Thursday, August 30, 2007

Late August randomness

August is mercifully coming to a close. I get to spend the final week of it up here in Dallas; nothing to do but work and wait for Friday, so that I can fly back home and decide which sports bar I'm going to go to on Saturday to watch the Coogs play Oregon. I'm not expecting the Cougars to win this one (which, in the eyes of at least a couple of hyperbole-prone posters on one particular UH sports message board, disqualifies me from being a "true fan" because I don't "believe" in my team; ah, okay, whatever...), but hope always springs eternal and I do want to see how the team, with its new quarterback, performs on the road against a BCS program. A respectable showing by the Coogs might foretell of a decent season. If the Coogs get utterly steamrolled, on the other hand, then a long fall might be in store.

Of course, as my luck would have it, right after I write an entry explaining that I plan to attend six U of H football games this season, "contingent on the fact that I don't get shipped overseas again like I did last fall," I get an e-mail from my company's office in Dubai. They want me to come out there and assist on a project involving this thing. The project schedule and staffing plan is still under development, so I don't know when I'll actually be flying back over there. But, at this point, it's likely going to put a dent in my tailgating plans for the second fall in a row. Why can't they bid for these projects in the spring instead of the autumn?

Anyway, I had a handful of random thoughts rattling around my head that I wanted to write about, so here goes:

I really don't have too much to say about the firings of Astros Manager Phil Garner and General Manager Tim Purpura earlier this week, other than to say that they were inevitable. The Astros have sunk to the bottom of the NL Central standings, the 2007 season is toast, and owner Drayton McLane has to respond to the fans' thirst for blood as well as make it appear as if he's thinking about the future of the ballclub.

Richard Justice thinks that the move is a "step in the right direction." Maybe so. But there are still some serious problems with this ballclub which cannot be rectified by simply replacing the skipper and the GM. One such problem, as ESPN's Jayson Stark explains, is that McLane is a meddlesome owner:

But when McLane marched to the podium Monday and spoke of the need for better leadership and new ideas, he forgot to mention that he'd be well-served to take his own advice.

Why? Because he has done nothing lately to disprove the notion that he is as tough to work for as any owner in baseball.

Yes, he cares. And yes, he aims high. Yep, he's always around. And yep, he has spent lots and lots of dollars in the name of winning.

But his last GM, Gerry Hunsicker, up and quit three years ago because he'd had enough of McLane's meddling in the baseball side of the operation. And so little has changed since that day that it's difficult to evaluate Purpura's reign as GM, because we'll never know how many decisions were really made by the general manager.

We do know it was the owner's doing, not the GM's, that the Astros weren't allowed to sign their top two draft picks this year -- because it was the owner who was determined to please his good friend, Bud Selig, and not pay"above slot."

So if that's the philosophy, you lose the right to point fingers at the GM when the farm system starts to thin out. Don't you?

And when McLane talks, as recently as Monday afternoon, about the "great club" he thought the Astros had put together this year, did he have any memory whatsoever of the desperate pleas from his baseball people all winter to give them a few million more bucks to fill out the rotation, the bullpen and the bench?

We applaud McLane for allowing Purpura to sign Carlos Lee to a $100 million contract. But what was the good of that -- if the owner then handed the GM only another $10 million to plug every other hole on the roster?

This isn't to say that Tim Purpura made some poor moves as GM (i.e. Jason Jennings). Nor is this to say that Phil Garner was getting the most out of his team (although he wasn't really given much to work with this season). For whatever reason, they just couldn't make the Astros work this season and it was probably time for the franchise to move in a different direction. But for the team to improve, McLane is going to have to do some soul-searching of his own, lest he become the south Texas version of Jerry Jones. Stark continues:

What we do know about the Astros is this: Drayton McLane created the monster that led two very capable baseball men -- not to mention two wonderful human beings -- to the gallows Monday. So if he sincerely wants to inject more "invigoration" and better leadership into this organization he cares so much about, then firing his manager and GM isn't the only change he should be prepared to make.

This time, he should try hiring good people and actually letting them do their jobs.

Even though it's almost a decade old at this point, my research regarding the aesthetic condition of urban freeways is still getting noticed. Yesterday I received an e-mail from a person at a Tokyo university's civil engineering department (can't tell if it's a student or a professor) who is working on a history of Tokyo's urban expressway network. He sent me a link to an interesting development: a two-kilometer long elevated expressway surrounding Tokyo's upscale Ginza district which features about four hundred stores and restaurants underneath it.

He asked me if there were any instances of buildings located directly underneath elevated freeways in the United States. I'm not aware of any; the state departments of transportation that own these structures generally aren't in the real estate development business, and I've always understood that any structure built under elevated freeways would be subject to tremendous noise and vibration from passing traffic as well as impede maintenance activities. Obviously, the rules are different in Japan (the expressway in question is privately owned, and the scarcity of available land in Tokyo makes this an economically-viable project). To get an idea of what the expressway and the structures underneath it look like, go to this page and click on any of the segments along the "expressway-mall." Thanks, Dave, for translating the site for me!

A couple of months ago, my research was also referenced on a blog that explores Turcot Yards, an abandoned railyard in Montreal described as the "world's largest abandoned urban space." The vast railyard, located southwest of downtown Montreal, is dominated at its northeast end by the soaring Turcot Interchange. If you have time, check out some of the pictures there.

One of these days, if my schedule ever permits, I'd like to update my research - as I noted, it's almost ten years old - and publish it (in a real book, not just online). I'd even like to be involved in context-sensitive highway design in an official capacity - as an employee of a landscape architecture firm or department of transportation, for example. Alas, my career path has taken me in a different direction, and I'm not sure I'll ever wind up doing the urban-design-related work I dreamed of doing as a graduate student.

There’s some interesting discussion in the local blogosphere this week about a proposed amendment to the city’s minimum lot size ordinance. In a nutshell, homeowners along a given street segment can petition the city to establish a minimum lot size. The intent of the ordinance is to preserve the lot size character of existing residential neighborhoods which do not already have deed restrictions which establish such minimums. It was developed as a reaction to the proliferation of townhomes in inner-loop Houston, wherein developers purchase single-family lots in existing neighborhoods around town (notably Midtown, the Museum District, Cottage Grove, Rice Military and, more recently, the near East End), tear down the house on them, and subdivide them into smaller lots for townhomes. Longtime residents in established neighorhoods were concerned that these developments were eroding the character of their neighborhoods, but unless their neighborhoods were deed-restricted there was little they could do to challenge these developments until this ordinance was created.

However, a loophole in the ordinance made it only applicable to actual lot sizes – not the number of dwelling units on a given lot. Unable to subdivide lots affected by this ordinance into townhomes, developers were simply circumventing the intent of the ordinance by building small condominimum developments instead: the overall effect on the surrounding neighborhood was the same. A proposed change to the ordinance aims to close this loophole by limiting the number of dwelling units per lot.

Tory expresses his opinion that closing this loophole could have unintended consequences: developers, being unable to make money by building townhomes or condominums on an affected lot, might build an oversized McMansion instead. The McMansion would be just as out of character as the townhomes, and it could alter a neighborhood's economic character:

If a developer can't build three $200K+ townhomes on a lot, he'll be forced by economics to build a single $600K+ McMansion. The demographic that can afford that house are in a completely different income bracket from those who can afford the townhomes. Does that really preserve the neighborhood's true character better than the townhomes? A middle class neighborhood ends up rapidly gentrifying, when townhomes could have let it stay middle class.

He might have a point, although I still think the original intent of this ordinance necessitates that this loophole be closed. A couple of his arguments are a bit more dubious to me:

The new ordinance will only allow a single-family home on the lot (which sounds dangerously close to zoning to me). In general, the city seems intent on reigning in the amazing townhome development happening inside the loop.

First of all, given the process and the application of the existing ordinance and its proposed changes, the one-unit-per-lot restriction sounds less like "zoning" (which Houston does not have) and more like a "mini-deed-restriction" to me. For example, the minimum lot-size process is homeowner-initiated, whereas zoning changes are generally city- or developer-initiated. Furthermore, the minimum lot size process is only applicable to blockfaces or street segments where land use and density characteristics have already been established (60% of all lots in the area must contain one- or two-family dwellings); the "zoning," so to speak, is already in place.

As for the perception that the city "seems intent" on curtailing inside-the-loop townhome/condominium development, I find myself in agreement with Kuff's thoughts on the matter:

Given how cumbersome the lot size petition process is, there's really only a small number of neighborhoods that will be affected by the closing of the condo loophole. I seriously doubt that will put much of a crimp in the condo developers' plans, as there will still be plenty of places to put them, most of which will be more appropriate for them anyway.

Developers apparently haven't had any qualms about placing townhomes and/or condominiums on vacant lots in Midtown or in brownfield sites on the east end of downtown, after all, and those types of properties are not in short supply inside the Loop.

My brother-in-law Danny's east coast adventures continue. As you may recall, last March he moved to the Washington, DC area in search of a new job opportunities as well as an overall change of scenery. Unfortunately, the job search didn't work out very well, and the friend he was staying with in northern Virginia was preparing to relocate out of the DC area. So now Danny's moving on. A longtime friend of his has completed military assignments in Iraq and Korea and is now being stationed at Fort Dix in New Jersey. So Danny's going to make the short trip up I-95 to stay with him. Maybe he'll find opportunities up there that he couldn't find in DC. Or maybe he'll just continue to sit on his ass and drink beer all day. Either way, good luck to him.

The controversial University Line light rail project is back in the news. Last month METRO released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for this project; earlier this week a public hearing about the proposed development was held. Christof does a great job parsing through the DEIS here and here.

My thoughts about this project have not changed within the last year. The tedious “we voted for rail on Westpark, not on Richmond” debate aside, I still think that an alignment that utilizes Richmond from Main Street to Greenway Plaza makes the most sense in terms of cost and ridership. And I still think that that is precisely the reason why it's not going to be built anytime soon.

It's simple: the ridiculous alignment that runs along the north side of the US 59 trench to Westpark is not going to rate well with the Federal Transit Administration when the time comes to approve New Starts applications, which means it won't get federally funded. Meanwhile, Rep. John Culberson (who represents this area in Congress) has already made it clear that he will block any attempt to build rail down Richmond, and that's only if a current lawsuit filed against METRO by property owners along Richmond fails. Either way, this train doesn't get built. The discussion is interesting and the analysis is engaging, but I think it's all moot.

This isn't to say I don't have any other opinions about the alignment: I think that there needs to be a station somewhere between the Hillcroft Transit Center and Loop 610 to serve the heavily-populated and heavily transit-dependent Gulfton area. I think that, east of Main Street, a Wheeler-to-Ennis-to-Elgin alignment that terminates at the Eastwood Transit Center makes the most sense. I'm skeptical as to how the intersection of the Red Line and the University Lane at Wheeler Station is going to work, especially since there are no switches that would allow a one-seat ride from downtown out to Hillcroft Transit Center. I notice that all of the proposed options will mean the destruction of the Proletariat bar and Chapultepec restaurant on the south side of Richmond east of Montrose, and I hope METRO helps these neighborhood institutions relocate to suitable venues in the same general area. I think that ballasted track is preferable to concrete-embedded track, even in streets, because it is cheaper to construct and easier to maintain.

But these items are contingent on the thing getting built. And I won't believe it until I see it.

Finally, I note with sadness today's Chronicle article about the passing of Jaunita McGinty. I knew Jaunita through her husband, Jack McGinty, who owned an architectural consulting firm I worked for between my undergraduate and graduate stints (I later found out that she and Jack were related to a classmate of mine at HSPVA as well). I was, however, never aware of her role as an activist for racial harmony or her leadership on the Houston Council of Human Relations:

In 1968, McGinty persuaded Jackie Robinson, who broke major league baseball's color barrier, to speak at the council's annual dinner.

"It wasn't easy getting in touch with him," said her husband, Houston architect John M. "Jack" McGinty. "Somehow, she was able to do it. Juanita was a big baseball fan and Robinson was a hero to her. She spent a long time convincing his assistants that coming here was worth his time."

Freck Fleming, who then was a council board member, said the dinner at the old Shamrock Hilton Hotel was a "culminating event" in the council's efforts.

"Ever since I've known her, she has been interested in civil rights and harmonious race relations," Jack McGinty said, adding that he and his wife were active in the Democratic Party.

Although it's been a decade since I've seen either Jaunita or her husband, I'm nevertheless sorry to hear that she lost her fight with cancer at the age of 73. My thoughts are with Jack and the rest of the McGinty family.

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