Comment of the Day: The Deep, Rich Beauty of Houston’s Feeder Roads

COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE DEEP, RICH BEAUTY OF HOUSTON’S FEEDER ROADS “Houston is ugly, but there are hidden benefits to this ugliness. I was in the NE this summer going from DC up the Eastern seaboard visiting friends and family. Feeder roads do not work out east because freeways are frequently dug out of the hilly terrain and there isn’t any flat land along side the freeways to build. The result is that a lot of the freeways are just lined with trees. While this is attractive, it also gets boring after a while. There isn’t much difference between the trees in DC, Philly or Boston. Houston’s endless feeder road developments make driving around town much more interesting. You can observe the various layers of strip mall sediment that lines the highways: from fresh new bundles of Academy Sports, HEB and Toys R US to middle of the road, tired Kohls-anchored strip with Cici’s pizza to the ramshackle strips with the accident and injury clinic, Pho noodle #3 and tax/bankruptcy/notario and divorce ‘law’ firm. There are ooohs and aahhhs at sites like Luz de Estrella on 59, Gallery Furniture on I-45 and an ad hoc gallery of steel sculptures on 288 south. And in between all of that, miles and miles of car dealerships. Never a dull moment on Houston’s highways.” [Old School, commenting on Comment of the Day Runner-Up: Houston Can’t Keep Up] Illustration: Lulu

36 Comment

  • O, just what the internet needed – Another collection of lame opinions bashing America’s boomtown. PATHETIC. Swamplot is Houston’s garbage can.

  • Yes, but I do miss the used car dealer along 45 north, with a large sign declaring ‘Owner has brain damage’. Blew down in a storm.

  • Drive I-10 from the Loop to parts West, and you feel like you’re watching a tape loop. About every 8-10 miles, the same big box chains pop up again, often in about the same order.

  • This is actually kind of true. I had to drive around Raleigh a few weeks ago and all I saw during the whole trip were walls of pine trees. Didn’t matter if I was near the middle of town or on the far outskirts – nothing but walls of pine trees.

    That said, our freeways look best when there is some kind of balance between development and trees, as along I-45 near The Woodlands or north of downtown. I’ve heard that the Katy Freeway entering town used to be forested… our city would look a lot better coming in from the west if we could have kept some of that, say with an “80% maximum impervious coverage” restriction on development.

  • How about taking a drive down Memorial thru the park and into Downtown or Bissonet along the edge of Rice or Main thru Hermann Park. Why does everyone have to be such haters in reguards to Houston. This comment of the day is such a back handed compliment to the city and not really even witty. It’s like saying, yeah, she’s ugly, but those buck teeth make a great beer opener.

  • Yeah, WASP and Private Idaho! If people would only talk about the nice parts of Houston, the bad parts will disappear!

  • No mention of the lovely approaches to Manhattan via Northern New Jersey?

  • East Coast states could easily build feeder roads but there’s been a collective decision to not build them. Of course, collectivism is a dirty word in Houston now but that wasn’t always the case. At one time, Houstonians used to do things like build ship chanels and carve out space for a not-for-profit medical center. Today, those forward thinking pioneers would have build called pinko commies.

  • When all you do is speak of the negative aspects of the city and just use the blanket term, ugly, it sours the narrative and leaves an inaccurate view of Houston. Yes, of course parts of the city are ugly, even San Deigo has ugly sections. What I’m saying is the city has pretty areas as well and it’s trying to improve, just look at the Buffalo Bayou Park Project. Many parts of the city are be beautiful, such as parts of Hermann Park, the Rice Campus, River Oaks, the Brays Bayou Greenbelt, Memorial Park and the neighborhood of Memorial. The Museum District is pretty as well as is the Menil collection and Bayou Bend Gardens. The downtown skyline is awesome and so is the post oak skyline. It’s just counter productive to just bash Houston time and time again. Certainly it could be prettier, but it certainly could be uglier as well. Seattle has some hideous areas as does San Francisco and Sydney, the outskirts of Paris are revolting, let’s have some perspective, please

  • You’re right Robert, if we just keep ignore the good and only focus on the bad, the city leaders will run right out of their offices and plant a tree by the side of the freeway. The chronic internet whiners, with all their credibility and unquestioned personal taste will show them them way, right?

    Houston isn’t perfect, but calling the entire city ugly in one over generalized observation is not only inaccurate and short-sighted, it is also ignorant, baiting and an ineffective method of getting anyone to take one’s observations or maturity level very seriously.

  • The fact is that Houston is ugly and dirty. If you’ve ever been anywhere else you know that that is a fact. Denying it doesn’t help – maybe complaining about it will spur the powers that be to do something about it. It’s Godawful.

  • Doofus,

    Excessive frontage (as in pretty much everywhere) roads were the preferred policy of the State of Texas through TXDOT until recently. Thus they were more collective of a collective action than if Houstonians decided.

  • I think they should plant clumps of giant bamboo between the freeway and feeder in some spots. Low maintenance, beautiful and would be unique. The palms and pampas grass don’t block the blight and maybe that’s why they’re used. Retailers would not be happy if they were suddenly invisible to drivers.

  • Feeder roads seem to be pretty much an urban Texas thing. That said, I’m not sure there is much of anything that could be done to improve the linear rail yard scenery that you get coming in the Hardy from Intergalactic.

  • Joel Kotkin said in Forbes that Houston will be regarded as America’s “next great global city” by 2023. So I don’t see the point in comparing it to anything in or near New England.

  • The fact is that if you have ever been anywhere else you would know that EVERY city has ugly areas, even the most beautiful city in America – San Francisco.

    Houston is beautiful and people are fighting each other to find places to live here. If Houston is ugly, I’d sure hate to see the places that these people are coming from. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder, but facts are facts – no city in America is attracting more people than Houston.

    Obviously the city’s appearance isn’t making anyone move away – so it can’t be too bad.

  • All those stupid trees just sit at the side if the road generating oxygen and mitigating the urban heat island effects. Horrible!

    If there were no Ship Channel today and someone wanted to build it, the commenters who love to go on about Houston’s economy would run them out of town.

  • Who on Earth would be against the ship channel? Talk about hyperbole. Stick to the issue at hand.

  • “Why does everyone have to be such haters in reguards to Houston?”……Um, because it’s not just UGLY…’s effing HIDEOUS! Keep telling yourselves it’s not, but a stinking armpit is still a stinking armpit.

  • First of all to Idaho Potato, yes SF has some ugly areas, all the cities, but the pretty areas and natural beauty far outweighs what Houston has. And let’s get one thing straight, people aren’t moving here because it’s pretty or well put together, it’s for financial and employment reasons… Get it straight.

    Next, most Houstonians use the highways everyday and drive past the endless strip malls and other developments that line our frontage roads and therefore highways. Unfortunately, these are the views most Houstonians and visitors see, unless you go out the way to drive down Memorial or whatever scenic street.

    Lastly, the sad thing is this city had any sort of foresight, an easy solution would be lining the freeways with various species of natives AND…AND… This is key…. having some type of funding to maintain them (ya know in times of drought, which occurs every now and then in Texas). But Houston has the cheap aka libertarian/republican mindset when it comes to building and maintaining infrastructure.

  • Reading this over wrought thread you’d think Houston was Lagos, Nigeria or Kolkota, India. I don’t know why if you think so little of Houston you’d waste your time caring about if it’s ugly or not, or polute this site with your trolling. Really if I hated a city as much as most of you seem to hate Houston, id move… So please, MOVE.. or at least take your hate and nastiness elsewhere

  • How can one defend the frontage roads of Houston? They are hideous. The only one that is semi-OK is the 10 heading west towards Katy. The rest are true blights to this city. The welcome drive from IAH or HOU to downtown is horribly unappraling.

    As a SoCal native, I can show you countless beautiful streets and decent sections of freeway. I prefer the lovely greenery found on the East coast, Northwest, etc. any day to the crap frontage roads of the 45N or 59/69N.

    Yes, there are beautiful parts of Houston, but the frontage roads are not them.

    On a side note…as was mentioned by another blogger, we should bury our below grade freeway sections and make linear parks that connect neighborhoods as well as make better use of space under elevated freeways.

  • SF is a boom and bust town just like Houston. Like Houston I don’t think they exactly save for a rainy day, they just let the economy take its toll good or bad. So you have similar pockets of despondency and pockets of extreme wealth.

    I think it’s like the austerity vs. spending debate in the larger economy. Do you spend into the bad times or tighten the belt? In poker terms, when the board pairs do you bet into it or passively look for a reason not to play despite a great starting hand?

  • Fernando, access to the freeways in So Cal is horrible. If you get off at the wrong exit, you may never find your way back on. In all the time I spent driving on freeways in the LA area, I always wished for decent feeder roads that made it easy to find, and get to, the businesses and destinations I was looking for.

  • So, I’m living somewhere fairly obscure within Asia and from time to time I go to sing karaoke. I do not sing well, but this is what one does when one lives in Asia.

    Depending on the song that is selected, the television shows the lyrics and also some kind of maybe-pertinent scenery. So if you select a song in the native language then you get images of beautiful and serene places in that country. If you play Gangnam Style, you get the full music video. If you select some dance song, you get video of people dancing in some club. Western music gets special treatment. If you select “Hotel California”, then you see numerous images of a resort hotel that’s probably somewhere in France.

    If this seems off topic…

    …when you select “Bohemian Raphsody” or “Come Sail Away” (my personal favorites for karaoke because they’re musically compatible with my natural register) you see video of downtown Houston near the Chevron complex and Allen Center, some of I-10 going eastbound into downtown, and then of US 59, headed outbound near Greenway Plaza. Then it cuts over to Dallas and shows video of the skyline from their freeway loop, as well as a clip of the Stemmons Freeway near Market Center.

    The imagery could’ve been infrastructure from anywhere; it could’ve been about sailboats or space aliens, even; but it was of Texas and it featured our freeways prominently.

    So…somebody, somewhere, thinks that they’re beautiful. Or something.

  • WASP: my point was that it was a project that involved government planning, decisions about how to use certain areas of town, and paid for with tax money (local & federal). In other words, everything that some insist is anathema to the Houston way. I think the short-sightedness is amusing, that’s all.

  • @Dom,

    “But Houston has the cheap aka libertarian/republican mindset when it comes to building and maintaining infrastructure.”

    The last Republican mayor of Houston was McConn, elected in 1978. 35 years ago! I would have to do research to determine how long it has been since a Republican controlled city council but I can’t recall any in my short lifetime.

    I guarantee you modern libertarianism hasn’t influenced any recent city council. Please don’t fight imaginary boogey-men.

    The budget of the city of Houston was published at the end of July, I invite you to read it to get an idea of how much and where the city spends their money. It is relatively comprehensive and breaks down the expenses and income in a explanatory way. Google search for it.

    Houston Fiscal Year 2014 estimated expenditures are $4.5 billion from the general fund not counting special expenditures. Back of the envelope math, about $2,000 per person. Given a median salary of $45k, that is about 4% of a median resident’s income, just for the city. The first 21 minutes of every work day you are working for Annise Parker.

    Now one could make an argument that the Republican dominated county commissioners are cheap, but they really do spend a lot of money, and are more functionaries of the state. You can view the county budget online too. They can allocate and move around funds between roads, parks, libraries, etc, and between construction, maintenance, and beautification, and as far as effectiveness and efficiency they have been a mixed bag, but they couldn’t be called libertarian or cheap. They are doing what they were elected to do, keeping the county machinery running along. I haven’t looked at any county budgets recently but when I did I don’t recall them being stingy. They had a set amount of dollars and had to allocate them among various services, all of which always need more investment.

    The fact is the city spends a lot of money on public service before even getting to maintenance and infrastructure improvements. On top of that the highways are maintained mostly by TxDOT and there are confusing, overlapping layers of government authority with the state TxDOT, county commissioners, Federal Government regulations with their highway funds, metro, and the city.

    Beautification comes last, after critical city services, after optional city services, after maintenance, and after new construction.

    Do a search for “highways miles per city.” Houston is number 3 with 0.822 highway miles for every 1000 residents. This is expensive. Houston does not have the population density of Paris, New York, Tokyo, London, or San Fransisco. Houston must take a smaller amount of money and spread it out over a greater geographical area. That is a fact. Look up the wikipedia article with US Cities by Population Density. Houston doesn’t even make the list, it is so spread out. You want to plant a tree every ten feet? It is going to cost a lot more in Houston.

    Also Houston is not as rich as many other cities. Since it has a open attitude to employers it attracts a lot of high end earners, but many low-end earners come to the city for work too. These people require city services and infrastructure too. Search for “Highest-income metropolitan statistical areas in the United States.” Houston is a place to get a good job at your skill level, but it does not mean everyone has high skill levels. (In fact the people at the high end of the totem poll couldn’t be there without the people below them.) The searched for Wikipedia article puts Houston at #58 in terms of median income. US median income is $50k, the median Houston resident makes $45k. There is less in taxes that can be spent because there is less money in Houston to begin with.

    I hope the tone of my post does not come off poorly, I mean it in all good faith. I did not include links to source data because I do not want this to be caught in spam filters, but it is easily accessible. Houston’s successes can be explained by its great infrastructure, open attitude to employers, open attitude to immigration, and relatively low population density, but also many of Houston’s failures and stresses come from the same source.

    As an aside we should remember those who lost their lives in 9/11 twelve years ago today.

  • There’s a lot of confusion in these comments.

    There are beautiful and vibrant places throughout Houston.

    The frontage roads are not among them. In general, they provide mile after mile of gas station, pawn shop, and strip mall blight to the eye. It’s what people see when they drive in from either airport, or when they come to town to visit family in a suburb and make the drive into the city.

    So it goes. Anyone who lives in Houston or is able to do their own investigation to find places like the Menil, Rice, Allen Parkway, etc will know differently.

  • @WASP: Those of us who wag our finger at Houston’s bad development choices are actually people who really love the city and want to see a better future. Houston is at an important development crossroads during the current boom. Many want to build a city for the future that will enhance the quality of life and give Houston a trajectory that is not dependent on the booms and busts of the energy industry. But a lot of the development we get is just short term junky solutions to meet the instant needs of the day without investing anything for the future. The result is that a few parts of town are very nice, but the rest of the city is left to be a mess of apartments, townhomes and strip malls. Change to this pattern of development won’t happen as long as everyone is in denial about Houston and clings to hometown pride cheerleading instead of objectively looking at what the city is and what it could be.

  • @ domino: Let’s just get this straight. Jobs or not, people would not be coming here in droves, buying houses and raising families if Houston was truly ugly. Whatever shortcomings Houston has is obviously NOT a deterrent. Ugly is subjective. Numbers are facts. Houston has the numbers to prove that it is an attractive place. People come for the jobs, but they stay because it’s nice and obviously better than where they came from or they’d go back.

  • #27: No one (I hope) would suggest that the political affiliations of Houston’s elected officials were relevant, or that any of them were important enough to be bogeymen of any sort. But that doesn’t mean Houston is in some way organic. For me the libertarian (or business-wing Republican – I’m colorblind there) catcher in the rye stand-in is Steve Forbes, who supports unlimited immigration, loves the resultant low wages, loves sprawl, hates environmentalists, has somehow got a whole lot of people believing that talk of beautification is un-American and anti-capitalist, and regularly runs puff pieces (fastest-growing this, number-one that) about Houston, a city where he would never, ever dream of living.
    In the past people who wanted Houston to be pretty and civilized were sometimes honored.
    Hogg, Jones, Hermann: by the logic of this forum, they hated Houston.

  • @old school – Maybe some of us, (most of us) like it this way and don’t want it to change too drastically. Just because some people don’t like the way Houston looks doesn’t mean that they are right any everyone else is wrong. Most of us don’t have a problem with Houston’s overall physical appearance.

    Maybe a few people move here and want Houston to start looking like whatever God-forsaken place they came from (and couldn’t make it in), but why would Houston want to become like places that people ARE MOVING AWAY FROM?

    I think history proves that the majority of people living in Houston are fine with they way Houston looks. If there was an overwhelming consensus that Houston was ugly it would have been already changed by now. I’m not saying attempts shouldn’t be made to improve Houston, but that can be said about any place or anything.

    BTW, immature, internet whiners never got a damn thing accomplished in real life. If you really have a problem with the way Houston looks, you need to take it to a higher entity than Swamplot.

  • @ luciaphile

    Don at # 20 said the political affiliations were relevant, and it affected the quality of infrastructure and beauty of the city.

  • Frontage roads are ugly, but they are functional and allow you to get on and off the freeway and to your destination more quickly.
    I grew up in L.A. There, you just have to learn the hard way how to get on freeway from wherever you are starting. Lots of frustration and time lost.

  • Please keep your eyes on the road and not the stuff on the side of the freeway.

  • Re: Fernando: “The welcome drive from IAH or HOU to downtown is horribly unappraling [sic],” and other similar comments …

    I think about this too, and am sensitive to the way our city looks to newcomers. But in traveling around the country, you notice there are several major U.S. cities that have “blight” or other unattractive areas surrounding their airports, or in between the airport and the central business district or other popular destinations. I believe that most business travelers (at least) understand that this is just common for big cities (and aren’t all that affected by it, unless they haven’t traveled very much). This is not to say we shouldn’t continue to work on freeway beautification, but we’re not alone in this problem of roadside aesthetics.
    *LAX to just about anywhere
    *PHL to center city
    *Chicago Midway or O’hare to CBD
    *Newark or LaGuardia to Manhattan
    *Washington Dulles to the capitol (in parts, depending on route)
    *SFO to the CBD (in parts)
    *AUS (could it be?) to CBD (though too short to notice, perhaps)

    *Washington Nat’l to the capitol
    *DFW to Dallas (or Ft. Worth, I suppose) (not much to look at, but “cleaner” and more “open” somehow; newer)
    *SAT to downtown
    *BOS to CBD
    *SAN Diego to CBD (or elsewhere)