Saturday, April 27, 2013

Galleria: Hands Off My Arches (and my park), TIRZ!

Texquiem has previously highlighted Uptown Houston's Post Oak Boulevard, here.

Six pairs of massive stainless steel arches, circular silver street signs hovering over the major intersections, and purtier landscaping along public medians than you see anywhere else in the city.

signage wayfinding public art program
texas signage placemaking

They bedazzled Post Oak circa 1995--and even though it's stainless, it cost as much as your grandma's sterling.  The link to the Chronicle's story about the huge cost is now dead, so you'll have to take my word that it cost an arm and a leg.

The Uptown Management District wants to slice up these esplanades to install two dedicated bus lanes (with a sliver left for landscaping).  That's right--dedicated bus lanes.  Plus widen Post Oak Boulevard.  They'd rather have rail, but that's a no-go for now.  So instead, they'll settle for buses where they hoped light rail would run.  It's a vision you, see.  A vision of 1,000s of office zombies and Galleria dwellers suddenly descending highrise elevators and hopping on public transport to zip down Post Oak.  Or as the Management District describes it, "As importantly, travel within Uptown itself, whether by car, foot or by transit, must be convenient, safe and enjoyable." The cost?  $177,500,000 for the "transit project."  Another $114,000,000 for a "mobility project." And $113,000,000 more for "other."  Over $400 million dollars for bus lanes, in the hope to supplant king car in the Galleria area.

That seems to be a pretty big folly.  Have they been downtown in the last decade?  Office workers descend to the tunnels, not the streets, not the rail, and particularly not during summer.  Downtown streets have two dedicated bus and car pool lanes, in addition to the rail.  Hasn't stopped the traffic jams.  But it allows a lot of mostly-empty Metro buses to hog the roads for big chunks of the day.  Have they seen the dead irises and brownery down the skinny little medians on Main?  Do they really think they can get an oak tree to grow that tall in the little strip left in this picture?

Fact is, you can already ride a Metro bus up and down Post Oak.  That's why they have those fancy, custom bus shelters (below).  You don't need $400 million and a dedicated lane, or a widened street, to take the bus.  Dear Inner Loopers, when is the last time you contemplated taking a bus to the Galleria?  Yup, that's what I thought.  Mattress Mac is against it and points out that Uptown Management District once provided a free bus service up and down Post Oak--but had to cancel it due to too few riders.  Being Texas-born, I'm real familiar with the adage "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."

 IMG_0176 IMG_0171

But wait, they say.  We need the dedicated, local buses to ferry workers to park-and-rides we'll build!! Great, Texquiem is all for park-and-rides.  But you still don't need two dedicated lanes down Post Oak for it.  And, if you're heart-set on those dedicated bus lanes, go pick on McCue or Sage Roads, close by and parallel to Post Oak.  Make those your thoroughfares to your future park-and-rides.

In the end, let's just be honest, huh?  This dedicated-bus-lane-thing is just a way to get a foot in the door for light rail.  Texquiem likes the idea of rail, but the reality of rail in Houston?  Not so great, so far.  I've ridden the light rail more than a few times.  Except at Rodeo time, I've never been on it when the majority of passengers haven't been fare jumpers and/or homeless.  Did you ever see the blog Today on the Light Rail?  Hilarious but true!

While we're being honest, let's be honest about the costs, too.  It takes a ginormous amount of money to build just a few miles of light rail.  It's also a real buzz kill for businesses along the route.  Downtown was a nascent hotspot when the first stretch of light rail started.  Construction killed that off PDQ.  It also killed the Texaco Grand Prix--which was the coolest damn thing to hit downtown ever.  Metro started construction on the second stretch of light rail a few years back, closing the bridge on N. Main by UH Downtown in 2011.  Impractical navigation through there since.  As Casa Grande's owner pointed out, it's real hard to get to his restaurant now.  His business is down 40% and the construction continues way beyond its deadlines.  Seriously, any project costing $756 million should come in pronto and on budget.

Really, it seems like the Post Oak bus plan is a done deal, period.  They've packaged it up somehow with Memorial Park.  In addition to that $400 million in tax dollars Uptown TIRZ wants for dedicated bus lanes, they promise to dedicate $100 mm over 20 years to re-forest and remodel Memorial Park.  The Memorial Park Conservancy likes the deal.  For sure, the park was laid bare by the drought.  Who doesn't want to see it in better shape?  It's twice the size of New York's Central Park and looks like overplucked eyebrows right now.  Still, I don't fully understand the Uptown TIRZ deal.  The Chronicle has put the main stories, as well as Mattress Mac's counter-opinion, behind a pay wall.  The City's announcement makes the Uptown "rapid transit plan" sound warm and fuzzy.  You can read it here: annexing greenspace. Feels like they're putting lipstick on a pig.  With the park as the lipstick.

As much as Texquiem likes Uptown Houston's landscaping, I'm just a tad uneasy about putting Memorial Park in its hands for the next 20 years.  Apparently, Uptown Houston's half-a-billion-dollar baby includes integration of and access from the Galleria area to the Park.  Remember a few years ago when developers tried to loop in Spotts Park with fencing that matched their own?   You can see it on Google Streetview, right by Waugh near Buffalo Bayou.   They wanted to make the park acreage look like part and parcel of their own property. Didn't the City have to tell them to back off?   I understand that the Mayor has said absolutely no commercialization of Memorial Park.  Let's be sure to get that in writing.  Or better yet, carved in stone. After all, the Mayor is term limited and we don't know who comes next.  Who's left in the City's Parks Department to curb excesses on the largest city park?

Unease aside, the bottom line for Texquiem is the bottom line.  Half a billion is an outlandish amount of money.  What's $500+ million really going to accomplish, other than a construction nightmare, death blows to businesses currently along Post Oak, and loss of green medians on the hope that if they build it, riders will come. 

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