Time to step up and improve Houston (landmarks, flextime)I'm going to mix two topics today, because they're both something where you can actually have a short-term impact. The first is the much discussed redevelopment threat to the River Oaks Landmark Theater and the Alabama Bookstop (Kuff with many links and an update, Chronicle 1, Chronicle 2, Houstonist update). I've been meaning to write about this ever since the story broke, but am just now getting around to it, and I did not expect the story to explode as quickly as it has. I imagine most have you have heard, but for those who haven't, the short version is that Wiengarten Realty is looking to tear down the River Oaks Theater and many buildings nearby (including Marfreless), and replace them with some high-rise residential and new retail, including a 2-story Barnes & Noble. Since Barnes & Noble owns Bookstop, that, in turn, means it is threatened, because they'd be too close together. Clearly it would be a very sad day if Houston lost these two icons.
My sympathies tend to match Barry Klein and Councilman Michael Berry: we have to find a way to preserve landmarks like these without giving up Houston's great strength of constant renewal. There's a risk here of killing a fly with an elephant gun and the whole city paying a long-term price, if we end up with burdensome new permitting, review, and historical preservation ordinances. My problem with historical preservation ordinances is that they're a slippery slope: they start off protecting landmarks everybody can agree on, then get extended by activists over time until they're preserving stuff that nobody cares about and needs redevelopment, because if you dig deep enough, you can always create a story about the historical value of any building ("Frank Lloyd Wright once came to a dinner party here..."). Then developers give up on a city and it stagnates. So they key is to find balance. Tax incentives are good. Maybe some sort of petition requirement with a pretty high hurdle on signatures to force some sort of review and approval (speaking of petitions, you can sign one here to save these two landmarks).
I think Weingarten has to realize the enhanced value of their property when they keep these landmarks. People will pay a premium for history and a sense of place (Joel mentioned The Grove at Farmer's Market in LA as an example of popular redevelopment with preservation). Part of me thinks they're riding the publicity for as long as possible, then they will magnamously announce they're going to build around the landmarks, having generated a ton of positive feelings about the them and therefore a premium for whatever gets built nearby (esp. high-rise residential with walking access to either). I think of it like the fiasco of Coke Classic vs. New Coke: nobody cared about Coke Classic until New Coke threatened it, and then all of a sudden it became a national icon with a ton of brand loyalty. Everybody thinks of it as a big screw up by Coke, but was it really? I don't think they planned it, but they certainly came out of it with a lot more brand value than when they went in. We'll see how this one plays out, but I feel pretty confident everything will work out OK. People sometimes complain about the powerful insiders who make things happen in this city, but in this case, I think those River Oaks power people (like Carolyn Farb) will make sure they get the outcome people are clamoring for.
Moving on to our second topic: Sixel's column today on the power of flextime to reduce traffic congestion, and the Mayor's two-week experiment in late September to see how much it can really help. Mayor White is trying to get as many employers as possible to sign up for an experiment in flextime the last two weeks of September to see how much it can improve traffic flow.
More details on the program are available here, including a list of benefits for employers:
And since 2,000 employees at Johnson Space Center started working flexible schedules this spring to avoid morning and evening drive times, the average travel time along NASA Parkway fell more than five minutes, according to a study by a group of engineers from the city, state and private firms.
These results are "mind-boggling," said White, who has been pitching the idea of flexible work schedules to CEOs around town as part of his efforts to ease traffic congestion.
"By diverting a relatively small amount of traffic, it has a huge impact on traffic," White said at a recent news conference to announce a bigger experiment, which has been coined Flex in the City.
"That's F-L-E-X," said White, who seemed slightly embarrassed that it sounded a bit like Sex and the City.
White is asking employers around Houston to participate in a two-week experiment in September to get even more cars off the roads. Between Sept. 18 and 29, he's asking companies to allow employees whose jobs permit some flexibility to work a compressed workweek, work from home or begin or end their days outside rush hours.
So far, more than 30 companies have signed up, said Kathleen Kelley, director of the Flexible Workplace Initiative for the city of Houston. She is shooting for 10,000 people participating. The volunteers so far include large law firms, hospitals in the Texas Medical Center, real estate companies, nonprofits and accounting firms.
Houston TranStar will test the speeds during peak times to determine whether cars are traveling any faster on major thoroughfares during that time.
Instead of taking an average of 22.7 minutes to travel NASA Parkway from I-45 to Texas 146, it now takes the cars during peak rush hour only 17.5 minutes, according to the study by the Texas Transportation Institute, Texas Department of Transportation, city of Houston, Brown and Gay Engineers and S&B Infrastructure.
Over the course of a year, that saving of five minutes each way works out to 43 fewer hours spent waiting for the car in front of you to move.
- Increases worker productivity
- Attracts top-notch employees,
- Improves Houston business climate
- Reduces traffic during peak hours
So lobby your employer to sign up, and pass this along to your social network around town. If we can get enough employers to sign up, the positive impact on Houston could tremendous.