City records show, however, that the start date of a proposed, multimillion-dollar infrastructure improvement plan has been consistently pushed back from 2017 to 2023, after Hurricane Harvey reshaped the city’s priorities.
“[The plan] has been kicked further on down the road ever since,” Neartown-Montrose Neighborhood Association president Greg LeGrande said. “I make noise about it whenever I have an opportunity; to the mayor or City Council or anyone who will hear me.”
The plan to address these issues was formed through an analysis and community input process known as The Lower Westheimer Corridor Study that began in 2016 and identified high crash volumes, with intersections at Dunlavy Street and Montrose Boulevard seeing 43 and 61 crashes in 2015 alone, the study found.
Despite the lagging infrastructure, new developments keep cropping up. Residents say the plan is crucial for safety and for Lower Westheimer’s ability to live up to its full potential.
“It’s one of the few places I think in the world where you have a ton of pedestrian activity and no pedestrian facilities whatsoever,” Travis Younkin, president of the Upper Kirby Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone and member of advisory group formed to study the area said. “Looking at it on the surface, nobody should walk there, but they do.”
Preparing for growth
Throughout 2016 and 2017, the Houston Planning Department and the Houston Public Works coordinated with consultants and a community advisory committee made up of neighborhood leaders and business owners on a study of the Lower Westheimer Corridor. The city also hosted several public input meetings to learn about Westheimer’s problem areas and cherished quirks.
The end result was a plan aimed at improving traffic flow, such as new paving, relocated street parking, less frequent bus stops, traffic signal timing adjustments and new dedicated left-turn lanes at some intersections, city documents state. It also outlined expanded and continuous sidewalks and the relocation of utility polls that often obstruct footpaths.
“Everybody was pretty much on board with the priorities of the street. Some things needed to be preserved and neighborhoods needed to be considered but mobility was a priority, too,” Younkin said of the input process.
For many projects in Montrose, preserving its history as a haven for the city’s LGBTQ community is also an important consideration, said Jim Patterson a design consultant who often works on city parks.
Patterson works on plans for Montrose’s Avondale Park, set to begin construction in early 2020. The park was not part of the corridor study recommendations but it is within the study area.
“We have integrated into the park, a series of panels that talk about all sorts of history, from history of the Avondale community to more social history with the LGBTQ community,” Patterson said.
By collecting similar input, the city’s proposal includes historical markers and designation applications for locations such as Numbers Night Club.
There are more private projects in the pipeline too. A Mixed use development called Montrose Collective, a boutique hotel on Dunlavy and the La Colombe d’Or high rise, are expected to join in on the area’s growth.
In 2019, Houston-based Goodnight Hospitality opened two new concepts along the corridor including Montrose Cheese and Wine, restaurant Rosie Cannonball and upcoming restaurant March. In September national salad chain Sweetgreen opened its second Houston location across from popular Westheimer bar, Present Company.
“A lot of a lot of us are very concerned, including myself, that developers are pushing our infrastructure to its limits with such aggressive growth,” said Macy Bodenhamer, Hyde Park Civic Association board member and member of the plan’s advisory committee. “Can we sustain it? Can our public utilities, traffic situation and drainage manage this kind of growth?”
Every year, Houston City Council approves a five-year Capital Improvement Plan. Projects included in the plan have projected start and end dates listed as well as funding sources from various city funds and budget timelines. However, projects can be pushed back when the plan is revised and readopted each year as new priorities surface, Houston Public Works confirmed.
Patterson, who has worked with the city on several projects, said that while delays are not uncommon, they have been exacerbated by Hurricane Harvey.
“My impression is, the general services department is overwhelmed right now,” he said.
The first time that a portion of the Lower Westheimer improvements appeared on the CIP was in 2016. At the time, the improvements, which included a stretch from Montrose Boulevard to Main Street, were expected to cost $16.2 million and begin in 2017 and be completed by 2020. This portion of the project was delayed during each of the next five adopted CIPs, city records show. It is now scheduled to start and be completed all within 2023 and cost $16.8 million, Houston Public Works confirmed.
“Harvey basically stopped everything,” District C Council Member and Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen said. “Due to budget and infrastructure needs, no new projects got added [to the CIP]. Lower Westheimer is still considered a priority ... but its not around the corner.” The city also factored in a potential appeal of Houston’s property tax revenue cap into cost projections and had to adjust plans after political will to put the appeal before voters faded, Houston Public Works confirmed.
Following another strategy in 2018, the city applied for grant funding from the Houston-Galveston Area Council to supplement funding for the entire plan, but was denied because it did not rank high enough among other regional proposals, an H-GAC spokesperson said.
LeGrande said despite delays, he will continue his advocacy.
“I will not even walk with my grandkids three blocks from my house to a doughnut shop because I have to cross Westheimer,” LeGrande said. “I get in the car and drive, because it’s just not safe and secure.”