By Boulevard Realty
Bill Baldwin is on a mission, one of several for him at the moment, to get Houstonians to rethink the public right-of-way in Houston. Baldwin, who serves as a Planning Commissioner, concedes that the term “right-of-way” tends to have a negative connotation to property owners, since it is typically associated with road expansion and regulation, but lately he is challenging Houstonians to start seeing the right-of-way for its opportunities over its encumbrances.
“Contrary to popular belief, the right-of-way is not made of up of just the roads. Really, it is the entire space where private property ownership ends: the space between your property line and the street, the sidewalks, the ditches, and of course the roadways too,” Baldwin explains. As a real estate broker in the Heights for over 20 years, he can appreciate why confusion often arises for citizens. “From a property owner’s standpoint, I can see that it gets dicey because we are expected to keep the grass in front of our homes mowed and the alleyways, although public, are intended for private use,” he admits, “But that doesn’t change the fact that it is City-owned land.” To Baldwin, that is actually a positive thing. “Really, that means it belongs to us all.”
For many property owners, the right-of-way is often characterized by more pitfalls than perks. In the Heights, particularly near popular shopping and dining corridors like 19th Street, White Oak, Studewood, and Heights Boulevard, on-street parking is a common woe. This has led to an increasing number of residents putting rocks or other obstructions on streets without curbs and gutters to prevent patrons from parking in front of their homes. Baldwin continues to push the City of Houston to soon begin to crack down on this practice. “Not only is it illegal to obstruct this right-of-way, it is an offense that can be ticketed by any number of departments and an array of City employees,” says Baldwin. While Baldwin is quick to defend the enforcement of this rule, he hopes that with a little more education residents can begin to understand philosophically why preventing on-street parking is bad for their neighborhoods, explaining, “Having people park on our streets is simply part of urban life, and if we don’t have a way for people to access and enjoy the great local shops and restaurants in our neighborhoods, those places won’t be able to stay in business for us to walk to ourselves.”
In other cases, regulations designed with the greater good in mind have started to surprise property owners, builders, and developers as the reality of newer sidewalk and culvert width requirements sets in.
New construction and almost any substantial residential remodel, including adding a garage apartment, often raises the need for property owners to rebuild the sidewalk abutting their property to the new 5’ standard, at their own, often unanticipated expense. Baldwin has an enlightening answer for this too. “Part of this new standard has to do with inclusivity for our neighbors and visitors in wheelchairs, as well as simply doing our part to contribute to safer, more walkable and complete streets without adding to the broader tax bill for us all,” he explains, also pointing out, “There is a variance process for those cases where there is a perfectly good sidewalk, and there are several approved materials other than non-porous concrete for property owners to choose from, since impervious cover is a major concern for our flood-prone region.”
Likewise, the increased requirement from 18” culverts to 24” culverts when redoing driveways and adding in parking pads is also designed to improve drainage and flood resilience city-wide. “As a matter of fact, that was identified as one of the easiest steps toward resilience we could undertake, even before Harvey,” Baldwin points out. “The streets are designed to hold water, and our ditches should be designed to move the water away as quickly as possible.” Baldwin, who continues to offer free weekly classes educating Realtors and residents on flooding and flood resiliency, also promotes the City’s Adopt-A-Drain program (houstonadoptadrain.org) as one of the easiest flood mitigation steps virtually any Houstonian can take. Through the program, businesses, neighborhood associations, or individual households can claim and volunteer to clean a drain before rainstorms in order to improve the drainage on their blocks.
Baldwin’s push to clear up the right-of-way, both figuratively and literally, is part of the educational campaign he, Boulevard Realty, and his Your Houston Political Action Committee are mounting to prepare Houstonians for the millions of new neighbors we are to expect by 2040. “There is no question that we are going to grow. The secret is out that Houston has a booming economy and our quality of life is exceptionally high,” Baldwin proclaims with excitement. “For that reason, we have to both reclaim and rethink the space that we all have to share. By doing this, we can assure that we all get to continue to enjoy and enhance our common civic space for generations to come.”
For more information on how area residents can become educated and participate in these efforts, visit yourblvd.com and yourhoustonpac.com.