Monday, September 10, 2007

Trees for Houston vs. the Upper Kirby District TIRZ

A 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) (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.

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At 9:17 PM, September 10, 2007, Blogger John said...

The lane width figures are interesting (given that the typical passenger car is 5 or 6 feet wide, and even a behemoth like a Ford Expedition is under 7 feet wide). 10 feet seems like plenty of room (of course, that means people have to look around and make an attempt to stay in them!).

At 9:23 PM, September 10, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think the limiting factors are Metro buses and delivery/freight trucks.

At 3:17 AM, September 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I lived in an apartment off of Kirby and West Main for 8 years before moving out of the neighborhood 3 years ago to buy the property I live in now.

The City of Houston began implementing the massive storm sewer pipes in 2001 and have so far run them from Buffalo Bayou at Shepherd to Kirby at San Felipe. I work downtown and had to put up with three years of having Kirby being narrowed from two lanes down to one along that stretch, which added 5-8 minutes to my work commute (something that should be remembered considering the area is densifying). They tore up the medians, which are very prominent along that stretch of Kirby, and took out lots of trees in the process (and where was TFH when that happened?). The City did eventually replant new ones when they completed the project. They also did not widen Kirby, but left it at two lanes in River Oaks. I still use that stretch of Kirby to get to work as I now drive down San Felipe to get to Kirby, turning left at the intersection.

This conflict between Upper Kirby TIRZ and TFH should have never happened. My reason for saying this is that given my experience, all parties involved should have known from years ago that the northern stretch of Kirby had already been torn up and was going to be torn up for implementing the rest of the storm sewer infrastructure improvement. The only thing that was lacking was the money to complete the project, which is now available. All parties involved should have had plenty of time to hammer something out by now.

I do not have much of an opinion about the final configuration of the street, as I am not often in the area anymore. I am very glad I will not have to put up with the hassle all over again.

I will also say that Kirby is a street which the City can never seem to keep its hands off of. During the time I lived in the area, the PW and E department asphalted parts of the stretch of Kirby between Richmond and San Felipe over several times! I hope the interested parties try to leave the street alone once the outcome is decided. I'd really hate to see more taxpayer monies get flushed down the drain otherwise.


At 6:26 AM, September 11, 2007, Blogger John said...

Ah - good point.

At 9:57 AM, September 11, 2007, Blogger Adam said...

TfH tied green ribbons with note cards to most of the trees concerned. It looked really cool. Does anyone have a picture?

At 5:02 PM, September 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe two lanes each way with a central median and a truly WIDE and shaded sidewalk for real pedestrian life is what's necessary to transform this stretch of Kirby.

At 2:47 PM, September 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous. I can't imagine any pedestrian district developing on a street with 6 lanes and a median. That's more like a minor highway. And if you're narrowing the sidewalks and cutting down the trees... well then forget it.


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