Envision Houston, part 4 - Mixing the 4 models in HoustonNow that Rita has passed, we will return to our regularly scheduled programming. To recap from the Envision Houston posts last week based on the event Sat 9/17, we talked about some interesting facts that were presented, the planning exercise that was conducted, and how most tables created maps that fit into one of four approaches/models based on the four combinations of concentrated vs. dispersed jobs and residences. Today I want to talk about Houston might mix and match from those four models going forward.
As I mentioned in part 3, I think Houston is the strongest concentrated jobs/dispersed residences (traditional) model in the country based on freeways and HOV lanes, with New York and Chicago being the top models with commuter rail. This gives us the advantages of home affordability, transit potential, and a unified sense of place regionally. I think we have real potential to keep those advantages with continued investments in freeways, managed lanes, and commuter transit (express buses and possibly rail). Even though I think that will be Houston's primary model going forward, I do see niche opportunities to add the other three models in parts of Houston. In fact, I think these transportation investments to the core to maintain large job concentrations there are a critical enabler of two of the other models.
I think natural forces are pushing the dispersed jobs/dispersed residences (sprawl/DFW) model around Houston. We don't have to do anything. H-GAC forecasts show a smaller percentage of metro-area jobs in the future will be in the core job centers. Employers are drawn to the suburban office parks with inexpensive space and easy parking near freeways, with short commutes from nice nearby suburbs with good schools. This relentless trend means it is very important that we continue to make investments in suburb-to-suburb loop freeways like 610, Beltway 8, and the Grand Parkway, because more and more people will be living in one suburb and commuting to another for their job. If we don't invest in them, then those employers won't have access to that talent pool and local citizens will have fewer job opportunities within a reasonable commute: a lose-lose situation. That said, I would hate to see it become the dominant model in Houston, making a bland sprawl-region with a weak core similar to DFW, Phoenix, Atlanta, LA, and others. It will take active energy to make the other three models vibrant alternatives to prevent this "lowest common denominator/path of least resistance" model from winning out.
The concentrated jobs/concentrated residences (smart growth) model is starting to flower downtown and in the uptown/Galleria area. Houston is lucky that we still have concentrated job centers in the core to add concentrated residential to. Dispersed job and residence cities make this model very difficult, as there are few obvious job concentrations where residential can be built. As long as there is demand for this high-density lifestyle, we should try to make sure the market provides it. Can we do it while mitigating the parking, congestion, and affordability problems often found with this model?
Realistically, no one of any means is going to be able to get by in Houston without a car for decades, if ever. So these developments will need adequate parking. I have every confidence that developers will insist on it to make their projects viable, but that said, city regulations can try to make it more attractive and ideally even dual-use, holding commuting employees during the day and residents at night. I'm also not too worried about affordability, as the natural competition in Houston's unfettered development market will force developers to keep their units affordable. Surface street traffic congestion is the tough one. We're getting a lot of high-rise residential towers in the core that are dumping a lot of cars on an already heavily taxed street grid. We need people living in these developments to use alternative means for more trips: walking, biking, transit. I think most of these districts are trying to become more pedestrian and bike friendly, but transit is a problem. I think the light rail lines will help somewhat, but the piece that's missing are high-frequency local circulator shuttles, like the trolley buses Metro used to run downtown. Assuming these districts start to develop most of their own support services - groceries, retail, restaurants, etc. - people need a way to get to them when they're too far to walk but really too short to justify a car trip. Easy and affordable taxi service would also be helpful. Anything to get them to not pull their car out of the garage for that short trip.
But even with frequent circulators and easy taxis, this is an uphill battle. Retailers in Houston know they can't survive without easy parking, and it's just too easy to default to taking your car if you know the parking won't be a problem. A congested street grid in these districts seems inevitable. We may have to look at radical solutions like two-way to one-way street conversions in uptown to be more like downtown.
Lastly, we have the dispersed jobs/concentrated residences model (town centers/transit-oriented development). Houston has a couple real opportunities for this type of development to flourish, as long as the demand is there for this high-density lifestyle. The first is around the light rail stops in the core. Midtown and the Museum District are good examples with real potential. The second is the non-transit town center, with examples like Sugar Land, The Woodlands, and, IMHO, the Rice Village. I think a lot of the same comments I made above about parking, affordability, and surface street congestion in the concentrated job/concentrated residences model also apply here. In the city of Houston, both models will also rely heavily on the new transit corridor planning approach that is under development. That doesn't help places like the Rice Village though, which may have to find more creative ways to develop in this direction (a TIRZ or some other entity?). One key will be for the city to monitor the market for these concentrated residential developments and make sure they plan ahead of the demand curve, but not too far ahead. Both underbuilding and overbuilding are bad. It would just take the financial failure of a couple high-profile developments to scare off local developers from these type of projects and end up with the widespread belief that "high-density new-urbanist residential development can't work in Houston." That would be very unfortunate.
Overall, I think Houston seems to be doing the right things to generate a healthy balance of all four models over the coming decades. As long as we don't become dogmatic about one or two models at the expense of the others, I think we'll be in good shape. Choice and diversity of lifestyles are a good thing. It helps keep both the employers and the employees/talent happy, which is a win-win for the health of the city and the region.