Historic Renovation in Houston: Updating the Fourth Ward

Located just outside the high-rise district, Houston’s historic Fourth Ward offers residents a thriving community with a deep sense of culture combined with the convenience of the city and its amenities. Despite the neighborhood remaining an attractive place for real estate, the original buildings and roadway network were aging, and local property owners were eager to modernize and/or redevelop. The Fourth Ward Redevelopment Authority, Tax Income and Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) No. 14 worked with residents and investors to allow limited changes for new developments while maintaining the historical integrity of the area. The KCI team was tasked with assessing the condition of the existing infrastructure and preparing construction plans.

The community is laid out in a standard urban grid, and engineers determined that 14 blocks required either partial or complete reconstruction. Sanitary and storm sewer lines needed to be replaced, and sidewalks redesigned to comply with ADA guidelines. Designs also took into account the sensitive nature of the area. For example, plans ensured preservation of the original bricks in the roads that were hand-made by freed slaves in the 19th century.

Fourth Ward Robin Street Plans
KCI proposed sidewalk updates and drainage solutions that met current city of Houston standards. Utility relocation plans were designed to minimize impacts to the area.

One of the biggest hurdles was accommodating the many one-way streets with traffic control and construction phasing plans. Roadway widths ranged from only 19 to 21 feet. It was critical to ensure that residents had access to their properties during sewer relocation, sidewalk and pavement operations. Engineers developed a model that met city requirements through limited street closures. Stand-alone detour plans for each block and intersection closure were created to provide flexibility as appropriate for construction operations. The overall traffic control plans included provisions to notify property owners in advance of the roadway closures, provide separated pedestrian access through the work zone and provide emergency vehicle access at all times. Our team also drove each corridor using a 360-degree camera to collect high resolution video of the existing conditions. Engineers could then re-walk the site from their desktop when brainstorming solutions.

Fourth Ward Andrews Street Construction
With one-way streets limiting traffic control options, the TIRZ opted to implement single block closures rather than closing an entire road.

Limited right-of-way and narrow roadway widths posed similar challenges when redesigning sidewalks for ADA compliance. Utility poles were prolific throughout the site, and mass relocations would have been too costly. Creative thinking led to the number of pole relocations being reduced to just four by narrowing the streets to create space for four-foot sidewalks with clearance for utility poles and ramp shifts into the roadway and inside sidewalk corners. The concepts added space for pedestrians and complied with all utility, drainage, grading plan and ADA criteria, rather than require construction workers to move a high amount of utility poles within the existing smaller sidewalk.

KCI’s Water Resources Practice also played a key role in addressing sequencing concerns in regard to the drainage and sanitary alignments. The team worked diligently to provide an effective plan for construction in line with maintenance of traffic phases. Utilizing the HouStorm software, engineers evaluated the drainage and grading plans to ensure all current city of Houston criteria was met. Additionally, they reviewed drainage features and curb tie outs in the location of intersections, ADA ramps, and utility poles to eliminate conflicts and minimize the need for design waivers.

Fourth Ward Crosby Street Sidewalk Reconstruction
Narrow sidewalks were widened throughout the community to comply with ADA requirements.

Special care also had to be taken in the intersections that included historic Freedman’s Town bricks, as they were not allowed to be moved by construction workers. Instead, the city of Houston developed procedural guidelines for handling the preservation of the area. If bricks were discovered in a section of road, construction would halt, and a specialty contractor would be called. Under the supervision of an archaeologist assigned by the Fourth Ward, the contractor would assess which bricks needed to be relocated, carefully place them on pallets and deliver them to a secure storage facility. After construction resumes and is completed in that area, the bricks would then be cleaned and placed back into their original location.

With redevelopment construction underway, the Fourth Ward is able to retain its charm and deep sense of history while simultaneously attracting new homeowners to the area. Additional phases of reconstruction are in the process of being designed, and future restoration projects are planned for the path that freed slaves took through the region. Updates are continuously being provided to the neighborhood that will accommodate the Houston community for years to come.