Monday, March 14, 2016

A compelling alternative to the I45 redevelopment plan thru downtown

UPDATE: TXDoT is studying the plan to see what ideas they can integrate!
UPDATE 2: Oscar Slotboom of Houston Freeways has updated his analysis here to incorporate the Purple City plan.

Purple City has just published an absolutely amazing and incredibly detailed report with a comprehensive alternative to TXDoT's I45 redevelopment plan through downtown.  So much thought has gone into it that it deserves very serious consideration by TXDoT, including potential wholesale adoption.  A lot of it sounds very good to me, although I would certainly like to see an objective analysis by a more technical expert than me of the pros and cons of it vs. the existing plan.  The overview in his own words:
"My schematic requires less right-of-way, creates a continuous managed lane network for commuter buses and BRT, and eliminates all left-hand exits, among other improvements."
That part about continuous managed lanes through downtown is what I'm most enthusiastic about. I've been advocating for quite some time a comprehensive MaX lanes network that connects through downtown rather than terminating there, so commuters on opposite sides of town from non-downtown job centers can use express transit to get to work. The downside of this plan is that it keeps the Pierce Elevated through midtown (as managed lanes), but with extensive modifications to make it more friendly to the pedestrian fabric of downtown and midtown (page 5).

Here is his list of the flaws in the current plan:
  • Excessive Right‐Of‐Way Consumption
  • Unnecessary Street Closures
  • Lack of Diagonal Capacity (the ability for traffic to travel from the North and Katy Freeways to the Gulf, South, and Southwest Freeways)
  • Left‐Hand Exits and Entrances
  • Additional Feeder Roads
And here are the benefits he lists for his solution:
  • Converts Pierce Elevated to Managed Lanes
  • Knits together Downtown and Midtown
  • Creates a Continuous Managed Lane Network
  • Develops BRT between Bellaire and UH/TSU
  • Adds a Parallel Bikeway Network
  • Provides for Future Commuter Rail (I don't see this happening, but options are always good)
  • Expands the Downtown Street Grid
  • Reduces right‐of‐way acquisition
  • Eliminates Left‐Hand Exits and Entrances
  • Preserves Polk Street from Downtown to EaDo
  • Eliminates Midtown Feeder Roads
  • Creates a new Western Gateway to Downtown
  • Eliminates a Large At‐Grade Intersection
  • Preserves Interesting Freeway Architecture
  • Accommodates Changing Traffic Patterns (this is particularly cool!)
All in all one of the most impressive "amateur" public input efforts I've ever seen.  The power of the internet to crowdsource better ways of doing things never ceases to amaze me.  When people are passionate about something, creativity and innovation flourishes.  I sincerely hope TXDoT will seriously study the plan and try to incorporate as many of the suggestions as possible - even if we're beyond the official public comment period. This is too big and important of a project to let arbitrary calendar dates eliminate meaningful improvements that could shape central Houston for the next century!  As always, if you know influential people please pass this along...

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At 2:50 PM, March 22, 2016, Blogger Peter Bryn said...

My priority is a less-auto-centric-Houston, and, as a resident of Midtown I'm biased toward reclaiming the Pierce Elevated right of way for more-urban purposes. This plan may offer improvements to TXDOT including some BRT, but (and yes I realize this is a NIMBYish position) I can't support maintaining the Pierce Elevated for car traffic.

At 4:36 PM, March 22, 2016, Blogger Colin Cassells said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 4:40 PM, March 22, 2016, Blogger Colin Cassells said...

I'm an independent business owner running a managed service provider company. We need to make client visits scattered all across the Houston region, to service computers and install computing infrastructure. AS such we travel all over the region and we never know where my next client will come from.

As a consequence, having great roads benefits my business by allowing me to service a larger geographic area, quickly and at lower cost. If I'm stuck in traffic I can't make money, as I'm not servicing any clients. More business opportunities means more money and the more people I can hire.

The folks who are anti-roads and pro-mass transit are clearly thinking with an employee/office work mentality. Mass transit only makes sense when you have consistent commuting patterns, and only a minority of individuals work for large employer's. Most folks work with small business and often have very chaotic commuting patterns. Think of the guy who owns a home remodeling company, every day his workers go to a different work location all across the city..

Contractors, home builders, IT companies, consultants, all need the ability to free travel and mass transit and making congestion worse with anti-car policies, harms small business.

At 1:02 PM, March 28, 2016, Anonymous Mike said...

I can't imagine why anyone who cares about Houston would want to put a toll road between downtown and both Midtown and the bayou (which is essentially what the new managed lane component amounts to), but I think this is a case of status quo. The status quo is, there's already a freeway there. If there wasn't already a freeway there, such an idea wouldn't see the light of day.

Imagine if someone suggested that we build a toll road around the west side of Uptown, approximately where Sage Road is, cutting Uptown off from the neighborhoods and other office districts around it. Terrible idea! Or imagine if somebody wanted to build a toll road between the medical center and Hermann Park. Awful! Or around the north and west sides of downtown Austin, or the north side of downtown Fort Worth...

But we're willing to entertain this idea for the Pierce, simply because we can't imagine what that area would be like without the Pierce.

At 2:04 PM, March 28, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The problem with that argument is that it can be made for any freeway in the city (they all split neighborhoods), but metros must have freeways somewhere. They might as well go where they already exist, because neighborhoods and land use have already adapted to their existence.

At 3:03 PM, March 28, 2016, Anonymous Mike said...

But this isn't just any neighborhood in the city, is it? Like it or not, people associate cities with their downtowns. If you compare American cities of similar size, you will find that those which have freeways on only one side of their downtown (e.g. Atlanta, Austin, Denver) tend to have much nicer downtowns than those where the downtown is completely encircled by freeways. The ripple effect goes a long way.

I sometimes wonder if, when it comes to quality of life, Houston isn't a bit like the friend or relative you have who always laments that they just can't get their life together, they've had too many bad things happen to them, etc. And then one day, when a golden opportunity presents itself for them to improve their life, they pass it up because it's just too different, too strange, too good to be true. Better to stick with what's familiar - they've "already adapted to their existence"...

At 3:35 PM, March 28, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm not totally sold on the value of merging downtown and midtown. Does that mean gigantic office buildings are going to start coming to midtown? Would that really be good for midtown? I might compare them to Manhattan and Brooklyn - it's actually a good thing that they're distinct, each with their own character.

At 4:45 PM, March 28, 2016, Anonymous Mike said...

I doubt gigantic office buildings would come to Midtown, since they rely on the tunnel system and short walking distance to other buildings to drive leasing, which means downtown's office core will expand slowly and prefer densification over expansion (see Skanska's decision to do a time-consuming teardown on a large existing building rather than build on one of the numerous vacant lots in south downtown).

What I see more likely for merging downtown and Midtown is that the area becomes much more attractive for residential, small boutique office, and hospitality. Right now it's certainly bringing residential in droves, but there's a ceiling in terms of quality - the really glamorous residential still looks to the Galleria area. Look at the west/northwest side of downtown Atlanta for what a downtown that's about the size of ours can have without the impact of a freeway on one side. It's a really beautiful cityscape, with some of the city's nicest hotels and tourist venues.

And then the real tragedy is that the bayou park where it meets downtown, which should be the very best real estate in the city, has no hotels or condo towers looking across at the skyline, and the life of the park is disconnected from the life downtown, instead of the two converging and becoming greater than the sum of their parts. You go to the park, play, and go home, instead of going to the park and wandering into downtown, or vice versa. Minus the freeway, this becomes the heart of Houston, the place that everyone takes their out-of-town relatives and poses for a picture.

At 7:02 PM, March 28, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Highest upscale is locked in at the Galleria - that's not changing. And I'm not sure Midtown would stay so protected - builders would arbitrage the land price differences to build cheaper towers there. I agree it's not ideal where the bayou park meets downtown, but that doesn't change under either plan.

At 9:46 AM, March 29, 2016, Anonymous Mike said...

Upscale residential has already started moving from the Galleria. 15 years ago almost all the residential highrises being built were in the Galleria; in the last big wave, more were built downtown than in the Galleria. But Midtown is still hampered by being 80% surrounded by freeways, most critically where it meets downtown.

If office tower builders weren't worried about tunnel access/proximity and were interested in cheap land, why aren't they building in Midtown already? Or south downtown?

And where the bayou park meets downtown does change under TxDOT's plan - the downtown connector is only four lanes total, a world of difference from the current concrete blanket that covers the area.

At 10:07 PM, March 29, 2016, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The residential towers went downtown because of the tax incentive program, which has now ended. I would argue the tax incentive just shifted development from elsewhere in the city, but now we get much lower tax revenue from each unit.

Maybe they're not building in Midtown because of the Pierce barrier? It creates a psychological barrier that then need to be north of it. They certainly must if they want to claim to be "downtown". Once the Pierce is gone, they may decide to claim downtown runs much further south. I except Midtown will be assimilated and lose it's character.


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