Residents Look at Ways to Bring Walkability Back to Old Houston Neighborhood

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Photo by Gail Delaughter/KUHF

(Houston, TX -- Gail Delaughter, KUHF)  With his giant yellow tape measure, walkability expert Dan Burden darted into Houston's Navigation Boulevard. It's a shady street in an old neighborhood east of downtown, with two lanes in each direction and a grassy median. As he took measurements, Burden showed neighbors how angled parking can help slow down truck traffic on the way to the nearby Houston Ship Channel. That's good news to longtime resident Gloria Moreno, who says some of her older neighbors have a tough time getting around because the sidewalks don't have ramps.

Moreno pointed out how the sidewalks don't have curb cuts to accommodate older residents who use wheelchairs and scooters, especially those who live in a nearby senior housing development. She also says there are too many close calls when people try to cross the street, and she's worried about neighbors who walk on side streets where visibility is poor.

Moreno was one of the people taking part in Burden's pedestrian audit. Burden is the executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, and he was brought in as part of redevelopment efforts spurred by Houston's Greater East End Management District. The district was set up in 1999 by the Texas Legislature as a way to promote economic development and improve infrastructure on Houston's east side. Burden says the goal is to create a place where longtime residents who invested in the neighborhood can stay there.

"We're looking at ways in the historic core, that is the old trolley car neighborhoods, how do we get the speeds down so we can support people living, and then being able to walk, live in place, age in place."

Burden says angled parking with one lane of traffic in each direction would encourage drivers to slow down, and he adds the work can be done while preserving the neighborhood's trees. Along with sidewalk curb cuts for people who use mobility devices, Burden says the street also needs more accessible bus stops so people can better connect with the new light rail line that's being built nearby. He adds the improvements aren't just for residents.

"With the new investments coming in, especially the soccer stadium, it's really important that people be able to walk through the area, park their cars further out if they choose to. Truly the road will support that with the new designs, the new concept of keeping the speeds slow but keeping the traffic moving."

Navigation Boulevard is lined with several popular restaurants and other neighborhood businesses. It's just blocks from the city's downtown sports venues, including the new $95 million dollar stadium for the Houston Dynamo soccer team that's set to open this spring.

The Greater East End Management District is getting help in its efforts through a $5 million dollar federal stimulus grant. District president Diane Schenke points out that about 30 percent of the neighborhood's residents depend on mass transit, and new wider sidewalks will help residents better connect. Work on nearby streets is already underway and construction should come to Navigation Boulevard in the next few months.

The Management District says it's also pursuing funding for other projects. Burden says once the district makes improvements, businesses will be encouraged to move in, and that should generate more revenue for city and the neighborhood.