Changes aim to put the ‘park’ back in Allen Parkway

Feb. 13, 2015Houston Chronicle

Houston Councilwoman Ellen Cohen knows a freeway when she sees it, and she said she sees it quite often on Allen Parkway. She finds it exasperating to watch one of Houston’s most recognizable streets fail so miserably to live up to its name.

Allen Parkway“The fact is it is not a freeway; it is a parkway,” she said.

Next summer, after workers have spent months shifting lanes, adding crosswalks and planting trees, Allen Parkway will be a parkway again, at the cost of a slight slowing of vehicle traffic and the reintroduction of traffic signals.

Partnering with the Downtown Houston Management District, city officials expect to start construction on a redesigned parkway after July 4, the date of the Freedom Over Texas celebration in Eleanor Tinsley Park just north of the parkway. The goal, downtown district president Bob Eury said, is to finish the work in time for Free Press Summer Fest in late May 2016.

When completed, the $10 million in changes planned will improve pedestrian and bicyclist access from Midtown and Montrose to the Buffalo Bayou park system and add up to 175 parking spaces for visitors to the growing outdoor offerings along the bayou.

“The goal we have is how do we improve access to this park,” said Andy Icken, chief development officer for the city.

Speeding along the parkway can be a hectic series of close calls with curbs and vehicles that can’t stay in their lane. The pavement is crumbling in places, and motorists can become confused by the entrance and exit lanes, sudden right turns and congested access to Interstate 45.

These are not ideal conditions for a premier downtown entryway with a downtown skyline view along the bayou. Once called Buffalo Drive, the parkway developed as a way to conveniently connect Houston’s landed gentry in River Oaks with downtown shops and jobs.

Not so peaceful drive

The upcoming work will turn the parkway back into something like the peaceful drive it was designed to be more than 80 years ago, before widening and improvements turned portions of it into a traffic free-for-all in the minds of some drivers.

Drivers are unlikely to see deer and foxes, as those who puttered down Buffalo Drive in 1930 might have. But they might see owners and their dogs headed for the new Johnny Steele Dog Park near Allen Parkway and Montrose.

The key change will be calming driving patterns, officials said.

“The speed limit is a little bit higher, but the problem is that people go much above the speed limit on Allen Parkway and with the curves,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “There’s not anything wrong with the street; it’s the way people drive on the street.”

Eury said he once was passed by an exotic sports car that he estimates was traveling about 80 mph.

“I don’t know how he did it when he got to the curves,” Eury said.

For pedestrians trying to access the park and trails, the trip can be even more harrowing. Allen Parkway doesn’t have crosswalks, and it has no traffic lights east of Shepherd because it crosses beneath Waugh and Montrose.

Pedestrians “are running for their lives to get across the westbound lanes,” Eury said.

Medians, signals

The work planned doesn’t dramatically change the parkway’s design, only its intersections and medians. Allen Parkway is essentially three strips of pavement separated by small concrete medians. The westbound and eastbound main lanes are accompanied by an access road south of the parkway.

The redesign shifts the eastbound and westbound lanes south and converts the existing westbound lanes into an access road and parking area.

Between the lanes, officials plan grassy medians planted with small trees, meant to calm traffic and bring back some sense of an enjoyable drive.

“We are making Allen Parkway a real parkway and not a raceway,” Cohen said.

The most dramatic adjustment for drivers will be signals at four key places.

At Dunlavy, Taft and Gillette, traffic signals will give pedestrians and drivers a safer way to turn onto the parkway. Closer to downtown, officials plan a pedestrian-activated crossing, similar to the signals used along the new light rail line near the University of Houston campus.

The light stays green most of the time until activated by someone needing to cross the street. It then warns drivers by following the traditional shift from green to yellow to red, stopping traffic to let the person cross, then turning green again.

Though some residents suggested underpasses or overpasses for pedestrians and cyclists, officials concluded they were not feasible.

“They work if people use them, and people don’t use them,” Icken said.

Further, Eury said there was a safety benefit in slowing traffic. Building overpasses and underpasses as crossings would “send a mixed signal” to drivers who might be emboldened to accelerate, he said.

Slower speed limit

The Allen Parkway plan received positive reviews from City Council members, with some minor reservations. Many said anything that improves parking and safety would be welcome.

Councilman Robert Gallegos questioned why the redesign didn’t offer more access to the parking area for eastbound drivers. As currently designed, Montrose will be the last place along Allen where an eastbound driver can turn left or turn into the parking area.

The speed limit on Allen Parkway will drop slightly, from 40 mph to 35 mph.

“The high-speed traffic is supposed to be on Memorial,” Parker said. “Allen Parkway is a parkway. It’s designed to kind of tool along and enjoy the greenery and actually shouldn’t really be faster than a normal city street.”

Some drivers, however, have grown accustomed to the speeds. Mahmoud Lozi, 49, said he would like better access to the bayou trails from his apartment near Allen and Waugh, but he predicted drivers will balk at slower commuting speeds.

The effect, according to a preliminary analysis of traffic patterns, might be minimal, Eury said.

Walter P Moore, an international engineering firm founded and based in Houston, concluded that with the new signals and slower speeds, driving down Allen Parkway from Shepherd to downtown during peak morning and evening commutes would take less than one minute longer than it does now.

At its worst, westbound in the morning and evening, the stretch will take about 51/2 minutes, the traffic analysis found.

Mike Morris contributed to this report.