A new plan for the revitalization of downtown La Marque — an area the city’s now calling the Renaissance District — is out this week after months of community workshops and planning.
The plan, created by Texas A&M University’s Texas Coastal Watershed Program, spells out specific measures for the next several years meant to redesign La Marque’s downtown and lure new businesses.
The revitalization efforts will be focused on Laurel Street between Bayou Road and Yupon Drive and First Street between Bayou Road and state Highway 3.
In December, the city’s Economic Development Corp. approved a $25,500 contract with the watershed program for a revitalization planning project.
Through surveys of the area and community meetings with residents, the planners outlined some of the area’s strengths and weaknesses, including ample parking but lack of common design, according to the report.
It also highlights things city leaders on the council and in the economic development corporation can do over the next one to five years to begin making the improvements.
Beautifying and improving the newly named Renaissance District is one of several priorities for the city council, Mayor Bobby Hocking said. The city’s been concentrating on infrastructure and drainage, which are all important steps to developing and improving the Renaissance District, he said.
“It’s a long process, similar to what Texas City has done with Sixth Street,” Hocking said. “We’re in the beginning: naming the district, picking the location. We’ve purchased a few buildings and are moving forward in that direction.”
“La Marque is growing immensely on the west side of the freeway, but we want the east side to benefit as well.”
One thing the city could consider is changing some of its zoning to establish clearer boundaries between neighborhoods and business districts, corporation spokeswoman Colleen Merritt said.
“For a long time, La Marque has had mixed zoning, where commercial and residential are in close proximity,” Merritt said. “We could re-examine some of those areas and see if there’s zoning that makes more sense.”
The current district is a mix of single-family homes, retail and office space and public buildings, with about 23 percent of the area vacant, according to the report.
The report calls for planting trees, creating pocket parks in some of the open spaces, improving lighting and raising crosswalks for walkability. Planners also recommended land-use policies that allow for residential properties and high density, multifamily developments.
There’s plenty of parking in the area, but the spots need to be repainted and marketed and many have potholes to fill in, the report said.
One of the first priorities for the area from the corporation is finding a tenant for a property it owns, 401 Laurel St., Merritt said. The building, previously a carwash and convenience store, has about 4,650 square feet, she said.
Residents have requested the corporation try to attract a cafe, bakery, coffee shop or taco shop that serves breakfast or an entertainment venue to occupy the space, she said.
“It’s got a lot of possibility,” Merritt said.
In the coming year, the city also will work toward improving streets, sidewalks and utilities, she said.
Betsy Bremer’s commute to work has become one big detour.
Although Bremer usually travels north on 51st Street to Pelican Island for her job, she has instead been traveling in nearly opposite directions — west to 37th or south to Broadway. Only then can Bremer find her way back to the north side of 51st Street, where it meets the Pelican Island Bridge.
Her main route to work has been blocked as of late for a major road reconstruction project, which has left much of the street carved out and totally unnavigable.
“They keep changing the detours, so every day it’s an adventure,” Bremer said.
Bremer isn’t alone in her frustration, as much of the island has morphed into one big construction zone. The improvements to island roads aren’t expected to stop anytime soon — the city has planned $25 million in 2018 street repairs and a total of $66 million through 2022.
But residents’ woes over some of the current major road projects on the island should dissipate in the coming months, city officials said. The end is in sight for the 27th Street corridor project as well as construction on Avenue S, city spokeswoman Jaree Fortin said.
“The benefits of the long-term improvements to our infrastructure will far outweigh the short-term inconveniences,” Fortin said. “We are taking measures to lessen the impacts to our residents. However, in some situations those temporary impacts are simply unavoidable.”
Improvements to 51st Street, which is a major thoroughfare to Seawolf Park and Texas A&M University at Galveston, is about halfway done, Fortin said. Construction workers have already completed the underground utilities and are beginning the road overlay process shortly, Fortin said.
Other major projects are further along, Fortin said. The 27th Street corridor project is 75 percent complete, she said.
The project has focused on finishing work around Kermit Courville Stadium. Improvements will include paved sidewalks around the stadium, bicycle connectivity, additional lighting and new landscaping, Fortin said.
A road reconstruction project on Stewart Road from 61st Street to 53rd Street is ahead of schedule and is expected to finish at the beginning of the year, Fortin said.
The detours, especially on Stewart Road and Saladia Street, are a pain, resident Karen Crummett said.
“That detour is just a wreck waiting to happen,” Crummett said.
Some residents, however, are just waiting for the improvements to be done. Then, the road woes will be worth it, said resident Richard Denson.
“It gives you a sense of pride when you see Galveston is making wonderful improvements,” Denson said. “This city has so much deferred maintenance. I personally hope we have construction problems for the next 20 years.”
A soccer field in Friendswood will bear the name of former Mayor David Smith, but some residents called the move ironic.
Several Friendswood residents spoke at the Monday meeting to protest the dedication because Smith was mayor when a land deal to build sports fields wound up in court.
City officials said they got bad advice at the time of the sports field controversy. Also, they said it wasn’t unusual to name things in the city after former mayors.
For example, the city named a road after former Mayor Ralph Lowe in 2001. That was controversial because Lowe owned property on Dixie Farm Road that was a chemical recycling plant and is now known as the Brio Superfund site.
Even though the land deal for the sports fields happened almost 10 years ago when Smith was mayor, residents such as Evelyn Timmons and Linda Richard have not forgotten. Both women spoke at Monday’s meeting to protest honoring Smith.
In 2008, Friendswood officials entered into the agreement to buy land for sports fields that was in Alvin and Brazoria County. The city tried to annex the land, but Alvin declined to let that happen. The land deal died after a group of residents won a lawsuit barring the issuance of $11 million in certificates of obligation.
Such certificates are mechanisms for governmental entities to take on debt without the voter approval typically seen in bond issues.
However, Friendswood voters had approved a charter amendment in 1997 that required voter approval for the city to issue debt that it could not support from its own revenues, except in cases of emergency.
Prospective seller David Wight sued the city for backing out of the $2.6 million deal.
At the time, Olson & Olson served as the city attorney. The city sued the Houston law firm claiming it was negligent in its duties by allowing the city to proceed with what proved to be an unlawful land deal.
Although the city’s opposition to Wight’s lawsuit asserted that Friendswood’s contract with him was void upon finding that the deal would not have been lawful, the city’s lawsuit against Olson & Olson asserts that it settled with Wight for $500,000.
The city settled with Olson & Olson for $225,000 in July.
Council members Carl Gustafson, Sally Branson and Steve Rockey all praised Smith’s work in the community.
Rockey was in the city’s emergency operations center during Hurricane Harvey in August and saw Smith there during the storm and the flooding, he said.
“He was out on boats rescuing people,” Rockey said. “He deserves recognition.”
Branson also witnessed Smith in action during the disaster, she said.
“I think he organized the Friendswood Navy,” she said.
If anyone had a reason to be against Smith, it would be Carl Gustafson. Smith campaigned against Gustafson’s first run for city council, Gustafson said.
But he was not opposed to honoring Smith.
“David Smith is a quality guy,” Gustafson said Thursday.
The council voted to name the soccer field for Smith in a 4-2 vote with council members John Scott and Jim Hill voting no.
Mayor Kevin Holland was the fourth vote in favor of honoring Smith. Councilman Mike Foreman was absent.
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A dispute over the ownership of several beach front rights of way came to a boil Thursday when a bankruptcy trustee attempting to sell the overlying property pleaded with Galveston City Council to give up the rights of way and avoid a lawsuit.
Randy Williams, trustee in the Chapter 7 bankruptcy estate of Sonya Porretto, has threatened to sue the city of Galveston over 10 rights of way on Porretto Beach, between Sixth and 10th streets. Williams and others working to sell the property have claimed the rights of way had belonged to the Porrettos since 1978, when the city council voted to abandon them to the family.
Proof of the transaction is largely nonexistent, however, as the city has not found official records showing the required legal documents, or plats, were ever filed to turn over the rights of way.
The controversy at its core is between a developer wanting to build a mixed-use project on Porretto Beach and islanders opposed to that for various reasons.
The beach is the last property left in Porretto’s bankrupt estate, and Williams has said he has a buyer ready to take it as long as the rights of way are included in the sale. Porretto Beach is one of very few privately owned Gulf beaches in Texas.
The Porretto Beach property is more than familiar with the court system. Another dispute about the ownership of the actual beach slogged through the courts until 2015, when the Texas Supreme Court ruled the Texas General Land Office didn’t own the beach and that it belonged to the Porretto family.
Williams said he would like to avoid that sort of legal fight this time around.
“If that’s what y’all want and you don’t want to settle it, then fine,” Williams said at a public hearing over the issue. “It’ll grind on and on and on.”
Galveston city attorneys have entered mediation talks with Williams. The council on Thursday unanimously deferred a vote that would have officially recognized the process set forth in the mediation agreement.
The mediation agreement sets out steps to settle the issue and specifies that the rights of way would be abandoned only if the trustee deeds the city 100 percent of Porretto Beach West, a few blocks from Porretto Beach. That land is valued at about $160,000, City Attorney Don Glywasky said.
A vote on abandoning the rights of way is set for December, Glywasky said.
Opponents of the transaction came out in full force at the council hearing, which is the first of two to be held. Eight residents urged the council not to ratify that the rights of way were abandoned, or to at least ask an independent entity to take up the issue.
“I expect nobody on this council would hold themselves out as experts on real estate or bankruptcy law, so it seems the wisest course would be to defer this and seek the best outside counsel you can find before deciding how to deal with an irreplaceable public asset,” resident David Collins said.
Alexander Nelson, the son of Sonya Porretto, testified that the rights of way were never officially abandoned in the first place and that his grandfather, Henry Porretto, walked away from the issue after he found he didn’t have full support of surrounding neighbors.
Nelson further contended the city council would only ratify that the abandonment occurred because they were making deals with the trustee and potential buyers of the property.
“If you vote yes to this agenda item today, you’re confirming to all residents and business owners of Galveston that yes, it’s true city council says that planning rules and codes and regulations are for everyone, except those you deem worthy to do backdoor deals with,” Nelson said.
Mayor Jim Yarbrough disputed that the council has been anything but transparent.
“Just when you think you can’t find a crazier one, you find a crazier one here in Galveston,” Yarbrough said. “We’re doing your business in front of you.”
Plans to develop on the Porretto land have been controversial. Developer Galveston LLC has made the $6 million offer and plans to build a mixed-use development on the land.
The rights of way hold no real value, because the city isn’t likely to put utilities or roads there on the beach, Williams said.
“There’s no question that in 1978, your predecessors looked at this and said we’re not going to build streets, we’re not going to put utilities in,” Williams said. “We’re 40 years later and now all of a sudden these rights of way supposedly have value? They don’t allow you access, you can’t develop it.”
Resident Rick Smith suggested the city buy the land and preserve the beach, instead of giving away rights of way that he said rightfully belong to Galveston.
“These are our beaches,” Smith said in the public hearing. “I find it hard to believe that they have lost all records of this platting ever taking place.”
Former City Councilwoman Elizabeth Beeton brought forward dozens of documents outlining the original abandonment. The ordinance states that if its terms and conditions, such as platting the property, aren’t met within 90 days, “then this ordinance shall be deemed never to have taken effect or to have ever been in force.”
“In short, this is a flimsy claim,” Beeton said. “There is no evidence at all that the conditions were met. I don’t think the city is legally on solid ground to give away this property without going through the usual process for abandonment.”
Michael Gaertner, a local architect who is working with the potential developers, said it is entirely plausible that the plats got lost.
“All I’m going to say is I have filed plats with the city and the planning department has lost them,” Gaertner said. “It has taken months and months and months to get it resolved.”
The city council will hold a second public hearing on the issue Dec. 14 and is expected to take a vote on the abandonment then. Yarbrough said the city should at least go through the process but that he won’t be intimidated by a potential lawsuit.
“If we don’t want to acknowledge the release of the ‘78 documents, then done deal,” Yarbrough said. “They can sue us.”
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