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Near Northside

In which Houston becomes more walkable

It’s a start.

On 19th Street, one of Houston’s most enduring strips of shops and restaurants, there is a vacant lot tucked between two stores, about a block from the landmark “Heights” sign.

When developers recently expressed interest in putting a new building there, however, they suffered a setback.

Houston’s planning codes, written in the 1990s with automobiles in mind, meant the developers would have to put the new building 25 feet back from the road, set awkwardly behind the street-side strip of storefronts.

The city planning commission granted them a reprieve from the rule, but the episode illustrated how Houston’s code served as an impediment, not a spark, for so-called “walkable” development, said Bill Baldwin, a real estate agent and member of the planning commission.

City council on Wednesday took a first step toward changing that, unanimously approving ordinances aimed at making pockets of Houston more friendly to pedestrians and moving the city away from its car-centric planning code. The new regulations only apply to new buildings and redevelopment in certain parts of the city.

In those areas, the ordinances will bring buildings — not parking lots — closer to the street, widen sidewalks, and reduce or altogether eliminate the number of parking spots developers are required to offer.

[…]

The ordinances create two distinct programs: areas with a ““Walkable Places” designation, where the city seeks to foster pedestrian-friendly development; and areas in the “Transit-Oriented Development” program, where the city hopes to bring the same principles to most streets that fall within a half-mile of a bus or train station.

While the underlying regulations are similar, the Walkable Places” program initially takes shape in three pilot projects along Emancipation Avenue, Midtown, and Hogan and Lorraine Streets in the Near Northside. Other areas can pursue a “Walkable Places” designation if a majority of property owners support it. City council will have final say over all such designations.

The “Transit-Oriented Development” program will apply to city-designated areas across Houston that are close to transit stops.

For the streets covered by either program, the ordinances undo many of the automobile-centered rules adopted in the 1990s. For example, under those rules, all development on major streets must be set back 25 feet from the road, businesses must offer a prescribed number of parking spaces for customers, and sidewalks must be 5 feet wide.

The new rules waive the set-back requirement, bringing buildings closer to the street and pushing parking lots to the side or behind new buildings. The transit-oriented development ordinance cuts or eliminates parking space requirements.

A preview version of the story from Wednesday morning is here. You should follow the links in the excerpt to see more about the program. It will take awhile for the effects to be truly visible, but the potential is great, and there are a lot more places that need this kind of intervention – I for one would put Washington Avenue at the top of the list of corridors to be added to the existing list. Though this story begins with a development on 19th Street in the Heights, as of today none of the Heights is in scope. Which is fine, as most of the commercial parts of the neighborhood – think White Oak, 11th, and 19th/20th – are pretty good with sidewalks to begin with. I guess what I’m saying is, I want to see this spread to more of the city. It’s a little crazy to think that we had these anti-pedestrian rules in the first place, but that was Houston in the 90s for you. Would have been great to do this kind of unwinding a long time ago, but better late than never.

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.

Getting more people to use B-Cycle

Houston’s B-Cycle program has been a big success overall, but not in all locations.

Despite the growth, however, few of the nearly 70,000 checkouts between January and mid-October are coming from three B-Cycle stations specifically placed to expand the system into Third Ward and Northside neighborhoods. According to B-Cycle data, 1,151 of the 68,419 checkouts occurred at the Leonel Castillo Community Center north of the central business district, Project Row Houses in the Third Ward and John Clayton Homes east of U.S. 59 near Navigation.

For comparison, the station near Hermann Park Lake logged 7,288 checkouts from Jan. 1 to Oct. 13.

B-Cycle operates by allowing people to check out bikes from 28 different spots around Houston with a daily, weekly or annual membership. The bike can be checked out for 60 minutes before incurring rental charges of $2 per half-hour, and checked back into any B-Cycle kiosk. Within the membership period a person can check out a bike as many times as they wish.

The bikes are popular with downtown riders traveling to areas around the various stations, and with local visitors. Officials also hoped the bikes would catch on in nearby neighborhoods where car ownership might be lower, and exercise options less available.

Connecting with locals has been a challenge. Will Rub, director of Houston’s B-Cycle program, acknowledged in July that use in the area neighborhoods has been less than expected. Some residents do not have the credit card needed to get a membership, and might not be aware of the options for using the bike.

[…]

To encourage use in Houston, Rub said he is working on a program with the Houston Housing Authority, which manages John Clayton Homes, to provide annual passes to the community center. The community center will check the passes in and out so residents have access to the bikes.

That seems like a good idea. I wonder how much outreach has been done overall. It’s been my opinion that B-Cycle needs to be seen in part as an extension of the Metro transit network, so I’d like to see more kiosks near well-used transit stops. The Castillo Center is a few blocks away from the Quitman light rail station, but you’d have to know it was there and you’d have to be going in that direction for it to make sense to use. Just a thought. Anyway, I hope they figure it out.

North Line opening today

From the inbox:

ALL ABOARD FOR SATURDAY RAIL ROLL-OUT

METRO is inviting the public to get on board for the Saturday, Dec. 21 grand opening of the new 5.3-mile North/Red Line!

Riding the train will be free all day as part of the grand opening celebration taking place at Moody Park.

Festivities at the park include acts like A.B.Quintanilla III y Los Kumbia King All Starz, Mango Punch, Fama and special guest Tamar Davis. The free event will also feature booths with food from north-side vendors and activities for children (like 80,000 pounds of snow) – from 11:30 AM to 5 PM. Click here for the lineup.

Moody Park (3725 Fulton Street) is located right off the Red Line and has its own stop, Moody Park station.  Party patrons can hop on board any of METRO’s 24 stations and make tracks for the celebration.

Prior to the Moody Park celebration, there will be a 10 AM photo opportunity when Congressman Gene Green, METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia and others, board the first southbound train from Northline Transit Center/HCC  (8001 Fulton).

The UHD campus will host an additional commemorative event beginning at 1:30 PM Saturday for a gathering of select guests including community leaders and dignitaries. UHD President Bill Flores and METRO Board Chairman Gilbert Garcia will welcome guests who will board a specially decorated “Polar Express” train traveling to Moody Park for the celebration.

Assuming the weather holds up, I’ll take the girls and check it out. Bounce houses and food trucks are a fine combination for folks like me with kids to entertain on a weekend.

Here’s the Chron story about the opening.

The opening of the first new rail line in 10 years is going to bring “positive changes for the community,” interim Metro president Tom Lambert said.

As the first to serve residential neighborhoods, the line will allow Metro “to see how we can use a bus system to feed into rail. And it will give people more transportation options.”

Transportation options are just the beginning. It also opens up new residential possibilities for residents who live nearby. Some are looking at the rail extension as a way to grow their businesses. For others it will provide easier access to shopping and dining on Houston’s near northside.

“We anticipate an increasing number of shoppers using the rail to get to our stores, especially those shoppers who depend on the public transportation,” said Jeff Procell, general manager for Northline Commons Mall.

The open-air mall is at the Red Line’s northernmost terminus, the Northline Transit Center.

The transit center was part of a nearly 20-year-old negotiation between Metro and the mall’s owners.

“We did that deal in the mid-’90s. Lucky us for having the foresight to make certain the rail would stop here.”

Procell points out that while there are many small strip shops along the Red Line, Northline Commons will be the only major retail center on any of the rail lines (current or coming).

Depends on if you consider the Universities Line to be still on the drawing board for someday or not. If you do count it, then the Costco at Richmond and Weslayan would count as well. There’s also the Uptown BRT line that may someday be a rail line, but now we’re wandering pretty far afield. Moving on:

Realtor Tim Surratt, with Greenwood King Properties, said interest in Northside homes started picking up last year.

“It’s one of the last affordable close-in neighborhoods,” Surratt noted, adding that it has a lot of appeal for young, first-time home buyers.

The draw is the affordability of the housing, but “they’re really excited about the rail,” Surratt said. “These young people just aren’t as interested in driving. They want to use public transportation.”

So far this year, sales of 80 homes in Northside neighborhoods such as Lindale, Irvington and Ryan have been closed. If the 18 homes currently under contract close, it will mean an increase of 38 percent in home sales over last year.

Surratt also is impressed by the escalation in home prices. In 2012, the most expensive sale was $181,000. This year, one Northside home went for $371,000.

The Fifth Ward to their east is also affordable and close in, but they don’t have the infrastructure or the transit to be as attractive just yet. Someday, I hope they will. I also hope housing prices there stay reasonably affordable for at least a couple of years. The good news is that with transit, real density becomes a lot more feasible and desirable. I hope we see a lot of new multi-unit projects in the area. I am really looking forward to the rest of the lines opening up. It’s a new era for Houston.

Heights-Northside Mobility Study

You might want to put this on your calendar.

The area defined as the Heights-Northside study area bounded on the east by US 59, on the south by IH 10, and on the north and west by IH 610. The purpose of this study is to identify near and long range projects that promote better mobility, and to consider and develop a multi-modal classification for streets within the study area which are inclusive of pedestrian, bicycle, transit, vehicular and other modes of transportation.

The Heights-Northside Mobility study will build upon the lessons learned from other sub-regional mobility studies and findings from prior studies. This study will also explore efficient and context sensitive mobility solutions for all users of the transportation system. It will evaluate the overall system network to make it efficient to address the current and future needs within the study area. Given the limitation of the current conventional street classification system, the City Mobility Planning (CMP Phase 1) process recommended a multi-modal street classification system to utilize within the COH.

During the course of this task, the Consultant will work with City staff to integrate the new planning process and the mobility toolbox, developed as a result of CMP Phase I, into the City’s transportation planning process.

Marty Hajovsky explains what this means.

The Greater Heights Super Neighborhood Council is actively involved in this process, and is encouraging anyone interested to attend the meeting. And while the I-45 North Corridor project, being under the aegis of the Texas Department of Transportation, is not a city effort, the two areas do overlap.

One thing the city does not intend to do is simply ignore previous work. […] What that means is that as far as the city is concerned, at this point all mobility options are on the table. That’s what makes this meeting crucial because as the I-45 North planning process has shown, urban planners and consultants come and go, but the views of residents, those who will be affected by these decisions for years to come, carry significant weight. Though of course, the opinions of those who don’t speak up carry none.

Here are the meeting details:

When: Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Time: 6pm – 8pm (presentation at 6:30)
Where: Lambert Hall, 1703 Heights Boulevard,Houston, TX 77008 (map)

RSVP Here

According to KUHF, there will be a second meeting on Wednesday the 27th, at the Candlelight Community Center, 1520 Candlelight Lane. Please RSVP if you plan to attend one or both of these meetings, and please do try to be there for at least one of them.

Time for a Saint Arnold update

Things are going well on the new brewery construction front.

Saint Arnold Brewing Co. is leaving its 30,000-square-foot, leased facility at 2522 Fairway Park Drive in the Heights and moving to a three-story, 90,000-square-foot brick building at 2000 Lyons Ave., just north of Interstate 10 and east of Elysian Street.

The facility was previously owned by the Houston Independent School District.

Owner Brock Wagner, a West University Place resident, hopes to make the move by June.

Wagner said business has grown by about 25 percent each year.

“I knew the current facility was going to reach its production limit in the not too distant future,” Wagner said.

[…]

Dedicated to urban revitalization, Wagner felt the best place was downtown, but most buildings were in terrible shape or owners wanted “ridiculous amounts of money” for them, he said.

“When we opened, we had two goals: to brew and sell the best beer in Texas and to create an institution Houston was proud of,” he said. “As part of that it seemed to make sense that we were centrally located.”

He found the building at 2000 Lyons Ave., which HISD used as a frozen food distribution warehouse. Initially, the district planned to demolish the building, built in 1914, because most businesses couldn’t use the building with larger freezer space, Wagner said.

From an operational standpoint, the building wasn’t perfect for the brewery either. But Wagner said he hated to see an old building with so much character abandoned.

He purchased the building and land plus a 79-space adjacent parking lot for $1.18 million.

Wagner is spending $6 million to prepare the building for the brewery, including adding 12,000 square feet.

There will be more bathrooms, air conditioning, and weekday tours. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The odd thing about this story is that statement that the existing brewery is in the Heights. I had no idea that the Heights extended outside Loop 610, and I’ve never heard this location being described as being part of The Heights before. But hey, this was in the Heights/Neartown version of the Chron’s “This Week” section, so it had to be connected somehow. Whatever.

In any event, you can see a recent picture of the construction here. That comes from the Saint Arnold Twitter feed. If you’re already on Twitter, you surely already follow Saint Arnold there; if you’re not, perhaps this will serve as a reason to join up. They really know how to use social networking software over there. More on the brewery move here and here.