What will the New Year and a new decade bring to our beloved and complex cities? We don’t claim to be prescient, but we do know what we’ll be watching closely in 2020:
Not long before the Millennium, West University’s leaders spearheaded a pricey bit of whimsy known as Vision 2020 — guided by a consultant to imagine what the city should look like in that faraway year. The result was an attempt to overlay modern, suburban style amenities — bike paths along already hopelessly narrow residential streets, for instance — onto West U. That vision of 2020 was met with ridicule, confusion, and enough anger that the council looked very different after the next election.
Fast-forward to the actual year 2020, and contrast that era with this mayor and City Council, all first-timers in their jobs and pragmatic to the nth degree about fiscal oversight and what West U residents want and need. In just a few short months, they’ve tightened the municipal belt and taken the bold step of reducing West U’s taxpayer subsidy of Tri-Sports. We can’t wait to see how this plays out and what other moves they’ll make.
For two years since the previous municipal election, the hum of dissatisfaction and dissent with Bellaire’s leadership had grown to a wail in City Council Chambers and on social media. Concerns mounted over spending and debt, the city’s infrastructure replacement program (most visibly, sidewalks and flood mitigation), increasing dependence on expensive consultants, a failed branding proposal, and a perception that commercial interests were starting to dilute the “City of Homes” residential focus.
When leaders appeared to be tone-deaf, at times demeaning their critics, the opposition was galvanized into candidacies, which resulted in the ousting of two incumbents and the election of a third “change” candidate over one who openly favored the status quo.
Bellaire’s counciltable has seven voting seats — the mayor, who was re-elected, and six councilmembers. How those three new members and the newly mobilized residents who campaigned and voted for them will shape the year could have historic impact. We’ll be watching.
Yes, all eyes will be on presidential politics — but the local congressional race is one drawing national attention as a district that flipped from blue to red two years ago, again considered a battleground.
While longtime GOP Rep. John Culberson didn’t have a strong local identity in this area, Democratic incumbent Rep. Lizzie Fletcher is a St. John’s School alumna with family ties in this part of the district, and there are GOP connections, too. Seeking the Republican nomination are another SJS alumnus, Wesley Hunt, and former Bellaire Mayor Cindy Siegel.
Another former local politico, Chris Bell, is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. He once represented this area in Congress.
The contest for District 134 in the Texas Legislature is considerably less interesting this time around, with moderate Republican incumbent Sarah Davis apparently scaring off any primary challengers this time after walloping Gov. Greg Abbott’s handpicked challenger in 2018, then coasting to victory. Three Democrats are running to oppose her.
The only question after the November election may be how well positioned Davis is to ascend to a leadership position — perhaps even the speaker’s job — when the votes are counted.
At the county level, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack bowed out wordlessly simply by not filing to run for re-election. Former West U Mayor Susan Sample has entered the race, facing ex-Houston City Councilmember Brenda Stardig and Spring Valley Village Mayor Tom Ramsey for the GOP nomination.
Weather or not, flood mitigation is a hot topic
More than two years after Hurricane Harvey, the subject of flood mitigation will continue to be a major focus in West University and Bellaire this year. Both communities are managing their own projects but also looking to regional solutions.
And with an increasing number of storm “events” causing flooding, residents find themselves not only suffering storm stress during the May-October hurricane season but pretty much year-round. Even prolonged downpours now create high water levels, street flooding — and enter many homes repeatedly — any time of year.
Just when you think there are no large opportunities for redevelopment in and near Bellaire and West U, something else comes on the market, and talk of mixed uses enter the conversation.
The 30-acre former Chevron property in Bellaire is going through a zoning obstacle course, complicated by environmental considerations of how the land was contaminated in its former use. The developer has scuttled his interest in building multi family housing, and how has a mixed use retail-entertainment-office-hotel complex in the works.
Now the 11.4-acre SBC/AT&T property on the West Loop is for sale, with the Realtor seeking permission to turn it from a single occupant into a multiple occupant facility and to change zoning on an adjacent 2 acres into a separate piece of property that could be developed as a midrise office-retail-restaurant building.
And the 15-acre Coca-Cola plant, in Houston but adjacent to West U, is on the market, considered a prime location for a large development combining high-end multi-family housing with commercial and office uses.
What’s caught our interest on that property is a suggestion from West University City Hall that the city might be interested in purchasing the land for flood detention. We’ll explore that next month.
What’s to become of HISD?
The brakes are on for now, with a judge in Austin granting HISD’s request for an injunction to prevent the state taking over the district, and a hearing is set for June 22. Meantime, the application window closed Jan. 2 for those wishing to serve on the new, appointed board of managers to replace elected Houston ISD trustees, as part of a state takeover of the district announced last fall for chronically poor performance and questionable activities by some board members. But with a rolling process, the Texas Education Agency didn’t waste any time, hosting informational meetings, training sessions and conducting background checks on and interviews with applicants starting last November. A list of 243 applicants was released Jan. 14.
TEA Commissioner Mike Morath would ultimately be responsible for appointing the new board, which would serve two to five years, and for naming a superintendent. The goal before the injunction was issued was that both actions were likely to take place by spring. HISD has operated with Grenita Lathan as interim superintendent for nearly two years, with TEA halting the board’s search for a permanent leader last year, leading up to the takeover. You won’t find any of the current and newly elected trustees, who were to take office this month, on the list of applicants for the board of managers. They’ve been told they are not eligible to apply.
Still to be determined: What a takeover would mean to day-to-day district management and individual campuses.
—Charlotte Aguilar and George Boehme