West 19th Street in the Heights is a bustling thoroughfare filled with motorists, pedestrians and cyclists, especially on the weekends when the weather is nice. There are enough restaurants and shops to stay occupied for a few hours within the stretch of a few blocks, and there also are opportunities to enjoy the architecture, the artwork on the side of buildings and the people-watching.
Within the next few years, Heights residents and visitors to the popular neighborhood also could see the equivalent of 8-foot-tall smartphones – complete with colorful, interactive touch screens – while they’re traversing the area.
The Houston City Council voted 10-7 Wednesday to enter into a 12-year contract with IKE Smart City, an Ohio-based digital media company that installs and operates interactive kiosks that serve as maps, tour guides, public information hubs and electronic billboards that would generate revenue for the city. Between 75 and 125 kiosks will be placed in commercial corridors with high-pedestrian traffic, according to a copy of the contract between the city and the company, which lists the Greater Heights, Uptown, Downtown and the Memorial areas among the locales that will be targeted.
“You can imagine how people in the Heights are going to react if they have these things on every corner,” said Cooke Kelsey, the board director and advocacy chair for nonprofit Scenic Houston. “How is that going to match the neighborhood’s character?
Kelsey and Scenic Houston, which he said was founded in the late 1970s to oppose the proliferation of billboards across the city, have been perhaps the most vocal opponents to the arrangement between the city and IKE Smart City, which was founded in 2015 and operates in eight cities across the country, including Denver, San Antonio and St. Louis. Kelsey said the kiosks could be eyesores, infringe upon the privacy and rights of property owners, will potentially be safety hazards and might make the city vulnerable to lawsuits by billboard companies that want to make inroads in a market that has allowed no new traditional billboards since 1980.
In a corresponding item on the agenda for Wednesday’s council meeting, Mayor Sylvester Turner and council members voted 10-7 in favor of amending Chapter 40 of the city’s code of ordinances to define and allow for interactive wayfinding kiosks in the city’s rights-of-way.
The concerns raised by Kelsey were challenged by Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer, who said the kiosks cannot be considered billboards and would not be installed in residential areas. The city would have a say in the location of the kiosks, Icken said, while impacted property owners, management districts and Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZs) would be notified and consulted prior to their installation.
“As we have in all cities where launched, we will work to resolve any issues prior to beginning technical due diligence or construction/installation,” Anna Baerman, the development director for IKE Smart City, said in a statement. “Kiosks will be placed in commercial corridors and not on residential streets, and will not block access to doorways/sales windows or obstruct sidewalk cafés.”
Icken said the arrangement, which calls for a minimum of 75 kiosks within three years and a maximum of 125 throughout the duration of the contract, aims to push Houston into the future as part of Turner’s longstanding vision for a smart city. The mayor saw one of the company’s kiosks firsthand while visiting Baltimore within the last few years, Icken said, and the goal in enlisting IKE Smart City is to make Houston more walkable, to generate revenue and to send a message that “technology matters” in an urban landscape.
Per the contract with the media company, there will be no costs to the city, which will receive the greater of 42 percent of net advertising sales or a minimum annual guarantee for the duration of the contract, which will come with two five-year renewal options. Baerman said IKE projects to deliver between $11-$16 million in guaranteed revenue during the initial 12-year term and as much as $50 million in total revenue.
“We are facing a budget deficit of $150 million this upcoming fiscal year, and we have to find creative ways to continue to fund essential services like solid waste, police, fire, and enforcement for things like development,” said city council member Abbie Kamin, who represents the Heights area as part of District C and voted in favor of the wayfinding kiosks and entering into a contract with IKE. “I hope this will help bring in revenue for critical services and provide a new benefit for residents and those visiting our incredible city.”
Kamin, who said she initially was concerned about pedestrian safety and the impact to residential areas when she first learned of the proposal, pointed to some other benefits that will come with interactive kiosks. At least 10 percent will be installed in low-income areas and they all will provide free WiFi to those in proximity to them, along with emergency alerts and an emergency button for someone in distress.
Kamin said during Wednesday’s meeting that none of the kiosks will be included in single-family residential areas, adding they will only be placed in commercial zones.
The kiosks also will monitor air quality and be equipped with security cameras that could be used by law enforcement when investigating crimes. But Baerman said the kiosks are not a “surveillance tool” and do not collect, store or monetize personally identifiable information.
The contract was initially placed on last week’s council agenda, but the item was tagged, or postponed, by multiple council members.
Another local council member, Amy Peck of District A and council member Karla Cisneros of District H, which also includes part of the area, voted against installing the kiosks.
Kelsey, of Scenic Houston, said he generally supports technology and liked the idea of interactive kiosks when he first heard about them. But he now sees them as a threat, nuisance and distraction.
“I’m talking to you on this phone. Everybody has a phone,” Kelsey said. “When I go outside, I want to enjoy the view and the scenery. I don’t want to see an 800-pound smartphone in my front yard.”