Preface: On August 15, 2016, City Council approved a motion to call a bond election for November 8, 2016, for $53,980,000. Four propositions were initially discussed: 1) street and drainage facility improvements for $20 million); the construction of new municipal buildings for $5.9 million (City Hall/Civic Center and Police/Courts Building), 3) water line improvements, for $20.38 million and 4) sidewalk improvements for $4 million.
However Council member Pollard proposed that Prop 4 for sidewalks be included in Prop 1, and that proposition be changed to 1) streets, drainage, and sidewalk improvements for $24 million, effectively removing the opportunity for Bellaire residents to approve funding for stand-alone sidewalks. Mayor Friedberg objected to this change. In addition, the $12.8 million Siemens no-bid contract was included in Prop 3, not listed as a separate proposition.
Now to August 20, 2018: Item for Individual Consideration: Council discussion on sidewalk program implementation and possible action to provide direction to the city manager as appropriate – Submitted by Paul A. Hofmann, City Manager.
Was this item, posted at the end of the August 20th City Council agenda, sufficient to warn residents that a big change in sidewalk width might occur? Does this description provide any reason to think we will end up with 5-foot sidewalks?
Protests and Petitions
One week earlier, at the August 13th meeting, the stand-alone 4-foot sidewalk program (sidewalks installed only, not part of street reconstruction) was put on hold by Council. Numerous objections and petitions had been submitted by Bellaire residents who objected to sidewalks planned for their streets.
They objected to sidewalks along both sides of cul-de-sacs, wrapping around the dead-end of the street requiring the removal of a number of trees that were planted to block a view of commercial buildings.
Residents also expressed concerns about the design, more concrete, flooding, and damage or removal of trees and landscaping. And about the cost – $4 million dollars of the 2016 bond funds they felt could be put to better use on street repairs and drainage.
One Councilmember noted the Group D Phase 1 sidewalk project was now calculated to cost a half-million dollars more than the initial estimate. The final cost of the 15 blocks of sidewalk for this project would be almost half of the $4 million in bond money allotted for 50 blocks of sidewalks.
At that point Mayor Friedberg suggested that the entire amount be used for the streets and drainage projects and that the stand-alone sidewalk projects be set aside for future consideration until more information should be gathered from the community in general before proceeding with the program. Four members of Council voted in favor of the Mayor’s suggestion.
One Week Later
The next week, during the August 20th meeting that was posited to include discussion on sidewalks based on the Mayor’s suggestion and the previous week’s vote, two more residents spoke to their concerns regarding sidewalks.
The Council’s response to these and the previous week’s speakers was, by a 4 to 2 vote, to (1) decide the stand-alone sidewalks projects should proceed and (2) the standard sidewalk width should be increased from 4 feet to 5. Which means that 4-foot stand-alone sidewalks already planned and presented to residents may now be 5 feet wide, as will all sidewalks installed during new street construction now and in the future. So much for community outreach.
Full Speed Ahead – And Make Them Wider
A motion was made by Councilmember Pappas to direct the City Manager to design sidewalks in residential areas to a standard of 5 feet wide. Councilmembers Pollard, McLaughlan, and Fife agreed. Only Mayor Friedberg and Councilmember Montague voted against. Councilmember Verma was absent. Council also decided the sidewalk projects on hold should proceed and the additional cost for 5-foot wide sidewalks should be added.
That 15 block, $1.8 million dollar stand-alone sidewalk project, already half a million dollars over the original estimate? The additional $1.5 million in construction cost is due to be approved, because the planning has already occurred – though only work on a contract to Kaluza & Assoc. for $130,140 had been completed. The $1.8 million project may well top $2 million when it’s finished.
Phase 2 of the stand-alone sidewalk project should move ahead as well, again with work on only one contract to MBCO already completed in the amount of $137,304.
The construction contract for Group D Phase 1 is scheduled on the September 17th Council Agenda. The Group D Phase 2 construction contract will be on the agenda for September 24th. Group D Phase 3 has been postponed.
Here’s the list of funded projects for 2017-2018: 2016_Bond_Projects_List. Review them to see if your street is one of over 40 listed (more than 60 if Group D Phase 3 is included). If so you may end up with a 5-foot wide sidewalk across your yard. The projects that include sidewalks are:
- Group B Phase 1
- Group C Phase 2
- Group C Phase 3
- Group D Phase 1
- Group D Phase 2
- and Group D Phase 3 – postponed
The vote followed a presentation by James Andrews, the city engineer with ARKK. The presentation clearly showed that ADA minimum width for sidewalks starts at 3 feet and that 4-foot sidewalks have been the standard in Bellaire for many years when installed as part of a street construction project. Driveways can serve as passing spaces.
NOTE: If one chose to view the video of the City Council meeting back on February 20, 2017, at about 49-50 minutes into the meeting one would hear Council member Pollard ask Paul Hofmann, the City Manager, about 5 foot sidewalks and the City Manager clearly states that both he and the City engineer, James Andrews, favor a 5 foot standard for sidewalks.
Petitions May Be Honored
A decision was made to allow consideration of petitions on a case by case basis to avoid the installation of stand-alone sidewalks. And maybe make some sort of allowance for 4 foot wide ‘orphan sidewalks’. No one mentioned that coupling a 5-foot wide sidewalk to a 4 foot wide existing sidewalk looks foolish to most observers.
That decision will create some winners, some losers, and more divisiveness and hard feelings. Once again, homeowners are abandoned in unknown territory.
The Bellaire City Council will continue discussions about sidewalks at the upcoming City Council meetings in September – 17th, 24th, and October 1st. See this page for dates and information.
A Reversal Of Approval Of 4-Foot Sidewalks Issued Last December
By their vote the four council members overruled an earlier vote to retain 4 foot sidewalks on the recommendation of the Building and Standards Commission. At that time Councilmembers Pappas and Fife voted in favor of 4-foot sidewalks!
These Council members now seem convinced that this is what most Bellaire residents want, even though none of the language for the Bonds for Better Bellaire 2016 on the City website or the ballot mentioned that $4 million of the bonds would be for stand-alone sidewalks. View the promotion of the 2016 Bonds for Better Bellaire bond issue as posted on the City website here.
They also ignored the many residents who had expressed strong objections to Council only a few weeks ago regarding 6 foot and 8 foot concrete pathways running through front or side yards, and residents’ concerns about flooding and property values.
How Did We Reach This Point?
There seems to be so much acrimony and dissension in Bellaire, primarily due to the various projects that have been proposed in the last few years and the accompanying response by City Council.
Holly Street Trail
Residents of Holly Street came to City Council in 2014 to request improvements along the esplanade that runs from 610 to South Rice Avenue. In January 2015 the Parks and Recreation Board submitted a request to Council for $250,000, to include $150,000 for Lafayette Park improvements, $50,000 for safety fencing for four other Parks, and $50,000 for improvements to the Holly Street Trail.
Instead of granting the request, by a 5 to 2 vote Council awarded $200,000 for the Holly Street Trail, which is not part of our park system. The remaining $50,000 was approved for safety fencing at the four City parks. After slighting the many residents who use Lafayette Park, Council finally approved the requested $150,000 at another meeting. By early 2018 a quarter of a million dollars had been spent on the Holly Street trail, yet the residents say the trail is a mess.
The Branding Study
The decision to approve a $50,000 branding study created an uproar when the new logo was unveiled earlier this year – to resident opposition. But with the vote and approval of City Council we ended up with a sad green ‘font’ and apparently the loss of our longtime logo because someone at City Hall doesn’t like it. Our City Seal is disappearing from city vehicles and stationery. Will the large plaque on the current City Hall be moved to the new building?
Targets For More Controversy. Why?
An expensive plan is in the works to narrow and redesign Spruce Street, which runs behind the new H-E-B and is one of our few wide commercial streets. See Not In My Backyard and The City Manager’s 7 Steps to Beautify Bellaire.
It is opposed by every business and property owner in that area, but the plans continue and City Council remains silent.
The Pathways Plan – Gone, But Is It Forgotten?
The Pathways Plan, attributed to a bicycle group from 40 years ago, was developed with a $75,000 study. After enormous push-back from Bellaire citizens Council did not bring it up for a vote – but it could reappear next year.
Now touted as a concept only with no funding at this time, the Plan was presented for approval to three City Boards and Commissions this past summer and was not approved by any of them. Until this summer most residents, even those in the path of the Pathways, were unaware of this Plan. Due to the efforts of a few residents and the local media, residents were alerted and turned out to oppose it.
Without these warnings, and based on votes by recent City Councils, what are the odds that this ‘concept’, with an estimated base cost of $12.5 million dollars, would have been approved and then funded, buried in a bond issue?
Click on the image at right to review the Pathways Plan information provided to City Council at the February 20, 2017, meeting. Note that it states that it will be funded by the Bonds for Better Bellaire 2016, which sounds like more than a concept.
Why Are Sidewalks A Priority Now?
So it’s no surprise that we are now dealing with 5 foot wide sidewalks, it’s been in the works for a year and a half or more. Five foot wide strips of concrete may be retrofitted into neighborhoods with mature trees and landscaped lawns with sprinkler systems – one step down from the 6-foot Pathways.
Thirty years ago I would have welcomed a 3-foot walk along the curb of my small lot, when the original houses lined the street, but that was before our trees matured, large homes replaced the small ones, and more trees were planted.
Three foot width might work even now, but the proposed 4-foot wide sidewalks run very close to mature trees and are even laid out diagonally across lawns to meet up with ‘orphan’ sidewalks. And 5 feet will create a nightmare for many homeowners.
Bellaire has grown and prospered for over 100 years without a sidewalk on every block. It’s what many residents prefer, even the reason they purchased a home here.
There are frequent notices of major water line breaks, City crews turn out to fix leaking water lines at meter installations from the $12.8 million dollar Siemens contract, some streets have asphalt overlays so thick that car bumpers scrape the pavement when residents back out of their driveways. We can’t afford to build a new Library. But somehow we can afford $4 million dollars worth of sidewalks that many residents do not want.
Where Are The City’s Priorities?
We, the Bellaire taxpayers, are already on the hook for $130 million of debt (plus the additional interest), with a new bond proposal in the planning stage for another $40 to $50 million dollars of debt next year. Don’t take my word for it, click on the image to the left. Almost a quarter of our annual budget is paid out for debt service.
Yes, our bond rating may remain high because we can pay for all this – our City won’t go bankrupt. The question is just how much do you want to pay? How high is too high for your property tax and monthly water bill? Or what City services are you willing to give up? What if the economy craters, as it did in 2008, or we have another terrible flood? Does anyone think the next bond issue will be the last, or do we just keep adding more debt every few years?
What’s the end game here? Some sort of overhaul to turn Bellaire into a planned community? Why? We were doing pretty well without all these extras, and more concrete will not be a big draw at this point.
Can We Come Together To Rebuild Our City And Our Image?
We have residents still recovering from the Harvey flood in 2017, some are living out of town and carrying the cost of two residences while their homes are repaired. Many are unaware of these decisions or how they will impact their homes, their property values, or their property taxes. Bellaire already has an image problem, especially when remarks on MLS listed properties and on yard signs contain statements announcing a property DID NOT FLOOD!
This is the first time in my memory that residents have mentioned moving out of Bellaire. Not because of the flooding, but because of the actions of the people running this City! Listen to the audience comments at the Pathways meeting on August 6th, or read some of the comments on social media. There’s talk of a recall election if Council fails to listen to the residents. Complaints about a lack of communication from City staff.
At this point four (4) people have exerted their power to make these decisions despite the express appeals and objections of a considerable number of residents. Residents can protest the decision and are encouraged to do so. Legal options are being considered. Many folks want this to be put to a vote, possibly on the November 2019 ballot. The last time a City Council refused to listen to the residents we ended up with in a recall election. If you are unaware of that earlier election read about it in this 2008 article from the Houston Chronicle.
The Bellaire City Council will continue discussions about sidewalks at the upcoming City Council meetings in September – 17th, 24th, and October 1st, 2018. See this page for dates and information.
PLEASE Come to speak at the upcoming Council Meetings. Let them know what you think! Contact Public Works with questions about the proposed projects: firstname.lastname@example.org and share your thoughts with the City Council: email@example.com
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Sidewalks Article Comments and Suggestions
A number of comments and suggestions have been received in response to this article on Sidewalks. As they are received I will add them to this list.
1) Do not assume your property is safe because the proposed sidewalks are on the other side of the street or that you already have sidewalks. Council members expressed a desire for sidewalks down both sides of all Bellaire streets.
The scope of the projects reads: Remove and replace or add new sidewalks – so 4-foot sidewalks may be removed and replaced by 5-foot sidewalks.
2) Allowing installation of these 5 foot wide sidewalks will set a precedent that will be difficult to overcome for future projects.
3) Can the City legally change the use of the bond funds? How many voters who voted in the 2016 Bond issue were told that $4 million of the funds would go to 5-foot wide stand-alone sidewalks? This is the information regarding sidewalks provided by the City prior to the vote:
Proposition 1 – Streets, Drainage and Sidewalks $24.00 million: This program will continue the work of the Bellaire Millennium Renewal (2000) and Rebuild Bellaire (2005) bond programs to design and construct streets and drainage systems with sidewalks on at least one side of the street. Here’s the complete document as published on the City website.
4) A reminder: the Planning and Zoning Commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing for a Specific Use Permit to allow for multi-tenant office use of the Chevron buildings at 4800 Fournace. A second request will be heard to allow for the construction of a parking garage adjacent to the existing office buildings. Resident concerns are focused on increased traffic in residential areas. The meeting is scheduled for Thursday, September 13, 2018, at 6 PM in the Council Chambers in City Hall. This will link you to the agenda packet.
5) Some of the trees shown to be removed in the Phase 2 Sidewalks. There are more and I will add them as I take more photos.
The initial project selection for the Bonds for Better Bellaire was presented by the City Manager on February 16, 2017. Here is the original presentation. But the stand-alone sidewalks and the 5 foot width were never mentioned in the Bond issue language.
The August 20th sidewalk discussion occurs in the last hour or so of the meeting but it’s worth watching the entire meeting. The video of the meeting can be viewed here: http://bellairecitytx.iqm2.com/Citizens/SplitView.aspx?Mode=Video&MeetingID=1807&Format=Agenda
ARKK, the City engineer, performed a Street and Sidewalk Condition Assessment in 2013. It would be helpful to ascertain what streets have been repaired or reconstructed since this assessment. A Request for Public Information for the complete Street and Sidewalk Database has been submitted to the City and will be added to this article if it is made available.