Identity Politics

Upper Kirby Wasn't Always Upper Kirby

A story of red telephone booths and creating a new identity for a once-nameless neighborhood.

By Nicki Koetting July 19, 2017

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Thirty years ago, Upper Kirby didn’t exist. Kirby Drive did, however, and when you drove down the stretch of concrete between Westheimer and Bissonnet, you passed the same sorts of places you would find on the side of I-45: gas stations, shops selling tires and offering oil changes, car dealerships. The original Carrabba’s was once an adult bookstore.

This nameless neighborhood was the sort of place you drove through on the way to other, named neighborhoods—River Oaks to the north, West U to the south, Uptown to the west, downtown to the east. It was not, in short, a destination.  

That all changed in 1987 when the business owners of Upper Kirby saw their area's potential and came together to form a merchant’s association, in hopes of creating an identity for their community.

“We weren’t Greenway Plaza, we weren’t Montrose, we weren’t Rice Village,” says Travis Younkin, deputy director of the Upper Kirby Management District. “These were places that had identities, and people knew if they were going somewhere, it was a way to say ‘I’m going to [that] neighborhood.’ We didn’t have that.”

But Upper Kirby’s location demanded an identity, Younkin says.

“In inner-city Houston you kind of have to go through Upper Kirby to get anywhere. It was this great location that was in between everywhere else, and the merchants at the time wanted to get together and try [to] make an identity for the area.”

The establishment of a merchant's association led to a few improvements around Upper Kirby businesses, including the installation of something that's now become synonymous with the UK itself: those attention-grabbing red telephone booths sprinkled throughout the area.

The authentic British phone booths are an homage to Upper Kirby’s acronym, and actually operated as phone booths for a few decades until cellphones became the norm. Now, the telephone booths are lit from within and locked, serving today as a visual indication to visitors that they’ve arrived in Houston's own UK.

The phone booths weren't the only nod to British culture; the merchant's group also operated a British double-decker bus in the ‘90s that took visitors and residents on restaurant crawls, Younkin says. It has since been put to pasture, but Upper Kirby residents will be pleased to learn that the bus will be making a comeback soon as a beverage kiosk in Levy Park.

Back then, the nascent merchant's association didn’t have the power to do much beyond placing telephone booths on sidewalks and operating a short-lived tour bus route. But that all changed with the introduction of Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones in the early '90s.

“Without getting a handle of the public areas, the common areas, they were limited in what they were able to do,” Younkin says. “The management district allowed them the ability to start maintaining … and beautifying the public rights-of-way.”

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Upper Kirby became the state's 19th TIRZ in 1999.

So in 1996, the group went to the state legislature and officially became the Upper Kirby Management District. In 1999, the management district transitioned into a TIRZ, starting out with roughly $10 million in its coffers for capital projects. Over the years, those capital projects have included everything from improving the neighborhood’s storm drainage system, sidewalks and streetlights to completely renovating Levy Park.

Density has exploded in the area since Upper Kirby first became, well, Upper Kirby, and the upgrades have only just begun, Younkin says. Between 2000 and 2012, the population in the area grew from 16,166 to 19,618, while the population density increased from 5,443 people per square mile to 6,605—an astonishing increase of 18 percent during a time when the city itself only saw its overall density increase by 3 percent.

An equally astonishing 53 percent of Upper Kirby's housing stock was built after obtaining its TIRZ status in 1999, and those homes are increasingly pricey: The average price per square foot in the area is $263, much higher than the citywide average of $157.

There are still gas stations, but those car dealerships and adult bookstores? They've been replaced with gleaming high rises, high-profile restaurants, and busy mixed-use developments like West Ave, which now anchors the northern boundary near River Oaks. 

“We’ve changed so much [just] in the last 10 years," says Younkin. "It’s continuing to improve, and I think we’ve just sort of scratched the surface with the level of place it’s going to become.”

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