Thursday, February 02, 2006

Houston's potential for mixed-use pedestrian districts

Maurice 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.


At 7:21 AM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't believe the hype about Charlottesville's mixed-use "Downtown Mall." You're spot on with your panhandler comment. My wife didn't like to take our children there because of the panhandling presence. The Downtown Mall in C-Ville has some hip spots, but a lot of empty storefronts as well and a lot of "underused" non-commercial regional development type storefronts as well.

At 10:28 AM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, too, want to see a scattering of walkable mixed-use districts in our city and region. However, two major obstacles:

1. Cost vs. revenue - Houston is a relatively inexpensive city. Lease rates, home prices, etc. are lower than other areas of the country, especially the east and west coasts. Vertical mixed-use projects, especially those requiring structured parking, are more expensive to build, necessitating higher operational revenues and therefore higher prices to tenants and buyers. Thus it's more difficult to do this in Houston and be competitive, especially since we don't have many on-the-ground examples providing evidence of the economic benefits to the developer. Hopefully what is happening in Sugar Land and The Woodlands can change that, as well as the Houston Pavilions in Downtown. There is evidence that retail sales and office rents in such projects get a premium over standard suburban models.

2. Retail. I have come to realize that, like it or not, in Houston, retail spaces (especially for convenience or comparison goods, not so much antiques or food / beverage) MUST have at least a minimal amount of surface parking in front to be attractive to tenants. Those of you who attended the last Livable Houston lunch where John Breeding talked about Uptown heard how the much-anticipated Ed Wulfe Boulevard Place project on Post Oak Boulevard at San Felipe has had to add off-street "teaser parking" along the Post Oak frontage in response to potential tenant demands. The original designs did not have this. So, you'll end up with something that is more pedestrian-friendly than what you have now but is certainly not the ideal urban form that many would seek.

This problem can be solved with on-street parking, especially of the diagonal variety. But City of Houston traffic engineers generally don't allow this on the commercial thoroughfares where retailers want to be for exposure purposes (again, projects in Sugar Land and The Woodlands might change this over time). As long as this remains the case, creating truly pedestrian-friendly mixed-use retail districts within the city will remain a major challenge.

At 2:36 PM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If these newer districts are in fact popular among the white middle class, it's because the demand for such districts outpaces demand, with the result being that the only people who can afford it are white and upper middle class.

At the beginning of the lecture he showed how an entire mixed-use mostly lower-class district was levelled (using the excuse of "blight") to make room for a car-friendly officepark. Who knows how that district might have fared were it allowed to exist to the present day.

At 2:39 PM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops, I meant "demand for such districts outpaces supply."

At 10:50 PM, February 03, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

john sterling -

I lived in Charlottesville for many years, and I hold a much different impression of the Charlottesville downtown pedestrian mall than what you recounted, so I'd like to share that. I thought it was a great place for kids. I frequently witnessed families there, with lots of kids playing. Many of my friends brought their kids there (I was childless at the time). In fact, there is a even children's museum on the mall. And on Fridays during the summer, the place is packed with people (including kids) listening to live music and just having fun. There are often festivals on the weekends as well a farmers market, all of which are defintely great for kids.

As for panhandlers, perhaps you had a bad experience which would understandably make you more cautious, but I don't recall ever being panhandled in all my years in Charlottesville. Yes, there were the occassional homeless folks not just in the downtown area but also out at some of the suburban strip malls. But I was never panhandled. And the crime rate for the downtown mall was low, so there really wasn't any cause for concern.

It's been a couple of years since I've been back to Charlottesville, but when I was last there I would say that there was not a single empty stretch of the downtown mall. Even the Paramount is open (and it seemed like that renovation would never finish). It's a great success story, and it's helped to make Charlottesville one of the most desirable and livable small cities in the US.

At 11:44 AM, February 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post on mixed-use pedestrian districts very much. You probably already know this, but The Woodlands experiment with its mixed-use pedestrian district (Market Street) has exceeded expectations, even with the Houston-weather factor. I know from friends in the real estate business that a couple of the restaurants that have gone in there have set first month sales records. Might be worth a road trip for you up to The Woodlands one of these days. If you come, let me know and maybe we can meet for lunch or a drink.

At 10:08 PM, February 05, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Tom: I have actually visited it and the Marriott there. It is very nice, no doubt about it. I'll let you know if I get up there again.


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