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June 4th, 2009:

Enabling pedestrians

I don’t know how big a deal this is likely to be, but it’s nice to be talking about it.

More than five years after inaugurating its light rail system, Houston is taking its first, tentative steps to make it safer and more convenient for passengers to walk from train stations to homes, shops and offices.

The city’s urban transit corridors ordinance, which it began developing in June 2006, is expected to be considered by the City Council in July. It would offer incentives for developers in six light rail corridors to include a 15-foot “pedestrian realm” with broad, unobstructed sidewalks and other features intended to create appealing, walkable environments.

I got an email in my box from the Planning and Development Department about this. Here it is:

Notice of Public Hearing

 

The City of Houston Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on Thursday, June 11 at 2:30 p.m. in City Hall Annex, 900 Bagby to consider two items.

 

1)     The proposed transit corridor ordinance. This ordinance establishes mandatory and optional rules along Houston’s designated light rail corridors. This work is the result of an effort begun in 2006 to enhance pedestrian mobility and achieve transit supportive development. More information, including a summary of the proposed ordinance and the draft ordinance, is available on the Urban Corridor Planning website http://www.houstontx.gov/planning/Urban/urban_cor.html.

 

2)     Amendments to Chapter 42 that address the following topics. The proposed ordinance can be found on the Planning Department’s website at www.houstonplanning.com.

 

       Average lot size/lot width in new subdivision plats

       Creation of guest parking for six-plus residential units

       Redefining the width and length of shared driveway developments

       Requiring sign posting in residential subdivisions with certain reserves

       Establishing a protocol on naming of partial replats

       Expanded notification on replats and variances

       Extending the Urban Area beyond the 610 Loop to the Beltway

       Building line overhangs encroach 30 inches, five foot for outside stairs

       Require surveyed site plans for single-family residential plats

       Resolve the conflict between Chapter 42 and the Design Manual for

       Lift Station Sites

 

These ordinance amendments will also result in changes to the Building Code and PWE Infrastructure design manual.

 

Following the public hearing, the items will be considered at the Regulation, Development and Neighborhood Protection Committee of City Council on Monday, June 22 at 3:00 p.m., City Council chambers, 901 Bagby, 2nd floor.

 

City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance in early July.

 

For more information, contact Michael Schaffer at 713-837-7780 or email [email protected].

It all sounds good, though my understanding is that this is basically a finished package that is to be brought for a vote, and not something that’s under discussion. It’s still a good idea to attend the meeting, and talk to your Council member about this, because it’s likely to affect your neighborhood, whether you realize it or not.

The impact of the ordinance will depend on developers’ willingness to comply with its mostly voluntary standards. Those who agree to create the pedestrian zone will automatically be exempt from rules requiring buildings to be set back a specified distance from the street, giving them more space to build revenue-generating offices, homes or shops.

The ordinance is more limited than steps recommended by the city’s consultants and by the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit real estate organization, to promote transit-oriented development.

[…]

A Canadian consulting firm that worked with the city recommended more mandatory requirements for developers, including certain building design standards. But the only outright requirement in the new ordinance is 5-foot-wide sidewalks in most of the city — the current standard is 4 feet — and 6-foot-wide sidewalks along streets where transit lines run and intersecting streets close to rail stations.

As an incentive for developers to meet other standards, the ordinance allows building facades to be adjacent to the 15-foot pedestrian zone. The city now requires a 25-foot building setback on major thoroughfares, and developers who want to build closer to the street must seek a variance from the city Planning Commission.

I’m sure there will be a lot more discussion of this, regardless of what effect that might have at this point, and I’m looking forward to it. Houston Tomorrow, which I’m sure will be one of those that will have plenty more to say on this, has this for now.

Endorsement watch: Ed again

The Chron reiterates its earlier endorsement of Ed Gonzalez for the District H special election runoff.

In a matchup of two well qualified candidates to replace former District H council member and now Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, the Chronicle believes Houston police homicide investigator Ed Gonzalez is the best choice.

Gonzalez led former school teacher and Heights civic leader Maverick Welsh by a narrow margin in a field of nine candidates last month. They are vying to serve out the final six months of Garcia’s term, and the winner will have to run again for a full two-year term in November.

[…]

In the first round only 4.4 percent of nearly 94,000 registered voters in the district cast ballots and even fewer are expected to do so this time. That will greatly multiply the impact of each individual who does vote.

We’re up to 903 early votes after three days. It’s possible we could exceed my projection for turnout before Runoff Day. That would still make this a very low turnout affair, of course, but better than most would expect for a runoff.

Gonzalez, who lives in Lindale Park with his family, is endorsed for the council seat by the former incumbent, Sheriff Garcia, whom he served as a council community liaison. He’s also backed by an impressive roster of area elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Gene Green, Harris County Constable Victor Trevino, Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia and State Reps. Ana Hernandez and Armando Walle.

In addition to his 18 years of service as a Houston policeman, Gonzalez would provide needed diversity on a 15-member City Council with only one current Hispanic member, District I’s James Rodriguez. In a city that is more than 40 percent Hispanic, an added Latino council member would be a positive development.

Well, that’s certainly been a big theme of this election. I’ll note here that the rumor mill has informed me that Rick Rodriguez, who was one of the nine original candidates for this race and who finished in fourth place with 9.54% in the first go-round, is considering a run for At Large #1 this fall. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I do know that the only way we’re going to truly increase Hispanic representation on Council is to get more Hispanic candidates to run for Council seats that aren’t H and I. For that reason, I hope that he, or someone like him, is at least considering the possibility.

Open beaches

Got the following email from a colleague and thought it was worth mentioning:

Very late Sunday night a “deal” was made in the Texas legislature to make an exemption in the Texas Open Beaches Act – the law that guarantees public access to our beaches.

Rep. Wayne Christian of Center, Texas use to have a beach house on Bolivar. Hurricane Ike destroyed it. I feel badly for him and the thousands of others who lost property. But state law prohibits construction of houses on the public beach. Why? Because its the PUBLIC BEACH, not private beach.

Anyway Rep. Christian wants to build a new house on what is now PUBLIC BEACH, and he snuck a law through that exempts front-row owners in Bolivar to build new houses on our beach. That is bad public policy. Beaches are like public parks, you can live near them but not in them.

Right now, please phone Gov. Perry and respectfully ask him to “veto HB770, building houses directly on the public beach will cost us billions of dollars in the next storm”.

512-463-2000

Rep. Christian was on the conference committee for HB770, which is (I presume) where this amendment was added. The Galveston News had a story about HB770 on Monday.

House Bill 770 started as a bill to allow homeowners whose houses were destroyed by a hurricane to maintain their homestead exemptions — even if a final decision on whether to rebuild hadn’t been made.

But the law also appears to have exempted houses along the Bolivar Peninsula from the requirements of the Texas Open Beaches Act for four years.

Under existing law, buildings must be behind the line of naturally occurring vegetation.

The bill would exempt from state open beaches laws a house “located on a peninsula in a county with a population of more than 250,000 and less than 251,000 that borders the Gulf of Mexico.” Only one area in the state meets that description — the Bolivar Peninsula.

The bill, which was co-authored by Galveston County’s state representatives, Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, and Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, won unanimous approval in the state House and easily earned passage in the Senate. One of Galveston County’s two state senators, Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, was the bill’s sponsor in the Senate.

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, whose agency is responsible for managing the open beaches laws in Texas, blasted the law.

“I don’t think building houses on the beach, with the waters of the Gulf beneath them, is a good idea or good public policy,” Patterson said. “This bill is so poorly drafted that will happen.”

Here’s the bill text. I agree with Commissioner Patterson on this, and think a veto is not a bad idea. And according to today’s Chron, he plans on sticking to his guns.

Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has asked Gov. Rick Perry to veto the bill containing the amendment. The bill has not yet crossed the governor’s desk, and he will not make a decision until he sees it, said Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger.

“I don’t think building houses on the beach, with the waters of the Gulf beneath them, is a good idea or good public policy,” Patterson said.

If the governor signs the bill, Patterson vowed that he would not enforce the amendment. “My option is just to say, ‘Screw you, Wayne Christian,’ because the Legislature didn’t pass this, one guy passed this,” he said.

Patterson said the Legislature would have to impeach him if lawmakers wanted the provision enforced.

That would be going too far – filing a lawsuit strikes me as the better way to stop enforcement of that law – but at least we know where he stands. Christian, for his part, says this wasn’t about him:

Christian said his vote for the amendment benefited other peninsula property owners and therefore was not a breach of ethics. “If I were to pass a law that affected only Wayne Christian, that would be a conflict,” he said.

At least 12 of his neighbors want to rebuild but can’t without the amendment, Christian said.

The amendment will keep property on the tax rolls that otherwise would be taken off if left undeveloped, Christian said. He also insisted the amendment is “not mine,” because it was put forward by Rep. Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton, R-Mauriceville.

“I did sign with him because I approved the concept,” Christian said. The amendment targeted the Bolivar Peninsula because it bore the brunt of the storm, he said.

He denied that it was improper to add the amendment to a bill so close to the end of the session. “This is not an unethical, deceptive method of doing anything,” Christian said. “This is the way it’s been ever since government was invented.”

Well, that much is certainly true. As has also been the case since government was invented, sometimes these last-minute deals contain unpalatable provisions. And so here we are.

You’ll be hearing more about the Open Beaches Act this November, as the passage of HJR102 means there will be an amendment voted on to make the Open Beaches act part of the Constitution instead of an ordinary law that could be changed by a majority vote in the Lege. The above-linked story, and this Chron story from last week have more info about that.

The push to protect public access comes in the wake of lawsuits challenging what is public and what is private along the 367 miles of mostly wild Texas coastline.

The Open Beaches Act prohibits houses seaward of the vegetation line, which crawls steadily landward as the beaches erode.

While trophy houses, subdivisions and hotels have sprouted along the Gulf of Mexico, rising seas, sinking land and storms have led to the rapid erosion of Texas coastline. By some estimates, as much as 10 feet of beach front washes away each year.

As the sandy shore shifts over decades, a barrier island, such as Galveston, may look the same, but it will be farther landward. Houses that once stood hundreds of feet from the surf will be encroaching on the Gulf.

In some cases, the Texas General Land Office, which is responsible for the coastline, has sued to remove houses from the beach.
Jerry Patterson, the state’s land commissioner, suggested that the proposed amendment wouldn’t change anything along the coast.

“We work every day at the Texas General Land Office to ensure the public’s right to access the beach,” he said.

Property owners contend that the existing state law tramples on their rights and that a constitutional amendment would make matters worse, according to the House’s analysis of the pros and cons of the bill.

J. David Breemer, a Pacific Legal Foundation attorney who is challenging the land office’s enforcement of the Open Beaches Act, said he doesn’t believe a constitutional amendment would insulate the state from lawsuits.

“The issue is how the law is used, not the intent,” Breemer said. “The easement keeps rolling over land that the public hasn’t ever walked and development has already happened.”

Still, beachgoers and environmentalists expressed enthusiasm over the proposed amendment, which cleared the state House on a 140-1 vote and the Senate on a 29-2 vote.

Ken Kramer, director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter, said the environmental group would campaign in favor of the ballot measure.

“It’s a great issue to elevate people’s awareness of coastal protection,” he said.

This KHOU story has more on that lawsuit. I’ll be voting for this proposition, and I look forward to seeing how the Supreme Court deals with it when that lawsuit, which has been sent its way by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, comes before it.

UPDATE: Land Commish Jerry Patterson keeps pushing this, with a press conference tomorrow in Galveston. From his release:

Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson will hold a press conference at 10:30 a.m. Friday on the beach in Galveston to rally Texans to demand Governor Perry kill a proposed law that would exempt the Bolivar Peninsula from the Texas Open Beaches Act.

The press conference will be on the beach in the Pirates Beach subdivision in Galveston, just seaward of the 4200 block of Ghost Crab Lane.

“Call Governor Perry now and let him know you want to keep Texas beaches for the enjoyment of the public,” Patterson said. “An eleventh hour amendment to HB770 would allow an elite few to rebuild their houses on the public beach or even in the surf. That’s not just a bad idea, that’s bad public policy.”

Patterson urged Texans who love the beach to call Governor Perry’s office at (512) 463-2000 and ask him to veto HB770.

The amendment was covertly slipped into the bill without any public debate on the first day of the 2009 hurricane season, which was the last day of the 81st Legislature.

“As Gulf Coast residents were thinking about the next storm, a few lawmakers were actually sneaking an amendment on to a bill that would allow their neighbors to rebuild their houses on the public beach or even in the surf zone of the area hardest hit by Hurricane Ike,” Patterson said. “That’s just unthinkable.”

Far as I know, there’s been no public comment from Governor Perry yet. He probably won’t say anything until he takes action on the bill, but it’s possible he could telegraph his intent.

From the “Math is hard” files

Inside this article on the Astros’ poor home attendance numbers so far comes the following mathematical muddle.

Through May 20, only 10 of the 30 teams in the majors were seeing an increase in average attendance over last year. Of the 20 teams experiencing a decline, the Astros — at 13 percent — were one of nine whose average was down more than 10 percent. Among the others are the New York Yankees (14 percent) and New York Mets (22 percent), who not only are winning but would have figured to benefit from the fact they’re playing in new parks.

ESPN has a handy dandy reference page for MLB attendance going back to 2001, so you can examine the numbers for yourself. It’s true that the Yankees, who nonetheless still have the best average home and overall attendance in baseball, have seen their numbers decline since last year. It’s also true that last year they were in a stadium that had nine percent more seats (57,500 to 52,235) than they do now. In fact, if they were filling every seat this year, their attendance would still be down from last year’s 53,069 mark. If they were filling seats at the same 92.3% rate as last year, their attendance would be down nine percent. What I would actually say is that their attendance is down eight percent relative to last year, because they’re at 85.2% of capacity this year, and 85.2 is an eight percent decline from last year’s 92.3. That’s a definite issue, one having to do with their pricing model for tickets, and it’s certainly gotten their attention. But however you present it, if you’re going to talk about how their attendance is down despite having a new stadium, I think you’re leaving something out if you don’t mention the reduced capacity in that new stadium.

A high-speed rail to-do list for Texas

Catching up on some stuff now that the Lege is (I hope) gone from Austin till 2011, Christof noted a meeting in town of the Federal Railroad Administration last week, and put together a list of things that will need to happen in order to bring the SUPERTRAIN to Texas. One piece of good news I can add to his effort is that despite the legislative train wreck at the end, the House did manage to approve SB1382, which calls for the state to create a long-term plan for developing a statewide passenger rail system. It’s a small step, but as you can see in Christof’s list there’s a whole bunch of small steps that need to be taken, so getting this one done now is helpful. Check it out.

The film’s not right

I’m just amused by this.

Movie producer Emilio Ferrari vowed last week to move ahead with his $30 million screen depiction of the deadly 1993 clash between federal agents and Branch Davidian cultists, even though the Texas Film Commission says the project could taint Texas’ image and is unworthy of taxpayer support.

The movie, Waco, would be the first feature-film treatment of the 51-day federal siege of David Koresh’s Central Texas compound that led to the death of four federal agents and more than 80 cult members.

Ferrari, whose production credits include Baby on Board, starring Heather Graham, called the incident the “nation’s biggest tragedy, after 9/11.”

“And this was by Americans against Americans,” he said. “It’s been completely swept under the rug. I think people have a right to know what happened. I’m not a political guy at all. I’m making a story from every point of view.”

The Texas Film Commission’s director, Bob Hudgins, said the movie would not be eligible for a state rebate of up to 15 percent on in-state production costs because the movie doesn’t “accurately portray Texans.” In language creating the stipend, lawmakers specified that Film Commission grants should be denied movies that distort facts to make Texas look bad.

Hudgins said he consulted media and law enforcement sources and determined that the movie’s script compresses and simplifies the historic event. Actions that were taken by several individuals during the standoff are attributed to a single character in the movie, he said.

The extent of a movie’s factual distortion isn’t a factor in determining its eligibility for funding, Hudgins said. “Either it is (accurate), or it isn’t,” he said.

OK, I’m dying to know the specifics of this. Almost every movie of this kind combines characters, just so it can fit into a movie-length narrative, so I’m curious what the commission deemed too much. The best reminder of the Waco tragedy I’ve seen in recent months was this Texas Monthly story from last April, the fifteenth anniversary of the conflagration. It’s unfortunately only available to subscribers now, but if you happen to come across a print edition it’s well worth your time to read it. Among other things, it demonstrates that many of the key facts about this event are still in dispute. Which makes me wonder all the more just what the commission objected to. Anyone know any more about it?