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The bricks of Freedmen’s Town

Surely we can do something about this.

Most in the Fourth Ward community know the lore – that freed slaves and descendants first laid the bricks on the streets 100 years ago.

Now most agree the roads need repairs, but residents and preservationists worry a recently approved city plan to remove the bricks to fix piping underneath will ruin the original streets, a key element of Freedmen’s Town designation as a National Historic District. Some activists also say the process to approve the project violated federal laws intended to preserve national historic districts.

“I’m appalled that the mayor wants to disturb those bricks like that,” resident Terrance Williams said.

More than 100 years ago, Fourth Ward residents paid $1 per brick to have the streets paved in front of their houses, said Catherine Roberts, co-founder of the Rutherford B.H. Yates Museum in Freedmen’s Town, and a major force for the area’s conservation. Not only are the bricks themselves significant, but the patterns they form tell a story. The designs at some intersections can be traced back to African crossroads – which pointed the way to safehouses for the black community – or religious traditions of the Yoruba people of West Africa.

“This is an in-the-ground cultural resource,” Roberts said. “You don’t take them out.”

Their inability to stop construction has made the community feel powerless – a community once considered the heartbeat of black Houston. Doctors, lawyers, dentists and ministers populated the area until the 1920s, when the Third and Fifth wards became more popular.

[…]

After decades of discussion and planning to install new utilities in the neighborhood, City Council approved a $5 million plan this month to repipe portions of Andrews and Wilson streets. Work is scheduled to start by early August, said Mike Cordova, project manager for the city.

Water and sewer pipes will be replaced, and then the salvageable bricks – estimated to be just one-third of those there now – will be cleaned and put back, but likely not in their original designs.

Texas Department of Transportation architect Mario Sanchez said the bricks will be regrouped at intersections rather than in their original locations. “It was determined infeasible to re-install them in their original locations, specifically because there would be a lack of continuity based on the number of salvageable bricks,” Sanchez wrote in the email to the Houston Chronicle.

That’s heartbreaking news to residents and historians, who believed that years ago they had reached a solution on upgrading the Freedmen’s Town streets. They pleaded with the city to tunnel underneath the bricks instead of moving them, and in 2007 former Mayor Bill White reached an agreement with U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee to do just that.

In a letter sent to the Chronicle from Jackson Lee to White, the congresswoman discusses the agreed-upon plan: using a combination of trenching and tunneling to put the water and sewer lines beneath the sidewalks instead of under the bricks, leaving them undisturbed.

City officials now say the streets are too narrow for tunneling, and construction costs could quadruple.

“It just wasn’t a practical way to move forward,” said council member Ellen Cohen, whose district includes Freedmen’s Town.

It always comes down to money, doesn’t it? There’s a lot more in the story about the historic preservation process and whether it’s being followed correctly, and you should read the whole thing. What it comes down to is that these bricks and these streets are a unique and very important piece of culture and history in a neighborhood that has lost so much of that culture and history to the demands of modern times. We really need to find a way to improve these streets without losing or damaging what they’re all about.

Astrodome preservationists make their case for historic landmark status

Ted Powell and Cynthia Neely, the driving forces behind the push to designate the Astrodome as a national and state landmark, write an op-ed outlining their reasoning.

Not historic but still standing

As the Texans and the Rodeo view a third-party investor as not boosting, but rather siphoning off their revenue streams, we believe they have and will continue to dismiss any third party idea submissions no matter how well financed.

The hastily assembled $217 million bond ballot initiative, which was narrowly defeated during the low turnout election in November, was a face-saving move following the county’s swift dismissal of more than 22 third-party submissions.

It is our belief that public funding (i.e., bond issue), is the only path forward that the Texans and the Rodeo will accept as it is the only way that guarantees that they will not have to share park decision-making and revenue with a third party in the future.

We believe the national and state landmark designations can break the stalemate. Their legal statute permit requirements bring the Texas Historical Commission to the table, who, if invited, will assist with developing a comprehensive plan that optimizes the economic benefit and historical preservation aspects in repurposing the Astrodome. Even if the commission is not invited to the planning table, the agency has veto power over any ill-conceived Astrodome plan.

The landmark designations also offer tax saving opportunities to third-party investors, increasing the pool of potential investors and re-purposing visions.

It is true that a state landmark-designated building can be delisted and a demolition permit can be granted, but this requires the owner to show due diligence as to why no economically viable plan exists.

It is doubtful that the commission would grant a demolition permit based on “existing contractual obligations.”

See here, here, and here for the background. It’s tough to put much detail into a 700-word op-ed aimed at a general audience, but I don’t feel like I learned anything new from this. It’s interesting that they have concluded that public financing is the only non-demolition path forward, since previous statements made by the likes of Commissioner El Franco Lee and County Judge Ed Emmett suggest they think that a private investor is the ticket. I wonder how much Powell and Neely’s perspective was shaped by that stakeholders meeting a few weeks ago. I agree that landmark designation will make it more difficult, politically as well as procedurally, to demolish the Dome. That may force the recognition that an imperfect plan is better than no plan, which may help move something forward, and it has value on its own if you’re passionate about saving the Dome, as Poweel and Neely clearly are. Beyond that, I’m still not sure what this will do.

They don’t make historic landmarks like they used to

If it can still be demolished, it’s fair to ask what was the point.

Not historic but still standing

The impending designation of the Astrodome as a so-called “state antiquities landmark” has offered new hope to those who want to save the iconic stadium, but the special title would not outright protect the former Eighth Wonder of the World from the wrecking ball, even though it would make it far more difficult.

At an “Astrodome Stakeholder’s Meeting” on Wednesday convened by Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, preservation groups pointed out that the county still could seek a demolition permit from the Texas Historical Commission, even if the 13-member body votes this summer to deem the dome an antiquities landmark. Emmett noted that the county, under state law, could also make the case that redevelopment is too much of a burden on taxpayers in asking the commission for permission to tear down the now-empty structure.

[…]

“If we can’t find a group or a solution to use that building, we’re going to get to demolition eventually,” said Beth Wiedower, a senior field officer for the National Trust. “Yes, this is great that it’s been recognized as historic but our efforts are going to be focused on reusing the building because that’s ultimately what’s going to save it.”

Emmett said he organized the Wednesday meeting because he wanted everyone to be “on the same page” about where things stand with the dome, particularly the antiquities designation he says will impose added difficulties as the county tries to figure out what to do next.

The historical commission is slated to consider the designation at its meeting July 30-31.

[…]

Emmett said Wednesday the goal – as it was before the failed bond proposal – is to find a private entity to redevelop the dome at its own expense, something the county has been seeking for years now to no avail. He also said demolition still is not on the table, although he mentioned a provision in state law that would allow the county to make the case to the commission that demolition is necessary because redevelopment is too costly, if no plan pans out.

“Part of this antiquities landmark process later on could be going to the historical commission and saying ‘Look we’ve tried we’ve tried, we’ve tried. We’ve not come up with an answer and this is too great a burden on the taxpayers of Harris County and that is a provision in the law that you can take into consideration,” he said.

Emmett said he expects the commission will approve the designation, preventing demolition at least for the “short run.”

“If they grant the landmark status then I think that will force some people to come to the table and say, ‘OK, we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do with the dome’ because I think it would be unlikely then, in the short run, that the historical commission would approve tearing it down,” he said.

See here, here, and here for the background. Not sure we’re any closer than before to agreeing on What To Do About The Dome. Well, at least now we agree that it can still be torn down. Whether or not that’s what we want to do is a whole ‘nother question. So I guess we’ll just keep talking.

Let’s talk about the Dome

Time for a come to Judge Emmett meeting about everyone’s favorite historic yet threatened local landmark.

Not historic but still standing

Emmett said he wants to use the meeting next Wednesday to clear up any confusion surrounding last week’s unanimous vote by the state’s Antiquities Advisory Board to forward an application for landmark designation to the full commission, acknowledging that approval is “likely.” The vote will occur at the commission’s quarterly meeting on July 30 and 31 in Alpine, commission spokeswoman Debbi Head said.

Emmett said many people do not understand that the county-owned Dome has had protected status since February when the historical commission agreed to consider the application, submitted by two Houston residents.

“We’ve got a lot of people who are saying different things about what they think is happening and this is just to make everything clear as to what’s going on,” Emmett said. “There is no answer, there is no proposal out there right now, but it’s just to have the conversation because once the historical commission filing was made, then the county’s hands are tied to a degree already. Some people don’t understand that.”

Representatives from the Rodeo and the Texans – the primary tenants of NRG Park, where the Dome is located – are among those on the guest list. Others include Ted Powell and Cynthia Neely, who submitted the antiquities designation application earlier this year, and Dene Hofheinz, daughter of former Houston mayor and county judge Roy Hofheinz, who is credited with building the dome.

In a statement, Rodeo officials said they remain eager to find an “acceptable resolution to a closed and rotting building that sits at the center of their operations.”

[…]

Neely, part of a group that proposed turning the Dome into a movie studio, said Tuesday she is glad Emmett is holding the meeting, but that she still is wary the county ultimately may resort to demolition, which inspired her to seek the antiquities designation in the first place. She and Powell, a retired LaPorte chemical engineer who led the fight to save and restore the Hurricane Ike-damaged Sylvan Beach pavilion, successfully pushed for the Dome’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year, making it eligible for placement on the state list.

“I’m going in with a positive attitude hoping that now something good will happen,” said Neely, owner of Black Gold Productions, a Houston film company.

See here and here for more on the Dome’s historic landmark designation, which at the very least would seem to take demolition off the table. Maybe. Anyway, let’s be honest, the problem has always been money. There’s no shortage of ideas of what to do with the Dome, ranging from compelling to wacko, but what they all have in common is no readily identifiable way to pay for them. I thought the 2013 bond referendum would have settled this, but I was wrong. I’m still not sure whether the reason for its defeat had more to do with people just not liking the New Dome proposal, people not wanting to pay for anything, people being distrustful and cynical about a process that has taken forever to go nowhere, or some other thing. What I do know is that if we’re ever presented with another plan that requires public funding and a vote, the powers that be need to do a much better job selling it. I also think the Rodeo and the Texans need to put some skin in the game and pledge to pay for at least a little bit of whatever gets proposed; part of the cynicism I mentioned before comes from the Rodeo and Texans are driving an agenda of demolition and that they’ve gotten all of the benefit of Reliant Stadium on our dime. A private investor would solve a lot of these problems – assuming they are sufficiently capitalized, of course – but in the absence of a sugar daddy, everyone else needs to put an oar in the water and start rowing in the same direction. Maybe then the public will go along with it.

A step forward for the historic Astrodome

From CultureMap:

Not historic but still standing

Efforts to make the Astrodome a State Antiquities Landmark took a key step forward Tuesday as the state Antiquities Advisory Board voted unanimously to forward the application to the Texas Historical Commission. Such a designation would prevent the Astrodome from being altered or demolished without approval from the commission.

The commission will make a final decision on the application in July — and that could be the impetus (finally) for a frank and serious discussion on what to do with the world’s first domed stadium.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett plans to hold a large “stakeholders’ meeting” next month, bringing RodeoHouston and Houston Texans officials, preservationists and a host of interested parties on both sides to discuss “where to go from here,” said spokesman Joe Stinebaker. Emmett also plans to hold public meetings around Houston in an attempt to build consensus toward a solution that can be presented to the historical commission this summer.

“There is no move to tear down the Dome,” Stinebaker said. “But historical designation could tie the county’s hands in making it more difficult and expensive to do anything.”

Backers of efforts to save the Astrodome believe it cleared a “major hurdle” Tuesday with the advisory commission’s vote. “There’s no going back now,” an elated Ted Powell said in a telephone interview from Fort Worth after the vote.

[…]

Once an application is filed, no changes can be made to a structure under consideration during the review process, Texas Historical Commission spokeswoman Debbi Head told CultureMap, so the Astrodome has technically been protected from major changes or demolition while the process for antiquities landmark designation winds its way toward a resolution.

But Powell believes the vote signals an important turning point for the Dome’s future. “It brings qualified folks to the table to make sure the historical integrity (of the building) is preserved,” he said.

See here for the background. Designating the Astrodome as a historic structure doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with it, nor does it solve the problem of how to pay for whatever needs to be done. It does keep the Astrodome standing, which perhaps adds a bit more incentive to find those solutions. That’s a good thing. I don’t know how this ends, but I won’t complain about giving the Astrodome a reason to exist.

The historic Astrodome

Not sure what effect this will have.

Not historic but still standing

The National Park Service has added the Astrodome, the world’s first domed stadium, to the National Register of Historic Places, making it eligible for tax breaks to aid in its rehabilitation but offering no real protection from the wrecking ball.

Historical preservationists, who successfully pushed for the Dome’s inclusion on the National Register, pledged Friday to continue their battle to save the Houston icon by asking the state to declare it an antiquities landmark – a designation that could limit Harris County’s power to alter or demolish the 49-year-old structure without a permit from the Texas Historical Commission.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett responded through a spokesman that he would “oppose anything that would tie the hands of officials elected by Harris County taxpayers, who own the Dome.”

The National Register’s decision Thursday to add the Astrodome, which opened in 1965, makes it eligible for inclusion on the state list. The historical commission normally takes six months to rule on such nominations, but once the process starts, a site is protected until a decision is reached. In recent years, said Gregory Smith, the agency’s national register coordinator, commissioners annually have granted fewer than six landmark designations to buildings.

[…]

Nominating the Astrodome for the national register were Cynthia Neely, owner of Black Gold Productions, a Houston film company, and Ted Powell, a LaPorte retired chemical engineer who led the fight to save and restore the Hurricane Ike-damaged Sylvan Beach pavilion.

Through the efforts of Friends of Sylvan Beach Park & Pavilion, the 1950s-era building was saved from demolition and restored in a $4.9 million project funded largely by federal hurricane recovery funds.

Neely and Powell confirmed Friday that they plan to push for the protective antiquities landmark designation.

The issue as always is whether someone – Harris County or a private investor – is willing to put up the money to Do Something with the Dome. Being added to the Register makes the Dome eligible for various tax breaks, but I don’t know how much effect, if any, that may have on the financial calculations for this. I suppose designating the Dome as a nationally historic structure might add to the pressure to not demolish it, but that doesn’t move it forward otherwise. But hey, every little bit helps.

The preservation ordinance is a work in progress

That’s the tl;dr version of this.

Sue Lovell

Sue Lovell

In October 2010, an emotional Sue Lovell, then a city council­woman, lauded the passage of a strengthened historic preservation ordinance for Houston after a long, complex and divisive battle she and Mayor Annise Parker had led.

In recent months, however, Lovell has appeared before the commissions tasked with implementing the ordinance to lobby on behalf of builders and homeowners seeking to remodel historic homes.

What changed?

Not her support for preservation or for the ordinance, Lovell said. What has shifted, she and others said, is the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission’s interpretation of the rules.

“I fought for this ordinance,” the former councilwoman said, “and I’m going to continue to fight to improve this ordinance.”

[…]

Parker said the ordinance is working well but acknowledged she has concerns with the law’s implementation, saying she sank a lot of political capital into the fight and wants it to work.

“The disconnect is not with the staff, it’s with the architectural and historical commission, which wants to substitute its judgment, on occasion, for that of the staff,” she said. “There are a couple activist commissioners over there who are hijacking the process.”

Historical Commission Chairman Maverick Welsh said the commission’s interpretations shift naturally as members leave and as city staff turn over, but he pointed to the overall approval rate as evidence of the body’s sound decisions.

“There’s this misconception that we’re this unreasonable bunch of preservationist people, but I think the data supports that we’re reasonable,” Welsh said. “I’ve gotten a lot of pushback from neighborhoods saying we’re too lenient and I’m getting pushback from developers saying we should approve everything. Somewhere in there is a balance, and I think that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

The path forward, Parker said, is to better educate the historical commission’s members and to tweak language in the ordinance to clarify its intent.

Creating objective standards for something that is inherently subjective is hard. You’re not going to get it right the first time. Hopefully, you create a good foundation that you can work with later. See what works, see what doesn’t, learn from experience, and keep refining. It’s an ongoing process, and it will never be truly finished.

Finally doing that front door facelift

Better late than never.

Renovations started this week on the historic Sunset Coffee Building at Allen’s Landing on the north end of downtown.

The more than 100-year-old structure, now behind a fence as construction begins, is getting a $5.3 million facelift from Houston First Corp. and Buffalo Bayou Partnership. They hope the new design will reconnect the bayou with downtown Houston.

The building sits on a spot often referred to as “Houston’s Plymouth Rock,” according to a joint announcement Friday from the Partnership and Houston First. Brothers August Chapman Allen and John Kirby Allen established Houston there in 1836.

[…]

The project should be completed in about one year. At that time the building will have an outdoor plaza with refreshment and rental facilities for runners, canoeists, kayakers and bikers. The first level will be office space for the partnership and the second level and a rooftop terrace will be used as event space.

A walkway will connected the building to Commerce Street. Ultimately, the building will connect to Buffalo Bayou’s trail system that stretches to Shepherd Drive.

We first heard about this almost a year ago. At the time, the plan was for work to begin in April, 2013. I don’t know what caused the delay – this story doesn’t indicate – but at least it’s getting started now. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when it’s finally done.

Saving Rice Stadium

Houston has another historic stadium in it that’s seen better days, but this one is still in use and has some hope of being restored to its former glory.

Rice Stadium, 1951

As a place to watch a game, there are few better than Rice Stadium, thrown up almost overnight between the 1949 and 1950 seasons. But it also was a time before television discovered college football. And before professional sports discovered Houston. Times changed.

Today, as the Rice Owls play for their first outright conference championship since 1957, it is an apt moment to ask whether the city’s first great stadium, with seating for 70,000, has outlived its usefulness. Rice boosters say yes, reluctantly. And no, emphatically.

“Over the years it has been looked at as under-utilized asset – we don’t need it, we can’t take care of it,” said architect and Rice alum Jack McGinty. “It’s been recommended that it be demolished. I think that time has passed. They realize its architectural value. It was the most famous football stadium in America.”

“Was” is the operative term in McGinty’s assessment. Less than a generation after it was built, another Houston stadium became the most famous sporting venue of any sort. But he remains ever-loyal, in no small measure because his father was on the team of designers.

“It’s a far greater architectural treasure than the Astrodome,” McGinty said. “Not from a civic or historical point of view, of course, but architecturally speaking. It won all sorts of awards for its architecture.”

All true. Yet with the passing years it became a little too big, and a little old, and more than a little lacking in modern amenities. Now a plan is afoot to do something about that.

The school has contracted with HKS Architects, a leading national firm with the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium among its many credits, to do a study of stadium enhancement and athletic department needs. Their conclusions will result in a plan that will supplant the one approved by trustees two years ago that went nowhere. That in turn will spark a major fundraising effort to put the school’s athletic facilities on a par with those of comparable schools, including Stanford and Duke.

“The former project is dead,” said David Gibbs, an alum and major benefactor who has been devoted to refurbishing the stadium. “What I call the historic preservation and comprehensive enhancement of iconic Rice Stadium is just getting started.”

Offcite had a nice story about Rice Stadium and its historic value the other week. It’s worth clicking on just for the pictures. As someone who has been at Rice Stadium for nearly every home game since 1988, I can tell you it’s a great place to see the game. You’re close to the action, the sight lines are outstanding, there’s really not a bad seat in the house. The amenities, if you can call them that, are embarrassingly bad, and are a big impediment to the football program being seen as modern and competitive. Just having concessions and bathrooms that aren’t 1950’s vintage would go a long way. We fans have been clamoring for upgrades for years, maybe now we’ll finally get them. I sure hope so.

Not in a rush about the Dome after all

We’ll get to deciding what to do with the Dome when we get to it.

We still have the memories

Harris County leaders are in no rush to decide what to do with the Astrodome, leaving the empty and decaying stadium to languish further following last week’s voter rejection of a $217 million plan to convert the iconic stadium to an events center.

Although a majority of court members said prior to Election Day that demolition would be the obvious choice in the event voters turned down the event center plan, not one of them is championing a tear-down.

“I’m kind of over it. I mean, I’m going to go do other things for awhile and see what happens,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Monday. “This really isn’t the top priority in my life.”

The delay could give historic preservationists time to gain some type of landmark status for the 1965 Dome, which could block its demolition or place limitations on what could be done with it.

Even Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who has suggested turning the sunken floor of the Dome into a detention pond in an effort to mitigate flooding and slash the cost of filling the 35-foot-deep hole, said he has no plans to push for a vote to demolish the dilapidated stadium.

“I do not intend to put that on the agenda anytime soon,” Radack said. “We’ll see what other ideas emerge.”

[…]

Commissioners Court will have some built-in lag time: Dome asbestos abatement, slated for approval Tuesday, is expected to begin in December and will take an estimated six months to complete.

“I have no deadlines in my mind,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said last week after the election.

Look, I voted for the Dome resolution. I myself suggested that the referendum didn’t specify demolition if it failed. I’m as happy as anyone that we’re not fitting it up for the wrecking ball right now. But something needs to happen, and Commissioners Court needs to make up its mind. We can’t go back to the status quo, if only because the 2017 Super Bowl is looming, and there will for sure be plenty of pressure from the Texans and the NFL to Do Something. If demolition is in the future, then let’s be clear about it and not raise any false hopes. If Commissioners Court really doesn’t want to demolish the Dome, then they need to get another plan out there pronto. There is a deadline, and we can’t just sit around and wait any more.

In the meantime, other groups that do know what they want to do are taking their own action.

The city of Houston’s historical commission has voted unanimously to consider an effort that could give landmark status to the endangered Astrodome.

Maverick Welsh, chairman of the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission, put forward the motion at the agency’s monthly meeting last week.

“I think it was the right thing to do,” Welsh said. “We have to focus on saving this building.”

The move, however, was principally symbolic. Such a designation would only put a 90-day hold on any demolition.

“It’s the only thing we can do as a commission to try and raise attention of saving the dome,” Welsh said.

If the commission decides to move forward, City Council would have final say on the historic designation.

I don’t know that this is anything more than a symbolic gesture, but at least it’s a direction. If the stakes in this election were “vote for the New Dome Experience or we’ll be forced to try and figure something else out” and not “vote for the New Dome Experience or the Dome goes bye-bye”, then Commissioners Court needs to get cracking on figuring out that something else. If it was the latter, then I’d rather get it over with quickly than string it out. But please, we’ve had the vote. Please tell us what it meant and then do something about it. Campos and Texpatriate have more.

Precinct analysis: The Dome and the jail

Now that precinct data is out, the Chron has an updated take on what sunk the Astrodome referendum.

We still have the memories

Overall, 53.4 percent of Harris County voters rejected the bond issue that would have renovated the long-vacant Dome into a convention and exhibit space. In Houston, 50.1 percent of the voters turned it down, while in unincorporated Harris County, 56.4 percent snubbed it.

Political analysts saw overlapping trends with the preliminary data, released last week by the Harris County Clerk’s Office.

First, residents who lived farther from the Dome were more likely to vote it down. Second, conservative areas – not only the suburbs but also inside the city, particularly the west side – tended to oppose the measure. And third, whites opposed the measure, with blacks in support.

University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus and others agreed race was not the controlling factor, however. Rottinghaus said age could explain the correlation: Many black neighborhoods inside the city are full of older folks who have lived in their homes for decades, he noted, and might have more memories of the Dome.

“If you conceive of the Dome question as being a question of those who had a nostalgic feel for the Dome, older people gave it what little support it had,” Rottinghaus said. “But newer areas of Houston or people who have been transplanted from other places, those people are less likely to have a nostalgic feel for the Dome.”

Rice University political scientist Bob Stein was less convinced that nostalgia was a driving force. Data shows the deciding factor was proximity to the Dome, he said.

Political philosophy drove the Dome’s poor showing in typically conservative areas, including the suburbs, said Republican communications consultant Jim McGrath. He noted the ballot language specified, at the request of Harris County Commissioners Court, that approval would result in a tax hike.

“I kept hearing it was a boondoggle and nobody wanted to sign on for that,” McGrath said. “A lot of people said it was great architecture and ought to be preserved and it was the Eighth Wonder of the World. I get all of that, but the passion was on the side of the folks who said, ‘We ought not be spending this kind of money, we have other priorities in the county.’ ”

A lot of what is being said here was said before, only this time now we have the numbers. And here’s what they look like by my check:

Dist For Against For % =============================== A 7,172 8,693 45.21% B 6,817 6,203 52.36% C 15,428 15,288 50.23% D 9,874 7,954 55.38% E 7,819 12,302 38.86% F 3,674 4,189 46.73% G 11,049 14,766 42.80% H 4,761 4,390 52.03% I 4,400 4,042 52.12% J 2,782 2,540 52.27% K 7,872 6,420 55.08%

Here it is broken down by various groups:

Group For Against For % =============================== Houston 81,648 86,787 48.47% Harris 30,312 41,699 42.09% Dem 49,152 44,297 52.60% Rep 26,040 35,761 42.14% Swing 6,456 6,729 48.96% AA 24,563 20,577 54.42% Latino 9,161 8,432 52.07% Anglo 41,468 51,049 44.82% Other 6,456 6,729 48.96%

My percentage for the city of Houston is lower than what the Chron cites because of split precincts, by which I mean precincts that are partly in Houston and partly not. I’ve tried to tease it out where I can, but for the most part in a precinct where there are city of Houston votes, all of them are counted towards the Houston total.

The other groups are determined by Council district. I’ve defined “Dem” as Districts B, C, D, H, I, and K; “Rep” as A, E, and G; and “Swing” as F and J. Similarly, African-American districts are B, D, and K; Latino districts are H and I; Anglo districts are A, C, E, and G; and Other are F and J.

The numbers basically speak for themselves. I agree with the observation Houston Politics makes in its presentation of maps that show the vote by precinct that there was a lot more fervent opposition to the Dome project than there was fervent support. There were people who were passionate about saving the Dome, but that didn’t necessarily translate to them being passionate about this specific plan to save the Dome. I agree with Jim McGrath’s point about people thinking this plan wasn’t worth a bump in their property taxes. Now, I’m sure some of these people would rather starve to death than vote to increase their property taxes, but I think a lot of people just didn’t see the value in this particular plan. Some of that may be due to lack of campaigning for the Dome, some of it may be due to lack of a clear understanding what the New Dome project would mean and how it would work, and some of it may be due to other factors. While at this point I think it’s probably best to take another crack at finding a private investor to do something with the Dome, I do think it’s possible that a different referendum for a publicly-financed Dome project to pass. That referendum will need a clear statement about what the money is going to be used for and how it will benefit the County, and it will need a better conceived and executed sales plan to get the voters to buy in to it.

I believe a similar lesson can be learned from the successful but too-close-for-comfort joint inmate processing facility referendum. Here are those numbers, with the same disclaimers as above:

Dist For Against For % =============================== A 7,146 7,707 48.11% B 5,797 6,146 48.54% C 15,897 12,366 56.25% D 7,864 8,437 48.24% E 8,295 10,719 43.63% F 3,530 3,884 47.61% G 13,390 10,726 55.52% H 4,075 4,370 48.25% I 3,543 4,258 45.42% J 2,620 2,371 52.49% K 6,754 6,320 51.66% Group For Against For % =============================== Houston 78,911 77,304 50.51% Harris 33,468 34,600 49.17% Dem 43,930 41,897 51.18% Rep 28,831 29,152 49.72% Swing 6,150 6,255 49.58% AA 20,415 20,903 49.41% Latino 7,618 8,628 46.89% Anglo 44,728 41,518 51.86% Other 6,150 6,255 49.58%

Here it’s clear that this referendum owes its passage to the voters in Districts C and G. What this says to me is that just because an item has no opposition doesn’t mean it needs no advocacy. In the absence of other information, it’s likely that some people read this referendum and wrongly concluded that it meant increasing jail capacity like the failed 2007 bond, or another bump in taxes like the Astrodome item. People can’t be blamed for reaching faulty conclusions if they have incomplete evidence. There needed to be a campaign to create and send mailers to targeted voters explaining the virtues of this referendum – no new taxes, no increase in jail capacity, better city-county cooperation, better and more efficient means to divert non-violent offenders into drug counseling and/or mental health treatment, etc. Given that there were no outside groups that had a stake in this, and given that it was an item on the to do lists for Commissioners Court and the Sheriff, I think what should have happened is that Judge Emmett, Sheriff Garcia, and each of the Commissioners should have kicked in a few bucks from their personal finance accounts to help create a PAC to advertise this referendum. Mayor Parker could contribute, too, since closing the city jails was a key component of this. They could work it out among themselves who gave how much, then they could find a couple of respected folks from the mental health or drug rehab worlds to over see the PAC and design the message. If accomplishing an important piece of local government business requires a vote from the public, then local government leaders need to do more than just put the question before the voters and hope the come back with the right answer. There may be campaign finance issues to be dealt with for something like this to happen, but my bottom line remains the same: No opposition doesn’t equate to automatic approval. Let’s learn that lesson and be happy we didn’t have to learn it the hard way.

On the uses of the New Dome

So it’s looking pretty good for the Astrodome renovation referendum. But what exactly will we get if it does pass? In particular, will the New Dome be economically sustainable in a way that the current one is not?

To date, Harris County and Reliant Park officials have offered little more than verbal assurances the New Dome would be an economic winner.

The closest thing to a fiscal analysis that has been released since the Harris County Commissioners Court voted in August to put the bond proposal to voters came a month later on a single sheet of paper brought to a Houston Chronicle editorial board meeting. Projections on the paper show a converted Astrodome would generate $1.9 million a year – $4 million in revenue, minus $2.1 million in expenses.

The $4 million includes usage fees, concessions, parking and revenue from “incremental” naming rights. The $1.9 million net income likely would be spent on utilities or other operating costs, but officials say they are certain the facility would pay its own way.

“The goal, at the very minimum, is to break even,” said Edgar Colón, chairman of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., which devised the New Dome plan.

Consultants the sports corporation hired to devise various reuse plans found last year that “all options have operating shortfalls,” including a multipurpose facility virtually identical to the New Dome plan.

A sports corporation list of potential uses of the New Dome spans more than four pages. Major events include fan parties during the Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four, as well as Wrestlemania.

The list of new prospects, everything from a Star Wars Convention to the Junior Olympic Games, is much longer than the one of existing events that could locate there, which includes only the annual Offshore Technology Conference and the Mecum Auto Auction.

The OTC, which has outgrown Reliant Center, has said it would use the New Dome.

The economic argument officials make the most is akin to “Build it and they will come.”

“You put together a facility that is unique in the world and then you go out and sell it, and that’s what we have here,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who said the new venue would spur hotel and other development in the area.

[…]

Even if the New Dome is not an economic boon, Emmett has suggested that expecting it to break even is not a reasonable goal, comparing it to a public park.

“There are a lot of things that government does that provides an asset or a service to the taxpayers that doesn’t necessarily pay for itself,” he said in his September newsletter.

The “public park” angle is interesting, and it makes some sense. I don’t recall it being brought up before now, which is the sort of thing that can come back and bite you afterward. I look at it this way: The current Dome is costing us something like $2 million a year, and we’re getting no use out of it. If what we build winds up costing less, never mind breaking even, and we get some use out of it, it’s a win. If it does wind up breaking even, so much the better. People clearly find value in the preservation of the Dome, which is a part of Houston’s identity in a way that few other things are, and if we wind up with something that costs a few bucks a year, that’s what we chose to do. Houston Politics has more.

Endorsement watch: Saving the Dome

The Chronicle gives its blessing to the Astrodome renovation referendum.

There has been a lot of finger-pointing over the Astrodome’s mismanagement, but come Election Day it only matters that voters point their fingers to the ballot button and approve the $217 million bond initiative to save the Dome.

[…]

The eyes of the nation are already upon Houston. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has just opened a field office in our city. What Victorian homes are to San Francisco, or Art Deco is to the New York City skyline, Mid-Century Modern is to Houston – and our greatest example is the Astrodome.

But in the wake of failed leadership, the Dome has been listed as one of the top 11 most endangered places in the nation. St. Louis would not tear down its Gateway Arch. Sydney would not tear down its Opera House. Houston: We should not tear down our Astrodome. We have the power to save it, not merely as a museum piece or historic memorabilia, but as a refurbished and fully functioning part of Reliant Park. And for one-third of the cost of building such a structure from the ground up.

[…]

Preserving the Dome should be the first step of reshaping the entire Reliant Park. If this passes, we urge the county to think bigger about transforming one of world’s largest parking lots into a comprehensive expo, hotel and green space – a Discovery Green South.

Harris County’s finances are in good shape, and after years of economic doldrums, now is the time to save the Astrodome – Houston’s one famous landmark.

Until now, we’ve viewed the boondoggle of the Dome’s decline as a sort of Shakespearean drama. It looked like politicians were scheming behind the scenes, putting forward a bright face while plotting to stab the Dome in the back. It has been a tangled yarn of good and ill, but in the end, all’s well that ends well. Vote to save the Astrodome.

The Chron had previously expressed concerns that the process was rigged to set up a situation where demolition was inevitable but blame for the decision to demolish was avoided. I guess their concerns have been assuaged. There’s a PAC in place to advocate for the referendum, there’s still no visible opposition, and initial polling is favorable. If it doesn’t happen now, it was never meant to be.

Who’s advocating for the Dome?

Some old familiar names are getting back in the game.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday after the Commissioners Court meeting name-dropped two former county judges — Jon Lindsay and Robert Eckels — who will lead the charge on a campaign to garner support for an Astrodome renovation project.

A $217 million bond referendum to turn the vacant stadium into a massive, energy-efficient convention hall and exhibition space will appear on the ballot this November.

“You know, I know former Judge Eckels, former Judge Lindsay, people at the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., are talking about it,” Emmett told reporters. “Now, how it gets formed, they have to wait and see.”

Lindsay confirmed on Wednesday that he and Eckels, who will serve as treasurer, are, indeed, planning to lead the charge. He said they have had one meeting with the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., which conceived the renovation proposal, and are planning another for next week.

“All I can say right now is we’re working on it and trying to get organized,” Lindsay, first elected in 1974, said, describing the effort as “preliminary.”

He said that Edgar Colón, chairman of the sports corporation, the county agency that runs Reliant Park, likely would chair the campaign.

I believe this is the earlier story to which that refers. Eckels and Lindsay, who offered some warnings about the two of them being a bit out of shape for fundraising and campaign-running, are likely as good as anyone to do this. They know the county and they ought to be credible to a large segment of the electorate. Both Judge Emmett and Commissioner El Franco Lee will be on board with them as well. Honestly, I don’t know that you could have gotten a better team, all things considered.

More from that KHOU story:

“I think it’s going to take some sort of organized effort,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political science professor and KHOU analyst. “Bond proposals of this sort usually succeed when there’s an overwhelming majority of campaigning and spending on behalf of a bond.”

Emmett said a number of people have talked about leading the effort, but nobody’s grabbing the ball to run with it.

“Typically, right after Labor Day is when things crank up,” Emmett said. “And so we don’t know who all is going to be involved, frankly.”

Among people who’ve watched with dismay as the dome has fallen into disrepair, this only fuels suspicion that a failed bond election will give county leaders political cover to destroy the dome. Even a Houston Chronicle editorial recently opined, “The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation comes to bury the Astrodome, not to praise it …We’ll see it on the ballot only with the intent of it being voted down.”

That suggestion leaves Emmett visibly annoyed.

“No, I don’t think that’s right at all,” Emmett said. “I think that we spent so much time trying to find a private use for the dome and none of those were funded. Then we had to decide what the best public use is, and I think that’s what’s before the voters right now.”

As before, I’ll side with Judge Emmett on this. Harris County was set to move on a privately-funded plan for the Dome in 2008, but that fell through when the economy bottomed out. Maybe the Court could have acted last year, but not much earlier than that. They also could have waited for another private investor with sufficient capital to step up, but despite the plethora of suggestions for what to do with the Dome, no one with financing in hand has come forward. I don’t know if Eckels and Lindsay can fully quiet the conspiracy-minded, but they ought to muffle them a bit.

Whether the referendum passes may depend largely on the age of the voters who turn out in November. Polling conducted during the past few years for KHOU and KUHF Houston Public Radio has shown a curious generational pattern. The strongest supporters of preserving The Astrodome tend to be older voters, who are more likely to have seen games in the historic stadium. Younger voters are more likely to oppose spending bond money on saving the dome.

Generally speaking, off year elections skew in the direction of older voters. I don’t know what the dividing line is in the poll cited, but I feel pretty comfortable predicting that the average voter this year is likely to be north of 50. When I said earlier that Eckels and Lindsay ought to have credibility with a chunk of the electorate, these are the people I had in mind. Who better to talk to a bunch of old voters than a couple of old politicians, right? PDiddie, John Coby, and KUHF have more.

Astrodome-palooza

In case you aren’t completely full of my opining on the Astrodome and its possible fate, I was the author of a op-ed in the Sunday Chron on the subject. It’s kind of the Reader’s Digest version of the things I’ve been saying here, so if you don’t click over you won’t miss anything new to you. I did put a copy of it beneath the fold, since I like to keep track of my own writing.

Elsewhere on those same op-ed pages, former County Judge and State Sen. Jon Lindsay offers his critique of the private proposals that have been floated.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Now we have an opportunity to develop the premier convention city in the world. Just look at what we could create. The combination of the Metro rail service connecting the George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green downtown to the Reliant and Dome complex would be awesome for really big events like a Super Bowl. There are other events that would benefit, like the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) that requires event facilities combined with entertainment areas. I’m sure the Convention and Visitors Bureau can name others.

[…]

I am critical of the proposal to strip the building to its structural steel and leaving it exposed. Where is the logic in having a steel skeleton out there that would require a full-time painting crew working to stop the rust? That tension ring must be protected or we will have a nature-caused implosion. A very large sculpture is not the answer, either.

There are not many stadiums that have better parking than we already have at Reliant. It can and should be improved, however. A parking garage would pay its own way, and if not, some of the event sponsors should contribute. There should be more effort to encourage parking downtown and use public transportation to get to the games and some other events like the rodeo. It’s much easier to get out of downtown after a game than the Reliant parking lot.

The proposal to develop exhibition space might make some sense if done on a grand scale. By that, I mean get some of the big players involved, like our major oil companies. Develop a big oil field in the Dome featuring some of the early oil rigs and everything big in the industry. Why can’t we have a continuing OTC featuring some of the past? Along with that, put in some educational facilities and meeting rooms. The industry could see that as a way to encourage youth to want a career in oil and gas.

He also mentions that if Texas ever does legalize more gambling, the Dome would be a “premier location” for it. The Dome as casino is the granddaddy of all What To Do With The Dome proposals, though as you can see Lindsay’s successor as County Judge didn’t think much of the idea back then.

Finally, Chron sports columnist Randy Harvey calls on Commissioners Court to think futuristically.

I’m open to most ideas, except for demolishing the Astrodome and replacing it with another parking lot. Even at the bargain price of $29 million estimated by the Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which is half as much as some say that would cost.

There is no doubt the building could be redeveloped as a shopping mall, a theme park, an apartment complex or a movie studio. I’m not so sure about an indoor ski resort.

It would be better if whatever it becomes commemorated the Astrodome.

Ryan Slattery, a University of Houston graduate student, wrote in his masters thesis that the steel frame and dome should remain, covering a park. The New York Times suggested it could become Houston’s Eiffel Tower.

That’s a difficult image to resist.

But I also would ask commissioners court to consider something more futuristic, as futuristic as the Astrodome was in 1965, as futuristic as NASA was by putting a man on the moon in 1969 and as futuristic as Houston still should want to be seen by the world.

Maybe we could create a museum, not of the past but of the future, more like an exploratorium, with interactive exhibits speculating on life on Earth or other planets in decades and centuries to come.

Ideas are the easy part. It’s the execution that’s tricky. If it were easy to do one of these things, we’d have done it by now.

(more…)

It’s about use, not just sentiment

NYT reporter Jere Longman, who hails from Houston, penned a love letter to the Astrodome after hearing about its possible impending demise.

At long last, is this the end?

So it was despairing to hear that the vacant Astrodome might be torn down and its site paved over as Houston prepares to host the 2017 Super Bowl. Demolition would be a failure of civic imagination, a betrayal of Houston’s greatness as a city of swaggering ambition, of dreamers who dispensed with zoning laws and any restraint on possibility.

A recent drive past the abandoned Astrodome at night revealed it to be unlit. It has been closed since 2008. The stadium was visible in silhouette, like a waning moon.

In daylight, however, beneath the dust and neglect, the Astrodome’s silvery exterior continues to summon a city’s innovative past and futuristic promise. By contrast, Reliant Stadium next door is a dull football arena, designed with all the imagination of a hangar to park a blimp.

James Glassman, a Houston preservationist, calls the Astrodome the city’s Eiffel Tower and the “physical manifestation of Houston’s soul.” New York could afford to tear down old Yankee Stadium, Glassman said, because the city had hundreds of other signature landmarks. Not Houston. Along with oil, NASA and the pioneering heart surgeons Michael E. DeBakey and Denton A. Cooley, the technological marvel of the Astrodome put a young, yearning city on the global map.

“There was a confluence of space-age, Camelot-era optimism, and we were right there,” said Glassman, founder of the Web site Houstorian.org. “It really set us on the road for a go-go future.”

Houston’s best ideas bring clever solutions to tricky problems. The weed whacker was invented there in 1971 by a dance instructor and developer named George Ballas. He got the idea from whirling brushes at a car wash. His prototype consisted of an edger and fishing wire threaded through a can of popcorn.

The Astrodome was built to solve a vexing conundrum: How to bring major league baseball to a city where the temperature could match the league leaders in runs batted in?

[…]

Demolition “would symbolize that we’ve just decided to quit,” said Ryan Slattery, whose master’s thesis in architecture at the University of Houston offers a different alternative.

Slattery’s plan, which has gained traction, involves a vision of green space. He would strip the Astrodome to its steel skeleton, evoking the Eiffel Tower of sport, and install a park. It could be used for football tailgating, livestock exhibitions, recreational sports. Other ideas have been floated through the years, some more realistic than others: music pavilion, casino, movie studio, hotel, museum, shopping mall, indoor ski resort, amusement park.

All private proposals for the Astrodome are due by June 10 to the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, which oversees the stadium.

Legitimate debate can be had about whether the Astrodome’s innovations ultimately enhanced or detracted from the broader sporting experience. Whether indoor stadiums lend sterility. Whether artificial turf leaves players more vulnerable to injury. Whether we need scoreboards to tell us to cheer. Whether basketball played in giant arenas is an abomination.

But the Astrodome is too essential to become a parking lot. Slattery is right when he says that Houston should not demolish the memory of its past but reimagine it for the future.

Again, as someone who Did Not Grow Up Here, I don’t share the sentimental attachment to the Dome, and as a lifelong Yankee fan who watched the House That Ruth Built get demolished, I’m not greatly moved by pleadings about other stadia’s historicness. The weed whacker is a great invention and all, but last I checked New York was the home of some innovations, too. Forgive me if I don’t see how that has anything to do with the argument at hand. Jeff Balke, who is from here, has come to accept that the Dome may be doomed, and he just has one simple request.

But, for the love of all that’s holy, if the powers that be are going to, once and for all, demolish the only true identifiable Houston landmark, why must it be for a parking structure?

The truth is blowing up the Astrodome to build a parking garage for VIP parking would be in character for our city. We live in a city where historic preservation may as well be a four-letter word. The laws — and I use that term extremely loosely — governing what can be protected are so lax that virtually anyone with a bulldozer and a wad of cash can shred any structure in the city and build whatever they goddamn well please on the piece of dirt that remains.

Most believe that the plan for the Dome has been set in motion for some time. With a limited deadline in place and few real solutions — at least ones that have monetary backing — it seems a foregone conclusion that the Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will get their wish and teardown the Eighth Wonder of the World to be replaced by a place you park your luxury SUV.

(Of course, if they wanted that, they have a GIANT FREAKING EMPTY LOT DIRECTLY ACROSS THE FREEWAY ATTACHED WITH A BRIDGE, but that would make far too much sense.)

I’ve heard people complain that they are sick of hearing the argument and we should just tear down this old, sad, rotting structure. Fact is, the structure isn’t rotting. Sure, the seats are. The sheetrock is. But the bones of the building are in fine condition. It has held up against multiple hurricanes and housed the victims of one of the most devastating disasters in U.S. history, a shelter for those no one else wanted. And this is how we repay that memory?

There is also the old “whatever we do, it should be cost neutral” argument. Yes, because everything good in this world must turn a profit. I’m fairly certain no one in Paris worries that the Eiffel Tower doesn’t earn money. The Roman Coliseum is anything but cheap to maintain, yet the folks in Italy aren’t clamoring for it to be torn down so they can put in some luxury condos. And before you start in on the whole “You can’t compare those places to a football stadium,” the Astrodome is modern history’s version of an architectural marvel. It was the first of its kind and it is to Houston what those other iconic structures are to their cities, just a little younger.

It should be noted that the Rodeo bought part of the old Astroworld site in December, which they already use for parking. Surely there’s a deal to be made with the county and Reliant that could address Jeff’s concerns. Be that as it may, I disagree with his point about other landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Coliseum. Age and historic value questions aside, those things are in active use today. The Dome isn’t. That’s really what this all comes down to, whether or not there’s a viable, financially sustainable use for the Dome in some form. As such, the cost issue does matter. The county would like to not have to pay $1.5 million a year on top of the bond debt it still owes to maintain an empty building, and any private investors not only have to convince a bank to finance their redevelopment scheme but also have to earn enough money in the long run to keep it afloat. Look at it this way – if the county agrees to sell the Dome to a developer to be converted into a museum or hotel or park or whatever, and they subsequently go belly-up because it turns out there just wasn’t that much demand for whatever they built, what do you think happens then? I don’t know for sure, but I can say with some certainty that it won’t involve multiple feasibility studies and a public referendum. It’s in our interest to get it right the first time, because if we don’t we won’t get to have any say in what happens after it all goes wrong. I certainly agree that anything is better than another parking lot, but not anything is necessarily more likely to be around in another decade or so than a parking lot.

Does the Super Bowl doom the Dome?

The Texican ponders what the announcement about Houston landing Super Bowl LI means for everyone’s favorite unused arena.

At long last, is this the end?

So what does this mean for our Dome?

A parking garage would be an ignoble end for the Dome, though I am sure many would settle for parking somewhere in the former lodge section if it meant they wouldn’t need to watch pieces of it be hauled down 610 on the backs of flatbed trucks.

Tacking on millions upon millions of dollars onto what will already be an expensive enterprise such as a Super Bowl just isn’t feasible, or even sane, in order to keep the Dome alive and kicking. Can you imagine the thing still sitting there as it is in 2017 during that big game? People will start thinking it an art installation.

Wait, that could work….

Right now would be the time for everyone with those great open-air ideas for the Dome to step forward and begin shouting about your grand schemes. I am rooting for Ryan Slattery myself. Keep reminding the Harris County Sports and Convention people that your plan is worthy.

Slattery’s vision of skeletonizing the Dome for a pavilion concept is exciting, and you make use of the structure without completely demolishing history.

But then there are the rubs.

RodeoHouston needs more space, and they have said as much in the press. The Dome sits like a tumor inside the rodeo festivities, making people have to walk around the building to get to more places to spend money. And people in Houston do not like walking a few extra yards to spend that money.

The Houston Texans wouldn’t balk at having more space. As it is on game days, their fan parties have to line up next to the Dome, and the Dome somehow angers you more just looking at it after a tough loss.

Even as an unrepentant Domer, a person who collects anything I can get my hands on related to the building, I still see the thing being torn down piece by piece in the next few years though, if Slattery’s plan or that of others is not enacted.

Look, I know I didn’t grow up here and thus don’t have the emotional attachment to the Dome that folks like The Texican have. I get that people love the old behemoth, which was the first of its kind, and want to preserve it, which is a strange sentiment in a town like Houston. It’s just that there’s no precedent for doing anything other than applying the wrecking ball. I mean, they tore down Yankee Stadium, which with all due respect has a bit more of a claim to significance than the Dome. Most of the Astros’ former colleague in the National League are playing in stadia that were built after the stadia that were built to replace their historic parks were torn down. Nobody even remembers Crosley Field, Forbes Field, or the Baker Bowl, and surely no one mourns Riverfront, Three Rivers, or Veterans stadia. The only historic venues that have been preserved are the ones that are still actively used – Fenway, Wrigley, Lambeau, Madison Square Garden. If there is a feasible and practical thing to do with the Dome then great, let’s do it. If not, then let nature take its course. I don’t see any other way.

Be that as it may, the people who helped land the Super Bowl bid say that the Dome was not and is not a factor in their thoughts or deeds.

“We had a process in place before the bid, and even after the bid, the same process applies,” said Kevin Hoffman, deputy executive director of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation.

Nor is there an agreement – written or secret – that Houston’s selection hinged on converting the former baseball-football stadium into a parking lot, those planning Super Bowl LI and those working to save the iconic structure agreed.

“Not at all,” said Greg Ortale, bid committee member and president of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We addressed the Astrodome with the NFL early on. We told them it would not be part of our bid and there was a process in place to be determined with voters voting.”

[…]

Proposing to make Super Bowl LI the longest, largest football party to date only increases pressure on local leaders to ensure the celebration is not dampened by traffic congestion and cars jousting for that last open spot.

Chris Alexander, of Astrodome Tomorrow, said that does not necessarily strengthen the arguments of those seeking to tear down the Astrodome.

Alexander, whose group wants to renovate the Dome into a high-tech entertainment and exhibition space, said their proposal includes expanding parking by building a garage on the Kirby lot.

He believes the plan for the county to review all proposals after the June 10 submission deadline, have the commissioners court choose the best option and then possibly have voters approve it clearly takes the decision out of the NFL’s control.

County Judge Ed Emmett agreed.

“It’s a totally separate question,” he said.

One we still have to come to terms with ourselves. KUHF gets some further clarity from Judge Emmett.

This is Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

“If there’s no private interest that has a reasonable financial backing, then on June 25th, the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation is to present their best idea of public use of the Dome to Harris County Commissioners Court and our capital improvements planning session. From that point, it will be in the hands of County Commissioners Court.”

Emmett says the Astrodome saga will likely end at the ballot box, with local voters ultimately deciding what to do with an aging Houston icon.

“It’s very likely to require a bond election. That would be presented to the voters, but I’m told we’re not allowed to put options, so it will be a real clear, this is the best idea of what to do with the Dome. If you’re not agreeable to this, then the Dome comes down. And all of that will be occurring in the next year or two years.”

First, Commissioners Court has to decide what that one clear non-demolition option is. I look forward to seeing the choices they will have for review. Campos has more.

Fixing our front door

This sounds very cool.

The century-old Sunset Coffee Building, looming in disrepair over Allen’s Landing at the north end of downtown, will become Houston’s “front door” with an $8 million public-private renovation set to begin in April.

The three-story brick structure is boarded up, marked with graffiti, and has shrubs growing out of some second-floor windows.

Come mid-2014, however, the facility will house kayak, canoe and bike rentals on the first floor, office space on the second floor, private event space on the third floor, a rooftop terrace, and will be flanked by outdoor plazas and walkways connecting to Commerce Street.

Most of the money comes from private donations to the nonprofit Buffalo Bayou Partnership. The fundraising also was boosted by a $500,000 federal grant and finished off with a $2.4 million infusion from Houston First, the board that runs the city’s convention and arts facilities.

[…]

Susan Keeton, chairman emeritus of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, said it has been a long road, with some skepticism from the nonprofit’s board members, since the partnership first bought the building in 1997, with the dream of making it a focal point of recreation on the bayou. Renovations had been slated to start in 2008, but fundraising lagged amid the national recession.

“It is our Plymouth Rock, and the wonderful thing about it is that, unlike Plymouth Rock – which now is sort of small and forlorn, I’ve seen it off of Cape Cod – this, particularly when the Coffee Building gets renovated, is not going to be a lonely place,” Keeton said. “A day like today, this beautiful slope ought to just attract people, too many, almost.”

Sounds awesome to me, and long overdue. Kudos to the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, Houston First, and the city for making this happen. I can’t wait to see the finished product. Here’s the Houston First press release, and CultureMap and Swamplot have more.

Germantown gets historic designation

Congratulations to what may be the last historic district created in the city of Houston.

The first historic district created under a stricter rewrite of Houston’s preservation ordinance passed City Council on Wednesday, though conservationists predicted future districts will be scarce even as they cheered the milestone.

With council’s 11-5 vote, Germantown Historic District – nestled between Interstate 45 and Houston Avenue, with Alma to the north and Woodland Park to the south – becomes the city’s 20th protected historic neighborhood.

Mayor Annise Parker devoted time and effort in 2010 to strengthening the city’s previously toothless preservation ordinance, which allowed historic structures to be razed even if the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission disagreed.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to be using the historic preservation ordinance that much; we had captured many of the historic districts,” said Parker, who lives in Westmoreland Historic District. “I hope more neighborhoods use it.”

[…]

Wendy Parker led the effort to create the Germantown district, the name of which stems from the presence of German farmers in the area north of White Oak Bayou in the late 1800s, according to the city planning department.

“We started to see town homes pop up and historic homes being knocked down at will without any consideration for the history of them or necessarily the condition,” she said. “We wanted to stop that process and make sure the architectural character of the neighborhood was kept.”

See here to learn more about Germantown, which is just east of the Woodland Heights – basically, it’s the neighborhood in the triangle formed by Houston Avenue, I-45, and White Oak – and see CultureMap for more, including a Google Map view of Germantown if you still can’t visualize where it is. I met Wendy Parker at an I-45 public forum last year, and I know one of the reasons she was pushing for this was as a defense against proposal to expand I-45 that would require condemning property in Germantown. I hope this does it for them.

Lawsuit filed over historic preservation ordinance

I got an email last week from Kathleen Powell of Responsible Historic Preservation for Houston announcing that the first lawsuit against Houston’s new historic preservation. You can see a copy of the complaint here. What I have not seen is a mention of this on any news-related website. Nothing on the Chron, or Swamplot, or CultureMap, heck not even a mention on the RHP for Houston site itself, just this HAIF forum thread, which has predictably descended into invective.

The suit itself makes the following claims:

– The city violated the original preservation ordinance of 1995 by not having a hearing prior to the amendment of that ordinance. They also claimed that there was not a hearing by the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission (HAHC) prior to the adoption of the new ordinance, in violation of the original ordinance.

– They claim the new ordinance violates section 13 of the city charter, which forbids zoning.

– They claim the reconsideration process was not legal.

– They claim the city ignored the level of support for reconsideration in the Woodland Heights and Glenbrook Valley and illegally approved their designations as historic.

– They claim the city illegally reduced the value of a property owned by the plaintiffs by not allowing them to demolish the original structure on it.

– They claim federal civil rights violations and Texas electoral code violations.

I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll leave it to those better versed in these matters to evaluate these claims. The suit was assigned to the 215th Civil District Court, for which the judge is Steven Kirkland, and the email that was sent made a big deal out of Judge Kirkland’s friendship with Mayor Parker and his recusal from the lawsuit over the firefighters’ pension fund. I expect the first order of business here will be a motion for him to recuse himself in this suit as well.

That’s all I know at this time. You can find the filing on the District Clerk webpage here, or go to http://www.hcdistrictclerk.com/edocs/Public/Search.aspx and search for Cause #2012-36113. Depending on who you believe in that HAIF thread, this will either be kicked on a summary judgment motion, or the city will go down like the Titanic. We’ll see who’s right.

RIP, Bubba the roach

Another Houston institution bites the dust.

Bubba, we hardly knew ye

For 42 years, a 2-ton sign featuring a neon-lighted cockroach blazed over the Southwest Freeway near Westpark, a garish but iconic advertisement for Holder’s Pest Control.

The 8-foot-by-16-foot sign, nicknamed Bubba, was taken down in 2004 and put in storage because Holder’s had moved its offices and a new city ordinance forbade such signs when companies relocate. Though their new landlords refused to allow the sign, officials of the pest-control company expressed optimism at the time that they could bring it back someday, somehow.

Time ran out for Bubba three months ago.

In January, the steel and porcelain sign was cut up and hauled off for recycling. Last week, the company announced it had rebranded with a new name and new corporate logo on its uniforms and trucks. The new branding is roach-free.

“We didn’t feel the old cockroach logo, Bubba, was very modern,” said Brad Bergum, division manager of the rechristened Holder’s Pest Solutions. “Company representatives from Wisconsin felt he was the wrong image. … We knew Bubba was a landmark in Houston. But it just wasn’t what we were looking for.”

Yeah, that’s how we roll in Houston. I have to say, though, I can’t believe there wasn’t someone willing to pay a few bucks to give Bubba a permanent home. I mean, ten years ago people bought a ton of Enron crap, so there’s plenty of precedent. Surely there was some soul blessed with more money than brains or taste who would have coughed it up for such a unique piece of Houstonia. Alas, he or she will never get the chance now. Swamplot has more.

What’s to become of the downtown post office?

Lisa Gray writes about the future of the downtown post office on Franklin.

Franklin Street Post Office

In the past couple of years, there have been rumblings that the U.S. Postal Service plans to leave 401 Franklin and sell the 16-acre complex – a prospect that sets developers, architects and planners atremble. It’s not just that the parcel of land is large enough to form its own downtown district. It’s also that the land is a place where many things could converge: Buffalo Bayou, Houston’s light-rail line, bike paths, even Amtrak and proposed commuter-rail lines. Done right, that post-office complex could become a major hub of activity – a symbol of sweet progress, at a time when we no longer count on it.

The Urban Land Institute, a national group that promotes good development, last month picked the complex as the project for its 2012 Gerald D. Hines Student Urban Design Competition. Graduate-student teams from across the country will dream up new uses for the old post-office site in hopes of winning the $50,000 prize.

The competition is hypothetical; there’s no plan to build the winner’s idea. But even so, the competition alarmed Houston preservationists, who worry that in describing the site, the contest organizers seem to encourage razing it and starting with a clean slate. In Houston, such hypothetical ideas have a way of becoming realities.

Stephen Fox, Houston’s best-known architectural historian, emailed other preservationists to alert them to the whispered threat. The post office, he noted, won a Design Award from the Texas Society of Architects in 1963. It is, he wrote, “an outstanding work of mid-century civic architecture,” and as of this year, would be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

Fox thinks interesting things could be done not just with the “alabaster beauty” office building (now sadly in need of TLC), but also with the enormous low-slung industrial building where mail was once sorted.

“Can you imagine a green roof there?” he asks. “There’s lots of room for plantings.”

Ramona Davis, head of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, suggests that the five-story office building should be repurposed in part as an Amtrak station. Houston’s current one – an unassuming little building a block away – is “an embarrassment,” she wrote.

Here’s more about the design competition. That location has been up for sale, at least potentially, for awhile now. I’ve heard rumblings about it being turned into some kind of mixed-use, transit-oriented development for nearly as long. If and when there’s ever an Inner Katy line, that would be a nice location to tie it into an extension of the Harrisburg and Southeast lines. The possibilities are endless, and I’m sure we’ll see a few ideas emerge from this competition. We’ll see what happens from there.

More thoughts on the Mayoral election

I think there are two key things to keep in mind when contemplating Tuesday’s election results in Houston and what they may mean for 2013. First and foremost, I believe you have to see the Mayor’s percentage of the vote, which everyone would agree was underwhelming, as a reflection on her level of support and nothing else. To put it another way, this was her “generic” re-elect number, given that she wasn’t running against any one opponent but against a mostly interchangeable slate of “not Annise Parker” candidates. That’s bad, because some 49% of the people who bothered to vote said they wanted someone else, but it’s not necessarily as bad as it looks. Many incumbents do worse in polls against a generic opponent. Look at President Obama for a clear example of that. The flipside of this, which is also crystal clear with the President, is that it means they generally do better, sometimes much better, against actual named opponents. Every single person who might run against Annise Parker in 2013 has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and many of them have their own record in public service that can be examined and critiqued. Change the choice from “I’d like somebody else to be Mayor” to “I’d like this specific person to be Mayor” – Paul Bettencourt, Ben Hall, Bill King, whoever – and some people who maybe aren’t too happy with Parker will decide she’s the preferable option. (Or not – it can certainly go either way.) Give the Mayor a single named opponent whose flaws and policy ideas she can attack, and the dynamic of the race changes, because it’s no longer all about her. Like I said, that may or may not ultimately work in her favor, but it will be different than this race was. We can’t know how that will go until someone actually decides to run against her. Further, while it’s easy enough to imagine Parker getting squeezed between a white Republican and an African-American Democrat, what happens if more than one of either or both decides to jump in? This is what I mean when I say it’s far too early to make any grand pronunciations about 2013. There are too many variables in play. I still believe, as I said before the election and before anyone else, that an underperformance by the Mayor would make it more likely she will draw a serious opponent in 2013. That’s not the same as saying I believe she’ll lose, or even that she’s more likely to lose. It’s far too early to tell about that.

The Mayor’s first term was affected by several factors that were beyond her control – things like the economy, the red light camera referendum, various Council hijinx. I believe she is likely to derive some benefit from there being fewer of these external factors over the next two years – I mean, how much more can there be? If it turns out I’m wrong about that, she may well decide this job is a curse and gladly hand it off to someone else. Be that as it may, there’s no shortage of things well within her control where she can and must do better. The Mayor’s biggest political liability isn’t the caprices of fate but the fact that she has done very little to expand her base of support, and quite a bit to antagonize and depress it. I think of the Mayor’s base primarily as people like me – urban progressives. As far as I can tell – I’ll have a better grasp on this when I get the vote canvass, but I don’t need numbers to see the basic problem outline – there’s a lot of discontent among people in my neck of the woods with the Mayor’s actions. First and foremost among them is the 380 agreement situation, which begins but now doesn’t end with Ainbinder and Washington Heights. The fact that Ainbinder chose Wal-Mart as its anchor tenant is another example of uncontrollable bad luck for the Mayor – if they had announced a deal with HEB, no one would have cared enough to kick up a fuss about it – but the decision to offer Ainbinder a 380 agreement in return for what appear to be minor, almost trivial, infrastructure improvements, along with still-unresolved questions about traffic, bridge safety, noise, drainage, and so forth, that was all on the Mayor and her unhelpful department heads. Pursuing historic preservation – which, one must admit, was something she campaigned on – won her more enemies than friends, as support for preservation is broad but shallow, while opposition to it is narrow but deep and fierce and activism-inspiring. However you feel about these things, the fact remains that there are fewer people in neighborhoods that should be her strongholds that are on her side, and more than aren’t. That’s not a good position to be in. I don’t know what she and her advisers have been discussing since Tuesday night, but if I were in on those conversations, I’d strongly recommend they spend less time worrying about who may or may not decide to run against her, and more time figuring out how to do something about this. And if they can’t come up with a good strategy for that, they’d best start working on their oppo research, because they’re going to need plenty of it.

Anyway. I’ll have some analysis of the other results tomorrow, and once I get my hands on canvass data, I’ll start bringing the numbers. In the meantime, here are some more overviews of the election results, from PDiddie, Stace, Greg, BOR, and EoW.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron analysis, which covers much of the same ground as I did.

Interview with Leticia Gutierrez Ablaza

Leticia Ablaza

Leticia Gutierrez Ablaza was a deadline day filer for Houston City Council in District I. A resident of Glenbrook Valley, she became politically involved during the fight over the historic preservation ordinance in that neighborhood. She has a degree in finance and has worked in the financial services industry. Here’s our conversation:

Download the MP3 file

You can find a list of all interviews for this cycle, plus other related information, on my 2011 Elections page.

Trader Joe’s makes its move

Alabama Theater, here they come.

Trader Joe’s is officially considering the historic Alabama Theatre for its first Houston outpost.

The proposal is on the agenda for this week’s meeting of the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission, which would have to approve changes made to the property.

That would be tomorrow. You can see a copy of the proposal at the link above, and some images at Swamplot. It was in early August that the Alabama Theater possibility first came up. I’m delighted to see that there’s still life in the historic old place.

Trader Joe’s to the Alabama Bookstop?

Maybe.

Trader Joe’s is eyeing the old Alabama Theatre on Shepherd and West Alabama, according to a source familiar with the situation.

Earlier this year, the grocer said it planned to open stores in Houston and Dallas. Specific locations were not identified.

Weingarten Realty, which owns the property, would not comment. Neither would Trader Joe’s.

I showed this to Tiffany, and her reaction was “Well, THAT sure wouldn’t suck.” The commenters on that post seem to agree with her. This is little more than rumor, so I don’t know how much stock to put in it, but the location is an obvious fit for them, and the size is right. Parking may be a bit of an issue, but that strip center used to have a Whole Foods, and the BookStop and Cactus Records were high volume, too, so it ought to suffice. What do you think?

Meet the new historical districts

Not so different from the old historical districts.

After months of petition drives and acrimonious public testimony over the protection of old Houston neighborhoods, the only change to the six historic district maps headed to the City Council on Wednesday is the removal of a single address from a Montrose-area district.

The council could end a divisive civic discussion that dates to last summer by approving a planning department report that concludes there is not sufficient support in any of the neighborhoods to repeal the historic designation rules that govern what property owners may do to the exteriors of their homes.

[…]

Prior to the reforms, homeowners denied city permission to demolish or alter their homes could disregard the city’s disapproval after three months and proceed with their plans. The council adopted a “no-means-no” ordinance in October that makes decisions by the city’s Archaeological and Historic Commission permanently binding. The amended ordinance also gives homeowners greater flexibility on additions and the use of materials.

In updating the ordinance, the council granted an escape clause giving neighborhoods a one-time shot to opt out of historic status altogether. Residents of six neighborhoods took up the cause, but in none could they muster the 51 percent support for repeal needed to have historic designation lifted from their homes. All of the districts are inside Loop 610.

“It’s been a very divisive issue out in the community. I think we do need to bring some closure to this,” said Council Member Ed Gonzalez, whose District H encompasses three of the districts.

I’m not so sure this is a closed issue just yet. The people who were on the losing side of this were not happy with the way the opt-out vote was conducted, since a failure to participate was counted as a vote for maintaining historic status. Getting 50% plus one of all homeowners rather than of all voters is a much higher wall to climb. I could see this all being re-litigated in a Mayoral election this fall, if a credible opponent to Mayor Parker comes forward. If not, then I’d say historic preservation has probably been put to bed for awhile. But one way or another, perhaps when Weingarten makes its next move with the Alabama Theater, this will pop up again.

Historic Houston closing its salvage warehouse

What a shame.

LOCAL NONPROFIT Historic Houston is no longer accepting donations of building materials, and is closing its salvage warehouse and ending its salvage program, reports the organization’s founder and executive director, Lynn Edmundson. The organization stored and sold donated historic building materials reclaimed from doomed houses at a leased warehouse and yard at 1307 W. Clay and a separate “overflow” facility across the street at 1214 Joe Annie. Historic Houston’s 9-year-old salvage program typically removed and saved doors, windows, flooring, shiplap, siding, stair rails treads, and plumbing and lighting fixtures from old houses slated for demolition.

They were not making enough money to cover their costs in this down economy. The plan was to have a big sale for everything that’s currently in stock, give away whatever doesn’t sell to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and then close up shop. That would be a big loss for everyone who might want to find this kind of stuff at a decent price, but it may not be the end of the story just yet. Here’s an update they posted to the site after the news broke.

We have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of support from the Houston community.

Five hundred donations of $100 each will allow us the ability to re-organize. While it will only offer a temporary solution, we ask that you help in any way you can. To donate, please see the “Support HH” section of this website.

We are entertaining all questions, ideas and donations. Please contact Lynn Edmundson at 713-522-0542 or [email protected]

Go here to learn more. I’d really like to see them make it, so if this is important to you, please consider helping them out. Thanks.

Historic preservation has been preserved

Swamplot:

THE RESULTS ARE in, and it looks like the great campaign todissolve Houston’s historic districts has been a bit of a bust. Houston planning director Marlene Gafrick reports that the “survey period” for Heights East, Heights West, Heights South, Boulevard Oaks, and Avondale West historic districts has closed and that the planning department has determined that “none of the districts achieved the 51% threshold that requires the Planning Director to recommend repeal of the designation or, in the case of Heights South, recommend denying the designation.” Neighborhood meetings and subsequent “surveys” for 2 more districts — Norhill and First Montrose Commons — haven’t taken place yet (the meetings are scheduled for January 8th and 18th, respectively). That’s it for the 7 districts where petitions from owners triggered the “reconsideration” provisions of thepreservation ordinance changes city council approved last fall. According to the new ordinance, if owners of 51 percent of the lots in any of the districts had returned notices sent to them by the city, the districts might have been dissolved — or, more likely, had their boundaries adjusted.

However, as noted in a subsequent post, these districts could still be altered.

Gafrick will be required to send a report to city council recommending one of 3 options for each of them. For Heights East, Heights West, Heights South, Boulevard Oaks, and Avondale West, the first option — dissolving the district entirely — is out. But Gafrick can still recommend adjusting the boundaries of a district — even if the returned surveys didn’t reach the 51 percent threshold. (Her third option: recommend city council do nothing — and keep the district as it is.)

In an email to Swamplot [Wednesday], planning department public affairs director Suzy Hartgrove says Gafrick plans to look carefully at where the surveys came from: “What we are in the middle of now is really evaluating the data received, mapping it and coming up with that recommendation,” she writes. Since those surveys will likely become available to anyone making an open-records request, locating concentrations of owners who want out of their districts sounds like a good idea. Though the ordinance allows Gafrick to come to her own conclusions, she won’t be making the final decision, Hartgrove notes:

Ultimately, it is [up to] the Mayor and Council to make the decision. They don’t have to take our recommendation. I don’t have the date of when these items will go to Council.

So there you have it. More background is here, here, and here. Now maybe all of those pro and anti signs will finally get put away. Until the next tweak to the ordinance, anyway.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

Preservation reconsideration

One of the pieces to the new historic preservation ordinance was the designation of a period in which already-existing historic districts could submit a petition to have the city reconsider their status. The deadline for that has passed, and 8 of the existing 16 districts got the necessary 10% of homeowners to sign on.

If owners of 51 percent of the tracts in the district vote against the historic designation, Planning Department Director Marlene Gafrick would recommend City Council repeal the district or shrink its boundaries. The authority to repeal, amend or leave a district intact rests solely with council.

Planning Department spokeswoman Suzy Hartgrove said city staff has yet to verify the signatures in the applications submitted by residents of Avondale West, Boulevard Oaks, First Montrose Commons, Houston Heights East, Houston Heights South, Houston Heights West, Norhill and Westmoreland historic districts.

You can find maps of these districts here.

Officials have said districts could be redrawn to encompass only the blocks where a majority of owners support the new protections.
Bill Baldwin, of Responsible Historic Preservation for Houston, which worked to gather petitions against the new ordinance in the Heights and provided guidance to opponents elsewhere, said he was pleased.

“We always wanted a survey and we’re going to get one, so we’re happy about that,” he said.

Baldwin said he was confident a majority of homeowners in Heights East and South oppose the new ordinance. Avondale West opponent Dana Thorpe said the same for his neighborhood.

“Will 51 percent of those tract owners receive a ballot and return it in opposition? I have no way of knowing,” Baldwin said. “To get 51 percent of people to return a ballot is a monumental task.”

That challenge is encouraging to Bart Truxillo, co-chairman of the Houston Historic Districts Coalition.

“It is so disappointing that people are not understanding the potential good that the districts will do,” he said. “But there’s always going to be 10 percent against everything … 51 percent is a little bit harder.”

We’ll see what happens. I’m rooting for the attempts to change these districts to fall short, but if that’s what the residents want, then so be it. Swamplot has more.

What the Planning Department says about the new preservation ordinance

Via The Heights Life, here are a series of YouTube videos produced by Planning & Development Director Marlene Gafrick to explain what the new preservation ordinance is all about:

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRJrDd6cb7A

Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ae5DyFiwuk4

Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tp81p1Yq2HQ

Part 4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8X3IpwWfcs

Or just go to YouTube and search on “Marlene Gafrick”. If I hear of something similar by the ordinance’s opponents, I’ll pass it along as well.

Council passes revised historic preservation ordinance

I’m glad to see that City Council finally passed the long-awaited and much-revised historic preservation ordinance, and even more glad to see that the 90-day waiver for demolitions has been excised, so that what we have now is an actual ordinance and not merely a preservation suggestion. But it’s clear that the fight is a long way from being over.

“In a lot of ways, our work has just begun,” said Bill Baldwin, a Heights-area realtor and founding member of Responsible Historic Preservation for Houston.

Individual property owners should be able to choose to preserve the buildings they own, Baldwin said. He also warned that there will be significantly less investment in historic districts because demolition or even remodeling will be more expensive, and they may become less welcoming to new people.

“I have concerns on my neighborhood’s continued ability to be progressive and meet the needs of a growing and diverse city,” he said. “This is very burdensome for young couples, older couples or others who are facing other alternate choices for their habitation.”

Baldwin said he planned to begin to immediately gather support to rescind the historic status of his neighborhood in the Heights.

Council on Wednesday made that reconsideration process easier in an amendment to Parker’s proposal. Those who want their neighborhood to lose its historic designation must collect the signatures of 10 percent of property owners and turn them in to the city within 30 days. That will trigger a public meeting and a survey from the city’s Planning and Development Department. If 51 percent of property owners oppose the designation, the planning director must either recommend to City Council reducing the size of the district or eliminating it. Council is not bound to follow the recommendation.

We’ll see how that goes – it won’t be long before we know how many neighborhoods will undergo the reconsideration process. If a few wind up being a little smaller, I’ll take that trade. Otherwise, I’m glad this got done. Hair Balls and Swamplot have more, and an email from CM Sue Lovell, sent out later in the day that this passed, is reprinted below.

(more…)

The preservation ordinance fight

The revised preservation ordinance came before Council last week. It got a lot of feedback in addition to being tagged.

Mayor Pro Tem Anne Clutterbuck also opposed the changes to the ordinance, which include a provision that would prevent property owners from demolishing historic buildings in historic districts if a city commission has denied their request. Previously, owners could proceed with demolition after 90 days even if the commission denied their request.

Clutterbuck was one of seven council members who offered amendments to key points of the revised ordinance. Council members Wanda Adams, Jolanda Jones, Al Hoang, Oliver Pennington, Ed Gonzalez and Sue Lovell also offered amendments that would make technical changes in various aspects of the ordinance.

Clutterbuck’s most significant revision would be to upend the “transition” ordinance, which as currently written would apply the newer, stricter rules to existing historic districts unless property owners there petition for “reconsideration.” Parker’s revised ordinance allows them to do so in 15 days, although several council members and some industry groups are pushing to extend that time to as long as 60 days.

Clutterbuck proposed that existing districts be allowed to continue under the old rules. If they wish for the tighter restrictions to apply, they can petition under the new process, which requires 60 percent of property owners in the proposed area to return ballots mailed to them by the city showing they want the designation.

This earlier story from before the Council meeting has more. I’ve already said that I prefer the approach Clutterbuck is proposing in her amendment. Beyond that, my line in the sand on this is the 90-day waiver, which has always meant that we don’t actually have a preservation ordinance on the books, merely a preservation suggestion. As long as there’s a way to actually preserve historic buildings that need protection, the rest is mostly details to me. We’ll see what happens when it comes up this week.

Public Hearing on Final Draft of Historic Preservation Ordinance

From the Inbox:

Final Draft of Proposed Amendments to Historic Preservation Ordinance Released

Houstonians,

After a two-month process involving public input from stakeholders, I have released the final draft of proposed amendments to the City’s Historic Preservation Ordinance and a specified process for transitioning the existing historic districts to the stronger protections offered by the proposed amendments. I envision the transition process to beginning following passage of the amended ordinance. To view the proposed amendments, transition process and other information, please visit www.houstontx.gov/planning/HistoricPres/hist_pres_amend.html.

I appreciate the engagement of City Council and other stakeholders. The new draft incorporates the concerns I heard from you, as well as the many suggestions offered at the series of town hall meetings during the last two months. It is a good compromise that reflects the needs of the preservation community while still protecting private property rights.

Annise Parker

Mayor

Public Hearing on Proposed Historic Preservation Amendments

The City of Houston Planning Commission will conduct a public hearing on the proposed amendments Thursday, September 23, 2010, 6:30 p.m. in the General Assembly room on the third floor of the George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida de Las Americas, Houston, TX 77010.

Speakers will be allowed one minute to make their comments at the public hearing. If someone cannot attend the meetings, but would like to comment, please email [email protected] or mail your comments to Historic Preservation, City of Houston, Planning and Development Department, P.O. Box 1562 , Houston, Texas 77251-1562 by Wednesday, September 22, 2010.

To view the proposed amendments and other information about the process, please visit www.houstontx.gov/planning/HistoricPres/hist_pres_amend.html.

For a map and directions to the George R. Brown Convention Center, please go to www.houstonconventionctr.com/Home/MapsParking.aspx.

Some street parking may be available or attendees can park in the Hilton/George R. Brown Convention Center parking garage located on Polk Street, subject to availability. Attendees can submit their parking stub for validation (from that garage only).

Swamplot has a brief summary, while the Chron goes into some detail.

As expected, the revised law will close a loophole that allowed property owners to demolish the structures on their land even when a city commission disapproved of their plans.

However, the city also is raising the bar on neighborhoods that wish to receive the historic designation, reducing the size of areas that can qualify and requiring the approval of far more property owners to achieve the distinction. Existing districts will have to reapply, a change that has rankled some preservation advocates.

[…]

Under the new proposal, historic districts could be no larger than 400 properties, and 60 percent of property owners in the proposed area must return ballots mailed by the city showing they want the designation, said Marlene Gafrick, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development.

If the amendments pass City Council, which is expected to take up the matter next month, then all 16 existing districts and three that are pending must petition the city for reconsideration of their historic status within 15 days. The revisions to the ordinance propose no threshold for how many in a given area must approve of the historic designation for it to remain so, Gafrick said.

The department will mail ballots to property owners and evaluate whether the entire area previously covered by the designation should remain historic, be reduced or if the district should be eliminated.

I don’t care for that last change, and I expect the existing protected districts won’t either. It seems wrong to me that this could allow for the un-protecting of districts that went through quite a bit of trouble to comply with the ordinances we now have. Why not just give them the option to remain as they are, with no changes to the rules? Then if they want to apply for designation under the stricter rules, they can pursue that. I don’t see the need to make them petition for reconsideration, especially on such a short time frame.

I’m sure that will be brought up at the hearing. According to the story, the realtors and the builders have not taken a position on the revisions, while Houstonians for Responsible Growth, who represent developers, say they like them. I’m not sure that a preservation ordinance that gets the support of those groups while being opposed by neighborhood groups is worth having, but we’ll see what happens.