Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Proposal for a Method to Change Street Names in Houston

Recently, the India Cultural Center suggested changing the section of Hillcroft between Highway 59 and Westpark to Mahatma Gandhi Street. I don't have a strong opinion about this (except to say that Hillcroft is a very boring street name, but that it would be really weird if the street were Hillcroft south of Westpark, Hillcroft north of 59, but Mahatma Gandhi in-between). The repsonses on Swamplot were quite passionate, though no one was quite as passionate as Slampo on his own blog.

But this got me thinking. I think it should be possible to change the name of a street. But it shouldn't be easy. The requirements for changing a street name should be transparent. So what I am proposing here is a general outline on how to change a street name.

First of all, the mechanism for the change should be a petition to the city government. Get enough registered voters to sign off on the name change, and the name will be changed. Let's call this the Petition to Change the Name of PCN, for short. The PCN would have some minimum number of signatures collected within a reasonable time frame (let's say 6 months). For the sake of argument, let's make 1000 signatures the minimum. (It could be more, though.)

Now in order to change a street name, you have to replace a bunch of signs, and that cost money. And the taxpayers of Houston shouldn't have to bear that cost. So if an orgnaization like the India Cultural Center (or any other orgnaization or individual) wants to change the name of a street, they must not only get a minimum of signatures on the PCN, they would also have to place in an escrow account enough money to pay for the new signs, their installation, and the confirmation of the signatures on the petitions.

Yes, petitions. Because once someone started a PCN, at the same time, a petition to retain the old name, or PRON for short, would be begun. It would have the power to veto the PCN, and would have six months after the PCN was turned in to be completed. (This makes the entire process last at least a year, but that seems reasonable for such a big change.) If enough registered voters were actively against changing the name, the name would stay the same. The minimum quantity of signatures on the PRON would be a percentage of the number of signatures on the PCN. For the sake of argument, let's say 50%. So let's say the supporters of the name change got 5000 signatures. If the PRON has 2501 signatures, then the name remains the same, the escrow is returned to the sponsoring orgnaization (minus a fee for validating the petitions), and we all go home.

So let's say I am president of the Houston Classic Comic Strip Appreciation Society, and we decide we would like to honor George Herriman, the immortal creator of Krazy Kat and other classic comic strips, by having a street named after him. The one we choose is a one-block street called Herridge. So we go to City Hall, pay our escrow ($650: $250 each for the two street signs we would replace, and $.10 each for the minimum 1000 signatures we need, plus $50 for the possible 500 signatures on the PRON. Note--all prices are just made up in this example.) In getting this petition, a notice goes up on the City of Houston website that the HCCSAS has started a PCN, and that if anyone wishes to get a PRON to oppose, they can pick it up at City Hall.

Now the HCCSAS has a mailing list of all the classic comic strip fans in Houston, and we also go out in public places and get random citizens to sign. We do pretty well at street festivals, in Montrose, and in the Heights. Their PCN gets a total of 4000 signatures. When they turn it in to City Hall, though, they must pay an extra $500 into the escrow to pay for the extra signatures (theirs and the potential extras on the PRON).

In the meantime, the anti-Herriman folks are collecting signatures on their PRON. First of all, several people who live on Herridge don't want their street name changed. Then Slampo puts up a scathing denunciation of the whole plan on his website, which encourages even more people to sign the PRON.

If the PRON has more than 2000 signatures, the HCCSAS loses and Herridge stays Herridge. (The HCCSAS gets $500 back from the escrow account.) If the anti-Herriman forces are unable to generate opposition in the form of 2000 signatures, then the HCCSAS doesn't get anything back from the escrow account, but Herridge St. becomes Herriman St.

(In addition to all this, there would have to be some guidelines and maybe a mayoral veto power to prevent people from creating "Shit St." or "Hitler Lane.")

The reason I like this method is that it puts a big burden on the people who want to change the name--they have to pay for the change, and they have to convince a lot of registered voters to go along with them. And it gives people who are actively opposed to the change the ability to veto it, if they can convince enough voters to agree.

I'm not sure what the best minimum number of signatures on the PCN would be. Is 1000 enough? Or too high? Also, should the percentage of the number of PCN signatures needed on the PRON for a veto could be 25% or 40% instead of 50%. These are details.

The main point is that the hurdle for changing a street's name should be high but not insurmountable, and the process for doing it transparent and open to any citizen of Houston.



Blogger Slampo said...

This would be a reasonable if cumbersome process, IF there were a clamor to change a bunch of street names in Houston, which there isn't. (It would definitely quash these little outbreaks of ethno-narcissism, which is all the silly "Gandhi Avenue" proposal is, since the antis could out-petition the pros 20-1 or more.) The larger question is: Why rename any street at all? In Houston, where all is flux, at least a street name signals continuity, tradition, etc., and keeps people connected in a small way to the always-shifting landscape, even though most residents these days haven't a clue about the history (Who was Milam? Polk? Clay? Fannin?) Admittedly, "Hillcroft" is a boring name, has no connection to the terrain or history of the area (as far as we know) and most likely was coined by whatever developer laid out the early subdivisions along it (Walter Mischer, maybe?), but that in itself is a kind of history, and after 50, 55, 60 years, it's got a history of its own--people have resided for decades in houses and apartments along it, raised kids, opened and closed commercial establishments and in general gone about the business of living and dying in the big city. Thousands attended the high school just north of Gandhi Avenue, the one named after the Confederate general (where today you won't find many, if any, students with Confederate ancestors.) Sometimes there's a wisdom in just leaving well enough alone.

7:46 PM  
Blogger  Robert Boyd said...

1) I think you are right; people rarely try to change the names of streets. WHich is good.
2) But occasionally it happens for whatever reason--reasons you might not agree with, admittedly.
3) When someone does want to change the name of the street, the method should not be to approach city council and see if you have enough pull. Hence my proposal.
4) It should be hard to change the name of a street, and there should be lots of identifiable public support for it. Also features of my proposal.
5) But people who want to conserve names should have a kind of veto power.
6) I personally would be opposed to changing any historically significant street name, like Westheimer or Fondren. So I would gladly sign PRONs for those streets.
10) But seriously, would Briar Forest be harmed by having a name that didn't sound like it was designed by a developer's marketing computer?
11) Ditto any street with the word "Glen" as part of its name.
12) Ditto "Hill," "Ridge," "or "Cliff"
13) I guess I just don't see the historical value of those names. And if someone were really interested in their history, there are archives and libraries where one can look.

By the way, Milam was Texas revolutionary war hero, Polk was President when Texas was annexed by the U.S., Clay a senator and supporter of Texas annexation (and big supporter of slavery), and Fannin was another Texas revolutionary war hero. I would certainly be opposed to changing the names of those streets--but I think my scheme pretty much guarantees that they never would be changed. But if someone wanted to change Briar Ridge to Roky Erickson Way, I would sign the PCN in a heartbeat.

8:08 PM  
Blogger Slampo said...

Thanks for the history lesson, but I was being rhetorical here--(Who was Milam? Polk? Clay? Fannin?)--the point being (I think) that these historical figures actually had a little something to do with Houston being Houston, as opposed to Gandhi, but nowadays 10 out of 10 people selected at random on the street probably couldn't ID one of 'em or make the connection.
As for Briar Forest---yeah, it's another phony made-up developers' marketing handle, but who wants to bother to change it now? Phony made-up marketing has a long & storied history in Houston--dating to the Allen Bros., I believe.
Over and out.

11:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you check this link before writing the comment?


Seems that there is a way to do it and components of your ideas are in the existing method in one form or another. I do like that you put the burden of paying for the signs on the proposing party though it does squelch individual initiative to some extent.

5:28 PM  

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