Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

West Gray

Our forthcoming early voting problems

This is the view in front of the West Gray Metropolitan Multi-Service Center, also known as the busiest early voting location in Houston. 8,390 people voted early here in the 2013 election. There was a water main break there, which caused foundation damage, and as you can see it is closed for repairs. Given the seriousness of the damage (which happened before all the recent rain we’ve had) and the need to go through a competitive bid process to get a contractor to do the fix, this could take months. Early voting for the November election begins in a bit more than three months. What are the odds that the Metro Multi-Service Center will be available by then?

My guess is, pretty slim. So we’d better be thinking about alternate locations. I sure hope someone in the County Clerk’s office and City Secretary’s office is already on this, but in the (sadly probably likely) event that they’re not, let’s help them out a bit. Alternate locations should be 1) inside the Loop, since the West Gray location is about the only Inner Loop EV center outside of downtown (yes, I know, the Fiesta on Kirby at OST is inside the loop; I’m looking for something more central, ideally in HD134); accessible via public transit and on a main road; and 3) actually available, with no scheduling concerns, for at least a two week period in October. The West End Multi-Service Center is one possibility, though it’s not nearly as big as the West Gray center and hosts some public health events that might cause crowding issues. Another interesting possibility might be a vacant storefront – the old Audio/Video Plus on Waugh is still sitting empty, and it has a (small) parking lot, with street parking available around it. Maybe its owner would rent it out cheaply to the county for a month.

These are just a couple of suggestions. I rather think the best answer will be to find two or even three small locations to fill in for the West Gray center, as I seriously doubt there’s one location that’s big enough to substitute for it alone. Like I said, I hope someone other than me is thinking about this, and I hope there is a workable solution being planned. I’m just not willing to take any chances on that. What do you think? Leave any suggestions or other bright ideas in the comments.

New development planned for West Gray

From Prime Property:

West Gray may soon get a lot busier.

Developers are proposing multi-story apartment complexes on two sites just a short distance apart along the largely retail roadway, which runs from River Oaks to downtown.

Both developers are requesting variances from the Planning Commission that would alter the building setbacks for their projects.

The first is at the of site of the Tavern on Gray, a sports bar at at the corner of West Gray and Waugh.

[…]

The second complex is proposed on the site of the old Houston Ballet building on West Gray near Dunlavy. The ballet recently moved downtown.

Click over to see the relevant documents. The rendering of the first site, called Hanover West Gray, hilariously depicts wide-open, uncrowded streets at the Waugh and West Gray location. It’s almost as funny as the drawings you see of various suburban-style strip center developments that show happy people walking through tree-lined areas instead of the vast tree-free parking lots that will actually get built. (Like this or this.) Where do the people that do these drawings live, and what color is the sky on their planet?

Jokes aside, I’m generally happy to see infill development happening. What needs to go along with it is a rethinking of the streets that serve these areas, to accommodate and encourage walking and transit instead of simply drawing more cars, of which these streets already have plenty. Andrew Burleson proposed one such alternative awhile back – sadly, the accompanying pictures are no longer there – but there are other possibilities if we’re willing to commit to the idea. The problem, as always, is money, and that’s in short supply these days. It won’t get any cheaper to deal with later on, that’s all I know.

Lisa Gray on the closing of the Alabama Bookstop

Lisa Gray writes about the impending closing of the Alabama Bookstop, to be followed by the opening of the new Barnes & Noble and the rest of the remade River Oaks Shopping Center, and what it means for the Bookstop’s historic building and the nearby River Oaks Theater. Along the way, she notes the Facebook group I created, I Will Not Shop At The West Gray Barnes & Noble and quotes from my post about it. Looking back, I see that I wrote the original post announcing the group two years ago Saturday. And now is when it goes from being theory to reality. All I can say is I still feel the same way about the place. If you do too, I hope you’ll join me in not shopping there.

Your post office may close

Look out.

The Postal Service may register a loss of nearly $7 billion this fiscal year in spite of a 2-cent increase in the price of stamps in May, cuts in staff and removal of collection boxes.

Post officials sent a list of nearly 700 potential candidates for closing or consolidation to the independent Postal Regulatory Commission for review. More may be added.

In the Houston area, officials are targeting four locations: Addicks Barker, 16830 Barker Springs; Genoa, 10935 Almeda Genoa; Westchase Finance, 3836 S Gessner and Nassau Bay, 18214 Upper Bay.

“Of the four, it looks like only one will go on for further study,” said Dionne Montague, a USPS spokeswoman in Houston.
She declined to say which one is most likely to be closed.

No mention of the locations that are reportedly for sale, including the downtown post office on Franklin, and the ones on West Gray at Dunlavy and Timmons near Alabama. I’m not sure if that’s a separate effort, or if the idea has been shelved, or if there just wasn’t anything to say about them.

Will the Alabama Bookstop be spared the wrecking ball?

A commenter at Swamplot, who claims to have inside information, has the following to say about the River Oaks Shopping Center and the Alabama Bookstop.

1. Barnes and Noble owns Bookstop. They are closing it to move to the new location at ROSC.

2. Weingarten has no intent of demolishing the Alabama Theater. They have been marketing the space for re-use. They intend to restore the facade when a new tenant signs on.

Everyone knew that the Bookstop’s days were numbered. With the massive Borders Books just a few blocks away at Alabama and Kirby, and the new B&N opening soon, there couldn’t possibly be enough capacity to keep the Bookstop in business as well. The question that vexed everyone who cared about preservation was what would happen to the historic Alabama Theater building that currently houses the Bookstop. If this information is accurate, it’s the first positive thing I’ve heard about its disposition since Weingarten first announced the demolition of the original River Oaks Shopping Center.

The commenter had more to say about other matters, including this somewhat puzzling bit.

4. Weingarten’s long term interest in ROSC is to achieve the highest and best use for this property. They want to bring a higher density to the center that they feel is appropriate for its location.

5. Before the crash last fall they were working on a plan to improve the walk-a-bility of the ROSC through landscaping and art. I believe the project is on hold right now. Its interesting how everyone is in favor of density (less driving and more walking) except when it affects something in your backyard.

I still don’t understand how adding a massive bookstore and a five-story parking garage contributes to “less driving and more walking”. There’s a discussion in the comments to that Swamplot post about how of course the ROSC is “walkable” because hey, you can park your car in the lot and then walk to any of the nearby stores. By that definition, the shopping center that includes the Costco at I-10 and Bunker Hill is walkable, too. The new ROSC may or may not be more pedestrian-friendly than the old one was, at least for those who drove and parked there. There are certainly things that can be done to make it so, some of which were explored in that comment thread – planting trees, widening sidewalks, etc. I seriously doubt Weingarten cares to spend any of its own money on stuff like that, but I’ll be happy to be proven wrong about that. When there’s mixed-use development in this area, as well as transit options to get residents in and out of there without needing to drive, then we can talk about density and walkability in a meaningful fashion.

More transportation conversation

Some good comments and followup to my earlier post about traffic in the inner core. I want to address Cory’s questions regarding BRT. The short answer is that I have no particular objection to BRT – it’s a perfectly fine technology, and cheaper to implement than light rail. It has a place in the mix, especially in places where the cost of LRT would make it infeasible given ridership projections. As long as it has its own right of way, it’s acceptable and may be optimal.

Having said that, I do think light rail is superior, and I agree with Andrew that LRT has much greater potential to attract genuine transit-oriented development. And let’s not forget that the 2003 Metro referendum was about light rail – the furor that erupted when Metro scaled back from LRT to BRT was because people thought they;d been baited and switched. We can certainly talk about BRT going forward – indeed, if the discussion is primarily about BRT versus LRT, as opposed to the usual more roads versus even more roads, I’ll be thrilled – but for now I’m more interested in light rail.

Well, I’m also interested in the streetcar discussion that Christof started. Andrew has taken his original concept for a West Gray streetcar line and fleshed it out some more. It’s a really intriguing concept, and I hope it leads to some more good ideas. Take a look and see what you think.

How much would you pay for that post office?

The US Postal Service would like to make you a deal.

The U.S. Postal Service is unloading as many as 200 facilities in an effort to offset some of its huge financial losses.

In Houston, just two properties have been put up for sale. But another four could go on the market soon.

[…]

The postal service, which lost $2.8 billion last year delivering 9 billion fewer pieces of mail, asked lawmakers this week to lift the rule requiring mail delivery six days a week.

Because mail volume has declined so dramatically, the service is adjusting carrier routes and employees’ work hours within its mail processing plants and consolidating operations.

“This consolidation is going to leave us with excess properties we no longer require,” said national spokeswoman Sue Brennan.

The two properties for sale in Houston are at 1900 West Gray at Dunlavy and 2802 Timmons, near West Alabama. They are classified as “stations,” meaning they have both retail and delivery operations.

[…]

Before the commercial real estate market began to falter, the post office on West Gray might have sold for between $100 and $125 per square foot. Today, it could be worth much less.

“Is the West Gray site worth $125 per square foot? I don’t know. Is it worth $50? I don’t know, because there’s nothing to measure it against,” said David Cook of Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate firm.

Back when new developments were being readily financed, the Houston post offices might have swiftly sold to developers for apartments, condominiums, retail centers or office buildings.
Prime location

The West Gray site is particularly well-suited for retail space, Cook said, as it is surrounded by high-end neighborhoods, restaurants and shops. The building is about 18,000 square feet and sits on a 2.5-acre parcel. The Timmons office is just over 14,000 square feet on about 2.6 acres of land.

Here’s a look at the USPS annual report. They actually did better in 2008 than in 2007 – revenues were up a hair, and expenses were down; as such, their loss was much greater in 2007. But they’re now in the red on net capital, so I presume that’s why they’re looking at selling properties. For what it’s worth, the drop in mail volume was only 4.5%; it’s not clear to me that things won’t improve along with the economy. Longer term, maybe they need to scale down. But I don’t think it’s necessarily as bad as all that.

I think you’d have to be pretty desperate to try to unload the sites on Gray and Timmons unless you could be sure you were getting top dollar for them. If I were them, I’d want to hold on and try to capitalize in a stronger market. I realize everyone and his sister is asking for a bailout these days, but the Postal Service is a pretty critical part of the economy. Surely we can do something in the short term to keep them from having to make sub-optimal decisions like this.

More on streetcars and sidewalks

Andrew Burleson had a couple of good posts last week that followed up on Christof’s streetcar suggestions and my post about a KIrby light rail line. Here they are: West Gray Streetcar, in which he takes Christof’s concept for a streetcar line on West Gray and runs with it, and Will and Won’t, which gets into the reasons people walk and don’t walk in Houston. I think he’s right on about this:

My contention is that most people in Houston will walk single-digit block distances without complaining too much. If you get into double digits, most people think it’s too far. I’ve told people before, “let’s walk to the train station, it’s about 8 blocks,” and their reaction is, “woah, that’s a long walk!” I’ve told other people, “let’s just walk to the train station, it takes less than 10 minutes and it’s a lot easier than messing with parking.” That gets a more positive reaction usually. It seems that as you get to about 10 blocks distance people think “that’s pretty far.” If you phrase it as time rather than distance, people usually think 10-15 minutes (which is probably more like 12-18 blocks depending on who is walking) is reasonable, and longer than that is “far.”

In my experience, however, once you’re actually walking, people quickly get tired of it if you’re walking on broken old sidewalks or no sidewalks at all. They’ll almost immediately ask “are you sure we shouldn’t just drive?” But on nice sidewalks, especially when there’s retail opening on to the street and other people out walking, most people will go longer distances without noticing.

That’s something that I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve tried to imagine rail lines along Washington and Kirby, as I’ve proposed them. Washington is a street that should be far more walkable than it is, and I know that it’s in line for a big overhaul in the nearish future, but for now it’s got narrow sidewalks that abut the street, with no grass or anything as a buffer, with utility poles and other obstacles for walkers to dodge. Fixing that, hopefully in conjunction with planning for a rail line, will go a long way towards improving that whole area. (Fixing Studemont as well would go even further.) Kirby is reasonably walkable in most places, and it’s already undergoing a facelift north of 59, but for the rail line I’ve proposed something would have to be done to it between Bissonnet and Richmond, and to Yale Street on the north end of the line. I don’t know what can be done about this now other than talk about it and hope to get other people talking about it, so consider this a contribution towards that end. What parts of town should have better sidewalks than they currently do? Leave a comment and let me know.