More challenges to urbanism in HoustonContinuing the discussion this week on developing urbanism in Houston, the NY Times has a preview of the conflicts we can expect to see here as the city tries to encourage densification in the transit corridors:
But a new front has opened in the battle against sprawl: cities. From Austin, Tex., to Palo Alto, Calif., from Washington, D.C., to Denver, clashes are unfolding between residents of older, low-density neighborhoods and alliances of planners, politicians and real estate companies that see those neighborhoods as prime locations for higher-density mixed-use projects.To clarify my argument from the last post: I'm a live and let live kind of guy, and would love to see urban and suburban neighborhoods coexist. But that article on urbanism I mentioned before (no link) made me question that feasibility, because it pretty strongly argued against offering a suburban option if you want urbanism to thrive. A lot of the street retail in typical urbanism is based on the premise that most nearby residents don't have access to a car and big box retail, or, if they do, there are a lot of hassles to getting that car out and going anywhere (mainly parking, especially giving up that street space near your apartment you spent half an hour driving around trying to find last time you took the car out). Assuming developers aren't going to let that happen in Houston (they'll have to offer convenient garage parking if they want anybody to live in their development), you undermine one of the core customer foundations of urban street retail. People are simply going to drive once or twice a week to Target and the grocery store, and that wipes out what would be a dozen+ street retail shops in typical urban neighborhood. The only way the street retail can thrive is with the now-popular "town center" concept a la Sugar Land and The Woodlands: essentially an outdoor mall with garage or backside parking that happens to have some residential on top. There aren't enough residents to create pedestrian vibrancy or support the stores themselves - they have to piggyback off the mall effect drawing in driving, suburban customers from a multi-mile radius. Given that most of central Houston's retail districts are pretty well defined, I think we have to build urbanism in those locations rather than think we can build it from scratch around any arbitrary transit corridor/stop.
Opponents call it “vertical sprawl” — and argue that it brings many of the same problems to communities as traditional sprawl.
...create significant traffic and parking problems, require an extra school’s worth of classrooms, and cast shadows over nearby residential neighborhoods.
While the debate over vertical sprawl can differ from the suburban kind in the particulars — building height, for example, is often a key issue — the general issues are remarkably consistent: traffic, parking and the cost of supporting new projects with schools, water and other municipal services
Opponents, however, question the promised benefits of development, arguing that high-density infill projects are too often tilted toward affluent buyers, which forces lower-income families out to the suburbs and negates many of the hoped-for reductions in horizontal sprawl. And they tend to see smart growth itself as a stalking horse for developers who merely want to attract government subsidies and the all-important tool of eminent domain.
“They use this specious argument about smart growth to dump their density in urban cores,” Ms. Smith said. “We want to protect these places from being taken over by infill and driving out working-class people.”
If you look at the national urbanism phenomenon in traditionally non-urban cities, you'll see evidence backing this theory. The "urbanism in a sea of suburbanism" has two primary examples: downtowns, where commuting workers provide the pedestrian vibrancy during the day to support the street retail, and new "town center" developments, where the shopping-mall-draw effect provides the pedestrian vibrancy. In both cases, any residential is piggy-backing on the existing destination environment, which has to happen first. The residents do not provide enough critical mass on their own to support the street retail in their urban neighborhood.
On another note: some people are calling for a relaxation of Houston's minimum parking requirements to ease urban development, but that creates spillover street parking in the neighborhoods, and you'll see revolts a la what the Times article above is talking about. Even so, I tend to think developers want their own parking anyway, because few people in Houston are willing to live in a place where they'll have to hunt for street parking every time they come home. We can try to hide it in a backside garage, but eliminating it altogether is probably not feasible.
Side note: If you have a little listening time, check out Monday's NPR Talk of the Nation with Joel Kotkin and a couple Katrina evacuees now living in Houston. They have some really nice things to say about our town. You can also read Joel's Sunday LA Times op-ed on Katrina evacuees in Houston here, with some discussion of the increased opportunities in Houston vs. their previous life in New Orleans.