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Neartown

Redefining residential streets

Streets are about more than just cars. Where the rubber will meet the road on this, as it were, is on busy residential streets like Dunlavy in Montrose, where new city planning codes will have an effect.

Dunlavy is, at least in theory, a four-lane street between Allen Parkway and U.S. 59. Some drivers question whether the outside lanes really count.

Uneven gutters, often filled with debris or small mounds of dirt deposited by passing cars and trucks, line the traffic lanes. Cyclists willing to brave the road dodge potholes and passing cars. Trucks, and most cars, tend to stay in the inside lanes.

“It is not effectively working as a four-lane roadway,” said Amar Mohite, who manages the transportation group in Houston’s planning department.

So in a departure from what many consider the Houston model, the city is calling for reducing the space for cars and trucks. Plans for Dunlavy, along with a handful of other street segments between River Oaks, downtown and U.S. 59 and along the Washington Avenue corridor, will decrease driving room in favor of retaining trees and making parking, bicycling and walking easier.

The proposals, part of a list of amendments to the city’s transportation plan, guide future construction and give developers an idea of what to expect. The changes would appear in the 2014 major thoroughfare and freeway plan.

What’s significant, officials said, is the decision to reduce driving lanes in some spots. The traditional Houston method of improving a four-lane road – turning it into a five- or six-lane road – is falling out of favor in many neighborhoods, with residents reluctant to lose more private land to roads.

[…]

Residents along Dunlavy, and generally around Neartown, told planners they wanted their streets maintained to allow for biking and walking, rather than widened to accommodate more traffic.

“What we said was, make it a neighborhood where you could ride your bike or take a walk,” said Greg LeGrande, president of the Neartown Association, a coalition of civic groups.

Here’s a map, for those of you not familiar with the area. Let’s be very clear about something: Dunlavy is not a thoroughfare. It’s a residential street, with stop signs, houses, cars pulling into and out of driveways, bikes, and pedestrians. Other than a brief stretch just north of West Gray by the post office where it is striped for two lanes on each side, it really is just a little one-lane-each-way road, meant for neighborhood traffic at neighborhood speeds. What distinguishes it from the other little north-south roads between Shepherd and Montrose that cross over US 59 is 1) it goes all the way to Allen Parkway, which gives it easy access to downtown and Upper Kirby, and 2) it has no speed humps. Those things help attract traffic to it, and people treat it like it’s meant for that kind of traffic. My friend Andrea, who used to live on Dunlavy near Gray, would complain bitterly about the drivers that zipped past her house at 40 MPH plus. That’s not what that street is for.

So I’ll be very interested to see what the city proposes to do. I predict there will be lots of whining, mostly from people who don’t live on or near Dunlavy. The city’s planning department will host an open house in late June to explain the amendments, and City Council is expected to consider the changes in September. One thing I’m not sure about is how they propose to make Dunlavy more bike-friendly while reducing the lane widths yet maintaining street parking. As I think about it, it should be doable – Dunlavy really is four full lanes wide, even if it’s almost never used as a four-lane road; there’s plenty of space between moving vehicles and parked cars – I’m just not sure how to visualize it. I look forward to seeing the proposal.

What’s in a neighborhood name?

Keep Houston Houston has had enough of “fake” neighborhood names.

“Lower Westheimer” – This does not actually exist, it’s just Montrose. Or “The Montrose” if you wish to rebel against popular linguistic conventions without going full retard.

If Google says there's a Neartown, there's a Neartown

If Google says there’s a Neartown, there’s a Neartown

“Neartown” – This also does not exist, it’s just Montrose. This appears to have been an 80′s or 90′s era attempt to rebrand Montrose as something other than Montrose, and only appears on official documents. Even the Realtors don’t use it, and Realtors tend to be on the forefront of linguistic murderation (see: “Craftsman”). It should be scrubbed completely from the record.

“Washington Heights” – Again, this does not actually exist. There are legitimate grounds for nitpicking over what to call the small finger of the original Heights plat that extends south of IH-10, but this is a miniscule area – and in any event, if it’s part of The Heights, then it is simply The Heights. If you live off Washington, you live off Washington. If you live in an area covered by another historical name, like “Rice Military” or “Cottage Grove,” that works too – although I’ve always tended to look askance at people who use sub-neighborhood names. It’s as if they’re too elitist for general neighborhood or street names. “Oh you live in Avondale? Tell me more.” However, Washington Heights is right out.

OST/South Union, too

OST/South Union, too

“EaDo” – Seriously? No. No, no, no, no, no. The proliferation of faux New York City style names needs to stop, and it might as well stop here. You can say “Eastside,” or you can say “Third Ward.” There’s no other cutesy names to mine from (like “Cottage Grove”) because historically speaking, no one lived there.

Now, some might argue that this isn’t actually Third Ward. These people are wrong. If you want to see what is and isn’t the Third Ward, walk into Ninfa’s on Navigation and scope the map they’ve got hanging up front by the waitstand. Now find the area to the immediate east of Downtown. See what ward it’s in? Yep. You in the Tre, homie. You too, Eastwood.

“OST / South Union” – This is another one of those names, like “Neartown,” that appears to have been an attempt at top-down rebranding when the Super Neighborhoods were drawn up. But everything west of Cullen and south of Griggs is pretty clearly “Yellowstone” (or “The Yellowstone”), and with all the development focused on Palm Center this will probably end up being the default name for the Griggs/MLK intersection, which was originally part of the South Park plats. There is no other unclaimed land to apply this moniker to, so let’s throw it out along with the rest of ‘em.

I grew up on Staten Island, the last and least of New York City’s five boroughs. To the rest of the world, we simply say we’re from the Island when asked of our origins, but to fellow Islanders we say what neighborhood we’re from. The local newspaper, the Staten Island Advance, is obsessively meticulous about identifying the neighborhood for each person, business, or event it reports on. A part of my eighth grade social studies curriculum was the history and geography of New York City in general, and of Staten Island in particular. Our teacher, Mr. Kapacinski, showed us a map of the Island with each neighborhood detailed. I don’t recall if we were ever tested on that, which is just as well because there’s dozens of those neighborhoods and you can drive yourself crazy trying to remember where Castleton Corners ends or where Dongan Hills begins, but there was a time when I was reasonably proficient with it.

The thing about that map, though, is that it was completely subjective. No one had ever done an official survey and determined exact boundary lines. As Mr. Kapacinski told us, each neighborhood was what the people that lived there called it. Any Islander worth her salt can tell you what her own neighborhood is, but only the most hardcore can say with confidence what and who else is or is not in that neighborhood. Some older neighborhoods like Tottenville or Stapleton, one-time home of the Stapes, are fairly well-defined, but thanks to the housing boom that followed the construction of the Verrazano Bridge in 1964, there’s a whole lot of people living in places that were once empty. Those places needed to be called something, and as there’s no Department Of Neighborhood Names to rely on, what they decided to call themselves is what the rest of us now call them. If that area used to be known as something else back before it was developed, well, that’s the way it goes.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying that I disagree with Keep Houston Houston on this. Frankly, given how dynamic and ever-reinventing Houston is, I don’t see the point in saying that there is none but The Heights or The Montrose or The Third Ward, and any newfangled names are an abomination before me. Sure, some of these names are shameless attempts to glom onto the cachet of an area that has never extended to that particular location before – there’s a reason why every development on the outskirts of The Heights calls itself Something Heights – but it does at least serve the purpose of pinpointing where it is. The Third Ward is a pretty expansive place, encompassing a lot of what now really are separate and distinct neighborhoods. I don’t think anyone objects to the moniker “the Museum District”, even though it’s technically in the Third Ward. Why should EaDo be excluded from polite conversation? It maybe too cute a name for one’s tastes, but it’s nowhere close to the Museum District in location or character. Let it be its own place, I say. And if next month someone plans an EaDo Heights development – that big former KBR property is going to be called something else someday – I can live with that, too.

Note, by the way, the embedded pictures above. They’re clipped from Google Maps, the result of searching for “Neartown, Houston” and “OST/South Union, Houston”. With all due respect to KHH, if Google says something exists, I say that’s a pretty strong prima facie case for it. I’ll stipulate that the others remain figments, at least for now, but thirty years on I’ll stick with Mr. Kapacinski’s rule: A neighborhood is what the people there call it. You may not like the names they’ve picked, but as with old school grammarians and the word ain’t, it’s a fight you’re going to lose.

Since I started writing this post, KHH posted a followup that was largely in response to this riposte from John Nova Lomax at Houstonia. KHH takes the beginning premise in some other directions, and since I don’t want to rewrite all this from scratch I’ll just leave that be. Really, I just wanted to say that one can’t dictate neighborhood names, and that especially in a city that changes as much as Houston does you should expect the names to change as well. Finally, if your objection is that a lot of these new names are just marketing efforts by realtors and/or developers, isn’t that how most of the old neighborhoods got their names, too? If the likes of “EaDo” and “Washington Heights” really are ephemeral, then in the fullness of time we’ll all forget they ever existed. If not, who cares how they came to be named?

Three cheers for Montrose

Always nice to get recognition.

Montrose, the central Houston community known for its diverse lifestyles, vibrant street life and stately historic homes, is being honored by the American Planning Association today as one of the country’s 10 great neighborhoods.

Houston’s sprawl, absence of zoning and reputation for haphazard development might make its recognition by the national planning establishment something of a surprise. Yet the qualities cited in the award for Montrose — its walkable street grid, carefully preserved historic districts and eclectic mix of homes and businesses — reflect Houston’s preference for private rather than government-imposed planning, experts said.

In the early 20th century, long before it became the focus of slum-clearing urban renewal projects or the heart of Houston’s gay and lesbian community, Montrose was an elite master-planned suburb, said Stephen Fox, a Rice University architectural historian.

“Its planning has really come from the developers of the individual subdivisions rather than representing any public policy,” Fox said.

[…]

“It doesn’t have to always be a prescribed method of growth,” [David Robinson, the president of the Neartown Association] said. “It’s organic. The street grid, the sidewalks have meant that without zoning and for the most part without restrictive covenants, the area has been able to grow and adapt.”

The street grid — a web of straight streets with short blocks and none of the cul-de-sacs favored in suburban neighborhoods — has helped keep Montrose walkable since the days when people stepped off streetcars and walked to homes or shops, Robinson said.

David Morley, a research associate at the American Planning Association, said Montrose’s pedestrian-friendly nature was an important factor in the award.

“It’s one of the few places in Houston where people get out of their cars and walk around,” Morley said.

Congrats to Montrose and kudos to the APA for making such a good choice. I hope that as Montrose continues to gentrify and densify that its basic infrastructure needs are met so that it may be a great place where people want to live for many years to come. Hair Balls has more.