Montrose Blvd project officially delayed

I dunno, man.

Mayor John Whitmire

Permitting for an overhaul of Montrose Boulevard, a project that has drawn ire from residents pushing to protect the road’s oak trees, has been delayed at City Hall after Mayor John Whitmire’s staff asked project organizers to consider revising key details of the plan.

Funding for the Montrose redesign is set to come from the neighborhood Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, which receives property taxes directly for redevelopment, rather than using city funds. However, the TIRZ cannot move forward on roadwork without city permits.

Project organizers from the neighborhood’s TIRZ discussed the plan with the city for years and were nearing final approvals when they first met with the new administration in January. In that meeting, they said, Whitmire and city agency leads asked for adjustments, which they incorporated before the final plan was submitted for permitting at the end of February.

Since then, the plan has been in a holding pattern as Whitmire has publicly questioned some of its key components, such as the planned tree removal and sidewalk expansion.

His new senior adviser for planning, Marlene Gafrick, said she met with the TIRZ a week ago.

“I anticipate the project moving forward with some level of modifications,” Gafrick said, adding that her conversation with TIRZ leaders involved further potential changes to the plan including maintaining lane widths, sidewalk widths and preserving trees and that they “briefly touched on milling and overlay versus a complete reconstruction.”

Joe Webb, chair of the Montrose TIRZ, said the current plan is a “serious drainage project” based on an assessment the group published in February 2021 and that it took advantage of the road improvements to upgrade other infrastructure, reconstruct broken sidewalks and pavement and make the layout pedestrian-friendly. He said potentially switching the plan to an overlay would preclude the current intent to place large underground pipes for stormwater runoff.

See here and here for some background. You know that I approve of this project, so let me pause for a moment to wonder if there’s been a Mayor in recent history who has done this much to block or even undo things planned for and accomplished in their predecessor’s tenure. The only thing I can think of offhand is Bob Lanier killing off Kathy Whitmire’s monorail plan, which I hadn’t realized was approved by voters in 1988. Lanier had campaigned explicitly on that, so he could reasonably say he had a mandate to halt and eviscerate that project. This Montrose project is not specifically a Sylvester Turner concept, but it’s very much in line with his overall transportation plan and his expression of Vision Zero. I don’t know what will become of this, but it seems safe to say that whatever happens to Montrose Blvd under John Whitmire, it’s not what would have happened under another term of Sylvester Turner.

Did Whitmire campaign on being extremely skeptical of non-car transportation and infrastructure projects? There were some things he said in the course of the race that indicated he had some skepticism of what Turner had been doing, but come on, he campaigned on 1) more cops, 2) pay the firefighters, and 3) he has an awesome relationship with state government. I doubt that Montrose Blvd or West 11th Street or Houston Avenue were anywhere near top of mind for voters last November.

There’s another aspect to this, as Houston Public Media points out.

“It’s very frustrating because we’ve had a community that’s been engaged and we’ve been responding to now for over two years, and here we are still trying to get it under construction,” Webb said this week. “When you get right down to it, this is a serious infrastructure and drainage improvement project.”

Neither Whitmire’s office nor Marlene Gafrick, the mayor’s senior policy advisor for planning, responded to requests for comment about the status of the Montrose Boulevard project, which has drawn opposition from some in the neighborhood because it originally called for the removal of more than 50 mature oak trees in the first phase, which stretches from Allen Parkway at the north end to West Clay Street a couple blocks to the south. Mary Benton, a spokesperson for Whitmire, said in March that multiple street projects initiated or completed during the term of former Mayor Sylvester Turner were being reviewed.


Webb said he thinks the tree-saving argument is a “smokescreen,” noting that some of them are in jeopardy anyway because they were planted in tight spaces near concrete and their growth has been stunted as a result. He also said the plan calls for planting 100-plus new trees, some of which would be at least 16-feet tall when they are planted.

Further, Webb said the Montrose TIRZ already has agreed to project amendments that would reduce the number of removed trees from 54 to 13, with seven of the existing trees able to be relocated.

While the tree issue sparked vocal opposition to the project at large, many in Montrose also have expressed support for the planned work, with Webb saying there is a “large contingent of people and neighborhood people who really want this thing to move forward.” Part of the plan includes a 10-foot-wide, shared-use path for pedestrians and cyclists on the east side of the boulevard.

Webb added that Montrose Boulevard is the “drainage spine” for the community, and the project also calls for replacing drainage pipes that are between 4- and 5-feet wide with concrete boxes that are 10 feet by 10 feet.

“I represent the most repetitively flooded district in the city,” said Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, who represents the Montrose area. “This is Houston. We must be pushing for more flood mitigation projects, more stormwater detention, and more protection for our neighborhoods.”

In addition to agreeing to changes that would minimize the loss of mature trees along the boulevard, Webb said the Montrose TIRZ is also on board with the Whitmire administration’s requests to eliminate the plans for a sidewalk on the west side of the street between Allen Parkway and West Dallas Street; to reduce the west-side sidewalk width between Dallas and Clay from 6 feet to 5 feet; and to scrap the idea for a toucan signal at the intersection of Montrose and Clay. Toucan signals provide signal-protected crossings for pedestrians and cyclists.

But eliminating the toucan signal would force the Montrose TIRZ to request a variance from the city, according to Webb, because the city’s infrastructure design manual would otherwise require project leaders to install left-turn lanes at the intersection based on its configuration with an esplanade. Under the turn-lane scenario “we would lose every tree in the esplanade that we’re trying to save,” he said.

Webb also said the Montrose TIRZ has proposed swapping out the toucan signal for a HAWK signal, or pedestrian beacon, which is activated when a crossing pedestrian presses a button. Whitmire’s administration has not pushed back on that idea, Webb said.

Beyond that, the Montrose TIRZ is awaiting further direction from City Hall before pushing forward with a street overhaul that aims to eventually extend south to the Southwest Freeway. The more time that passes, Webb said, the more the overall cost figures to increase.

“We’re just waiting,” he said. “We’re waiting on a city review and some guidance from the administration on what they would like us to do and how, so we can respond to them.”

Again, maybe I missed some of this during last year’s election, but I don’t think that a platform of “let’s scale back on flood mitigation projects and make the ones we are doing more expensive” would have been well received. I suppose I could be wrong about that. I’m still trying to understand the motivation behind all this, how far it will go, and what the fallout will be.

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3 Responses to Montrose Blvd project officially delayed

  1. J says:

    It does seem that every project that includes the words ‘pedestrian’ and ‘bicycle’ are being reviewed, i. e. scotched. I suspect a back room deal with Republicans. There is a pedestrian crossing signal on Allen Parkway that I used a few times, until I saw that many drivers simply run the red signal.

  2. voter_worker says:

    Turning Montrose Blvd. into a signature streetscape would seem to be a slam-dunk project that the Houston powers-that-be, along with local residents, businesses and massive numbers of visitors, could get behind. Houston has a very strong utilitarian approach that could very well whittle this down to an “adequately handles drainage and pedestrian, vehicular and bicycle traffic concept”, leaving the boulevard visually and experientially mediocre relative to its potential for being notable from an urban design perspective. I’m personally hoping the result is more on the “urban gem” end of the scale AND addresses the strong concerns already expressed by many.

  3. Pingback: Shepherd-Durham project halted | Off the Kuff

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