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Heights

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.

Iconic Heights church for sale

Some neighborhood news that has us all a little worried.

Photo by Djmaschek, Creative Commons license

Heights Christian Church, a community gathering place for more than a century, is selling its historic property and merging with another congregation.

Rev. Amber Mattingly, the pastor at the church at 1703 Heights Blvd., said Tuesday that dwindling membership and financial resources prompted church leaders to vote in early February to merge with First Christian Church, which operates across from Rice University at 1601 Sunset Blvd. Mattingly said the decision also was made to move out of the property on Heights Boulevard, which includes educational buildings as well as Lambert Hall, a 95-year-old performing arts venue that is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The 42,600-square foot property, which covers the block between 17th and 18th streets on the west side of Heights Boulevard, was listed for sale about two weeks ago, according to Mattingly, who said the church brought in a grief counselor to help its 14 members cope with the development.

“Even though it was a good decision, there’s a lot to be mourned,” she said.

Leonard Wilkin, the board chair for Heights Christian Church, did not immediately respond to a Tuesday voicemail seeking comment. Mattingly said the leadership at the church, founded in 1912, intends to find a buyer that will continue to use the property in service to the community.

As for the fate of the tenants of the property, including a Spanish-speaking congregation, an art studio, a ballet studio and a nonprofit opera company, that remains unclear. Mattingly said the organizations that rent space at Heights Christian Church have been asked to vacate by the end of July.

Opera in the Heights, which has conducted performances at Lambert Hall since 1996, said in a statement released Friday that it is in “ongoing conversations with several venue operators in Houston to explore our options for next season.” The nonprofit opera company said it also is considering organizing a town hall meeting among its supporters, either in person or virtually, to discuss its next steps.

Lambert Hall is one of those places that makes the Heights what it is. We’re not regular opera-goers, but we’ve seen several Opera in the Height performances there. Both of our girls attended the Art on the Boulevard after school program with the delightful Miss Naomi for years – quite a few of the works they produced are still on display in our house. I don’t know what’s in store for this location, and I totally understand why the church, which suffered greatly during the pandemic, felt the need to do what it’s doing, but it’s hard to see this news and not feel a bit anxious about what comes next. I wish everyone involved all the best, and I hope that whoever buys this property has an appropriate amount of respect for it.

More on the 11th Street project

The Chron editorial board mostly approves of the city’s plans for 11th Street in the Heights.

Ever since Mayor Sylvester Turner unveiled his Vision Zero Action Plan — an ambitious program to end traffic fatalities by 2030 — the city has focused on priortizing pedestrians and bike lanes in the urban planning process.

The 11th Street redesign reflects these shifting values. We applaud Mayor Turner for pledging to move forward with this project, which will make the corridor safer and more accessible. Judging from all the new development along the nearby MKT trail, the project may boost local businesses. The hope is that in the long run, the city’s incremental approach to street redesign, while frustratingly slow to some advocates, will pay off as more of these projects move through the pipeline. The consequences of not proceeding with this redesign, and thus conceding to the car-centric philosophy that has dominated Houston’s urban planning for decades, will be devastating for the city’s long-term ambition of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

[…]

Local residents have voiced concerns that the changes to 11th Street could send traffic circling onto nearby streets. We share this concern, though slower speed limits and stop signs on those residential streets should mitigate traffic hazards somewhat. [David Fields, chief transportation planner for Houston,] is also bullish on a pilot program the city launched in Eastwood called Slow Streets, which has shown to have some effect on discouraging motorists from driving on local streets. At key intersections in this neighborhood, the city installed simple, movable barriers encouraging through-traffic to take alternate routes. Vehicles traveling to homes and businesses may continue to access these streets, along with all emergency vehicles, and no parking spaces were removed. Fields is pushing to expand the program citywide.

In the big picture, the 11th Street project does more than just fill a gap in the larger bike network; it will mean more people walking and biking around town, frequenting businesses whose clientele would otherwise be limited to the number of available parking spaces. The goal of street design should be to create a community, not just a throughput ferrying motorists from one destination to the next.

See here for some background, and another CityCast Houston podcast for further discussion. I don’t have a good feel for how strong or organized the opposition to this plan is. The comments left on the project information webpage are slightly more pro than con, not that that’s conclusive. I get a bit of a Richmond Rail vibe in that the most vocal opposition appears to be coming from some businesses on 11th and some homeowners near 11th who are worried about traffic diverting to their streets, but the rest of the area is in favor. I could be wrong about that, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about.

The big difference here is that unlike the Richmond battleground of yore, there’s no politician representing the area that I know of that has come out against the city’s plan. I don’t know what CM Karla Cisneros, State Reps. Penny Shaw and Christina Morales, or Sen. John Whitmire think about this, but I do know they’re not making like John Culberson back in the day. That makes a difference, both in that there’s no one in power that Mayor Turner or his representative on the project would need to respond to, and also because it suggests that there isn’t enough of a constituency in opposition for an elected official to have to heed. This could change – for sure, people in my neighborhood know how to make themselves heard – but until and unless I see such a thing, I’m going to consider this a strong favorite to move forward. Which it seems likely to do beginning in the summer.

The White Oak bike trail extension is officially under construction

Actual photo of the construction activity, from this past Thursday:

See here for the background. I first noticed some construction equipment in place maybe two weeks before that, and actual activity the following week, which is to say the last week of February. I don’t know yet what they plan to do with that little culvert they’ve bumped up against, but I guess we’ll find out soon.

That picture was taken from the Studewood overpass. I managed to get a closer view from Threlkeld Street, a block west of Studewood:

The yellow crane is the original equipment I had spotted at the location. What you see here is behind the big white crane, below the tangle of trees on the right side of the photo above. Not sure if they were just clearing more space for the equipment or if there’s some other purpose planned.

Anyway. I’ll keep an eye on this and post some more pics as this progresses. As yet, I have not seen any sign of repair work on the MKT Bridge, but maybe the plan is to finish this piece first. Like I said, I’ll post more pics when I see more stuff happening.

The 11th Street makeover

Gonna be interesting to see how this turns out.

A main thoroughfare through Houston’s Heights is the latest street where city officials are preparing for fewer car lanes, in an effort to consider more ways that people get around.

The plan by the city’s planning and public works departments is to transform 11th Street from two vehicle lanes in each direction to one, with bike lanes and occasional turn lanes.

The changes, which city officials argue will not severely impact drivers but will provide huge safety benefits, come as many communities struggle to improve sidewalks and smooth barriers to the use of bicycles and wheelchairs along roads while also providing capacity for cars. A recent plan for Broadway in San Antonio, for example, pitted city and state officials against one another last month over what is the best design for the street.

In Houston, while some have voiced skepticism, there is less political maneuvering as many concede changes are needed along some streets.

Convenient, safe options for walking, running or bicycling in the Heights all run into the same problem as local drivers: 11th Street.

Lined mostly by businesses between Shepherd and Studemont, the street acts as the main east-west road for the neighborhood. Other streets may cover some of the neighborhood, but 20th is the only other major roadway that runs the entire width, mostly straight, with few stops.

As a result, drivers on 11th tend to hit the gas.

“People drive way too fast,” said David Fields, chief transportation planner for Houston, noting average speeds on the street often top 40 mph.

For folks trying to cross at the Heights Hike and Bike Trail near Nicholson, that can pose problems.

“Never mind stopping, people speed up,” Scott Bottoms, 36, said as he waited to cross 11th Tuesday afternoon on his way back to his townhome.

[…]

Some of the biggest coming changes, however, will be at major intersections where the city is hoping to eliminate conflicts. Traffic along Yale is unaffected, but the planned street redo removes left turns at Heights, from all directions. The ensuing lack of left turns could send traffic circling onto nearby streets and force drivers familiar with the area to alter their habits.

Planners defend the decision as one that de-complicates common collision points in the neighborhood. Bike lanes, turning drivers, runners along the Heights Esplanade and proceeding traffic make for a variety of movements, which leads to confusion and close calls, although only a few dozen crashes in the past decade.

Fields said officials still are trying to resolve concerns about sending traffic onto side streets, but will not sacrifice significant safety gains for ease for drivers. The hope, he said, is to balance both, for all road users.

“When we can do something that checks all those boxes, then we think the community will embrace it,” he said.

That was from a couple of weeks ago. This opinion piece from last week addresses some of the issues that opponents have raised.

For starters, this is not a thrown-together plan the city is trying to sneak past neighborhood stakeholders. It’s part of the 5-year-old Houston Bike Plan and the more recent Vision Zero initiative, which aims to eliminate traffic fatalities in the city by the year 2030, and the city has provided traffic data that shows the street is more dangerous and prone to crashes than other roads with similar configurations.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, in a statement provided to The Leader on Wednesday afternoon, reiterated the city’s commitment to “making our streets safer for all” and said the 11th Street project is moving forward.

“(Eleventh Street) is a high-crash corridor with 10 percent more crashes than similar streets across the state,” Turner said. “After three years of significant engagement, including with the council members offices, Super Neighborhood and Houston Heights Association, incorporating perspectives from the community, we are moving towards final design to make 11th St. safer for all.”

The point of the project is to provide protections for cyclists and pedestrians – think moms pushing strollers along the Heights Hike-and-Bike Trail – and to slow down drivers on 11th who have a demonstrated history of driving too fast and making unsafe movements. Let’s not forget the No. 1 priority for the city employees working on this project, which is being funded with taxpayer money, is to keep people from getting killed or seriously injured.

And as I’ve reported during the last three years, Houston Public Works and the city’s Planning & Development Department have held multiple, regular public engagement sessions in which they’ve explained the project and its finer points to residents, businesses and property owners, giving them the opportunity to provide support or criticism as well as suggestions for improving the plan. The city’s planning and traffic engineers have heeded much of the feedback, too, making several tweaks and even broader changes, including during the last few months.

For example, residents did not like the idea of limiting left turns to only two intersections between North Shepherd Drive and Yale Street, because of concerns about increased cut-through traffic on residential side streets. So the city amended the plan and now intends to allow left turns at all but three intersections on that stretch of the project area, which extends east to Michaux Street and then south toward Stude Park.

[…]

[David Fields, the chief transportation planner with the city and the project co-leader,] refuted one of the big concerns expressed about the project, that a street that’s already busy with car and truck traffic will become overly congested. He said traffic counts show the proposed lane configuration will be more than adequate to move vehicles along 11th, even at peak hours. He also said the current four-lane, two-in-each direction setup would not even be on the table if the city were constructing a new 11th Street from scratch, because the traffic counts do not warrant that much lane capacity.

He also challenged the notion that bike lanes are not necessary because people do not frequently ride bikes along 11th, saying that cyclists did not ride along Houston’s bayous until bike lanes were added there. But now that infrastructure is regularly used.

To borrow a line from one of my favorite baseball movies, if you build it, they will come. And why would anyone come while it’s still too dangerous to ride bikes on 11th?

The 11th Street Bikeway is part of a broader initiative to make the city more bike-friendly and to reduce its reliance on automobiles and by extension, fossil fuels with byproducts that pollute the air. There’s a reason why Houston often has hazy-looking skies.

And this particular project will help provide further trail connectivity in the future, with it slated to link up with the bike lanes going in along Shepherd and Durham drives as well as along Interstate 10 in the southern part of the Heights.

See here for more on the project. I’ve noted the Shepherd/Durham plan to make the larger Heights area more bike and pedestrian friendly, which complements this one. The bike trail on Nicholson and the protected bike lanes on Heights Boulevard will also connect the 11th Street lanes to more existing bike infrastructure. That’s kind of the point.

Not everyone is on board with the idea, of course – you can see one example of such pushback in the embedded picture, which I took about two weeks ago. On this past Friday’s CityCast Houston podcast, Evan Mintz noted a similar meeting at Buchanan’s, a block away from Berryhill (both meetings were also noted in the second article). Evan also observed that the response to this project is basically split between the urbanists on Twitter, who love it, and the NextDoor crowd (however you would describe them) who very much do not. Yet another reason I’m glad I quit reading NextDoor all those years ago.

I’m a supporter of this project. Many people, myself included, drive way too fast on 11th Street. I’m not at all surprised that stretch of road is more crash-prone than average. I’m afraid of fatalities, because you do see pedestrians and bicyclists trying to cross the road, as well as other vehicles pulling into and out of parking lots and driveways along the way. For the most part, there’s not nearly enough traffic on West 11th to justify it having two lanes each way. I understand that some people get very upset whenever something comes along to challenge the notion of moving the maximum number of cars along at the maximum speed, but this is a neighborhood. It’s okay to want to let people traverse it by other means.

(If White Oak/6th Street went all the way through instead of truncating just past Yale, maybe this would be less contentious. West 11th is the main east-west route through the Heights, I get it. It still doesn’t have to be a speedway. Also, too, I’m old enough to remember when Heights Blvd was two lanes in each direction. We survived the change to its current one-car-lane-plus-one-bike-lane configuration, we’ll survive this.)

I suspect we’re in for a long battle, and it’s just a matter of time before I see a sign in front of a business somewhere advertising a website for the opposition. I will try to keep you updated on developments.

MKT Bridge repairs finally on the schedule

About time.

Houston Parks Board has good news to share about the MKT Bridge!

The plan documents needed for the additional repairs to address damage caused by the August 2020 fire have received expedited approval by the City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District. With this necessary step now complete, Houston Parks Board continues to move forward with repair work to this vital trail connection.

On-site construction on the bridge is expected to resume in March, after steel is fabricated for the repairs. Construction is estimated to be complete in late Summer 2022, weather permitting. The current detour will remain in place until construction is complete.

We are working diligently to restore the bridge as quickly as possible. We sincerely appreciate your continued patience and we will continue to share updates as we have them.

See here for the previous update in September. The original schedule had this reopening by the end of summer 2021, so it’s been awhile. The Chron has some reactions.

By September 2021, more than a year after the closing, the parks board — a nonprofit that in the interim opened its signature Buffalo Bayou Trail Park on the southeast side of the bayou at the bridge — confirmed the damage was more severe than initially believed and said it would have to redesign the repair work and seek new city and county flood control permits.

Many bicyclists and Heights runners grumbled for months that the bridge — comparable for cyclists to what the Pierce Elevated along Interstate 45 is to automobile drivers — never would have stayed closed for months if it carried cars and trucks.

On Jan. 1, to mark the 500th day since the bridge closed, BikeHouston executive director Joe Cutrufo urged parks officials and city leaders to “bring the same urgency to this bike and pedestrian bridge that they would bring to any other transportation project.”

News of the upcoming work was celebrated — albeit wearily — by some riders.

“Jesus Christ, finally!” cyclist Noel Espino, 33, said in an email. “They mean it this time, right?”

I’m just glad it’s finally happening. I’ll be even more glad when the connection from the White Oak Trail to the MKT Trail is done, too. That was supposed to have started last fall and be done in “early 2022”, but as yet I’ve seen no action on it. Perhaps this was waiting for some progress on the MKT Bridge repairs as well. Just please, get it all done.

The Shepherd and Durham Major Investment Project

Get ready for some major construction, but the end result will be well worth it.

Beginning next month, those who travel along North Shepherd Drive and Durham Drive in the Heights are going to have to cope with road construction – for at least the next five years.

For decades after that, though, driving down the parallel, one-way thoroughfares figures to be smooth sailing. And the same goes for walking and cycling.

Construction is expected to start in late January on the Shepherd and Durham Major Investment Project, which will overhaul the two north-and-south streets between North Loop 610 and Interstate 10 to the south while adding bicycle lanes, new and wider sidewalks, landscaping and new underground infrastructure for water, wastewater and stormwater drainage. The project could take at least five years to complete, according to president Sherry Weesner of the Memorial Heights Redevelopment Authority, which is spearheading the $115 million initiative and providing a significant portion of the funding for it.

“It’s going to take a lot of patience from all of us, but it’s going to be worth it,” said Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, who serves the Heights as part of District C.

[…]

Protected bike lanes have been part of the plan for the TIRZ 5 project between 610 and I-10, where they will be on the east side of both Shepherd and Durham, according to Weesner. METRO bus stops on Shepherd also will be on the east side of the street because there is room to accommodate both, she said, while the bus stops on Durham will be on the west side.

New, wider sidewalks will be installed on both sides of Shepherd and Durham, where vehicular traffic lanes will be reduced from four to three on both streets with the addition of designated turning lanes at select intersections with typically heavy traffic, such as West 11th Street. Weesner said two different traffic studies showed that congestion on Shepherd and Durham was caused mostly by the absence of turn lanes at busy intersections, so there does not figure to be a negative impact on traffic flow even with the overall reduction in lanes, she said.

In addition to the work on Shepherd and Durham, the project also calls for improvements on several of the cross streets that connect them – 11th, 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 24th streets.

Weesner said two other features of the project are city-owned street lights and an underground bio-retention system – called the Silva Cell Tree and Stormwater Management System – that will be beneath the trees planted on each side of Shepherd and Durham. The idea is to capture stormwater to help drainage and promote the growth of large trees.

“This is a really great project, because it can do so much,” Weesner said. “The area is really changing. The area has lots of new restaurants and other facilities, and people want to be able to walk there. People need to be able to walk from one business to the next business. Improving all modes of transportation is very important.”

I like this a lot. There’s been a ton of mostly residential construction in the area, and there are now a lot of places to eat along both Durham and Shepherd. Making it easier to get around by non-car means will be a big difference maker, and will be a boost for bus riders as well. I hope they figure out a way to connect the bike lanes directly to the Heights bike trail as it passes underneath. It will be a pain going through five years of construction, but I can’t wait to see what the result looks like.

House approves its map

We’re getting close to the finish line.

Donuts – they’re not just for breakfast anymore

The Texas House on Wednesday approved proposed political boundaries for the lower chamber’s 150 districts that aim to fortify Republicans’ strength in the state House for the next decade.

House Bill 1, authored by state Rep. Todd Hunter, a Corpus Christi Republican who chairs the lower chamber’s redistricting committee, will now head to the Senate for consideration.

The House’s 83-63 vote comes as the Legislature rounds out its third special session of the year, an up to 30-day stretch ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott that has focused on redrawing the state’s congressionalSenate, House and State Board of Education maps based on the latest census data. Those numbers, which were delayed largely because of the pandemic, showed that people of color fueled 95% of the state’s population growth over the past decade.

Despite those growth trends, the number of districts in which white people make up the majority of eligible voters ​would increase from 83 to 89 in the new map. Meanwhile, the number of districts with a Hispanic majority among eligible voters would drop from 33 to 30, while the number of districts with Black residents as the majority of eligible voters would go from seven to six. Those numbers are based on census estimates of the number of citizens in each district who are of the voting age.

The new map includes 85 districts that would have voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election and 65 that would have voted for Joe Biden. That’s one less Trump district than was originally proposed in the House late last month. The current partisan breakdown of the House is 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats, though Trump only won 76 of the current House districts in 2020.

The special session is slated to end Oct. 19, which means lawmakers have a week left to hash out differences over those maps and other items included on the agenda set by Abbott.

See here for the background, and here for the map. This Trib story goes in deeper about that weird donut job in Bell County. At this point, the Lege might actually finish off their business in time to prevent the need for a third session, given that all they need to do is approve the other chambers’ maps. I would think that the SBOE and legislative maps would likely be easy enough for them, but maybe the Congressional map might get worked over in the House. Map drawing is a time honored way for ambitious legislators to find themselves a Congressional district to run in, after all. Or maybe they’re all sick of being in Austin and don’t have any desire to quarrel over small changes that favor one person over another. I thought it would take them longer to get this far, so who knows.

I mentioned before that the Heights was largely reunited under this new plan, all in HD145. There’s still a split in the Senate, with most of the Heights in SD15 but the eastern end in SD06. The main way that this reunification could occur was by radically moving HD148.

State Rep. Penny Morales Shaw, D-Houston, also opposed changes to her new district that she said leaves her with just a third of her current constituency.

Under the proposed map, Morales Shaw’s district would be shifted completely outside Loop 610, losing the Heights and Near Northside, most of which would be moved into state Rep. Christina Morales’ district. Morales Shaw’s District 148 would be expanded past Beltway 8 into northwest Harris County, taking in parts of Jersey Village and nearby suburbs, while cutting into area now represented by at least five other members.

The district’s Hispanic citizen voting-age population would decrease from 46 percent to 37 percent, and Morales Shaw said the residents that would be moved to other districts are from high-turnout communities.

“Chairman, from your knowledge, would you agree this dismantling and remaking of 148 is one of the most egregious examples that you’ve seen of retrogression in the Texas redistricting map?” Morales Shaw asked [State Rep. Rafael] Anchía during a round of questioning that seemed aimed at creating a record for a future lawsuit.

Anchía said District 148 is protected under Section II of the Voting Rights Act, which prevents discrimination against minorities during the political mapmaking process, “and to dismantle a protected district like that is one of the more problematic data points in the underlying map.”

Zoom in on that map and see for yourself. You know I’m pessimistic about any prospects for litigation, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

UPDATE: Reform Austin has some more details about the latest map.

The proposed State House map is out

The last of the bunch.

Texas House members on Thursday released the first proposal for a new map redrawing the chamber’s 150-member districts. The initial draft would both increase Republicans’ strength across the state and the number of districts in which white residents make up a majority of eligible voters.

House Bill 1, authored by Corpus Christi Rep. Todd Hunter, the GOP chair of the House Redistricting Committee, is just the first draft, and it will likely change as it makes its way through the legislative process before it’s signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The Texas Legislature is in the midst of its third special session. This one is dedicated to redrawing political maps based on the latest census data that showed people of color fueled 95% of Texas’ population growth over the past decade. The percent of Hispanics is now nearly equal to white people in Texas.

But, the new map creates fewer districts where Black and Hispanic people make up a majority of eligible voters. Black and Hispanic Texans make up two racial groups that along with Asian Texans outpaced the growth of white residents in the state over the last decade.

Currently 83 of the chamber’s 150 districts are areas in which white residents make up a majority of eligible voters; 33 are districts where Hispanic voters make up the majority, while Black residents are the majority of eligible voters in seven districts.

Under the new proposal, the map adds six more districts where white residents make up the majority of eligible voters while the number of Hispanic and Black districts would each drop by three.

The proposed map would also change the partisan breakdown among the 150 districts, tilting the scale toward Republicans.

Currently, there are 76 districts that went to former President Donald Trump during the 2020 general election while 74 went to President Joe Biden. Among those, 50 districts voted 60% or more for Trump, — indicating the district is safely Republican — while 40 districts had more than 60% support for Biden — indicating strong Democratic support. Under the proposed new map, 86 districts would have gone for Trump, while 64 would have went for Biden. The number of districts that voted 60% or more for Trump or Biden would be tied at 46.

All the data for this plan is here, and the current State House map is here. I wrote about the other maps here: SBOE, State Senate (updated), Congress. For a good initial look at the partisan breakdowns and who is getting paired with whom, see Patrick Svitek and Derek Ryan. Note that Ryan uses a different formula to calculate the partisan strength of a district; by hit metric, Dems would be favored in 65, not 64 of them.

Couple of thoughts and observations:

– Harris County remains with 24 districts, not 25 as it had in 2001-2011. El Paso goes from having five full districts to four full districts plus a piece of HD74. Fort Bend gains a district, Travis gains a piece of the very Republican HD19; that district number used to be in east Texas, held by Rep. James White who is going for a promotion, and is now split into multiple other districts. Denton goes from four full districts to four plus a partial, while Collin goes from four plus a partial to five plus a partial; HD57 moves from east Texas to Denton, HD60 moves from west-ish Texas to Collin. HD76 moves from El Paso to Fort Bend.

– Rep. Erin Zwiener, whose HD45 had been Hays plus Blanco counties, is now shown in the very Republican HD73, which is Comal plus a piece of Hays; the new HD45, shown as having no incumbent at this time, is the rest of Hays. It’s also pretty Democratic, and I’d guess Rep. Zwiener will be househunting soon, if there are no changes to this piece of the map.

– Rep. Ryan Guillen’s HD31 was already the most Trumpy Dem-held district, and it’s the most Republican district held by a Dem, followed by Rep. James Talarico’s HD52. There’s one Republican-held district that now shows as clearly blue, and that’s Rep. Jeff Cason’s HD92 in Tarrant County. Not sure what he did to anger the redistricting gods.

– On a personal note, the Heights has been reunited in one district, HD145, after a decade of being split between HDs 145 and 148. I need to check this for the Senate map as well, to see if the SD06/SD15 dichotomy is still there.

– I’m sure there will be changes to this map, and as the story notes there are some unhappy Republicans; it’s nearly impossible to satisfy everyone, and the needs of the many etc etc etc. For what it’s worth, using Derek Ryan’s metrics, there are 18 districts where the Republican vote is between 40 and 50 percent, and 31 districts with the Republican vote between 50 and 60 percent. Nearly all of the latter are in the places that have been trending Democratic – Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Collin, Denton, etc. A few of the former include South Texas districts that went the other way in 2020, but most of the rest are like the first group. I’ve said many times that the Republicans had to decide what their risk appetite was, and they have. If the current trends don’t at least slow down for them, this could really blow up on them.

I’m sure they’re aware of that, and they have a plan, or at least a hope, to hold on to enough of what they have to stave off disaster. All of this is without addressing the obvious racial inequities in the map, of which I’m sure we’ll hear plenty as the lawsuits begin to get filed. It’s never boring at this time of the decade, that’s for sure.

MKT Bridge repairs delayed

Bummer.

Months after a fire closed a key Houston trail link, opening day for the M-K-T Bridge remains up in the air, after workers discovered more repairs are needed to the old railroad crossing.

“They found additional damage caused by the fire that was not visible during the initial assessment,” the Houston Parks Board said in a statement. “Further repairs are needed before the bridge can safely reopen. In addition, there is also damage to the bridge caused by wear and tear that we would like to address while it is closed.”

That leaves the link along the Heights Hike and Bike Trail near Interstate 10 and White Oak Bayou closed for an undetermined period, officials said. Initially parks board officials planned to have the bridge open by the end of summer.

[…]

Officials closed the bridge after an Aug. 19 fire broke out in brush along the north side of White Oak Bayou. The blaze, investigated as an arson, charred the wooden beams that support the trail bridge. Houston Parks Board and city officials spent months assessing and then approving fixes to the span.

Now with more work needed, much of that process starts over again, with engineers designing the repair and the city issuing permits.

“As a result of this new development, and for safety reasons, the bridge will remain closed,” parks board officials said. “We are disappointed that the bridge will not open as originally planned and cannot say for certain when the bridge will reopen to trail users.”

See here and here for some background. No indication yet how much of a delay this will cause, but we’re already at the end of the summer, so we’re surely at least a few months out. As noted in the story, there’s now a project to extend the White Oak Bayou Trail to connect it to the MKT Bridge, which is expected to be done in early 2022. It would be awesome to have both of them done by then, but getting the bridge repair right is the more important consideration.

The Census and gentrification

Some population trends of interest in Houston.

People of color led Houston’s growth over the last 10 years, but that trend wasn’t reflected across all the city’s historic Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Census data released earlier this month paints a changing map of Houston’s racial demographics. In some neighborhoods, such as the historically Black Third Ward, the changes are stark — a byproduct of ongoing gentrification. In other neighborhoods, such as Sunnyside and the Near Northside, the shifts are subtle but hint at the beginnings of a similar process.

The data confirms what residents have known for a long time: The changes are nothing new, and the stakes are high, experts say.

“This is a crisis of enormous proportions,” said Assata Richards, director of the Sankofa Research Institute. “It’s not just that people have lost their communities, communities have lost their people. Housing rates have increased, opportunities have decreased and the protections for naturally occurring affordable housing aren’t there.”

Black people now make up just 45 percent of Third Ward, a drop from 71 percent in 2010, according to the census bureau. Both numbers increase about 10 percent if you remove the census tract that houses the University of Houston.

Third Ward saw its Black population drop about 15 percent to 8,045 residents, though the neighborhood’s overall population grew about 35 percent, census data shows. The white population rose about 170 percent, from 1,283 residents in 2010 to 3,465 in 2020. White people make up about 20 percent of the neighborhood’s 17,706 residents.

“It’s like a flood. A hurricane has hit the city, and the flood has washed away African Americans from historic neighborhoods,” said Richards, who lives in Third Ward. “I’ve seen the disappearance of Black people at the parks, at the post office, at the corner store. The places in our community are being reshaped and are beginning to become foreign to me. It has a very disorienting effect. These are my neighbors and family members and people I love.”

The gentrification occurring in Third Ward is happening in other racial and ethnic enclaves throughout the city. Second Ward saw its Latino population drop about 25 percent, from 10,802 residents to 8,111 over the last 10 years. The white population rose to 2,572 from 1,711 residents in 2010, an increase of about 50 percent.

Despite Houston adding nearly 94,000 Latinos over the last decade, almost none of that growth occurred in the East End, Near Northside or Northside, traditional Latino strongholds. Nearly every census tract in those areas lost at least some portion of its Latino residents, regardless of whether there was an increase in white residents.

That’s why experts say the issue is larger than just a matter of white people moving into a neighborhood historically occupied by a particular racial or ethnic group.

In fact, the white growth in Third Ward and other areas inside Loop 610, such as the East End and the Heights, is mostly an anomaly. The white population in Houston decreased by about 30 percent over the last decade, though Houston’s overall population rose by 10 percent. That growth was driven almost entirely by people of color and not limited to neighborhoods in the urban core.

“What happens when it becomes more profitable for a landowner to sell than it is to rent is that the people who were long-term renters end up displaced,” said Dr. Quianta Moore, of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “Some look at gentrification as neighborhood revitalization and say that’s not a bad thing, but regardless of the definition you use, it’s always problematic when people are forcibly displaced from their neighborhood.”

“When you have economic factors that drive and uproot people out of a neighborhood … there’s a negative psychological harm and increased morbidity and risk of death,” Moore said, citing “Root Shock,” a 2004 book by Dr. Mindy Fullilove.

The main problem here is real estate prices rising at too fast a rate, which makes a lot of older and historic neighborhoods, including and especially Black and Latino neighborhoods, unaffordable for current residents. I’d love to see more stories that go into the policy changes that could be made to try to reverse, or at least slow down, these trends. Denser development and more investment in transit would surely help, but I don’t claim to be smart enough to know the particulars. I’ve seen much of Inner Loop Houston transform from a place where anyone could live to a place where most people can’t afford to live in my thirty-plus years here. There’s been a lot of positive change, in terms of food and amenities and arts, but we need that to be the reality for all of Houston.

Bike trail connections news

Here’s something nice and simple and good, because we could use that.

The White Oak Bayou Greenway and MKT Trail will soon be connected.

The city announced Thursday that the two trails will be linked by a 850-foot connection, which was described as “one of the last critical pieces needed” for the trail systems.

Councilmember Abbie Kamin said the project creates safe access and greater connectivity between two popular trails in her district, according to a news release. Carol Haddock, Houston public works director, said the connection is “progress toward creating a safer and equitable transportation network for all users.”

The new MKT Spur will branch off from the MKT trail north of White Oak Bayou toward the east, connecting it to the White Oak Bayou Trail, which currently dead ends under Studemont.

There’s a similar story in CultureMap. Construction should begin “in the fall” and be done in early 2022, which I had noted in this post about the repairs to the MKT Bridge. This is all right in my neighborhood and it makes me happy, but a whole lot of people use these trails.

For purposes of illustration, this is the endpoint of the White Oak trail:

There’s a branch-off right before there that takes you into Stude Park. When this is extended, it will continue on along this part of the bayou:

That’s a view from the Studewood overpass. You can see the MKT Bridge up ahead in the distance. Here’s another view, from the Studewood side of the MKT Bridge:

The continuation of the trail would be on the far side of the bayou in this picture, going either over or around that little culvert there. It would end up on the other side of the MKT Bridge:

I assume they’ll do something to ease the downward slope, to minimize the odds of someone losing control and ending up in the bayou. From there, you cross the bridge and can access the rest of the bayou trail, from the access to it on the other side.

Interestingly, there are a couple of trail maps around where I took those pictures that show “before” and “after” versions of the trails. This is from the “trail detour” map on the south end of the MKT Bridge:

Note the disconnect in the trail from Stude Park to the bridge. Now here’s what you see on the trail map at the new parking lot on Studewood, just south of I-10 where the trail crosses over Studewood and approaches the MKT Bridge:

There’s your map of the near future. It took me a minute to realize what this meant and where the extension would meet up with the existing trail – at first, I thought it meant somewhere on the far side of the bridge, and I spent a little too much time trying to figure out where that might be. But you can see the whole thing in these pictures above. And in a few months, you’ll be able to traverse it. I’ll do an updated photo set when it’s all open. Gail Delaughter has a few photos of her own on Twitter.

The data for the “fourth wave” looks so, so bad

Yikes.

Fueled by the delta variant, a surge in Houston COVID-19 hospitalizations is growing as fast as at any time during the pandemic so far, and is projected to pass previous records by mid-August — even though roughly half of all eligible Houstonians are fully vaccinated.

“We’re heading into dark times,” said Texas Medical Center CEO Bill McKeon. Already, he said, “our ICUs are filled with unvaccinated people.”

On Tuesday, Texas Medical Center hospitals listed 1,372 people in intensive care — more than the number of regular ICU beds. The hospitals are now in Phase II of the medical center’s surge plan, opening unused wards to accommodate the gravely ill patients expected to need them.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported 7,305 people were hospitalized statewide for COVID-19 as of Tuesday — more than four times as many as on July 1, and a 38 percent increase over last Tuesday’s figure.

Estimates by the UT-Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium suggest that all regions across Texas will face surges larger than anything seen so far.

In the Houston area, the previous record for COVID hospitalizations was 2,927 people on Jan. 8. The consortium’s latest model predicts that record will be broken Aug. 8. The previous record for ICU patients — 947, set July 18, 2020 — is predicted to be broken Aug. 15.

Even more alarmingly, the surge isn’t predicted to level off there, but to keep climbing sharply. By the end of August, the consortium forecasts that roughly 2,000 people will be in Houston ICUs — double the previous high.

“It’s really scary,” said Spencer Fox, associate director of the modeling project. “I’m worried about the next few weeks. It’s so clear in the data: We’re in the midst of a very severe surge.”

Houston Methodist CEO Marc Boom described “a perfect storm”: the combination of Texas’ large number of unvaccinated people, the rampaging delta variant, and the recent relaxation of preventive measures such as masking and social distancing.

I’m at a loss for words and have wrung out just about all of my outrage. So I’m just going to leave this here:

If only Greg Abbott would listen to his own Department of State Health Services. I wonder what it’s like to live in a state that has a Governor that isn’t actively trying to harm its residents.

One more thing:

White Linen Night is back — well, sort of.

In lieu of official festivities, a group of Heights business owners have gotten together to host “Late Night on 19th Street” this Saturday. The good news is there will still be plenty of live music, pop-up vendors, artisans and white linen. The bad news is there will not be street closures, so plan accordingly.

Celebrations — geared toward supporting small, local businesses — are slated to run Aug. 7 from 5-7 p.m. between the 200-300 on Heights’ historic 19th Street.

Manready Mercantile owner Travis Weaver suggests bringing water, sunscreen, a bandana, portable cooler and potentially an umbrella.

“It never hurts to be prepared,” he said via statement. “If you don’t have any white linen, anything white will do. Don’t forget comfy shoes!”

How about “And don’t forget a mask! And for Christ’s sake don’t bother to show up if you and your entire party aren’t fully vaccinated!” I’m just saying.

Update on the bike trail bridge

We have an estimate for repairs.

Weather-permitting — and the sky this weekend likely will not look that permitting — runners and cyclists along a popular Heights trail will have a key connection back by September.

Houston Parks Board officials said repairs to the MKT Bridge along the Heights Hike and Bike Trail will start in the coming days, potentially Friday. The $193,000 job will take 60-to-90 days, officials said. In the meantime, runners and riders should continue to detour along the White Oak Bayou Greenway and Heights Boulevard.

The bridge closing came after an Aug. 19 fire broke out in brush along the north side of the bridge, supported by large wooden beams and latticework. The span dates back decades, part of the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad line rebuilt a decade ago as the Heights Hike and Bike Trail.

The fire, which might have been set inadvertently, remains under investigation. A fireman and arson investigator reported minor injuries as a result of the blaze, which took about three hours to extinguish because it charred the thick wooden beams.

The effects, however, linger for trail users, who since have been unable to use the bridge — a key connection in the bayou trail system, just feet from the park board’s new signature greenway park.

See here for the background. The Friday in question was this past Friday, June 4, but I don’t know offhand if work has started – the rain probably put them off for now. As noted before, there is a detour that allows you to get around the disabled bridge, but it takes you a long way to do it. As it will have been a year since the fire by the time this is set to reopen, I’m sure everyone who uses this path will be very happy to see it be available again.

And more good news:

Some of the frustration, runners and cyclists said, is how close other usable trails are to the bridge, but remain inaccessible. The White Oak Trail ends at Stude Park within sight of the bridge, but does not connect to it, blocked by a flood control channel.

Unrelated to the bridge fire and repairs, that could soon change. Houston Public Works, after years of planning, is preparing to start construction on extending the trail. If work starts in August as expected, the $950,000 job to make the connection could be completed by the end of the year or early 2022, officials said.

I’ve looked at the end to this trail for years and wondered what it would take to make that obvious connection. I’m delighted to see that it is finally on the verge of happening.

Supreme Court upholds Houston historic preservation ordinance

Blast from the past.

The Texas Supreme Court has upheld Houston’s ordinance regulating the preservation of historic districts, after residents argued it was an illegal zoning measure.

Two homeowners in the Heights challenged the law, arguing that it constituted zoning and therefore required a ballot measure approved by voters to take effect. Houston, the largest city in the country without zoning, requires voter approval to implement it.

Supreme Court justices declined on Friday to back that argument, though, affirming lower court rulings that the ordinance is not extensive enough to be considered a zoning regulation, and it does not regulate how people use properties.

“In sum, the Ordinance does not regulate the purposes for which land can be used, lacks geographic comprehensiveness, impacts each site differently in order to preserve and ensure the historic character of building exteriors, and does not adopt the enforcement and penalty provisions characteristic of a zoning ordinance,” Justice J. Brett Busby wrote in the opinion.

[…]

Houston adopted the ordinance in 1995, allowing the city to establish historic districts and requiring owners there to get approval to modify, redevelop or raze properties. If a city board declined a property owner’s application, though, the owner could wait 90 days and get a waiver to proceed with the desired changes, a gaping loophole that rendered the ordinance toothless.

The city revamped the ordinance in 2010 under then-Mayor Annise Parker, ending the waivers and making the regulations more enforceable. It allows only for modifications that are compatible with the area’s architecture, as defined by the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission. Some backers of the ordinance since have argued the board does not uniformly apply its rules.

The lawsuit over this was filed in 2012. I confess, I had not given it a moment’s thought since then. For those of you who are interested in this sort of thing, now you know how it turned out.

Your driverless pizza delivery is finally on its way

Still not sure what the allure of this is.

No Noids were harmed in the writing of this post

Autonomous cars will begin delivering Domino’s pizzas to Houstonians through a new partnership between the pizza chain and Nuro, a California startup, the companies announced Monday.

Domino’s is rolling out Nuro’s first driverless model this week at its Woodland Heights location on Houston Avenue.

Nuro first ventured into Houston through a partnership with Kroger, which began using its fleet of self-driving Toyota Priuses to make grocery deliveries in 2019. It expanded its delivery footprint in Houston last year with a prescription delivery service through CVS as demand for delivery services soared during the pandemic.

Now, Domino’s customers in the Heights who have prepaid for delivery online will be able to select the driverless option, according to a Domino’s news release. They will then receive a text with a location for the robot vehicle, called the R2, and a PIN number to enter into the vehicle’s touchscreen once it arrives. The PIN unlocks the R2’s doors so customers can retrieve their order.

The delivery service will cost the same as Domino’s existing delivery options, the company said. Delivery charges vary from store to store, but are $3.35 per order at the Woodland Heights location.

The Nuro/Domino’s partnership was supposed to happen in 2019, but for whatever the reason got delayed. I’ve written plenty about Nuro, and my questions about why anyone would choose this option as opposed to the old-fashioned person-delivery option remain the same. I get that contactless delivery has its appeal in times of pandemic, but we are steadily moving out of those times. I could see the appeal if Domino’s charged you less to retrieve your own pizza from its vehicle instead of having it brought to your front door, but that isn’t the case either. I guess you get to save a couple of bucks on the tip, but if that’s what would motivate you to do it this way, I have to question your priorities. Someone help me out here – what exactly is the appeal of this option? I do not get it.

Big Tex Storage

I’m strangely almost nostalgic for a controversy like this.

A group of Heights residents are lobbying legislators to protest the development of a storage facility at the site of the former Stude Theater, which was demolished after the property was purchased late last year.

The residents held a protest on Feb. 6 at the former theater.

The protest comes after a petition was formed by a community group called Stop BigTexStorage that, as of Feb. 6, is almost at its 5,000 signature goal. The petition calls for the Houston City Council to stop the permitting for Big Tex Storage Heights at 730 East 11th Street because they believe the project is poorly suited for its location and will have a negative impact on the community.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee also attended the protest. Lee suggested the city look into a compatibility ordinance and for the developers to meet with the community to try and find a common ground.

“I know these homeowners are angry about the fact that they have something being constructed where they didn’t have any input, any acknowledgment that this is a community, a community of families,” said Lee.

[…]

“We don’t know of any historically appropriate seven-story storage facilities,” SBTS said in a statement. “Our concern is with the size and function of the structure. It will be large and not contribute in a meaningful way to the neighborhood streetscape, and in any form, will detract greatly from the charm of the neighborhood that so many moved here for… We want them to realize the depth of anger about this project and the breadth of support for opposing it,” said SBTS in the statement. “We elected them to represent all our interests, not a select group of developers.”

This location is about a half a mile from my house, on a surprisingly small property. I had a hard time picturing where this place was supposed to be when I first heard about it because it just didn’t seem like a storage facility, which I imagined would be a full city block in size, could fit into this space. Clearly, that’s one reason why they’re building vertically. It still seems weird and out of place, but as The Leader News notes, that’s life in Houston for you.

Houston City Council member Karla Cisneros also has expressed disappointment over a project she called “so out of character” for the community, even though the proposed storage facility would be outside of her district. The council member who serves the area, Abbie Kamin, did not criticize the project directly but pointed out Houston’s lack of zoning laws and encouraged residents to push for more neighborhood protections.

Unfortunately for the thousands of petitioners who oppose Big Tex Storage, there is little they can do to prevent the business from setting up shop in the neighborhood. The property is located just outside one of the seven historic districts in the Greater Heights, meaning developments there are not required to adhere to the design standards of a historic district.

Margaret Wallace Brown, the director of the city’s Planning & Development Department, said the property owner and developer, Bobby Grover of Grover Ventures, has followed all the city’s laws and protocols and has nearly completed the permitting process, with only the fire marshal left to sign off on it. Wallace Brown said the property was platted as an unrestricted reserve in December, with no variance request and no notification to nearby residents required.

Grover said in December, when an 81-year-old theater-turned-church was demolished at the site, that construction for Big Tex Storage was scheduled to begin in March and be complete by January 2022.

“There is nothing that will stop him unless he decides not to do this,” Wallace Brown said. “He is following all of the City of Houston rules.”

Grover, in a statement, indicated he could be willing to address the concerns of the neighborhood, saying, “We look forward to working with Heights residents and organizations on this project.” He said the storage facility is being designed to complement the architectural character of the Heights, with “honed brick, la Habra stucco and architectural metal panels,” but did not respond to a question about whether he would be willing to reduce the planned height of the structure.

Big Tex Storage has existing locations in Montrose, River Oaks and Garden Oaks, with the latter self-storage facility located at 3480 Ella Blvd.

[…]

Even if Heights community members cannot convince Grover to reduce the scale of the Big Tex Storage development, residents have means of preventing similar projects in the future. Kamin said she plans to partner with the HHA on a presentation for residents next week that will outline the city’s planning and permitting processes as well as the tools homeowners have for protecting the character of their neighborhoods.

One of those tools is seeking a historic district designation from the city, which requires the support of at least 67 percent of property owners in a proposed district. According to Roman McAllen, the city’s historic preservation officer, such a designation likely would have prevented the demolition of the old building on 730 E. 11th St. and would have required the upcoming development to conform with the scale of surrounding structures.

“However, there isn’t a (historic) district there,” he said. “Unfortunately, the theater was not landmarked.”

I like the idea of historic designations where appropriate, but there was nothing special about the old theater, which was later a church, at least from the outside. It was a nondescript box that had nothing going on. Maybe it was different on the inside, or maybe there was something special about it and I’m too much of a troglodyte to have noticed it. Be that as it may, I’d rather see it be replaced by something that adds to the neighborhood – housing, retail, dining, that sort of thing – but that’s the way it goes in the parts of town where anything is more or less allowed to go. Honestly, I’m puzzled how a storage facility can be economically sensible in a high-property-value area like that, but what do I know.

If you are the petition-signing type, there is a petition for this. I expect construction to start on schedule, barring weather delays, and I expect to be fully annoyed by the construction activity blocking the sidewalk and likely a lane of traffic on West 11th, but it is what it is.

Finally, I can’t let this go by without noting the similarity of the Big Tex Storage monster to the iconic Ashby Highrise, which remains the gold standard for scary cartoon buildings. And thinking about the Ashby Highrise led me to remember the greatest parody of such a movement I’ve ever seen and its accompanying iconography, the classic Get Ashby High sign. I saw that nailed to a telephone pole on Shepherd near Bissonnet however many years ago, and I knew I needed to take a picture of it. I pulled onto a side street, parked and ran over to snap that shot. Good thing I did, because it was gone a couple of days later, and I never saw another such sign again. Always take that picture, kids, that’s the moral of the story.

Waiting for our bike trail bridge to be fixed

Of interest mostly in my neighborhood, but it’s my blog, so.

Bike riders who pedal through the Heights will need to keep burning calories past a key connection closed by fire in the region’s growing trail system.

Just in time for winter, however, parks officials at least have a plan to reopen the MKT bridge in place, news welcomed by local cyclists eager to cross easily over White Oak Bayou again.

“It’s just a killer to lose that bridge,” said Craig Arthur, 29, who bikes recreationally at least four days a week, often along the Heights Hike and Bike Trail. “I know a lot of people are wondering when it will reopen.”

The closest answer officials could give now is, probably in the spring. A glimmer of hope but also a long wait as cycling interest in the area grows.

As soon as Houston public works and engineering officials clear construction permits and verify the repair work, crews can repair abutments and slopes on the sides of the bridge, said Beth White, president and CEO of Houston Parks Board. Repairs would take between 45 and 60 days and cost about $100,000, paid for by the nonprofit parks board, which oversees the $220 million Bayou Greenways program.

The MKT bridge closed Aug. 19, when Houston firefighters responded to a call about a brush fire affecting the bridge. Crews arrived to find a small wooded area ablaze and charring the wooden beams of the bridge.

This Houston Architecture Forum thread has some pictures and other info from the fire – it was pretty dramatic, and it is still under investigation. The bridge and that part of the trail was opened in late 2009 – before that, the bridge was basically an abandoned former railroad bridge. It became part of the bike trail network as part of the “Rails to Trails” program, and I can tell you it is quite heavily trafficked when it’s open. As the story notes, and as you can see in the embedded image, there is a detour available, but it’ll take you a bit out of your way. I’m sure I speak for many people in my part of town when I say I can’t wait for this to be fixed.

Let’s go to the drive-in

Yeah, I’m down with this.

Everything old really is new again.

In the midst of ongoing concerns and restrictions over the Covid-19 pandemic, Houston is going back to the future with a new drive-in movie theater. The Drive-In at Sawyer Yards, a pop-up operated by the Los Angeles-based Rooftop Cinema Club chain, is set to open May 12 with a line-up of classic films for an audience that doesn’t have to leave the car.

Located at 2301 Summer St., right near Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co., The Drive-In at Sawyer Yards will offer two screenings seven days a week. This is the company’s second drive-in venture as it already operates one in London, England.

“Bringing back the nostalgia of the drive-in theater as well as the return of a great American institution, the kings of outdoor cinema want to provide relief through the power of film to Houstonians during this difficult time. Guests of the new drive-in theater can have an away-from-home cinema experience from the security of their own vehicle,” the company said in a statement Wednesday.

The opening films are “Grease” and “Drive” and they will be followed by “Night at the Museum” (May 13), “Silence of the Lambs” (May 13), “The Princess Bride” (May 14), “Romeo + Juliet” (May 14), “The Greatest Showman” (May 15), “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (May 15), “Grease” (May 16), “Moulin Rouge” (May 16), and “The Sandlot” (May 17) and “Brown Sugar” (May 17).

Tickets — at $28 per vehicle regardless of occupancy — can be purchased online beginning today at noon at www.rooftopcinemaclub.com/houston/venue/the-drive-in-sawyer-yards. Moviegoers can bring their own snacks or order concessions from Rooftop Cinema or food and drinks from Buffalo Brewing Co. All orders are made online and guests will be notified for pick-up to avoid unnecessary time spent away from their vehicles.

I just showed this to my 13-year-old, and she was excited by the idea. (She also reminded me that I have not seen “The Greatest Showman”, which she considers a travesty on my part.) So yeah, I think we have a movie night in our future. Anyone know what Joe Bob Briggs is up to these days?

Party Boy bye-bye

Sad.

This October may be the last year the view south of I-10 across from the Heights is a giant orange pumpkin.

The property housing Party Boy at 1515 Studemont, where an inflatable pumpkin is displayed atop the building each Halloween, is up for sale.

The owner of the store, a go-to spot for spooky costumes and all manner of party supplies, is asking $10.5 million for the site, according to listing broker Jeff Trevino.

“It’s an icon and 300,000 cars drive past it every day,” said Trevino of Endurance Properties. “It has stayed high and dry through all of our high-water events.”

The store’s operations are housed in a two-story, 20,000-square-foot warehouse building and an adjacent 7,000-square-foot structure. The site is about 70,000 square feet — or 1.6 acres.

This area just west of downtown has been booming. Party Boy has become surrounded by new developments and construction.

“It is probably one of the last high-profile corners in that corridor that is open and ready to change hands,” Trevino said.

In addition to housing a haunted house that snarls up traffic on Studemont at I-10 every hear for about two months, they have a fantastic costume rental place in a separate building in the back end of the property. The story doesn’t say, but I sure hope that finds a new home.

A construction crew recently carved out what I assume is a couple of parking places in front of the lot. I don’t know if this is related to the forthcoming sale or not, but they’re there now. I’ve no doubt that the owners will make a ton on the sale, and I’m sure whatever rises in its ashes will be in high demand, but right now all I can think of is that once again the Heights is about to become a little less cool than it was before. Such is life.

One more thing:

You’re welcome.

2017 results: City bonds

Pension obligation bonds pass easily.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston voters passed a $1 billion pension bond referendum by a wide margin late Tuesday, securing Mayor Sylvester Turner’s landmark reform package and, the mayor hopes, marking the beginning of the end of a 16-year fiscal crisis.

The ballot item’s passage now means the city can follow through on its plan to infuse $750 million into the police pension and $250 million into the municipal workers’ pension to improve their funding levels and lower Houston’s annual payments into its pension funds.

If voters had rejected the measure, up to $1.8 billion of the $2.8 billion in hard-won benefit cuts in the reform bill would have been rescinded, adding tens of millions of dollars in costs to the city budget overnight.

“This effort has not been easy,” the mayor said at an election night party. “Tonight is not a victory for Sylvester Turner. Tonight is not a victory for the members of city council. Tonight is not just a victory for the employees. Tonight is a victory for the city of Houston.”

[…]

Many City Hall insiders and political observers had predicted voters could balk at a $1 billion bond and produce a close vote. But University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said, because the GOP-run Legislature had approved the reform package earlier this year, there was no organized opposition to shake voters from their typical habit of granting approval to city bond issues.

“Because most conservative groups and Republicans and most big players on the state level endorsed the bonds, it was unlikely that there would be much of a fight, and there wasn’t,” he said. “My honest guess is that people probably weren’t that attentive to the importance of Prop. A; it was simply the case that the city was asking for more money, as they routinely do, and the good news is that people typically vote yes.”

I gave up and went to bed before the final results came in, but Prop A had over 77% support, with absentee, early, and Election Day totals all being at about the same level. Turnout was higher than predicted, with over 87,000 votes being counted with a fifth of precincts still not having reported. I’ll have more analysis of this for tomorrow, but in the meantime, the other bonds passed, too.

Houston residents can look forward to a smattering of facility upgrades – including repaired libraries, new community centers and renovated fire stations – thanks to what appeared to be overwhelming voter support for $495 million in public improvement bonds.

Propositions B through E passed easily Tuesday despite anemic local turnout in a city lacking a marquee race.

The bonds’ passage, which will not require a property tax increase, would authorize Houston to issue $159 million in public safety debt, $104 million for parks, $109 million for improvements to general government facilities and $123 million for libraries. They are the first the city has requested since 2012.

[…]

Meanwhile, residents of Houston’s Heights neighborhood, in the northwest, were set to further loosen restrictions on area alcohol sales.

Heights voters already had lifted a 105-year-old ban on the sale of beer and wine at grocery stores last year, but customers who wanted to drink at neighborhood restaurants or bars still had to join a “private club” by submitting a driver’s license for entry into a database.

Passing Proposition F lifts that requirement, leaving the neighborhood nearly wet. Liquor sales at grocery and convenience stores still would be banned.

I don’t expect that last bit to change any time soon. Props B through E were at similar levels of support as Prop A, garnering between 72 and 76 percent; Prop F, limited to just part of the Heights, had over 62%. I should note that the other four citywide props did have official, if perhaps not organized, opposition, as the Harris County GOP and conservative groups like the C Club and the HRBC opposed them. Didn’t have much effect, I’d say.

Elsewhere, school bond issues in Spring Branch and Katy were approved, while all seven constitutional amendments were passed. As I said, I’ll have more to say on Tuesday’s results tomorrow.

UPDATE: Final turnout in the Harris County part of the city was 99,460, which is higher than anyone projected it to be.

Should we remove the concrete from White Oak Bayou?

That’s an interesting question, one worth considering, if there’s a way to pay for it.

A feasibility study conducted for the Harris County Flood Control District and released Friday offers three options to do just that.

What it does not offer is a way to pay for the three alternatives, which range from $30 million to simply remove the concrete to $60 million to re-contouring the channel to connect the bayou with publicly owned parks and open land above and below the waterway.

The question is particularly significant after Hurricane Harvey laid bare weaknesses in the local flood control system: nearly 180,000 buildings exist in floodplains, a handful of channel widening projects are halted with lack of federal funding and the flood control district struggles to stretch $60 million every year to service a county of more than 4 million people.

[…]

If the concrete removal is pursued, it would be the first such attempt to revert dozens of miles of concrete-lined channels that crisscross Houston to their natural aesthetic, building on recent widespread momentum to undo the utilitarian past. The concrete was laid as part of a massive flood control effort in the middle of the last century to straighten and channelize the bayous with an eye toward speeding stormwaters’ rush downstream, eventually to the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay.

The idea of removing the concrete and restoring the bayou to a more natural state comes two years after a $58 million project created 160-acres of green space near downtown in Buffalo Bayou Park. That project was paid for largely through private donations, including a $30 million catalyst gift from Kinder Foundation in 2010. The flood control district contributed $5 million.

For White Oak, however, it’s unclear who would pay for a bayou project that would take several years to complete and cost at least $30 million without significantly reducing flood risks.

The feasibility study presents three alternatives for a portion of White Oak Bayou between Taylor Street and Hogan Street: simply removing the concrete and excavating the channel; removing the concrete and connecting the bayou with city park space north of the bayou; removing the concrete and connecting the bayou to both the city park land and land owned by the Texas Department of Transportation to the south.

The first and cheapest option would cost roughly $30 million, the middle about $42 million and the most expensive option around $60 million.

Sherry Weesner, administrator and president of the Memorial-Heights Redevelopment Authority, which paid for the feasibility study said the group wanted to make sure, if and when the flood control district considered replacing the concrete, that it examine the idea of removing the concrete, as well.

Weesner said the authority currently does not have funding to pay for even the cheapest of the three proposals.

“By funding this study, we were able to say ‘Look at the possible options,'” Weesner said. “That way, everyone can make the best decision as to what’s best for the region in the long term to decide what to do when you need to do it.”

You can read the full report here. I think there’s value in doing this, but it’s hard to argue that it should have priority over any flood mitigation work. Maybe if the MHRA can raise private funds to cover a portion of the cost, as was the case with the Bayou Greenway Initiative, or if it can be tied to a flood mitigation project, then this would make sense now. Otherwise, it’s probably something to file away for another time.

Another contemplation of turnout

Let’s see where this one takes us. Last time, I made some guesses about turnout in the HISD races based on overall turnout in the city of Houston. Now I’m going to turn that around and take a shot at pegging city turnout based on HISD.

It was suggested to me that we do have a model for a low-turnout HISD election scenario, and that was the May special election to revisit the recapture question. A total of 28,978 people showed up for that exercise. How can we extrapolate from that to the full city? Most years there isn’t a direct connection, since most years there isn’t an election for all of HISD. But such a connection does exist in two recent years, years in which HISD had a bond issue on the ballot. Let’s take a look at 2007 and 2012, the latter of which works because there were also city bond issues up for a vote. Here are the numbers:

2007: Houston = 123,410 HISD = 85,288 Share = 69.1%

2012: Houston = 576,549 HISD = 388,982 Share = 67.5%

“Share” is just the ratio of HISD turnout to Houston turnout. It’s quite pleasingly compact. If we take the midpoint of the two – 68.3% – and apply it to the May 2017 special, and we get a projected total for the city of 42,428. Which, also pleasingly, is well in line with the numbers I was noodling with last time.

What does that tell us? In some sense, not that much, as we don’t have a district-wide election in November, we have six district races. But it does give another figure for our estimate of hardcore voters, and a tad more faith in my own guess of around 50K total for the city. We can get from there to numbers for the individual races if we want. It’s still all hocus-pocus, but at least it’s based on something.

On a tangential note, we do remember that there’s also another Heights alcohol vote on the ballot, right? I’ve heard basically nothing about this since the petitions were validated. The signs like the one embedded above started showing up within the past week or so, but that’s the only activity I’ve seen or heard about, and this light Press story is the only news I’ve found. The area that will be voting has some overlap with HISD I, so it’s not touching many voters who wouldn’t already have a reason to be engaged, and as such probably wouldn’t be much of a factor even if it were a hotter ticket. Anyway, I just wanted to work something about this item in, and this seemed like as good a place as any.

No charter amendments on the fall ballot

Just bonds, school board and HCC races, and the mostly boring constitutional amendments. Oh, and Heights Alcohol 2.0, if you live there.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston voters will face $1.5 billion in city bonds and nine community college or school board races this November, but will not be asked whether to give firefighters a pay raise or change the pension plans given to new city employees.

Monday was the last day on which candidates could file for the November ballot, and on which local governments could call an election. That means the clock ran out on the citizen-submitted petitions seeking the change in city pensions and backing the firefighters’ push for pay “parity” with police officers of corresponding rank.

There are exceptions to Monday’s deadline. Houston ISD trustee Manuel Rodriguez’s death in July means candidates looking to fill his seat have until Sept. 6 to file for office. Candidates who meet today’s filing deadline also can withdraw from the ballot as late as Aug. 28.

In broad terms, however, the fall election campaign is set.

[…]

State law sets no deadline by which petitions seeking changes to a city charter must be tallied.

“We’ve always done first one in, first one out,” City Secretary Anna Russell said late Friday. “We are still working on the 401(k) (petition) as we do our regular work.”

The petitions, if validated by Russell’s office, could be included on a May ballot.

And I think that’s fine, and will likely allow for a more focused discussion of that issue as there won’t be anything else for Houston voters to consider; the 401(k) item no longer has anyone advocating it, so the pay parity proposal would be all there is. Given the lack of city elections on this November’s ballot, it’s not clear that a May 2018 referendum would have much less turnout, especially if both sides spend money on it. I’m sure the firefighters wanted their issue to be voted on now, but having to wait till May is hardly an abomination.

I hope to have a finalized list of candidates for HISD and HCC soon. HISD has some candidate information here, but there’s not a similar page for HCC. I’ve got a query in to find out who’s running for what and will report back later. I’m starting on the interviews for 2017, and will have an Election 2017 page up in the next week or so.

Petitions have been submitted for Heights alcohol vote 2.0

That was quick.

Voters in the Heights will likely have the opportunity to further loosen alcohol restrictions in the neighborhood this November now that activists have secured more than the 1,500 signatures required to get a measure on the ballot.

[…]

When Houston annexed what was the incorporated city of the Heights in 1918, the boundaries of the city evaporated. Because of election rules the only residents who were allowed to vote on the matter last November had to live in the same voting precincts of those who voted to go “dry” back in 1912.

A Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector & Voter Registrar spokesman said those precincts were 0053, 0057,0075,0054,0058,0086,0055,0059 and 0501.

It’s speculated by Brain Poff, with Texas Petition Strategies, the firm who helped gather the signatures needed for last year’s vote and just finished with the petition for this fall, that the same will hold true this November for the ordinance to repeal the private club model.

See here and here for the background. I feel pretty confident saying that if the original Heights booze referendum was on your ballot last year, then it will be on your ballot this year. The only real question at this point is how many other things will be on there as well. I look forward to seeing how this campaign unfolds.

More on Heights alcohol vote 2.0

From the Heights Examiner (now a section of the Wednesday Chron), the reasons why restauranteurs want in on the action.

But the possible reversal of the century-old prohibition on restaurants would mean more than just no longer having to sign a slip of a paper before being served, said Morgan Weber who owns Revival Market on Heights Boulevard, Coltivare on White Oak Drive and Eight Row Flint on Yale Street.

“When we opened Coltivare we always knew this was just going to be one of the hassles and hoops we have to jump through,” said Weber. “What we didn’t know was what a legitimate pain it would be and how much it eats into your bottom line – reality sets in and that’s a different story.”

Weber said the private club model – that exists as a nonprofit, meaning they must have a board of directors for the entity – requires his restaurants maintain a separate bank account for alcohol sales and that the money from those sales cannot be withdrawn without a meeting of the board and a vote. Due to intricacies of the rules, alcohol sales from Coltivare sat in the bank for one full year before Weber and his team were able to withdraw the funds. Further, he can’t have his alcohol inventory delivered to his business. He has to send an employee to go pick it up. And he has to pay more for that inventory than other restaurants and bars in Houston who can sell alcohol under standard Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission rules. He said he pays barely above retail for liquor, beer and wine.

Just based on buying alcohol at that rate, Weber estimates he’s losing 7 to 8 percent from his bottom line. That doesn’t take into account added labor for separate bookkeeping and trips to pick up inventory.

It’s not as easy as just charging more for cocktails, either, he said. Because patrons have an upper-limit to what they’ll pay for a martini, he can’t charge $14 at Eight Row Flint when Anvil in Montrose is charging $10.

See here for the background. I’m not in any way involved in the restaurant business, so I have no idea if Weber is reporting accurately or if he is exaggerating in some way, but if he’s telling it like it is then I can certainly understand his (and presumably others’) motivation. I have friends who live in the dry zone and I know some of them are not happy about this. I get that, but I can’t bring myself to endorse any of Texas’ antiquated and byzantine booze laws. I feel the same way about this as I do about the shamelessly rent-seeking beer distributors. These laws are anti-consumer, and they should be consigned to the scrap heap.

We could have another Heights alcohol vote

Sure, why not?

Heights voters last fall lifted a 105-year-old ban on the sale of beer and wine at grocery stores, but customers still must join a private club if they want to drink alcohol at area restaurants or bars. That means submitting a drivers license for entry into a club database.

The Houston Heights Restaurant Coalition petition would lift that requirement, leaving the historically dry portion of the Heights nearly wet. Liquor sales at grocery and convenience stores still would be banned.

“While we were doing (the petition) last year, a couple of restaurants came around and said, ‘Hey, we’re here too,'” said Bryan Poff, a project manager for Austin-based Texas Petition Strategies, which is managing the petition drive. “As soon as they saw how much support beer and wine got … that was all they needed.”

[…]

Morgan Weber, co-owner of Coltivare and Eight Row Flint, said allowing restaurants and bars to sell alcohol more freely would improve the customer experience and help streamline operations.

“It’s not ideal from our perspective, because instead of really being able to make a great first impression … the first thing out of our mouth when you order alcohol is that we need to see your drivers license,” Weber said. “It’s right out of the gate kind of negative.”

Weber also pointed to Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission rules that require restaurants and bars looking to sell alcohol in dry parts of the Heights to establish a separate non-profit or association to receive the proceeds of alcohol sales and pay for the private club’s operation.

See here for coverage of last year’s effort. I supported that effort (though I couldn’t vote for it, as I don’t live in that part of the Heights), as I generally support efforts to undo dry restrictions. This particular restriction is kind of silly – as noted in the story, restaurants can sell booze, they just have to collect your name and drivers license info for their “private club” to do it. I’m sure there will be opposition to this – I knew plenty of people who were against last year’s referendum, and I doubt they’ll be any happier with this one – though Bill Baldwin won’t be leading it. My early guess is that it will succeed if it gets to a vote, but we’ll see. Swamplot and Eater Houston have more.

Your Super Bowl AirBnB dream probably did not come true

Alas.

Vacation rental websites like Airbnb and Home Away still have pages of listings available for this weekend. Many are asking well over $1,000 per night for, in some cases, run-of-the-mill two-bedroom apartments.

Data from Airbnb Thursday show the typical price of booked listings in Houston for the Super Bowl is $150 per night. Listings within a 5-mile radius of NRG Stadium get a slight premium: $200 per night.

The most popular Houston neighborhoods for guest arrivals included Montrose, the Medical Center area and the Greater Heights.

See here and here for the background. That story was from Thursday, so I suppose it was still possible for some desperate last-minute renters to come in and sweep up those unclaimed listings at the listed rates. I kind of doubt it, though. Turns out, unless you have a particular kind of high-end property to rent out – and a particular kind of high-end renter looking for that kind of property – AirBnB is going to be the cheap alternative to a hotel, not the expensive alternative. Maybe next time, y’all.