washington Avenue facility that included multiple buildings, said Boyd, who also represented the company in its expansion and relocation.

The Washington property had been held by the Detering family since the early 1900s, when Herman Detering ran a grocery store there. His son, Carl, opened the building supply company on the land in 1926.

See here, here, and here for other examples of this kind of change in the area. I’ll be interested to see what this eventually gets named. The area between Washington Avenue and I-10 has always been kind of a no-man’s land, neither Montrose nor Heights. That was as much due to the non-residential nature of the place as anything. With that changing, we’ll see how that gets reflected in the name. My guess is it’ll be Something Heights because pretty much everything else has been named that way, but maybe they’ll surprise me. Prime Property has more.

Economic segregation in cities

From Wonkblog:

Concentrated poverty is one of the biggest problems facing cities today, as more of the urban poor become isolated in neighborhoods where the people around them are poor, too. Growing economic segregation across cities, though, is also shaped by a parallel, even stronger force: concentrated wealth.

A new analysis from Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, which identifies the most and least economically segregated metropolitan areas in the United States, makes clear that economic segregation today is heavily shaped by the choices of people at the top: “It is not so much the size of the gap between the rich and poor that drives segregation,” they write, “as the ability of the super-wealthy to isolate and wall themselves off from the less well-to-do.”

Florida and Mellander created an index of economic segregation that takes into account how we’re divided across metro areas by income, but also by occupation and education, two other pillars of what we often think of as socioeconomic status. Among the largest metros in the country, Austin ranks as the place where wealthy, college-educated professionals and less-educated, blue-collar workers are least likely to share the same neighborhoods.

Notably, that top-10 list has four Texas metros. The Washington metro area comes in just behind these big cities, as the 26th most economically segregated in the country, out of 359 U.S. metros. Orlando, Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis, meanwhile, are the least economically segregated among the metros with at least a million people.

Before calculating their combined index, Florida and Mellander also looked at separate measures of segregation by income, education and occupation, and an interesting pattern arises across all three. Within a given region, such as Washington, we can think about income segregation, for example, in at least two ways: To what degree are the wealthy isolated from everyone else? Or to what degree are the poor concentrated in just a few parts of town? The wealthy can be highly segregated in a metro area (occupying just a few neighborhoods), even while the poor are pretty evenly dispersed (with low segregation).

The interesting pattern: By income, the wealthy (households making more than $200,000 a year) are more segregated than the poor (families living under the federal poverty line). By education, people with college degrees are more segregated than people with less than a high school diploma. By occupation, the group that Florida has coined the “creative class” is more segregated than the working class.

The problem of economic segregation, in other words, isn’t simply about poor people pushed into already-poor neighborhoods — it’s even more so about the well-off choosing to live in places where everyone else is well-off, too.

Click over to see the charts. The Trib and the Chron both reposted this story, while the Statesman reported on it; it would be nice if one or more of them did some followup to examine the particulars in some more detail. I haven’t read through the study yet, but intuitively it feels right, and at least as far as inner Loop Houston goes, I’d say gentrification is a big driver of it. The increased desirability of neighborhoods like Montrose and the Heights have transformed them from bastions of cheap housing with scattered pockets of poshness to exactly the kind of segregated areas Florida and mellander describe, where lot value alone far exceeds what used to be the cost of a typical house. I don’t know what if anything can be done about this, but I do think it’s an issue that the Mayoral candidates ought to be talking about, since it really is changing our city in a fundamental way. What do you think?

From industrial to residential

More changes coming to my neck of the woods.

Some of the old warehouses lining a stretch of Sawyer Street across Interstate 10 from the Heights are being primed for new development, as this First Ward area continues to morph from industrial hub to an upscale artsy neighborhood.

Houston-based Lovett Commercial is transforming a 1950s warehouse at Sawyer and Edwards into Sawyer Yards, which will have about 40,000 square feet of space for restaurants, retail or offices.

The company is looking to fill another 5-acre parcel at 2000 Taylor just south of I-10 at Spring Street. The property is across from the Sawyer Heights Target.

H-E-B quashed rumors that it was considering opening a store there, though the grocery chain has been looking around.

“That’s not a piece of land we’re looking at,” said spokeswoman Cyndy Garza-Roberts. “We’ve had an interest of moving into the Heights area for several years now. We just have not been able to identify a location.”

Jon Deal, who has developed artist studios in the area, is planning another project at the old Riviana rice facility at Sawyer and Summer.

The project is called the Silos on Sawyer, and it will include artist studios, creative workspaces and some retail.

The main building contains more than 50,000 square feet.

Deal said he, Steve Gibson and Frank Liu of Lovett Commercial own – separately or in partnerships – at least 35 contiguous acres in the area.

They hope to master-plan the acreage.

“Ideally we’re going to be a campus-type creative community,” Deal said. “It’ll look and feel like a master-planned development in the end, although it’ll keep its raw edge.”

The area is part of a cultural district recognized by the state, Deal said. The program is not currently being funded, he said, but when it is, it will allow artists to seek grant money.

There’s an awful lot of activity going on in this general area, which stretches from Studemont to Houston Avenue between I-10 and Washington Avenue. I consider it a positive for the most part – the existing industrial area didn’t exactly add much to the quality of life in the larger area, and a lot of it is not actively used now anyway – but there are concerns. Mostly, traffic on the north-south streets – Studemont, Sawyer, and Houston – is already a problem, and there are limited options to ameliorate it. Sawyer, for example, is a narrow one-lane-each-way street south of the Target retail center, and as you can see from the embedded image or this Google Map link, there aren’t any other options thanks to the active freight train tracks, which by the way regularly block traffic on Sawyer and Heights. (This is part of the corridor that would be used for some variation of commuter/high speed/light rail, if and when it ever happens.) There is at least the off-road Heights bike trail along Spring Street that connects the area to the Heights (passing under I-10) and downtown (passing under I-45), and there is a sidewalk along Sawyer; it definitely needs an upgrade, and there’s a lot of potential to make it much nicer when the properties west of Sawyer get sold for development, but at least it’s there. The potential exists to turn this part of town into a compelling modern urban residential/mixed-use area. In the absence of any unified vision for the myriad developers to draw inspiration, I hope at least no one does anything to permanently derail such a thing.

Heights-Northside mobility study

Mostly of interest for folks in my area, here’s the city’s report on mobility for neighborhoods in the upper left quadrant of the Inner Loop.

HeightsNorthside

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study

The Planning and Development Department, in partnership with the Department of Public Works and Engineering and Houston-Galveston Area Council, is pleased to announce that the Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility study has been finalized and can be downloaded (see links below).

After an extensive public comment period, the City received 125 comments regarding study recommendations, and letters from area organizations. Over the last several months, the project team has worked with City staff to evaluate all comments and provide responses to questions that were raised. Where appropriate, recommendations were modified to ensure that all final recommendations resulting from this study best serve the needs of the City and community, alike.

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study
Download Full Version (31 MB)

Download by Chapter:
I. Introduction
II. Existing Conditions
III. Community Involvement
IV. Defining Future Mobility Conditions
V. Changing Mobility Considerations
VI. A Balanced Approach: Corridor Sheets
VII. Outcomes
VIII. Next Steps

Appendix A: Data Collection
Appendix B: Thoroughfare Types
Appendix C: Transit Analysis
Appendix D: Hardy-Elysian Option Considerations
Appendix E: Travel Demand Results

Here’s the project website, which has archives of past community meetings and won’t be around much longer. I was alerted to this by Bill Shirley, who highlighted the following bit from the Corridor Streets section that was of interest to me.

“Pedestrian facilities along Studewood Street are in great condition north of White Oak Drive, but virtually nonexistent along the 4-lane segment of the roadway south of White Oak Drive which includes a 4-lane bridge. However, the use of this segment by pedestrians is evident by foot paths flanking both sides of the corridor. The contra-flow lane confuses drivers who are not familiar with its function, and additional signage could help mitigate this issue. The contra-flow lane also causes problems at major intersection due to the lack of protected lefts. At its northern boundary, the corridor terminates into a 6-legged intersection with E 20th/N Main Street/W Cavalcade Street. The current intersection configuration creates confusion, particularly for the pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate.”

I wrote about this awhile back, in the context of the new housing development that will be coming in across the street from the Kroger at Studemont and I-10, and how that area could be a lot more desirable, and a lot less of a burden to vehicular traffic, if that sidewalk were finished and bike options were added. The latter is known to be coming as part of the Bayou Greenways initiative, and it’s exciting to see that the sidewalk is at least on the drawing board as well. I don’t know how long term some of these projects are, but I’m looking forward to them.

Say goodbye to the Yale Street post office

The Heights real estate boom continues apace.

The next hot property to hit the market in the Heights is nearly 1 acre in size, boasts a large shade tree and fronts two busy commercial streets. The current owner is motivated to sell.

On Monday, the U.S. Postal Service confirmed that it intends to sell the brown-brick post office property at 1050 Yale, at 11th Street, and consolidate operations with another station 2.3 miles away.

“Plans are underway to relocate the retail services of the Heights Finance Station to the T.W. House Postal Station,” the service said Monday in a brief statement. “The Heights Finance Station has been placed on the real estate market and will be sold in the near future.”

In a public notice date-marked Friday and posted prominently near the front door of the Heights Finance Station, the agency says the parcel has been determined “excess” and is “no longer necessary” to its mission. If the “disposal action” goes through, the Heights property would join more than 100 other relocation projects announced nationwide as the Postal Service has had to cope with declining revenue in recent years.

Developers will be eager to pounce, said Bill Baldwin of Heights-area real estate firm Boulevard Realty. He said several commercial developments have recently been completed in that area, and more are under construction or on the books.

“The retail people will be vying for it left and right,” said Baldwin, who is also on the Woodland Heights Civic Association board. “That is too valuable of a corner and too much quantity of land. It’s a very desirable location.”

Swamplot first reported this. I should note that the former Citgo station across the street on Yale is set to become a restaurant, and there’s a commercial development going on across Heights at 11th as well, so this immediate area is about to become something very different. I’m not thrilled by losing this post office – I still pay a few bills the old-fashioned way, and we send out homemade-by-the-girls birthday cards to various friends and family, all of which it is most convenient for me to drop in the drive-by mailboxes at this station – but it is what it is. I hope we at least get something interesting out of the sale and transformation of this property, and not another CVS or fast food-oriented strip center.

Heights bike trail connection update

Good news from Swamplot:

Getting from the MKT bike trail to the West White Oak Bayou trail

OVER THANKSGIVING weekend city workers opened a portion of the proposed hike-and-hike trail that will one day link downtown and Acres Homes.

Work began last October on this new section, one that heads west from the MKT hike-and-bike trail’s former official western terminus at Lawrence Park, under the N. Shepherd Dr. and N. Durham Dr. overpasses, and over White Oak Bayou, west to Cottage Grove and north towards an eventual link with the existing White Oak Bayou trail.

This link legitimizes an unsanctioned though fairly popular “ninja route” long used by off-trail cyclists, who had been pedaling the gravel path from the park to a rickety, burned-out White Oak Bayou railway trestle known to as the “Bridge of Death,” seen below in a 2012 photo.

Click those links above, and see also here for the background. The last bit isn’t quite done yet, but this is some good progress. I look forward to checking it out sometime after the holidays when things are a bit less hectic.

Revising the historic preservation ordinance

Gird your loins.

Sue Lovell

Sue Lovell

Houston officials are preparing to revise the city’s historic preservation ordinance, a signature issue for Mayor Annise Parker that spurred a prolonged and divisive fight over property rights in her first term.

That contentiousness has never fully subsided in some neighborhoods, most notably the Heights, where redevelopment had seen numerous original structures razed before Parker’s sweeping revisions to the ordinance meant, for the first time, that the city’s Historical and Archaeological Commission could block owners from carrying out alterations to historic structures that it deemed inappropriate. Previously, a denial meant a 90-day wait, after which applicants could do as they wished.

The coming revisions will be modest, city officials say, but related efforts in the works may make the law’s application more predictable.

In the Heights’ seven historic districts, redevelopment has continued through the lens of the historic commission’s interpretation of the ordinance, which some residents and developers complain is arbitrary.

[…]

[Planning and Development Director Pat] Walsh said tweaks under consideration include:

  • Increasing the director’s ability to approve or deny minor alterations, preventing applicants from having to wait for approval at the historic commission’s monthly meetings; an example would be an addition to the back of the home not be visible from the street;
  • Clearing up vague or contradictory language. For instance, the ordinance says new construction projects should match “typical” structures of their type, but does not clarify what “typical” means. The law also says changes to roofs are exempt but, in another section, says roof changes are handled by staff.
  • Barring owners who make changes without city approval or violate their historic permit from receiving tax breaks for renovating historic structures, and lengthening the waiting period for applicants to get new building permits if they commit “demolition by neglect,” allowing an existing home to crumble to make construction of a new one easier.

Perhaps most important, Walsh said, are two related efforts that will not affect the wording of the law itself.

One is a pending study of the dimensions of homes in the Heights districts, providing staff and commissioners more information about how a proposed renovation compares to other homes. The other is Walsh’s commitment to pursue design guidelines for the three largest Heights districts, which generate the most activity.

It’s not terribly surprising that the preservation ordinance will need some maintenance. It’s a big change, and we have no history to go by for something like it. The story references former CM Sue Lovell, one of the main forces behind the ordinance who is now – and has been for awhile – working with developers and homeowners to get clarity on what is and isn’t allowed. All I can say is that whatever revisions are made this time, there will come a time to make more, and a time after that. This is a process, not a destination. The Leader News has more.

Moving out of Fitzgerald’s

Big music news in Houston.

The successful concert promotion group behind Houston’s Free Press Summer Festival has secured land just north of downtown Houston to build a three-stage music venue complex with two indoor stages and an outdoor stage.

Pegstar Concerts head Jagi Katial said Monday the project has been two years in gestation. Plans for the development at 2915 N. Main and North Street were leaked onto Houston’s Reddit outpost Saturday afternoon in part from a resident who attended a meeting about the development, which lead to Katial wanting to clear the air on some details that were bandied about.

This new venue would call for Pegstar to leave its current digs at Fitzgerald’s music venue on White Oak Boulevard, and set up shop at the new site five minutes away. This new complex as of now does not have a name, Katial says. He predicts that the doors could be open by late 2015.

“It’s very much a work still in progress,” Katial says, surveying the grounds late Monday afternoon. As of now there is nothing on the property aside from a real estate sign, trees and a concrete slab. A group of tight-knit investors has been working on the nuts and bolts for some time, he said.

The property backs up to what is called Little White Oak Bayou. Katial says engineers have said that flooding should not be an issue. It’s located just a few blocks from Metro’s North rail line, which could make it easier for concert-goers to commute to the venue.

There are a handful of vacant homes on the western end of the property which will be converted into other things, like parking, farmer’s markets and storage. He wants to get Houstonians acquainted with the area when they aren’t there for a show.

Sarah Fitzgerald, who has owned the Fitzgerald’s venue since 1977, said Monday that Pegstar’s lease is up in September 2015.

Pegstar has leased it from her since September 2010, when they remodeled the venue and began booking live music and comedy on the two stages, downstairs and upstairs, most nights of the week. The revitalization of the building has been a boon for development on White Oak Boulevard, which now has a number of bars and restaurants that are full almost every night.

“This is a bittersweet thing for me, straight up, because I love Fitzgerald’s and the idea of me being a concert producer was forged at that venue years ago,” says Katial. “I’ve seen some of the best shows that I will ever see there.”

Swamplot has a view of the new location plus some design illustrations. Fitzgerald’s, which is walking distance from my house, is an institution in Houston. I have no idea what will happen to the space after the current tenants leave. The owner could make a fortune if she sold the place to developers, but I kind of hope she doesn’t. There’s not many places like it left in Houston, and I’d hope the music scene is big enough here to accommodate both Fitzgerald’s and the new place. As for the new place, it sounds really interesting, and I love that it will be near the North Line. I’m looking forward to seeing what Pegstar does with it. See this Chron gallery of 1980’s photos at Fitz’s for more.

Yale Street Bridge replacement set to begin

And inevitably there’s an issue.

Time is running out for the historic Yale Street bridge over White Oak Bayou as its condition deteriorates and surrounding development places increasing demands on it.

Some in the Heights- area community believe more should be done to preserve the 1930s-era structure, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But state transportation engineers say it can’t handle the required loads.

The bridge, just south of Interstate 10, was teetering on closure in 2012 when Texas Department of Transportation engineers lowered its load limit – the maximum weight of a vehicle – to 3,000 pounds per axle. A large, loaded sport utility vehicle could exceed that limit, not to mention the delivery trucks becoming a more common sight as commercial development flourishes along Yale and nearby Washington Avenue.

The lowered weight limit concerned neighbors, who pressed for answers.

“What was agreed upon then was, ‘When we can make it happen, we need a new bridge,’ ” said City Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, who represents the area. “We have got to be able to accommodate the traffic.”

[…]

Construction of a replacement bridge is scheduled to begin in September 2016. Yet some are not convinced that this is necessary.

“I take the position that the bridge can stay and it has been improved,” said Kirk Farris, a local historic preservationist who has worked with TxDOT to preserve other bridges.

Farris, president of Art & Environmental Architecture Inc., and the Texas Historical Commission prepared the 2011 application that placed the Yale Street bridge on the National Register of Historic Places.

In the application, preservationists said the bridge “is one of a few remaining examples of bayou crossings constructed during the city’s street improvement bond program of the 1930s.”

The last update I had was last January, though I know there’s been action since then. Far as I can recall, this is the first time the subject of preservation has come up. I have to say, as someone who has driven over this bridge many times, I’m not clear on what the historic architectural features of it are. If it’s the exterior barriers, then surely something can be done to save at least a piece of them. If it’s something underneath the bridge, I gotta say, I’m not sure what the value of preservation is. I’d value a bridge that we can all feel comfortable will not collapse under the weight it’s now bearing. If there’s a sensible way to avoid demolition while making it safe, then sure, go for it. If not, well, I can’t say I’ll mourn the loss. I value preservation, but I’m not sure what the value of it is here. In any event, there’s a public meeting tonight at 6:30 at 7600 Washington Avenue to discuss the possibilities. That’s the place to be if you want to know more.

Studemont Junction

Swamplot has an update and some pictures from the to-be-redeveloped Grocer’s Supply truck lot near Studemont and I-10, basically on the north doorstep of my neighborhood.

SIGNS ARE UP at the soon-to-be-former Grocers Supply distribution center across Studemont from Kroger just south of I-10 announcing Studemont Junction, the name meant to bring some . . . uh, conjunction to the odd-shaped 15-acre food-storage facility Capcor Partners bought late last year. To judge from the proposed site plan for the project, that’ll be quite a task.

Developers plan to rope in (beginning at the northern end of the property) some sort of fast-food drive-thru, a bank (with its own drive-thru in back), and enough retail operations to fill a couple of “pad site” retail boxes and a more conventional broken-L shopping center on the site, each structure surrounded by its own dedicated rows of parking. Later, Capcor’s partner Kaplan Management plans to build a 400-unit apartment complex on the western end of the site.

According to the marketing copy on the leasing broker’s website, this multifamily structure, bounded by a small railyard on its south, will “reinforce the urban character of the site and will encourage heavy pedestrian activity along the corridor.” Residents will be able to get to the new complex’s front door from Studemont St. either by wending their way through the retail parking lot or by driving along a proposed new extension of Summer St. past Olivewood Cemetery to a circular drive at Wichman St.

The developer’s webpage for this is here; I encourage you to click the links under “Downloads” to see how they envision things. The comments on the Swamplot post are always useful to read – reaction is more negative than positive, due mostly to the size of the parking lot and the general feeling that this stretch of land near I-10 between Yale and Taylor is being turned into East Katy. My reaction can be summed up thusly – it’s hardly an urbanist’s dream, but given the constraints of that particular property, what did you expect? As I said before, what I really want to see out of this is an improved sidewalk along Studemont/Studewood, all the way from Washington to White Oak, and better bike access, which a couple of commenters on my post say will be part of the Bayou Greenways 2020 plan, then I’ll be happy. Basically, don’t do anything that will later be an impediment for future developers in this area or the city to improve mobility in all forms. I hope that’s not too much to ask.

Meet your first parklet

It’s in the Heights, because of course it is.

A parking space converted into Houston’s first parklet brought a mini-media frenzy — and fun street party — to 19th Street in the Heights, where New Living artisans, city officials and community supporters gathered to officially dedicate the green space outside New Living Bedroom Thursday morning.

“This is a way to connect people — to the streets, to the sidewalk, to the shops,” Mayor Annise Parker told the crowd. “The parklet provides a little respite in our busy, bustling city.

“I’m amazed to see so many media here for what once was a parking space,” she added with a laugh.

The 125-square-foot parklet, a raised platform with benches and shade canopy surrounded by planter beds filled with drought-resistant yuccas, was built by Made at New Living artisans led by industrial manager Jose Martinez using reclaimed materials from right here in the city — including 300-year-old wood salvaged from the old Mercantile building. Artisan Heath Brodie constructed the benches, while Jenny Janis handled the landscape design. The Ground Up provided the soil for the bed. More sponsors and partners include Sherwood Design Engineers and Bobby Goldsmith.

“It’s one single parking space that I was happy to give up,” Jeff Kaplan, founder of New Living, said. “I believe 19th Street is to become a major urban street in the city, and the parklet will provide a common space to gather, to rest, even a place where musicians can perform.”

See here for the background. I still don’t know what to make of these things, but next time I’m on 19th Street I’ll check it out. Swamplot and Prime Property have more.

Another expansion of single stream recycling

From the inbox:

Mayor Annise Parker and Harry J. Hayes, Director of the Solid Waste Management Department (SWMD), are pleased to announce the addition of 62,000 to the City’s popular automated curbside recycling program. As part of the expansion, residents in neighborhoods throughout Houston will receive a new 96-gallon green automated cart similar to the black automated garbage cart they already have. The green carts will take paper, plastics, metals and glass out of the waste stream.

“Once again, we are happy to announce more homes are being added to the Automated Recycling Program”, said Mayor Parker. “This expansion moves us closer to our goal of having all City-serviced homes on the program by the end of 2015. This is a long overdue goal that was established by the Solid Waste Task Force that I chaired back in 2006 – 2007. Director Hayes and his team are to be commended for their hard work.”

“This 62,000 home expansion brings our total homes covered to over 273,000, which is more than 72% of all homes directly serviced by the department,” said Director Hayes. “We’re excited to increase opportunities for our residents to recycle, which is something they want to do.”

Cart delivery will begin this week, with the first collection occurring the week of June 23rd.

Recyclable items that can be placed in the containers include: newspapers, magazines, office paper, junk mail, cardboard, paperboard, paper bags, glass bottles and jars, aluminum cans, tin and steel cans and plastics 1 – 5 and 7.

For areas included in the expansion, visit the Solid Waste Management Department web site at www.houstonsolidwaste.org and go to the section titled “Automated Curbside Recycling Program Expanded to 62,000 Homes” and follow the links.

Here’s the link to that map. For my neck of the woods, this includes a sizable chunk of the Heights – the area bounded by 11th Street, Yale, North Shepherd, and Loop 601 – that had been previously left out, as well as Timbergrove and the area east of I-45 south of Moody Park. I know a lot of people who are going to look at this map and start doing the happy dance. If you’re inside the Loop, other than a few areas in the Third Ward, you will have single stream as of June 23 if you don’t already. Since we all agree that more single stream recycling means more households participating in curbside recycling, this is great news all around. Hopefully by next year, the remaining few places that still don’t have the big green bins will get them.

Enabling bike parking at restaurants

Good to see this effort is making progress.

Public House on White Oak

It has taken some time, but a community effort to add bike racks in the Heights is seeing results.

Heights resident Mitch Cohen has placed two racks along 19th Street this year that can each store about 10 bikes and will continue raising money for more.

“I haven’t exactly taken over the area with bike racks, but it has been fun,” said Cohen, who manages the Heights’ First Saturday Arts Market and began working on the rack project about two years ago.

This grassroots effort was inspired while Cohen and other organizers of White Linen Nights in the Heights were cycling from business to business in the area to encourage them to participate.

Cycling is a popular activity and mode of transportation in the Heights, but the volunteers noticed there weren’t many bike racks along the community’s busiest streets, including 19th Street and White Oak Drive.

Cohen knew the Houston Heights Association had placed some racks in the area, and he decided to start a similar effort.

Fred Zapalac of Blue Line Bike Lab, 3302 White Oak Drive, agreed to help Cohen buy the racks at cost.

The fundraising effort got a boost in September 2012, when a couple of artists at the First Saturday Art Market raised $200 in one day by selling pins.

Cohen used that money to buy “Property of the Heights” T-shirts designed by then-Heights resident Leigh Hajovsky. From there, he was able to raise $400 by selling the shirts for $20 a piece during White Linen Nights. With Zapalac’s help, Cohen bought two bike racks with the money.

See here and here for the background. I’m not at all surprised by Mitch Cohen’s persistence in getting this done, but it sure would be nice if he had a little more help. You could probably put a bike rack in front of every business in the greater Heights for a few thousand bucks. Surely the various civic organizations, or maybe a generous donor or two, could help Mitch get this done in a much shorter time frame. The city is now officially encouraging bike parking for businesses in dense neighborhoods. We should be doing more to embrace that.

First Sunday Streets seemed like a success

The weather was kinda lousy but there were plenty of people out on White Oak Street on Sunday.

The city of Houston closed a 2.5 mile stretch of Quitman and White Oak to motor vehicles for four hours on Sunday, encouraging Houstonians to play in the street and explore their neighborhoods pushing strollers or riding bikes.

It was the first closure in the Sunday Streets HTX pilot program, which will close stretches of major thoroughfares the first Sunday of every month. The “open streets” concept started in Bogota, Colombia, more than 30 years ago and has become more popular in American cities in recent years.

Free DJs, Zumba classes, sidewalk chalk art, booths with information on community groups and a farmers market lined the route. But unlike a street festival, the options were spread out and, for the most part, offered by neighborhood businesses rather than vendors who had set up a temporary shop.

One of the core goals, after all, is to get people moving and to see their own communities in a new way, said Laura Spanjian, the city’s director of sustainability.

“We want people to get out and exercise and bike and walk and skate, and really enjoy the open space,” Spanjian said, standing in the middle of White Oak Drive near Houston Avenue.

She smiled as a father rode past on a bicycle with his giggling son, dressed in a Batman costume, balanced on his knee.

“It’s also to have people enjoy the street in a way they aren’t able to most of the time, to see things they might not get to see because they’re driving by in their cars,” Spanjian said.

See here for the background, and the Houston Press for a photo slideshow of the event. We walked over to White Oak and had lunch at Christian’s Tailgate, and it was a fun thing to do on a dreary and wet Sunday. There was a decent amount of people out and about given the rain, but it’s hard to say what the crowd might have been like if the weather had been better. I don’t know what the city was expecting or hoping for. It’s a neat idea and we’ll try at least one if not both of the next ones, on Westheimer May 4 and on Washington June 1. I would be interested to hear some numbers after these events, especially if Mother Nature does her part. If you were there on White Oak on Sunday, what did you think?

Street closings ahead

This ought to be interesting.

Three busy Houston streets will shut down to vehicular traffic on selected Sunday afternoons in an effort to see if car-bound residents will walk, bike and explore each block rather than simply drive through.

The program, called Open Streets, originated in Bogota, Colombia, more than 30 years ago and has been spreading fast across the United States in the past decade. The idea is to close streets to cars and open them to cyclists, skateboarders and pedestrians – anybody using their own brawn to move. So, no horses.

“You can bring your jump rope and you can bring your Hula Hoop,” said Regina Garcia, president of Bike Houston.

The pilot program announced Wednesday will begin April 6, when 2.5 miles of two connected streets, White Oak and Quitman, will be closed to automotive traffic between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. In May, a mile-long stretch of Westheimer in the Montrose area will be closed to vehicles. Two miles of Washington Avenue ending at Market Square Park downtown will be closed in June.

Officials said the project would encourage residents to exercise and explore Houston’s neighborhoods.

“It is a way to acquaint ourselves with what is around those streets in a way we don’t normally experience it going by car,” Mayor Annise Parker said.

In St. Louis, where the street closings have been popular, the city found nearly three-quarters of attendees spent money along the route.

[…]

Many businesses pushed for the closings, hoping to generate interest in the neighborhood around them, said Travis Adair, owner of Lucky’s, a bar along the White Oak closure route who worked with the city on the plan.

Though cars will be off-limits in the parking lot of his bar, Adair said he’s planning to have plenty of bike racks and other attractions to draw customers, including possibly a band.

See here for the Mayor’s press release and here for the Sunday Streets HTX webpage. Any time you try to do something that involves the people of Houston traveling by means other than a car, there’s going to be skepticism. I have no idea what to expect from this – I wonder what metrics the city has in mind to determine if this is a success or not – but White Oak is close to where we live, so I’m sure we’ll wander over and check it out. What do you think about this?

HISD gets more diverse

Which in this case means it’s getting a little whiter.

After decades of free fall, Houston ISD’s white enrollment is inching upward, suggesting that more families with the resources to choose are selecting Houston public schools.

Enrollment of non-Hispanic white students in the Houston Independent School District bottomed out in 2010 at 15,340 students, or 7.6 percent of enrollment. White enrollment has increased by 13 percent since then, and today Houston ISD enrolls 17,313 white students, about 8.2 percent of a district that swelled to 210,000 with the recent absorption of neighboring North Forest, a predominantly African-American district.

Curbing so-called white flight is a major accomplishment for an urban school system, said Robert Sanborn, CEO of Children at Risk, a Houston-based nonprofit. Public schools are stronger when they reflect their city’s racial and economic diversity, he said. Roughly 25 percent of Houston’s population is white, meaning most white families continue to opt out of HISD.

“To me what’s remarkable is that we don’t show a loss like everybody else,” Sanborn said. “It’s absolutely counterintuitive.”

[…]

“It’s not a stampede, and it never has been, but it’s steady and it’s undeniable,” HISD school board member Harvin Moore said of the growing white enrollment.

Enrollment of Asian students also has increased each year since 2010; HISD now enrolls 7,401 Asians, or 3.5 percent of its overall student body.

I have kind of a distorted view of HISD, living as I do in the Heights. The article discusses how gentrification and the influx of new residents into the Heights, many of whom have kids and want them to attend neighborhood schools, has had a profound effect on the demography of Harvard Elementary School, but it could just as easily have used Travis Elementary as its example. I definitely agree with Bob Sanborn’s premise that public schools are better off when they more closely resemble the city they’re in. It’s not a good thing politically if you’ve got this large bloc of voters who feel like they have no stake in the schools, and therefore no real need to support them.

As it happens, Michael Li brought up this topic on Facebook the other day.

Remarkable stats: Of the nearly 11,000 ninth grade students in DISD, only 558 are Anglo. Of those Anglo ninth graders, a quarter go to just one school – Arts Magnet.

That makes DISD about five percent Anglo. Li got his stats from DISD’s public data portal. In a subsequent comment, he noted the percentage was even lower for fifth graders. Dallas County is less Anglo than Harris County is, but not by that much. Given the past history of official segregation in public schools, it’s more than a little unnerving to see such stark differences between the makeup of these school districts and the makeup of their larger communities. Thanks to the continued dynamism of Houston’s urban neighborhoods, HISD is bucking that trend. I hope that continues for awhile.

Center Street recycling facility is closed

So says Swamplot. Multiple emails to a couple of Heights neighorhood mailing lists sounded the alarm as well. This has been a long time coming. Originally, it was supposed to have been closed at the end of 2012, but I guess that extension got extended. With the planned expansion of single stream recycling, locations like Center Street are increasingly redundant, though for folks like some of my panic-stricken neighbors who don’t have their 96-gallon recycling bins yet, there’s still a gap in the short term. And with the continued demand for real estate in this part of town, it’s hard to claim that the highest and best use for that property was a recycling dropoff site. Those of you that are still waiting for the wheely bins, I feel your pain, but you can still lug your glass to Westpark, where at least there will be workers to haul it out of your car for you. I look forward to seeing what becomes of this site. There are still a lot of other warehouse/industrial properties along Center Street between Heights Boulevard and Houston Avenue, with some townhomes mixed in between. This could be the start of a wave.

How to make the warehouse transition something to look forward to

I have four things to say about this.

Houston developers plan to build a mixed-use project, including upscale apartments and retail, on a 15-acre tract close to downtown, replacing a large produce warehouse that’s occupied the space for decades.

Capcor Partners and Kaplan Management bought the land this week from Grocers Supply, which has been at the corner of Studemont and Interstate 10 for 42 years.

[…]

Josh Aruh of Capcor, which specializes in retail developments, said it’s rare to find such a large piece of land in the Inner Loop and added that the project will make a “big footprint.”

“There is tremendous, continuous demand in this sub-market,” Aruh said. “We believe the scarcity of such a large, contiguous tract so close to downtown Houston, the Heights and entertainment districts is primed for a strong multifamily component. And with frontage near I-10, this property is ideally suited for retail. The size of the tract invites many possible other uses and users that we are currently exploring.”

Aruh said he has already discussed possibilities for the property with grocers, cinemas, restaurants and several big box retailers.

The developers are also working with the city to expand a street to split the property and reduce traffic, he said.

Michael Kaplan of Kaplan Management, which specializes in multifamily developments, said he hopes to build up to 400 high-end apartments, to go with the retail and commercial uses, to meet the demand for housing in the area.

“It’s just in the heart of this terrific growth corridor,” Kaplan said. “It is such a strong area.”

1. I admire their desire to have as small an impact on traffic as possible, because traffic on the stretch of Studemont between Washington and I-10 sucks thanks to the Kroger, the long light cycle at I-10, and the huge number of cars turning left to get onto I-10 and to get into the Kroger. Let me suggest that the first order of business would be to rebuild that piece of road, because it’s axle-breaking awful right now. Yeah, that’ll make traffic even worse for the duration, but the gain will be worth the pain. As for expanding a street – not sure which one they have in mind – let me suggest that what they really ought to consider is adding a street. I presume the entrance to this new development would be opposite the entrance to the Kroger where the traffic light is and where there’s already a left turn lane on northbound Studemont, which currently turns into a wall. Having that entrance street connect to Wichman on the west so that vehicles can access Hicks Street, which passes over Studemont and which connects to Heights via Harvard, will help.

2. If you really want to lessen the impact on traffic in the area, then it’s vital to ensure non-vehicular mobility into and out of this development and to the surrounding areas, by which I specifically mean Washington and White Oak. First and foremost, put in a sidewalk on the west side of Studemont, along the front of the development. There’s already a decent sidewalk on the east side of Studemont, but it terminates immediately north of I-10, where a well-worn path in the dirt connects you up with the bridge over the bayou and the continuation of the sidewalk at Stude Street. That new sidewalk could split at the underpass to give pedestrians the option of continuing on Studemont to Washington or ascending to Hicks and the overpass for better access to Arne’s and Kroger, and on to Sawyer Street if one is adventurous. I took the #50 bus home from work on Friday when this story was run, and I got off at Studemont to walk home from there. It took me 15 minutes to get from Washington to White Oak – I timed it – so having good pedestrian paths between these two streets will make the new development a lot more accessible. Given the traffic and the parking situation on either end, you’d be better off walking from whatever residence they build to Fitzgerald’s or BB’s or wherever you want to go.

3. At least as important as facilitating pedestrians is connecting this development to the existing bike paths and bike lanes nearby. You could take Hicks to Heights and from there get on the Heights Bike Trail, but that’s a mighty big detour if you’re heading towards downtown. And Lord knows, no one in their right mind would want to bike on Studemont to get anywhere. Look at a map of the area. Isn’t the solution to all this obvious?

GrocerSupplyMap1

This just screams for a new trail along the bayou to get past I-10 and eventually hook up with the existing trails. This picture shows how that would be possible:

GrocerSupplyMap2

Pass under Studemont, and pave that truck path to get to the Heights trail. You’d need to build a bridge over the bayou to connect to the new trail adjacent to Stude Park, which you can’t see in this old Google satellite image, but that shouldn’t be a big deal. I have no idea how much this all might cost, but for something like this that enhances mobility there may be federal grant money available. Or, you know, maybe the developers can kick in on this, since it would greatly enhance the value of their property. This might in fact be an excellent candidate for 380 agreement, one that would offer a clear benefit to all involved. I’m sure there’s a way to make this work.

Ed Wulfe, chairman and CEO of retail development and brokerage firm Wulfe & Co., said as Houston becomes more dense and urban, more warehouses will be converted into residential and commercial properties.

“We are changing land-use patterns,” Wulfe said. “Now the need is greater and the market is stronger. Warehouses can only command so much economic benefit.”

4. Density with transit >>> density without transit. The good people of Super Neighborhood 22 have that comprehensive transportation plan for their area that includes various rail and streetcar options for the Washington Avenue corridor. Moving forward on that would be a huge boon to mobility in the area, and to projects like this one and the ones that will inevitably follow. Look, I know people get skeptical whenever non-car modes of transportation are discussed. Most people don’t want to give up their cars, even a little bit. I get that, but in a city this size that still leaves a whole lot of folks who do want alternatives, and these are the people who will be seeking out dense development. We can do it right and make the whole experience a hell of a lot better, which includes the drivers since they’ll have fewer competitors for road space, or we can do it wrong and make a huge mess of it all. You tell me what the right answer is. Swamplot has more.

The dry Heights

What’s a guy got to do to get a drink around here?

Heights dry map

Eighty years after the repeal of Prohibition – the anniversary of which came and went with hardly a toast last week – there is a sliver of Houston where the booze is still banned.

And for more than 100 years, that’s been just fine with the residents of the Houston Heights.

Back when it was a city on its own and not a historic Houston neighborhood in the shadows of the skyscrapers, Heights Mayor David Barker led a campaign to rid it of the saloons that were springing up on 19th Street.

One of those saloons had become famous due to Jennie Yon Yon, a monkey who would ascend into the sky every Sunday afternoon in a hot air balloon to entertain the festive crowds.

It was never, it seems, a moral issue pitting pros against antis. The good people of the City of Houston Heights simply wanted to protect their property values, says Sister Mary Agatha, an Incarnate Word teacher who grew up there, in the book she wrote on the neighborhood.

The boundaries of this island in alcoholic seas are not neat. But they basically follow an elongated area between the North Loop and I-10, bounded on the east by Studewood and on the west by North Durham.

There are irregularities to this rectangle, though, which have spread confusion over the years.

“The question of boundaries affected by the law comes more frequently to the Heights library for solution than any other purely local inquiry,” Sister Mary Agatha tells us. The Heights was annexed by Houston in 1918 and one would have thought that 15 years later, when the repeal of Prohibition opened the beer taps across the country, that would have applied to the dry Heights.

It didn’t. The legal underpinnings of that reality, however, were not resolved until 1937, when the Texas Supreme Court said the Heights was dry and would remain so until the people within the original boundaries of the neighborhood voted to make it other.

This is a subject that has been discussed in some depth – see, for example, Houstorian from 2007 and this Houston Heights newsletter from 2009; the Leader News had a story in November as well – but it’s one of the quirkier things about Houston’s history, so it’s always interesting. One of the irregularities as I understand it is that at least in some places, the eastern border is Oxford, not Studewood. This is why so many bars and restaurants with full bars have popped up on White Oak just west of Studewood, but very little has happened past where Onion Creek is. I’m not sure if this is the case at 11th Street or not; Berryhill has a full bar, but I’ve heard that they’re on a site that used to be an icehouse and they inherited a grandfathered exception to the dry regulations as a result. Like the story says, it’s confusing. I seriously doubt anything will change about the status quo. Residents of the neighborhood don’t want any more places that sell alcohol near them. Several of the existing bars and restaurants on White Oak encountered resistance from nearby residents that were concerned about noise and drunks, and some contention remains to this day. There are ways around the restrictions. Some places do BYOB, some operate as “private clubs” for which you have to buy a token membership before you can imbibe. One way or another it all works out.

Not pissing off your neighbors is generally a good thing

That’s the message I get from this story about one developer who is trying to not piss off the people who live near his proposed development.

Elan Heights, from Swamplot

Oak trees along the sidewalks? Check. A push to build a dog park? Check. Parking garage barriers to shield neighbors from late-night headlights? Check.

These are just a few examples of the assurances one large apartment developer is making to residents of the neighborhood it plans to build in next.

The project in question is an eight-story, 276-unit apartment complex that will replace the aging Skylane Apartments at the entrance of the Woodland Heights neighborhood near downtown. Although some residents are glad to see the weatherworn complex go, others have raised concerns over how the new, higher-density project will affect traffic, green space and parking.

The deal is expected to close next month, but Charleston, S.C.-based Greystar has already made an effort to work with neighbors and hear their concerns.

Minutes from a recent meeting between the developer and the local civic association shed light on the nitty-gritty negotiations that can mean the difference between a peaceful project and one that leads to lengthy and expensive court battles. As pent-up demand for residential projects inside Loop 610 increases tensions in neighborhoods across Houston, some developers are learning that it’s better to work with, rather than against or around, the folks who already live there.

“More and more you see developers devoting more time and energy into proactively addressing neighborhood concerns,” said John Walsh, director of the graduate real estate program at the University of Houston.

Historically, Walsh said in an email, developers rarely made neighborhood concerns a priority.

See here for the background. This is the only example of a developer doing this sort of thing cited in the story, so it’s a bit of a stretch to call it a trend. Be that as it may, you’d think this would be good business practice for someone wanting to build highrise/multi-unit properties in areas that aren’t known for them. It’s true that there’s basically nothing a neighborhood can do to stop development they don’t like, though they can lobby against variances, but they can slow things down and generally make themselves a pain in the rear end. They may also generate enough negative publicity and ill will to affect the ultimate sales of the units being built, though that hypothesis of mine is as yet unproven. But really, what’s the downside to a developer to talk to the neighbors and hear their concerns before plowing ahead? You might get some useful feedback, and you’re surely save yourself some headaches. I don’t know why more developers wouldn’t take that approach. Swamplot has more.

Heights-area bike trails to be linked

Excellent news.

Getting from the MKT bike trail to the West White Oak Bayou trail

Houston’s expanding trail system will soon gain a new leg in the greater Heights area.

The addition will be part of Bayou Greenways 2020, a $215 million project aimed at creating a continuous network of hike-and-bike trails and parks along the city’s 10 major bayous.

“This is just one critical piece that will be a great help to the Heights area and the White Oak Bayou trail system,” said Heights resident Kevin Shanley, a former president of the White Oak Preservation Association.

The current trail along White Oak Bayou originally ran from 11th Street north to Watonga. As it grew in popularity, it was extended north from Watonga to Antoine. The expansion was completed last year.

In addition, a downstream section has been added from Stude Park to the University of Houston-Downtown campus.

Also in place is the Heights Hike & Bike Trail, which runs along the Missouri-Kansas-Texas rail line in the Heights from south of 11th Street near Eureka across the Heights community.

The planned section of trail, 1.35 miles, will connect the Heights segment to the existing White Oak Bayou Trail. The project will include replacing a burnt-out bridge over White Oak Bayou. Groundbreaking on this section will take place this fall, Shanley said. The work could be done by fall 2014.

“When the first leg is complete, you’ll be able to ride from (the University of Houston-Downtown) all the way to Antoine,” he said.

Ultimately, the trail will extend much further west/northwest than that, but it’s the connection between the MKT (Heights) and White Oak trails that specifically interests me. I wrote about this two years ago in response to an earlier story by Marty Hajovsky about the effort to link these trails. In the embedded image above, it’s the purple line that represents what is to be built. Making that connection will do a lot to expand bike transit in this area, and I’m delighted to see it happen.

One of the many nice things about these trails is that for the most part they are off the streets and separated from traffic, which makes riding on them quite safe. There are places where the MKT and Nicholson trails in the Heights do cross streets, and in some places those crossings are a bit hazardous. In an earlier entry, Hajovsky wrote about efforts by the neighborhood to mitigate the dangers at these crossings.

Last month, the HHA board sent a letter to District C City Council Member Ellen Cohen, Mayor Annise Parker and other city officials calling for safety improvements at six locations where the Nicholson/SP and MKT Rails to Trails bike trails cross major streets. For those of us who use those paths regularly, frequently with kids, as well as those of us who cross those paths in cars regularly (raising hands as I’m included in both of these groups), this would be a major improvement.

The six locations were identified in an independent traffic engineering study obtained by the Heights Association. According to a report in the HHA newsletter that goes out to members, the group claims that the changes should “enhance the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians without significant delays to motorists.” Here’s an excerpt from that newsletter:

The study recommends (1) installation of pedestrian hybrid beacons (“HAWK lights”) where the trail crosses Heights Boulevard, Yale, West 11th, West 19th, and West 20th; (2) installation of in-roadway lighting where the trail crosses White Oak, and (3) enhanced traffic signals and pavement markings at all six crossings. We note that the City has recently installed “bike crossing” pavement markings on the roadway approaches to the MKT intersections at 7th and Yale, 11th and Nicholson, and Columbia and White Oak.

Driving and riding over those six sites frequently, the safety problems are obvious. At West 19th, the Nicholson/SP trail splits from a single trail north of West 19th, to a split trail on both sides of the street to the south. It is so common to see children on bicycles, jogger or walkers darting across the road there to avoid oncoming traffic.

And since the bike trail covers what once were railroad tracks, the trail is on something of a rise in the street at all six of these locations. That makes the bike path hard to make out for oncoming drivers, whose cars are already “at pace” along all six of those streets. On white Oak and West 19th, with the shops, restaurants and bars, there are plenty of distractions already, further endangering trail users.

I personally would rank the intersections at Yale and 11th as the most dangerous because they’re the busiest and fastest-moving. Heights is basically two separate one-way streets, and I find that a lot easier to cross safely, and there isn’t as much traffic on 19th and 20th in my experience. The HAWK signals are still a good idea for all the locations – I’d like one installed at that White Oak crossing, too – but if I had to prioritize them, that’s how I’d do it. Houstonia has more.

City reaches settlement with developer over Woodland Park damage

Good news.

Mayor Annise Parker, the City of Houston Legal Department and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department (HPARD) announced the City has recovered $300,000 to restore recent damage to Woodland Park by a private developer. Woodland Park, located at 212 Parkview, is a 19.67 acre park near White Oak Bayou in the Woodland Heights neighborhood in City Council District H. It has been a city park since 1914.

“The residents of Woodland Park were justified in their outrage over this tragic act. There is no way to be able to fully restore the vegetation and trees that grew there over so many years, however we were amenable to a settlement in this case,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “The City of Houston fought to ensure the developer would pay for the vegetation to be replanted, and hopefully it can begin to grow again without further incident. We believe this is fair and will compensate the city for the amount of work needed to restore the area.”

During the week of June 3-7, 2013, private developers constructing several townhomes on private property adjacent to the Park caused substantial damage to nearly one acre. The damage included removal of trees, vegetation, and harmful grading of soil. Although the developers promptly offered to pay the costs of restoring the Park to its original condition, there were major disagreements regarding how this should be accomplished, and what the costs would be.

The Houston Parks and Recreation Department moved promptly to determine the best approach to restore the Park. The City Legal Department partnered with HPARD to negotiate a fair settlement amount with the developers. Those joint efforts culminated with the $300,000 payment received last Friday.

“I’m pleased a compromise has been reached that creates a path towards the restoration of Woodland Park,” said Mayor Pro Tem Ed Gonzalez, District H. “The destruction that occurred in early June was devastating and I’m looking forward to joining community members in crafting a plan of action and ensuring that all terms of the settlement are followed. I’m confident that the members of the Parks and Recreation Department are the best folks to perform the work needed at Woodland Park. I’m also very grateful to the Friends of Woodland Park for their hard work over many years and stay committed to the goal of revitalizing this hidden gem of green space in our city.”

HPARD intends to work through the Houston Parks Board to restore the Park, as much as possible, to its original condition. The project will take an estimated 6 months to complete. HPARD will meet with the community representatives, Friends of Woodland Park and Council Member Gonzalez to discuss a plan of action.

See here for the background, here for the Chron story, and here for a copy of the settlement. As part of the agreement, the city will remove the red tags on the development so it can continue. All in all, seems like a reasonable outcome. I look forward to seeing the restoration work completed. Kudos to all for getting this done. Nonsequiteuse has more, including one small suggested modification to the settlement agreement, and Swamplot has more.

Parking Panda

Interesting

Parking Panda, an online parking reservation system, launches Tuesday in Houston and Dallas. The site’s already up and running, taking reservations for lots around many area venues, including Minute Maid Park, Reliant Stadium and the Toyota Center.

The concept is pretty simple: Go online, find the parking lot you want, based on price and location, and reserve a spot. In some cases, Parking Panda co-founder Nick Miller said, people can even reserve a select spot.

In places where parking can be problem, like around a Texans game, having a guaranteed spot removes the hassle of hunting around or timing your arrival to find a close enough spot. Even if you’re ten minutes late, the spot is there waiting for you.

In Washington, D.C., where Miller said the company has seen one client use the service 125 times in the past year, the use is branching out beyond major venues to include parking around museums and entertainment districts.

That could be where things head in Houston, too, he said. Take the crowded Montrose corridor or Washington Avenue, where the city recently enacted strict parking rules. Before heading out for the night, someone potentially could find a spot ahead of time and leave the car there for the evening.

[…]

Major events and large parking garages aren’t the only places touched by the technology gains in parking. Though the bulk of the business is commercial lots, Miller said Parking Panda has some spot sellers who are, essentially monetizing their driveways.

“We have people who are making a couple hundred dollars a month,” he said.

Not everyone has a driveway worth renting, but for those in high-density areas, or near offices, the opportunity is out there.

The larger point, Miller and others say, is cities have finite space to store cars. If someone who lives a block or so off Westheimer is commuting downtown, someone in Sugar Land who works off Westheimer may be willing to rent the vacant driveway during the day to guarantee a spot.

I guess this is our week for vehicle-related innovations. It’s an interesting concept, and you can see what they have available for Houston here. I’m thinking the rent-your-driveway option might be quite appealing for events like the Art Car and Pride parades, if one lives in those areas. For that matter, I’m thinking some of my neighbors who live close to White Oak might check this out – if people are going to be parking in front of their houses anyway, they may as well make their driveway available and earn a few bucks for it. What do you think?

Ashbys all over

Here’s that Chron story that I mentioned yesterday, which talks about increasing neighborhood resistance to multi-story residential projects in areas that mostly have single-family houses.

Tension mounted as 20 or so Morrison Street residents, armed with city documents and Internet research, squared off with a developer building a midrise apartment complex in their midst.

In a small music room at the Zion Lutheran Church, the residents and developer Terry Fisher debated whether the Woodland Heights neighborhood, known for its century-old bungalows and quirky charm, would be diminished by the apartments.

“It’s a wonderful neighborhood,” Fisher agreed at the meeting last month. “We saw a lady walking down the street with a St. Bernard, twirling a leash with the sun setting behind. It was a revelation that I should build in that location.”

For an hour, neighbors pressed Fisher about traffic, potential sewage problems and property values. One neighbor stormed out; another allowed that she had no plans to be “professional or courteous.”

Fisher kept stressing that he broke no city rules and had every right to develop the property into a five-story, 36-unit apartment complex. Construction is underway and expected to be completed in eight to nine months.

“I moved to Spring for the specific reason I don’t want to live next to a high-rise,” Fisher told the room at one point. “At the end of the day, there is no zoning in Houston.”

“I’m not rolling over anyone,” he continued. “I’m building what is legal for my lot.”

That blunt answer is being invoked more often, as pent-up demand gives way to building projects across the city and into the suburbs – and as neighbors fight back, worried about the impact of the new, often high-density projects.

As I said yesterday, the key issue here is one of location, just as it has always been with the infamous Ashby Highrise. Morrison is a little side street. It’s surrounded by houses. A five story apartment complex will stand out like a zit on a forehead. The developer, who from what I understand is as charming as he comes across in this story, doesn’t care that people bought into this neighborhood for the same reason he moved to Spring. It’s not his problem, and other than putting up websites and Facebook pages, there’s not much anyone can do about it.

I suppose there is one thing that could eventually do something about development like this, and it inevitably comes up in the comments to this post on the Blight In The Heights Facebook page. I’m talking about zoning, of course, that magic yet forbidden word in Houston that means what you want it to mean. We couldn’t have another charter referendum until May of 2015 at the earliest, so even if such a movement were to take place it would happen far too late to affect a project like this. I don’t expect such a thing to happen, and I’m not sure I’d support it if it did, but I bring it up to note that the last time there was an effort to enact zoning in Houston was 20 years ago, and as Campos notes, the vote for it didn’t lose by much. I have no idea what such a vote would look like now, in a very different Houston.

That makes for interesting speculation, but not much more. In the meantime, this is the reality. I think the best you can hope for as a resident near this thing is that it will fail as a business venture, which might have the effect of making other developers a little more leery about building in places where they’re really not wanted. I still don’t know why anyone would want to live in a place like the Ashby Highrise when they must know how much all their neighbors hate it. Maybe after it and the Morrison complex are built, we’ll find out if that is a factor in the where-to-live decision making process.

More construction on Yale

It’s Alexan Heights II: Midrise Boogaloo.

The first Alexan Heights on Yale

For residents near Yale and 6th street, Independence Day fireworks were nothing compared to the sparks flying when news of another proposed apartment complex came to light July 5.

A heads-up notification from District C Council Member Ellen Cohen’s office to various residents, land use groups and neighborhood organizations told of Trammell Crow Residential’s proposed plan to build a second upscale apartment complex in the area. Reportedly dubbed “Alexan Yale,” the development would be located on Yale between 5th and 6th streets.

The 4.9-acre site is currently home to Fixtures International and is a block south of TCR’s further-along luxury apartment project, Alexan Heights, which fronts Yale St. at 6th and 7th streets.

TCR did not respond to requests for information on the proposed Alexan Yale.

As described in Cohen’s letter, however, the new project is “expected to include four stories of units over two levels of parking, with one level of parking below grade. TCR has the site under contract and is currently performing preliminary due diligence, and they expect to close the purchase of the property by the end of the year. Once TCR establishes a site plan and unit count, they will perform a new traffic study that will include roadways and intersections included in their previous TIA, while also including new intersections on Yale St., Heights Boulevard, and I-10, as well as pedestrian counts.”

See here and here for some background. As you might imagine, neighborhood residents as a whole aren’t particularly thrilled by this. But there’s only so much that can be done about this, and there’s only so much that should be done about it. Dense development is coming, to the Heights and other desirable neighborhoods. It’s where people want to live, and there’s a lot more demand than there is supply. Condo and apartment developments like these help to fill the gap. Unlike the Ashby highrise, this is an appropriate location for a multi-story structure – Yale is basically a thoroughfare, and it’s right near a highway. If you can’t build a six-story complex there, where can you build them?

(Yes, I saw that Chron story yesterday about the five-story development on Morrison Street in my neighborhood that has my neighbors up in arms. I’ll have more on that tomorrow. That’s a completely different situation, since Morrison is a little side street and there are houses all around the property, while Yale is a thoroughfare and these lots are not close to many houses.)

I get why people are concerned about this. My advice would be not to fight this with the intent of trying to prevent it from being built, because that’s at best a longshot. I mean, if Ashby can get built, what reason is there to disallow this? What neighborhood folks could do, and should do, is engage with the developer and the city to push for some specific improvements that would make the overall development better and would help mitigate the traffic impact. For example:

– Good, sufficiently wide sidewalks running along Yale from at least I-10 to the bike trail at 7th. This is still a sore point from the Wal-Mart development, so let’s not make the same mistakes here.

– Install that pedestrian-controlled traffic light where the bike trail crosses Yale, which Trammel Crow has previously said they’d be willing to pay for.

– Talk to TxDOT about adding that dedicated right turn lane on Yale to I-10 westbound, which should help a bit with traffic flow at that light.

– Longer term, engage with Metro and Super Neighborhood 22 to ensure that the area will have suitable bus service as Metro redesigns its bus routes, and that when and if a rail or streetcar line is designed for the Washington Avenue corridor that this high-density cluster between Heights and Yale, and Koehler and 6th is taken into account as well.

This is unlikely to have a large effect in the immediate term, but it will be better than nothing, and it will position the area for future growth, since surely this is not the last such project to be planned – I mean, no one expects that orange juice distribution warehouse on the east side of Yale to be there forever, right? As I see it, it’s this or be forced to react to the announcement of the next project. You tell me which is preferable. Swamplot has photos of the development area, and Hair Balls has more.