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Elysian Viaduct

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Dec. 5, 2004, 8:49PM

Instead of yet another overpass, how about ...

Let's not remake the same mistake with Elysian Viaduct

By RAMONA DAVIS and RICK WALTON

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

In the past 20 years, Houston has made incredible progress toward its goal of reinvigorating the central business district. The recently unveiled Houston Downtown Development Framework, sponsored by Central Houston, Downtown District, Houston Downtown Alliance and Main Street Market Square Redevelopment Authority, offers an exciting vision for the evolution of the city center over the next two decades. The plan also extends revitalization efforts to previously neglected neighborhoods adjacent to downtown.

The Greater Houston Preservation Alliance would like to call attention to one aspect of the proposal that would both remedy an unfortunate situation that has existed for 50 years and provide a vibrant gateway to central Houston. The Downtown Development Framework calls for the creation of an at-grade Elysian Boulevard to replace the existing Elysian Viaduct. The new thoroughfare would provide secondary access to the Hardy Toll Road extension along with connections to historic neighborhoods and new development in the Near North Side and Fifth Ward as well as the new Waterview District along Buffalo Bayou.

On Dec. 7, the Texas Department of Transportation is holding a public meeting from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Sherman Elementary School, 1909 McKee St., regarding the proposed reconstruction of the Elysian Viaduct. Although the viaduct is a relatively small component of the highway projects planned for the Houston area, it will play a critical role in the success of proposed developments along Buffalo Bayou and neighborhood revitalization efforts north of downtown.

Many Houstonians do not know the Elysian Viaduct exists. The foot of the overpass, located north of Minute Maid Park, is not clearly marked and the bridge is not heavily used. In 1954, the city of Houston and Harris County cooperated to construct the viaduct to connect the business district with the Near North Side. Instead of purchasing property along the route, local government built the viaduct over the Elysian Street right of way, hastening the demise of one of Houston's oldest residential neighborhoods. A half-century later, the handful of remaining residents are still living in houses that are virtually underneath the overpass.

Rather than learning from past mistakes, TxDOT and the Harris County Toll Road Authority now plan to compound the error by widening and extending the viaduct and constructing flyovers connecting the new overpass to the proposed Hardy Toll Road extension.

While we recognize the compelling need to complete the toll road extension and the primary, high-speed connectors to the I-10/U.S. 59 interchange, we are asking state and county officials to consider an alternative to their standard way of doing things when constructing the secondary connector along Elysian Street. Rather than replacing the existing viaduct with an even larger overpass, we strongly encourage TxDOT and the Toll Road Authority to heed the Downtown Development Framework's call for an at-grade Elysian Boulevard. The proposed thoroughfare offers unique opportunities to enhance revitalization efforts in a largely intact historic neighborhood and development along the course of Buffalo Bayou, one of our most important natural resources.

The proposed Elysian Boulevard would stimulate rather than stifle revitalization in the Near North Side. Although little-known to most Houstonians, this area is comparable to the Heights or Old Sixth Ward of 15 or 20 years ago. Blocks of houses built in the 1880s and 1890s that would be sacrificed to the viaduct and flyovers could provide homeownership opportunities in an economically and ethnically diverse urban setting. Investment encouraged by Elysian Boulevard would also provide significant additions to city and county tax bases, while an expanded overpass would take a large number of properties off the tax rolls.

The rebuilt viaduct would not just impact historic properties. The overpass would cut off access from the east to Hardy Village, the new mixed-use development being built on the former Hardy rail yards. The recently renovated Houston Foundry complex of commercial artists' studios also lies in the path of the widened viaduct.

Elysian Boulevard, on the other hand, would enhance rather than ignore Buffalo Bayou's amenities. Removal of the Elysian Viaduct and improvement of the McKee Street Bridge are important parts of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership's Master Plan. Viaduct removal is one of the priority proposals designed to refocus development along the bayou and provide access to new waterfront destinations.

During this year's Super Bowl, limousine and taxi drivers were instructed to take visitors downtown via the Hardy Toll Road to avoid what many perceive as the ugliness of the North Freeway. As currently planned, the toll road extension via a rebuilt Elysian Viaduct will do nothing to address this issue. For less money than the cost of the overpass, we could build a landscaped parkway that passes through a vibrant, historic neighborhood before crossing the recreational amenities and green space along Buffalo Bayou with Houston's signature skyline in the background. Beyond the pride Houstonians would feel bringing out-of-town guests into the city on this thoroughfare, imagine the simple satisfaction of driving such a beautiful route to work every day.

The Near North Side is entering an era of incredible challenge and change. The work we do today will impact the success of redevelopment, revitalization and beautification efforts on both the north and east sides for decades to come. Faced with this exceptional opportunity, TxDOT and the Toll Road Authority persist in doing things the same old way. The Hardy Toll Road extension could provide an impressive gateway to a revitalized downtown Houston. As it now stands, we are getting just another overpass.

Davis is executive director of Greater Houston Preservation Alliance. Walton is president of the Board of Directors of Greater Houston Preservation Alliance.

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I really hope that TxDOT can be convinced not to build another overpass here. As it is now, the existing viaduct is somewhat of a waste because even during rush hour it is lightly used. Granted the Hardy Toll Road extension could change that but I think a well designed boulevard with well timed signals would keep traffic flowing while allowing the neighborhood to redevelop.

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A well designed boulevard through the ghetto

Saying the area is comparable to the Heights or Old Sixth Ward of 15 or 20 years ago may be true, but it has a MUCH longer way to go.

This road won't help turn around the ghetto.

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This road won't help turn around the ghetto.

Of course a road alone won't turn around a neighborhood. However, the presence of elevated roads still has a negative impact and makes it all the much harder to redevelop an area.

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True, but have you seen what's under there?

Nothing.

The entire north end of downtown is a wasteland.

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Do you ever have anything positive to say?

Even if what you say is true (that the entire North End of downtown is a wasteland) does that mean that we shouldn't do this project for the folks that are poor and still happen to live there?

Additionally, wouldn't a nice at-grade boulevard help with things that are on the drawing board like the Buffalo Bayou Master Plan and the proposed Hardy rail yard development?

Wouldn't this positively affect things like the San Jacinto and Dakota Lofts?

AND, just in case you weren't aware, here are a few townhomes going up right now in the shadows of the viaduct...

Sterrett Street Condos (18 units)

hr1256226-15.jpg

Richey Street (7 units)

hr1255911-11.jpg

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The REASON for the viaduct is to bypass the rail road yard on the north side of I-10.

Maybe we could build a roller coaster that drops 300' after it crossed I-10 so this road can be built.

How else could it be done? That be one heck of an incline.

I often wonder if the Central Houston/Downtown District/Houston Downtown Alliance/Main Street Market Square Redevelopment Authority boards ever leave their little think tanks and step out into the REAL world.

And do you really think we are helping "poor" people by creating a short cut through their neighborhood? If this was the Heights, all the hippies would be up in arms.

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True, but have you seen what's under there?

Nothing. 

The entire north end of downtown is a wasteland.

Coog, it's not Midtown but it has a lot of potential. In fact, I drove through there on the way to work this morning, not having been through there in many months, and I was stunned by what Hardy St. just north of that overpass looks like. Several lawyer's offices have fixed up and painted some victorians and it hints of Heights Blvd. It's a small step and wouldn't be noticable unless you had some previous views of the same blocks but that area WILL be like 6th Ward and Heights, unless we all just write it off as a ghetto, and thus, consent for it to be written off of Houston's list of historic neighborhoods.

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I was talking about the South side of I-10 under the Viaduct. The only thing near by is a Metro bus barn.

Looks like a flood hazard, since it is so close to White Oak and Buffalo Bayou.

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You're quite patronizing, midtowncoog.

So, apparently, if you think removing and elevated roadway which serves not only as an eyesore but also to cut off a neighborhood, then you aren't somehow a part of the real world?

Or if you are against a toll road through the Heights so that suburban commuters who avoid paying city taxes can whiz right by, you're a hippie?

Guess that makes me a proud hippie who doesn't live in the real world.

I am certainly glad that Houston used to have leaders with vision and we weren't a metro area inhabited mostly by people of your ilk. I'd hate to see what Houston would be right now without the ship chanel, the Texas Medical Center, Rice University, Intercontinental Airport, and a host of other things that I am sure were seen as pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams by those who didn't believe...

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And I am glad we don't have people like you rubber stamping every feel good (for developers) project that comes along.

Back to the viaduct:

That neighborhood is not "cut off" from anything. Cut off from what? The land owned by the guys who came up with this proposal?

If anything "cut off" this neighborhood, it's the rail yard. Again, that's the primary purpose of the viaduct. Crossing the rail road yard.

Drive it and see for yourself.

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"Hippies"? Anyway, question. Doesn't the Elysian Viaduct go over the tracks that originate in Hardy Yards? Are these still used? Since the old railyard is being redeveloped is there still a need for a bridge over the tracks.

The area through which Elysian passes south of the bayou was once the site of Frost Town, one of Houston's oldest neighborhoods. Nothing left of it now.

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I used the "Hippies" reference as to say who is REALLY looking out for the poor folks in this area?

The downtown management district? Sure they are....

And how many management district folks have conflicing intrests here? That's a valid question for these "visionaries" planning Houston's future.

That rail yard was "planned" to be a new "mixed use" community.

But the line between "planned" and "approved" has truly been blured in this speculative city.

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I don't think most of the Hardy railyard is in use, and that's why that development is "planned."

As for the ramp stubs in the new 59/10 interchange, those will be direct connectors to the Hardy Tollroad extension. I think the plan for the new Elysian viaduct is for it to serve as the connector between downtown's east end and the Hardy extension but not actually be part of the toll road itself.

And yes I know a new boulevard can't revitalize the neighborhood alone, but why make an already blighted situation even worse? And why needlessly displace people who can't really afford to move from their homes and their community?

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I think a "signature" Roman-esque viaduct could be financially feasible to TxDOT, but it won't be as cheap as an at-grade facility, IMO.

However, I kinda see where MidtownCoog is coming from...do you people really think that the downtown brokers care about the plight of the poor folks there? I don't. There's too much development potential there--development that WILL eventually cause those people to have to move, either by taxation or by yuppies who don't wanna jog at night because of the 'undesirables' in their area.

As far as his Heights hippies comment, I see that reference similar to the old days when high capacity road projects were much more acceptable in poorer, browner areas. A 4- or 6-lane divided blvd with speeds likely to be 40 mph is not pedestrian or neighborhood friendly. It's friendlier than a freeway, but not much better.

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On a related note, does anyone think today they would build Hwy 288 through The Heights?

They did it to the Third Ward.

Think about it. Now suddenly this "poor" area was deemed worhty of a signature boulevard by the DTMD?

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Well, having driven by there alot over the past few days, the Hardy yard has considerable activity with demolition and such. Tell you what, the residences are going to have hell with the trains going by that area when they complete the project. :)

Ricco

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Why not a "signature" viaduct/bridge?

Could flooing be the real reason?

Flooing?

:lol::lol::lol:

I think Coog just coined a new word. Now, lets find a nice definition for it.

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If you'll notice, the article was written by members of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance, not by developers. I agree that this neighborhood of charming Victorian houses could be something special. Unfortunately, it's in Houston.

I'm afraid that if GHPA wins this battle, they'll still lose the war - unless Houston enacts some preservation ordinances with teeth, on which day the flying pigs will rejoice.

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I stopped by this meeting/open house on the way home from work Tuesday. There were no speakers, just charts and photos of the three possible layouts of this project. Also, as if in a forced obligation/pseudo display of concern to hear the public's input, everyone was given a comment form and a suggestion box sat on a table. Representatives of groups involved in the project stood along the displays to answer questions. Most resident comments and concerns that I overheard had to do with whether or not their house would be bulldozed or not, and the aerial photo maps of each of the alternatives had each structure shown to indicate the various right of way scenarios.

Nowhere was the possibility of an at-grade boulevard presented. I asked one woman, a representative from the contractor, I think, of the project about that option. She said that a 125' boulevard would cause more loss of homes than their proposal.

I got the overall feeling that the public was being led by the nose and that, if they would've been presented with the option, along with nice renderings, of an at-grade boulevard, they might have liked the idea. I know, there are some challenges involved in going that route but I'm sure that they would be able to be overcome in an aesthetically pleasing way. However, with only alternatives involving the planned viaduct/toll road extensions available, it appeared that the principals involved were assuring themselves of only comments within the narrow range of their best interests.

As I was leaving the place, someone handed me a reprint of a Chronicle article from 1992, indicating that the Harris Co Toll Road Authority, with quotes by then director Wesley Freise, and Metro had this project planned back then, one of the main reasons being an attempt to improve disappointing revenue from the Hardy Toll Road.

I didn't see any indication of GHPA at the meeting, maybe they were there, they just weren't obvious to me.

I left feeling that this thing is likely to happen.

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So what is going on with the Elysian Viaduct? What is the latest news on it? Thought it was supposed to be replaced last year.

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i think theyre waiting for the Hardy Downtown Connector?

Well, maybe I've read the timeline wrong, but I thought the plan was: move train lines, build overpasses over train lines, dismantle Elysian viaduct, and then build Hardy Connector. But based on old articles, they were supposed to dismantle the Elysian Viaduct back last year or at least this year... Can anyone find any newer information? All I've found is outdated information.

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I pretty sure that they are waiting to finalize the 45 realignment to incorporate the construction of the viaduct, as the design will certainly be effected.

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