Sunday, August 28, 2011

A New Ballgame for Urban Blight in Texas

Some of our biggest Super Neighborhood meetings in Braeburn are on the topic of urban blight. It’s the same in neighborhoods throughout Houston, and I would imagine in other cities throughout Texas. Neighbors are mad about urban blight, and we demand that something be done.

It was never easy for the City to condemn a blighted building. Owners were protected by strong private property rights laws. It took years of negotiation; letters; inspections; court dates; hearings; and lawsuits before a blighted building could be condemned. Now, a Texas Supreme Court case, and a series of new Texas laws are going to make it even more difficult.

It’s really a new ballgame for urban blight in Texas. We need to adapt to it, or we risk losing our neighborhoods.

1: Recognize real urban blight, and know what our goals are. A low-rent apartment complex that’s fully occupied and meets code, isn’t blighted. Even when the property is blighted, it might be possible for it to be rehabilitated rather than condemned. Of course we should always be leery of ‘lipstick on pigs’ (cheap, cosmetic repairs to buildings that need much more.)

2: Keep calling the City to report blighted (“nuisance”) properties. Even if the City faces new hurdles to condemning blighted buildings, it can still issue fines and bring owners to hearings. If the owner faces enough of these hearings and fines, usually they either fix the problems, or sell at their own accord to someone who will.

3: Lobby private real-estate developers to tear down blighted buildings, like we lobby the City to do it. Under the new laws the City can’t force owners of blighted buildings to sell for anything other than public use. But private developers can still buy blighted buildings, demolish them, and build other things on those sites. That’s just standard real-estate practice.

4: Lobby for Local, State, and Federal incentives to help developers address urban blight. There are millions of dollars available every year for subsidized development. A lot of that money goes to new development on open land; when it could actually be used to help rehabilitate or redevelop blighted buildings. There are also programs that are specifically designed to help seniors and low-income families repair their homes. These programs could be used to help repair blighted houses in our neighborhoods.

Even before the new laws, my neighbors would get frustrated with the City for not working fast enough to condemn blighted buildings. Now it’s going to be even slower (if they can do it at all). It’s a new ballgame, and we need to adapt to it; or watch as urban blight kills our neighborhoods.

Friday, August 26, 2011

How Houston Could Get Two Shuttles, And Save the Astrodome

Like most Houstonians, I’m angry that Houston did not get a Space Shuttle. We could debate the reasons. I think it was monument snobbery: the view that the Shuttles just have to be in our Nation’s signature cities, and that Houston simply won’t do. NASA’s official reason for denying us a Shuttle – that we allegedly don’t get enough international visitors – could be seen as a veiled admission of it. But instead of lamenting our loss, we should come together in search of another option.

What if Houston was home to a large monument and museum commemorating the Challenger and Columbia Shuttles? We’ve got the perfect building to use for it: the Astrodome. The Astrodome is big enough to house the museum, monument, and also replicas of the Shuttles. Imagine two Shuttles, suspended in the Dome – with glass walkways leading up to them so that visitors can peer in. None of the other Shuttle museums will have anything like it.

The replicas of the Challenger and Columbia could be accurate to the condition the Shuttles were in before they were lost. Visitors could see how technology advanced between 1986 and 2003. The Saturn 5 Rocket and other exhibits from the Johnson Space Center could also be relocated to the Astrodome. There could be an I-Max Theater, along with new exhibits and memorials commemorating the crews of the two lost Shuttle missions. One exhibit could be devoted to the Astrodome and all of the other Houston institutions that owe their names to our Space Program.

Houston has bigger ties to our National Space Program than any other City. It is ridiculous that we didn’t get a Shuttle. But we shouldn’t be bitter about it. We should look for another option. The Eighth Wonder of the World would be a fitting monument to the Challenger and Columbia Shuttles.