The residents of Garden Oaks like their drainage ditches, but not as much as they like their children.
Tonya Knauth, the president of the Garden Oaks Civic Club, said the neighborhood voted a few years ago to keep its longstanding ditches as part of the first two phases of a drainage project being implemented by the City of Houston. The alternative would have been sidewalks, curbs and gutters.
Those latter features will be part of Phase 3 of the Garden Oaks/Shepherd Park Drainage Project, which encompasses Garden Oaks Montessori Magnet at 901 Sue Barnett Dr. Principal Lindsey Pollock was involved in the planning and said she expressed a desire for improved traffic flow around the school and walkability for students, and the city responded by proposing sidewalks along each side of Sue Barnett just east of the campus.
Knauth used to live just northeast of the school, near the intersection of Sue Barnett and West 41st Street, and her children walked to and from the campus for a total of 13 years.
“As a parent, it was frightening,” she said. “I accompanied them for many more years than I might have otherwise if I thought the intersection was safer. But there was poor visibility and not enough sidewalks.”
Traffic reconfigurations and drainage work near the school are among the key elements to the final phase of the city’s multi-pronged infrastructure project, which was unveiled to the Garden Oaks and neighboring Shepherd Park Plaza communities during a Sept. 24 virtual public engagement meeting held by Houston Public Works. Also part of the plan is a roundabout at the intersection of Sue Barnett and 41st, traffic reconfigurations along West 43rd Street between Golf Drive and North Shepherd Drive and increased stormwater drainage capacity in the eastern portion of each neighborhood.
Phase 1 of the project, which focused on drainage infrastructure in the central part of the neighborhoods primarily along Alba Road and Brinkman Street, was completed in 2018. About a year later, during Tropical Storm Imelda, there was structural flooding in the southwest corner of the project area, along Wakefield Drive and Judiway Street just west of Alba, causing some impacted residents to wonder whether the work had any effect on flood mitigation or even exacerbated the problem.
A public works spokesperson said at the time that the subsequent completion of the next two phases would improve drainage in the entire area. City officials said last week that construction of Phase 2, which covers Golf as well as stretches of Wakefield and Chamboard Lane, is scheduled to start in 2021 and be completed by 2023. The third and final phase does not yet have funding as part of the city’s Capital Improvement Plan, with the design phase of that prong expected to be complete by 2023.
The estimated cost of Phase 3 is nearly $18 million, with the total price tag for the project at about $67 million.
“The two remaining projects – West and East – will tie into the Central project (they’re all interconnected),” Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, who represents the neighborhoods, said in an emailed statement. “Once West and East are finished, we will see the maximum impact of flood mitigation in the area.”
The city is trying to maximize the overall impact of the project by including some traffic changes as well, some of which seek to make the area more multi-modal. As part of the Houston Bike Plan, which was adopted by the city council in 2017 and aims to create a corridor of connected bikeways, the proposal is to add bicycle lanes on each side of West 43rd near its intersection with Alba and proceeding east.
The city’s plan also calls for converting that stretch of 43rd from a four-lane configuration – with two lanes going in each direction – to a three-lane setup with one lane of traffic going in each direction along with a left-turn lane in the middle. Ian Hlavacek, the managing engineer for Transportation and Drainage Operations, said the street will keep its existing configuration closer to Shepherd so traffic is not as likely to back up at the busy thoroughfare.
In order to address resident concerns about crossing 43rd at Sue Barnett – a popular route for schoolchildren – Hlavacek said the city plans to install a median at that intersection that would prevent vehicles from crossing, turning left from 43rd onto Sue Barnett and turning left from Sue Barnett onto 43rd.
“It feels like frogger trying to cross there,” Knauth said.
Two other aspects of the plan that aim to make the area safer are near Garden Oaks Montessori Magnet to the south. The city plans to widen Sue Barnett south of 41st and east of the campus by adding a drop-off and pick-up lane along with the two sidewalks, with the goal of keeping traffic from backing up early in the morning and late in the afternoon.
At the X-shaped intersection of Sue Barnett and 41st, which public works referred to as “skewed” in an email, an oval-shaped roundabout is proposed. Public works said a counterclockwise traffic flow at that intersection would make it safer and easier to navigate while allowing for more direct pedestrian crossings between the streets.
“It’s so wide, our crossing guards have a heck of a time,” Pollock said. “It’s unsafe the way it is now.”
Will Armstrong, who lives near the intersection, questioned the necessity of a roundabout and worries it would encroach on residents’ properties and eliminate shade trees without having much of an impact on drainage or traffic flow.
“I think there’s a lot better places to spend ($18) million than doing something like this,” he said.
Hlavacek said during the community meeting that the city is receptive to resident input and open to amending its plans for the traffic reconfigurations. Residents can weigh in by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 713-387-0311.
“It’s all flexible,” he said, “and we’d be more than happy to work with you.”
A longtime 43rd Street resident who lives east of Sue Barnett, who asked to remain anonymous, said speeding and aggressive lane-changing are concerns on 43rd, so reducing the number of lanes would be welcome. The resident also echoed concerns about the Sue Barnett intersection, which includes a small park.
Late Tuesday afternoon, several community members, including children, passed through or near the intersection in vehicles and golf carts, on bikes and on foot. Many were heading toward or coming from the school’s athletic field and jogging track two blocks to the south, where there is access for community members.
The small stretch of Sue Barnett they traversed is a narrow road lined by drainage ditches but no sidewalks, which are now required to be constructed on all city roadways according to Walkable Places and Transit-Oriented Development ordinances recently passed by the city council.
“This is really a safety project,” Hlavacek said during the meeting. “We think this will be a safer road for your community.”