In the third week of September, CenterPoint Energy erected a pair of towering utility poles in the middle of the sidewalks on Dunlavy north and south of Westheimer, part of an ongoing project to strengthen the local electrical grid against natural disasters.
Nearly a month later, the sidewalks remain inaccessible to wheelchair users and mobility-challenged residents.
The problem lies in the sidewalk space left after the installation of the massive utility poles on either side of Westheimer on Dunlavy. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, sidewalks must have three feet of available space for mobility-challenged populations to safely navigate streets.
Neither sidewalk met that requirement following the installation of the new utility poles, according to measurements by Houston Landing.
Houston Public Works spokesperson Erin Jones said the ADA requirement likely was included as part of a plan review for the work CenterPoint submitted to the city.
Under its franchise agreement with the city, CenterPoint is allowed to operate in public rights-of-way.
CenterPoint’s franchise agreement, however, stipulates that no public right-of-way should be “encumbered by construction, maintenance or removal work… for a longer period than shall be necessary to execute said work.”
Lex Frieden, Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County board member and one of the architects of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said ADA compliance cannot be an afterthought. Delays repairing the sidewalk to restore accessibility could open the city or utility to federal ADA complaints through the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Theoretically, the sidewalk should have been fixed at the same time the pole went down,” Frieden said. “If they’re doing this without taking into account and ensuring people have access at the time they block the sidewalk, that’s not a good neighbor,”
CenterPoint responded to a list of questions from the Houston Landing with a statement, but did not answer why the sidewalk was not addressed during the erection of the poles.
The company did say it had acquired “the necessary mobility permit to temporarily close the sidewalks.” In previous statements to the media, CenterPoint had said the mobility permits were related to the Americans with Disabilities Act.
According to Houston Public Works, that is not the case.
“Mobility permits are more for the protection of construction work within the right-of-way,” Jones said.
The franchise agreement also states that CenterPoint has to provide notice for work it performs to the city, but not necessarily to residents. That led to neighbors, including activist and Texas State Senate candidate Molly Cook, airing their displeasure on social media.
“It went up overnight, not an ounce of warning for anyone,” Cook said. “People choose this neighborhood for walkability and accessibility, and it is a slap in the face and it is disrespectful to the neighborhood to destroy a main thoroughfare sidewalk with absolutely no warning, without coming to the community first.”
Montrose resident Elizabeth Miller walks down Dunlavy every day. She said she understands the need for updated utility poles, she does not think enough foresight went into the planning.
“There is no way that a wheelchair could fit around one of these giant poles on the sidewalk, and the street in and of itself is really difficult to navigate even on foot, let alone on wheels,” Miller said. “So, that definitely wasn’t kept in mind when planning where these would be placed within the neighborhood.”
CenterPoint’s plan, which the company says was presented to City Council in 2021, is to replace 46 existing structures with new poles to “enhance resiliency and reliability.”
An April pole installation at the intersection of Fairview and Park also drew criticism from neighborhood residents, complaining of the unsightliness of the massive pole in front of a home. That sidewalk, however, has been made ADA-compliant.
Complaints from the community and the lack of ADA compliance led to a meeting between CenterPoint and the Office of the City Engineer.
“You can’t just say you’re complete and you didn’t provide (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessibility,” Jones said, adding responsibility for making sure the sidewalk was in accordance with city and ADA rules was on CenterPoint.
“They told us they’ll get it done, we’re going to give them a reasonable timeline to get it done,” Jones said. She said residents could call with complaints to the city’s 311 hotline in a few weeks if the work had not been completed, but Public Works would not go for stricter enforcement methods immediately.
“Because we have a good relationship, we’d probably give them another call and be like, ‘Guys, come on,’” Jones said. “We’re not just going to go out there and red-tag it.”
Neither sidewalk along Dunlavy showed any sign of imminent work on Tuesday.
CenterPoint’s statement last week said it was in the process of finalizing a permit to reroute the sidewalk on the north side of Westheimer and planning to restore the ground surface on the south side.
“We continue to work closely with the city to satisfy ADA requirements, when necessary, and continue to regularly update the city of Houston as required by our franchise agreement,” the statement said.
While the city’s plan appears to be remaining flexible with CenterPoint, Frieden cautioned that too much leeway could lead to a United States Department of Justice inquiry.
“If (the city doesn’t) nudge pretty well, there’s likely to be some federal ADA complaints made that will speed up the process,” Frieden said. “I’d like to see all the parties play with the public in mind, and that would be to fix it quick.”
For Frieden, the question is not about whether the work gets done, but why this issue has grown as it has.
“Inconvenience for a day or two, or a week, maybe even two weeks, is the price of progress sometimes,” he said. “But the question is what is reasonable and what is unreasonable? Are they making a serious effort or are they simply waiting on somebody to complain?”