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June 1st, 2008:

A warning about downtown parking

Olivia and Audrey and I spent a little time this afternoon at the public library grand reopening. It was fun for all, as they burned up some energy in the kids area that they otherwise would have expended at home, driving me crazy in the process. The only downer of the day was with the parking. We parked at the 1100 Smith Street garage, which was a very reasonable flat $3 fee for weekends, but almost didn’t make it out of the lot. The exits are unattended on weekends, which is fine, but the payment machines didn’t take credit cards or bills larger than $10. One poor woman had pulled over and was asking everyone if they could break a $20 – I think she finally got a taker as we were queued up.

Then it was my turn, and though I had a $5 bill, the stupid bill reader wouldn’t take it. After several failed attempts, I got out and swapped bills with the car behind me. That one still wouldn’t take, and I was contemplating how much it would cost me to just bust through the swinging arm when one last try finally worked. Oh, and it paid change in quarters; if there was ever a time to use dollar coins, this would seem to have been it, but no go.

So, my advice to you, the downtown weekend adventure seeker, is to avoid the 1100 Smith Street garage (located between Massa’s and Pappas Barbecue) like the plague. If someone from that garage reads this and is offended by my characterization, all I can say is that I’ve spelled out what you can do to make this right. All I know is I’ll be using the underground parking by Bayou Place next time. It may cost a bit more, but if so it’ll be worth it.

UPDATE: For more about the library itself, here’s Dwight’s review.

Hurricanes are coming – Is your home ready?

The answer, if your house was built somewhere other than a city like Houston that actually enforces hurricane building codes, is probably not.

Since Hurricane Rita, the state’s lack of attention toward its building codes, often characterized as a muddy patchwork of inconsistent regulations, has left hurricane experts stunned.

Houston meteorologist Bill Read, new chief of the National Hurricane Center, called out local and state policymakers earlier this year for doing nothing. Former hurricane center director Max Mayfield expressed similar concern, saying better building is the country’s only safeguard against rapid coastal development.

And disaster safety officials are equally incredulous that Texas, with nearly three years passed since Rita, and a new hurricane season beginning today, has done so little.

“Texas is an aberration,” said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, chief executive of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, a nonprofit organization. “It’s eerily quiet in the state. Why are they not having a conversation about codes?”

You already know the answer to that question, don’t you? This is Texas, after all.

The state has quasi-mandatory codes for coastal residents, unevenly enforced codes in cities, and builder-enforced codes elsewhere. National advocates for stronger building codes say that’s probably not the most forward-looking approach for a hurricane-prone state.

Texas cities, such as Houston and Galveston, have statutory authority to set and enforce building codes, and for the last decade new coastal developments have been subject to reasonably strong codes. But counties have little authority to regulate building codes, leaving unincorporated areas something of a mystery, varying from finely constructed homes to well, who really knows?

[…]

Building codes are only as good as their enforcement, experts agree, but in a state like Texas, where there’s no uniform code policy, enforcement is all over the map. A private analysis of the state’s municipal codes bears this out.

ISO, an information risk company that primarily serves insurers, assesses the building codes and enforcement standards in local communities. ISO then grades a community on a scale from 1, exemplary, to 10. A good rating generally lowers a region’s insurance rates, a bad rating the contrary.

Statewide, Texas has an average of about 5.5 on the ISO scale, which is worse than the national average, about 4.5, and considerably worse than the country’s gold standard for codes, Florida, about 3.5.

For cities within 30 miles of the Texas coast, Houston, Baytown, Pearland and Harlingen do the best, each earning a rating of 4 for residential development. Galveston earned a 5.

[…]

Building codes do matter. In 1992, the strongest hurricane to ever strike the U.S. mainland, Andrew, brought 165 mph winds to the Miami area.

While pricier homes nearby were flattened, 27 homes built to a hurricane resistant code by Habitat for Humanity sustained no structural damage. A Miami Herald headline read, “Tally: Habitat 27, Andrew 0.”

Andrew awakened Florida to the importance of building codes, and the state has adopted the most rigorous building protections in the country, requiring everything from storm shutters to metal roofs in the most vulnerable areas.

This has raised building costs between 0.5 percent to 5 percent, building code advocates say. But once the codes go in, and every developer has to play at the same level, market forces quickly drive down costs.

“Better building will not only help save lives, it will ultimately help save tremendously on insurance payments,” said Mayfield, who is now a TV meteorologist in the Miami area.

A consistent code may also improve traffic flow during evacuations because residents outside storm surge zones would have confidence that their home could withstand winds associated with major hurricanes and not feel the need to flee, Mayfield said.

Chapman-Henderson, the safe homes advocate, said the first step toward creating a statewide code would be to hire engineers from the state’s universities to assess the existing quality of homes and building code enforcement. That would provide information to begin developing a uniform code.

“This is one of the avoidable disasters,” she said. “Not doing anything is the classic definition of insanity.”

Yet the idea of a statewide building code appears to have little traction in Texas. Smithee, who is not unsympathetic to overhauling the codes, says it would probably be difficult.

“There’s always been opposition to change from builders groups,” he said.

Quelle surprise. But then, the public good has never been a priority for these guys. Shifting their financial risk to the consumer, that’s what they’re all about. Sadly, they have too many friends in the Lege for there to be any hope for change, but at least now we’re talking about it. That’s a start.

(By the way, hurricane season started a day early this year. Have you stocked up on bottled water and batteries yet?)

The fate of the Dome is in his hands

Meet the man who will decide what happens to the Astrodome.

Edgar Colon, a lawyer with a background in negotiating complex financial deals, has been nominated to serve as chairman of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp.

Colon would replace Mike Surface, who faces federal bribery-related charges stemming from efforts by him and associates to seek city business.

The chairmanship will be a high-profile post as the corporation’s board tackles the controversial issue of whether a second life should be found for the Astrodome.

Colon, president of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in 2006 and 2007, was nominated by County Judge Ed Emmett. Commissioners Court will vote on his appointment Tuesday.

Emmett, who has voiced skepticism about a plan to turn the Dome into a convention hotel, didn’t extract from his nominee a promise to kill the hotel proposal, Colon said.

“If I am approved by Commissioners Court, the standard will be what is in the best interests of Harris County,” he said. “With respect to this debate, I would like to read the proposal and make an informed decision.”

[…]

Emmett said, “There is no question the most vexing issue facing the sports corporation is what to do with the Dome. I gave him one clear marching order: I want you to go in there and make the best decisions for Harris County. He is immensely qualified for the job.”

I sure hope so, because I think Judge Emmett is correct in his assessment of the issue of the Dome. What decision Colon makes isn’t that important to me, as long as it reduces the County’s financial burden and doesn’t expose it to substantial risk. I wish him the best of luck in that task.

For Bell for Senate

Colin has an excellent BOR diary advocating Chris Bell as a candidate for the now-open SD17 seat. It’s a bit hard to believe, but with some luck, we could pick up three Senate seats this fall, and that’s without a serious opponent for Sen. John Carona. Just getting one would be huge, but having the chance to get more means a lot. On the assumption that the election will be November 4, and that State Rep. Scott Hochberg would prefer to keep his (uncontested this year) seat rather than resign it to run in SD17, I hope Bell takes up this challenge.

The book was different

So one of the things I did while on vacation last weekend was finish reading Gregory Maguire’s book Wicked, which I’d been meaning to do for awhile. It’s a very interesting book, if a tad bit slow at times, and the chapter about the inevitable confrontation between Elphaba and Dorothy is excellent. But man, is the book nothing, nothing in any way, shape, or form like the musical. I mean, sure, you expect differences, and a dense 400+ page book is surely going to need radical surgery to be transformed into something stage-worthy, but really, the two things almost can’t be compared. For one thing – I don’t want to give anything away here, so I’ll be brief – the musical takes place almost entirely during the college years of Elphaba and Galinda/Glinda; that same time period is maybe 25% of the book. Glinda hardly existed as a character after the Shiz years in the book, whereas she shares top billing in the musical. And though it hardly needs to be said, the endings are very different.

While there is of course nothing unusual about a stage/movie adaptation of a book taking a wide divergence from the source material, it’s usually the case that experiencing one form of the story will give you some idea of what to expect when you experience the other form. That just wasn’t the case here. Another example of this is the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which is completely different in just about every way than the book Who Censored Roger Rabbit?; whichever one you consume first, you will not be able to anticipate the action when you experience the other. What’s your favorite example of this?

One thing that reading “Wicked” makes me want to do is actually read the original source version of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, namely L. Frank Baum’s book. It was clear to me in reading that last chapter of “Wicked” that the movie version, from which I gathered almost all of my Oz-related knowledge, was not Maguire’s inspiration for those scenes. I did read one of Baum’s sequels, The Magic of Oz as a kid – I have no memory of how I came across it – but not the original. Time to fill that gap, I suppose.