Rallying Against Rail in Southeast Houston

» Residents fear light rail would cause accidents, gentrification, and displacement. Can any transportation project be so influential?

Like many sunbelt cities, Houston is rushing to build a transit system that can provide an alternative to the congestion caused by a population that has exploded by more than a million people over the past forty years. Now with about 2.3 million inhabitants, the city has developed a five-line light rail plan that would extend rapid transit across the densest areas of the metropolis. Though fiscal difficulties may result in a delay in the construction of two of the planned corridors, most of the project is expected to advance as planned, with new lines opening beginning in 2012.

Houston’s first modern rail operation — along Main Street from downtown to the stadium complex — opened in 2004 and has been a roaring success, attracting more riders than initially foreseen.

Yet any plan as ambitious as this will encounter controversy, so the news that some residents along the proposed Southeast Corridor are protesting the project isn’t particularly surprising. But are the concerns expressed by community members affected by the line’s construction worth considering? Can city officials make the planning process more democratic with the aim of ensuring a sense of local incorporation, even while advancing a program whose aims are more about long-term, citywide goals?

The six-mile Southeast line will extend the light rail system from downtown to Palm Center, along Scott Street, Wheeler Street, and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, reaching the University of Houston, MacGregor Park, and an area of the city whose population is predominantly poor and black. Eleven stations will stop in zones that have low to moderate residential densities and relatively little retail. A rail corridor could project a new vitality into the area — or it might have little influence on the community’s look.

Not yet sure of the eventual outcome, however, some residents have been vocal in expressing their concerns that the new light rail line — which will operate primary in the median of relatively wide streets — will put in danger the neighborhood’s existing conditions by endangering pedestrians and transforming the low-rise community into a medium or high-rise one.

The specter of out-of-control light rail trains mowing down seniors and children is, frankly, an absurd one: trains don’t travel any faster than do cars, and unlike automobiles, trains stay in their travel lanes. Yet people from Houston to Los Angeles to the Washington suburbs are convinced that the sheer unfamiliarity of the trains will make them a danger. Meanwhile, the average fifty Houston pedestrians who die every year after being run over by drivers doesn’t seem to elicit much soul-searching; no one is talking about shutting down the major arterials of Southeast Houston to cars.

But the worry about neighborhood change is a legitimate one: one of the very explicit goals of the new light rail system is to increase density along affected corridors and to encourage a change in the landscape of Southeast Houston, much of which today is hardly different than your average sprawling suburban neighborhood. And indeed, the fear that improved transit can produce negative mutations is shared between communities both rich, often convinced that criminals will ride trains into wealthy neighborhoods, and poor, anxious that rail will bring in developers who will search to kick the impoverished out of their homes.

Transit isn’t as powerful as either its proponents or opponents would suggest: it won’t instantly result in a radically morphed neighborhood, for the better or worse. The by-products often attributed to new rail systems are usually the consequence of a series of decisions and investments, not just those related to transportation. In other words, it’s not really the light rail trains themselves residents of Southeast Houston should be afraid of, but rather the way in which that light rail system is used to shape the growth of an area. The inhabitants of the neighborhood certainly won’t suffer from better transit access!

Municipal governments have a powerful say in arbitrating the use of improved public transportation to spur development. If local authorities choose to concentrate growth in specific parcels near stations, they can provide incentives to build bigger there, or ban new housing or commercial outlets from areas outside of those zones. On the other hand, some governments do very little, choosing not to up-zone land around stations and allowing low-density sprawl to remain the name of the game.

For the sake of increasing ridership and the development of walkable urbanism, there are clear advantages in promoting the former: higher-density neighborhoods at transit stops.

But residents of affected neighborhoods don’t necessarily want to see that kind of environment: many people live in Southeast Houston because of how it looks, not because they’re looking to see it evolve into a district of four-or-five story structures. That kind of neighborhood change is exactly what the people who are protesting are trying to prevent.

The City of Houston, like any place developing improved transit, has a responsibility to encourage expanded democratic involvement in determining how the neighborhood can or should transform. Houston has set up a community office near the terminus of the proposed line at Palm Center, a former shopping strip, and this is a good first step. But the city should be engaging in an open dialogue with willing community members about which parcels to improve and which to keep as they are. The transit line is only the first stage in what must be a permanent back-and-forth about how to make the neighborhood a better place.

Encouraging this kind of civic discussion will reduce uninformed criticism of light rail as well as ensure that new housing and commercial developments along the line are scaled appropriately in an attempt to meet local desires. There is no perfect way to go about doing this, but making an effort could certainly expand popular support for the project and potentially even improve it.

Image above: Rendering of Houston’s Southeast Light Rail Corridor along Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, from Metro

37 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Joe

    Developers don’t “kick you out” of your homes they offer you money for your property! Who is afraid of yuppies?

    –Joe

    • Thad

      You mean they rob you of your property. When developers pay you money for your property, they don’t pay at market value. For example, in Miami they were buying property from Overtown and West Grove residents (predominantly black and poor) for $25,000, which seems like alot when you make that in only one year, but the condo units that would go up in their place would be on the market for over 10 times that rate, making it impossible for old residents to move into the new units in the area. The people who owned their homes or lived there before 1996 were able to hold out because they have homestead exemption and their property taxes can’t go up relative to the increase in property value. But other residents weren’t able to and could get priced out of their home anyway. So the people of this community have a right to be concerned about the influx of development because affordable housing units aren’t what will be going up in place of their homes.

      • Tom West

        People don’t have to take the money – that was their choice.

      • Thad

        Well if they don’t take the money, the increase of property values and taxes (unless they have some sort of homestead exemption) will eventually make it harder for them to keep their home and it will end up being foreclosed, and they’ll lose their house and not have any money. Developers will then buy the foreclosed property and build up some loft or something that none of the original residents will be able to afford to live in.

        • jim

          That would be a good narrative if that was normal. If people hold on to their houses as property values go up around them they wind up getting a lot more money for their house. I’ve never heard of a city that reassesses from year-to-year. Most often homes get reassessed after major improvements or when it is sold or when taxes are going up or being restructured city-wide. Even if that’s not the case and your property tax appeal is rejected you still have (depending on the city) months or years to sell your house before the sheriff comes knocking.

          I live in a neighborhood where one can still buy a house for ~$70k. There are a lot of them. They’re usually small and they may or may not have fully functional plumbing. In most cases they still have all or part of an electrical system installed in the 1920s. They may or may not have a roof that keeps the water out. Fetishizing that is disgusting. Homewonership is not worth living like that for decades and it’s not something anyone should be promoting. Make sure people are treated fairly and make sure they’re protected from run-away taxes. That should be the beginning and end of the discussion.

          • Adirondacker12800

            You must live in California. Reassessing everyone is moderately expensive, so most places don’t do it annually. Most states require municipalities to reassess on a regular basis. You assessment goes up but your tax rate goes down leaving you with nearly the same tax bill.

            • jim

              In Pennsylvania (is there anywhere in CA with housing that cheap?) but yes, the process is mostly the same from state-to-state. Philly is going through a major reassessment right now. On the whole it’s revenue neutral but a lot of homeowners in the northeast and northwest are likely to see their bills go down while a lot of folks in South Philly are likely to see theirs go up.

  • Charles D

    Seems to me a lot of these fears could be easily removed by using monorail instead of light rail at ground level in the streets. Besides removing the danger of mowing down grandma, the transit system would be able to move passengers without traffic delays. While some kind of mass transit is always better than none, why not go with monorail and not face all these additional issues? Also, does Houston intend to serve their airports with rail?

  • Pantheon

    Joe: The poor often don’t own the property they live in.

  • Charles, because monorail is a disaster – as shown in Seattle and Las Vegas – usually pushed by people who are using it as a stalking horse to stop funding of rail transit that might otherwise compete for highway dollars.

    • FG

      I thought some of the Japanese systems worked quite well?

      • 電車男

        They do–but not any better than ordinary trains. And although there are monorails in cities all over Japan, there is no sort of national monorail system, just an unconnected assortment of single routes, using all sorts of different monorail technologies.

      • Max Wyss

        “Systems” is an exaggeration. As it has been said, there are several single lines. They do work reasonably well. Most of them have a specific reason why they are set up as monorails.

        The most complex monorail system coming to my mind is at Walt Disney World in Orlando. But even they don’t operate switches in normal operation. Switches are the most troublesome part in any “single rail” (monorail, maglev, side-guided subways, cog railways system Locher) configuration. And that prevents such configurations becoming true systems.

  • Daniel

    Why is a light rail train any more likely to ‘mow down grandma’ than a car, truck, or bus? Light rail vehicles travel on a fixed routes and don’t make unexpected lane changes or turns.

    I agree that the Las Vegas monorail is a flop–however, this is in part due to the fact that the monorail doesn’t really go where people need it to go, and doesn’t extend past the “strip” to the airport or downtown Vegas (due to pressure from the city, taxi drivers, and casino owners). The Las Vegas monorail is also fairly expensive for the distance traveled. It’s almost like it was designed to fail so that anti-transit people could say “see, transit doesn’t work”.

    Houston already has a light rail “starter system”. There’s no good reason to switch to an unproven mode (or at best unsuccessful mode) at this point.

    Interestingly, I’ve find in Europe and Asia people get upset if it’s found that the city/municipality will be bypassing their neighborhood when a new mass transit line is being considered. In the U.S., people tend to get upset if one is being considered for their neighborhood. It could just be that trains have become unfamiliar in our daily consciousness and therefore threatening.

  • Mason Hicks

    M1EK
    Absolutely… The same goes for Maglev in lieu of High Speed Rail.
    Light-rail is designed to serve along fairly dispersed circulation corridors such as is very common in the later-developed South. Listen, some day some pedestrian, most likely with his head phones on full-blast is going to get nailed by a light-rail train. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to be the leading news item for the day. Only because that person happened to get hit by the train before getting whacked while stepping out in traffic twenty steps later. This is part of city life, and while we should strive to always find ways to improve safety of our street designs, they also have to work in a sensible fashion. For light-rail to function as its environment needs for it to, it has to provide ready access to its riders. Monorails will never be sensible for corridor public transport. They should be used in closed high density systems such as in the case of an airport people-mover, where the individual stations serve very large numbers of people.

  • Dave

    Charles raised a question — any plan for the light rails to serve both airports?

  • Mike Bjork

    Here in Seattle, the new light rail line along our MLK has made the road safer. There are fewer vehicle accidents, fewer ped-vehicle accidents, and there have been significantly fewer light rail-vehicle incidents than projected (32 accidents/year projected vs. about 5 so far in 9 months).

  • stino

    Conceptually there are plans to link the airports with rail. Hobby would be joined by connecting the Southeast and East End lines Around the Palms Center and heading south. INtercontinental could be reached by extending the North line through Hardy and Greenspoint. The only problem with IAH is the distance involved. Local service would be good for Greenspoint, but it significantly increases travel time from Downtown to IAH. The current express bus would make it more quickly.

    This will only become a reality if the voters pass a second round of expansion. Besides, I think Metro is more concerned with linking the Inner Loop areas first. Extending the western terminus of the East End and Southeast lines from downtown via Washington/Memorial area to Uptown line makes more sense.

    A Hobby connection could make sense as a MetroRail extension. I think reaching out to IAH would be best served as commuter style DMU/EMU à la Denver.

  • BLambert

    Unless the line is stopped, the gentrification will undoubtedly begin, as transit-accessible neighborhoods begin being populated by those willing to pay a premium for that access. However, given that higher-density development will likely follow in the wake of the line, are the current residents likely to be pushed as far out as they fear?

    And would a strip of higher-density, probably middle class, housing reaching into the neighborhood be a bad thing? The shops and restaurants that a denser area can support could easily find their employees among the existing neighborhoods’ remaining occupants.

    • Max Wyss

      > …begin being populated by those willing to
      > pay a premium for that access.

      Well, the premium is offset by the savings to get along with one car instead of four.

  • sam

    @blambert:
    gentrification is coming whether light rail does or not. these people see the rail as the catalyst, but it is only an excuse to try and stop the rail. in fact, gentrification is already happening.

    travel to the east of 288 and see all the townhomes being built, do the same 5 years ago and you’d see nothing.

    the process may be sped a bit by the rail, but the process is already happening, it is just going slow enough that it isn’t noticed. who notices a townhome being put in the place of a worn out, torn down, and boarded up row house no one lives in?

  • allen

    “The City of Houston, like any place developing improved transit, has a responsibility to encourage expanded democratic involvement in determining how the neighborhood can or should transform. Houston has set up a community office near the terminus of the proposed line at Palm Center, a former shopping strip, and this is a good first step. But the city should be engaging in an open dialogue with willing community members about which parcels to improve and which to keep as they are. The transit line is only the first stage in what must be a permanent back-and-forth about how to make the neighborhood a better place.”

    Why? It sounds like the neighborhood is just fine from the perspective of the people that live there. What’s the use of the dialogue if most residents don’t want any change? Are you assuming that they are somehow missing out on some key information?

  • Matt

    This is an argument I’ve never understood… what’s wrong with making neighborhoods better? Heaven forbid property values go up. Sure, renters might struggle to stay in their same area, but that’s how it is whenever a neighborhood improves (due to transit or otherwise). Does that mean we should keep the projects around so there’s slum housing for people? Why not deal with the problems and try to give people the tools to make more money so they can enjoy the fruits of a good neighborhood.

    • Thad

      “Better” in what sense? Yeah they’ll look nicer with better houses and maybe some cute boutiques, but do the schools, hospitals, etc. get better? The projects aren’t being replaced with nicer affordable housing, they are being replaced with new luxury condos and townhomes that are meant to attract young professionals, not to improve the living standards of the current residents. It would be a different story if they were just replacing affordable housing and really working on civic projects to improve the schools, reduce crime, clean up the streets, and make a thriving community condusive to raising families and producing responsible citizens. But no, the goal is to attract yuppies who want to live an “urban” lifestyle while they’re young, but once they get married and start having kids, they’ll hightail it back to the burbs or enroll their kids in private schools instead of trying to improve the schools for everyoone else.

      • grimey

        ideally, increased density would reduce the cost of providing services to a wider swath of the population, or at least increase the tax base for a given area, and therefore allow for increased school and hospital funding.

      • Thad

        Yeah ideally it would, but the point is that it doesn’t happen. Pay attention to your areas next up and coming neighborhood and you’ll see.

        • jim

          I’ve paid attention and what i’ve seen is people getting paid a lot of money for houses they didn’t want to live in anymore so they could move to places they’ve been wanting to move to for years (but couldn’t afford it). I’ve paid attention to the census stats that show that people had slowly been deserting those neighborhoods for 50 years. I’ve seen renters come and go, as they always do because, with rare exception, unless you live in NYC people just don’t spend 20 years in the same apartment.

      • grimey

        i’m from Houston and I live in the bay area now. the main purpose of the southeast rail line is to reduce the insane parking situation at the University of Houston (where I finished my degree) which is a commuter-college whose largest barrier to attendance is the parking fees, and that students generally have to set aside an additional 45 minutes before classes to find parking and then walk from the satellite parking lot to class. is improving access to college “destroying neighborhoods?” have you seen southeast houston? what neighborhood so beloved by you was blighted by improved transit access? I’m really struggling to understand your personal vendetta against rail, especially since you’re using the mask of economic populism when, in fact, few things could be more redistributive than allowing people to throw off the yoke of car ownership in a place where it is otherwise mandatory for survival.

      • Thad

        I don’t have a personal vendetta against rail and I’m not against the project I’m just validatinging the concerns of the residents of southeast Houston. It’s called playing the Devil’s Advocate. I didn’t say transit destroys neighborhoods I was replying to Joe’s comment about residents not being kicked out of their homes and speaking to the reality of gentrification that people often ignore. I’m sorry if you thought I’m anti-rail, which I’m not by far.

      • Thad

        I never said anything about rail or neighborhoods being blighted. There’s a difference between no improvement (where things stay the same) and blight(in which things get worst). What does transit have to do with people going to college? Yeah the colleges should be better accessible, but parking fees and poor transportation is not a major deterant for people who want to get their degree. If you don’t want to pay for a decal or can’t carpool, get dropped off, take the bus, or whatever then you must not really want it that bad.

  • Joe

    ^Does it make it worse? If not, then what’s the harm?

    • Thad

      The harm is you are perpetuating the problems that made that area bad in the first place and just forcing them to move out to another area to degrade it. Improving neighborhoods shouldn’t mean jus making it better for yuppies who’ll get their fill after a few years and move out while kicking out longtime residents who have a real invested interest in their commnity making it better for the sake of extending opportunity and ending the perpetual cycle of crime and proverty.

  • Lucy

    The best neighborhood preservation along a transit line is in Arlington, VA, where they stacked all the development on top of the Metro stations, built no transit-parking, and preserved the SF neighborhoods starting a few blocks from the stations. Walk-access to transit is about 74% in Arlington, so the transit has not increased traffic in the station area. The development has created sufficient property tax base that Arlington residents have the lowest property tax rates in the Greater D.C. area.
    Neighborhoods are right to be concerned about impacts of transit, but they also have a right to know that there are ways to preserve neighborhoods and build serious TOD at the same time.

  • Wad

    Thad wrote:

    I was replying to Joe’s comment about residents not being kicked out of their homes and speaking to the reality of gentrification that people often ignore.

    Thad, the residents of Southeast Houston might have to worry about the opposite problem: The train may fail to bring any community development or reinvestment.

    When you look at the patterns of transit-oriented development, you will see some higher-value development that has brought gentrification.

    This development, however, has more times than not avoided predominantly black areas.

    Los Angeles’ Blue Line, Oakland’s BART services, St. Louis, southeast San Diego, Miami and Newark — to name a few cities — all have train services. Yet neighborhoods that were poor and black when the stations opened have not been radically transformed and were not able to attract redevelopment.

    That’s as bad, if not worse, than having the neighborhoods radically altered.

    Also, one of the biggest challenges of redevelopment in low-income areas is malinvestment. Property owners tend to be absentees or land-bankers. Just looking at the map of southeast Houston, I have reason to believe that Texas Southern and the University of Houston are probably the biggest land barons in that area. Universities usually are, especially when they are in poor areas. They hold too much leverage over land, and they’d be a bigger obstacle to redevelopment than the light rail line.

    • Thad

      Okay again I will say this has nothing to do with the rail line or TOD. I elaborated on Joe’s money comment then Matt made a comment on making neighborhoods better and I was just saying that WHEN gentrification takes place (regardless if transit is involved or not) it’s often just made better from an aesthetic and real estate point of view, but alot of the fundamental social problems aren’t much better, like schools for example.

  • B.C.McKinney

    As an architecture student and Third Ward resident, I find it true that gentrification comes, in Houston at least, without transit. If we can move the people in this area to work in places other than this area, which has limited amounts of work, then great. Be it an aiport conncetion, ship channels, schools, and the sport centers. I feel the rail will ease transit oriented anxiety and cause people to see a different side of public transit, and I know my neighborhood will welcome public transit, and ride with honor and be proud to see Houston changing for the better. One day I would like to be able to ride from IAH-Downtown-Galveston, back up to The Galleria…all via train.
    Having lived in LA I witness firsthand the workings of rail and the positive efffects it has on a major city. GO RAIL!

  • jim

    Neighbors change all the time as a result of policy, infrastructure changes or demographic shifts. Why should the thought of preserving a neighborhood in amber even be entertained? In the last 100 years my neighborhood has gone from Irish to German to Italian to Vietnamese to Cambodian & Indonesian and now to students and professionals of all ethnicities. That’s a shift every generation and that’s been playing out in most big city neighborhoods all over the country for 200 years. That’s part of living in a country of immigrants and part of living in a country that prides itself on mobility.

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