Jan 26, 2023 - News

Houston aims to curb sidewalk islands

A sidewalk abruptly ends

Where the sidewalk ends. Photo: Jay R. Jordan/Axios

Houston city leaders hope a new ordinance will cut down on our infamous sidewalks to nowhere.

Catch up quick: In Houston, sidewalks are only built where there's new construction.

  • That policy created concrete islands as new homes and buildings were developed with sidewalks in areas where the neighboring properties did not have sidewalks.
  • The lack of continuity forces pedestrians into the street, then back onto the sidewalk, then back in the street.

Driving the news: City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved changes to the city's rules to allow property developers to pay a one-time fee instead of being required to include sidewalks on a property with new construction regardless of whether the surrounding properties have sidewalks.

How it works: The $12-per-square-foot fee will fund sidewalk projects across the city with a 70-30 split: 70% going to the area where the fee was collected and 30% going to projects citywide.

  • Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city hopes to generate $1.7 million each year.
  • Chief transportation planner David Fields said as funds become available, city staff will consider safety, existing transportation facilities (like bus stops), demographics and community amenities, such as churches and schools, when determining where to spend the money.

The big picture: The new program will allow the city to fill gaps in the network while attempting to prevent new islands from being created in neighborhoods without an existing structure.

What they're saying: "This is about being a good neighbor," said at-large representative Letitia Plummer, who's building a home for a relative in MacGregor that doesn't have sidewalks on either side. "I know that I'm putting 30% back into communities that don't have access. That's all it is. Developers support it, they see it, they recognize that this is about making sure our city is equitable from a pedestrian perspective."

Between the lines: It's still up to developers to choose whether to opt in to the fund — meaning new sidewalk islands could still be constructed.

  • Plus: The city has to wait for the fund to grow, so don't expect gaps to be filled anytime soon.

The other side: Critics are skeptical about the plan's ability to create a connected network of sidewalks.

  • Kevin Strickland, a founding member of CURBS, which advocates for safe pedestrian access in the Heights, said the city should have gone further.
  • "Austin and Denver passed mobility bonds to do this," Strickland said. "They no longer treat sidewalks as amenities, which is what Houston does."

The intrigue: At-large council member Mike Knox and District G council member Mary Nan Huffman hesitated before voting for the measure, because they wanted the new fund to also fix ailing sidewalks.

Yes, but: Turner signaled support for dipping into the city's general fund for such repairs during the upcoming budget season.

What's next: The ordinance goes into effect March 1.

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