Infrastructure

Montrose residents push back against CenterPoint’s sidewalk-blocking utility poles

New wider and taller utility poles have been going up around Houston in recent years. Some residents consider them eyesores and potentially dangerous obstructions.

Montrose Utility Pole
Molly Cook
CenterPoint installed a new utility pole that blocks most of the sidewalk on Dunlavy Street near its intersection with Westheimer Road in Houston.

Houston resident Simon Newton likes to walk and ride his bicycle around his Montrose neighborhood, which means utilizing sidewalks and steering clear of the streets designed for cars and trucks.

He's also been avoiding some of the sidewalks in recent weeks, because after CenterPoint Energy began installing gigantic new utility poles in the middle of some of them, he said there is not enough sidewalk for him to safely use.

Two problematic poles are situated along Dunlavy Street, on both sides of its intersection with Westheimer Road, near a pair of popular restaurants.

"I avoid the sidewalk altogether. The ones they've just put up on Dunlavy basically make it impossible to use the sidewalk," Newton said. "The one that's on the south side of Westheimer on Dunlavy there, you literally have to go into the street to get around it or onto someone's yard."

The new steel and concrete utility poles, which are replacing skinnier and shorter wooden utility poles, have been going up around the city in recent years and are designed to fortify Houston's power grid while making its electricity infrastructure more resilient. CenterPoint said it began a six-month project in July in which it is installing 46 of the new poles in the Montrose neighborhood.

But many community members, particularly in Montrose, consider them to be eyesores and obstructions, and there also have been complaints about a lack of advance notice from CenterPoint, which has legal authority from the state of Texas and a franchise agreement with the city that essentially allows the company to place the poles where it sees fit within the city's public right-of-way.

Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, who represents the Montrose area, said the city's hands are largely tied but she's expressed her frustration and displeasure to CenterPoint, asking for a temporary pause in new utility pole installations as well as greater coordination with Houston Public Works and the city engineer to ensure that sidewalks remain usable, there is better signage and community engagement about the new poles and there are minimal impacts to residents and businesses in terms of visibility and aesthetics.

"Hardening our electricity infrastructure is critical, but we also need to make sure we're maintaining the characteristics of neighborhoods," Kamin said. "And that cost needs to fall on the utility company, not residents."

On Sept. 22, in response to a social media post about one of the sidewalk-blocking poles in Montrose, CenterPoint said the “necessary ADA mobility permits were acquired to temporarily close the sidewalk but rest assured, the wooden pole will be removed & the sidewalk will be rerouted."

Molly Cook, a Montrose resident and local activist who made the social media post, said this week that no changes had been made to the impacted sidewalk.

“We are working with the City of Houston's permitting office to finalize the permit necessary to reroute the sidewalk on the north side of Westheimer and also plan to restore the ground surface on the south side of Westheimer,” CenterPoint said in a Thursday night statement to Houston Public Media. “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.”

Kamin said CenterPoint, which agreed to a two-week pause in Montrose but will soon resume new utility pole installation, also has committed to posting signage to better inform community members about installations and subsequent modifications.

Erin Jones, a spokesperson for Houston Public Works, said the department met last week with representatives from CenterPoint, who said they "were going to go out there and make sure it's ADA compliant."

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires sidewalks and street-curb ramps to be wide enough and smooth enough so they are accessible to those with mobility challenges. Newton said Montrose residents such as himself want sidewalks that exceed those standards.

LINK Houston, which advocates for an equitable transportation network for all residents, including those with disabilities, is monitoring the situation in Montrose, according to spokesperson Nick Arcos.

"It's definitely an issue," he said. "We already have limited sidewalk access in Houston. To have a business come in and remove what does exist is never a good thing."

While more of the taller-and-wider utility poles will be going up, Kamin said she'll continue advocating for the interests of Montrose-area residents and those who want increased mobility options for pedestrians, cyclists and those with disabilities. But she added that "a lot of this falls on CenterPoint to do the right thing."

In its statement, CenterPoint said, “We continue to work with the city, customers, and other stakeholders to mitigate the impact of these projects that are important for reliability and resiliency.”

Still, Newton said he hopes the regional utility company will be more considerate of him and his neighbors and more receptive to their concerns.

"Engage the community a bit more," he said. "I realize there's probably no perfect solution here, but can there be a better compromise? I don't know, but it's worth having that discussion."