Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Challenges to urbanism in Houston

Continuing 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:
  • 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"
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.

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.


At 9:51 PM, August 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Would you also consider the Museum District a candidate for urban development, possibly along Binz and Fannin streets to serve all of those coming to visit the museums and the park?


Those two quotes you give at the end sound like something out of an old Fourierist tract. To say that one type of place provides the ideal environment for the upbringing of youth is a bit eerie...

At 10:16 PM, August 29, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I will edit the quote to make it "most people". Sorry, didn't mean to be extreme. But the article does imply that it's not enough to offer good urbanism - you have to prevent suburbanism and discourage cars or people will be tempted to the 'dark side' - or at least that's my interpretation.

I almost wrote about this in the main post: the article says 5 stories is optimal, but I seem to remember almost all of Paris being 9-10 stories. London too, I think. Maybe that was just on major streets. A minor point.

I leave comments open on all posts forever, so the dialogue here can keep going long after I make subsequent posts - and often does.

I'm going to have to agree with Mike that those statements are perfectly agreeable, but cases and counter-cases can be made for pretty much any urban or suburban or even rural form meeting those criteria.

At 10:33 PM, August 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think we should concentrate revised policies / regulations to encourage urbanism solely on regional destination areas, though they are obviously good candidates. Any area for some distance around an LRT / BRT stop should be automatically considered. That said, "punishing" automobile use generally won't work in Houston and requiring density and / or vertical mixed-use would strongly inhibit development in most such zones.

We can do a lot just by encouraging / requiring differences in our typical low-density developments with very ordinary, non-destination uses - I refer back to the strip mall model from the last post. The vast majority of folks would still travel by car, and there would be plenty of parking (probably free in most places). But walking would be much more enabled (and people will walk, weather permitting), and frankly the whole environment would be much more appealing. I lived in such a neighborhood in Oakland, and it was great. It was also very transit-supportive - it was served by a BART station and excellent bus line. The dream vision of true multi-story urbanists? Hardly. But it would be a big positive step for Houston and should lead to taller and denser things in the future.

At 8:14 PM, August 30, 2006, Blogger Adam said...

I feel like we're getting really close to something here: we don't want coercive, likely counter-productive, policies requiring development that the market won't bear.

But what about some of the other development policies in Houston? For example, parking requirements. Minimum parking space requirements in my neighborhood (Alabama and Mandell) just mean that the buildings on our part of Alabama CAN'T be developed cheaply in to small retail establishments. There are some deed restriction issues, but if we converted larger homes in to duplexes or built denser, three story apartments in the area, an even greater number of those establishments could thrive.

Transit isn't a big player, but it could be. I own a car, which I park on the street, and drive, alone, to and from the U of H law school, five days a week. A shuttle system leaving every half hour, and making four stops at both ends would not only make traffic better for everyone, but it would attract even more students to Montrose, or any other neighborhood. It would also be terriffic as a circulator for BRT line.

I'm not sure if this is the kind of thing David Crossley is excited about, but to me it represents a series of small, non-coercive, inexpensive steps that make living more densely a good idea, and let's our suburbs continue to thrive as part of a metro area.

At 10:37 AM, August 31, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few points. One, they do make the caveat that this is the "perfect" urban environment. Lofty goals, but not easily attainable. However, just because one cannot be perfect, does not mean they cannot incorporate as many of the elements of perfection as practicable. Second, and forgive me for piling on, but your suggestion that people are prevented from doing what they prefer to be doing makes the same mistake the urbanists do...that everyone is like you, as opposed to everyone being like them. The fact is there are both extremes, with a huge group in the middle.

Frankly, I don't go to the big boxes on a daily basis, so if they are located on a major thoroughfare, so be it. If the things I need on a daily basis are within walking/cycling/bus distance, I only need the car once or twice a week. Is this perfect? No. Have I and my neighbors done our part to reduce gas usage and pollution? Absolutely.

This is something Houston can achieve, and I suspect that you are advocating. It can be achieved in the suburbs as well, if developers weren't so insistent on placing all retail on the major thoroughfare, with residences behind. But, in the city, it is imminently attainable. Only a few things are required. The city should ease restrictions that call for suburban parking in an inner city area, and residents need (as opposed to forced) to learn the "freedom" of being out of the car. The second is harder, but growing. For 50 years, we have been told that the car represents freedom. In the last 5 years, I've come to realize the opposite is true, in spite of the marketing crush to the contrary. The car is a 2 ton weight around your ankle. As others come to that realization, development will adapt.

At 11:50 AM, August 31, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

My point is not that there aren't people who want to live this way - clearly there are. And I agree with the energy/pollution savings. What I'm trying to understand is what street retail is viable in an urbanist neighborhood if the vast majority of residents drive that once or twice a week to big box stores for groceries and most needs. Maybe a dry cleaners, a convenience store, a small branch bank, and a deli? It seems to me, if the goal is this vibrant pedestrian district with tons of people watching and shopping and restaurants, it better be an existing *destination* in Houston that people already drive to, and then just add residential on top. Otherwise, you're looking at a huge chicken and egg problem with these potential districts: residents don't want to live there until there's lots of walkable retail spread over a few blocks, and shops don't want to set up there until there are tons of residents concentrated over a few blocks.

I'll try to have more clarification on this in my next post.

At 1:47 PM, August 31, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Houston is one of the new largest cities built on the scale of the car.

At 2:52 PM, August 31, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the city removed parking and setback requirements, but didn't limit parking or force buildings to the street, would developers actually stop building parking lots in front of their buildings? Personally I think it'd be worth trying, but I suspect that most developers think people won't patronize a business without ample, visible parking. The exception would be just the destinations Tory is talking about, of which Mockingbird Station is a great example. There is plenty of parking in the garage even though it is at a rail stop, and there's enough to do that maximum parking convenience is not the issue. But are those types of things forbidden now?

I should also note that in my neighborhood near a bunch of bars, the street is often full of parked cars. I kind of like it, mainly for the new-urbanist-style reasons of traffic calming and sense of separation. However, many of my neighbors, even though they live in the area for its relative urbanity, hate that and wonder why the bars are allowed to get away with not having "enough" parking.


At 5:29 PM, August 31, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Sorry I missed your first question. The answer is yes, I think the Museum District could work, and I considered listing it in the main post. Density yes, but I'm not sure it could be classical urbanism though, because I don't know what kinds of street shops could support themselves on foot traffic and people willing to park inconveniently. Maybe some developments like the Village with rooftop and backside garage parking - but the Village is awfully close to the Museum District - could two of those districts co-exist so close to each other? Hard to say.

At 10:55 PM, August 31, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Yeah, that's pretty much what I'm talking about. Dry cleaners, a mini-market, preferably with a respectable selection, some cafes or delis, and a neighborhood bar, would cover most people 5 or 6 days a week. If there is reliable mass transit to a major intersection where the big boxes are, and those merchants had a reliable, not too expensive delivery service, one could get by without a car, or rarely use it.

I realize that I am probably closer to your views than the uber-urbanists. However, I realize most city dwellers would rather live my way than theirs. That is, I want my day to day needs close by. The occasional needs can be farther away. And, I not only don't mind taking the bus/train from the Heights to Downtown/Midtown/(hopefully)Richmond, but I rather enjoy it. It doesn't all have to be within 4 blocks if reliable mass transit can get me there. In other words, connected pedestrian areas, an idea you've suggested before.

I don't think an idea is very good if it cannot be implemented.

At 10:27 AM, September 02, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

On the note that people really want to be driving their cars: that was my observation of what the urbanism article was saying. Much of it was essentially saying "if you make it easy to use a car, they will, and urbanism will suffer."

Kroger, Fiesta, and, yes, even Whole Foods are essentially big box stores. They rely on people driving from a substantial radius to support them. That even applies to the Randall's in Midtown.

So I think the question you and Steve raise is: could we take these everyday stores that rely on suburban drivers, put them in a zero-setback pedestrian district with backside, street, roof, and garage parking, and they'd still succeed? I don't know, esp. if their competitors were a couple blocks over with easy frontside parking. It might work, esp. with diagonal street parking as a "teaser" a la Ed Wulfe's Post Oak project. But I think the best success probabilities are like I mentioned in the post: a destination retail lifestyle center that just happens to have residential attached.

At 10:44 AM, September 02, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

A side story: I had a doctor friend move to Houston a few years ago. He had spent a lot of time in Chicago, and was looking for a place to live that would give him walking access to a Starbucks, bookstore, and maybe grocery. He got it by living in the apartments behind Barnes&Noble+Starbucks (and Kroger, I think?) on Holcombe. They have a pedestrian gate from the complex over to the strip center. Traditional urbanism? Absolutely not. But he was pretty content with it.

I have something similar in my neighborhood with a gigantic set of apartment complexes behind a grocery/Walgreens/bank/ convenience store/restaurant/misc strip center at Chimney Rock and N.Braeswood.

The apartment complex behind the retail strip center may be Houston's version of pedestrian access. It's not pretty, but it meets resident/pedestrian access needs and car-trip reduction goals, along with the store's economic reality requiring easy frontside parking drawing from a large area. In these cases, parking in back would actually be more of an impediment to pedestrians coming from local backside density than in front.


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