Tag Archives: Houston complete streets

Montrose Residents Mobilize For Better Sidewalks

More than a century old, Montrose is one of the most well-known neighborhoods in Houston.  In that time, it’s been home to American Presidents, world-famous celebrities and various counter-cultural movements. It’s also quite possible that many Montrose residents and visitors are walking on 100-year old, original sidewalks.  One can only imagine the poor condition when many sidewalks haven’t been repaired since the Wilson administration.  As KPRC Local 2 reports, many in the neighborhood are fed up.

Families in Montrose are circulating a petition demanding the city to fix a dangerous problem in their neighborhood. We’re talking about sidewalks, or the lack of them, in some areas of Montrose.

The group has sent out a letter to residents asking them to sign a petition to ask the city for help in getting some repairs to the sidewalks. The sidewalks are chipped, broken or missing altogether, but the city says the repairs are not necessarily its responsibility.

Montrose is one of the trendiest neighborhoods inside the Loop, filed with little shops, restaurants and quaint homes. But now, more than ever, residents say the neighborhood’s aging sidewalks and streets are in desperate need of repair.

“They are always uneven, they are always littered, they’re impassable, so I end up walking in the street,” said resident Anna La Perna. “You can’t use the sidewalk.” The Montrose Sidewalks Coalition, a group made up of residents, sent a letter to neighbors asking them to sign a petition to encourage Mayor Annise Parker and the city to help with the issue.

“I think she is doing nothing and not enough. She is worried about a select few and not all of us,” said La Perna. The group also says people are tripping and getting hurt because of the mess.

Full disclosure… I am both a resident of Montrose and a frequent pedestrian and user of public transportation.  Just like the above, I end up walking on the street rather than risk tripping on large, broken pieces of sidewalk.  That said, I fully share the frustration of my neighbors and want these sidewalks fixed.  But under current municipal law, the City of Houston is not responsible for fixing sidewalks, and instead passes that burden on to property owners.

As the Montrose Sidewalks Coalition points out in their petition, the current ordinance may also present some bigger problems…

Our community’s children do not have safe routes to school and are forced into the street with oncoming traffic due to missing and broken sidewalks. We have many schools within easy walking distance, however the state of our school routes is appalling.

Many visually and mobility impaired citizens live in or visit Montrose for specialized services available in Montrose. The infrastructure is not ADA compliant and a significant barrier to access. Accessible design for the visually impaired is almost non existent. As older residents age in place, this will increasingly become a safety issue of large proportions.

Several sections of Montrose, suffering from a triumvirate of poor sidewalks, jagged curbs and pothole-ridden streets do not meet basic compliance standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Could the lack of maintenance on Houston’s sidewalks leave the city liable in an injury or death case?  Would it leave property owners liable if someone hurts themselves on a poor sidewalk?

Poor sidewalks are a problem in every corner of Houston… not just Montrose.  A constant complaint shared by Houstonians, it is starting to capture major attention in the city’s  political debate.   Jenifer Rene Pool, a long-time public advocate and candidate for Houston City Council, made sidewalks a central issue of her 2013 campaign, and even recorded a YouTube video to state why these repairs are so important. As Pool points out below, sidewalks should be a cornerstone of the city’s general mobility plan.  For seniors or someone with a disability, it’s just not safe to get around by foot or in a wheelchair.  If other neighborhoods follow the lead of the Montrose petitioners, you can be sure sidewalks will be a hot topic in the 2015 elections.

This is not to say that nothing has been done.  Mayor Parker has made some good faith efforts to address the problem, most notably a complete streets executive order that ensures any future construction done by the city will take into account all forms of mobility, including safe, usable sidewalks.  Even if city government can’t immediately correct mistakes of the past, at least someone has a better plan for the future.  But until this executive order becomes an ordinance, there’s no guarantee that a future Mayoral administration would follow these practices.

Houston is changing rapidly, and perhaps no area has experienced those changes faster than Montrose. But every resident of the Bayou City deserves top quality infrastructure.  After so many decades of neglect and a massive amount of ground to cover, it’s going to be a massive challenge to accomplish and pay for such repairs.  But waiting any longer is also not an option.  If Houston is to be a true national leader in the 21st century, we can’t do it on infrastructure from the early 20th century.  True leadership has to start from the ground up.



Parker Makes Complete Streets a Houston Priority

Some fantastic news out of the Mayor’s office today…

Mayor Annise Parker Announces Visionary Complete Streets Policy for Houston

At the site of Texas’ first certified GreenRoads projects in Midtown, Mayor Annise Parker today unveiled a transformative new approach for Houston streets that will accommodate the needs of all users, not just those behind the wheel. The mayor’s Complete Streets and Transportation Plan is meant to provide safe, accessible and convenient use by motorists, public transit riders, pedestrians, people of all abilities and bicyclists. The new policy, detailed in a draft executive order from the mayor, will be achieved over time as improvements to existing roadways and redevelopment occur.

“This executive order is a major first step forward,” said Mayor Parker. “Many groups have worked hard to get us to this point, including The Complete Streets Coalition, Scenic Houston, AARP and BikeHouston. I am thankful for their input and steadfast commitment. Houston is a city that embraces its diversity. This Complete Streets policy applies the same approach to our mobility system by meeting the diverse needs of all Houstonians while also creating more accessible and attractive connections to residential areas, parks, businesses, restaurants, schools and employment centers.

The Complete Streets and Transportation Plan recognizes that all streets are different. The function of the road, current and projected adjacent land use and travel demands, availability of right-of-way, community input and the level of vehicular, pedestrian and bicycle traffic must all be considered in decisions regarding enhancements. The ultimate goal, where appropriate, is walkable and bike-friendly neighborhoods with amenities such as trees and landscaping, public art and street furniture.

“As we work to build a healthier community, it is more important than ever to reimagine our approach to streets, sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, public transit, bike trails and lanes,” said Mayor Parker.

Mayor Parker intends to sign the executive order following a City Council briefing on the plan. Houston is joining other cities that are already utilizing a Complete Streets approach including Chicago, Baltimore, San Antonio, San Diego, Sacramento, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and New Orleans as well as the U.S. Department of Transportation and numerous state transportation agencies.

The Plan will build upon and utilize tools such as the city’s Mobility Planning already underway. It will create new definitions found in the city’s Major Thoroughfare and Freeway Plan Policy Statement and the Infrastructure Design Manual. The city’s Rebuild Houston program will also ensure that all future roadway construction utilizes the principals contained in the mayor’s Complete Streets Executive Order.

The City of Houston’s Planning and Development Department, Public Works and Engineering Department and METRO will be responsible for administration of the plan. There will be annual reporting to City Council to ensure transparency and accountability.

Houston’s transportation infrastructure spans 640 square miles and consists of 6,000 center lane miles of streets, 1,100,000 traffic signs, 2,450 signalized LED intersections, 1,600 school zone flashers, 180,000 streetlights and 1,800 freeway lights.

As someone who frequently rides a bicycle on Houston’s streets, I can attest that this is sorely needed. Some Houstonians may be skeptical of the need for such an “expensive investment”, but to the naysayers I issue a challenge… Go for a walk on a major thoroughfare like Westheimer or Richmond. Walk the sidewalk, or bike along the far lane. Then try that same activity on the Greenroads projects of Bagby or Pierce. Once you spend some time outside of the car and actually experience these places in human contact, the need for complete streets is obvious. 

The order also fulfills part of the promises made regarding Council’s passage of significant changes to the city’s development code, better known as Chapter 42. The complete streets initiative will prove to be a critical need as Houston becomes a denser city, and more people seek a range of transportation options other than their cars. In my opinion, complete streets are safer, healthier and better for all. It’s to see these projects starting on Pierce and Bagby… and even better that the Mayor recognizes these projects shouldn’t be the exception, but must become the norm. 

‘A Texas Way of Being Urban’

If you’ve been to Houston recently (and took some time to exit the freeways), you probably could tell one thing pretty quickly… the city is in the throws of a rapid transformation. Much of this building boom is taking place in the form of new condominiums and mid-rise structures, which will likely increase after revisions to the city’s development code. But it’s not just the law that is mandating these types of developments… much of it is driven market demand, as more and more Houstonians prefer to live in a traditional “built urban” environment.

The shift in thinking is starting to get noticed outside the city as well, for it affects the way Houston does business. Take this interesting interview on the changing face of Houston architecture, from an architect’s perspective. The editor of the Chicago Architecture Blog interviewed John Lahey, CEO of Simon Cordwell Buenz. SCB is a Chicago-based firm that is currently working on projects across the United States, including two in Houston.

Editor: Houston is a whole different market.

Lahey: For an urban person, it’s not as accommodating. But there is a sprit of Texas that you can’t help but like. Even if, politically or whatever, you’re not in sync with it, their do-it-yourself identity is really kind of neat.

Editor: How is working in Texas different than the other markets you’re working in?

Lahey: The people that we’re working for in Texas are from Texas, so the Texas imprint is very apparent. I would say in Texas it’s just not as dense and hard an urban environment, and it’s a little more gracious. A little more landscaping when you come into the building. It’s hot, but it’s sunny a lot. The units are a little bigger.

There’s a vitality in Texas that is different. Chicago and San Francisco have very established urban areas and you’re sort of being part of an established urban framework. Whereas in Texas, you can be more freewheeling, and people want to just celebrate it a little more. The buildings in Chicago have a lot of civility, where in Texas… it’s hard to say exactly what’s different.

In Texas the construction costs aren’t as much as they are here, and so you get more for your money.

Editor: And no zoning in Houston.

Lahey: Austin has zoning. It has a lot of zoning. But the buildings there are large, and we’re working on a few smaller ones, too.

Editor: In the last few years, people in Houston seem to be coming around to the notion that it’s OK to live in a tower instead of a rambler.

Lahey: I think there’s quite a bit of it. And then there’s more stuff starting to happen in downtown. The one that we’re doing in Montrose isn’t a super-tall tower. It’s probably half as tall as this [Rincon Two], but that’s tall for there. But what’s neat about an area like that where there’s already a density and there’s restaurants and stuff, when you bring in that many people and do it in a way that still lets the neighborhood be what it is, it’s just more people going to these things. Walking to them. And you can see how the urban experience that we all love, will morph into a Texas way of being urban.

Austin is a little more urban feeling because of all the music downtown, and it’s pretty centralized. And because of the size of Austin, they’ve probably got a denser core than Houston. But I think Houston is going to be really good. The things that are happening there are really positive.

Editor: Are there things that you have to do differently designing a building in Houston?

Lahey: It’s not so cold, so when you do your amenities, the outdoor — the pools and all that stuff — are really important because you’re going to be using that a lot.

Balconies… You know, it gets so hot that some people want them and some people don’t. Somebody told me that you just don’t sit out a lot in Houston. So when we’re doing it, there is the thought that people are going to be in their apartments and have the windows closed and have the air conditioning on a lot.

Now in Chicago, we have the same thing in the winter — people are going to be inside and have the heat on. So, they’re similar. Whereas in Chicago, you’re making sure things don’t get too dark, in Houston you’re making sure things don’t get too light. You don’t have the short days, what you have is the big hot sun. Here you’ve got the winter, when it’s dark and it’s cloudy, and you want to make sure you get enough light into each unit.

Editor: Do you need heavier HVAC units and bigger ducts for all that air conditioning in Houston?

Lahey: A lot of it is done with natural ventilation, although we do use mechanical ventilation a lot more in Texas than we would here. Here it’s mostly natural ventilation because people can just open a window. In Houston, you want fresh air, but you’re just not going to touch that window.

The old traditional building with the punched openings and small windows, we hardly [ever do that]. We like the more modern, contemporary ones with the views. When you live in a high-rise that’s the one great amenity that you have, and when you see the views being limited by the size of windows, that seems wrong.

The aesthetic of buildings, people there really do respond to more contemporary buildings today. They like having big amounts of glass in their living rooms. Bedrooms aren’t so critical. But that’s happening across the board. It’s everywhere.

That’s in Hawaii, that’s in California, that’s in Texas, that’s in Chicago, and it’s in Miami. It’s everywhere.

As Mr. Lahey says, there are definitely some advantages to the having a more “fluid urban environment” like you find in Houston. One project, like Discovery Green, can spur a whole burst of new activity virtually on its own. It’s great to see so many developers noticing the changes in trends, and looking for copious business opportunities in the city. As a Houstonian, there’s nothing more exciting than getting to witness the growth and change happening throughout the city. But it also serves as a reminder that along with the new wave of development, Houston cannot leave its basic infrastructure behind. Just as important to the renaissance of the city’s built urban environment and densification is the full commitment of the city to improve our ailing drainage and sewer systems so they can keep up with the dizzying growth. A complete streets initiative becomes all the more imperative as our city gains more residents, and our public transit has to both improve and plan for the future as well. Impressive new towers and mid-rises are great, but they won’t matter as much if we can’t get to or from them.

Is Houston ready for all of the changes ahead?

Houston’s Chapter 42: City Response

As city government leaders continue the debate for Houston’s future growth and development, many residents have lots of questions for how these changes will affect their area. The first major move to address those issues is likely to come to a City Council vote on April 24th… an expansion and re-vamp of Houston’s Chapter 42 ordinance. After addressing some of my concerns in this previous post regarding Chapter 42, here’s a response from Brian Crimmins, Chief-of-Staff for the City of Houston Planning Department.

The City and the Houston Super Neighborhood Alliance (SNA) are almost to a final agreement on the SNA Top Ten Concerns related to development. Most of these items are outside Chapter 42, so the City has been working outside of the Chapter 42 amendment process to address them. The main outstanding item is related to drainage – specifically, grandfathering of drainage and drainage requirements for parcels less than 15,000 SF. CM Costello’s office has been taking the lead on the issue of drainage.

Chapter 42 and the Construction Code were both amended in late 2011 to establish buffering requirements when a development is proposed that is over 75 feet in height, is located along a local or collector street, and abuts single-family residential. This was in response to the “Ashby High-rise” project. You can find out more about the Residential Buffering Ordinance here.

The amendments to Chapter 42 would actually encourage more single-family residential in areas outside Loop 610. The current “urban rules” deal primarily with the density of single-family residential and have no impact on the location of high-rise or multi-family residential. Multi-family can currently build anywhere in the city – both inside and outside of Loop 610 – under the same rules and standards. When people talk about “high-density” related to Chapter 42, most do not realize that it is helping to make single-family a more attractive option than multi-family.

Yes, housing prices in some “popular” areas have increased, however many areas in the city (including areas within the loop) remain affordable to a wide range of residents. The Chapter 42 amendments will create more flexible options for housing products moving forward, and therefore create more flexible home prices across the board. At the end of the day, however, home prices will continue to be market driven – hot spots will continue to see increases or remain higher than other areas of the city.

We have worked with the Department of Public Works & Engineering, as well as the Houston Fire Department to establish the new rules. They are a great improvement to safety and design standards over existing standards.

Beyond general comments, Mr. Crimmins also answered a couple of specific questions I had regarding the proposed ordinance and amendments…

How will the following issues be addressed in Mayor Parker’s plans for the new (and I assume, updated) ordinance?

Q: Building materials. I am particularly concerned that there seems to be lots of “cheap” construction being built inside the loop… wood-frame housing, construction that cuts corners and doesn’t plan for the future of the area. I haven’t done any formal comparisons, but I have encountered much construction that seems to be “sub-par”. Does the newer version of Chapter 42 address this?

A: Chapter 42 does not regulate the construction material for buildings, rather it focuses on how land can be subdivided and assembled for future development. These requirements are found in documents established by national or international organizations that have been adopted by the City of Houston. The most recognizable of these is the 2006 International Building Code and 2006 International Residential Code published by the International Code Council. Other codes we use include the 2006 International Fire Code, 2006 Uniform Mechanical Code, 2006 Uniform Plumbing Code, 2011 National Electrical Code, and the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code. The City has adopted amendments to these documents that can be found here. Each of these standards is reviewed by the Department of Public Works & Engineering and will not be changed as part of the Chapter 42 process. If you notice a development being constructed with what appears to be “sub-par” construction methods, please report the project to 311 and the City will send an inspector out as needed.

Q: Sidewalks and street maintenance. Of course, this is a continuing issue within Houston, simply because our streets are just not uniform. I do see that Chapter 42 addresses streets to plan for pedestrian needs, but even it doesn’t go so far as to mandate how these sidewalks are structured with regard to existing utility poles, meters, and any other existing impediments. I’ve seen many shortcuts around this as well (thinking more about an area like EaDo which is building many townhomes brand new from formerly vacant lots). How is the ordinance improved to consider this?

A: Chapter 42 does not regulate the construction and/or maintenance of sidewalks or streets. The ordinance does make reference to sidewalks for certain “performance standards” to get automatic reductions to the typical requirements; however it is the Public Works & Engineering Infrastructure Design Manual (IDM) that formally sets the criteria for public infrastructure in the city.

With the Chapter 42 amendments we will be requiring that new single-family residential development be required to provide an existing conditions survey at the subdivision plat stage. This survey will detail conditions in the right of way and help the City identify potential concerns earlier in the process. With respect to the utility poles, meters, and other impediments that might be added later, we are working on a couple different avenues. First, the City is drafting an agreement with CenterPoint on collaboration in a number of areas including a 50 year plan to bury overhead power lines. We are in the process of developing an Inter-local Agreement that will be brought to a Council Committee in the 2nd quarter. Also, a Planning Commission committee is reviewing the location and design criteria for group mail boxes and group meter boards. They will develop an appropriate strategy, i.e. amend rules or education by June 2013.

First of all, I want to take the opportunity to thank Justin Concepcion, Social Media Coordinator for the Mayor’s Office, and Mr. Crimmins for the detailed response. It is always helpful to hear the city’s perspective and get clarity on the situation with the ordinance. The response also helps to provide a better understanding of exactly what is in the scope of Chapter 42. It is certainly not a “zoning” ordinance in the traditional sense of the word, but given the long history of how Houston has managed to avoid so many of these issues, it seems like a step in the right direction. It’s also helpful to see Chapter 42 in the context of more comprehensive plans to tackle a legacy of “anything goes” development culture.

I suppose you have to start somewhere.