Challenges to urbanism in HoustonContinuing from my last post, today I want to talk about challenges to the development of urbanism in Houston, where urbanism is defined as high-density, pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use neighborhoods similar to most European cities. Most of these thoughts were inspired by an Urban Land March 2006 article David Crossley sent me titled "What Constitutes True Urbanism?" (ULI membership required). As skeptical as I am of European models, the article paints a pretty compelling vision of the perfect urban community. But as I dig through the article, I find indicators of why this will be so difficult in Houston. The problem is that many of their key tips to successful urbanism involve preventing most people from doing what they would prefer to be doing, starting with driving cars.
- A long section on "balanced transportation planning", which talks about making the city better for walking, biking, and transit, but also spends a lot of time talking about creating an environment pretty hostile to cars.
- "Automobile use is reduced only if better alternatives exist. Public transit needs to be more convenient, faster, less expensive, and comfortable. Routes should be extensive, providing reasonable walking distance to a stop (ideally 200 yards); service must be frequent (every seven to ten minutes); and access to destination points must be better than by car. A public transit system can only work where there is an appropriately compact built urban fabric." This borders on pure fantasy. I'm not even sure much of NYC, London, or Paris meets this standard.
- "Regional Planning to Maintain the City’s Vitality... According to this collaborative regional planning approach, cities agree to:
In other words, if you don't give people the option of cars, parking, highways, suburban homes, big box stores, and shopping malls, well, then, they'll heartily embrace the urbanist lifestyle. Since that's essentially impossible in Houston, the only hope for urbanism here is that there is a demographic out there that prefers it and is willing to pay for it, as opposed to being forced into it. This is where the European model breaks down. Europe already had the critical mass of density and urbanism before the car came to the middle class, and since they didn't have room for very many cars in their cities, they went about perfecting the art of quality urbanism. They really didn't have a choice. Houston and most other newer American cities have the exact opposite situation: built around the car, with plenty of space for parking, and not near enough critical-mass density for urbanism.
- focus new development within existing urban boundaries;
- establish land use guidelines for the location of new housing close to jobs, schools, shopping, and services;
- prevent shopping malls and bigbox retail from locating outside city limits where they would destroy the cities’ economy and generate automobile traffic;
- roll over highway subsidies to develop regional transit systems"
The analogy that comes to mind for people and urbanism is water concentrated in a mountain lake: it's very nice and pretty to look at, but if a channel gets carved out, the water's natural preference is to flow out into the open spaces of the valley below, and getting it back into the lake is an uphill battle, to say the least.
Let's talk about the much-maligned big box stores for a minute. Places like Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, Circuit City, Home Depot, and Lowe's - but you might also consider our huge grocery stores (including Central Market and Whole Foods) and places like Spec's in Midtown. Now compare them to mixed-use street retail. You almost have to imagine each department inside one of these big box stores as a stand-alone street retail store, but with less selection, higher prices, and you have to walk, bike, or transit home with your heavy purchases instead of just tossing them in the trunk of your car (the prices have to be much higher, because they can't move nearly the same volume or inventory turnover in a street store as they can with a big box that draws customers from miles away). I think that's pretty unappealing to the vast majority of people, and big box stores aren't leaving Houston anytime soon.
You'll notice a lot of street retail in European cities and places like New York are focused on these basics that we get at big box stores in the rest of America. That means that none of that type of street retail will be viable in whatever pedestrian districts Houston tries to develop. People living in those districts are not going to go without owning a car, and that car will be used for trips to the big boxes. So what exactly is left to go in these pedestrian storefronts we want to build? Well, there are small specialty stores, but they need to draw customers from far and wide to survive, so they tend to locate in malls or "lifestyle centers" (i.e. outdoor malls). Your typical transit-oriented neighborhood is probably not going to work for them, unless the TOD is built around an existing retail development like the Rice Village. The other option for these storefronts are restaurants, but if those restaurants have to rely mostly on neighborhood foot traffic, they're probably going to have to lean towards the lowest common denominator to draw enough customers: delis, fast food, pizza, etc. Think about the options in our downtown tunnel system. Nobody parks downtown to go into the tunnels and eat. Just like more specialized stores, more specialized/exotic restaurants will need to draw on more customers than local foot traffic.
My point here is that for a classical urbanist TOD to thrive in Houston, it has to not only be a dense residential neighborhood, but it has to be a destination for other Houstonians in cars in order to support any reasonable amount of street retail and restaurants. Think Mockingbird Station in Dallas or the Rice Village in Houston. That is possible, with well-done street and garage parking, but you have to ask yourself, how many of these destination TODs can we support? Maybe downtown, uptown, and, if we're lucky, midtown? Maybe some visionary development on the old Astroworld site, or in Hardy Yards? The Rice Village and Highland Village have potential, but neither of them will be along a transit line. The idea that dense mixed-use TOD will spring up around dozens of transit stops seems mighty unrealistic. Apartment complexes, quite possibly, but true mixed-use pedestrian-oriented districts with street retail? Unlikely. And if ordinances require it, those stops will simply be dead zones.
Even in popular destination districts, there's the problem that density always costs more per sq.foot, especially with the parking garage. A lot of people are going to decide it's a lot cheaper and easier to live in a normal apartment, townhome, or house and drive to the pedestrian district when they want to hang out, rather than the hassles and costs of living in the district itself (street noise, parking, etc.) Hopefully there will be a lot of young professionals with plenty of disposable income that think the coolness/lifestyle/social factor is worth the tradeoff. But any sort of politically correct effort to draw families and/or a mixture of income levels seems dubious, and efforts to put these sorts of requirements on developments will make them even more economically tenuous and less likely to get built.
The bottom line is that Houston needs to be realistic about urbanism's potential here. Any broadly sweeping development plan/ordinances aimed uniformly at the transit corridors are likely to flop and discredit the entire urbanist concept in Houston (an outcome that would be applauded by some). A better approach would be to cherry pick the stops/neighborhoods with the most potential (i.e. the ones that are already popular destinations, like downtown, uptown, and maybe east midtown), and craft a custom set of development ordinances for them, while letting the free market do its will around the other stops/neighborhoods, even if that doesn't yield classical urbanism. Something getting developed is better than a dead zone because regulations stymie what the market is willing to build. The new apartments and townhomes of Midtown are a good example, and probably wouldn't have been built if mixed-use street retail were required. Master-planned developments like Hardy Yards, Astroworld, or maybe a future redevelopment of Northline Mall can take care of themselves without supporting ordinances (or they can get the variances they need without too much trouble). By concentrating the urbanist development into a handful of districts that are already drawing lots of people that can support street retail, their chance of success is much, much higher.