Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"Trees for Houston" Fights Destruction of 126 Live Oaks That Are Twenty Years Old

Nearly twenty years ago Trees for Houston, a nonprofit that promotes adding trees to Houston's public places, got donations from the public and planted most of the 126 live oak trees that line Kirby Boulevard between Westheimer and Richmond roads. The trees are now worth upwards of $25,000 apiece, a public asset of about $3.2 million.

But today, for the second time in less than twelve months, Trees for Houston finds itself almost alone in crying out against the tree-forsaken wilderness that the City of Houston wants to put in place of the trees.

The city's plan is part of a project to install a new storm sewer on Kirby. A section of Kirby through the prestigious River Oaks neighborhood north of Westheimer has been completed, and work is wrapping up on another section south of U.S. 59.

But the endangered live oak trees line a six-lane thoroughfare at the heart of the Upper Kirby District, one of several business special taxing districts in the greater Houston area. It carries thousands of vehicles each weekday, with impressive traffic jams at every intersection during evening rush hours, and to a lesser extent in the mornings.

By 2009 the blocks just south of Westheimer will be home to a new 30-story residential high rise (including seven floors of parking), with another multiple-story multi-use development with more multi-level parking across the street.

After the storm sewer is installed, the benighted experts at Houston's Public Works Department think it would be a good idea to widen the six lanes on Kirby, replace the current left-turn suicide lane with a limited-access median, and destroy the 126 live oaks, planting new trees that will reach the current size in a mere 15 to 20 years.

This is not the idea that the Upper Kirby District started with. It's architect proposed a landscaped esplanade with four traffic lanes--which is what Kirby has for several miles through River Oaks and the West University neighborhood south of Bissonnet, more recently tony real estate. But for the more commercial blocks of Kirby the Public Works Department insisted on six, wider lanes, and Upper Kirby dutifully responded with a plan that would destroy all of the trees.

Last September, Trees for Houston thought they had hammered out a compromise with Upper Kirby and the city that would save at least half of the trees: the six-lane street would be expanded to 73 feet in general and 77 feet at the intersections, instead of the 81 feet the city wanted. But the city basically reneged: the construction plans approved by the Public Works Department applied the 73-foot width to only 4% of the street, again requiring all of the 20-year old trees to be destroyed.

Trees for Houston has submitted a new plan that would allow for somewhat wider lanes but still save the trees, in addition to the $400,000 cost of new landscaping. They have even agreed to replace any trees that do not survive if their plan is implemented. But with the sewer contract just out for bids, Upper Kirby is not willing to put the work on hold again and resubmit the new plan for city approval.

It is very sad to see Houston falling back into its infamous history, leveling the old to make way for the new--and preserving almost nothing of its heritage. It's also unfortunate that Mayor Bill White, who has taken the lead on environmental initiatives and limiting the size of high rises that would add too much population to existing neighborhoods, has been pretty much a guilty bystander on this episode of environmental destruction and neighborhood blight.

Meanwhile, Eric Dumbaugh, a traffic engineer and traffic safety researcher at Texas A&M, tells the Houston Chronicle in a letter today the city's plan for six lanes and no trees is really the least effective from a traffic-safety perspective. He says that several studies have found that urban street trees reduce speeding, increase driver attentiveness and enhance traffic safety.

Professor Dumbaugh argues that the safest road would also be the most aesthetic: four lanes with the existing trees, just as Upper Kirby's architect first proposed. Second best would be six lanes with the existing trees.

His final judgment? The city's six-lane plan is the preferred choice only "if one believes that moving the maximum number of vehicles at the highest possible speeds is a goal that should outweigh either life safety or neighborhood aesthetics."

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