The following is from the September 18 issue of Houston Chronicle.
Armed with a wealth of ideas for creating a more walkable, campus-like environment, the Museum Park Super Neighborhood is asking community members which options they like best.
Ideas include widening and beautifying north/south streets in the neighborhood, placing art in street medians, installing roundabouts centered by fountains, creating pocket parks and using benches for street signs.
The design ideas can be found by going to htttp://ricedesignalliance.org and clicking "Charrette Brings Museum Park Neighborhood to Life." Suggestions may be sent to email@example.com.
The suggestions are the result of the Rice Design Alliance's 2012 charrette, an intensive design competition that challenged participants - mostly architects - to create a master plan for the super neighborhood's community, which encompasses much of the Houston Museum District and Hermann Park.
The charrette, hosted by RDA's young professionals group rdAGENTS, addresses a different project or community need every year.
Ten teams participated in the 2012 event, "People, Places, Promenades: Unifying Museum Park Super Neighborhood," held Aug. 4 at Rice University's School of Architecture.
"We were absolutely thrilled with how many people decided to attend," said Kathleen O'Reilly, vice president of the super neighborhood, which is bounded by Hermann Park, Main Street, Texas 288 and U.S. 59.
The entity turned to the RDA to help it develop a strategy to create a more cohesive setting with safe, easy access for pedestrians, signage to guide people to destinations and a decrease in traffic congestion.
"There were so many ideas to extend the Hermann Park campus throughout the neighborhood, unifying the residential areas, the 17 museums and cultural centers, as well as the churches, schools and health-care facilities," O'Reilly said. "There were some incredible ideas on those design boards."
The winning team selected by the RDA, Team No. 8, included Neda Izadi of Milton Architects; Laura Beth Mertz, Intexure Architects; Ray Mora, Energy Architecture; Bayardo Selva, cre8 Architects; and Will Denman, who has since moved out of state. But ideas from all the groups are on the table for consideration.
Team 8's plan
Team No. 8's plan, "EnLIVEn," suggests widening the north/south streets in the neighborhood and enhancing them with green spaces, bike lanes, bright intersections, boutique eateries and public parking.
"Our proposal is to use the north/south axis streets that connect the neighborhood to (Hermann Park) as ways to make the area aLIVE to the city," the plan reads. "The east/west axis streets will focus on the people that LIVE in the neighborhood."
The east/west streets would feature community gardens, green spaces, small eateries, meeting places and access to everyday amenities. The plan recommends more retail development on Almeda Road - where a grocery store is suggested - and Fannin Street.
The plan also calls for wheelchair-accessible sidewalks on all of the streets.
To further enhance pedestrian safety, the team suggested more streetlights and a color-coded signage system that identifies residential, transportation and commercial areas for drivers.
Another possibility would be raised road surfaces at four-way stops, similar to speed bumps, to protect pedestrians by slowing traffic.
To improve parking, the plan calls for eliminating traffic lanes on some streets and replacing them with on-street parking.
Receiving the judges' vote for the best team plan was a pleasant surprise, Mertz said.
"It was completely unexpected," she said. "There were so many great submissions. It was very close.
"We're just hoping these ideas will be taken to heart by the city and the neighborhood."
Market under U.S. 59?
O'Reilly said she's pleased with Team No. 8's proposals, and many of the other teams' suggestions, including the creation of a marketplace under U.S. 59 at Caroline.
"As it is now, it's a dead zone, and it could be so lively," O'Reilly said.
Additional suggestions from the charrette teams included using roundabouts with center fountains to calm traffic; offering street signs in the form of benches and providing architectural plazas with landscaping and shaded seating and community gardens that use captured rainwater.
Also proposed was creation of pocket parks and water parks at the dead ends created where streets meet the Metropolitan Transit Authority light rail line. Other ideas: placing art in the medians of the widened roadways, burying utilities to minimize clutter and allow architectural lighting to stand out and adding a uniquely designed parking garage that would become a neighborhood landmark.
"The ideas for art in the median are really fun and whimsical," O'Reilly said. "It would make people happy just to walk by them."
Like 'Project Runway'
The competition was intense, Mertz said.
The members had eight hours to get their ideas together.
"It was like being on 'Project Runway' and trying to make a design in one day," Mertz said. "Trying to develop a plan for the city neighborhood in eight hours can be a little intimidating."
The super neighborhood hosted a public meeting Sept. 19 to show community members the charrette design boards and get their comments. On Sept. 24, the group will host an invitation-only reception at the Asia Society Texas Center, where community members and leaders will have another opportunity to review charrette proposals and weigh in on the super neighborhood's future.
The super neighborhood would present the master plan to the city for proposed funding.
"The events this month are preliminary efforts to get opinions and ideas from the community so we can refine our focus as we actually head into the (master plan) design," O'Reilly said. "The more feedback we have, the better the outcome."
Flori Meeks is a freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.