Between Main Street and the University of Houston, the University Line will cross one of the most historic neighborhoods in Houston, the Third Ward. This has been a center of the African-American community — commerce, music, art, culture, religion, and everyday life — in Houston since before 1900. It has seen better days, but its rebirth seems to have begun.
The Third Ward is not one uniform place. Almeda, Dowling, and Scott are commercial corridors; Almeda has revitalized recently with new, locally-owned businesses, and there are efforts to promote the same thing on the other two. South of Alabama, there and tree-lined streets of brick homes dating from the 1920s and 1930s and mansions along Braes Bayou. West of Dowling are older but similar neighborhoods that were part of Midtown before they were cut off by the construction of Highway 59. North of Alabama and east of Dowling is a very different sort of neighborhood: shotgun cottages, many in disrepair; badly paved streets; and many vacant lots. These are the Third Ward bottoms, and just about everyone agrees they’re in need of revitalization. The question, of course, is what kind: community-based rebuilding like Project Row Houses or Drexler’s BBQ, or new townhouses spilling over from Midtown?
Light rail could mean a lot for the Third Ward. This is a heavily transit-dependent neighborhood, and light rail would mean faster, more reliable transportation for those who already live here. Light rail to major employment centers could also convince the middle class to move back and fill those empty lots. The Southeast Line will connect the Third Ward to Downtown, but the University Line will be the connection to the Medical Center, Greenway, and Uptown.
There are three options for the University Line in the Third Ward:
The Alabama option skirts the southern edge of the Bottoms. It serves the Dowling Scott corridors well but it just misses the north end of the Almeda commercial area. Alabama is a significant through street, so it seems desirable to maintain the current two traffic lanes in each direction. For the most part, there’s enough space in the existing right of way for two tracks and two lanes, but additional land could be needed at stations and at left turn lanes. That could affect Cuney Homes, a public housing project. At the eastern end of Alabama, near UH, the right of way narrows and land could be required just to fit the tracks and two lanes each way.
The Wheeler-Ennis-Alabama option serves the Bottoms also just skirts the bottoms, and it deals with the same right of way issues on Alabama. It serves the Dowling and Scott corridors also, but it serves Almeda better. Wheeler has the same right of way as Alabama, but since it dead ends at TSU, it’s not as important a through street. That means it could be possible to reduce it to one lane each way with left turn lanes, eliminating the need to take land and even keeping the curb in the same place in many areas. There is a narrow section between Almeda and Main where land could be required at stations and left turn lanes.
The Wheeler-Enis-Elgin option enters the heart of the Bottoms, putting a station alongside Riverside Hospital with all of the Bottoms within a ten minute walk. It serves all three commercial corridors. Elgin has a wide median, so rail can be added without even toughing the traffic lanes. Ennis is narrower, but it’s a relatively minor street which, like Wheeler, could work with one lane in each direction. This option avoids any impacts on Alabama; the impacts on Wheeler are the same as on the Wheeler-Ennis-Alabama option.
The Third Ward has a history of being impacted by public works projects like 59 and 45 that haven’t benefited the neighborhood. Many of its streets show a history of city neglect. And the neighborhood often seems to be in the shadow of the two universities that are embedded in it. But there’s good news here: the Third Ward is one of the neighborhoods that stands to benefit most from METRO’s 2012 plan, with two lines. And I’ve heard from administrators at both universities that they will respect the needs and opinions of the neighborhoods. There’s a lot of potential for good here. But, of course, that raises the stakes: this is the time to get this right.
The bottom line:
- US59/Alabama: Does not serve Bottoms well. Serves Dowling and Scott but not Alameda. Some additional right-of-way may be required on Alabama.
- Wheeler/Ennis/Alabama: Does not serve Bottoms well. Serves Dowling, Scott, and Alameda. Some additional right-of-way may be required on Alabama; some right of way may be required on Wheeler.
- Wheeler/Ennis/Elgin Serves the Bottoms well. Serves Dowling, Scott, and Alameda. No impacts on Alabama; some right of way may be required on Wheeler.
From what I can tell, the community seems to be favoring the Wheeler-Ennis-Elgin option. What do you think? Tell us in our forums.