BUILDING A MONUMENT TO GATED FLOOD CONTROL AND TOURISM Protecting the Ship Channel during an Ike-like (or worse) storm surge has led some to propose a big dike, others a big gate. But UH professor of urban planning Tom Colbert doesn’t see why we couldn’t trouble ourselves to make such protection a real sight to see too: “Colbert likes the idea of . . . connecting the Centennial Gate and its levees to the proposed Lone Star National Recreation Area, undeveloped land that would both attract ecotourists and slow floodwaters,” reports the Houston Chronicle’s Lisa Gray: “I remembered one drawing I’d seen in [Colbert's] PowerPoint show: Happy tourists, paddling kayaks past the Hartman Bridge, on one of the byways out of the big ships’ path, waterbirds and wetlands all around. Colbert motioned southeast, toward the Ship Channel’s mouth, toward Barbours Cut, the other possible location for the floodgate. There, he said, the levees would cross the channel’s water, connecting the Ship Channel’s artificial islands — made from dirt dredged from the channel — to the shore. Enough room could be left on top of the levee for a hiking path or even for car access; for the first time, it would be possible for people to get to the Atkinson Island Wildlife Management Area — a bird mecca on manmade land — without a boat. You could even, he notes, build a tourist destination atop one of those islands: He proposes a monument to Houston, the gateway to North America, the place where nature meets industry. In some drawings, just to give people the idea, he plunks the Statue of Liberty atop a Ship Channel island.” [Houston Chronicle ($); previously on Swamplot] Photo of Fred Hartman Bridge: Chuck Wilkson
BATTLESHIP TEXAS BACK IN ACTION The leaky ol’ boat is taking on a new role in national security: This week, it has become the training ground for a 6-ft.-long drug-sniffing robot tuna. A group out of Boston has designed the BIOSwimmer, described in the Sugar Land Sun as a “highly maneuverable, unmanned underwater vehicle that is equipped with a sophisticated suite of sensors.” Already having served dutifully in 2 world wars, the veteran ship is now helping to protect our ports: “The test team is planting packages of mock contraband of varying sizes in tight, hard-to-reach spaces on the battleship’s hull and putting the BIOSwimmer through the paces to see if it can successfully detect them.” [Sugar Land Sun; previously on Swamplot] Photo: Candace Garcia
HOW HOUSTON’S AIR GOT BETTER During the past decade, Houston’s notoriously polluted air has become — well, if not quite good, then not quite as bad, says NPR’s Richard Harris. (Pay no attention to what that ozone app may or may not tell you.) How? Well, it seems that pollution regulators in the early aughts had been worrying about all the wrong gases: “They were going all-in against [only] one of the pollutants that create smog, while downplaying the role of other emissions from the petrochemical plants,” reports Harris. “Barges carting chemicals up and down the [Ship Channel] were leaking. . . . And some types of storage tanks were leaking as well. . . . It turns out that routine day-to-day emissions were not the biggest problem.” Since then, regulations targeting those chemicals, like ethylene — as well as the use of infrared cameras that can spot them — appear to have made a difference: Port of Houston Authority employee Dana Blume tells Harris: “I can look out of my office window now and almost every single day see downtown.” [NPR; previously on Swamplot] Photo: Flickr user stmu_mike
ART GUYS WORKING WITH SHIP CHANNEL IN NEXT ‘EVENT’ At the site shown here in Pasadena near the old Paper Mill and Washburn Tunnel, where General Antonio López de Santa Anna is said to have been captured during that historically succinct Battle of San Jacinto, the Art Guys are planning their next performance: They’ve announced they’ll crack out their batons and “conduct the sounds of the Houston Ship Channel.” (Not sure what that could look like? Go see it for yourself.) Jack Massing and Michael Galbreth, the helmsmen of “12 Events,” a yearlong series of monthly head-scratchers that commemorate their 30 years of Houston mischief, have so far in 2013 shrugged off their divorce from the Menil, signed their names for 8 hours at the Julia Ideson Library on National Handwriting Day, and walked all 29.6 miles of Little York Rd., the longest in Houston. Next up, once they’ve conducted the Ship Channel waters? The Art Guys unwind a spool of thread, and then — wait for it — wind it back up again. [The Art Guys; Culturemap; previously on Swamplot] Photo: JimmyEv via Waymarking
$17.5M TO BE SPENT REPAIRING BATTLESHIP TEXAS Leaking and taking on Ship Channel water since last summer, Battleship Texas will be receiving some structural repairs beginning this April: Texas Parks and Wildlife announced today — the 99th anniversary of the ship’s call to action — that a $17.5 million contract with a North Carolina firm will cover “about half” the repairs needed; they’ll be “a first step,” says TPWD’s Scott Stover, to ready the sinking ship for its eventual dry berth. During the repairs, history seekers and field trippers should still be able to see some significant sights: “[T]he ship will remain open to the public as conditions allow, and visitors will see plenty of activity at the site, as well as construction equipment and an access barge on the north side of the ship.” [Texas Parks and Wildlife; previously on Swamplot] Photo: Candace Garcia
NEW MYSTERY OWNER OF 136 ACRES IN THE FIFTH WARD Missing from today’s announcement by KBR that the company has completed the sale of its Ship-Channel-front 136-acre former headquarters campus at 4100 Clinton Dr. in the Fifth Ward: any mention of the buyer — or the sales price. Both details were available earlier in the week on a different sale the engineering, construction, and military contracting company was involved in — of the 40-story Downtown office tower that KBR leases and partially owned. (The tower at 601 Jefferson went to an affiliate of New York’s W.P. Carey, for $174.6 million.) [Prime Property; previously on Swamplot] Image: HFF
“It was very eerie to see the stern deck of the ship so close to the water,” writes Swamplot reader J.W. Lodge IV, who visited the leaking Battleship Texas by boat yesterday, and who notes that a news story from Friday linked to in this morning’s Headlines post — which claimed that the dual-world-war veteran parked by the San Jacinto Monument had been repaired and reopened — seemed a bit off. “As far as I can tell they’ve got a long way to go with the pumps,” he reports. The ship was reopened for tours on Saturday, but beginning that evening more problems developed. As of this morning, about 1,500 gallons of ship-channel water were pouring in each minute, from 2 separate areas of new leaks in the vessel’s rear port side. Also developing in the water around the ship: an oil sheen.
Photo from Sunday: J.W. Lodge IV
COMMENT OF THE DAY: UP FROM THE SHIP CHANNEL “Many will think I’m crazy, but I don’t care . . . Buffalo Bayou (even on the east side of downtown) can be an aesthetically pleasing stream, and could be developed into something nice. Look at the recent improvements and re-naturalization at Eleanor Tinsley park, just a mile upstream. The section between downtown and the Ship Channel (the S.C. technically does not begin until the Turning Basin, about 4 miles east of downtown) is currently mostly idle with vegetated banks and a surprising variety of wildlife. A few more floating litter booms like they use upstream would clean it up a little more, and make for a nice park-like setting.” [Superdave, commenting on Along the Shores of Buffalo Bayou]
ALONG THE SHORES OF BUFFALO BAYOU Catie Dixon comes up with a few gems in her interview with the team marketing the 136-acre campus HQ at 4100 Clinton Dr. in the southern portion of the Fifth Ward just east of Downtown that Halliburton spinoff KBR has just put up for sale. HFF has given a name to what may be the “largest infill site” near a major U.S. Central Bus District: “Cityscape on Buffalo Bayou.” And members of the sales team believe it’s ripe for a mixed-use development, now that KBR’s industrial buildings have been demolished. Five office buildings dating from the early seventies (totaling 720,000 sq. ft.) and a 36,000-sq.-ft. employee center are still there. The property’s outstanding “water feature” is a mile of frontage on Houston’s scenic Ship Channel. [Bisnow] Image: HFF
SMELT ON THE BANKS OF THE HOUSTON SHIP CHANNEL Included in USA Today‘s national list of “ghost factories” — forgotten lead smelting sites that have left behind toxic particles in the nearby soil — is the Lead Products Co. site at 709 N. Velasco St., just south of the Ship Channel a mile and a half east of Downtown. The TCEQ tells the newspaper that the site was a secondary lead smelter until 1968: “Contamination at the site is being addressed under a voluntary cleanup program and has focused on the disposal of lead battery casings at the site and on the adjoining KQXT transmitter property, the state said. Cleanup actions have included construction and placement of an earthen cap. Groundwater contamination also has been investigated, the state said.” Helpfully, Lead Products Co. has a “ghost” website to go along with its “ghost” factory. [USA Today] Photo of adjacent Cary St. play area: Lead Products Co.
The new owner of Texas Rice’s old Fidelity St. property has already begun demolishing the grain silos on the site, which are just visible from the East Freeway. A reader sends Swamplot this photo taken late yesterday of the view from Market St., just southeast of the intersection of I-10 east and the 610 Loop. McCorvey Real Estate Holdings bought the 22-acre industrial facility last October, and is spending about $600,000 to upgrade warehouses on the site. The company plans to spend a similar amount on improvements for future tenants, then $5 million more within the next couple of years on 130,000 more sq. ft. of industrial space. There’s 141,280 sq. ft. of space there already, though that figure includes the silos that are coming down.
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COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE SLICE OF HOUSTON WHERE NOBODY’S HOME “I did NRFU (Non Response Followup) surveys for the census in the wedge between 45 and the Ship Channel and this doesn’t suprise me at all.
LOTS of people don’t answer the door. Lots more told me of one, two, or three residents when in fact an evening visit’s observations yielded six or eight.” [Some d00d, commenting on Houston to Census Bureau: Count Again]
Having perhaps worked its way through the 100,000 gallons of raw sewage dumped into Buffalo Bayou shortly before New Year’s, the Houston Ship Channel received an additional contribution late yesterday: 15,000 gallons of beef tallow, which leaked into the waterway from a storm drain. There is, of course, much more where that came from: a rupture in an onshore tallow tank owned by a California company called Jacob Sterns and Sons caused 250,000 gallons of animal fat to spill on the waterway’s northern banks. A three-quarter-mile stretch of the channel — from City Dock 16 to the Buffalo Bayou Railroad Bridge — has been closed.
Some video of the scene, where six boats have deployed boom, from abc13:
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HURRICANE IKE’S LOUSY AIM Director Phil Bedient comments on a report released today by Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED): “‘Ike was a Category 2 hurricane, and it caused $30 billion in damage. Had that same storm struck 30 miles farther south, it could easily have caused $100 billion in damage. Had it struck that location as a Category 4 storm, like Carla, the results would have been catastrophic.’ . . .
Bedient said one need look no further than the Houston Ship Channel to get a clear sense of the region’s vulnerability. The ship channel is home to one of the nation’s busiest ports and about one-quarter of U.S. refineries. The Coast Guard estimates a one-month closure of a major port like Houston would cost the national economy $60 billion.
Despite this, government regulations require dikes and levees that can protect ship channel facilities against only the 100-year flood of 14-15 feet. Bedient said that based upon results from supercomputer models at the University of Texas, Austin, Ike could have caused a 20- to 25-foot storm surge along the ship channel if it had struck about 30 miles farther south.” [SSPEED, via Memorial Examiner; report (PDF)]