Revitalization efforts along FM 1960 ramp up despite funding challenges

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Revitalization efforts along FM 1960 ramp up despite funding challenges
Image description
Revitalization efforts along FM 1960 ramp up despite funding challenges
Image description
Revitalization efforts along FM 1960 ramp up despite funding challenges
Residents and business owners concerned about the aesthetic and practical appeal of FM 1960 are preparing to relaunch efforts this year to improve the corridor, which several studies in the past decade have described as plagued by vacant or deteriorating buildings, traffic congestion and declining visual appeal.

In the past 10 years, the number of businesses in five central ZIP codes along FM 1960 has dropped by about 150 establishments, and median household income has decreased or remained stagnant in several areas along the corridor, according to U.S. Census data. Additionally, the number of homeless individuals—who are prevalent along the FM 1960 corridor—has increased in Harris County since Hurricane Harvey.

However, located in unincorporated Harris County, the FM 1960 corridor between Hwy. 249 and I-45 lacks a funding source—such as property or sales tax revenue—to pursue most of the improvement projects recommended by recent studies, said Bobby Lieb, vice president of community and economic development for the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce.

“The challenge is … finding funding for improvements without access to funding mechanisms,” Lieb said.

While some improvements have been implemented at the community level—such as organizing events, landscaping and eliminating unwanted signage—larger-scale improvements to infrastructure would likely require public and private partnerships or formation of a taxing entity such as a municipal management district created by the state Legislature, he said.

In the meantime, the HNWCC and organizations such as the FM 1960-area nonprofit HOPE Haven, which works with the area’s homeless population, are looking at work that can be started in the community without legislative intervention.

“I really believe personally … either we do something now, or … we’re going to see [conditions on FM 1960] go down even further,” HOPE Haven Executive Director Kristyn Stillwell said.

Community efforts

The HNWCC’s strategic plan for 2019 includes renaming and activating a dormant nonprofit corporation to tackle improvement projects. Meanwhile, other grassroots efforts on the corridor include HOPE Haven’s plan to form a resource center for the area’s homeless.

The chamber plans in April to rename its nonprofit organization corporation Renaissance 1960 as the Grow Northwest Corp., HNWCC President Barbara Thomason said. The nonprofit will look at ways to address sign violations, abandoned buildings and other issues to help address blight on the FM 1960 corridor, she said. It will share its name with the chamber’s ongoing community rebranding initiative, Grow Northwest.

“It’s only by leveraging public and private funds that we can make things happen,” Thomason said. “We’re just going to have to get creative.”

Larry Lipton, who chairs the HNWCC’s public safety group, said he also has discussed formation of a new taskforce within the chamber, tentatively called the Positive Direction Taskforce, which would work with commercial Realtors and developers in the area to develop positive marketing for the FM 1960 corridor.

Lipton, who has operated an insurance agency on FM 1960 since 1985, said attractive aspects of the road include low rents and a great deal of traffic—which he said is ultimately beneficial for businesses, if not for commuters.

The annual average daily traffic at the intersection of Stuebner Airline Road and FM 1960, for example, has increased by about 10,000 vehicles from 2013-17, according to Texas Department of Transportation statistics.

“People look at [traffic] as a negative, but it is a plus, not a minus,” he said. “[We want to] arm our Realtors and developers with more positive messages.”

HOPE Haven is also planning an effort called Transformation Station to improve the corridor, Stillwell said. This project would focus on providing resources for the population at risk for becoming homeless in the FM 1960 area. Stillwell said the goal is to raise $10 million for the project through grants, partnerships and other means and to find a building where it could be based.

“This is the idea of a one-stop shop to get someone the help they need to move to a better place in their life,” she said.

She said ideally the project would take the form of a center with resources for individuals in poverty, helping them connect with housing, job opportunities, and mental health and substance abuse programs in an effort to keep them from becoming homeless.

“Resources here are harder to get to,” Stillwell said. “That’s why we have the problem we had 10 years ago [when] the homeless started to move in.”

Past studies

In 2010, Renaissance 1960 commissioned a study of the FM 1960 corridor to examine redevelopment options from Mills to Imperial Valley roads. One finding in the study was the formerly prosperous corridor was no longer able to rely on a thriving retail trade.  Retail sales at the time of the study had dropped from close to $2.4 billion in the five ZIP codes studied in 2005 to less than $2.2 billion in 2008.

“The problem is that there’s an oversupply [of retail], and it is no longer the highest and best use,” Lieb said.  “There has to be a different [use] that has yet to be identified.”

The area’s status as an unincorporated portion of Harris County continues to present challenges to redevelopment, said Steve Spillette, president of Houston-based Community Development Strategies, which conducted the 2010 study examining the revitalization potential of the corridor.

“Counties are not setup to do urban revitalization,” Spillette said. “Financially [it’s] going to be a big challenge in areas like that to do that kind of work.”

Major issues on FM 1960 identified in the study include unanchored retail strip centers, poor aesthetic presentation, a perception of crime and poor transportation infrastructure.

“There were some causes of the economic decline and the blight issues that could be somewhat directly addressed, and there were other macro issues,” Spillette said.

One factor not under local business owners’ control is the emergence of other competitive retail centers in the area, he said. The study stated nearby east-west corridors with greater appeal to affluent customers that have emerged since the 1990s include Louetta Road, FM 2920 and Spring Stuebner Road.

In the past 10 years, the number of businesses in three ZIP codes along FM 1960—77068, 77069 and 77090—has decreased, according to U.S. Census Bureau information. Only one of the five ZIP codes originally included in the Spillette study between Hwy. 249 and I-45—77066—has seen the number of businesses increase from 2009-16.

A separate Livable Centers Study of the FM 1960 corridor completed by the Houston-Galveston Area Council in 2014 recommended long-range planning efforts at key areas between Kuykendahl Road and Ella Boulevard that could include mixed-use developments, creation of walkable areas with open space and community amenities.

The projects proposed within the study would have cost as much as $115 million each to undertake, but no funding sources were identified in the study. However, HNWCC has acted on other short-range goals presented in the study, such as reporting sign violations to reduce visual clutter.

“We try to make sure these projects have identified some near-term, low-cost improvements that could have a good impact ... or enable new economic investment,” H-GAC Director of Transportation Alan Clark said.

Future options

A tax increment reinvestment zone, Public Improvement District or municipal management district—economic development tools created by a governmental entity—could create a public funding mechanism for a portion of the FM 1960 corridor through property taxes or other methods, according to both the H-GAC and Spillette studies.

However, those options would require cooperation from other taxing entities, such as Harris County, or—in the case of an MMD—state legislation. Two previous attempts to spur redevelopment through legislation have failed during previous sessions, and other options present challenges as well, Thomason said.

“We were essentially told that you would have to have a developer on the string before they’d even talk about a TIRZ,” Thomason said. “Right now our county is in such political flux that I don’t know if we can count on any particular direction. We’ve tried the TIRZ direction before, and that door was kind of shut in our face.”

In the meantime, in addition to ongoing efforts to crack down on the visual pollution caused by illegal sign placement on FM 1960 with the cooperation of law enforcement agencies, the HNWCC has worked with several committees to beautify the road with plantings since medians were installed on the road by TxDOT in 2010. In the past year, it has introduced community branding at bus stops with its Grow Northwest decals and signage.

Ron Hickman, chief of staff for state Rep. Sam Harless, R-Spring, said Harless is reviewing the issues along the corridor and looking for opportunities to address the concerns his constituents have raised about decline on FM 1960. Harless’ district includes the portion of FM 1960 in Spring and Klein between Hwy. 249 and I-45.

“Finding the right vehicle in legislation to carry those things isn’t always an easy thing,” Hickman said of efforts to facilitate redevelopment.

Groundwork for an MMD to come before the Legislature in the current session has not been laid, so it is unlikely that will come to fruition this year, Thomason said.

“Maybe next session, but I’m not sure the community will is there,” she said. “That’s when it will happen.”
By Vanessa Holt
A resident of the Houston area since 2011, Vanessa began working in community journalism in her home state of New Jersey in 1996. She joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2016 as a reporter for the Spring/Klein edition and became editor of that paper in March 2017 and editor of The Woodlands edition in January 2019.