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April 15th, 2013:

Still pondering Abbott’s redistricting motives

The Trib’s Ross Ramsey wonders what Greg Abbott is up to.

Still not Greg Abbott

Greg Abbott is selling a redistricting nostrum, telling Texas legislators they could cut their legal risks by adopting new political maps right away.

It is a hard sell. Lawmakers are getting along so well they practically break out into song every day. Abbott, the state’s attorney general, is offering them one of the most reliably divisive issues in existence, saying they could get themselves — and him, too, by the way — out of a lot of gnarly legal fights by endorsing maps drawn by federal judges instead of defending their own. They’re balking.


Lawmakers can always come back and draw new maps again, after the courts are through. They have been advised to leave their school finance system alone while that works its way through the courts, to avoid trying to second-guess the judges. So why second-guess the courts on redistricting?

Abbott has more at risk.

The political incentives are meager: It would be hard to come out of this a hero. Just try to find a well-balanced Texas voter who is keeping score on redistricting machinations. Most voters are looking at other things.

The risk? If, a year from now, one party or the other has lost ground because of a lousy showing in court, its advocates — not the lawmakers themselves — would take the heat.

Nobody, especially the attorney general, wants to be a goat.

As we know, bills to affirm the interim 2012 maps as the official maps for the rest of the decade were introduced just before the filing deadline. We learned later that this was what Abbott wanted. I still don’t quite get why he wants this, and I don’t fully buy Ramsey’s thesis. The Republicans, led in part by Abbott, have been employing a maximalist strategy all along. They drew super-aggressive maps, they put essentially no remediation in the voter ID bill, and they’re petitioning the Supreme Court to throw out Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act so that they can implement these things. Why hedge their bets now? Even if SCOTUS upholds Section 5 and the San Antonio court forces Dem-friendlier maps to be drawn, I don’t believe Abbott will be the fall guy for that. He’d have a very straightforward case to make to the seething masses of GOP primary voters that he was out there fighting for truth and justice and he would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for those godless activist judges. Maybe some GOP insiders will grumble that he gave them bad legal advice, but who cares? Facts don’t have anything to do with it. I don’t see the downside of going full gonzo Don Quixote, or the upside of getting timid inside the red zone. Am I missing something here?

One more thing, from Trail Blazers:

The 83rd Texas legislative session could go into overtime.

Attorney General Greg Abbott has urged the Legislature to make permanent the interim legislative boundaries developed last year by a federal panel in San Antonio.

But such action is unlikely to occur before the current session ends in May. That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to strike down a provision in the Voting Rights Act that requires states like Texas to have legislative boundaries and changes in election law approved by the federal government. The high court is expected to rule on the Sec. 5 provision in the Voting Rights Act near the end of its term, perhaps in June.

Most legislators don’t want to consider redistricting until the Supreme Court has finished its business. This week several lawmakers told me they expected to be called back by Gov. Rick Perry for a short special session to approve final legislative boundaries.

I’m not sure if the implication here is that they’re expecting a special session to be called in the event of Section 5 being struck down, or if one will be called regardless. I’m not going to worry about it until we get the ruling from SCOTUS. But if the implication of all this is that Perry is on board with Abbott’s idea to make the interim maps the officially sanctioned maps, then again I wonder what caused the retreat from the damn-the-torpedoes attitude of before.

The Uptown/Memorial TIRZ

Big projects, big plans, big funding mechanism.

Transit and trees – things that make urban areas move quickly and look pretty – are the centerpieces of a $500 million project that would remake the Uptown area and reinvigorate Memorial Park.

Mayor Annise Parker and other officials announced a plan Thursday that would fund construction of a mass transit corridor on Post Oak Boulevard and kick start much-needed reforestation efforts at one of the city’s signature parks.

“We’re coming together around a really unique opportunity and a unique proposition to link what’s happening in the Galleria area and what’s happening in one of Houston’s most beloved parks,” Parker said.


The estimated cost of the local park and transit projects is $556 million over a 25-year period. Funding would come from property taxes generated as a result of incremental growth in property values within the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone No. 16, which encompasses the Galleria and surrounding area.

The project is dependent on City Council extending the boundaries of the Uptown zone. The 1,503 acres of Memorial Park would be annexed into the TIRZ 16, as it’s known. There will be a public hearing on the plan on April 24.

If progress continues as expected, buses could start running in late 2017.


The plan to enhance the park would first involve removing dead trees, bushes and invasive plants that compete with trees for water and sunlight, said Shellye Arnold, executive director for Memorial Park Conservancy. Erosion control and the re-establishment of native grasslands would follow.

Up to 15,000 seedlings and trees have already been planted since January.

Basically, this is the city’s part of paying for the Uptown BRT line. As reported elsewhere, the estimated cost for that is $177.5 million, of which the city is kicking in $92 million; the rest will come from state funds and an H-GAC grant that uses federal money. Obviously, that means Memorial Park will get the bulk of the TIRZ funds, which makes sense given the 25-year time frame mentioned in the story since the Uptown BRT construction should be done by 2017. Not clear when the Uptown construction would start, but I figure that will come out during the discussion. I can’t wait to see what Helena Brown will make of this. See the Mayor’s press release for more.

One thing I haven’t seen mentioned in stories about the Uptown transit project is to what extent bikes will be part of the vision. Once BRT is in place here and Uptown is integrated with Metro’s park and ride network, you would think that accommodating bikes as a way to extend the reach of these things would be desirable. I haven’t seen Uptown mentioned as a future site for B-Cycle, but 2017 is far enough away, and there are enough other obvious expansion points for bike sharing that it may just not be on the radar yet. But I figure we ought to at least acknowledge the possibility now so that we will be ready to plan for it when it’s more timely.

Fifth Ward revitalization

I’m very glad to see this renewal project going on it the Fifth Ward.

But now the stains of that past are being scrubbed clean by the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation with what it calls the Lyons Avenue Renaissance.

The multimillion-dollar project aims to attract new businesses and homeowners to one of Houston’s oldest neighborhoods. It’s being funded in part by grants from Starbucks, Reliant Energy, the city of Houston, Mission of Peace, the NBA and Gulf Coast Community Services Association.

Since May 2012, abandoned lots have been cleaned, parks and homes have been constructed and retail spaces are being built along the Lyons Avenue Corridor, which stretches from Waco Street to Jensen Drive. Along with the main office for the Lyons Avenue project, two accountants and a hairdresser have opened for business.

“We are looking at creating a community of transition and a community that has life and sustainability,” said the Rev. Harvey Clemons, project chairman. “You cannot build it for yesterday. You must build it for tomorrow.”


During NBA All-Star weekend, basketball stars joined volunteers to build a new playground in the Lyons corridor for the newly named Legends Play Space. Due later in April is the solar-powered splash pad donated by Reliant Energy. Both are just a part of the revitalization efforts in the Lyons neighborhood.

A new 10,000-square-foot city library, a health and wellness facility, about 100 units of housing for independent living seniors and mixed-income residents and the restoration of the historic Deluxe Theater are also expected to be completed by 2015.

So far the redevelopment corporation has spent more than $2 million in renovations. The entire project is estimated to cost $30 million.

What I like most about this is that it has the approval and participation of neighborhood residents. Renewal and redevelopment shouldn’t mean that the people who already live there get priced or bought out. There are plenty of places in Houston to get a McMansion or a townhome with gold bathroom fixtures. There’s not nearly enough places with affordable housing. Ideally, projects like this can help make it be that the children who grow up in the Fifth Ward will want to, and be able to, live there as grownups. Maybe even entice some former children of the Fifth Ward to come back there, since as the story notes the area has seen its population shrink and change in recent years.

The project expects a 4 to 6 percent population growth once the first phase is completed, said Kathy Flanagan Payton, CEO of the redevelopment corporation.

A grocery store and shopping center also have been discussed.

“People don’t want to live where they don’t have amenities,” she said. “It’s a food desert here because they don’t have available groceries within a five-mile radius.”

Housing is nice, but amenities are critical. Nobody wants to drive to another part of town, especially in Houston traffic, to go to the grocery store if they don’t have to. I look forward to seeing the next phase of this project.

Someone will do something sort of soon about the Dome

I can’t be more specific than that.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

While Houston’s Super Bowl Host Committee continues its bid to win the vote for Super Bowl LI, the next step in the possible demolition of the Astrodome could be taken next week by the board of directors of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation.

The HCSCC presides over Reliant Park, including Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome. The board of directors is expected to vote on an unspecified plan concerning what to do with the Astrodome, according to a person familiar with the process.

If the board approves the plan, the next step is for it to go before the Harris County Commissioner Court. If county commissioners give their approval, the plan could eventually be voted on by the public.

I must confess, I didn’t realize that the HCSCC played an active role in determining the Dome’s future – I knew they did all those studies about what to do with the Dome, but I thought it was all on Commissioner’s Court to make the decisions. I guess it makes sense that the HCSCC would offer a recommendation as well, it’s just that they hadn’t done so on any of the previous What To Do With The Dome exercises. So, we don’t know what plan they might be recommending, or even what plans are under consideration for recommending, we don’t know who says they’ll be taking this action, and of course we don’t know when Commissioners Court might take action. I think that about covers it.

UPDATE: The Houston Business Journal fills in a tantalizing detail:

[HCSCC] is scheduled to hold a board meeting on April 17. The agenda includes “(d)iscussion and possible action to approve a resolution regarding the future of the Reliant Astrodome” and “(d)iscussion of a nondisclosure agreement with the University of Southern California regarding a potential project related to the Reliant Astrodome.”

I can’t wait to see what USC has in mind for the Dome.