The ULine options: Neartown

Neartown Aerial

Neartown — the area between Midtown, Allen Parkway, Shepherd, and the Southwest Freeway — is a diverse place in every sense. It has just about every kind of housing you could imagine: old mansions and bungalows, duplexes and apartment complexes, townhouses and highrises. They are home to people with a wide mix of economic status, lifestyles, and ethnicities. Mixed amongst the homes are stores, restaurants, art galleries and professional offices. Right in the heart of the neighborhood are two major institutions: the Menil Collection and the University of St. Thomas. It’s all tied together by one of the most pleasant public environments in the city: a closely spaced grid of tree-shaded, walkable streets.

These characteristics make Neartown a great place to live. But they also make Neartown a good place to upgrade transit. In fact, the older parts of Neartown grew up around streetcar lines, one of which ended at Mandell and Richmond. The streets mean that people will be able to walk to transit; the restaurants, galleries, and museums mean that people from other parts of town will want to take the train there.

In Neartown, there are two options left for the University Line: Richmond (the Cummins and Greenway options are identical in this part of town) and Richmond/Montrose/59. The former would put track in the center of the street with stations at Montrose, Dunlavy, and Shepherd. The latter would follow Richmond only as far as a Montrose station, then turn onto Montrose for a short section and rise onto an elevated structure along the north side of 59 with an elevated station at Shepherd.

The two options are vastly different in terms of how they serve the neighborhood. Here’s a set of color-coded land use maps. Buildings in green are multi-family residential (one can see at a glance how many more of those there are north of the freeway than south of it); red are office buildings, blue are institutional. The grey dashed circles are 1/4 mile from stations — a ten minute walk. The areas shaded in grey are more than 1/2 mile from stations — few people will walk that far.

Here’s the Richmond alignment. It provides a broad swath of transit accessibility through Neartown — basically, everything south of Alabama is within walking distance. That includes a lot of people and a lot of retail and restaurants; it also includes the Menil and St. Thomas.

Neartownlanduse1 Small

The location of the center station is an interesting question. The community petitioned METRO last year for a station between Montrose and Shepherd, and METRO’s been showing one since, at Dunlavy. That location nicely fills the gap, putting a lot more places within reach of transit, and the Neartown Association has endorsed it. But an equally good argument can be made for locating this station at Mandell, closer to the Menil and the Richmont Square apartments. This is related to the location of the Montrose station, too: METOR shows it stradling Montrose, but Neartown would like to see it to the west of Montrose, closer to UST and the Menil. That’s a discussion that’s already happening, but it has more urgency now as METRO moves closer to a locally preferred alignment.

The Dunlvay station accounts for the biggest difference between the Richmond alignment and the Richmond/Montrose/59 alignment. The former option has that station; the latter doesn’t. So Culberson’s choice leaves much of Neartown (including, notably, the Menil) unserved:

Neartownlanduse2 Small

There is also a significant difference between the two options in terms of neighborhood impact. As I’ve noted, this is the narrowest section of Richmond. Fitting in tracks and stations while retaining two traffic lanes in each direction will require buying some private land: not whole properties, but 2-8 foot strips, on maybe a third of the properties in this section. But the finished product would be a fully functional arterial, with the same traffic capacity as today, but with the ability to move a lot more people. The trains would be quieter, considerably safer, and infinitely less polluting than the traffic already on Richmond. (image from METRO)

Neartown Richmondrender

The Culberson option hasn’t gotten the press that the Richmond option has. Culberson says it’s “neighborhood-friendly,” but the neighborhoods don’t agree. It runs along 59, but not inside the trench and the soundwalls. Instead, it’s elevated, 25 feet above the ground, at people’s back yard fences. In some cases, the trains would be passing only 20 feet from third floor windows. The trains themselves would make some noise, but the real problem is that the structure itself would reflect traffic noise from the freeway below into the neighborhoods. (image from richmondrail.org)

Neartown Culbersonrender

As if to add insult to injury, these houses would not only get the impacts of the trains; they wouldn’t get any benefit because there’s no station at Dunlavy or Mandell.

The Culberson option has impacts on commuters, too: a lane of 59 would likely have to be closed during construction, and the shoulders would be narrowed by new support columns.

The scorecard in Neartown:

  • Richmond-Montrose-59-Kirby-Westpark (“Culberson”):Serves Montrose area and University of St. Thomas. Does not serve rest of Neartown (like the Menil Collection). Elevated tracks above residential backyards.
  • Richmond-Greenway-Westpark: serves large swath of Neartown, including St. Thomas and the Menil. Some property required.
  • Richmond-Cummins-Westpark: ditto.

Neartown Changing

There’s a final factor to consider in Neartown: the neighborhood is changing fast. That’s been happening for 10 years now, as bungalows get replaced by townhouses. Even more is on the way: there are currently two multi-story apartment and condo projects under construction directly on Richmond just in the Neartown area, and there are surely more to come. These projects aren’t coming because of rail, but rail could reduce their impacts by putting new residents on trains instead of in single-occupant cars. Just over a five year period (1996-2001, before 59 construction), the volume of traffic along Richmond here rose more than 15%. The question is not whether we have the status quo or light rail; it’s how we handle growth: trains, or more traffic lanes?

Our forums already have the infrastructure for growth, so go ahead and post your comments.

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