A LOFTIER VIEW OF THE HOUSTON SHIP CHANNEL Can’t stop celebrating the Houston Ship Channel’s recent centennial, but unable to make it to that exhibit downtown? Do industrially majestic helicopter shots of mighty tankers and container ships hewing their way through brown waters to and from the deep blue sea, between banks lined with tank farms and smoke-belching chemical stacks, and shorelines spanned at intervals by such engineering marvels as the Fred Hartman Bridge leave you weak in the knees? Then check out Houston Ship Channel: Deep Water Centennial, the 56-minute film produced by the Texas Foundation for the Arts. It ran recently on local public teevee, but it’s now available on YouTube (and embedded above). It features lots of stentorian narration of “commerce porn” factoids and stats (“The most foreign ship calls! . . . It’s longer than the Panama Canal! . . . Such huge gross tonnage!”) recited above beds of stirring, vaguely martial music. If you aren’t ready to commit to the full 57 minutes, you can get a sampling via the separately posted trailer. Video: Houston Public Media
THE SHIP CHANNEL’S FOLK HISTORY ON VIEW Houston Arts Alliance’s Stories of a Workforce: Celebrating the Centennial of the Houston Ship Channel, an exhibit running through January in the Houston Public Library’s Julia Ideson building, focuses on the Houston Ship Channel’s second 50 years, a half-century that saw the port utterly transformed by the advent of the containerization of cargo. The centerpiece of the exhibit is a John Biggers mural of African-American dockers hoisting cargo, and the room is dotted with the photographs and timelapse films of working Channel pilot and photographer Lou Vest. Newspaper clippings shine a light on the Channel’s occasional outbreaks of labor strife,while in an alcove across the hall, viewers can take in a collage of portraits of typical houses in harborside neighborhoods such as Fifth Ward, Magnolia Park, Clinton Park, and Denver Harbor that many dock workers have called home for generations. Via overhead speech domes, you hear the pilots, stevedores, and boatmen tell their own stories in their own words. The exhibit is less a standard, top-down institutional retelling of the Ship Channel story than it is a Studs Terkelesque folk history. [Houston Arts Alliance] Photo: Lou Vest.
Two brothers who have opened a new agricultural venture in Houston’s East End are billing it as Houston’s “first private farm inside the 610 Loop.” Amid the gritty industrial wilds of N. Greenwood St. between Navigation and Canal — just a few blocks south of Buffalo Bayou’s Turkey Bend —Finca Tres Robles (spelled out and illustrated helpfully in the photo above) now sprouts on land owned by Electro-Coatings, a plating company. Other less bucolic neighbors, such as Baker Oil Tools and the US Zinc Houston Dust Plant, lurk nearby.
Until its 1996 purchase by Electro-Coatings (along with a warehouse owned by Sara Lee), the 1.2-acre plot now occupied by the farm served as a TxDOT service site. It lay vacant for the last 18 years. Beginning 6 or 7 months ago, the new proprietors jackhammered away the vestigial asphalt; they’ve since composted the lot and commenced agricultural operations.
Here’s the plan:
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Finca Tres Robles
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]