Will it go 'round in circles?
Putting in a traffic circle at the Montrose area’s most important intersection: Is it an idea whose time has come and gone? Or just a bunch of hot air that is swirling around — and around — and around?
Wouldn’t it be grand to have magnificent public art or a gorgeous fountain at the center of Montrose Boulevard and Westheimer? Instead of stop lights, long lines of waiting traffic and fume-spewing buses, the traffic flows smoothly, gracefully proceeding toward downtown Houston.
Think Arc de Triomphe. Or Houston could have its own version of Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle.
“It would make the intersection more distinctive,” says Houston real estate consultant Pamela Minich of Minich Strategic Services. “That intersection is so key to the whole Montrose area.”
In recent months, the Montrose/Westheimer traffic circle concept has been a frequent topic of discussion among planners and developers at the Urban Land Institute, the urban design committee of the American Institute of Architects and elsewhere. It may be hard to visualize a traffic circle working effectively in Houston — a place where yield signs are ignored and the survival instinct is a driver’s most important guide. But at the southern end of Montrose Boulevard, Houstonians have been driving through the traffic circle around the Mecom Fountain for years. It’s a beautiful spot right next to the Museum of Fine Arts.
Although the Mecom Fountain traffic circle is an oval, not a circle, it has been serviceable in handling the odd-angled merger of Main Street and Montrose Boulevard. (Full disclosure time: In the pre-seatbelt era, when I was a child, my dad’s Plymouth was rear-ended at the Mecom Fountain traffic circle. The impact of the crash threw me from the back seat into the dashboard.)
Around Washington Avenue
A newer traffic circle lies just east of Memorial Park where Washington Avenue intersects Westcott. Designed by Houston architect Antonio Flamenco, the Washington/Westcott traffic circle functions well in handling traffic. It is a handsome place with traditional brick pavers, landscaping and stone monument signs. At the center of the traffic circle is a huge oak.
The intersection of Montrose and Westheimer is not so picturesque today. A gas station dominates the northeast quadrant of the intersection. A Smoothie King, some restaurants and an older shopping center are located on the intersection’s other corners. Making the intersection of Westheimer and Montrose more of a “people place” is vital, says David Robinson, president of the Neartown Association community group.
“The traffic circle itself is a very thought-provoking concept. But perhaps it’s not right for that intersection,” Robinson says. “I’m fairly convinced it’s not the right solution.” The Montrose/Westheimer intersection today just handles too much traffic to function properly with a traffic circle, Robinson says. It’s much busier than the intersection of Washington Avenue and Westcott.
If a traffic circle won’t work, perhaps some wider sidewalks, landscaping or a public plaza might spruce up the Montrose/Westheimer intersection.
No Slime in the Ice Machine
One of the most important places at the Montrose/Westheimer intersection is the now-defunct Felix Mexican Restaurant. Felix had the best cheese enchiladas in town, according to the late Channel 13 newsman Marvin Zindler. And Marvin was right. When it came to classic Tex-Mex and glorious chili con queso, Felix restaurant, which opened in the 1930s, was unbeatable.
The beautiful Felix building, with its red-tiled roof and large arched windows, has been vacant for a year or so, but that is about to change, says real estate broker Adam Brackman of Urban Deal. A deal is in the works to sell the Felix building, 904 Westheimer, says Brackman. Most likely, it’s going to be another restaurant moving in. Brackman says preserving the old Felix building is important to the sellers, the descendents of the restaurant’s founder, Felix Tijerina.
And preserving old buildings is something that should happen more often in Houston. We’ve allowed the wrecking ball to wipe out too much of our heritage. The Felix building—and the entire Montrose/Westheimer intersection—needs a revival, not a demolition.
Ralph Bivins, former president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, is editor-in-chief of RealtyNewsReport.com.