We’re proud of the work we do here at The Leader, and the stories we’ve told in 2020 were no exception. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it a difficult year on just about everybody, including our small staff, but we’d like to think we rose to the challenge and kept the community informed while uplifting its collective spirit from week to week.
At the same time, we try not to take ourselves too seriously, and we try to stay hungry and humble. There are news outlets with a lot more resources at their disposal and with a much broader reach, whereas we zero in on a small slice of Houston and try to cover it as thoroughly as we can.
So when I received a text message in early December from a source who had heard about a key personnel change at City Hall, I initially thought it must have been a coincidence. It had been only a few days since we published the second part of a series about alley issues in the Heights, which examined the city’s murky and historically conflicting stance on the alleys and how they are used by property owners. But I thought to myself, “Surely my reporting had nothing to do with this. There must have been some other reason.”
But now I’m not so sure. HoJin Lim, who assumed the role of City Engineer in January 2020, had been at the forefront of the alley issue since his department determines which alleys are public – and therefore maintained by the city – and which are considered private. Even though most of the Heights alleys fall under the latter category, at least according to the city, the Office of the City Engineer also has a say in who can access the alleys and for what purposes, since that oversight is necessary to enforce city ordinances related to stormwater drainage and street safety.
Lim told me as much in a phone interview before my first story on the alleys was published in mid-November. He also deferred to the city’s legal department when asked to expand on his assertion that heirs to O.M. Carter, who platted the Heights in 1892, had an ownership stake in the alleys.
When I asked the city Dec. 4 whether Lim was still employed as City Engineer, and asked for a reason why if he was not, I received the following response from a Houston Public Works spokesperson:
“By ordinance, Director Carol Haddock, P.E. is the City Engineer. She has not delegated that authority to a specific City Engineer. HoJin Lim is a current City of Houston employee and has accepted a position in the Department’s Capital Project Service Line.”
So why is Lim no longer the City Engineer? Does it have anything to do with alleys? I posed that question on Monday to the office of Mayor Sylvester Turner – whose spokesperson has been copied on most of the alley-related emails I’ve sent – and I left Lim a voicemail seeking further comment. As of Tuesday afternoon, the call had not been returned and Turner’s office had not provided an answer.
It’s worth noting that on Dec. 3, Turner’s office announced that City Attorney Ronald Lewis had accepted a new job and would be replaced at the end of the year by Arturo Michel, who had previously served in that role from 2004-10. Lewis was copied on some of the alley questions I had emailed to the city, and multiple requests to interview him about the alleys have not been granted.
Is it a coincidence that two of the top employees at the city left their roles at roughly the same time, shortly after we published two stories that questioned their departments’ policies on the alleys? Maybe, maybe not.
The moves coincided with some other turnover at City Hall, including the resignation of Parks and Recreation Department Director Steve Wright and the retirement of Solid Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes.
But one thing has become abundantly clear as I’ve continued to follow this story, which affects residential property owners who want to use alleys to access their homes as well as developers that want to build in the Heights but first have to acquire small pieces of property from Carter heirs who live all across the country and have taken all their cues in this matter from the city, according to their attorney in Houston: The folks at City Hall are reluctant to talk about the alleys, because some of the most critical questions I’ve asked have so far gone unanswered.
Why has the city determined that it does not own the alleys in the Heights, which the city annexed in 1919? It has exerted control over them much more recently, asking property owners to remove obstructions to the alleys and requiring them to gain permission from the city before taking on construction that may impact the alleys and how they drain.
And why, if ownership lies with some other entity, is the city still exercising control over how the neighborhood’s alleys are used? Can they be considered public and private at the same time?
Perhaps the answers revolve around money, like many things do. Maybe the city realized the alleys in the Heights need to be upgraded to mitigate flooding risks, but because such a project would come with a hefty cost, it decided to leave that chore with property owners in an affluent part of town.
Or maybe the people at City Hall are so unsure about the issue of alley ownership that they want to distance themselves from the passageways as much as possible to avoid some sort of legal liability.
The city could be headed for a legal fight anyway, because some property owners and business owners in the neighborhood have said they have been financially impacted by the city’s shifting position on the alleys. Starting in the summer of 2019, when Joe Myers was employed as City Engineer, the city began asking for extensive drainage improvements in exchange for alley access, while also taking a hands-off approach when it comes to encroachments in the alleys.
While some in the neighborhood acknowledge the need for improved flood mitigation, the city’s position has not been popular among many residents. But the city has at least committed to addressing the issue, with Houston Public Works saying its policies will be evaluated and possibly amended in the spring by the city’s Transportation, Technology and Infrastructure Committee.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to keep the issue at the forefront and continue to ask questions, even if they aren’t answered the first time, the second or even the third. Property owners in the alley-filled Heights deserve to know, and a big part of our job at The Leader is to advocate for them and keep them informed.