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June 29th, 2009:

Neighborhood concerns about the transit corridors ordinance

I think most people who choose to live in Houston’s urban core would agree that density is a good thing as a general rule. Density done in a half-assed way, which has been Houston’s trademark, not so much.

Density hasn’t been kind to Cottage Grove, a small neighborhood with narrow streets, few sidewalks, poor drainage and scarce parking for the owners of its many new homes and their guests.

Like many neighborhoods inside Loop 610, Cottage Grove in recent years has experienced a flurry of construction of large townhomes that loom over 80-year-old cottages next door. Two or three dwellings crowd sites where one house stood previously. Streets are cluttered with vehicles parked every which way. Water stands in the streets after heavy rains.

“It was shocking to see this jewel of a neighborhood in this condition,” said former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, a senior fellow with the nonprofit Urban Land Institute who toured Cottage Grove two years ago. “It was about the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, to be honest with you.”

The issues in Cottage Grove and other central Houston neighborhoods are on the minds of city officials, neighborhood leaders and others as the city considers the first major revisions to its development code in a decade. The proposed amendments were prompted in part by indications that pressure for dense new development is spreading to the area between Loop 610 and Beltway 8.

Marlene Gafrick, Houston’s planning and development director, said her department’s proposal to extend Houston’s “urban area” from the Loop to the Beltway would give dozens of neighborhoods tools to protect their traditional character and quality of life, such as procedures to petition for minimum lot sizes and building lines.

Some neighborhood leaders on both sides of the Loop, however, worry the measures don’t go far enough to prevent flooding, protect open space or ensure adequate parking. They see the proposals as an extension of the same approach that produced current conditions in neighborhoods such as Cottage Grove.

You can see plenty of other examples of this. The part of north Montrose where I used to live before moving to the Heights is another good example, filled with narrow streets that used to house small bungalows that now feature fewer bungalows surrounded by three-story crammed-in town homes. Streets that used to have a few cars parked on them here and there are now full on both sides – some streets, like the block of Van Buren where I had resided, now restrict parking to one side only – making passage difficult. Longtime residents have been negatively affected by all this.

It didn’t have to be this way. A lot of these old neighborhoods had been in decline and really a shot in the arm from new construction. It just needed to be done in a way that recognized their needs and limits. Improving sidewalks and ensuring that the drainage system could take the increased capacity would have helped. Pairing all this new inner-core growth with expansions and upgrades to public transit, including a more aggressive approach to building out light rail, and making more mixed-use development possible where it made sense, would have made a huge difference. We can’t undo what has been done, but we can try to stop repeating these mistakes, and we can try to address some of the now more urgent needs these neighborhoods have. We even know what needs to be done. The question is, when City Council takes up the new ordinance in August, will we do it, or will we continue down the same path as before?

Wilshire Village’s going-away photos

I ask for photos of the impending demolition of Wilshire Village Apartments, I get photos. And I echo Robert Boyd:

I just hope the developer, who thus far has been shown to have no particular vision (or much human decency) will preserve the oaks and magnolia trees that dot this property.

Amen to that.

The first domino

Everybody’s been waiting to see what Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will do next year, in the anticipation that if he announces a run for something else, Attorney General Greg Abbott will announce that he’s running for Lite Gov, and the dominoes will start falling as others scramble to move up the ladder. Turns out that it may not matter what Dewhurst decides to do – Abbott may knock over that first domino regardless.

Abbott’s new political director was coy when asked about a tip that Abbott definitely is running for lieutenant governor.

“The dominos are all falling. We still have the special session to get through. It’s a game of speculation right now,” says Luke Marchant, who returned to Texas earlier this month to run Abbott’s political shop.

As we know, right now Barbara Radnofsky is running for AG as a Democrat, and Republican Ted Cruz is all set to go as well. All I can say is that they’ll both have company in the event this happens.

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.

Another appeals court case to be proud of

By “proud”, I mean “deeply embarrassed”. Here’s Rick Casey discussing a decision by the 1st Court of Appeals in which the infamous case of death row inmate Calvin Burdine and his sleeping lawyer, Joe Cannon is referenced, and not in a good way.

“Like the ‘sleeping lawyer’ case, this case will stand as a significant embarrassment in the history of Texas jurisprudence,” wrote Justice Terry Jennings in a stinging dissent.

This isn’t a death penalty case, but a lawsuit in which child protection authorities sought to terminate a father’s parental rights. We Texans consider families so important that we give indigent parents a tax-paid attorney to represent them if the state tries to take away their children.

In this case, John Spjut (pronounced “Spyoot”) was appointed to represent Frederick DeWaynne Walker.

Spjut didn’t sleep through the trial. He simply didn’t attend it. Nor did he do much preparation. Walker testified he called Spjut’s office at least five times but never reached him.

Spjut’s bills to the county do not indicate any contact with his client. He did bill the county for filing an answer to the state’s termination lawsuit, writing two letters to Walker, and spending one hour preparing for trial. Total fee: $750.

But on the actual day of the trial, Spjut didn’t show. Instead, he sent his brother Dan to try the case.

It must have been a challenge. Without a lawyer guiding him, Walker had a hard time finding the right courtroom and didn’t show up until after lawyers for the state had put on their case against him.

[…]

By Jennings’ estimate, based on the trial transcript, Dan Spjut’s direct examination of Walker lasted less than four minutes.

The entire trial, Jennings estimated, took less than 45 minutes.

Yet the two other justices on the panel that heard Walker’s appeal ruled that his right to have a lawyer had not been violated. Justice George C. Hanks Jr., joined by Justice Jane Bland, wrote that Walker had to prove that he would likely have won if his attorney had done a better job.

Hanks wrote that Walker didn’t prove that the way Spjut conducted his defense wasn’t “the exercise of reasonable professional judgment.”

Jennings argues in dissent that Walker received “assistance” of counsel “far below that afforded to the criminal defendant in the infamous ‘sleeping lawyer case.’ ”

“Walker’s appointed trial counsel never discussed the case with Walker and then abandoned Walker on the trial date,” he wrote.

I guess if there’s somebody who can be called a “lawyer” that’s with you in the courtroom, that’s good enough. I wonder if any of the justices who render opinions like this have the same expectation of what a basic level of assistance would be from, say, a doctor or a broker.

Sadly, neither of the justices who thought this kind of lawyering was A-OK are up for re-election next year – we’ll have to wait till 2012 to render our own opinions. On a side note, in searching around for info about Calvin Burdine and his snoozing attorney, I came across this old blog post that detailed some fun and games then-District Court Judge, now State Sen. Joan Huffman played in Burdine’s retrial. I wish I’d have remembered it before her election last year, but oh well.

Vetoing smart growth

Houston Tomorrow takes a look at one of the vetoed bills that I hadn’t examined before, SB2169, “relating to the establishment of a smart growth policy work group and the development of a smart growth policy for this state.”

The bill would have instructed the heads of many state agencies to appoint representatives to serve on a task force charged with bringing back suggestions for the Texas legislature for ways to prepare for the projected population growth in the state. As noted by the Legislative Budget Board, “no significant fiscal implication to the state [was] anticipated” because of the bill, and its primary outcome would be that “each odd-numbered year the group [would have been] required to submit a progress report to the legislature.“ The Legislative Budget Board report went on to state that were this bill to have passed “Local governments may benefit from policies developed by the smart growth policy work group, but any benefits will depend on what future policies recommend and the operating environment of each local government.” According to the bill analysis posted at Texas Legislature Online, the bill would not “expressly grant any additional rulemaking authority to a state officer, department, agency, or institution.”

They note that the bill had bipartisan support – it passed 99-48 in the House (98-49 if you accept Rep. Todd Hunter’s “meant to vote no”), and unanimously in the Senate. More to the point, “Out of the 76 representatives from the 8 largest urban counties in Texas, only 18 (22%) voted against the bill.” All 18 came from Harris and the Metroplex, mostly from suburban areas. Alas, the words “smart growth” are considered dirty by the likes of Governor Perry, as you can see in his veto statement, where he pays homage to the idea of “local control” when it suits him to do so.

On a side note, the Statesman reports that the Governor killed numerous bills for which there was little to no opposition:

A dozen of the 37 pieces of legislation that Gov. Rick Perry vetoed late last week moved through the Legislature without a single opposing vote.

The various measures would have, among other things, changed the makeup of the Teacher Retirement System board, allowed authorities to more quickly erase criminal records when someone is arrested but not charged with a crime, and given college students more time to graduate before they faced tuition increases for staying in school too long.

Most of the other bills Perry vetoed drew just a handful of dissenting votes — fewer than five in the 31-member Senate or 10 in the 150-member House.

“There’s no check on the governor’s power to veto bills that have been through an entire process,” said Sen. Jeff Wentworth, a Republican from San Antonio who represents part of southern Travis County. Wentworth sponsored legislation that would have given lawmakers an opportunity to convene for three days after a regular session to override gubernatorial vetoes. It did not pass.

The Perry vetoes highlight the fact that most bills that pass the Legislature do so with overwhelming support, especially when they are locally focused bills such as several of those on Perry’s veto list. Lawmakers are particularly inclined to support legislation in the final days of the 140-day session, when they’re hit with a stampede of bills trying to make it to the governor’s desk before the clock runs out.

The scrutiny is more intense earlier in the session. Bills have to pass through numerous committees, often leading to hours of public testimony and several drafts before they even reach the floor of the House or Senate. Then the process begins again in the other chamber, and the two sides must ultimately reconcile the different versions of the legislation they approve.

It’s certainly true that some bad bills, as well as some bills that started out as good but then picked up some bad amendments (*cough* *cough* HB770 *cough* *cough*) can pass on near-unanimous lines. HB3588 from 2003, which authorized the Trans Texas Corridor, is a good example of that. Local and consent bills, which by definition aren’t controversial, also generally breeze through. Still, the Lege is designed to make it hard for bills to pass, and I haven’t heard anyone claim that the bills that got the axe this time around were ones that needed to be killed because of poor legislative oversight. These were Perry’s decisions for his own reasons, like them or not.