Kirby Drive reconstruction plans pose important questions, trade-offs

kirby construction
Right now, the City of Houston is in the process of reconstructing Kirby Drive south of US-59. It’s part of a FEMA-funded project to install massive storm water culverts under the street to drain rain water to Brays Bayou.

But there’s another Kirby project coming soon that neighbors are starting to talk about.

The Upper Kirby TIRZ and Harris County Improvement District #3 (collectively, “Upper Kirby”) will install 72″ storm sewers in a section of Kirby that the FEMA project missed, from US-59 north to Westheimer. The goal is to improve storm water drainage and reduce street flooding. (Improvements to the segment from Westheimer to San Felipe have been tabled.)

Houston storm waters
Absolutely everyone we’ve talked to, including neighbors in the adjacent Davy Crockett and Avalon Place neighborhoods, is excited about the storm water improvements. Fortunately, new storm sewers can be installed under the existing street, between the existing curbs.

Given that the storm sewer project requires tearing up and reconstructing the street, the Upper Kirby district also intends to make street improvements, to leave Kirby safer and more functional after the project. While some of the improvements, like adding a raised center median, are really important, other elements of the project plan, like widening the traffic lanes and pushing back the curbs, have raised controversy.

In total, Upper Kirby has committed to spend $8.5 million on the project ($7 mm TIRZ, $1.5 mm HCID3), and they plan to break ground in January 2008. However, Kirby Drive is publicly-owned by the City of Houston so both Public Works and City Council have oversight of the project.

More to the point, the 100 feet of publicly-owned right-of-way between property lines on Kirby is part of our shared “public realm”. And that means we — the public — deserve some say over the design of Kirby’s future.

To that end, the Upper Kirby District will host a community meeting on Sat Sept 15 from 9:00 to 11:00 am at their offices at 3015 Richmond at Eastside. If you have an interest in Kirby’s future, please plan to attend. Upper Kirby has posted the current 70% design schematics for public review. In the meantime, here’s more about some of the issues and design challenges on Kirby.

The devil is in the details
So… Upper Kirby wants to rebuild Kirby as a better street. That sounds great! And fortunately, groups like the national Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) have published terrific new guidelines for how best to design great urban thoroughfares.
ITE context-sensitive thoroughfare components

In a perfect world, Kirby Drive would include a whole host of critical elements:

  • wide sidewalks for all the new urban shoppers and diners
  • mature tree canopy to shade and cool the sidewalk, clean the air, and protect pedestrians from wayward cars
  • benches and other street furniture to create an inviting pedestrian realm
  • raised center median with left-turn pockets to ensure drivers turn safely and reduce crashes
  • center refuge islands and mid-block crossings to help pedestrians cross the street safely
  • ADA-compliant ramps at intersections and other pedestrian crossings to accommodate Houstonians with mobility challenges
  • wider outside curb lanes to accommodate METRO buses and bicyclists
  • narrower driving lanes to encourage “traffic calming”
  • on-street parking both for convenience and also to serve as a further buffer between fast-moving traffic and pedestrians
  • oversized truck ban to keep semi-trailers out of a busy commercial district
  • underground duct bays to bury electric and other utilities

Together, these elements would comprise a great urban boulevard that accommodates motorists, deliveries, transit users, bicyclists, and pedestrians all equitably and well. And building this great boulevard would only require about 130 feet of right-of-way.

But unfortunately, Kirby’s right-of-way is just 100 feet from property line to property line. Unless the City decides to start buying up private land to widen the right-of-way, some of these design elements have to go, and that’s where trade-offs come in. According to ITE, the very “nature of thoroughfare design is balancing the desired design elements of the ideal thoroughfare
with right-of-way constraints.” Deciding which elements to prioritize should depend in part on the growth forecast for Kirby, and also in part on community preference.

Kirby is one of Houston’s busiest commercial corridors
Kirby is home to everything from banks, medical facilities, and law offices to big box stores, one-of-a-kind shops, galleries, and restaurants. Kirby is not only a place to visit, but also a place to work for thousands of Houstonians. As a result, Kirby is a street that should be accessible to everyone, including the one-in-five adult Texans who cannot drive. As we plan Kirby’s future, we must ensure it will accommodate all of its users well, including motorists, transit users, bicyclists, pedestrians, and the disabled.

Raised medians will dramatically reduce crash risk on Kirby
A recent study by the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) found that Kirby Drive boasts several of the most dangerous intersections in our 8-county region, with more than 560 crashes between 1998 and 2001 on the stretch from Bissonnet to San Felipe. However, there are hundreds of mid-block crashes, including dangerous right-angle crashes, on Kirby as well. That’s because Kirby still has an ill-considered continuous left-turn lane — aka “suicide lane” — that allows drivers to make any turn, anywhere, any time.
kirby mid-block crash counts

Continuous left-turn lanes work well on slow, 3-lane streets like Rice Blvd through the Village. But they’re dangerous on a wide, fast street like Kirby. Instead, adding a raised median of any kind will dramatically improve safety on Kirby. By controlling where drivers can turn left across the center, a raised median will reduce turning conflicts and thereby reduce crashes. A raised median will improve safety for drivers and pedestrians alike.

ITE example raised median
However, this raised median can take several forms and widths, ranging from a 3-foot-wide median as on Main Street near Mecom Fountain, to an 11-foot-wide median with left-turn pockets, to a 14-foot-wide landscaped median with refuge islands for pedestrians. A wider median will leave less room at the roadside for pedestrians, and possibly for the entire block length. While adding some kind of raised median is desirable, the trade-off to get a wider median at the expense of the roadsides should be weighed carefully.

More high-rise, pedestrian-oriented development is coming soon
cranes over West Ave on Kirby
Kirby is changing. You cannot travel on Kirby today without noticing all of the tall construction cranes. Kirby has what real estate people call “location, location, location” and lots of new development is coming fast. With the 7-story West Ave and the 32-story 2727 Kirby projects underway, there are nearly 500 residential units under construction right now, just between Westheimer and Kipling. The West Ave project also includes 180,000 square feet of retail space. Other major parcels along Kirby are changing hands, whole blocks at a time. All signs point to Kirby becoming a much more intense, urban corridor in the next two to three years. (Click on the image below for a larger aerial view of two of the redeveloping sites on Kirby.)

rendering of West Ave development
More importantly, this new development is not old-style and car-based; it’s urban and pedestrian-oriented. Developers are orienting new buildings not to parking lots but to Kirby’s sidewalks. They know that we can count on some of these new residents to walk to hot spots like Taco Milagro, Stone Mill Bakery, Beck’s Prime, and Whole Foods because it will be easier to walk the block or two than to drive. That means Kirby’s roadside must be wide enough to accommodate an ever-growing number of pedestrians.

New developments may offer land for pedestrian realm
In some locations, like the West Ave project just above, developers are getting variances from the City Planning department to enhance their urban-style development. The result is that projects like West Ave — instead of facing vast parking lots — will actually have public sidewalks in the 5 to 10 feet of private land between the property line and the building face, essentially expanding Kirby’s public right-of-way.

It is possible for the City of Houston to adopt an ordinance in the near future that would require all new development on Kirby to work this way. Developers would get to build closer than the current 25-foot setback allows, simultaneously creating a 5- to 10-foot public access easement for wider public sidewalks. Council Members Anne Clutterbuck and Pam Holm have expressed willingness to consider such an ordinance, but it would require support from a majority of Council members to pass, and therefore support from property owners on Kirby. However, such an ordinance, if it passes, would only govern future redevelopment on Kirby, and not existing sites. It is therefore possible that pedestrian space given up to traffic lanes today, may be recovered from adjacent property owners in the future, but it’s no sure thing.

Wider driving lanes would sacrifice the public pedestrian realm
Kirby sidewalk at Norfolk
Driving lanes on Kirby currently measure 9 feet 6 inches. While Texas law dictates that no vehicle may be wider than 102 inches (8 feet 6 inches), some drivers would prefer wider lanes on Kirby. However, wider traffic lanes will come only at the price of a narrower roadside. In some locations, current plans would leave narrower sidewalks than exist today.
(Visit CTC’s forum to see full-size renderings of Kirby’s roadside and the impact of wider traffic lanes on sidewalks at various locations.)

ITE’s guidelines for urban thoroughfares call for 10-foot lanes in urban commercial districts, in order to allow 15 feet or more for wide sidewalks and roadside buffers. City of Houston guidelines, designed for suburban streets in unconstrained rights-of-way, recommend 11-foot traffic lanes. However, the City recently rebuilt Main Street downtown with 10-foot lanes, expressly to leave more room on the roadside for pedestrians. Further, the City has already begun the reconstruction of Kirby south of US-59, without widening the traffic lanes.

Wider driving lanes would require transplant or replacement of mature trees
Kirby roadside by McConnell Interiors near Alabama
Street trees play several critical roles along urban boulevards. Trees obviously provide shade and cool the sidewalk, but they also scrub vehicle exhaust particles from the air, and form a physical buffer between pedestrians and wayward cars. According to a letter from Trees for Houston to Mayor White, widening Kirby’s right-of-way will necessitate the removal of 274 trees, 174 of which are between Westheimer and US-59.

Upper Kirby is committing to replace trees on Kirby with large, 6-to-8-inch caliper trees. The project plans include funds for 200-300 trees, though replacement tree species have not yet been specified.

However, with wider traffic lanes, the space behind the curb for trees and sidewalks will be diminished significantly, perhaps by as much as 41%. One proposal would leave just under 4 feet for street trees and landscape buffer with 6-foot sidewalks.

North of Westheimer, Kirby is residential
Kirby home at San Saba St
Just north of Westheimer, Kirby becomes a very different street. At San Saba Street, just behind Taco Milagro and Stone Mill Bakers, Kirby goes from commercial to single-family residential. Instead of shops and parking lots, Kirby’s sidewalks pass the fences and side yards of Avalon Place homes. While this stretch is where property owners will most fiercely oppose widening Kirby or removing trees, it is also, ironically,the stretch that least needs wide urban sidewalks for access.

Underground duct bays would allow burying utilities
Today, Kirby is lined with telephone and power poles that are strung with heavy cables. As population density increases on Kirby in the next few years, these poles and cables will only proliferate. Burying these utilities would not only make Kirby more attractive and reduce risks in a windstorm, but also would allow street trees to grow tall unimpeded. Everyone we have talked to agrees that burying utilities would improve Kirby. Fortunately, the needed duct bays could be buried under the existing street pavement and would not require widening the curbs. However, it is not clear whether the current project budget includes funds to bury the utilities.

Kirby Coalition’s Starscape initiative will fund amenities
Kirby Coalition's
In addition to the district’s street reconstruction project, the Kirby Coalition is raising private money for aesthetic enhancements to the street. The Kirby Coalition includes businesses and land owners along Kirby from Allen Parkway all the way to Reliant Stadium. Their “Starscape Initiative” includes a decorative pavement design for seven major intersections on Kirby, and with enough funds, will also include benches and other street amenities.

Let’s find the compromise design solution, quickly
It seems that we all share a common motivation: building a better Kirby Drive. The question now is whether we will come together as smart, thoughtful people and reach some consensus about what a better Kirby Drive should consist of. I am hopeful we can.

However, we must work together quickly. Upper Kirby intends to finalize the project plans in September and put the work out to bid by October. The goal is to break ground on the Richmond to Westheimer section this January 2008, and finish the work before the holiday shopping season next November. So do your homework now, and plan to attend the public meeting on Sat Sept 15th.

Contact your elected City officials
Several members of Houston City Council are interested in this project and would like to hear from you:

Meanwhile, we’d always like to hear from you in CTC’s forums, where you can find lively discussion and the latest information on this and other projects.

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