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Heights

More on the Winter Street Studios fire

The Chron profiles two artists that were affected by the recent fire at the Winter Street Studios.

At Winter Street Studios, red caution tape draped an X pattern over an entrance to the building, a workspace for Houston area artists. The door is gone and black stains from a fire around the outer entrance are a stark contrast on the exterior of the large white structure.

Further into the building, chunks of the pillars are blown off, revealing brick and concrete. In one hallway, clean white squares where paintings used to hang stand out against the charcoal of the wall. In the area where Montgomery County based artists Toria Hill and Rebekah Molander have their studios, hallways that were once white and adorned with vibrant artwork are now soot stained.

The scene is a heartbreaking one for them both, especially since a person who was tied to the arts community was deemed responsible for the fire. It is testing Molander’s sense of security.

“It’s a safe place. What would be safer than an artists’ community?” the 38-year-old Woodlands artist said. “Who targets a group of artists and who destroys art? Of all things, art and music bring people together. Now that feeling of safety has been damaged.”

Molander had 18 pieces on display at the gallery in Sawyer Yards when authorities said it was set on fire on Dec. 20. The arsonist targeted the first-floor worksite of Bohemian Photography, then died by suicide days later, according to the Houston Fire Marshal’s Office. Bohemian owner Jack Potts and the man who set the fire were friends and reportedly had a disagreement over $1,000 in equipment.

[…]

The fire destroyed hundreds of pieces of art at the gallery, where about 110 artists rent space among the 77 studios to create and store their work. Some of the artwork may be salvageable, Hill and Molander said. All the artists are sharing notes on how to recover their work.

Hill will soon turn to an art restoration group, hoping her work can be salvaged. She suspects, however, that nothing is resellable. She had what is called “show insurance” that covers six pieces. But that only covers the supplies, like paint and brushes.

“They all smell like they’ve been sitting in someone’s chimney,” Hill said. “We’re learning it’s hard to get the smell of smoke out of your canvas without ruining the work.”

She’ll be focusing on creating more work before big shows like the Bayou City Art Festival in March and The Woodlands Waterway Arts Festival in April.

Molander, part of an artist collective called The Seekers who work out of the Taft McWhorter Art Gallery, couldn’t get in the building until the week following Christmas. She and her husband donned masks because the smoke smell was so thick. They took the 18 pieces that were on display, wrapping them with commercial grade plastic.

Once home, they’ve been airing the pieces out in intervals.

“One issue is that some soot, especially from the back of the canvas, could seep in and further damage the paintings in the next six months,” Molander said.

She also purchased a tool called a soot eraser — a dry chemical sponge — to clean the canvas.

“When you swipe down, the sponge comes out black. It’s incredible the way it works,” Molander said. “Right now everyone is trying to be as positive as they can. This isn’t anything I’ve ever dealt with but it’s giving me a lot of hope.”

The Houston Arts Alliance has activated its emergency relief fund, first created in 2020 to support artists during the COVID-19 pandemic, to help those whose studios were damaged. Donors can contribute to the fund at the alliance’s website https://ready.haatx.com/.

See here for the background, and please do consider making a donation to the support fund. I went looking for more stories to see what news there has been in the intervening weeks, and I found this from about ten days after the fire. There’s a lot of background about the studio and its history and purpose, but what really caught my eye was towards the end, about its immediate future.

The arson victim was a behemoth of a building: the 75,000 square-foot space at 2101 Winter Street, a historic brick-and-concrete structure dating from 1928, originally built by E.A. Hudson for the Houston Transfer Company. The rambling two-story fortress later become Harris Moving & Storage, before being turned into studios for rent for professional artists by developer Jon Deal in 2005. Deal took a chance on rehabbing the rambling elephant of a building, betting artist-generated income could be financially successful.

The developer also had to convince the permitting department, which granted the building the first permit ever under the groundbreaking Artist Studio Ordinance in the City of Houston.

Flash forward 17 years, and Winter Street had become the bedrock of what would morph into one of the largest communities of working artists in the country. The thriving Sawyer Yards complex, that has also birthed under Deal and other partners, a plethora of pendant properties for artists, other creatives, stores and restaurants, led by Spring Street Studios, Silver Street Studios (home to the international biennial of photography FotoFest) and The Silos at Sawyer Yards. Winter Street Studios has also been the headquarters, thanks to generous owners, of countless fundraisers, mostly notably the art auction benefiting affordable housing and artists, the iconic Art on the Avenue presented by Avenue CDC.

[…]

What Deal once did to rehab the raw, cavernous space of Winter Street — later replicating that model throughout Sawyer Yards — makes many confident that he can and will do it again.

We reached out to Deal the Friday before Christmas. Within hours he emailed back details to PaperCity of his new plans that provide uplifting news to not only the Winter Street Studios artists, but also members of the Houston art family at large.

“Definitely arson,” Deal tells PaperCity of the cause of the devastating fire. “I reviewed some of the video with the arson investigators and it was a targeted theft and firebombing of a specific studio. With our building and campus cameras we were able to follow the thief/arsonist’s steps from the time he entered campus to the entry into Winter Street Studios then directly to the studio door without hesitation at any turn.

“Clearly he had been in the studio before (photographer Jack Potts’ studio). On the video you can see him leaving the studio at a rapid pace and then seconds later the explosion.”

“The eastern 1/3 of the building, Section C, looks like a war zone on the first level,” Deal details of the damage. “The remainder of the building (Sections A & B) suffered severe smoke damage, which left a thick soot. The second level of Section C shows signs of structural damage due to the heat of the fire.”

Now that a plan is in place. Deal has a timeline in mind.

“Our plan is to have Sections A & B (2/3 of the building) cleaned and ready for the artists to move back in in February,” he tells PaperCity. “Section C will require some structural repairs and complete rebuild of about one half the studios in that section of the building. We are estimating that it will be six months before we are able to get those studios ready for the artists to move back in.”

As to who will rebuild Winter Street, Deal dispatched his own crews immediately.

“The fire occurred at 5:20 am Tuesday, December 20,” Deal details.” We had crews on site at 7 am on Wednesday, December 21, and have already made it possible for artists to enter their studios in Sections A & B. Many already have. We made the decision to remediate in-house (Dealco) as we felt like we were able to mobilize quicker with more manpower and equipment than the remediation company could.”

Another silver lining is the nearby presence of warehouses under the Sawyer Yards umbrella.

“Silver Street opened up warehouse space that had recently been vacated and is allowing the Winter Street artists to store their artwork there until we can get them back in the building,” Deal shares. “We are prepared to open two of our warehouses a little further away if needed.”

And wall space will be provided, Deal notes.

“Alexander Squire, Sawyer Yards creative director, will be coordinating with management and other building artists to help the Winter Street artists to display what artwork they have left during the second Saturday event in January and in February if necessary,” Deal tells PaperCity.

You can click over to see some pictures. I’m very glad to hear there’s a plan in place to rehab and recover, and I look forward to the grand re-opening. The Leader News has more.

A walk through four districts, part 2: Now with pictures

In yesterday’s post I described my weird idea to take a stroll into four Congressional districts, something I decided I could do after taking a close look at the new map in Houston. On Wednesday, a bit more than a year after I first conceived of this silly idea, I finally did it. Here’s a little photo essay of my journey.

I started out as noted at the Leonel Castillo Community Center, on Quitman at South, just east of I-45.

CD29_LeonelCastilloCenter

This was in CD29, but I wasn’t going to be there for long. I intentionally started at a point near the boundary with CD18 – this walk was going to be long enough, I didn’t need to make it any longer. As I walked over the Quitman bridge, at some point I passed from CD29 into CD18. Where exactly that line is I have no idea – I have joked before about the crazy way that CD35 is drawn between Austin and San Antonio, and that you can cross into other Congressional districts by changing lanes on I-35 – but it’s there somewhere. We’ll discuss this a bit more later, as it’s a bit more relevant when there are houses and businesses there along the border. Here it’s just traffic.

CD29_OverI45

West of I-45 on Quitman and I am unquestionably in CD18. The White Oak hike and bike trail beckoned me to the south.

CD18_QuitmanNorth

As I passed Houston Avenue and Quitman became White Oak, I had a choice to make. As you saw on my Google map, my walking path was along White Oak. But the sidewalk isn’t consistent, there’s a lot of cars whooshing past, and the hike and bike trail will get me where I want to go as well. What would you choose?

CD18_PathNotTaken

The choice was easy for me, though I should note that the path to the left that led down to the trail wasn’t paved all the way and I had to step carefully to avoid getting all muddy. But it was worth it.

CD18_BikePathAndHeron

I didn’t even notice that heron as I was taking the picture. I only saw him later as I was putting this all together. Going this way gave me another excuse to walk across the new trail extension. The view of downtown from where the extension meets the MKT trail, especially on a gorgeous morning like Wednesday was, just can’t be beat.

CD18_MKTTrail

Don’t ever let anyone trash Houston’s aesthetics. The MKT trail put me back on White Oak the street, and soon enough I reached Heights Boulevard, which is where CD18 ends and CD07 begins. But unlike the CD29/CD18 boundary along I-45, the exact location of that invisible line matters. As in, my belief was that the east side of Heights was still in CD18 while the west side was in CD07. I know these things have to exist somewhere but that will always be weird to me.

CD07_YaleStreet

Yale Street, to my immediate right and visible as I crossed over the bayou again just south of I-10, is fully inside CD07. I started on the CD18 side of Heights but crossed to the CD07 side a bit before I reached I-10. When I reached Washington Avenue, I was at the southern border of CD18 and was going to be fully in CD07 for most of the rest of the trip.

CD07_HeightsWashington

I have to say, the sidewalks along this stretch of Washington Avenue were atrocious, especially after having been on the hike and bike trails as well as on Heights. Broken and occasionally missing, with utility poles right in the middle of a much narrower space – I could have only done this as a fully able-bodied person. I may do a separate post on that, but go see it for yourself if you can. One corollary to this is that I could have both shortened my walk and dodged fewer obstacles if I had taken a slightly different path. West of Shepherd, CD38 was only a few blocks to the south. I could have turned down Sandman, for example, and been in CD38 just before Shepherd and Durham merge together at Feagan.

CD07_SandmanShortcutToCD38

But I stayed the course, and soon enough I had reached the traffic circle at Westcott.

CD38_WashingtonTrafficCircle

That was the view from the west side of the circle, on what I believe was Arnot, though I didn’t see a street sign. It’s in CD38, whatever it was. Again, the boundary was likely somewhere in the middle of the road, in this case Westcott. Maybe if state law required that the state pay to create and install signs at every district border, we’d get slightly less goofy districts. Be that as it may, this is the end.

I’ll have a brief wrapup and a suggestion for further pedestrian research if you’re interested. Let me know what you thought of this little tour.

The ribbon is finally cut on the White Oak bike trail extension

I’d been waiting for this.

Hike and bike trail connectivity has just gotten better in the Houston Heights area now that work on a new connector is complete. The City of Houston held a ribbon cutting [last] Tuesday to celebrate the new MKT Spur Connector that connects the MKT and White Oak Bayou Greenway Trails.

The $1.2 million project is a 850 ft. long and 10 ft. wide trail that allows residents to travel from the MKT Hike and Bike Trail to Stude Park, connecting to what used to be a dead end under Studemont Street.

“The MKT Spur Connector fills a major gap for the city’s bike network,” said Houston Public Works Director of Transportation and Drainage Operations Veronica Davis. “This connection proves a safer and more equitable transportation network for all users.”

The connector was completed a few months ago and the city has since added additional safety railings and retaining walls and stormwater drainage to help prevent flooding along the trails.

District C city council member Abbie Kamin said the project creates safer transit for residents who use both trails.

“We are now connecting two of, in district C, our most popular trails where residents can be more comfortable walking, running, biking, and not being forced onto busy streets,” she said.

See here for my last post on the construction of this connector. In looking at those pictures, it occurred to me that I missed documenting all of the safety add-ons mentioned in the story. I couldn’t let that go, could I? Of course not.

HeightsTrailExtensionWithAddedGuardrails

You can see the two types of guardrail added at the three locations, including where the trail passes over the bayou culvert. That one was obviously needed. I’m not certain why the others were added where they were and not in different locations, but that’s all right. They do look good, and if someone decide that’s where they need to be, then so be it.

A side view:

HeightsTrailExtensionWithAddedGuardrailsFullView

I’ve now used the extension a couple of times myself, as both a pedestrian and a bicyclist. It’s great – I had no idea how much it was needed until it was there, as part of the overall network. The MKT Trail, which is on the far end of these pictures, allows for easy bike access to the shopping center where the Target is. I’d much rather bike there most days than drive, but prior to the existence of this extension it was either a much long ride or a ride that involved Watson Street over I-10 and onto Sawyer, which is just too much car traffic to feel safe. It’s now a shorter ride to get there via the trail, and that makes biking there much more convenient and attractive. What’s not to like? CultureMap has more.

The Winter Street Studios fire

This is so awful.

A fire that broke out Tuesday morning at Winter Street Studios has damaged countless works of art and left many Houston artists without workspaces or gallery space. The fire, which began around 6:30 a.m., is being investigated as arson, according to the Houston Fire Department and numerous accounts from artists who work at the building.

The fire started on the first floor, in the studio for Bohemian Photography, a commercial photography business owned by Jack Potts. A GoFundMe for Potts states that someone broke into the studio, stole thousands of dollars worth of camera and production equipment, then set the fire. Per another artist at the studio, Potts is in the middle of switching insurance policies and is currently uninsured.

The Houston Arts Alliance has activated its Emergency Relief Fund, first created in 2020 to support artists during the COVID-19 pandemic, to help those whose studios were damaged. Donors can contribute to the fund at HAA’s websiteFreshArts has also created a list of resources, including emergency grants, for those affected.

The 100-year-old building, which was once a furniture factory, was converted to artist studios in 2005. There are 77 studios in the building, many of them shared between two or more artists.

On Instagram, the hashtag #winterstreetstudios was filled with photos and posts from artists detailing the damage to their workspaces. That includes water damage from the sprinklers and hoses, ash, smoke damage, and structural issues with the building that may require it to be demolished.

[…]

Renters at the studios were supposed to carry liability insurance, [painter Erika] Alonso said, and many of them did not have coverage beyond that. Aside from the countless, irreplaceable works of art that have been damaged or destroyed—some of which had already been sold but not yet delivered to their new owners—artists have also lost computers, materials, tools, paperwork, and other essential business items.

“There’s all these little personal investments artists make over the years,” she said. “But all the artists are helping each other, which is a beautiful thing.” Alonso said she had additional insurance, and hopes it can help recoup the cost of replacing her supplies and cleaning up her studio.

Just terrible. Winter Street Studios is a great place, a vibrant part of the community in an area where it’s often too expensive for creative types to hang their shingles. They have had regular Saturday art markets that are always fun to visit, and our elementary school used their space in the past for fundraisers. I’d really hate for this to be the end for them. The link in the story for HAA’s website is where you can make a donation to help these folks out if you’re so inclined. Thanks very much. CultureMap, ABC13, KHOU, and the Chron have more.

Shepherd/Durham construction update

Good long story in the Chron.

When the workers clear — still months away — Shepherd and Durham, along with some major side streets, will be remade, and in many ways reformed. The streets, dual thoroughfares that funnel traffic between Memorial Drive and Loop 610, will remain major commuting corridors, but with wider sidewalks, bike lanes and spruced-up trees and intersections.

“It certainly could look a lot better,” Heights resident Christie Aycock said. “As it is, there is all this building going on, but you cannot get to it without a car.”

Lack of viable options beyond automobiles is a constant in many Houston neighborhoods, to which the city, various management districts, Harris County and other entities are taking a piecemeal approach to correcting. Some projects, including the $120 million plan for Shepherd within Loop 610, also have federal funding attached.

When completed in sections between 2024 and 2028, the work along Shepherd and Durham will have added sidewalks and a separated bike lane to both streets. The sidewalk redo also will bring the entire route up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards, a huge improvement for those who use wheelchairs or other assistance.

To make room for cyclists and walkers in the same right of way, the four-lane streets will be trimmed to three lanes, with some dedicated turn lanes at major intersections.

Analyses showed traffic congestion on both streets was due to turns, so losing a lane but gaining turn areas should help drivers proceed more efficiently.

“Both our study and the city’s show it improves congestion,” said Sherry Weesner, president of the redevelopment authority.

[…]

South of Washington Avenue to Memorial Drive, Houston Public Works is more than halfway through a rebuild of Shepherd and Durham that resurfaces both the streets atop new drainage pipes, along with rebuilding six smaller streets between the two thoroughfares. The $12 million project also is adding lighting and bike lanes, and like the northern segment, will trim vehicle lanes from four to three to make room for bicyclists and pedestrians.

“While the contractor has faced supply and staffing issues due to the pandemic, they have a plan in place to finish in the spring,” said Erin Jones, spokeswoman for Houston Public Works.

Farther south, between Westheimer and Richmond, a $27 million rebuild of Shepherd has frustrated businesses and travelers for months, but promises better drainage for the western Montrose and Upper Kirby neighborhoods nearby. Shepherd, meanwhile, will get similar sidewalks and rebuilt intersections aimed at making the street less chaotic, but with the same two lanes in each direction for drivers.

Once the Shepherd work moves to the next phase south of 15th, the bike lanes will connect with bike lanes being developed along 11th Street through the Heights.

Though controversial with some residents, the 11th Street lanes form an east-west route from Shepherd that feed into other trails closer to downtown Houston.

Another east-west route, meanwhile, could carry many more commuters into downtown. Metropolitan Transit Authority’s planned Inner Katy bus rapid transit line includes a proposed stop at Shepherd-Durham on the south side of Interstate 10. As Metro creates the line, it has said connectivity by bike and on foot is crucial, along with improved bus service along the entire Shepherd corridor so residents as far north as Acres Homes have access.

See here and here for more on this project; the 11th Street makeover and the Inner Katy BRT line are also mentioned. As noted before, I’m driving this stretch of road pretty regularly now as part of school pickup duties. It’s not been too bad so far, and I’m excited to see what the finished product looks like. That area is so much more residential now than it was 20 years ago, it just makes sense to redo those roads in a way that fits in with a neighborhood. We need to do this in more parts of the city.

White Oak bike trail extension: The final polish

I haven’t seen a news story or press release to say that the White Oak bike trail extension is now fully open, but what I have seen is bicyclists using the trail. So open it must be. And since the last update a month ago, there have been a couple of finishing touches. Observe:

HeightsTrailExtensionDone

HeightsTrailExtensionFullViewDone

If you zoom in, you can see bike riders in each of those photos. I have not yet had the opportunity to use the trail myself yet, but it’s on my to do list.

One more thing: All the construction equipment is gone, and I was wondering if there had been a finishing touch added to the Frasier Street entrance to the MKT Trail. Alas, that is still a no:

MKTTrailFrasierEntranceDone

Maybe I can will it into existence someday.

Since I’m sure you’re all wondering what public works project in my neighborhood I’ll obsessively chronicle now that this one is finally in the books, well, it looks like work is about to begin on 11th Street. These signs appeared about a month ago:

BigChangesComingTo11thStreet

And hopefully there will be some action on the A Tale Of Two Bridges project. So don’t you worry, there will be more pictures soon.

White Oak bike trail extension: I think we’re done now?

When we last looked about a month ago, it was clear that the construction on the White Oak Bike Trail extension was almost done, as there was just a small amount of concrete to be poured to connect the trail to the existing MKT Trail. As of last weekend, when these pictures were taken, it seems that at least the concrete work is now finished.

HeightsTrailExtensionReallyAlmostDone

You can see two things of interest in this picture. One is that the concrete trail is now farther along – more on that in a minute – and two is that there is no longer a dirt trail dug for construction equipment to access the more southern parts of the extension. What you see to the left (south) of the trail is the dirt (and eventual grass that will cover it) being smoothed back into place. This has a much more finished look to it than what we saw a month ago.

That picture was taken from the overpass on Studewood. I moved over to the MKT Trail to get a better look from the other side. Here’s the last bit of concrete that was poured:

HeightsTrailExtenaionMostRecentProgress

And as of the previous weekend, here’s the last bit that was still to be poured, at least as far as the trail itself was concerned:

HeightsTrailExtensionLastBit

The Heights Trail extension connects with the MKT Trail just west of the MKT Bridge, To my left as I took this picture there was a box about eight or ten feet square that had rebar in it and was clearly awaiting some concrete. It was not attached to either trail and it had workers all around it so I didn’t get a picture. Maybe next time. I couldn’t say offhand what that box was for, but once it’s done it may be obvious to me.

In case you’re wondering where all the construction equipment was at that time:

HeightsTrailExtensionConstructionEquipment

As you can see, that dirt path is parallel and right next to the MKT Trail, and it is curving onto Frasier Street, which we have discussed before. The fate of that connection to Frasier Street was still not clear to me at that time, but I’m a little worried:

HeightsTrailExtensionAtFrasier

Initially, and even as of a month ago, that looked like a connection from Frasier Street to the MKT Trail, which I assumed from the beginning would eventually be paved over and become a part of the trail system. Now I’m not so sure. It’s not vital – you can still get there even if you have to cross over grass or mud or whatever, and a block farther west you can access the trail directly from Oxford Street. It’s just that this is a little closer to Studewood, so if you’re coming from that side it’s more convenient. From my perspective as someone who lives on the other side of Studewood, I would just use the Heights trail extension now if I intended to get onto the MKT Trail. All I’m saying is we’re here, we have the equipment, adding just a little more concrete would make it just a little easier for some folks to access the trail, so why not do it? I’ll see what it looks like once it’s clear that the construction is officially over. I hope there will be a ribbon-cutting of some kind to celebrate the completion of this task. If not, I’ll just celebrate it here.

Now we’re dealing with hoax shootings

A new thing we need to be prepared for.

Texas and other states have experienced hoax shootings, but experts say these threats shouldn’t be taken lightly. Research shows that if someone is going to commit a mass shooting there is a good chance they’ll drop hints beforehand.

Sometimes it’s just a student testing the system, said Julia Andrews, director of Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools, an organization that develops best practices for school security systems.

“Sometimes, it can mean getting out of school early, avoiding a test or just seeking attention,” Andrews said. “We are now seeing a lot of copycat threats, but we must take all threats seriously.”

However, schools need to be prepared when that isn’t the case, she said.

An analysis of 170 perpetrators of mass shootings found that nearly half leaked their intention to act violently, with 44 percent of them leaking specific details of their plans, according to a 2021 study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, a peer-reviewed medical journal.

For decades, school’s have experienced bomb threats, but this many shooting threats — happening at the same time — is unusual, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“For false bomb threats we have those better figured out, but with a false active shooter situation we’re not there at all,”Canady said, “because we’re dealing with this new trend.”

[…]

In recent years, these threats have likely become more prevalent with the rise of social media, said Zachary Kaufman, the co-director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston.

“Social media and (cell) phones have enabled such hoaxes to be made easier, quicker,” Kaufman said, “and seemingly more genuine than ever.”

See here for the background. As the story and my Facebook commenters noted, there were other hoax reports that day (in Waco, Eanes, and Pflugerville) and the next day, in Klein ISD. That feels a lot more precarious and unsettling than a one off to me. I don’t know what to do about it, I’m just flagging it for your attention. I’m glad to see there are people in the field who do have expertise in this. I really hope they won’t be called on to use it very often.

Opera in the Heights will stay at Lambert Hall

Good news.

Photo by Djmaschek, Creative Commons license

The uncertainty is over, Opera in the Heights is staying home.

After months of not knowing what the future for the neighborhood staple might hold, a consortium including a longtime Houston singing club and two donors have purchased the property including Lambert Hall and will let Opera in the Heights remain as a tenant at the historic performing arts venue, according to Eiki Isomura, the opera’s artistic and general director.

“This is a big moment of joy and relief right now,” he said. “We’re very excited.”

Just a few months ago, members of Opera in the Heights had wondered if their days performing in the historic Lambert Hall might be numbered.

Leaders with Heights Christian Church, the church that leased space to Opera in the Heights for the last quarter century, earlier this year decided to sell their 42,600-square foot property on the west side of Heights Boulevard between West 17th and West 18th streets because of dwindling membership and financial resources.

Realtors for the church opened competitive bidding for the property and a consortium comprising Houston Saengerbund and two of Opera in the Heights’ most generous patrons emerged with the winning bid, Isomura said.

The deal for purchasing the property closed last Friday, Isomura said.

See here and here for the background. I’d never heard of the Houston Saengerbund before, but they’ve been around since 1883 and are Houston’s oldest musical society. They sponsor an annual award to support young singers, which is cool. I’m just delighted that this story has a happy ending, both for OITH and Lambert Hall itself. It’s very much not all the time that Houston cultural and architectural landmarks get preserved, but this is one of them and it’s worth celebrating. Kudos all around.

The active shooter hoax at our neighborhood school

This made for a super eventful Tuesday afternoon.

Police and panicked parents scrambled to Heights High School Tuesday afternoon, in frantic response to a false report that a gunman had shot 10 people in a room on the 2,400-student Houston ISD campus.

The school went into lock down around 1 p.m., and police officers found the room locked and immediately breached the door, according to Chief Troy Finner. Two sweeps of the school found nothing, according to the Houston Police Department.

“We have no injuries here,” Finner said at a news briefing as a crowd of parents stood at an intersection near the high school. “Thank god for that.”

Officials intend to determine who made the hoax call and hold that person accountable. Finner said police believe the call may have come from outside the school.

“There was no active shooter here — there was a fight,” said Constable Alan Rosen.

An email notified parents later that Heights High, as well as nearby Hogg Middle and Harvard and Travis Elementary schools, were placed in lockdown.

“As a precautionary measure, we went into lockdown mode,” Heights Principal Wendy Hampton said in an email to parents. “Houston Police Department and HISD Police are onsite and continue to investigate, though no evidence has been found to substantiate the threat. We take all threats seriously as the safety of our students and staff is always our top priority.”

As it happens, I had to go into the office Tuesday afternoon. I was headed out a little after 1 PM, and was on Studewood going towards the I-10 entrance when I saw three HPD cars with lights and sirens going headed the other way at full speed. I didn’t give it much thought until after I had arrived at the office, took a minute to check Twitter, and found out what was happening. I don’t currently have any kids at Heights or the other schools that got locked down, but my kids have friends there and I have friends and neighbors who have kids at all of them. It was pretty stressful, to say the least, and I had the luxury of not having to be frantic about my own kids. My thoughts today remain with those parents and those kids.

Shannon Velasquez burst into tears on Tuesday afternoon as she waited on the sidewalk near Heights High School, where her daughter and hundreds more students were locked down in their classrooms after someone made a false report about a mass shooting.

The mother knew her daughter was fine — she had spoken with the sophomore student on FaceTime as she sped to school from work.

Still, she could not shake a horrible feeling, and her frustration bubbled over as she heard conflicting information from parents and officers about where she should go to reunite with her child.

“As if this isn’t bad enough?” she said. “I just can’t wait to put my arms around my kid.”

Anxiety, panic and confusion erupted on Tuesday afternoon in the residential streets surrounding Heights High School. Personnel from at least eight law enforcement agencies sped to the scene with lights and sirens. Panicked parents rushed from jobs and lunch appointments. Some drivers ditched their cars on the grassy median along Heights Boulevard, and walked or ran several blocks to the school.

Parents gathered information from their children, other parents, news reports and officials — eventually learning that their kids were safe and the massive frenzy actually stemmed from a false alarm.

Still, some parents said they were frustrated by sparse communication from the school, district or law enforcement agencies, although HISD and law enforcement agencies have defended their response.

[…]

Luis Morales, HISD spokesman, said notifications went out to parents 23 minutes after the district became aware of the situation.

“We were able to get that out a quicker than we have before,” Morales said, adding that the district must verify information before sending out notifications.

Chief Troy Finner said during a news briefing on Tuesday afternoon that he sympathized with parents who were frustrated. But safety comes before notifications, he said.

“We have to search the school. That is the most important thing — to stop the threat if there’s a threat,” he said. “We don’t have time to call. Once we make it safe, we start making those calls.”

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena said more than two dozen units from HFD responded to the scene. The first unit arrived two minutes after HFD received the call, he said, and quickly began coordinating a rescue team with police.

“The community expects the first responders to get on scene quickly, to get on scene and coordinate and start taking action as soon as they get on scene,” he said. “That’s exactly what we did.”

I have nothing but sympathy for the parents here. I was scrambling around looking for accurate information too, and the stakes were much lower for me. I have no doubt I’d have been out of my mind and super upset at how long it took to get updates. I also have a lot of sympathy for HISD and HPD, who were understandably reluctant to get out ahead of what they knew. I don’t have a good answer for this.

As relieved as we all are that this turned out to be nothing, we have to talk about the law enforcement response, since that is an obvious item of interest after Uvalde. In addition to HPD, there were deputies from the Precinct 1 Constable and the Sheriff’s office at the scene, and I assume there were some HISD cops as well. We do know that HPD entered Heights HS in search of the alleged shooter, which is good to know, but we don’t know more than that about who was in charge and who was making what decisions. Given what we know about the thoroughly botched response in Uvalde, this should be used as an opportunity for HPD and HISD to review their processes, make sure they have agreements in place, and so on. In the end, thankfully this was just a drill. We damn well better learn from it.

The slow but steady march of Houston’s non-car transportation infrastructure

Good story.

When he arrived in Houston two years ago, what David Fields saw belied what he had heard.

The nation’s fourth-largest city has long been known as car-centric and geared toward commuting, with a web of wide freeways that stretch from the heart of town to the far-flung suburbs. Driving, and fighting rush-hour traffic, could be considered part of Houston’s culture.

But Fields, a native New Yorker who also worked in the San Francisco area before taking a job as Houston’s chief transportation planner, saw a city in flux in terms of how its residents get around. Public transit options have expanded in recent years, and so has Houston’s network of sidewalks and hike-and-bike trails.

Fields, who has lived in the Heights and Montrose areas and works downtown, said last week he has yet to drive to his office, instead relying on buses and occasionally his bicycle.

“I think Houston has a reputation because it grew up around the car for many years, but the reality on the ground is not the historic reputation,” he said. “I did not realize how much was going on here until I got to spend some time.”

Although highway expansion continues in the region and driving remains the primary mode of transportation for most Houston-area residents, the city continues to inch away from its reliance on personal cars and trucks while expanding its infrastructure for cyclists, pedestrians and mass transit users. The idea, according to Fields, is to make the city safer, to more adequately accommodate more residents and their preferred transportation options and also to combat climate change.

The city recently was awarded a $21 million federal grant for a transformative project on a 3-mile stretch of Telephone Road in the southeast part of town, where vehicle lanes will be reduced while bike lanes, wider sidewalks and improved connections with METRO – the region’s public transit provider – will be added. Similar projects have been completed in recent years on Austin Street in the Midtown area and Kelley Street on the north side, and many more are underway or in the pipeline.

A federal grant also is buoying an infrastructure project along Shepherd and Durham drives in the Heights area that calls for fewer vehicle lanes and an expanded pedestrian realm, and the city is doing much the same on a stretch of West 11th Street. Among the projects in the works at METRO, for which voters approved a $3.5 billion bond in 2019, is a 25-mile University Line that will stretch across the southern and eastern parts of town while connecting three universities.

Many of those projects have come to light under the administration of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was elected in 2015. Fields said the city has added 400 miles of bike lanes under the Houston Bike Plan, adopted by the city council in 2017, and meeting the needs of non-drivers is now part of the planning for every infrastructure initiative.

“The mayor has said over and over again we are in a transportation paradigm shift, which means moving people by all the different modes, making it safer for all the different modes and really rethinking our right-of-way space,” Fields said. “I can’t imagine any project the city is leading that is not looked at through a multimodal lens.”

[…]

Houston also is grappling with long-held perceptions and attitudes about how to get around the city and how its transportation resources should be invested. Fields said residents have expressed reservations about projects that will increase drive times and require prolonged construction – even if the tradeoff is improved safety – while Cutrufo said opponents of expanded cycling infrastructure often point to the city’s low number of bike riders compared to car drivers.

But [Joe] Cutrufo, whose BikeHouston organization has about 12,000 members, said Houston is “overbuilt for car traffic” and doesn’t require the lane capacity that exists on its roads. So there is plenty of space, he said, to accommodate those who prefer alternative modes of transportation.

“Nobody’s taking away your option to drive,” Cutrufo said of lane-reduction projects such as the ones in the Heights and on Telephone Road. “We’re gaining so much more than we’re losing. We’re not just gaining some space on a specific corridor that had to be quote-unquote taken away from drivers. We’re gaining a significant transportation option that we didn’t have before without losing the option to drive.”

It’s a long story, so go read the rest. Among other things, it name-checks the new bike bridges story, with the West 11th Street project implicitly included. Couple points to mention here. One is that the increased density of the greater Heights/Washington/Rice Military/Memorial areas is really only feasible with this kind of increased bike-and-pedestrian infrastructure. Both in terms of street traffic and parking space, you really want to encourage people who can get around these areas via walking or biking to do so, because there just isn’t the literal space for everyone to drive everywhere. This is a subject I’ve talked about before, in the context of increasing parking for bikes. Again, the key thing here is that making it easier for those who can walk or bike to get places really benefits those who have no choice but to drive.

The other thing to note, which gets only a passing mention in this story, is how much Metro has done lately in this space as well, from the big bus route redesign to more bike racks on buses, integrating with B-Cycle, and working to improve sidewalks around bus stops. The redesign of the local bus routes made a huge difference for me when I was working downtown and carpooling with my wife. It was much easier for me to get to and from work when our schedules didn’t overlap, and it was much easier to get to other places as well thanks to the frequent routes. I go downtown less frequently now that I don’t work there, but I rarely drive there when I do need to go. For those of you who rarely if ever take Metro, remember that every time I do, it’s one less car clogging up I-10 or I-45. You’re welcome.

West 11th construction is about to start

Get ready, here it comes.

City staffers are finalizing a plan to add protected bike lanes along 11th Street in the Heights and reduce the number of driving lanes, despite pushback from some residents in the area.

Crews will begin work rehabilitating 11th Street this month, with plans to start construction on the bikeway part of the project in October, said Erin Jones, spokesperson for the city’s public works department.

“The bikeway design is still being finalized to include METRO bus stop improvements/relocations,” she said.

[…]

“When Mayor Turner announced the 11th Street project would move forward after that short pause, he said something that struck me,” said Joe Cutrufo, the director of BikeHouston. “He said that, ‘we’re not building the city for where we are now, but building the city for where we are going.’ And I thought that was really well-phrased.”

Bike lanes will be added on both sides of 11th between North Shepherd Drive and Michaux Street, where there will be one vehicular lane in each direction with a center, left-turn lane along the stretch between Yale and Studewood streets. The plan also calls for bike lanes along Michaux between 11th and Stude Park to the south as well as protected crossings for pedestrians and cyclists at intersections such as 11th and Nicholson Street, where the Heights Hike-and-Bike Trail crosses 11th, and Michaux and White Oak Drive.

There now are two vehicle lanes in each direction on 11th between Shepherd and Michaux, and no center turn lanes.

The project will cost about $600,000, with funding coming from capital improvement dollars for bikeways, according to the city.

See here, here, and here for some background. I fully support this and I am excited to see what the finished project looks like. I also recognize that the construction will be inconvenient, and it will directly affect me. Like most people in this neighborhood, I regularly drive all of those named streets. The carpool we have for getting Daughter #2 to and from high school also involves taking on kid home north of Garden Oaks, for which I take Shepherd already under construction) via 11th. It’s going to suck for awhile, no two ways around it. But hey, I’ve survived more highway renovations than I can count. I will survive this, too. And in the end, the neighborhood will be a better place. Let’s do this.

More on A Tale Of Two Bridges

After I wrote about the effort to get two new bike and pedestrian bridges built in the Heights area, with the intent of making some new connections across the White Oak Bayou and to the existing White Oak Bayou Trail, I realized that I didn’t have a good image in my head of where these proposed sites would be. The map on the A Tale Of Two Bridges page helps, but the conceptual pictures they have on the home page didn’t really put in context for me. (*) So I decided to head out on my own over a recent weekend, on my bike of course, to find the future landing spots and take some pictures.

(Note: you might also find it useful to bring up a Google map of the general area – here’s one centered on the Heights Bird Sanctuary, mentioned below. Later in the post I talk about points of interest farther south, and I found it helpful to see where I was on this map as well.)

The first place I visited was the junction of Allston and 5th streets – you should probably refer to that map as I go along. Basically, 5th street runs for one block west of Yale, then ends at Allston, which also ends there. At this little two-street cul-de-sac, there’s a mini-dog park on 5th and the Assembly at Historic Heights apartments on one side of Allston and more apartments on the other. There’s also a small grassy field that overlooks the bayou, with some people-made walking trails that take you into the nearby Houston Heights Bird Sanctuary. This is what you see from the cul-de-sac:

Ashlandat5th

I walked from there to the steep (and on a wet day, slippery and treacherous) dropoff to the bayou. It was far enough down that I couldn’t really see it, and with the ground as slick as it was I wasn’t going to chance getting any closer. But you could easily see the bike trail from there:

ViewfromAshlandat5th

You can see a bicyclist and a runner catching a breather if you zoom in. A bit to the east is an entrance to the trail from Bonner Street, but unless you live there or continue on to the I-10 service road, you can’t really get anywhere else from there. But you can easily get to the Yale and Heights Blvd ramps from the trail. Or you could continue west towards Patterson. The current alternative to get there is to go back to the Heights Bike Trail, two blocks north on Allston, then take it all the way to Bayou Greenways Park, just over the MKT Bridge by Studewood, and pick up the White Oak trail from there. It’s a long damn way that way.

Speaking of Patterson, here’s the view of about where a Patterson bridge would connect on the north side. There’s no specific feature here, just a stretch of 6th Street between Waverly and North Shepherd. It had started to rain by the time I got here, and I took temporary refuge under a stairway at The Standard apartments. Not the view I would have preferred to show, but you can at least see the new Patterson Park bar from here:

ViewofPattersonfromTheStandard

As I said, the landing point is this stretch of 6th Street, which now features MKT Heights as a destination. From Waverly you can get back to the Heights trail, which will connect back to the White Oak trail west of Durham; you can also get to the northern spur of the Heights trail on Nicholson.

That was the end of that day’s journey – I still had a rain-soaked ride home. By Sunday it was clear enough again, so I headed to the White Oak trail to see the perspective from the other side. I can’t say exactly where on the trail the bridge to 5th and Allston would be, but it’s in this vicinity, where you can see the Assembly apartments:

TrailSideAshland5th

Part of that clearing I mentioned is where that utility pole is just left of the photo’s center. I was to the right from there, peeking out from the smaller trees, when I took the first picture.

The dead end of Patterson Street at the trail is a lot more obvious, and that’s where I took these last two pictures, one facing slightly east towards The Standard, and the other facing slightly west, in the general direction of MKT Heights.

PattersonBridgeEast

PattersonBridgeWest

I think the construction you can see in the west-facing picture on the bottom may be the back end of the East Bend apartments, which front onto North Shepherd. Patterson, on the side where I was, will have an on-street bike trail built soon per that Chron story. It will take you over I-10 to Washington Avenue. From there, you can eventually get to the Buffalo Bayou bike trails between Memorial and Allen Parkway either via Jackson Hill Street a couple of blocks east, or via Feagen to Spotts Park. You do have to cross Waugh to get there, which is dicey, but perhaps that will be addressed at some point as well. It’s still an amazing extension of the existing bike trail network, all thanks to two bridges and a new street trail. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to see it all happen. Hope you enjoyed my little photo tour of what is to come.

(*) I did come across a better picture in this Axios Houston story as I started writing this post, but by then I’d already taken my own pics, and this one still wouldn’t have made sense to me without my own visit to the locations.

Woodland Heights Civic Association opposes I-10 elevation proposal

That’s my neighborhood, and this is the email they sent out on Thursday about it.

In recent weeks the WHCA has challenged TxDOT on their plan to elevate I-10 near our neighborhood between Heights Blvd. and I-45. Due to the lack of transparency, engagement, and overall dubiousness around the project, the WHCA cannot support this project. The project, in its current form, seems to be a waste of taxpayer money and jeopardizes the tranquility and worth of our community.

Below is a high-level list of issues:

  • TxDOT has defined the need, designed, and funded this project to start in 2024 without first considering the impact to the surrounding communities and ecosystems or engaging the public.

  • TxDOT should halt this project until Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) completes its evaluation of a plan to build 8 massive tunnels that would divert and store water underground. A study should be done to determine whether the I-10 elevation would be needed if the tunnel system goes forward.

  • This finished project would not withstand a Hurricane Harvey level event and traffic would still need to be re-routed as it is now and would be through the construction period. Any tax-payer funded project that purports to address flooding should be built to take on a 500-year flood.

  • The elevation of I-10 would add significant noise pollution to already very loud highway noise. The increased noise will impact property values along White Oak and surrounding streets.

  • The construction will last a minimum of four years and will be a burden to our community. In that time we will have limited access in and out of the neighborhood which will cause congestion within the neighborhood. That could lead to homeowners leaving, depressed home values, and homes sitting on the market longer.

  • TxDOT should consult local organizations to define parameters of the environmental impacts to be studied for ecosystems along White Oak and Little White Oak bayous and into our neighborhoods which are nesting sites for important birds like the Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, the official bird of Houston and formerly endangered Bald Eagles.

  • TxDOT should not take away any greenspace along White Oak Bayou.

  • TxDOT should not disturb the forested area slated to be a detention pond. This provides important sound mitigation, natural habitat and aesthetic beauty.

  • TxDOT should not break the Inner Katy project into smaller projects.

    • We are concerned that TxDOT’s decision to split the Inner Katy Corridor into segmented projects will mean that the full environmental impacts are not captured under National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
    • We support other communities like Cottage Grove who are fighting a separate I-10 project threatening their parks and further dividing their neighborhood.
    • Impact analysis should be combined with the current I-45 impact analysis as they will affect the same neighborhoods and bayous

Here’s how you can help stop TxDOT’s I-10 Plan: 

  • Submit a pre-written email to TxDOT and elected officials: click here.

  • Submit your own comment on the TxDOT.gov website and reference project number: CSJ 0271-07-326

See here for the background. Some of these concerns may be more parochial than others, but at the very least the concerns about flooding and maybe playing games with the environmental impact are universal. While the subject of the email was “The WHCA Stands Against TxDOT’s I-10 Plan”, the word “oppose” doesn’t appear in the message body. It is possible that TxDOT could address these concerns. Given the I-45 expansion debate there’s not a huge amount of trust and goodwill, but it could happen. For now, there are a lot of questions that the folks in my neighborhood have.

White Oak bike trail extension: Getting close to done

It’s been a bit more than a month since the last update, and as you can see a lot has gotten done.

WhiteOakTrailExtensionAlmostDone

WhiteOakTrailExtensionWestEnd

As you can see, the trail itself is about 90% done, with only the far west end still needing to have concrete poured. The retaining wall appears to be complete as well. I assume there will be some groundskeeping work done before they declare victory – something needs to be done with all that exposed dirt, and maybe some small trees will be planted. But the heavy construction part is nearly finished.

Here’s a closer look at that western end:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionWestEnding

As you can see from the other pictures, all of the big excavation machines are gone. I’m not sure if they’re supposed to come back, but one way or another there will be more concrete poured. You can see a bike rider on the finished part of the trail already. I’ve seen some people walking the trail, and I did so myself a few days ago. Had to trudge through some mud at the end of it, but it was otherwise usable. The question I have at this point is how this trail extension is actually going to connect to the existing Heights Bike Trail. This is how it looks from where you can hop onto the Heights trail from Frasier Street:

MKTTrailFrasierEntrance

MKTTrailHeightsTrailJunction

I’ve shown a version of that first picture before. At the time, the stones connected to the existing trail, and I had assumed that was a planned piece of the project. I still think it is, but I’m not sure what will be done with that extended mud trail that now runs parallel to the bike trail. Obviously, that was used to get equipment on and off of the construction site, and I assume something will be done with it before the work is completed. The sensible thing would be for the White Oak extension to connect to the Heights trail at the closest location, and for that bit of path from Frasier Street to the trail to be filled in with concrete. Hopefully we’ll see the answers to those questions in the next couple of weeks. I will of course let you know.

Yes, let’s build more bike trail bridges

It’s all about connectivity.

Stopping for a water break on the normal blistering-hot Houston day, bicyclist Reagan Smithers, 33, can see the tops of the trees along her street from the White Oak Bayou Trail.

As the grackle flies – this is Houston, so there’s more of them than crows — she’s maybe four blocks from home, and a circuitous 1.1-mile bike ride.

“You get used to it, but it is a pain,” Smithers said.

Cycling advocates, supported by local developers and with some initial encouragement from city and state officials, however, might just have the cure: Two crossings of the bayou that could bridge a small distance that’s always existed between the Heights and Rice Military.

“It really shows what we could have but don’t,” said Emmanuel Nunez, one of the leaders of the push for two bridges at Patterson and Rutland.

The proposal cobbles together an open space the Texas Department of Transportation acquired for stormwater detention north of Interstate 10 and White Oak Bayou, current plans for a bridge where Rutland dead ends north of the bayou, and apartment and commercial development on both sides of the bayou at Patterson. Nunez and other supporters of the proposal, called a Tale of Two Bridges, argue that a complete plan to use the detention area for wetland trails and a little parking – combined with the spans – eases access for cyclists and runners and makes natural connections that will be critical as nearby changes to transit and bike lanes occur.

“We want to make sure we have connectivity from every angle,” Nunez said.

TxDOT, with federal money doled out by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, has a $2.4 million plan to build the Rutland bridge, set to start construction in fiscal 2024. Advocates behind the two bridges project are hoping another entity or entities – Houston, Harris County, Houston Parks Board, Metropolitan Transit Authority, area management districts, developers and practically anyone with the money and political muscle – will step in and support a Patterson span at the same time under the same construction contract.

“We want two for the price of one,” said Kevin Strickland, another organizer of the effort and members of CURBS Houston, an advocacy group in the Heights that has supported bicycling amenities in the area.

This makes a lot of sense to me. The image on the ATOTB page shows how much bang for the buck having both bridges would mean. Farther down in the Chron story is a listing of other projects in the area that would further enhance the effect. There’s a lot of apartments and a lot of destinations that would be easily reachable by bike from them in the area. Enabling that connectivity means fewer people resorting to cars for these short trips. That’s a big win for everyone, all for a very reasonable price tag. We should all want this to happen.

Elevating I-10

My antennae are up about this.

A state proposal to elevate Interstate 10 near White Oak Bayou is raising concerns among neighbors, who worry about the effects a higher freeway would have on noise and drainage.

The $347 million project, unveiled Tuesday by the Texas Department of Transportation, would raise I-10 between Interstate 45 and Heights Boulevard, a distance of less than two miles. Where the freeway is now, slightly up the slope from White Oak Bayou, would become drainage and open space in some spots, while the lanes would be rebuilt atop concrete pillars.

More detailed designs of the proposal are expected later this year, with an environmental review planned in 2023. Construction would start in summer 2024, according to TxDOT, which opened a public comment period until Aug. 12 on the plan. An in-person meeting is scheduled for Thursday, at TxDOT’s Houston district headquarters near I-10 and Washington.

In their initial presentation, TxDOT officials said the area is too prone to flooding from heavy rains, and too important to regional travel. More than 200,000 vehicles used that area of the freeway on the average day last year, according to TxDOT.

All of that comes to a halt when White Oak tops its banks in heavy rain, however, something that happened during Tropical Storms Allison and Imelda and Hurricane Harvey. Those storms sent water onto the freeway, making it impassable.

Any change to the current design, however, is going to draw intense scrutiny from the neighborhood, residents said.

“We’re skeptical, especially with TxDOT’s track record of valuing exurb commuters over urban neighborhoods,” Brad Snead, a member of the Woodland Heights Civic Association and head of the club’s infrastructure committee, wrote in an email. “That said, our biggest ask at the moment will likely be more time to comment and see the data. We’re not immediately opposed, but we don’t know enough.”

If built, the project would keep the freeway at roughly the same elevation as it goes over Heights and Studemont, and raise it again between Taylor and I-45 to around the same height as the current HOV lane into downtown Houston.

[…]

The proposed elevation, however, is among several changes envisioned along I-10 within Loop 610. TxDOT has proposed adding managed lanes — similar to the Katy Managed Lanes outside the loop — to the freeway, likely elevated above the existing lanes.

Metropolitan Transit Authority, meanwhile, has its own plan to add bus rapid transit along elevated lanes from the Northwest Transit Center near Loop 610 and Post Oak to downtown Houston. Plans for the busway rely on using the existing HOV ramp into the central business district or building the lanes south of the freeway through First Ward.

This story is from last week, so the public meeting has already happened. You can see a video of the presentation, in English or in Spanish, here. Also on that page are the exhibit boards, which are also the PowerPoint slides from the video, and the schematic, among other things.

I get the reason for this, and I’m glad to see the project if it goes forward as is would not require any taking of residential or commercial property. The construction would be a major pain, and would make a significant part of the Heights bike trail inaccessible (I assume there would be some alternate route, though I don’t know what that would be yet) while construction was ongoing. The noise concern is real – I can’t imagine how loud it might be to have all that traffic up in the air like that, with nothing to block the noise emanating from it. I’m a big proponent of building these elevated lanes for Metro’s Inner Katy BRT line, but that’s far less traffic, and would really only require two lanes so it would be much smaller in scope. After years of fighting the I-45 expansion, I don’t think there’s much goodwill for TxDOT in this area, whatever the benefits of this plan may be. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

White Oak Bike Trail extension: Look! Concrete!

A few days after the Fourth of July, I saw this on the White Oak Bike Trail extension:

WhiteOakTrailExtension_NewBuild1_070922

See here for the previous update. That’s the view from where the current trail had ended. I actually saw this bit of progress from above on Studewood, but wanted to get a closer picture to put it into some context. Since then, there’s been quite a bit more progress, as you can see from the Studewood perspective:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionViewFromStudewood_071622

You can also see where the next batch of concrete will be poured on the west side of the culvert, up against the retaining wall. Turns out that the project plan diagram was pretty accurate and this path will be mostly straight, with the curve happening on the west side. Here’s a closer view of the coming attraction:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionZoomedViewFromStudewood_071622

I’m keeping an eager eye on this because they’re clearly moving along, and the last word was that they should be finishing up about now. I’m thinking it’ll be more like late July or early August, but at this point you can see it from here. And I can’t wait to take a picture on this new piece of the trail from my bike. Stay tuned!

Multiple restaurants hit by “bad Google review” scam

This is on Google to fix.

Multiple Houston restaurants are being targeted by a scam involving one-star Google reviews and a demand for digital gift cards to remove the negative post.

The number of restaurants being extorted has grown in the past week to include high-end River Oaks District sister restaurants Ouzo Bay and Loch Bar; Field & Tides and Maison Pucha Bistro in the Heights; and the upscale Bludorn near Montrose. The Chronicle previously reported that Daily Gather, the CityCentre restaurant owned by the hospitality group that owns Dish Society restaurants,  had also been hit up.

The New York Times reported July 11 that restaurants across the country have been targets of the scam involving negative ratings on restaurant Google pages as a bargaining chip to extort digital gift cards.

In all the cases, the scam follows the same pattern where one-star reviews are posted on Google (these reviews appear when you search the restaurant on Google). The restaurant is then contacted by email by a person claiming responsibility for the post along with a request for a $75 Google Play gift card to stop the digital bombing.

The restaurants hit have received the following email:

“Hello. Unfortunately, negative feedback about your establishment has been left by us. And will appear in the future, one review a day. We sincerely apologize for our actions, and would not want to harm your business, but we have no other choice. The fact is that we live in India and see no other way to survive. We are begging you to send us Google Play gift card worth $75.”

The email then directs the restaurant to buy the card from PayPal. “After selling this gift card we can earn approximately $50, which is three weeks of income for one family,” the scammers go on to claim.

[…]

According to The New York Times story, Google is aware of the scam. “A Google Maps spokeswoman said Monday that the platform was investigating the situation and had begun removing reviews that violated its policies” which include that reviews must be based on actual experiences, according to story.

That might be little comfort to restaurants still being scammed.

The Texas Restaurant Association has contacted Google to seek resolution. It also is working with restaurant partners such as Yelp and OpenTable to put together guidance it will share on its website and newsletter for how Texas restaurants should deal with the scam, said Kelsey Erickson Streufert, chief public affairs officer for the restaurant association.

In the meantime, she recommended that restaurants monitor their reviews, especially on Google, and flag those that appear fraudulent. She also said that communicating with the public that the restaurant has been scammed can be effective, especially leveraging the goodwill of the dining public.

Here’s an example of what the exchange looks like, via Field & Tides on Facebook.

Infuriating that Google hasn’t been taking these down, if you ask me. I don’t know what more they need to take action, but I hope they do it quickly. In the meantime, check and see if your favorite places have been hit by this, and give them a proper Google review to balance them out if you can. The Takeout has more.

White Oak Bike Trail extension: Over the culvert we go

We have a bridge from one side of the construction to the other:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionCulvertOverpass062622

You can see the outline of the overpass in my previous photos; you can also see how quickly an expanse of blank concrete can get graffitied. I assume we’ll start to see more work on the east (closer to Studewood) side of the extension, though there’s still a lot of work to be done on the west side, where that retaining wall has to be finished. So does the overpass itself – one presumes there will be railings and probably some lights installed before all is said and done.

You can now begin to see the path of the trail on the east side:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionEastSide1_062622

That looks a bit curvier than the project plan diagram would suggest, but whatever. I suppose it’s possible the plan is to excavate more into the hill on the north side, to make the trail more of a straight path, but it may also be that that is unsound from an engineering perspective. The tenants at the 401 Studewood building might have some questions about that.

A closer look right at the east end of the overpass:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionEastSide2_062622

It’s hard to judge from these photos how much room there is to dig into the hill. I will of course continue to keep an eye on it.

Is there one last twist in the West 11th Street saga?

This was posted as an update to the change.org petition in support of the West 11th Street project:

The opposition to making 11th street safer is asking TXDOT to stop the project-we need your help!

The group that has organized against making 11th street safer is not giving up after the mayor’s decision to move forward. Instead, they are asking TXDOT to intervene and stop the project, which the state has done before in Houston.

Please consider emailing your state representative (https://wrm.capitol.texas.gov/home) and the governor (https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx) to express your support for the city’s plan to make 11th street safer.

See here for the previous update, which includes a comment making the same claim, that opponents of the project are going to TxDOT to try to stop it. I inquired about the reference to TxDOT stepping in on a project before in Houston, and I think that may have been said in error. There is the recent example of TxDOT taking control of a stretch of Broadway in San Antonio, which scuttled that city’s plans for a redesign that included a “road diet”. That piece of Broadway had previously been a part of the state highway system and was transferred to San Antonio a few years ago; TxDOT acted to rescind that transfer.

As far as I know, West 11th Street has only ever been a city of Houston street, so TxDOT would not have the same ability to intervene. That said, sticking it to cities is now a core component of Republican ideology, and making a similar move here would be politically consistent. I don’t know how to evaluate anything outside of a political lens these days. What I’m saying is that while I, a mostly normal person, don’t see a means for TxDOT to step in, that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t happen, not if Greg Abbott decides it’s a good idea. Another possibility would be for the Republicans in the Legislature to pass a bill in 2023 that limits or bans “road diets” in some fashion, thus potentially stopping this project before it could be completed. Given the legislative calendar and the fact that construction is scheduled to start in the next couple of months, that seems less likely to be effective.

I really don’t know how the opponents can succeed here. There’s no clear path for them. But given everything we’ve seen and experienced recently, I’m hesitant to say it can’t happen. Go ahead and contact your legislators and the Governor’s office with your support. It can’t hurt.

West 11th Street will proceed as planned

Good.

Plans to narrow 11th Street in the Heights, which have divided residents wider than the four-lane road some are trying to maintain, will proceed, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

“This change isn’t easy and won’t satisfy everyone,” Turner said in a videotaped message released by his office. “We are trading off speed for safety.”

Under the proposed design, a 1.5-mile straight stretch of 11th from Shepherd east to Michaux would be reduced from two lanes to one in each direction, and turns would be restricted to certain streets through the installation of a concrete median.

Factoring for the 30-day pause Turner put on the project to make his decision, work on the street — estimated to cost around $600,000 — could start in late summer or early fall. Work on the final design will start immediately, said David Fields, chief transportation planner for the city.

[…]

The debate in recent months set off a vigorous back and forth, with critics and supporters both using online petitions and grass-roots block-walking to steer people to their sides. Area civic clubs supported the project, while numerous businesses along 11th and Studewood opposed the plan.

Turner, after two visits to the site and a review of the plans because of the critics’ concerns, was not swayed. He noted more than 300 people were killed and 1,600 seriously injured in roadway crashes in Houston last year, something he attributed to unsafe streets.

“We must put a stop to it and 11th Street can be one place to start,” Turner said. “This is the hard work, in making our streets safe for all modes… Traffic on 11th Street will have to go slower.”

See here and here for some background; as a reminder, there are now CURBS Houston signs advocating for the West 11th Street plan out there, too. I’m happy with this outcome and look forward to it progressing. Given my tendencies, I’ll probably take some pictures along the way. You have been warned. CultureMap has more.

OK, now I know what the White Oak Bike Trail extension will look like

In my last post about the construction of the White Oak Bike Trail extension, I said that I couldn’t quite envision what the finished product would look like. That was partly because there were three things that looked like they might be part of that finished product, partly because it wasn’t yet clear how the trail was going to get across the little bayou culvert that separated the construction area, and partly because there hadn’t been any construction on one side of that culvert yet. Without any further information, I was just going to have to wait until later in the process, when hopefully the final shape would become clear to me.

Turns out I needn’t wait that long. I was tipped off by Alex Bunin via email about the project plans online. The best view is from this document, which is labeled “Rendering” under the “Exhibits” folder. Here’s a screenshot:

I actually took that from this PowerPoint presentation of the full project, which is the “PowerPoint Presentation” link under “Meeting Materials”. From this, it’s clear that what I had interpreted as a stairway/pedestrian path on the north side is actually the start of a retaining wall, and what I had seen as the path itself closest to the bayou is just a path for the construction equipment, with the actual trail-to-be in between the two. There will be a bridge over the culvert, but it will be farther away from the bayou, over an area that wasn’t originally dug out – if you look at this Construction Phasing Map, you can see that the bridge will be over an extension of that culvert that has been excavated as part of the first phase. You can see the pictures I took of that from April.

Just driving past the construction this week, I see what looks like the beginning of the bridge over that culvert extension. I suspect that when I take the next batch of pictures, it will be much more apparent. And that’s exciting! It’s both real progress, and it should be easier to gauge how much left there is to do once that is in place. Indeed, if you look at the feedback to questions about the project, the official word is that they expect to be finished in mid-July. I’ll keep you up to date as we go.

CURBS Houston

In my last post about the West 11th Street project, I’ve noted that opposition to the project has been featured in news stories about it, but I have not seen any mention of organized support from the neighborhood – BikeHouston is of course a major advocate, but I’m looking for something based in the Heights. I wanted to know this partly to help me assess the scope of the opposition – as noted in that previous post, their web skills are lacking and their claims are at best boastful, but I do see their signs in some yards around 11th Street – and also just because I support this project and want to know who else is out there.

Now I know. Janette Garza Lindner, who had run for HISD Trustee in District I (where I live) last year, reached out to tell me about CURBS Houston and its associated website Safe11th.org, which has its own petition in support of the project on its Take Action page. I met up with her and a couple other folks involved in CURBS last week, and it felt good to know that this work is being done to get much-needed improvements to bike and pedestrian mobility and safety in the neighborhood. I’ve now seen a couple of CURBS Houston signs in support of the West 11th project in front of houses and businesses along 11th Street, and hopefully will see more over time.

Via the CURBS Twitter page, I also found this Leader News story from a couple of weeks ago about other support for the West 11th Street project.

As Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner considers whether to move forward with the city’s plan to transform traffic on 11th Street, a collection of civic associations in the Heights area has thrown its weight behind the long-debated project.

President Mark Williamson of the Greater Heights Super Neighborhood Council, comprised of delegates from eight neighborhood associations, said it voted May 17 to write a letter of support for the 11th Street Bikeway, which calls for reducing the number of vehicular lanes on the Heights thoroughfare while adding protected bicycle lanes on both sides of the street. Williamson said the letter was submitted to Turner, local city council members and David Fields, the city’s chief transportation planner, earlier this week.

Turner, after saying in February that the multimodal infrastructure project would move forward following three years of public engagement and related modifications, announced during a city council meeting early this month that he would take at least 30 days to “take a closer look at it,” according to a spokesperson for the mayor.

“I honestly have no idea whether anything that any of these groups say will carry any weight,” Williamson said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the mayor’s 30-day freeze.

“I would like to think we’re not shouting into the wind and we’ll get listened to,” Williamson added.

[…]

Williamson said six of the eight civic associations within the super neighborhood council voted in favor of a letter of support, with the Houston Heights Association abstaining and the East Sunset Heights Association not sending a delegate to the meeting. The groups that voted in favor are the Clark Pines Civic Association, Montie Beach Civic Club, Norhill Neighborhood Association, Shady Acres Civic Club, Sunset Heights Civic Club and Woodland Heights Civic Association.

Each of those six groups already had submitted letters of support to the city, according to Williamson, who said their collective support comes with a series of caveats. The super neighborhood council asked the city to address some concerns expressed by businesses and residents, such as delivery truck access for 11th Street businesses and the potential for cut-through traffic on side streets as well as possible conflicts between motorists and cyclists at the entrances and exits to 11th Street properties. The letter also asks the city to dedicate resources to monitoring the project area after completion and addressing any unintended consequences that might arise.

Additionally, the super neighborhood council asked the city to expand the number of protected pedestrian crosswalks in the plan, which presently calls for a pedestrian refuge island at the intersection of 11th and Nicholson Street – identified by Houston cyclists as one of the most dangerous in the city – and protected crosswalks at White Oak Drive and Michaux Street as well as near Hogg Middle School, 1100 Merrill St.. The letter asks for similar infrastructure near Harvard Elementary, 810 Harvard St., and along 11th between Heights Boulevard and Studewood Street.

“There are definitely ways that the project could be better than what’s been proposed,” Williamson said.

We’re now past the “30 day pause” period – that was a subject of discussion I had with the CURBS folks – and are waiting to hear what happens now. I’m just glad to see this kind of institutional support for the project. It really does make a difference.

Finally, on a tangential note, I mentioned the Shepherd and Durham major investment project right at the end of the year. It’s moving along now, and while it won’t have any direct effects on the West 11th project it’s definitely part of a larger whole of street and sidewalk improvements. It’s also a lot more visible now, with active construction happening on a regular basis. You can keep up with it at ShepherdDurham.com and on the Shepherd Durham Project page.

I don’t really know what the White Oak Bike Trail extension is going to look like

There’s not a whole lot of change since the last update a month ago, at least in terms of how things look and what the final shape of the update might be. There are two particular areas of question for me, and that’s what this update will focus on. First things first, what exactly are the building on the west side of the extension?

WhiteOakTrailExtensionViewFromStudwood_060522

This picture looks a lot like the one from last month’s update, and I’m still not sure what they’re doing with the part on the right. The difference in color and the shape of the brock wall make me think this will eventually be a stairway, but the more I look at it the less I understand why. There’s not really anything analogous to this elsewhere on the trail, and it’s far enough away from what looks like the actual trail that I wonder what the reason is for the separation. Could it be leading to something other than back to the trail and its junction with the MKT Trail? I have no idea, and if it is I don’t know what it would be leading to. I guess I could approach this from the MKT Trail side, but I’m leery of entering the construction area, which I’m sure would be viewed as trespassing.

I also note the flat surface immediately to the left of the maybe-stairs, which is now used by the construction machinery. Is it possible this will remain like that and serve as a path as well? What in the world would be the purpose of it if it does? All we can really do is wait for the construction to get to a point where it all makes sense. In the meantime, it’s making me a little crazy.

The other item is the connection across that culvert that I’ve noted before:

WhiteOakTrailExtensionCulvertView_060222

The concrete retaining walls, and whatever that tunnel for bayou overflow water is, appears to be the main focus of the construction lately. The question I had before still remains, which is how the extension to the west of that culvert will connect to the still-to-be-laid-out extension to the east of it. At this point, the only way forward appears to be over the culvert, but as yet there’s no indication what the plan to accomplish that is. While there’s more dirt piled up on the east side of it now, there’s no actual construction activity over there yet. Like I said, the anticipation is killing me.

With the completion of the MKT Bridge repairs, this is the only construction project to complete. Maybe that will move things along faster. You know I’ll be keeping an eye on it and letting you know what I see.

Yeah, we’re still talking about West 11th Street

We can’t help it, sorry.

When Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner assured concerned Heights residents he’d take “a closer look” at plans to reduce 11th Street to one lane in each direction, he likely didn’t expect a sightseeing tour to give him quite the earful.

Wednesday, Turner and a gaggle of city staff took a hour-long tour of 11th where city planners propose taking away a travel lane to improve safety along the street by slowing drivers and adding a separated bike lane in each direction.

Following close by, and often engaging Turner in sometimes contentious conversations, were supporters of the plan on bikes and residents highly skeptical of the proposal, which they say will bring gridlock to a needed local street and pour traffic onto smaller Heights area roads.

[…]

City planners concede traffic flow will be worsened, especially during peak commuting hours in the evening, but that is an acceptable trade-off for a slower, safer street.

It’s not a trade local residents opposed to the project are willing to make. Occasionally sparring with cyclists along for the tour, critics said the city is using specious information about the traffic patterns and crashes to force bike lanes onto the street. With an efficient 11th that acts as a major street, traffic will flood onto nearby streets, making the neighborhood as a whole less safe.

“If they are going to speed here, they are going to speed on our interior streets,” said resident Shayne Stinson, pointing at 11th.

Stinson said much less drastic improvements could make the street safer without sacrificing traffic flow. Along with a safe crossing at Nicholson for bike trail users, he said better signal timing and left turn arrows can better solve the issue. Much of the safety challenge, he said the city’s own data suggests, is at major intersections such as Shepherd and Heights — not along 11th itself.

City officials, however, say the speed on 11th will remain the problem, whether or not left green arrows go in at major streets, or lights added at Nicholson and the bike trail. The way to avoid high speeds is to force passing cars into a single file line and limit turns so the fast lane becomes a thing of the past.

Advocates and pedestrians welcomed the proposed changes.

“When I cross the street sometimes I have to run fast,” said Eduardo Gonzalez, 20, who attends a nearby school.

As a Metropolitan Transit Authority rider, Gonzalez told Turner he supported anything that improved pedestrian access.

See here, here, and here for some background. At this point I feel like I’ve read the same story multiple times, about the city’s plan and the opposition from some folks. I would like to know three things:

1. How big is the opposition to this plan? Last time, I observed that the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage that was listed on their printouts just redirected to a Change.org petition. Now it redirects to this Alliance for Reasonable Traffic Solutions webpage, but that tells me nothing about who is behind the organization. The About Us page doesn’t list a single name or other organization, though they do say they are “an organization made up of a group of Houston & Heights business and home owners who have come together to ensure the safety of cyclists and automobile drivers on the roads of Houston”. The Contact Us page is just a webform, with no street address or email address or phone number or contact name.

I’m not looking to out anyone who’d rather remain anonymous, but I would like to know who a spokesperson is, at the very least. The “about us” page mentions researchers, journalists, civil engineers, and more among its membership, without any way to vet those claims. I would say it all feels extremely astroturf-y to me, except that there are people with their signs in their yards so someone must have a hand in this. And, petty though this may sound, the website is rife with spelling and grammar errors, which actually lends credence to the grassroots claim, since a pro group would have done a better job proofreading the site. Whoever it is, they really don’t like bike lanes. I would like to know who they are.

Oh, and this is in the page source, between “title” tags: “Beyoutiful Anti Aging Studio”. If you open the thehoustonarts.com webpage and hover your mouse over the browser tab, you’ll see that name appear. If you google that, you get a Heights business on 13th Street, which I now realize I’ve driven past a million times on my way to and from Heights High School. Maybe that answers my question.

2. Whoever “ARTS” is, what is their ultimate goal? To completely defeat this plan for 11th Street and maintain the existing street exactly as it is? Or to effect some changes to the plan? If the latter, what do they consider acceptable and unacceptable? I’m an advocate for the city’s plan, but maybe if they’re not going for the maximalist position they have some ideas that I might be open to. (There’s nothing remotely specific on the webpage.) Maybe I’m vastly overestimating who “ARTS” speaks for, but again I see their signs in people’s yards and in front of businesses. They’re far from ubiquitous, but they’re there. So what do they want? I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

3. The one concrete suggestion I have seen from opponents who have been quoted in these stories is a traffic signal at Nicholson, where the Heights bike trail crosses West 11th. I realize we’re three years into this project and the design phase is over, but what effect would just this have on current traffic? Is there a more minimal plan that might achieve enough safety gains while addressing the concerns of the opposition? Note that I’m not really interested in this – I think the plan as is will be fine – but in the name of fully exploring this, I’d want to know. If I’ve underestimated the opposition (I will note again that as far as I’m aware no elected official who represents the area has expressed any concerns, which tells me a lot) I’d like to be able to weight my possible fallback positions.

The MKT Bridge has reopened

This pleasant surprise came out on Thursday evening.

A vital and long-unused bridge in a buzzing Houston neighborhood is set to reopen.

The M-K-T Bridge, located in The Heights near White Oak Bayou, will be accessible to users on Friday, May 27, the Houston Parks Board announced. A key artery for walkers and joggers, the bridge spans over the bayou at I-10 near Studemont Street. Out of use since it was significantly damaged by a fire in August 2020, the bridge reopens after repairs began in March.

This reopening is actually ahead of schedule, as the bridge was set to open this summer, as CultureMap previously reported. It provides a pivotal outlet for those who use the M-K-T Trail, which connects The Heights to Sawyer Yards and the Washington Avenue Corridor area.

See here for the background, and here for the Houston Parks Board’s announcement. As you know, I’ve been following the White Oak Bike Trail extension construction, which connects up on the west side of the bridge. I have not seen any construction activity myself, but either I haven’t known where to look or it’s been happening when I haven’t been looking. In any event, the bridge is now open, and here’s the press release I got about it on Friday:

Houston Parks Board is excited to announce MKT Bridge is now open to the public!

An essential component of the trail system in the Heights connecting to White Oak Bayou Greenway, MKT Bridge has been fully restored just in time for summer. Working closely with the City of Houston, owner of the bridge, and Harris County Flood Control District, Houston Parks Board worked diligently to repair the bridge after it sustained extensive damage due to a fire in August 2020.

Initial repairs to MKT Bridge began in summer 2021. While conducting this repair work in August 2021, contractors and structural engineers found additional damage caused by the fire that was not visible during the initial assessment of the bridge’s condition. It was determined further repairs were needed before the bridge could safely reopen, which was disappointing to the community users.

Following expedited approval of the additional design plans from the City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District, on site construction to MKT Bridge resumed in March 2022.

The recently completed repair work included adding steel channels and bracing to the timber piling, transferring weight from the bridge to the ground.

Houston Parks Board is thrilled to have this essential connector reopen in time for summer. Thank you for your understanding as we worked as quickly as possible to make MKT Bridge safely accessible once again, and to the City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District for the partnership in this effort.

That’s from the email, which also has a link to a bunch of photos, from the ribbon-cutting event and from the construction, which I find fascinating because I just never saw any of it while it was happening. Just goes to show me, I guess. I can’t wait to give it a go myself. I’ve also got some more pix from the bike trail construction that I’ll run shortly. For now, hooray! The MKT Bridge is back, and many bicyclists in the area will be delighted. The Leader News, Community Impact, and the Chron have more.

We’re still talking about West 11th Street

My neighborhood sure can monopolize the discussion. Sorry about that.

A discussion planned to laud Houston’s efforts to expand bicycling access Thursday turned into a debate on the merits of a two-mile stretch of 11th Street.

The city’s plan to reduce 11th to one lane in each direction from Shepherd to Studewood — cheered by cyclists — has faced late opposition as construction nears. Residents concerned over the traffic impacts of taking away an automobile lane and the benefits of adding protected bicycle lanes used a scheduled discussion about the city’s bike lane progress to reiterate their concerns to City Council’s transportation, technology and infrastructure committee.

Critic Ann Derryberry, who lives near 11th, said numerous residents have raised alarms, concerned that adding bike lanes will force residents to sit in heavy traffic longer, re-route cars onto nearby residential streets, complicate deliveries for area businesses and lead to little safety benefit for cyclists.

“You say it is a protected lane, but it will be mostly painted because of all the driveways and alleys,” Derryberry told council members and their staff, noting the need to paint green warnings where cars and turns will turn across the lane.

Rather than reduce and slow traffic, critics of the plan said the city should commit to cycling and safety improvements elsewhere, and perhaps add a signal at 11th and Nicholson where the Heights Hike and Bike Trail crosses.

Cyclists and safety advocates argue that diverting attention from 11th would be ignoring that the street is the problem and speeds along it are what make traveling by car, bike or foot unsafe.

“Houston has prioritized cars for decades,” said Kevin Strickland, a Heights resident active with various cycling and neighborhood groups. “We have a right to safe streets we are not getting.”

City planners, citing an average speed well above 40 mph — 10 mph over the limit — opted to narrow the street to one lane after three years of discussion with community groups and study. The single lane and a center median with dedicated turn lanes at some locations, planners say, will keep traffic speeds lower and provide room for adding protected bike lanes along 11th. Unlike the four-lane thoroughfare runners and cyclists dart across now, supporters said, narrowing the road also will allows safer crossings, and space at Nicholson to safely wait for oncoming traffic to pass.

To sort out some of the concerns, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he wanted to take “a closer look” at the project, convening stakeholders and city staff for a review. Turner did not indicate any change to the project is forthcoming, or that the delay would offset plans for construction to begin later this year.

See here and here for some background. I’ve noted the opposition to this before, and in the past week I’ve seen some new handouts for them – see here and here for what this latest one was saying. I looked at the ProtectingOurStreets.org webpage, and it just redirects to a change.org petition. I’ve also noticed some road signs on 11th with the same information. I have no idea what is meant by the “eliminating turns from White Oak to Michaux” claim, as it makes no sense on its face and doesn’t appear anywhere I can find on the project page. The opposition to this is vocal and they have some organization, though I can’t tell how big they are. If there’s an organized effort in favor beyond what the BikeHouston folks are doing, I’m not currently aware of it. We’ll see what if anything comes out of this review by Mayor Turner, which I believe is supposed to take 30 days.

The White Oak Bike Trail extension starts to come into focus

When last we visited the White Oak Bike Trail extension construction, we were puzzling over what the deal was with whatever they were doing next to the trail itself. I couldn’t tell where it was going or why it was there. A couple of weeks later, from the same view that I normally get looking at it from Studewood to the east, I could see that it was coming along but still couldn’t decipher what it was for.

BikeTrailExtensionWalkingPath

Fortunately, I finally had the time to try to find some alternate perspectives. Starting from the new little parking lot for the Bayou Greenways Park on Studewood just north of I-10, I crossed the bridge over Studewood into the little park, which extends north of the trail just before the MKT Bridge, and walked the park trail along its north end, which gave me a side view of the trail extension instead of just the front-on view I’d been getting. And lo, it all made sense.

BikeTrailExtensionSplitFullPicture

You may need to click on the photo to see it on Flickr so you can zoom in. What you see on the left (the west end) is a connection from whatever that parallel thing is to the bike trail. Here’s a zoomed-in view of it that I took:

BikeTrailExtensionSplit

What that says to me is that the parallel structure is likely an alternate path for walkers, with stairs on the east end leading to a flatter surface, instead of the deeper slope that the bike trail has. At least, that’s what makes sense to me. I can sort of see the stairs taking shape at the other end, though it’s still early for that. I suppose there’s a design document somewhere that can confirm or contradict my hypothesis, but if this isn’t what is happening then I’m really at a loss. I expect this will become more obvious over the next few weeks.

So far all of the construction activity is on the west side of that little culvert from the bayou, which creates a bifurcation in the planned path. While I was using this perspective, I got a picture of the gap between the two halves, so you can see what will need to be bridged:

BikeTrailExtensionChasm

I have no idea what the plan is for that. And given what we’ve just seen here, I may not be able to make sense of it when I do see it, at least at first. I’ll let you know when that happens.

(Still no sign of construction on the MKT Bridge itself. I have no idea what’s going on with that, either. The previously reported estimate for that to be fixed was “late summer”, so we still have almost five months. But they sure are taking their time about it.)

The next street safety project my neighborhood will be fighting about

My wife came back from this month’s civic association meeting and handed me a flyer for this, along with more or less the exact words I’ve used in the title of this post.

North Main Street runs north from I-10 bordering Downtown Houston to Crosstimbers St. in Independence Heights. It is a 5-mile stretch, including 1.2 miles with center-running light rail operated by METRO. North Main becomes a four-lane undivided street fronted by many local and small-scale businesses at Boundary Street, where the light rail deviates onto Fulton Street. The four-lane section between Boundary Street and Airline Drive is being improved for safety.

There are notable crash problems on North Main between Boundary St. and Airline Dr.

  • More recently, between 2017-2021, there have been 224 total crashes, including eight crashes where someone was seriously injured.
  • A half-mile segment between Holy Cross Cemetery and Melwood St is on the Vision Zero High Injury Network(External link) because there were two serious injury crashes and one fatal crash between 2014-2018. This segment includes the IH 45 intersection, which may be contributing to the higher number of severe crashes.

With substantial support from Council Member Cisneros, the City of Houston has been undergoing an analysis and redesign of North Main:

  1. As of March 2022, the project is at 95% design between Boundary Street and Cottage Street.
  2. At the same time, METRO has been redesigning one of their frequent bus routes, the 56, which runs along Airline Drive. In addition to improved bus service, the redesign includes high-comfort bike lanes from North Main St to W Cavalcade St. Airline Drive intersects with North Main.
  3. To connect the proposed bike lanes on Airline to the proposed bike lanes on North Main, the City is pursuing an extension of North Main to fill the 0.5-mile gap between Cottage St. and Airline Dr.

To get more information about existing conditions, please review the Overview document.

The Overview document and the presentation from a May 2021 meeting shows the work so far and the proposed solution, which if you’ve been following along you know will include a “lane diet”, better sidewalks with pedestrian refuge islands, and bike lanes. There’s a heat map of five years’ worth of car crashes along this stretch of road, and I am totally unsurprised that the left turn from North Main onto Pecore, which happens quickly after the I-45 intersection and right past the entrance to the McDonald’s on the corner, is the hottest spot on that map. I fully expect there will be whining about this, but as with the 11th Street project, this makes a lot of sense. I look forward to seeing future updates.

Here’s your public meeting schedule for Houston City Council redistricting

Attend one and be In The Know.

Houston residents will have a chance to preview potential changes to Houston’s 11 City Council districts at a series of public town hall meetings in April and May.

[…]

The town hall meetings will start at 6 p.m. Residents can find redistricting information, sign up for meetings, ask questions and submit comments at letstalkhouston.org/redistricting.

The meetings are set for:

Tuesday, April 19 : District E, Councilmember Dave Martin, Kingwood Park Community Center, 4102 Rustic Woods Dr., Kingwood

Monday, April 25: District H, Councilmember Karla Cisneros, Moody Park Community Center, 3725 Fulton St.

Tuesday, April 26: District A, Councilmember Amy Peck, Trini Mendenhall Community Center, 1414 Wirt Rd.

Monday, May 2: District J, Councilmember Edward Pollard, Sharpstown Park Community Center, 6855 Harbor Town Dr.

Tuesday, May 3: District C, Councilmember Abbie Kamin, Congregation Emanu El, 1500 Sunset Blvd.

Wednesday, May 4: : District K, Councilmember Martha Castex-Tatum, Fountain Life Center 14083 S. Main St.

Tuesday, May 10: District I, Councilmember Robert Gallegos, HCC Southeast Campus, 6815 Rustic St.

Thursday, May 12: District G, Councilmember Mary Nan Huffman, Grace Presbyterian Church, 10221 Ella Lee Lane.

Monday, May 16: District D, Councilmember Carolyn Evans-Shabazz, HCC South Campus, 1990 Airport Blvd.

Tuesday, May 17: District F, Councilmember Tiffany Thomas, Alief ISD Center of Talent Development, 14411 Westheimer

Wednesday, May 18: District E, Councilmember Dave Martin, Johnson Space Center Special Event Room, 2101 E. NASA Pkwy.

Thursday, May 19: District B, Councilmember Tarsha Jackson, Acres Home Multi-Service Center, Senior Service Room, 6719 W. Montgomery Rd.

See here and here for some background. Most likely these will end up being minor changes, unless there’s further effort to get rid of the At Large positions. That said, there’s always some support for or opposition to joining or splitting particular neighborhoods – there was an effort to put all of the Heights into a single Council district back in 2011, for example – and that might be a thing that you have opinions about. Attend one or more of these meetings and find out for yourself.

More on Lambert Hall and Opera in the Heights

From the Chron, about the forthcoming sale of the Heights Christian Church and its effect on Opera in the Heights, which has long performed at Lambert Hall on the church’s property:

Photo by Djmaschek, Creative Commons license

“The whole reason someone had the idea to start an opera company in a converted sanctuary was because the hall has such wonderful acoustics,” says artistic director Eiki Isomura. “They thought of it as the perfect platform for artists and [a chance] to experience opera in a unique, small, intimate, powerful venue. It would be really hard to replace.”

The notice put Opera In the Heights in the awkward position of needing to plan its 2022-23 season without knowledge of where those performances might take place. Recent rehearsals have been prone to interruptions by prospective buyers touring the Heights Boulevard property, which has been listed for $5 million through the Greenwood King realty firm. (Heights Christian Church plans to merge with the West U-area First Christian Houston.)

“I wish we could wait a little longer because the chance that a buyer wins out who wants to see us stay is not zero, but we can’t wait,” says Isomura. “We have to book dates, we have to book venues. There’s just way too much happening here in town for us to just wait and see.”

Furthermore, “spaces are limited and our support base expects a certain type of opera experience: where it’s just small enough that you feel really connected to the action, and for there to be a decent-sized orchestra,” he adds.

What will most likely wind up happening, according to Isomura, is that Opera In the Heights will at least temporarily become a “nomadic” company, rotating between stages in the area as they become available. It’s early yet, but he’s been looking at two that bear certain similarities to Lambert Hall: the Sterling Stage at Stages’ Gordy theater, which offers both a cozy neighborhood vibe and close quarters with audiences; and Zilkha Hall inside Hobby Center, which would provide an orchestra pit and “feels intimate” despite its larger capacity and downtown location.

The company’s fate may well come down to how the performing arts fit into any potential buyer’s business plan, and Isomura reports there is some reason for optimism on that front. This past Saturday, Opera In the Heights held an open meeting and heard from several people who shared a wish “to keep and develop Lambert Hall as a resource to the community,” he notes.

See here for the background. The best solution would be for Opera in the Heights to continue using Lambert Hall, under whoever the new owner is. It’s a great fit of venue and artist, and it’s one of the things that makes The Heights what it is. But we know that’s not often how Houston operates. I wish Opera in the Heights the best of luck in getting settled for the new season and the longer term.

White Oak bike trail extension update

I drive by the construction work being done to extend the White Oak bike trail so that it connects to the Heights bike trail on the north side of the MKT Bridge. I’ve been keeping an eye on its progress and occasionally taking some pictures to document it – see here for the previous update, about a month ago. Here’s what I saw in mid-March:

BikeTrailExtensionProgress031822

Most of the work appears to have been done to the side of where the actual trail is – see the second photo in the link above for comparison. That became even more apparent two weeks later, when I took this picture:

BikeTrailExtensionProgress040522

I don’t honestly know what’s going on to the right of the trail-to-be. My daughter and I were speculating about it when I pointed it out to her, but neither of us came up with something that sounded plausible to me. I assume it will become evident at some point, but for now I’m scratching my head.

Meanwhile, for that closer view in the back, where that little culvert is:

NewDrainageDitch

That part is surely an extension of the bayou, perhaps to make it slightly less likely that Studemont will flood out at the I-10 underpass. I’m just guessing here. It’s not a lot of capacity if that is what it is, but I suppose every little bit helps. Note that the dug-out stuff next to the trail is above where this is.

One more thing, on the side where the Height bike trail approaches the MKT Bridge, coming from White Oak Drive. There has never been an official entry point to the trail from the neighborhood there. You can access it from White Oak Drive, or from where the trail crosses Oxford Street next to White Oak, where the Golden Bagel shop had been, but if you’re approaching the trail from the east side of Studewood, which is to say from the Woodland Heights, that’s some extra redundant distance to go if what you want to do is go towards downtown, maybe using the trail to get to Target or something else in that area. I spotted this in mid-March while out on a Sunday dog walk:

BikeTrailConnectionAtFrasier

That is what I figure will soon be if it isn’t already a paved connection from Frasier Street to the Heights bike trail, making this the closest entry point to the trail from the Woodland Heights that doesn’t involve biking on Studewood itself (you can access the trail from the little parking lot they put in just north of I-10) or on Watson/Taylor, which requires dodging traffic that’s trying to enter I-10. It’s the closest point that I personally feel safe using to access, in other words. We didn’t need this bit of pavement to get there, but this not only makes it easier when it’s been raining and you now get to avoid biking over mud, it also just seems more inviting, like there’s finally recognition that someone would want to do this. Whatever the motivation, I approve.

I’ll post another update as merited. Still no evidence that the bridge itself is being repaired, which remains a source of frustration. But at least this is making progress.

Metro approves I-10 Inner Katy BRT route

Big step forward.

Metro officials Thursday settled on the route for a busway along Interstate 10 that they predict will improve transit for urban and suburban travelers, whether they hop on board or not.

The elevated busway planned along the southern side of I-10 between Uptown and downtown will allow park and ride buses and bus rapid transit to avoid freeway traffic between the Northwest Transit Center near Loop 610 and I-10 and Houston’s central business district. Metropolitan Transit Authority board members approved the route Thursday, keeping the $400 million-plus project on pace for construction starting late next year and buses speeding along it by 2027.

“It takes us a long way in my judgment to having a rapid transportation system that Houston can depend on as it grows in the 21st century,” Metro board member Jim Robinson said.

As part of Metro’s long-range plan, approved by voters in 2019, the agency expects to build 75 miles of of bus rapid transit — large buses that operate similar to rail, using a separated lane to bypass traffic and stop at stations. Though a major component of the region’s transit plan, the first BRT line in Houston, the Silver Line along Post Oak through Uptown, so far has struggled to attract riders as park and ride service to Uptown and office occupancy in Uptown have been affected by the COVID pandemic.

By 2045, officials expect about 30,000 commuter bus riders and 12,000 rapid transit riders to use the busway daily. A trip from the Northwest Transit Center to downtown would take 19 minutes — less than many peak-time commutes by car or truck take now.

[…]

In addition to setting the route, the plan approved Thursday calls for three new stations along I-10 at Memorial Park, Shepherd-Durham and Studemont. Those stations line up with anticipated demand from nearby neighborhoods and expected improvements to major bus routes as part of the agency’s long-range transit plan, said Amma Cobbinah, a Metro senior transit planner overseeing the project.

Within the central business district, the BRT vehicles will use the existing light rail platforms along Capitol and Rusk. Two other stations, at St. Emmanuel and Franklin at Bagby, will be built for the buses.

Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said officials have not decided if the BRT along I-10 will be an extension of Silver Line service, or a separate line.

Still unresolved, however, is how buses will transition from the elevated busway along I-10 to Franklin and Bagby. Metro’s preference is to use the existing high occupancy toll lane connector into downtown, but the future of that link is in jeopardy because of the Texas Department of Transportation’s plan to rebuild Interstate 45 near and around downtown.

There are some more details in the preview story, which ran on Thursday morning before the Metro board meeting, including the “recommended alignment” document and an embed of this video, which shows the proposed route; there is one option in there, which depends on the existing HOT lanes that may be taken out by the I-45 project.

I’ve discussed this project, which was part of the 2019 Metro Next plan, a couple of times. The idea of a Memorial Park stop has come up before, and I think having it in this project makes a lot of sense. And though the Chron story doesn’t mention it, this Inner Katy route has been an implicit part of the plan to have the Texas Central terminal at or near the Northwest Transit Terminal.

As someone who lives about a mile from the future Studewood station, I very much approve of this plan. I will note that to really make this effective, some work will need to be done on the sidewalks on Studemont/Studewood, both north from I-10 into the Heights and south towards Washington Avenue. There are a couple of large residential properties being built on the west side of Studemont, plus whatever is to come on the old Party Boy site, and this station will be close to an entry point to the White Oak bike trail, for further connectivity and easy access to the Sawyer Heights developments, which includes another large new apartment building. The potential is very much there for a lot of people to use this, if it’s easy and safe to walk or bike to it. I’ll never drive to the Galleria again if they do this right. Construction is set to start later this year, and I’ll be looking forward to seeing it all take shape.