Make It Ugly, By All Means

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.

In addition to the surge of faxes, SWAP's attorney, Jim Blackburn, who also lives near the freeway, fired off 15 pages of technical concerns to Ed Wueste, regional director of the Federal Highway Administration. Blackburn contended that SWAP's noise expert had detected serious flaws in DOT's noise analysis, which, naturally, found that with well-placed barriers, the elevated structure would exactly meet federal noise criteria.

Blackburn also challenged DOT to deal with recent research showing that particulate matter emitted by diesel engines is more dangerous to human health than previously recognized. Metro, Blackburn pointed out, has recently abandoned its plans to buy cleaner-burning buses fueled by natural gas, and will continue to rely mostly on diesel power.

Highway planners say they don't want to get bogged down in endless analysis. At DOT's district headquarters on Washington Avenue, project engineer Jim Darden unrolled an eight-foot-long multicolored schematic of the plan and began explaining why it is the way it is.

The project is the last leg of a $200 million expansion of the Southwest Freeway that began west of Shepherd in 1989. For approximately $45 million, DOT proposes to build the HOV lanes, add one lane to the freeway in each direction, and replace the four accident-prone bridges at Hazard, Woodhead, Dunlavy and Mandell with higher ones. Metro's contribution for the cost of the HOV lanes is nearly $15 million.

This last phase of the freeway expansion was not built earlier because Metro was trying to decide whether to run a monorail through the area. Once the monorail was killed, a high-capacity HOV lane replaced it. All of Metro's existing HOV lanes are only two lanes wide, with one lane used for breakdowns. Metro contends that the three-lane HOV corridor is needed to meet future demands for capacity that will be created once Metro has completed its Westpark HOV lane in 1999.

That project is expected to yield another aerial monstrosity. As it is now planned, the Westpark HOV lane will feed into the Southwest Freeway at Metro's Hillcroft station, but long-range plans call for extending the lanes down Westpark to where it dead-ends at Kirby. At Kirby, the lane will swoop into the air in a "flyover" ramp above Hooter's restaurant and connect into the middle of the Southwest Freeway. Such a ramp is certain to be protested by residents of the Southampton neighborhood, especially those in an expensive new townhouse project being planned there.

All of these elevated structures would be unnecessary if Metro simply ran its HOV lanes down the middle of the Southwest Freeway at existing grades, a solution that the neighborhoods strongly endorse. But that appears to interfere with DOT's plan for adding two lanes to the Southwest Freeway. These lanes are not for the purpose of adding additional carrying capacity to the freeway, but are really "auxiliary" lanes, Darden explained, designed to help traffic merge. Darden said DOT is especially concerned about the "chicken" lane, in which outbound drivers from Spur 527 must merge with Southwest Freeway traffic coming from behind.

SWAP contends that the additional freeway lanes are not necessarily needed. Although Metro spokeswoman Julie Gilbert insisted that traffic on Spur 527 to downtown is highly congested at rush hour, Baker and several other SWAP members say that the spur is hardly ever congested, even at peak hours.

The real bottleneck occurs where the Southwest Freeway narrows from five lanes to three at Spur 527, a problem for which DOT has no plans on the drawing table. Drivers trying to squeeze through and get to Highway 288 back up in the evenings, sometimes all the way to Shepherd. If the backup is too long, then frustrated drivers exit at Shepherd and cut through the neighborhoods, frustrated and angry and sometimes driving too fast.

Part of the solution to that problem, says Debra Danburg, is to build a long-discussed off-ramp from the freeway to South Main. DOT's Darden has heard that one so often that he almost sighs. A South Main exit would require the expensive rerouting of HL&P power lines, he says. And besides, drivers can get to Main by veering left on Spur 527 and exiting at Richmond. The department has added signs to direct people that way, but people unfamiliar with the area seldom anticipate that they must exit to the left in order to turn to the right, says Danburg. Besides, she says, DOT ought to consider not replacing the aptly named Hazard Street bridge and spending the approximately $4 million on a South Main exit.

With so many people willing to tell it how to go about its business, no wonder DOT appears to dread another public hearing.

DOT has identified far more projects than it has funding, and so each project must be evaluated for its cost effectiveness and compared to others around the state, Darden says. Some alternatives are just so expensive that planners don't even put them down on paper. Going below grade would require taking even more right of way than the department is taking now, he said. And it would require rerouting a major water main that runs through the area, significantly adding to the costs, which is one reason why the Southwest Freeway was elevated through Montrose in the first place.

SWAP would like DOT to consider putting the entire project below grade, a solution that would be much more expensive, but also much more aesthetically and environmentally pleasing. Parts of the North Central Expressway in Dallas and I-30 in Fort Worth are being replaced with expensive, below-grade construction, SWAP points out. "Why is it," SWAP asks plaintively in its list of technical objections, "that the citizens of Dallas and Fort Worth are provided with superior freeway facilities while the citizens of Houston are not even given the courtesy of serious examination of alternative designs?"

The answer, of course, lies in politics. When the highway department unveiled plans to double-deck the North Central Expressway in the early 1980s, neighborhood groups raised an incredible din and dogged every politician in town for months. Finally, they helped elect businessman Starke Taylor as mayor. Taylor sympathized with the groups and appointed civic leader Walter Humann to lead a task force to find a solution. It was a task force to which, apparently, DOT could not say no, for the first six miles are being cut below grade through solid rock.

In Fort Worth, DOT's plans to double-deck the elevated I-30 through the southern edge of downtown came head-to-head with a well-financed lawsuit by billionaire Robert Bass, who had sunk millions into historic buildings in the area. After an eight-year legal fight, Bass and his supporters negotiated expensive concessions, including getting portions of the freeway submerged and elevated structures torn down.

The Southwest Freeway expansion is not nearly as critical or expensive as the Dallas and Fort Worth projects, but SWAP is proposing the same radical idea: that a freeway should be designed to improve the inner city, not just carry people in and out of it. The transportation department has agreed to further discussions with SWAP, but if past experience is any indication, the neighborhoods had better keep adding to their legal war chest. And they might think about how they can elect the next mayor, as well as getting the current one out in front for them. Discussions are one thing. Political power is another.


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