Make It Ugly, By All Means

Montrose-area neighborhoods broach a novel idea: Let freeway expansion improve the inner city

Hardly a word was raised in protest when the Southwest Freeway was first routed through some of the city's finest and oldest inner-city neighborhoods in 1959. That's how it was back then: Houston was on the move, and the Texas highway department, urged on by politically connected developers, was virtually unchallenged as it went about extending a spider's web of freeways from downtown. The overriding concerns were how fast the work could be done, and how cheaply. If an elevated span pierced a graceful residential neighborhood like Montrose, creating a long series of dark, sinister spaces underneath, well, that was the price of progress. You don't like what we did to your neighborhood? Find a new one. They're building plenty farther down the freeway.

Thirty-seven years later, and four years into the tenure of a mayor who treats inner-city revitalization as his number one priority, you might think that planners would be especially careful when it comes to renovating the Southwest Freeway -- particularly where it passes through a museum district full of historic homes and oak-lined streets. After all, in Dallas and Fort Worth, the state has abandoned plans to double-deck freeways after citizens' groups raised hell.

But once again, the Texas Department of Transportation wants to double-deck. Working with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, DOT is close to winning federal approval to erect a mile-long, 35-foot-wide bridge for high-occupancy vehicles over the Southwest Freeway as it runs through Montrose and the museum district and curves toward downtown on Spur 527. The new structure, neighborhood leaders say, will soar to the height of a four- to five-story building, showering noise and diesel particulates into their back yards.

Some of those back yards are among the nicest in Houston, such as those in historic Courtlandt Place, where the large brick homes of the old Houston aristocracy start in the range of $700,000. At another point, the expansion will come within a few feet of the Governor Ross Sterling mansion on Yoakum, a structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Highway planners say double-decking is the most cost-effective way both to expand the freeway by two lanes and to give Metro high-capacity HOV lanes for buses and car pools. But neighborhood groups contend that the cheapest way to build a highway may be too expensive.

Attorney David Baker, a representative of the Museum Area Municipal Association, lives two blocks away from the proposed expansion and predicts the HOV lanes will be a noisy eyesore. Baker has been elected head of a coalition of neighborhood organizations called the Southwest Freeway Alternatives Project -- or SWAP.

Where the freeway is already elevated, noise levels have exceeded federal limits, Baker says, and residences three streets away are affected. Baker wants to know why the three HOV lanes, towering above the existing elevated freeway, will not create the same effect. "If you add this other deck 25 feet above, it will affect four or five streets," Baker says, "for that takes it above the tree line, which acts as a buffer at lower levels."

The DOT says ground-level sound walls, which it is designing with the help of affected homeowners, will deflect the noise. The agency also contends that the noise will be deflected by the concrete barriers that run along the side of the lanes. But Baker points out that the noisiest place in the existing elevated freeway is under the bridges, and predicts that the tire noise will radiate down and out, just as it does from existing structures.

"The elevated lanes will definitely affect the quality of life, and they are going to drive down property values," Baker says. "That's what's got people alarmed."

SWAP's relations with the DOT had been amicable since the state presented its plans at a public hearing at River Oaks Elementary about three years ago. SWAP hired a noise consultant to check the impact of the overhead expansion and, believing in negotiation and compromise, decided to hold its fire. The group asked then-district engineer Milton Dietert for a chance to respond once DOT had revised its plans. Then SWAP waited and waited and waited.

SWAP's wake-up call came at the first of the year, when state Representative Debra Danburg received an update from Die-tert's successor, Gary Trietsch. There were no revised plans to discuss, Trietsch wrote, because DOT expected the feds to grant a "FONSI," for Finding of No Significant Impact, any day. DOT had met with residents about the noise barriers and had more meetings in the works. The project had been cleared by the Texas State Historical Preservation Office for its impact on historic residences. The neighborhoods had their public hearing in 1993 when the plans were first presented, Trietsch wrote, and their objections had been considered. Once the FONSI came through, DOT would start buying small strips of right-of-way on either side of the freeway, and by June 1997, the dirt, and in this case, the steel, would start flying.

Trietsch's letter galvanized SWAP and its constituent organizations. Within two weeks, the groups held emergency meetings and pooled funds for a possible lawsuit. Meanwhile, the faxes of the generally well-heeled memberships were spewing letters of protest to every city, state and federal politician in town, demanding that the project be slowed down and reviewed. Danburg began drafting legislation to stop the project.

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