Spaced Out

Keller got doggone lucky in her search for a space.
Deron Neblett

Walking off the baseball diamond at Bellaire High School, Andrea Keller spotted a black Labrador. She remembered her coach, Rocky Manuel yelling, "Get that dog off my field!"

Luckily Keller, then a 15-year-old sophomore, saw a parent volunteer, who took the dog to Keller's house. Keller made signs about the pet she found and posted them around the neighborhood, hoping the owner would call.

Two weeks later the lawyer who owned the dog named Spalding called and offered Keller a cash reward, but Keller's mother had a different idea.

"My mother wanted to know how far the dog traveled, so she asked the man where he lived." He told her his house was across from Bellaire High. "So my mother asked if I could park in his driveway instead of him paying me. He said that would be fine."

Excited that she would not have to get up early to get a decent parking spot, Keller sweetened the deal: She brought chocolate chip cookies from Three Brothers Bakery to him the first day she parked there.

Spalding may have solved Keller's problem of where to keep her 1996 green Ford Explorer during school, but a real dogfight is raging on for most students at Bellaire. The battle has pitted residents against students and even city officials against the Houston Independent School District -- and the struggle is expected to only worsen with the resumption of classes in late August.

Bellaire Police Chief Jack O'Brien spoke to The Bellaire Texan about the parking situation: "Give us time, we'll work it out." That was 46 years ago.

O'Brien is long gone. But residents and high school students are still waiting for the City of Bellaire to work out the problem. The school is surrounded by residential streets on three sides; the fourth is busy South Rice, off-limits to student parking. On campus grounds, there are 430 spots for students and faculty members, yet 3,200 youths and 230 employees go to the school each day. And a hefty percentage of them drive.

To make up for that lack of campus parking, students have traditionally parked along surrounding streets. At least they used to.

Bellaire Mayor Mary Ann Goode took office in January 2000. And ever since she has spent a large portion of time trying to do what no other mayor has ever done: ban parking on the streets around the school. A prohibition has long been the goal of the school's neighbors, who complain that students leave trash on their lawns, play their music too loud and drive too fast on their side streets.

"Just because past councils have ignored the problem does not mean we should too," Goode says. "This is a mess. We are trying to fix it."

Since the first city council meeting of last year, the City of Bellaire and the Houston Independent School District have been taking everyone on a roller coaster ride by making plans, scratching them and then changing their minds again.

The city made the first move last September. It was going to paint each house's curb two colors: green for a student car and bright yellow for a resident spot. But residents realized they did not want rainbow-colored curbs, and that plan was nixed.

In the spring, the city took up another proposed ordinance for an outright ban on parking from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Residents complained that it would strip them of their own curbside parking privileges all day, so the city withdrew that plan. Two months later, councilmembers banned parking on residential streets from 8 to 9 a.m. and from 1 to 2 p.m. on school days. Those hours ensure that students can't park there, but residents still have access to their curbs for most of the day. Each time a student parks on the streets, he or she is subject to a fine of up to $200 and a possible tow.

The effective date of the parking restrictions is August 20 -- the first day of school.

"People think we are punishing the kids," Goode says, adding that she allows students to park in her driveway. "Our mission here is to cut down on the number of cars that are driven to Bellaire [High] in total. We want to alleviate traffic."

After the new city ordinance, HISD tried to climb into the driver's seat on the parking issue.

The school board approved a plan to provide more student parking near the campus. Officials approached owners of homes for sale along Maple, saying the district wanted to buy them and demolish them to build a parking lot or garage.

Bellaire roared back. City council unanimously opposed the plan on several fronts. An HISD lot would lower city tax rolls, and residents were worried that HISD would use eminent domain -- its right to condemn property -- to take over the entire block.

"We were in the purchasing process of buying those three houses when we heard that the city [of Bellaire] was going to do everything they could to stop us from knocking them down," says HISD press secretary Heather Browne.

The HISD board canceled its plan after protests from Bellaire leaders, but officials are still looking into ways to solve the problem before the new school year. The city already has acted to have Bellaire police officers direct traffic and make the area around the building a 20-mph school zone.

Many other options are being tossed around. The city and school have both suggested having satellite areas where students can park their cars and take a bus to campus. However, students complain that waiting for a bus would effectively curtail their off- campus lunch privileges.

Goode likes the idea of moving the school altogether -- relocating it next to the Houston Community College on the West Loop. The old building could be turned into a middle school. Browne says that is not a viable option.

Other proposals include moving the current bus drop-off and pickup from South Rice to Maple to help the traffic flow by taking large vehicles off the busier South Rice. Usually cars on Maple have trouble getting through because South Rice is very crowded.

Even though she opposed HISD's plan to add parking near the school, Goode believes the best idea is to build a parking garage -- as long as it's on campus. "The district is saying there is a security issue, but Katy [ISD] has had no problems, because they watch it all of the time through cameras," she says.

All those options sound good, but until the city and district start working together, the odds are that nothing productive will emerge.

Browne insists that during the past year district officials were willing to do whatever they needed to; the mayor says the district was not much help. "Our hope was to work with HISD," Goode says. "They would not get involved until we did something, so we were stuck out on a limb to do it on our own, and we did our best without them."

"The whole situation is a mess," says student Gayle Abrahams. "It is inevitably going to end up going back to the way it was. This is going to cause much more traffic, and it is going to be unsafe. Kids are going to be walking farther and there are going to be more cars dropping off and picking up students."

Andrea Keller says the school's neighbors need to be more tolerant. "When people bought their houses in Bellaire, they knew there was a school there. They need to keep it like it is."

The special parking arrangement for Keller couldn't stay the way it was, either. Spalding's owner moved after Keller's sophomore year -- and her coveted parking space went with him and the dog.

Keller remained determined to find another way to avoid parking with classmates a mile away from the school. Stray pets were a scarcity, so she started going door to door, asking residents if she could park in a driveway. Four houses into the search, on the corner of Rice and Mimosa, she found her spot. The lady who lived there even refused her offer of money.

Keller knows she's lucky to get a place to park.

But everyone else is still circling.

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