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Independence Heights

Still filled with dread about I-45

Anyone got a paper bag I can breathe into?

Strip away the enormity of rebuilding Interstate 45 and the promise of speedier trips along downtown Houston freeways, and two questions about the once-in-a-generation project remain:

How many negative effects are acceptable in one neighborhood for other people’s faster commutes?

And, how far should transportation officials go to reduce those impacts, to secure support and not vocal opposition?

“This is the defining project in the city of Houston for the next 20 years,” said Michael Skelly, a local businessman and organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “Doing it properly means minimizing impacts and, where there are impacts, mitigating them properly.”

Impacts expected from the widening of I-45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway — including a $3 billion remake of the downtown freeway system that buries a portion of the freeways and tears down the Pierce Elevated — run the gamut of environmental and social ills: air quality and flooding concerns for schools, day cares and low-income communities; removal of public housing developments in a city already hurting for affordable homes; concrete pillars and ramps rising above pristine park space along area bayous; uprooting 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes.

“What concerns us as a group is inequity,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, a local transportation advocacy group. “They will feel losses, not gains.”

Texas Department of Transportation officials say they are balancing those concerns with a need to rebuild a freeway beyond its useful life, in a way that officials believe prepares for how Houston will move more than a decade from now.

“We are working real hard to make this work,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for the six-county Houston area. “Everything we’ve heard, we’ve said ‘let’s see if we can make this work.’”

Not every problem, however, has a solution as TxDOT awaits federal approvals, possibly by the end of this year. The total cost of the project could climb above $7 billion. Construction on the segments where I-45, Interstate 69 and Texas 288 intersect could start as early as 2021.

It’s a long story, so go read the whole thing. I’ve already written about Independence Heights and the raw deal they’re likely to get, so I’ll just note two more things. One is that when a certain high-speed rail project needs to use eminent domain to build on rural land, there’s a huge (though to be fair, so far not very effective) political backlash. But when a highway expansion being proposed for the heart of a city that will “uproot 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes”, there’s a much more muted reaction. You tell me why that is. And two, as someone who is now working on the west side of town and commuting on I-10 every day, let me tell you that whatever traffic flow improvements this will achieve when the ribbon is cut, they will not last for long. I head west on I-10 from the Heights every day before 6 AM, and you’d be surprised how much traffic there is already. It moves at highway speed, but if I were to leave even thirty minutes later, that would not be the case at all. I drive home between three and four, supposedly going “against traffic”, and again, you wouldn’t believe how full it is. Most days, traffic is heavy enough to cause standstills, and it’s almost always worst inside the Loop. We’re what, a decade out from the much-ballyhooed Katy Freeway expansion? Good luck with trying to solve this when the clamor for relief starts to rise. My point is, we’re going to go through multiple years of hell, for maybe a few more years of improvement. Again, you tell me if there isn’t a better way.

Independence Heights and I-45

Sometimes, with everything else that’s going on in the world, I forget that the I-45 expansion is still out there, looming like a battleship in the harbor. But there it is, and we can’t not worry about it.

For Tanya Debose, Independence Heights is rich with history. Before it became a Houston neighborhood, it was a city, one of the oldest — if not the very first — Texas cities to be founded by African Americans. Debose’s great-grandfather became one of the city’s original homeowners in 1924; now, as executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, Debose imagines tours taking visitors to sites such as Harris County’s first African American city hall.

So when the Texas Department of Transportation released an analysis of how the I-45 expansion would impact historical resources, Debose scrolled through the document looking for what the agency had to say about the project’s impact on Independence Heights, where dozens of homes and a storied church lay in the right-of-way.

Independence Heights is bounded on the south and east by I-610 and I-45, respectively, and while the 2,309-page report mentioned that the community could potentially be impacted by the project, it did not address specific effects.

The omission could impact how the neighborhood, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is compensated for any historical losses.

[…]

Independence Heights has been impacted by highway construction before. In the early 1960s, Loop 610 was built through the neighborhood, with 330 residences demolished to make way for the highway, according to Lone Star Legal Aid.

Since then, Independence Heights has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places, a preservation program that also has roots in highway construction.

Here is the draft Historical Resources Survey Report, which is 2309 pages long, so you may be excused for not having read all the way through it. The revised design schematics for I-45 are here, so take a look at what may be in store near where you live. It’s coming, and we better be ready for it.

HouZE

This is very cool.

Independence Heights earned a place in history as Texas’ first African-American city, settled in 1908 and sovereign until it was swallowed by the city of Houston 21 years later.

But tomorrow’s residents may be pioneers of another sort, as Mayor Annise Parker and a developer announced plans for as many as 80 energy-efficient homes powered entirely by natural gas and able to sell excess electricity to the grid, with the promise that home­owners won’t pay utility bills for at least a decade.

“We are the oil and gas capital of the world,” Parker said. “We intend to be the energy capital. But part of being the energy capital is understanding how not to use energy unnecessarily.”

The project, demonstrated in two model homes by Houze Advanced Building Science, offers what developer David Goswick describes as an entirely new style of energy-efficient house.

Built with metal framing and insulated panels, the houses have a Home Energy Rating System of 44, compared with a rating of 85 for Energy Star homes and a rating of 100 for the typical new home. (Lower is better.)

Once the technology is in place, the houses should achieve a rating of 0, Goswick said.

The models range from 1,600 to 1,650 square feet and will cost $200,000 to $225,000, and Goswick said homeowners will qualify for steep discounts on property insurance and other savings.

I received some materials for the press conference on this, which you can see here. There’s more information on HouZE here and on their Facebook page, which has a bunch of photos on it. I like this for two reasons. One of course is the energy efficiency of it, as that’s often an overlooked aspect of greenness, for lack of a better term, as well as being a boon for the homeowners. Two, I love that it’s being done in a historic, near-downtown neighborhood that has a lot of empty space in it and that needs the revitalization. There are concerns, as there always are, about pricing out existing residents, but as you can see from the story neighborhood leaders are involved in the project, which should hopefully help mitigate those aspects. Growth is better than decline or stasis, after all. I hope this succeeds and expands to other neighborhoods like the Independence Heights.

Ike rebuilding funds finally coming

About time.

More than 3½ years after Hurricane Ike, a high-ranking federal housing official and Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday that $151 million in federal disaster relief money is on the way to four areas of Houston to rebuild or repair homes and apartments.

“It’s about time we get this taken care of,” Parker said. “Because of the enormous devastation caused by Hurricane Ike, there’s still too many Houstonians and whole neighborhoods that are reeling from the impact.”

Houston housing officials scattered the previous $87 million in Ike housing money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development across the city. This time, they have chosen to channel the money to Acres Homes, Independence Heights, a northeast Houston crescent centered around the Fifth Ward, and Sunnyside/South Park/South Union in hopes of contributing to neighborhood redevelopment, as well as fixing individual homes.

Residents of those neighborhoods, assembled under the aegis of the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), which advocates for low-income people, have protested at City Hall about the pace of relief.

The federal money was allocated to the state.

“The state has been slow on that (passing the money to Houston) in the past,” said Mercedes Marquez, a HUD assistant secretary who attended the announcement. She said, though, that since last summer, when the state put the General Land Office in charge of Ike funding, the pace has “dramatically improved.”

Here’s the Mayor’s press release about this. The way that federal funds for Ike recovery have been disbursed has been controversial from the beginning. Here’s a Houston Tomorrow story from January 2010 that gives some of the details. I don’t want to look back at all that, I want to look forward, and when I do what I see is a tremendous opportunity for the city to help revitalize some historic neighborhoods that really need the help. I hope infrastructure improvements, whether through these funds or through the startup of Rebuild Houston, are a major component. In addition to contributing to the real estate recovery in Houston, if we do this right we can make some low-cost and underpopulated parts of town more attractive to developers, and thus draw people looking for housing closer in and inside city limits instead of the far-flung suburbs. There’s so much potential for good here, but job one is helping out the residents in these neighborhoods who have waited far too long for the assistance they’ve been owed. Let’s take care of them and go from there.

Old neighborhoods, new faces

Really interesting story about the changing faces of a couple of Houston’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

There are now almost as many Latino residents as African-Americans in Independence Heights. At the same time, there are fewer African-American children there and in other historic black neighborhoods, even when the number of African-American adults has grown.

“There’s a lot of chitter-chatter about what that means,” said Roynell Young, a former All-Pro cornerback who runs a charter school in Sunnyside. “What I do know is, you take what you have and grow it. It’s the quality of what you produce that is important.”

Decades after segregation faded in public schools and workplaces, residential neighborhoods have been slower to change. Even as people moved away from historically black neighborhoods, churches and other institutions kept them at the center of civic engagement.

But neighborhoods, like the people who inhabit them, don’t stand still.

“We are born, we grow up, we get old,” said Sheri L. Smith, who teaches urban planning at Texas Southern University. “Communities do the same thing.”

Longtime residents may resist change. “But if you move out, someone else moves in, and they’re not responsible for your memories,” she said.

I met a couple of people over the weekend who had just moved here from Brooklyn. When I told them I was from Staten Island, one of them asked me which neighborhood. I actually had to think about it for a second before I answered, because it had been so long since anyone had asked me that question. My neighborhood on Staten Island – West Brighton, for the record – and most of the neighborhoods around it were like Sunnyside and Independence Heights when I was a kid in that they stayed the same for a long time. People lived their whole lives there, and knew who everybody was. Both my father’s parents lived in the same ZIP code till the day they died. I’m not certain, but I’d bet the same was true of my mother’s father, and outside of a couple of years at the end when she was in an assisted living facility in Seattle near her son, the same was probably true of her mother. It was true for my parents until 1999, when they moved west.

It’s not true any more, at least in my family as all us kids settled elsewhere. Through various reconnections I’ve made on Facebook, I know there’s still some of my old friends there, but many have left. I suspect some of it is generational – people nowadays are more accustomed to the idea of moving away – and some of it is just how society in general is these days – modern careers are much less conducive to staying in one place forever. I haven’t been back to Staten Island in over a decade, so I can’t say for myself how much it has changed since I stopped visiting regularly. I definitely plan to take the girls to visit there in the next few years, and we’ll see how I perceive it from the perspective of fatherhood and connecting to my roots. I suspect it will be a very different experience.

On a side note, I will say that the place in Texas that is most strongly reminiscent of Staten Island to me is Galveston. Island communities, where the boundaries are clearly demarcated and there’s a big difference between being born there and not being born there, are just different. Paul Burka wrote a story about his ancestral home town awhile back for Texas Monthly, and I remember thinking as I read it that someone could write a very similar story about mine. Maybe some day I will.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to get all nostalgic on you, but that’s what this story triggered in me. It’s worth your time to read even if it’s not likely to have the same effect on you. Greg has more.