Gil Baumgarten thought the J-shaped driveway would be the perfect finishing touch for his addition last year to his fashionable Bellaire home. Workers carefully cleared away the grass and put in a bed of sand to prepare for the pavement that would connect his corner-lot drive to both Valerie and Ferris streets.
But before the contractor could lay the concrete, an intruder's car laid waste to the project. Baumgarten came out to find telltale tire tracks through the sand. He says he didn't have to look far to see where the culprit came from -- nearby Bellaire High School. A student thought the new sand route would be the ideal detour to avoid the stop sign on the corner.
"That's the general obnoxious behavior that agitates me," explains Baumgarten, who eventually finished his driveway project. Now he has become a leader in the neighborhood's drive to purge their streets of parking for students.
He and another cohort in the conflict, neighbor Ned Higgins, cite all sorts of severe problems brought on by having schoolkids parking along their streets. Higgins complains of loud stereos, screeching tires, foul language, blocked driveways, litter and worse. Some neighbors swear that rowdy youths tromp through their yards on the way to cars, peer through windows and even have sex in the backseats in broad daylight.
The school, with an enrollment of about 3,000, has room on campus for about 145 student parking spaces, and another 40 or so curbside to the campus. But that leaves an estimated 400 other student cars with no place but the streets near the school at 5100 Maple.
Although some students admit that a few of the drivers get out of hand with their antics, they question the claims by residents. Skeptics wonder if the hysteria over high school parkers is merely more of the gentrification of the area, a way to seal off the neighborhood from kids in general, including the less affluent and minorities who are among the students brought in from other areas.
Bellaire High, a part of the Houston Independent School District, has been around since 1955, longer than Higgins and Baumgarten and most of the complaining crowd have lived in Bellaire.
Bus service is available for about one-third of the students, but that doesn't mean they take advantage of it. Seniors get priority for the 145-space lot on the cramped 18-acre campus. Recognizing the increasing severity of the issue, Bellaire City Council formed a six-member citizens panel in June to come up with possible answers.
The school district offers no solutions. HISD spokesman Terry Abbott says the district plans no changes to handle the added parking needs on campus. City parking committee chairman David Cantz says he is surprised by HISD's lack of solutions. He compares the situation to businesses that are required to provide parking for workers. "The way I see it, Bellaire High School is a business; the staff, faculty and students are their employees. HISD is not providing adequate parking for their business."
Compounding the conflict is that Bellaire students can leave campus for lunch. That sends some of them back to their cars over the noon hour, causing more congestion. And, residents say, that means more fast-food trash along their curbs and lawns. Baumgarten wants off-campus lunches banned, an idea deemed totally unacceptable by Mary Green, the school's PTO vice president. Parents fought for "open lunch" for the kids years ago, she says, because they felt children didn't have enough food options at the school and its congested cafeteria.
Bellaire city council left the food fight alone, but on July 10 its committee announced proposed solutions to student parking; they range from banning on-street parking to a compromise that was clearly favored by councilmembers and residents near the school.
That plan would allow only one student parking space per home during weekday school hours. The student parking spot would be marked with a painted curb, and each car would be identified by a permit issued to the student. Residents could park in that space only if they had a residential permit.
The plan would reduce the number of student cars per block, but would not solve the underlying problems behind the residents' complaints: their gripes about the conduct of the kids along their streets.
"I have a problem with disrespectful students who flip the bird at and curse around my children," explains Baumgarten. In his best curmudgeon tone, he recites traffic violations he has witnessed by students. "I generally see a bunch of idiots."
Despite being among the student driving "idiots," as Baumgarten calls them, Bellaire senior Justin Schultz seems remarkably sane. Simple arithmetic shows that the permit-parking plan would leave students without adequate parking spaces on the streets, and that would push the problems six blocks out from the school, the 17-year-old student notes.
"And that's ridiculous. I don't see how the residents can do this without having a guilty conscience," Schultz says. "Some residents will just end up selling the other spot to the highest-bidding student anyway, and that will just create a huge bidding war."
He believes the solution is as simple as having the Bellaire police enforce existing laws regarding traffic violations, unruly conduct and littering. Curbs near driveways are already painted yellow to stop students from hindering residents' access to driveways, but Schultz says, "I have friends who park in the yellow ten days in row without getting tickets, and they're proud of it," he says.
Marta Brunsting says the available parking is already intolerable for students such as herself. She concedes that they have to intrude into the yellow zones because there's nowhere else to go. "If you want to get a good spot," she says, "you have to know someone in the area who will let you park in their driveway. I don't know where they expect us to park."
And parents are likely to raise a similar issue. How they are expected to get their kids to school and back if the students can't drive because there aren't enough spaces? Brunsting, whose parents expect her to drive, lives only a few minutes by car from the school. However, her father loses an hour of daily work time if he has to leave his job to pick her up from school.
Students who were interviewed generally concede that there are a few disruptive student drivers. That was clear on a recent day, when a reporter interviewed Bellaire grad Janice Richardson-Riebe about the problem.
That conversation on Holt Street, a half-block from Bellaire High, was halted by the noise of a speeding black luxury car. The driver was a student who was giving a ride to three of his classmates. While the auto was traveling fast, it was easy to count the number of passengers -- they were riding on top of the car, clinging to its roof as he sped by.
Richardson-Riebe needed to do no more explaining. "See, look at that," she said. "That's just what I'm talking about."
The talk ends soon for all sides. Bellaire councilmembers set Monday, July 24, for a workshop and vote on the issue.
"I'm glad to see city officials taking residents' rights seriously. Right now there's the appearance that something is going to happen," Baumgarten says. "Until some resolution occurs, I won't be satisfied."
Some critics of the anti-parking campaign aren't satisfied that the residents' group is really motivated primarily by safety issues. The upscale neighborhood boasts blocks of homes with tax valuations soaring toward $300,000 and beyond. The slow westward push of gentrification began years ago in West University and is expanding beyond Loop 610 in Bellaire.
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Baumgarten at one point warned councilmembers that student cars could bring down property values and therefore reduce tax revenues for the city, reflecting that at least some of the homeowner fears are based on their finances. While this is not a gated community, a student parking ban could serve the same general purpose: removing young outsiders from their neighborhood. Campaign leaders deny any ulterior motives, saying that the added cars are choking off the community.
Councilmember Tom Phillips raises another concern in discussions: Residents should have known that moving in near a high school means coping with student cars. He likens their complaints to people who buy homes near an airport, then complain about the noise of aircraft. Baumgarten maintains that he arrived during the summer; it was only in the fall that he realized the situation.
And the summer offensive by the residents makes it unlikely that students and their parents will know about any Bellaire student parking ban until school resumes in the fall.
"I really feel for the parents who are planning to have their kids drive to school and are heaving a sigh of relief that they can finally drive themselves to school," explains PTO official Green. "I've run into parents who have no idea this is going on, and now they're going to be hit with this."