The headline suggestion in a 6-page policy paper published last week under the banner of Rice University’s Baker Institute comes in item 2 of a helpfully numbered list of 15 things Houston might want to do or think about to make future never-seen-this-before flooding events a little less catastrophic: Author Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney, pioneering Houston-area naturalist, and longtime let’s-not-flood advocate, proposes a “fair but extensive home buyout and removal program” targeted at homes that have been flooded 3 or more times since Tropical Storm Allison in 2001: “It is unlikely we can develop strategies to protect them from severe rainfall events that are much more frequent than labels such as ‘100-year’ or even ‘500-year’ rainfall events suggest,’ he writes.
Among the less radical proposals put forward in his list is the suggestion to map and categorize the Houston region by its propensity to flood: “safe” areas that didn’t flood — and should therefore become “the backbone of the Houston of Tomorrow” — “transitional” areas (only “single-event” flooding); and “buyout” areas — which can be targeted for parks and “future green infrastructure.”
Other ideas and issues from the paper that Blackburn hopes will “initiate a conversation” are summarized here:
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The City That Floods
COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE BIG THINGS YOU GET WHEN YOU LEAVE JUST A TINY SPACE BETWEEN HOUSES “The City of Houston’s codes are different for a ‘free-standing’ or ‘detached’ ‘single-family’ home, as opposed to a two- or multi-family property of some sort. Detention, lot coverage, building code, legal description, all different. So maintaining even the tiniest gap means you have a fee-simple, stand-alone property.” [dave102, commenting on Can You Beat This Townhome Gap?] Photo of 3108 Baer St., Fifth Ward: HAR
COMMENT OF THE DAY RUNNER-UP: WATCH FOR TOMORROW’S FLOODING TODAY! “Homeowners in the area would be wise to keep a keen eye as to the elevation of the current Fiesta property, document with photos and watch as the builders elevate the ground of the property two or more feet above existing grade. This elevation of property will push water off the commercial property and onto lower lying homeowners and existing small businesses. I attended a talk this week with a flooding expert from Texas A and M who pinpointed development as the primary driving cause of Houston’s flooding. This was a highly intelligent and well regarded college professor and researcher. He says he gets phone calls from first time flood victims and always asks if anything was recently built in the area. Often they will say that a Wal-Mart or something similar was built immediately before their flooding problem started. This is real, everyone. Document your lawsuit evidence today.” [Tired of flooding, commenting on H-E-B To Scoot Groundbreaking Back to End of Summer Break, Scoot Building Up Toward N. Shepherd] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY: AN ABSURDIST EVERYMAN’S VISIT TO HIS LOCAL MANAGEMENT DISTRICT BOARD “If you attend a TIRZ meeting at 8:00 AM on a Friday morning, you will realize the distrust and dissent that the TIRZ has created in a once cohesive community. As the meeting convenes, you can hear the roar of the cement truck in the background, covering every square foot of the TIRZ district with parking garages and multistory apartments. And where is the detention for all this impervious surface? The storm water runoff is detained in the residential streets and private homes of the surrounding neighborhoods. Just try signing up for the Public Comment period. Your 2 minutes disappear as the Chair detects an speaker unsympathetic to the TIRZ and cuts the mike. Your questions are not answered, so you try again, this time with an Open Records Request. Now you meet the TIRZ lawyers, plural, a sassy bunch, who can look you in the face and say with impunity that the record does not exist. It was just a typo.” [Long Time Houstonian, commenting on State Bill Would Call for TIRZ Elections in Certain Cities That End in ‑OUSTON] Illustration: Lulu
All the little red dots above show storefront retail locations throughout the Houston area. The map comes from Portland-based City Observatory, which just released a shiny new report on using the number and arrangement of customer-facing businesses to guide city planning. The bar in the top left corner lets you jump around between Houston and the 50 other cities mapped by the project.
Like the other studied towns, Houston is shown with a black ring marking off a 3-mile radius around Downtown. A closer look at Downtown shows a sharp divide in storefront density across the Main St. corridor:
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Marking the Market
What could be causing the mysterious unpleasant odor Pearland residents have been reporting through TCEQ complaint channels since August of last year — primarily from the Shadow Creek Ranch subdivision (shown above) between 288 and FM 521 south of Clear Creek? TCEQ’s Andrew Keese spoke with the Houston Chronicle recently about the 26 previous and ongoing investigations, which are triggered whenever a finger is pointed at a new possible emitter of the smell. So far, Keese says, no odors have been officially detected that qualify as a ‘nuisance condition’, but he encourages residents to use the TCEQ’s odor log form to help the search effort by describing “the precise character of the odor, [relevant] weather conditions, and times” when the smell is noted.
Before you ask, yes: TCEQ knows about the 60-ft tall mounds of garbage right across FM 521 from the subdivision, at Republic Waste Service’s Blue Ridge Landfill (visible in the bottom left corner of the above photo as a pinkish blob). Pearland residents previously sought to keep the landfill from more than doubling in acreage and nearly tripling in height (and blocking the operation of several Doppler Radar stations in the process). The landfill (which started accepting garbage several years before Shadow Creek Ranch’s developers broke ground nearby) will eventually get to pile as high as the 170 ft. allowed by its expanded TCEQ permit — but per a 2009 settlement agreement with the city of Pearland it will have to wait until 2021 before rising to only 130 ft., and wait another 8 years after that to reach for its full vertical potential.
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Sniffing Out the Culprits in Pearland
The white woodframe church that until recently stood with a collection of small buildings including the Barker General Store on the main, retracted campus of the Marks LH7 Ranch at 1010 Barker Clodine Rd. has been spotted nearby, fleeing encroaching apartment development along the far east end of Kingsland Blvd. at the northwest corner of George Bush Park. The church hasn’t traveled far: It’s arrived on the grounds of the neighboring Iglesia Sobre La Roca, aka Church on the Rock, at 433 S. Barker Cypress Rd. in Katy — just a quarter-mile to the north.
Here’s a photo of the church building as it was picked up from its previous home at 1010 Barker Clodine Rd., beyond the street-facing plaque that explains the remains of Houston’s last ranch:
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Last Roundup at Houston’s Last Ranch
COMMENT OF THE DAY: THERE’S A NAME FOR IT “Someone needs to name the cycle of excitement and disappointment of watching new construction in Houston. The cycle begins with confusion over demo of a current structure, then rising excitement in anticipation of something new and novel, a small dip when you see what is being built looks like a generic suburban building, and the ultimate disappointment and resignation when you find out it is . . . an Olive Garden.” [Lindsey, commenting on New Olive Garden Now in Bloom on the South Side of 59, Near Buffalo Speedway] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOW IT WORKS IN HOUSTON, THE FREE ENTERPRISE CITY “. . . That is, and always has been, Houston. That unruly sprawl, those cookie-cutter suburbs, generic strip malls, traffic congestion, that all existed long before the Beltway was built. I grew up here, in a cookie-cutter suburb called ‘Sagemont’ located next to a 2 lane stretch of blacktop named ‘South Belt.’ My dad grew up in a cookie-cutter suburb 10 miles closer in, filled with generic strip malls, just outside what would become the 610 Loop. Today I live in another cookie-cutter suburb farther west, about half way between 610 and the Beltway. Still lots of congestion, sprawl, strip centers, etc. This is Houston, baby.
And just about everything in Houston exists because some powerful person (not necessarily a politician) owned tracts of land. All of those hip dense neighborhoods? They were empty fields that some speculator bought for next to nothing, then bribed . . . er, influenced someone in government to build something, often with tax dollars. That’s how things get done.” [Memebag, commenting on Driving Beltway 8, in Order To Read Houston in the Original] Illustration: Lulu
Amid much local hullabaloo in Aggieland today, Houston’s Midway Cos. unveiled its plans for a new campus-adjacent mixed-use complex. By fall 2016, Midway hopes that Century Square will feature an outdoor concert space, a midrise office building and conference center, an apartment building, shopping and dining outlets, and, at least judging from the site plan below, ample space for a pad site or six along busy University Dr. Not one but 2 new boutique hotels are also slated to go up at the corner of College Ave. and University Dr. across the street from Texas A&M’s polo fields and Emerging Technologies Building and the local IHOP.
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HOUSTON DEVELOPMENT ANALOGIES YOU CAN EAT FOR BREAKFAST Here’s a freshly baked city-development paradigm that’s a pretty good, but imperfect match for Houston, writes Christopher Andrews: “Houston’s inner core, at least that area within the I-610 loop, predominantly west of I-45, makes up most of the ‘new donut’ downtown area, even though Houston’s currently gentrifying and historically vibrant neighborhoods lie just outside of its downtown district. Our ‘Inner Suburbs and Inner Core’ portion of Houston (think Alief, Sharpstown, Southwest and Southeast Houston, Northside, Acres Homes) is continuing to age, and is evidenced when we look at home sale prices. Naturally, then the newer homes in the ‘Collar Counties’ (think Sugarland, Cinco Ranch, The Woodlands, Kingwood) attract families and professionals looking for new housing. That comprises Houston’s ‘new donut’ paradigm.” Why stop there? There are scone and English muffin models to consider too. But which breakfast item best describes the shape of the city? “While I love donuts, I like bagels too,” Andrews writes. “Houston’s development, and the downtown development in many cities, is more like the experience of having a cinnamon crunch bagel at Panera, which one can argue is much like a donut anyways. You know the bagel has a hole in it somewhere. It’s just filled in with sweet, cinnamon-y toasted sugar. You know the hole is there in the middle of the doughy periphery, it’s just filled in. Maybe that toasted cinnamon sugar filling is the gigantic amount of sweet public funding that cities have dedicated to building these stadiums, convention centers, and even residential developments.” [Not of It] Photo of Cinnamon Crunch Bagel: Panera