Friday, December 15, 2017

Nextdoor and Houston: A Language Barrier, but an Opportunity

I've previously written about my experience on Nextdoor, and how the platform has been turning some of us in to modern day Gladys Kravitzes. It's full of lost pet announcements (which honestly seems to be the primary function in many neighborhoods), those looking for apartment or home rentals, dry cleaning or dining recommendations, people trying to sell things, notices about crime, and any other suspicious activity that might be taking place.

Earlier this week it was announced that the City of Houston would be partnering with the neighborhood communication application, Nextdoor, in an official capacity. Many may ask, "Well, doesn't the city already make announcements on Nextdoor?" I know I did. And, yes, you'd be correct. Many city departments are already making posts on the neighborhood networking site. For instance, the Houston and Community Development Department began posting on Nextdoor in October of 2016. The Office of Emergency Management posts notices on the site, which was instrumental in notifying residents about all of Houston's recent flooding events, especially through Hurricane Harvey. Now, it appears even more City of Houston communication will be forwarded to residents through Nextdoor. What was originally introduced as a way for neighbors to connect has now become an extension of civic infrastructure.

In an age of digital dependence and busyness, coupled with the need for government transparency, this sort of partnership is wise for localities. However, unlike a bus announcement or printed material, Nextdoor isn't readily translated in other languages. This is a huge drawback for civic engagement, especially for a multi-lingual city like Houston.

In the announcement city leaders set goals for engagement on the application, but that brought to mind the barrier of translating announcements in so many different languages. Take Houston's Gulfton neighborhood for example, where a multitude of languages are spoken. This is arguably Houston's most diverse neighborhood, a place where many refugees call home upon their arrival to Houston. Official announcements and the continued opportunity to become aware of events in the community are a great way for people to become woven into the social fabric of a neighborhood.

It may be helpful to learn about people's experiences using Nextdoor in these diverse communities. In our neighborhood, Houston's Near Northside, and specifically the Near Northside South neighborhood on Nextdoor, the application predicts that only 6% of the estimated 2019 households in the boundary are enrolled in Nextdoor. Our neighborhood also happens to be overwhelmingly Hispanic or Latino. Certainly, the political climate surrounding citizenship in many Hispanic and Latino communities may be a factor as well. While there is nothing seemingly preventing residents from posting in other languages, it doesn't seem that posts in other languages are common. (Or allowed? There was nothing in Nextdoor's guidelines.)

If Nextdoor is set on continuing to be a valuable connection for residents, there needs to be an adaptation of its services to reflect the communities it serves. A translation tool is something that would be of great benefit. Nextdoor, if you'd like to beta test some sort of language translation tool for your platform, come to Houston. We'd love to have you. There's no doubt that with the host of innovative talent Nextdoor was conceived from, coupled with the talent and motivation of those in Houston, we can make Nextdoor even more useful for the changing demographics of our cities and neighborhoods.

While technological advancements that better facilitate communication through multiple languages will be a benefit to communities, there won't be a better way to get to know your neighbors than getting to know them through the normal rhythms of life. Our design of cities and neighborhoods, and the services and opportunities they provide, also play a role in giving people ample ways to meet their neighbor. As civic leaders, we can't rely solely on Nextdoor or digital platforms to spread information. We need to know our neighbors aside from interacting with them on a computer or phone screen.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Friday's Weekly Rap Up - July 21, 2017 - Shai Linne "Still Jesus"

Shai Linne - Still Jesus

It's been a while since my last #FridaysWeeklyRapUp entry, but there's some new music dropping that needs to be shared. Today Shai Linne releases his Still Jesus album. It's his first album in about three years.

After becoming a Christian, I immediately took to the Christian Hip Hop scene, being introduced to the music of Trip Lee, Tedashii and Lecrae, of Reach Records. Their "Unashamed" music was a foundation of my growth in Christ. Tracks like Lecrae's "Go Hard", "Rebel" or "Jesus Muzik", Tedashii's "Make War" or "Community", and Trip Lee's "Who You Rollin' Wit" were on repeat. Their music was invaluable at a time of growth in my Christian life, and it was supported at times by sermon excerpts, including John Piper on many occasions.

But, as time has gone on, there's been a bit of a drift of Reach Records. What seemed more like ministry, now seems a bit more seeker-sensitive, a bit less brazen and bold about sharing the gospel and person of Christ. Now, I have no room to criticize, as I'm not nearly bold enough in my testimony  of the work of Christ in my life. But, there's a certain affinity for music that brings a better understanding of Jesus and his character. This is where some feel there has been a drift for Christian Hip Hop (CHH).

Shai Linne is a pastor and rapper who has maintained his "Lyrical Theology" approach, centering on scripture-drenched lyrics, and less on specific social topics. (I'd argue Shai's "The Attributes of God" is my favorite CHH album.) In the last few years Shai has noticed this drift in CHH and addresses it on "Still Jesus". On Shai's albums he has featured a few "Random Thoughts" tracks, and "Still Jesus" includes "Random Thoughts 3", addressing this drift in CHH.

If you're new to CHH, be sure to first watch Shai's recent interview with DJ Wade-O, as it explains much of Shai's background, reason for addressing this topic, and why this drift is a bit of dangerous territory for some, especially those who are new to the Christian faith. This isn't controversy for the sake of controversy, but an important discussion and recognition of something that could be leading some astray. I pray this is a sobering perspective for some, and something that unifies, rather than divides, the CHH scene and ministry.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Looking Forward through Past Plans: Downtown Houston in 2000, 2004, 2017 and Beyond

Here in Houston the Houston Downtown Management District is in the middle of their Plan Downtown effort, which aims to position Downtown Houston for a "competitive and enriched future." Through community meetings and a fantastic community input tool, which Sasaki has helped develop, called My Downtown, the group is looking to gather from the residents, workers and visitors of Downtown Houston what will help propel continued success of the district for the next number of years. If you're a Houstonian who happens to live in Downtown Houston, or someone who works or visits downtown, even sparingly, I'd suggest that you fill out the survey. The more data that is provided in the process, the better.

As we look forward and attempt to make the best plans we can for the future, it's important to look to the past. It's worth it to look back and see what some of the proposals for development in Downtown Houston were nearly 15 years ago. This is a quote from the project's website:
“Thirteen years have gone by since Downtown’s last comprehensive plan, and we’re made tremendous progress since then,” said Bob Eury, Executive Director of the Houston Downtown Management District (Downtown District). “Now it’s time for us to take a fresh look at what lies ahead and prepare for the future. Can Houston adapt to driverless cars, a sharing economy, collaborative work environments and work-life integration? How can we better prepare Downtown Houston for the next few decades?”
The Plan Downtown website includes a number of previous plans and reports that have helped shape the actions taken by entities within Downtown Houston. In a city known for its lack of planning, there are likely just as many aspirational plans for districts as other cities. In fact, there might be more. The oldest plan featured in the resources is the Houston Downtown Development Framework from 2004, a plan that opens with a quote from William C. Hogg, the chairman of the Houston City Planning Commission and Houston Forum of Civics, from approximately 1928. In a vision that is not on the minds of many today, he said
"When we build, let us build forever. Let it not be for the present delight for for the present use alone. Let it be such work that our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come that these stone walls will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they loop upon our labor and the wrought substance of them, 'See, this our father did for us.'"
This certainly hasn't been the mindset behind much of what has been built in Houston, or the rest of many other cities, but it's helpful to be reminded of the motivation that shaped the development of the cities and many of the districts that we celebrate and fight so hard to preserve today.

After perusing the 2004 plan for a while, there are a number of things that jump out. The biggest to me was the development opportunities that were missed along Houston's Buffalo Bayou, particularly what is labelled as the Waterview District. I continue to think that this is one of Houston's biggest missed opportunities. The trails adjacent to the bayous, are wonderful and a huge asset (I use them almost every day on my bike commute!), but there's a missed opportunity in the pattern of development extended up from the banks of the bayou. Much of the bayou at the northern end of Downtown Houston is consumed by Harris County judicial uses, with the Harris County Jail in a prime bayou-front location. For as bad of flooding that the Bayou receives, maybe that's been more of a blessing than a missed opportunity, but jail cells with bayou-front views seems like a bit of a missed opportunity when considering the other residential or commercial uses that could be harnessed to create an extension of Houston's Main Street. The Waterview District vision in the 2004 framework looked much like what Chicago has developed in its Chicago Riverwalk. The lure of water features in downtown districts cannot be understated, as evidenced in cities like San Antonio, Chicago, and even now Detroit.

Another interesting note was the proposal of a "North Canal" allowing much of White Oak Bayou to bypass the bottleneck of Buffalo Bayou just to the south, which would have been a backbone of the Waterview District. The canal would have sat where the current METRO bus lot is located on the east side of San Jacinto, just north of the Harris County Jail.

Looking back at some of the past plans for Downtown Houston, I wanted to highlight another plan developed for the Houston Downtown Management District that centered around Main Street. I suppose this is less of a plan and more of a vision of what Downtown Houston and other parts of the city might looks like with development centered around Main Street and the Red Line light rail transit corridor. Not only is Downtown Houston highlighted, but the entire Main Street corridor to the south to the current NRG Stadium.

This to scale model is quite impressive. Each Downtown Houston tower and building is made of balsa wood, with future development possibilities denoted through the use of white cardboard; trees and greenspace represented with foam.

From this perspective, you're looking to the south from the Near Northside, with the area near the University of Houston-Downtown in the foreground. This portion of North Main has not been built up as expected, and will be even more challenged by the relocation of I-10 and I-45 in the coming decade. Notice, there is no canal shown within the previously mentioned Waterview District area.

Quite possibly the most interesting aspect of this model is the proposed angular street extending from the area of what is now Discovery Green. A civic space was proposed for the Discovery Green area, however, there are far larger buildings surrounding that space now that were imagined here. Notice the angular street, extending to the southwest, and terminating at Main Street with some sort of square adjacent to the Pierce Elevated portion of I-45.

Here's another view of the angular street proposed through Downtown Houston. This undoubtedly would have made for quite the disruption in traffic patterns, but would have added a signature focal point radiating from a proposed monument, which is now Discovery Green.

The area surrounding Minute Maid Park has also seen an enhanced amount of development compared to the proposals shown above. With the addition of the Marriott Marquis, the Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites, the Greater Houston Partnership building and 500 Crawford, the northeastern portion of Downtown Houston has outpaced development in the southeast portion of Downtown Houston.

And that's the nature of plans. Some things stick, but most don't. You hope more sticks than doesn't. But people's minds change, funding changes, unforeseen investments or disinvestment happens.

(As a note, check out this to-scale model of Downtown Houston that is featured on It's most impressive. Scale models of cities are always fascinating. Dan Gilbert has a model of Detroit, while others have been made of Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Moscow, among others.)

Friday, March 24, 2017

Brownfield Redevelopment in Huntington, WV

I spent two years in Huntington, West Virginia from 2008 to 2010 attending graduate school at Marshall University and working as a graduate assistant basketball coach. Upon visiting for the first time for my interview with the coaching staff I was second guessing my move from Michigan down to the unknown of West Virginia. Thankfully, my desire to receive a free education and the pursuit of coaching experience was far greater than my desire to avoid something uncomfortable.

My two years there were filled with a ton of memories and experiences, and an appreciation for a city that had received its share of blows, but was still striving to live up to its Jewel City name. After graduating I made it back a few times, but since moving to Texas I've not been back to Huntington. So, this is some perspective from afar, but from one who knew the city well and hopes for its continued renewal and revitalization.

Marshall University Special Collections
4th Avenue Streetcar - Marshall University Special Collections
Due to its location at the confluence of a number of rivers, Huntington boomed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and continued to grow as a result of the coal and railroad industries. Huntington has the distinction of actually being the second city behind Richmond, Virginia (others have claimed San Francisco as well) to have had an electric street car system. However, as oil began to become less expensive in the later part of the 1900s, coal mining decreased, leaving Huntington with a declining population, followed by compounding factory closures. Those closed factories hope to play into redevelopment plans in Huntington.

Fortunately, there have been a number of projects aimed at revitalizing the city. The Pullman Square redevelopment helped revitalize Downtown Huntington, adding a movie theater, parking garages, and blocks of restaurants and retail. As Huntington's Superblock, Pullman Square was the result of planning that started in the 1960s as urban renewal, and included a number of failed proposals and a few court cases. Eventually, in 2004 the development opened, and continues to be a success today.

Unfortunately, Huntington has had decades of suburban-style development that detracted from supporting its downtown. This is reflected in the attitudes of former leaders of Huntington, highlighted in this Strong Towns article and video, Huntington Calling. The attitude toward traditional, and now wildly successful development, is astounding. When Jean Dean, former mayor of Huntington, asked Chuck Marohn "Why on earth would we go back in time 70 years to model our current cities on? Times have changed", all he could do is respond with: "because it worked." Huntington once created value in its downtown. It's time to do that again in the city.

Now, Huntington is looking to its next big redevelopment project. This time, it is not located downtown, but between the northern edge of Marshall University and the city's Highlawn neighborhood. The proposal has been talked about for nearly a decade, turning brownfield sites into mixed use, light industrial and research uses. The most current proposals come as a result of an EPA Brownfields Area-Wide Planning program grant. From the announcement website, the vision is described as including:

"new recreational and riverfront facilities; retail and hotel development; research and development facilities; green infrastructure for storm water management; and the advanced polymer center."

The City of Huntington, Marshall University and a list of other public and private entities hope to partner in developing four areas: University Park, the Sport Complex Expansion, the Foundry Center and the Polymer Tech Center. The Herald-Dispatch gave a detailed recap of the proposal, which was presented by Sean Garrigan of Stromberg/Garrigan and Associates, a firm with great experience in brownfield redevelopment, especially in the Appalachia and Rust Belt regions. (Full presentation here).

The vision for the redevelopment is supported by "Comprehensive Plan 2025 - The Future of Huntington", and fully supports some of the assistance and guidance that Huntington has received from Smart Growth America in hopes of improving the economic and fiscal health of the city. Specifically, this most recent proposal draws from the goals and vision for the Highlawn neighborhood in Plan 2025. Overall, the plan has six key themes:

Stromberg/Garrigan & Associates

1. Economic Development and Job Creation
The expansion and support of existing industrial and technological industries in Huntington is important, especially with the decrease of coal and heavy industrial jobs in the past. Providing more opportunities for vocational training and partnership with Marshall University's College of Information Technology and Engineering would be a great benefit. Creating a new market for entrepreneurs, especially those that do not need large amounts of space, or that can utilize co-working spaces, opens Huntington to new industries. There's also something about rust-belt cities that is attracting more young, creative professionals who feel a bit more freedom in their pursuits. Rust belt cities also tend to have a base of professionals that have practical manufacturing knowledge: meaning, in Huntington, it might not be flashy, but there are likely people there that can get things manufactured.

Added hotel rooms near sporting facilities would allow Marshall University to compete with other cities for Conference USA championships, as well as regional and national youth tournaments that might regularly utilize recreational and lodging facilities in other municipalities. The planning and building of, especially publicly funded facilities for athletic competition, is an increasingly sore subject for cities, but this seems like a different circumstance given the involvement of a university.

2. Provide Physical and Visual Access to River 
Providing access to the Ohio River riverfront is an area that Huntington has greatly missed. It's understandable though, as Huntington's flood wall is a monstrous physical barrier. The 11.5-mile wall was built starting in 1937 as a way to protect Huntington from devastating floods, and reaches as tall as 20 feet high in some places. City officials once talked about the possibility of an "invisible" flood wall, but this approach is likely too costly, in terms of infrastructure and labor costs, as well as insurance costs for property owners, to ever come to fruition. The wall, at its northeast terminus, ends between 24th and 25th Streets, between the Foundry Center and Polymer Tech Center development zones. With a trail head at the extension of 25th Street, a connection to the Harris Riverfront Park could one day be made.

At some point, the effort should be made to connect these trails, joining other trails in the Paul Ambrose Trail for Health. It would be a legacy fit for Huntington.

3. Enhance Community Character – Strengthen Highlawn Neighborhood Brand 
The existence of the flood wall and railroads creates fragmentation when considering circulation between Highlawn and the proposed development zones. Further connection for the Highlawn neighborhood can allow for better pedestrian facilities and streets. Highlawn, with its proximity to Downtown Huntington and Marshall University, combined with possible connectivity through trails and streets, would be able to boast in its unique setting. Investment on the periphery of the neighborhood can spur revitalization of homes and continued building of characteristics, like street trees, landscaping and wayfinding that would set the neighborhood apart from others.

The ACF site in operation

The ACF site today

At this point, it might also be beneficial to mention the ability to preserve some of the heritage of the American Car and Foundry (ACF) sites. Huntington greatly benefited from the fact that ACF was located in the city, so preserving the buildings when feasible is a great start. It is impressive that these buildings have been on the ACF site for nearly as long as Huntington has been a city. The plants built railway freight cars, mine cars and other equipment. ACF was responsible for introducing the center-flow covered hopper, which became an industry standard, building over 100,000 of the cars in Huntington. You'd recognize them if you've paid attention when you're stopped at a railroad crossing. Work has now ceased in Huntington, with ACF's headquarters now located in Missouri, and manufacturing in Pennsylvania.

ACF plant, from

It may also be possible to incorporate some railroad and industrial themes into any public or private infrastructure improvements. The Hardy Yards development in Houston is one example, and the Pearl Brewery development in San Antonio.

Streets in the Highlawn neighborhood also appear to have been brick a one time, consistent with many of the other streets in Huntington. The inclusion of brick into the streetscape design would help tie the areas together.

4. Improve and Enhance Public Amenities
To this point, the proposal wouldn't be simply improving or enhancing amenities, it would be creating them. There are no parks in the interior of Highlawn. Riverside Park, which is at the extreme northern boundary of the neighborhood, is the area's closest park. A lively public realm with parks and tree lined streets can certainly enhance physical activity within the neighborhood, and increase economic development. Parks are an important component of cities and provide an opportunity to improve public health, especially in a city that has been recognized as the unhealthiest city in the country. It doesn't take monument parks like Ritter Park to spur this activity. Parks can be small, or linear. Either way, you want to have more of them.

5. Promote Diversity and Mixture of Uses 
More and more, cities are finding that rigid Euclidian zoning does not work to promote the mix of uses that so many of them want, especially in downtowns and other districts. So, cities amend their zoning codes to allow a greater variety of uses, or rezone land for planned unit developments, which often times gives cities a bit more bargaining power with respect to form, and characteristics like building setbacks.

Most of the area within the four development zones is currently zoned as I-1, General Industrial, and with a Special Use Permit, would allow for Planned Unit Developments. This would give some flexibility to the mix of uses, as well as their orientation with respect to the street and other buildings. Huntington's zoning map is integrated with Google Earth, which makes exploring the city and current land use rules, quite easy.

Zoning in the Highlawn neighborhood area

6. Bring together Catalyst Sites, Highlawn Neighborhood and University Campus 
As part of my graduate studies, I partnered with current Huntington Planning Commissioner Will Holland, examining what Huntington could do to enhance its streetscape, design and connectivity. While our proposals did not include site specific redevelopment, we did recognize the importance of corridors and gateways in Huntington. This sixth theme does the same. Huntington includes some great destinations, including the Marshall campus, Central City, Downtown Huntington, and the future University Park and Foundry Center areas. Connecting those places will be crucial.

In general, this project has the opportunity to do a couple of things for the City of Huntington:

Further connect the Marshall campus with the rest of Huntington

As Marshall University continues to grow and expand its educational opportunities and host athletic, educational and performance events, it is important that Huntington is able to better capture the attention and economic impact of students and visitors. By providing continued connectivity to campus and the city, especially Downtown Huntington (a recent Herald-Dispatch article summarizes the continued growth of Downtown), the city can better capture spending that might otherwise be taken to areas outside the city limits.

Marshall has a baseball team, but is without a baseball stadium. It is remarkable that their teams have been as competitive as they are, given the team has no on-campus field facilities, and plays their home games at a YMCA field about 5 miles outside of town, or in Charleston, WV. It wasn't until a few years ago that the Track and Field teams, remarkably, had a track on which to practice and compete. (Now they have an indoor track as well.) But, the opportunity is there to create a space adjacent to campus, adjacent to Dot Hicks Field, that can hold baseball games, as well as other civic or university events.

Encourage walkable redevelopment along 3rd Ave, adjacent to campus

University Park development area
3rd Avenue has relatively high speeds for a road adjacent to a university campus. The posted speed limit is only 35 MPH, but the design, and one way direction of the road, likely induces much quicker travel.

With one way streets, it may be hard to replicate the success of Downtown Huntington. Normally, one way streets are not too good for small cities and retail. While this is a long shot, extending the development pattern of Downtown Huntington, and creating more walkable places, might be supported through the change of one way streets to two way streets.

C-2 zoning in red, I-1 in purple
In looking at Huntington's zoning code, most of the commercial land along 3rd Avenue is zoned as C-2, Highway Commercial District. This zone has a 15-foot setback, which is not ideal along walkable thoroughfares. This space usually ends up being parking, or some sort of landscaping that is not maintained well. A few blocks of 3rd Avenue already have commercial properties, which are zoned C-2, adjacent to the right of way, so the hope would be that this continues through the University Park and Foundry Center development zones.

One proposal would be in building apartment or student housing within the University Park development zone. It's been a while since a new apartment complex was built near campus, with The Village on Sixth being the largest single apartment complex near campus. Honestly, it's surprising to me that there hasn't been a greater attempt at more apartment complexes near campus, especially within walking distance of campus. To promote walkability, there need to be people. It can start with apartments.

Encourage redevelopment adjacent to Development Zones

This is especially true for a number of blocks near the Foundry Center. There are three blocks that are currently zoned R-5, the highest intensity residential zone, which seem underutilized. As connections with the Marshall campus and other districts occur, this portion of R-5 zoned land would be well suited for multifamily redevelopment, or development of single family homes on smaller lots. What would help this area be an even more representative extension of more dense parts of Huntington, is a relaxation of the building line setbacks, especially if future development in the Foundry Center zone is built to more urban standards, and the setback lines of the ACF buildings are preserved through redevelopment of the existing structures.

R-5 zoning district (in brown) adjacent to the I-1 ACF site
These efforts are plans, and nothing more at this point. But, it's important that Huntington see what can be done with so much of the land that is currently unproductive, especially parcels that are in prime locations, and have the ability to greatly contribute to the city's tax base. Sean Garrigan, of SGA, noted that "What will happen will not look like this plan, which seems contrary to this effort, but without going through this effort you won't know what the opportunities or priorities are." Yes, these are plans, but this exercise of visually seeing what is possible is important.

These plans could act as a catalyst for investment for areas on north side of 3rd Avenue. Huntington can now use this in attracting developers that want to play a role in the city's continued redevelopment.

Bonus: During some research I came across this flag proposal for Huntington from the 1970s, "Huntington, geared for progress."

Monday, February 27, 2017

Houston night.jpg, an oft-used skyline photograph of Houston

Calling all photographers: we need an updated skyline night shot here in Houston.

Houston night.jpg

This is likely the most-used skyline photograph of Downtown Houston. And, it needs a bit of updating. Now, I'm sure there are thousands of skyline shots of Houston out there on the internet, but none as popular at this one, "Houston night.jpg".

The photo was taken by Flickr user eflon back in February of 2008 from the top of the Harris County parking structure at 1401 Congress Street, which sits atop the Harris County Federal Credit Union, a block to the east of the Harris County Civil Courthouse.

If you subscribe to email updates from Houston area organizations, or see news articles written about Houston, you've likely see this image before. It is included in the Wikimedia Commons, able to be used without requiring permission for non-commercial uses. This morning, Progrss, a group that tracks the trends and best practices in the transformation of cities all over the world, featured the photograph in an article announcing the network's partnership with the Rice Kinder Institute. The partnership is something to be celebrated, as it will help allow the City of Houston to start using "big data" to assist in solving Houston's biggest problems.

Houston's skyline has changed greatly since 2008. Of course, due to the angle of this photograph, much of the change in the southern portion will be eclipsed. But, we're missing a t least two of the now-iconic buildings that shape Houston's skyline.

For starters, we're missing BG Group Place (It'll probably be called Shell-something after Shell's acquisition of BG Group. BG Group Place was completed in 2011, three years after Houston night.jpg was taken.

We're also missing 609 Main at Texas.

Market Square Tower would have almost certainly been out of view, as just the extreme southern portion of the Lyric Center is captured, but this will be another one of Houston's skyline-shaping buildings.

A quick image search using Google Images shows that this image is everywhere. It's on a recycling website. One for emergency dentists too. And a marketing company, a tutoring company, a website for private security guards, and a recent Advance Auto Parts road trip planner set for those who were coming to Houston to experience Super Bowl LI.

It's odd how pictures and things like tweets and videos "go viral", and are used in such a wide variety of websites. When photographers allow their photos to be used by others, I suppose that will be expected. (Especially when it's a great photograph!). For as great of a photo as it is, we could use a little bit of an update, showing off the many changes in Houston's skyline.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Houston's Most Interesting Google Photo Spheres

In 2012 Google introduced photo spheres for its Android devices. At first users could only upload panoramic photos. In 2014 Google started to allow iOS (Apple) users to contribute to the online mapping program by uploading 360-degree views of sites around the world. So, now we have lists of the best photo spheres from around the world, capturing both urban and rural landscapes, allowing you to be a virtual tourist anywhere around the globe (so long as someone has published a photo sphere!)

As for Google Spheres and their usefulness, they can provide us a look at how a place once looked. They'll be valuable in showing the change that takes place in cities (hopefully for the good.)

So, I set out to find out where some of the more interesting photo spheres are located in Houston.

So, here are some of the best (and worst) Google Spheres in Houston:

Downtown Houston's Houston Chronicle Building
This will be a view preserved digitally, as the former Houston Chronicle Building at 801 Texas in Downtown Houston is set for implosion at some point.

Houston Skyline from the Sawyer Heights Lofts
The view from atop the Sawyer Heights Lofts is a great one, especially with the sun setting and Houston glowing. However, it gives a depiction of the sheer number of air conditioners and parking spaces that occupy Houston.

This lot on the south side of the Near Northside, just north of I-10, plays home to a bunch of BMWs. If you've been to St. Arnold in the past year, you've likely seen this.

Fonde Recreation Center
This is a timeless photo of Houston's Fonde Recreation Center.

Eleanor Tinsley Park
Buffalo Bayou after a flood as seen from Eleanor Tinsley Park

Zeke Digital Marketing
If you're looking to film a commercial or need a website created, here's your place. (Not an official endorsement. But, it's ambitious putting this in your home, then throwing a Photo Sphere out there.)

Two-Headed Studying at U of H
If you're studying for a big exam, it's probable that two heads are better than one. Except when you're digitally embedded forever in a Photo Sphere.

Dean's Bar in Downtown Houston

Downtown Houston's Chase Building
Gone are the days of magnificent bank buildings. At least this one is still around.

Downtown Houston Skyline at Night
You won't even recognize this eastern portion of Downtown Houston, as it now is home to the Greater Houston Partnership Building, as well as the Marriott Marquis hotel.

Avenida De Las Americas
As the construction of Avenida De Las Americas finishes up, and the facade of the George R. Brown Convention Center begins to take shape, we can always be reminded of what it looked like during construction. Also in the background is the Marriott Marquis hotel,

Monument Au Fantome
From inside the Monument Au Fantome at Discovery Green

Art at Winter Street Studios

Houston Heights Medspring
Take a look inside the Medspring building as it was being constructed at the northwest corner of Heights Blvd. and 11th Street in the Houston Heights. I'm not sure why this was of interest to anyone to capture as a Photo Sphere, but with all that concrete we can be assured that this is a sturdy building.

Picnic Tables - University of St. Thomas
If you're feeling stressed, digitally hang out at these picnic tables on the campus of the University of St. Thomas. If you're at your desk for lunch, throw this on your monitor, and you'll feel like you're having a picnic instead.

Midtown's Bagby Park 
the distortion of the buildings in the background is the real winner here. But, Midtown's Bagby Park is always ready for a photo.

Anywhere, Houston Strip Mall
There is no shortage of brightly lit strip malls in Houston.

Art Class
A student captured an art class at Lone Star College's Victory Center on Victory Boulevard in the Acres Homes area.

Chase Tower
Now that Houstonians can no longer visit the SkyLobby of Chase Tower in Downtown Houston, it's important that we have this Photo Sphere. This offers one of the best panoramic views of Houston (or, at least about a 270 degree view of Houston's expanses).

Holiday Inn Newscast
These Photo Spheres capture some sort of news broadcast atop the Holiday Inn in Downtown Houston. It involves a creative rearrangement and utilization of patio furniture.

Downtown Parking Lot (Fresh Yellow Paint)
There's nothing finer than a large parking lot in an urban area with a coat of fresh paint.

More parking


Women's Restroom at the Lonestar College Victory Center
I'm not sure why anyone is enamored with the women's restroom at Lonestar College's Victory Center, but, it must have impressed someone.

Three-armed girl at Axelrad
If there's one rule about being captured in a Photo Sphere, it is don't move! You'll end up with three arms.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Houston's Gas Stations and Garages Turned Restaurants

Even in gas-guzzling Houston, let's face a fact: with self-driving cars we might not need as many gas stations. So, instead of fueling cars, they can be used for fueling us. (I say that a bit tongue in cheek, because I'm not sold that self-driving cars are going to be the cure for traffic and mobility that many are claiming them to be.) To be fair though, most gas stations aren't going away anytime soon. And, there are a number of other gas stations that still serve to fuel both car and driver. (Come on you BBQ foodies out there, you know you like some BBQ from Rudy's!)

The Texas Department of Transportation Environmental Affairs Division published a "A Field Guide to Gas Stations in Texas" in 2003, highlighting some of the early gas stations in Texas. It is an extensive look at the marketing, use and design of early gas stations in Texas. Even though the Texas landscape is varied and had a great deal of influence on the architecture of a particular area, gas stations didn't always follow, making sure to establish or incorporate a predicable corporate image for those early petroleum companies. As cars became less of a luxury and more commonplace, oil companies staked their claims along the country's streets and highways to refuel America's cars.

America's former drive-through urbanism has actually led to some useful adaptive reuse opportunities. It's long been recognized in San Antonio that gas stations and service garages of the early 20th century can provide for some exciting reuse opportunities. The large canopies that used to provide shelter for cars and fuelers can alternatively be used for providing shelter to those fueling up on food. Open floor plans that allowed cars to move about a property now provide ample variety for seating and restaurant layouts, with minimal site work needed in some instances.

(Here is an extensive collection of classic gas stations around the country.)

Vinsetta Garage in Berkley, Michigan
Houston's Eight Row Flint in a former Citgo station. Now, fuel up on whisky and tacos.
Across Houston there are great examples of gas stations or garages that have been converted to restaurants. Eight Row Flint opened at Yale and 11th Street in the Houston Heights neighborhood last year, fueling Heights residents and visitors with whiskey, beer and tacos. This wasn't a redevelopment of a classic gas station or garage like Berkley, Michigan's Vinsetta Garage, (see what it used to look like) but instead a remodel of a run of the mill, abandoned, Citgo station.

Petrol Station. If you're visiting, get a burger.

Petrol Station in the Garden Oaks / Oak Forest neighborhood is a a popular spot for burgers and beer, replacing a garage with taps and a grill.

Retrospect Coffee Bar at the southern end of Houston's Midtown neighborhood is another former gas station that's gearing up to serve up gallons of fuel, only now in the form of coffee. The former Gulf service station is currently being outfitted to serve Texas coffee, beer, wine and other local foods. They are still receiving their permits (After anticipating a Fall 2015 opening), and have been working to utilize a shipping container as part of their building.

Liberty Station on Houston's Washington Avenue was once a service station, now serving beer and food truck grub.

The Houston Heights lost out on a great restaurant prospect when the old service station at the NW corner of White Oak Drive and Cortlandt was torn down for a large single family home.

The Houston Heights has another old service station that is slated to be utilized as a restaurant located at 11th and Beverly streets. The building has sat vacant for at least the past decade, and was never utilized by the now-closed Zelko Bistro. Thankfully, former Liberty Kitchen chef Travis Lenig has plans to utilize both sites for his future Field and Tides restaurant.

Finally in the Heights, Ritual, the new Texas-inspired restaurant at the corner of Studewood and White Oak Drive, has made a home in what was a former Conoco station. Before Ritual, owners of The El Cantina transformed the Conoco station into an expansive restaurant.

Across the street from Ritual, it looks as if the buildings that house BB's and Little Woodrow's might have been service stations or garages at an earlier time. (Can anyone in Houston with the institutional knowledge about these sites confirm this?)

So, what about other gas station sites that might make the transition from pumping gas to pumping out Houston cuisine?

There are remnants of another old gas station at the corner of Airline and Kern Street between the Woodland Heights and Brooke Smith subdivisions. Now, the property is up for sale, and is even advertised as "ideal for Retail/Bar/Auto shop."

In Houston's First Ward, a building that is currently hosting sporadic weekend garage sales and stores moving trucks, would make an excellent location for a restaurant should the owners ever entertain selling. Unfortunately the building is in a bit of disrepair, including the canopy.

In the Near Northside an old gas station on North Main has a "For Lease" banner posted. You can see that whoever owns the building had a railing installed on top of the building's canopy. This site would probably offer great sunset views of Downtown Houston should a staircase be added.

Fixers Automotive (a great place to get your car worked on, based on Yelp reviews) looks to be an old service station, as well as International Bonding just north of Downtown Houston.

Finally, Empire Cafe (the site of my wife and I's first date, so it has a special place in my heart) in Montrose looks as if it were an old gas station, however, it is actually the former Hollyfield Laundry and Cleaners. Not a gas station, but a remnant of past drive-through urbanism that has benefited fans of (now) walkable urbanism and good food. If there are others around town, please leave a comment and location, and I'll include them!

As an addendum:
(From what I've read, Ekkos Greek American Deli on Richmond is the best (still-functioning) gas station food in Houston.)