At 11:30 on a warm summer morning along St. Emanuel Street just east of downtown, it is remarkably busy. Lunch spots are already beginning to fill up with customers, and the first trickle of Astros fans are rolling into parking lots for the businessman’s special against the Oakland A’s. There’s even a group of people pedaling a large cart down the street, sipping drinks in colorful plastic glasses and yelling at passersby. Did we mention this is all happening on a Thursday?
It wasn’t always this way. The thriving area, now called EaDo, has experienced a boom in popularity and growth over the last ten years thanks to the glut of recently built sports venues and a renewed interest in downtown living. It is an interest local businesses and developers have worked hard to cultivate and one they fear is at risk thanks to the looming shadow of a nearby freeway slated for expansion.
Construction is expected to begin by 2020 on one of the most ambitious freeway projects in the city’s history, a $7 billion expansion of Interstate 45 from Beltway 8 near George H. Bush Intercontinental Airport all the way to the University of Houston.
With staggering population growth expected for the entire region, work on the main north-south artery from Galveston to the northern suburbs is long overdue, but what that means to many local businesses, particularly on the East End, feels ominous.
Almost a decade ago, there was very little reason to hang out east of downtown. The Dynamo’s home was not yet constructed and the only commercial draws here were Warehouse Live and Lucky’s Pub. That was when Bryan Hucke and his wife, Anny Dang, saw an opportunity.
For years, Dang’s family had owned Pho Huynh in Midtown. Hucke was a frequent diner. “I ate there so often, I married my waitress,” he said. When the establishment closed, the family remained interested in the restaurant business. A couple of years later, Hucke and Dang found the property on St. Emanuel where the restaurant, now simply called Huynh, currently resides. “We were the first restaurant down here,” he says. “We were fortunate to see the area grow up around us.”
“We thought it was great. We were well situated for the boom of EaDo,” he continues. “But now, with the freeway coming, it looks like maybe that won’t be so fortunate after all.”
Hucke is referring to plans to expand what is now U.S. 59, increasing capacity for a re-routed 45 and taking virtually all the land between the current freeway and St. Emanuel. Everything on Hucke and Dang’s side of the street will likely be wiped out by the construction. “Part of living in a moving city is change, but it looks like we are going to be victims of it,” he says.
Two doors down, Abbas Padilla and Peter Blanford are sitting in the partitioned-off back office of Bayou City Barber Shop. The heavily renovated storefront feels like a throwback, with memorabilia hanging on the walls and an old jukebox in the corner. There’s Spanish rap music coming from the speakers, and a full complement of barbers plying their trade.
“We want to stay in this neighborhood,” Blanford explains. But he and Padilla are worried. “How are we going to pay for that move, even if it is just two blocks down the road?” Padilla wonders.
For business owners potentially affected by this construction, the most frustrating part might be the lack of information. Rumors have spread, but no one is sure how long it will take or when construction will begin, if ever. At the moment, the Texas Department of Transportation isn’t entirely sure either.
Houston feels as if it is in a constant state of repair. Highway 290 inside the Beltway is in the final year of a seven-plus-year overhaul similar to the expansion of Interstate 10 West before that. The Gulf Freeway just completed a desperately needed renovation between Beltway 8 and NASA Road 1, with more to come between there and Galveston.
In fact, highway construction throughout the region mirrors the dramatic changes in the city as a whole. Houston remains one of the fastest-growing cities in America, and with a physical size that rivals that of some small states, the region relies principally on cars to get around, so traffic will always be an issue. Even with the city’s addition of light-rail lines and high-speed buses, Houstonians remain entrenched as members of a driving culture. If there is one thing we love to complain about more than the brutal heat and humidity, it’s the traffic. And with good reason.
“Traffic is not going to decrease,” says Danny Perez, a TxDOT spokesman. “We can’t keep what is there and expect it to meet the needs of the traveling public.”
Discussion of the proposed changes to Interstate 45 began nearly five years ago. Concerns over not just population increases but evacuation routes in case of a hurricane made it clear that something had to change, but finding a solution for an already crowded downtown meant some interesting solutions.
“There aren’t a lot of ways to increase capacity in downtown,” Perez explains. “We looked at ways that are creative, to avoid building an entirely new freeway.”
A ten-minute animated flyover video produced by the state agency shows the proposed changes ahead in cinematic fashion, with some twists and turns (both literal and figurative) that longtime Houstonians might not have seen coming.
Freeway expansions are confusing enough, but the Interstate 45 plan that has been developed is particularly unique considering the city’s highway history. Segment 1 of TxDOT’s proposed plans runs from Beltway 8 North to just south of the North Loop, adding four express lanes and a new lane of frontage road and following more or less traditional freeway expansion models, but it also includes room along the feeder road for bike lanes (which are in most sections of the plan), a huge change for a city dominated by four wheels.
Segment 2 adds its own wrinkle. The stretch from the North Loop to Interstate 10 has the same four new lanes, but includes a below-grade section from Cottage Street to Norma with a “cap” on top. The renderings suggest the potential for a fairly sizable greenspace actually above the freeway near North Main — imagine if U.S. 59 between Spur 527 and Shepherd had a roof instead of just the colorful suspension-style bridges overhead. Given the growth of the Heights, the proximity of the METRORail on Fulton and the popularity of White Oak Music Hall nearby, it would make sense if the city can find funding for it.
But Segment 3, which includes essentially everything from I-10 to just north of the University of Houston, is by far the most complicated portion of the expansion. Not only does the plan remove the Pierce Elevated entirely and re-route traffic east along I-10 to 59 southeast of Minute Maid Park and the George R. Brown Convention Center, but it will completely reconfigure the entire disaster of an interchange of 59 and Texas 288 from I-45 to Spur 527 near the Medical Center.
And like the area near North Main, the section between I-10 and the Gulf Freeway would be almost entirely below grade with the same proposed “cap” over the top for park and recreational space (as well as crossover streets connecting downtown to the East End). The optional cover, like the one at North Main, would not be paid for by TxDOT and would need third-party funding. According to Perez, those who were involved in the planning process heavily favored the idea of submerged freeways with pedestrian-friendly space above them.
One of the questions that come up again and again in discussions of below-grade roadways with anyone who has lived in Houston long enough is why a freeway would be constructed lower than street level in a city that floods with seeming regularity, particularly when the highway in question is a hurricane evacuation route? TxDOT is quick to point out that we already have roadways below grade throughout the city that have not suffered major flooding problems since Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, which broke records and is widely considered a 500-year flood.
Still, flooding is something the agency appears to have taken seriously. “No matter the situation, there’s a potential for flooding,” Perez explains, “but with anything below grade, additional pumps and detention ponds come into play.” In fact, both detention and retention ponds have become commonplace along area roadways to mitigate flooding, particularly after Allison.
When completed, the I-45 expansion would represent a complete overhaul of the highway system that surrounds downtown. Gone would be the elevated, parkway-style freeways of the past, replaced with greenspace and traffic tucked away beneath. The very appearance of the skyline from both the southeast and the west sides of the city would by dramatically altered.
How long all this will take is another matter entirely. TxDOT is in the midst of an environmental impact study that is not expected to conclude until next year. At that time, its designers will make final recommendations and begin setting timelines. As of now, all they can be certain of is that they will begin construction on the small portion of U.S. 59 between Spur 527 and Texas 288 — the one segment currently fully funded — by 2020.
Beyond that, even TxDOT isn’t completely sure. Ten years is the time frame most frequently mentioned in handouts and by Perez himself for completion of the entire project, but even he admits that until the environmental impact study is done, funding is put in place and contracts are awarded, no timeline will be concrete.
That’s not terribly comforting for those awaiting their fate in EaDo.
‘If I would have known about the freeway expansion, I would not have come in here,” says John Anson, the owner of Ahh Coffee on Rusk just northwest of St. Emanuel. “Business has been great, which is why I’m like, ‘Thanks for coming in and killing me.’”
It’s not quite 11 a.m. and Anson is chatting with customers inside his sleek coffee shop, two blocks from his neighbors at Huynh and Bayou City Barber Shop. The tables are full of people sipping drinks and working on laptops. Anson, who also works in real estate, moved into the area in 2015, his first crack at a retail business. “When we were first looking, this was an area that was changing for the better,” he explains. “I thought, ‘Great, I’ll be here for 20 years.’”
Like others, he’s frustrated with the lack of a definitive timeline and the slow trickle of information. “It irks me,” Anson says. “If I had a timeline I knew that wasn’t going to change, I could figure out my next move.
“I understand it’s a growing city, but I just wish it would be 20 years away,” he says. “The uncertainty is a killer.”
Judging from the renderings provided by TxDOT, the right-of-way for the freeway will swallow up businesses like the popular restaurant Tout Suite (which will become an entrance ramp), artist spaces, barbecue joints, bars and office space. And then there’s the Ballpark Lofts. One entire building sits north of St. Emanuel and apparently would come under the wrecking ball in TxDOT’s plan.
But it’s not just for-profit businesses that would find themselves under the gun were this to go through. In addition to the large low-income housing development Clayton Homes, two nonprofits, SEARCH Homeless Services, which opened a brand-new building last year, and long-running soup kitchen Loaves and Fishes, both of which serve the large homeless population in downtown, will find themselves on the wrong side of St. Emanuel if current plans remain in place.
Back inside the barber shop just blocks away, Padilla and Blanford wonder why no one has reached out to them. “We’ve never had anyone come in here and say, ‘Hey, can we leave y’all some information about what’s happening?’” says Padilla. “We’ve never received anything in the mail saying, ‘Here are some meetings that are happening; please attend.’ And we’ve been here for two years.”
TxDOT officials, however, say they have had numerous planning meetings going back several years and they have a website dedicated to the project. In fact, Perez says they have heard from all segments of the public who are helping to shape the plan. “We have had a lot of engagement with the public through the project development process,” he says. “Not just political and civic leaders, but average, everyday citizens.”
After the lunch rush at Huynh, Hucke, who has attended many of the TxDOT meetings, says they were informative but “not as well attended as I would have liked.” As is the case with most of the businesses threated by the expansion, Hucke and his wife would like to remain in the area even if they are displaced from their current location, but there is as much worry over what will happen before the highway is completed as there is over what buildings will be lost.
He points to failed businesses along Main Street during the construction of METRORail. “The people across the street who aren’t going to lose their businesses,” he says, “they’re worried about how a ten-year construction plan is going to affect them.”
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Along St. Emanuel — for all practical purposes a dividing line between what will remain and what will be demolished if the current plan goes through — there is little evidence of what is to come. The cart of drinking revelers waves for photos as they pass by, and folks in orange Astros jerseys slowly make their way toward the ballpark.
With an end to the public comment period looming on July 27 and no final decision coming from TxDOT anytime soon, local business owners are forced to wait and hope for the best while their customers remain happily oblivious for now.
“Even if the worst-case scenario is that the freeway is coming through here and fast, our estimate is we still have about five years before we need to do anything,” Hucke explains. “And if the final design pulls back even half a block, our business will be saved. All of our concern could be for naught.”
Padilla agrees, but his assessment of the unclear road ahead comes with slightly greater urgency. “We are going to have to decide if it will be worth it to reinvest, move and build out a new space,” he says. “For small-business people like us, it’s going to be a big decision.”