With 2016 just around the corner, we’re taking a look back at this year’s biggest stories.
10. HISD makes history with public high school Montessori
Waltrip High School will be joining forces with both Garden Oaks Elementary and Wilson Elementary in the next year as HISD looks to become one of the few school districts in the entire region offering a public Montessori option for high schoolers.
In an exclusive story, Waltrip principal Dale Mitchell told The Leader that the new “school-within-a-school program” will be a win-win for both Waltrip and parents looking for continuing education within the Montessori method. The high school Montessori program will also be a first for the state according to the American Montessori Society, and officials currently expect to welcome 40 to 50 students in its first year with two teachers and a single director for the program.
Friends of Montessori, a volunteer group made up of parents and other community members, know that there will be plenty of competition for those open student spots but also believe it’s a major step in the right direction for the district and its future Montessori programs.
9. Local landmark to get new life from Dallas-area owner
2015 was a big year for the Heights Theater. The city of Houston named the Heights Theater a protected landmark, offering stringent protections for the iconic building and its future redevelopment, joining the Heights Central Fire Station, Houston Heights Woman’s Club and the Heights Library as three other landmarks.
The Leader also broke the news that the theater will be getting a big boost from a Dallas-area owner and might end up being one of the city’s premiere concert and event venues. Edward Cabaniss, owner of the Kessler Theater in Dallas, announced in August that he plans on bringing his vision to The Leader area and expressed his desire to replicate the success he had with his current venue.
The Kessler Theater has received considerable praise by numerous media outlets since first opening in 2010 and has hosted a diverse set of programming and performances, including book readings for children, wedding recitals, rock concerts, film exhibitions and even political debates. The landmark designation also works in Cabaniss’ favor as he also desires to preserve the natural look of the Heights Theater.
8. Memorial Hermann rebrands, healthcare industry expands
Despite the closing of the Heights Select Specialty Hospital, healthcare reached new heights (pun fully intended) in The Leader area this year with a slew of announcements.
Perhaps the largest of these announcements was Memorial Hermann Northwest rebranding itself as Memorial Hermann Greater Heights to better reflect both its market and its place in the community. In an exclusive story, CEO Susan Jadlowski spoke about the new name, the construction of a brand new entrance, refurbished patient rooms, a multi-million dollar upgrade to its emergency room and a brand new urgent care center at the corner of Fowler and Washington Avenue.
However, Memorial Hermann hasn’t been the only name making moves in the Heights. The UT Physicians at the Heights, the planned Heights Central medical facility and a Methodist Primary Care Group physician center – along with numerous urgent care centers – have all either opened or were announced in 2015.
When speaking about his company’s move into the Heights area, Chris Dray said Heights Central represents facilities that provide services that have been a long time coming in a community whose demographics have shifted dramatically in the past ten years. Officials with these facilities are hoping to rein in families and older residents who might be more inclined to drive to the Medical Center – or outside of the loop – for their primary care needs.
7. 2015 election season
sn’t exactly been stellar and this year was particularly damning (not helped by a mayor’s race that didn’t particularly excite), but sparks did fly over the proposed equal rights ordinance.
While the ordinance was soundly defeated by opposition campaigns that tied the ordinance’s language to an perceived threat of sexual deviants entering bathrooms of the opposite sex – as implied in the “No men in woman’s bathrooms” campaign – other key elections were far closer. Sylvester Turner and Bill King entered into a runoff for the mayor’s seat with Turner coming out on top. In the District H race, Karla Cisneros defeated Jason Cisneroz in a runoff and District C incumbent Ellen Cohen soundly defeated Carl Jarvis and Michael McDonald.
Perhaps most evident this year was the growing voting power of residents living in the Heights area, as The Leader hosted a mayoral candidate forum alongside the Garden Oaks Civic Club and Super Neighborhood 12, concentrating on central issues like crime, pensions and other topics gathered from reader input.
6. Long-awaited rezoning of schools approved by HISD
Parents of students at schools like Highland Heights, Smith, Stevens and Wainwright were understandably worried when word came down about new attendance boundaries for a number of area schools. However, when the revised boundaries were approved in November, many were happy with the changes, including Katherine Smith Elementary principal Gloria Salazar.
Salazar told The Leader she was “delighted” with the boundaries as it would help address the schools’ three-year long battle with overcrowding.
Perhaps those most happy with the changes were the residents living in Candlelight Estates, as a portion of the neighborhood west of Rosslyn Road is split between Stevens and Katherine Smith, and residents like Jennie Sciba reiterated having the entire neighborhood rezoned for Stevens. The new zoning would also address overflow issues as the district is struggling to meet the state mandated 22 to 1 ratio of student to teacher.
5. Revised historic preservation ordinances gets approved
In a fight led by The Leader, the confusion and frustration around the Historic Preservation Ordinance and its language was finally amended by the Planning & Development Department late this year.
After extensive coverage by The Leader and public outcry led to the creation of an amended ordinance, city officials approved the revised version which clarifies terminology, provides new definitions for terms related to the construction, destruction and alteration of buildings in the Heights historic districts and also clarified the criteria for obtaining a Certificate of Appropriateness. One of the most welcome changes was also the creation of an appeals board to handle contested applications and rulings by homeowners and builders.
The new ordinance also requires that design guidelines also be adopted for historic districts within 16 months, and the officials held the first of what will be many meetings in Heights to collect public input for these guidelines. Officials currently say they plan to have the adopted ordinance ready to go and completed around the end of 2016.
4. Record-breaking Memorial Day storms sweep across city
When most people think of Memorial Day weekend, they’d like to think of barbecues, solidarity with members of the armed forces and some time to spend with families. This year, however, many living in the Heights area ended up dealing with record-setting rainfall and flooding that left drivers stranded, homes damaged and roads closed.
Harris County Flood Control District reported record-setting levels of rainfall at numerous locations around The Leader area and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared Harris County a disaster area. The heavy storms that swept across the city were later blamed for the deaths of five people and two waves of downpours late May 25 and early May 26 caused chaos for first responders as the Houston Fire Department answered over 500 calls for water rescues. Schools canceled classes, businesses closed and many people simply abandoned their vehicles along roads and sidewalks, creating an eerie atmosphere throughout communities in Northwest Houston.
3. HISD mulls name change at Reagan High School
This was a story that got attention from readers far beyond the Heights. There were plenty of passionate responses to the news that HISD was considering a name change at local schools that carried the names of figures from the Confederacy – including the Heights very own John H. Reagan High School.
Named for the former postmaster general of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War, HISD officials began discussing name changes for the school and others in the wake of an allegedly racially charged mass shooting at a church in Charleston, SC. According to reports, the perpetrator has posed with, and also owned, the Confederate flag extensively, leading to a national debate on the place of Confederate symbols in the 21st century and how the nation could better move on from one of the biggest blights upon its history.
That controversy would eventually reach Houston in the form of discussions about educational institutions named after Confederate figures.
Responses were swift and passionate from both supporters and detractors of the proposal, with an early December rally attracting hundreds dedicated to preserving the name of Reagan High School. The story saw enormous exposure on social media and alumni from across the nation wrote in to The Leader to voice their support of the Reagan name.
2. Pinemont Park &Ride controversy ignites local furor
While some living around the vacant Pinemont Park & Ride site had long hoped for some sort of commercial development, officials with the Houston Housing Authority had a different idea – one that ignited a furor that lasted for the rest of the year.
After previously reporting that the Park & Ride site had been listed as a “surplus property,” The Leader extensively covered the HHA’s proposal to purchase the land to build a low-income housing complex from its owners at METRO. Area residents and officials with homeowners associations were quick to decry the talks between both organizations as a “backroom deal,” and insisted that their concerns were about traffic, drainage, and school overcrowding rather than safety.
HHA chair Lance Gilliam said fears about the development may have grounded in the stereotypes surrounding his organization and its communities and spoke candidly to The Leader about HHA’s determination to build a new facility in the area and give families access to better schools and jobs. However, METRO recanted and announced that Harris County has since purchased the property and will be constructing a new office facility for county services.
1. Neighborhoods unite in opposition to high-speed rail.
It has been a story that has kept Leader readers on edge and still reignites controversy from time to time. The news of a potential high speed rail line, traveling from Houston to Dallas, running directly through The Leader area was a proposition that seemed to excite no one and inflamed everyone. Fortunately, residents were able to air their doubts and questions at a meeting in January held by Texas Central Railway that attracted a standing-room only crowd.
Most people took aim at one of the rail line’s potential pathways which would have followed the existing BNSF Railway line through Oak Forest and Garden Oaks and would eventually end in downtown. Property owners, particularly those with homes directly near the railway, cited everything from safety concerns, to noise and property values in their staunch opposition to the proposal.
Despite TCR’s outreach efforts and assurances of a completely grade-separated and elevated track, many had felt the threat of eminent domain was too great to support the initiative. The Federal Railroad Administration also dealt a setback of its own after ruling that the route would not go directly into downtown as originally envisioned, and said it be too expensive and would have too great of an environmental impact.
Now, however, the potential station for the high speed rail would still end in The Leader area at around the Northwest Mall. The ultimate fate of the mall, which has since been listed for sale, is currently unknown, and neighborhood groups like Super Neighborhood 12 still remain opposed to the route coming through their communities.