Trees for Houston vs. the Upper Kirby District TIRZA battle is brewing between some quality-of-life nonprofits in Houston. It all starts with flood control. The city is in the middle of a long-term project to connect Buffalo Bayou to Braes Bayou with a very large storm sewer line underneath Kirby Drive, which should alleviate a lot of flooding issues in the area. This line is being installed by the "cut and cover" method, with the street being rebuilt after the installation. Along most of Kirby, the street is being rebuilt basically the same width as it was before. But the Upper Kirby District TIRZ has a widening plan for Kirby between 59 and San Felipe, and the City, so far, seems to be going along with it, with construction beginning in early 2008.
Trees for Houston is circulating a nine-page Q&A sheet taking strong issue with the plan because it involves removing 300 mature trees along that stretch of Kirby. Right now, the city own a 100-ft right-of-way, with 68 for the street and 32 for the pedestrian zone (16 on each side). The TIRZ wants to widen the street by 14 feet to make room for some center esplanades, taking away 40% of the pedestrian corridor on each side (7 ft). No additional lanes will be added, although they will be slightly wider than they are now (and I'll admit they feel pretty snug right now) - there will still be 3 lanes each direction and a turn lane.
TfH believes the 300 trees can be saved by only expanding 1-2 feet on each side, still building slightly narrower esplanades (10ft instead of 14), and keep the same number of lanes - just make them 10-ft lanes instead of 11 or 12 (right now they're 9.5 ft). Evidently, the main TIRZ argument for 14-ft esplanades instead of 10-ft is to allow a 4-ft "pedestrian island" at intersections with center turn lanes, so pedestrians can have a safe spot to stop if they don't make it all the way across before the light turns. TfH agrees the pedestrian islands are a good idea, but only necessary at the intersections, so why not just do the slight widening there, where few or no trees will be lost? The 14-ft esplanade width is not really necessary the entire length of Kirby.
The TIRZ plan also involves plenty of trees, but they'll be new plantings that will take 20+ years to mature. Of course, their conceptual pictures show those as fully matured trees.
The TIRZ says they're just meeting the city's standard, but TfH points out that the city allows variances to the standard all the time for special situations.
The TIRZ has posted a response, including a detailed inventory of every tree. It claims far fewer trees will be impacted (161), and that narrower alternatives would save only a handful of trees at best - but their alternatives are not as narrow as the TfH proposal. It looks like you can take 2 feet from each side without too many trees impacted, but as soon as you get to 4 feet, you pretty much wipe them all out - and the TIRZ isn't looking at any options that take less than 4 feet.
You can see more of the TIRZ plan here, including details on a public meeting this Saturday morning the 15th. Be sure to attend if you'd like to pass along your feedback.
I think Trees for Houston makes a strong case. My impression is that the two sides are approaching the issue from different perspectives. The TIRZ perspective seems to be, "We're stuck with the city standard, and modest compromises to that won't save many trees, so we might as well go all the way." The TfH perspective seems to be "How can we think creatively and make some good compromises to save these trees?"
10-ft lanes seem reasonable to me (they're a half-foot wider than what's there now), and I think the turn lanes could even be 9.5 ft, since, by their very nature, people are driving quite slowly in them (they're slowing down to turn). The solution might be left and right 10.5 ft lanes (slightly wider is needed next to a curb) and a 10 ft center lane on each side, with a 10 ft esplanade occasionally becoming a 9.5 ft turn lane with a 0.5 ft curb (this could be larger at pedestrian intersections). That totals 72 feet, only requiring an extra 2 ft from each side, which preserves the majority of the trees.
Now it's just a matter of getting all three sides, including the City, to sit down and work it out.
If you'd like a copy of the 9-page Trees for Houston Q&A Word document with all the details, just send me an email at tgattis(at)pdq.net (no-spam format, use @). Sorry, I don't have a way to post file attachments to Blogger other than images.
Update: Robin puts me to shame with a far more in-depth post on the topic and the tradeoffs, and the CTC has started a discussion forum topic.
I also received an email with data showing numerous major cities do just fine with 10' lanes. Email me and I'd be happy to forward it to you.
Update 2: Crossley weighs in, and Trees for Houston posts their documents and an online petition you can sign.