Houston's potential for mixed-use pedestrian districtsMaurice Cox, University of Virginia architecture professor and former mayor of Charlottesville VA, spoke the Rice Design Alliance last night. I have to say it was a pretty fascinating lecture. He seems to have been a major force transforming Charlottesville over the last decade to create some pretty vibrant mixed-use districts - including around UVA, downtown, and a mile-long corridor in between the two - earning it awards as one of the highest quality-of-life cities in the country. For those who haven't been to Charlottesville, it's the Austin of Virginia, in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson's famous home, Monticello (a highly recommended tour if you get the chance).
A short primer for those not immersed in the urban planning community: the vibrant, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented district is the current holy grail of urban planning. There is a segment of the population that feels alienated by the suburban form of single-family houses and having to drive everywhere, especially to strip-center shopping. They want "street life" a la New York or San Francisco, a feeling of identity and community within a walkable neighborhood. To get that pedestrian-friendly European feel, cars and parking must be minimized and tucked away from the district. If you do that, most stores/restaurants die from lack of business, so you need potential customers within walking distance both day and night - thus the need for high-density mixed-use: employees at offices during the day, and residents at home at night, usually in multi-story buildings above the retail. This also gets more utilization out of what parking there is: commuters during the day, residents at night. Often, the high-density mixed-use still doesn't provide enough customers to maintain vibrancy, so transit is needed to bring in more people without their cars - usually some form of light rail or subways.
There are some trends that are making these types of districts more and more popular. Certainly the rise of the white-collar knowledge economy is one. Another is that people are marrying and having children later and later, so there's this relatively new and wealthy population of twenty and thirty-something professional singles and couples that find these districts more attractive than a ho-hum apartment or house. No matter what you see in those friendly conceptual sketch drawings developers, architects, and planners love to put out, they're not very popular with families, who value lots of private space much more than public space. And despite any of Dr. Cox's "democratic" descriptions, the reality is that these districts are overwhelmingly popular among the generally-white, educated, professional, childless, upper-middle class - and not nearly as much among other demographics (except for homeless panhandlers).
Developing these districts is a massively complex, time-consuming, and expensive undertaking requiring substantial heavy-handed government intervention: zoning codes, aesthetics/design review and approval boards, affordability requirements for developers, public/private parking garages, and fixed-route transit investments that are far more expensive than buses. But at the end of the day, there's no argument: you can get some very appealing neighborhoods (speaking as a white, educated, upper-middle class "empty nest" professional ;-).
Where people seem to go off the rails is thinking there is "one right way" to build a city. I actually think you can easily have both types of development in a city, and they can be very compatible. The scales are radically different. These pedestrian districts are tightly focused in very small areas, maybe a mile of a certain corridor. Car-oriented suburban areas range over miles and miles. Houston can remain a freeway-centric and mostly suburban city and easily support dozens of these small districts/neighborhoods. West U, Bellaire, Sugar Land and The Woodlands already have "town centers" under development. In Houston, several areas have the potential if they want to go this direction: the Rice Village, Downtown, Midtown, the Museum District, Montrose, lower Westheimer, and parts of Uptown and The Heights - with Downtown probably the furthest along.
I believe there are some committees under the City of Houston Dept of Planning working on codes to help accelerate this type of development, mainly near LRT/BRT transit stops. There are two main stumbling blocks I see.
The first is potential developer opposition, mainly based on the very real "slippery slope" risk: create strong government controls in certain districts, and soon every neighborhood will demand them and we'll lose all the wonderful benefits and flexibility of being an unzoned city. It will take a lot of work to keep these districts and controls under a very tight leash. Explicitly tying them to rail transit stops helps minimize this risk. I also understand that the emphasis in the proposed codes right now is on developer incentives rather than requirements or prohibitions, which seems like an approach more compatible with Houston's history and culture.
The second major stumbling block is simply Houston's weather, which is very pedestrian-hostile at least five months of the year: heat, humidity, and unpredictable and drenching thunderstorms. People point to the cold up north, but cold and heat are not equivalent: you can bundle up for the cold, but there is no such option for dealing with stifling heat. Other major cities don't face quite the same combination of heat and humidity as we have: Miami has ocean breezes; Phoenix, Dallas, Austin, and Atlanta are all inland and drier (so sweat actually cools you down) and they cool off faster at night. Still, New Orleans and what's been accomplished here downtown show that it is possible to have active pedestrian areas with hot, humid weather - albeit mostly at night. Daytime pedestrian vibrancy in the summer is much harder to find across pretty much all of the southern and southwestern U.S., with the exception of narrow strips of coastal towns that get ocean breezes like Charleston, Savannah, Miami, and Galveston. That's why Houston's two most vibrant pedestrian "districts" are The Galleria and the downtown tunnel system.
The bottom line? We can and should try to develop these districts in slow, incremental steps - because there are people who want to live in them, and Houston should strive to offer neighborhoods for every taste - but we shouldn't fool ourselves that successful models in Portland and Charlottesville mean they can be just as successful here.