Houston Needs a New Model for Montrose Sidewalk Repair
The opinion piece below, by Montrose Management District Executive Director, appeared earlier, in a slightly different form, in “Gray Matters” on houstonchronicle.com and in the Sunday, July 27, edition of the Houston Chronicle. It has generated a great deal of comment on the Chronicle’s Facebook page, among other places. To make sure that Montrose Management District readers know what all the talk is about, we’re running it here as well.
The face in the picture was shocking. Swollen and black at the eyes, bruised and blue at the brow, the woman in the photograph looked as if she’d been in a fight.
Instead, Leigh Spencer had simply fallen, tripping on an exposed pipe on one of the many broken sidewalks that thread through Montrose. For many people in the area, the photo on the nightly news proved what they’d known for years: Houston’s current system for making its sidewalks walkable no longer works.
Reported on KHOU earlier this month, Spencer’s fall, along with several other serious episodes, has turned the city’s attention to what was once thought simply a neighborhood problem. It’s high time. The impasse over fixing Montrose sidewalks has implications throughout Houston. It’s time for the city and its neighborhoods to partner effectively and make Montrose safe for walking again.
According to Houston policy, homeowners are responsible for maintaining the sidewalks in front of their houses, with the exception of walkways damaged by street construction and some heavily traveled school routes.
But Montrose is 103 years old, and its cityscape includes houses and trees of that age and some infrastructure not much younger. Meanwhile, the neighborhood’s density has grown exponentially. This density has been good for business, and could be good for the environment, especially if it results in more foot traffic and less use of cars – which it appears to be doing.
Houston may still be an auto-centric city, but neighborhoods such as Montrose are becoming more attractive to strollers. The ever changing and growing diversity of the community can be seen on its streets: long-time gay residents, long-time straight residents, affluent new buyers, disabled neighbors and visitors, the young, the elderly. But more walkers means more wear and tear – and far more dependence – on sidewalks.
Amble through Montrose any morning, and the urgency of fixing those sidewalks is clear. The neighborhood teems with young children trooping to local schools: Wharton Dual Language, Wilson Montessori, Gregory-Lincoln Education Center, Carnegie Vanguard, Lanier Middle School.
That so many schools can be reached easily by foot is a huge asset. Research shows that kids who walk to school behave better once they get to class and score higher on tests. According to the National Center for Safe Routes To School, walking to school teaches children life skills, training them to observe their surroundings, navigate street crossings, and know and be known by their neighbors. It goes without saying that those daily treks can also help ward off obesity.
But Montrose sidewalks make this difficult. Just as morning traffic amps up, Montrose kids must pick their way over rubble or teeter on upended concrete surfaces. Since the sidewalks are often broken or nonexistent, a number of children simply give up and trot in the street.
Getting around is even more perilous for Montrose’s elderly and disabled, many of whom swim at the West Gray Multi-Service Center or paint at Art League Houston. In a petition calling on City Hall to devise a new sidewalk repair strategy, the Montrose Sidewalk Coalition, a group of local activists, has pointed out the legal liabilities of our rubble-filled sidewalks. “The infrastructure is not ADA compliant and a significant barrier to access. Accessible design for the visually impaired is almost nonexistent,” the petition says, noting, “Access is more than a quality of life issue – it is a civil rights issue.”
Historically, city policy has left the issue of sidewalks and sidewalk repair to neighborhood residents. The problem is that this history no longer serves city interests. Fifty years ago, neglecting sidewalks was almost a badge of civic pride. Who needed to walk when you had cheap gas and cars? Like so many midcentury assumptions about urban life, however, this notion has now been kicked to the curb.
Mayor Annise Parker has been admirably proactive in realizing that density, alternative forms of transportation, and green space are critical to Houston’s future economy. But city policies are sometimes at cross-purposes. Take City Council’s innovative new parking program, available through designation of a Special Parking Area, for example. The Montrose Management District is seeking to utilize this program to further economic development and redevelopment in Montrose. In an area that receives this designation, new businesses can claim empty parking spaces within the designated district when applying for occupancy permits. The flexible standard makes starting a business easier, which boosts the tax base, which is good for all of Houston. Montrose, among the most economically vibrant neighborhoods in the city, was the first district to apply for the program.
But if a customer can’t get from her car to a new restaurant without cracking her head on a Montrose sidewalk, everyone pays.
If Houston is really going to depend less on cars and fossil fuels, encourage residents to move around more, and nurture new business, it also needs a realistic plan for maintaining its sidewalks. This plan should certainly include homeowners. According to Montrose activists, however, it has been years since the city sent people notices about the derelict sidewalks in front of their homes. That should be the first measure to smoothing the rubble.
City council, meanwhile, is mulling a plan in which the city would take the initiative to repair damaged sidewalks, then bill homeowners in installments. This makes sense. The safety of Houston’s neighborhoods is an economic concern for the whole city, and takes precedence over the attentiveness of any one homeowner.
But it’s also time to retire the outdated policy of every-pedestrian-for-himself. As a community, Montrose has supported the city’s vision for the future by installing public bike racks, fighting for its green space, and welcoming a lush diversity of shops and restaurants. Its street-friendly culture resulted in the American Planning Association naming it one of the ten best neighborhoods in the country. The economic boost Montrose generates lifts the whole city.
By the same token, Houston should treat each neighborhood’s quality of life as a communal resource. It can start with a new plan, and some city funding, to repair Montrose sidewalks.