Thursday, August 31, 2006

More challenges to urbanism in Houston

Continuing 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.
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.”

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.

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.


At 11:01 PM, August 31, 2006, Blogger Max Concrete said...

Densification of traditional neighborhoods near central Austin was a HUGE issue when I lived there from 1997 to 2003. In fact, the neighborhoods are very vigilant and I can recall projects being stopped. The neighborhood revolts against high-density housing basically has limited the densification zone to downtown and the area just west of downtown where there are no traditional houses.

I also agree with Tory's assessment of making "village" areas accessible by car. Here is the scoop on three in Dallas
Legacy town center: very successful with virtually everyone coming in by car and parking in the garages. Mostly a 30- and 40- and 50-something crowd. The roomy, open garages are a big plus.
Addison Circle: the ground-level retail and restaurants have always struggled and vacant retail space seems to be at a high right now. (Apartments are doing well with 20-something crowd). Why the problem? Lack of parking and competition from easy-to-park establishments on Belt Line nearby.
Mockingbird Station: The impact of rail is way overrated in my opinion. Whenever I've observed, I see low train patron traffic at the station, with the people getting on and off mostly not the demographic at the shopping center. Virtually everyone is coming in by car and parking in the garage or on the Mockingbird station lot. Demographic is high-income from the park cities and lots of SMU-type affluent kids. (Think Beemer)

You must have easy and ample parking to make these projects work! And if you have parking, they can be very successful.

At 11:07 PM, August 31, 2006, Blogger Max Concrete said...

One more thing: The parking garage at West Village in Dallas is always very full and the area is crowded with people. There are probably some people from the adjacent apartments, but I think it is safe to say that the vast majority are driving in and parking, even in this dense area.

At 6:15 AM, September 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Urban-style street retail is working at the Post project on Bagby at Gray, and that is neither a downtown development nor a suburban town center. There are countless (better) examples all across the US, but for some reason we in Houston have this "oh it can't happen here" attitude. How strange and nonvisionary for a town that likes to describe itself as one that thinks big!

At 7:30 AM, September 01, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks for the examples, Max. I was not familiar with the West Village, but after looking at their web site, it looks very similar to The Woodlands Town Center.

Anon: The street retail in the Post development stood empty for a long, long, long time. I understand it has something in it now, but haven't seen it yet. I think it feeds off the commuters leaving downtown, and doesn't survive on its nearby residential alone. And I didn't say the town center had to be suburban (see West Village above), just a concentrated retail "lifestyle center" with tons of parking. Uptown Park or Highland Village or the Rice Village could go this direction in Houston, but only Uptown Park will be near a fixed transit stop.

If you have examples of newer suburban cities that developed vibrant mixed-use urban neighborhoods from scratch outside of the models I describe, I'd love to hear them.

At 8:41 AM, September 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Basically every newer suburban city has some sort of example of a vibrant mixed-use urban neighborhood... a recent example of something being created from scratch is Atlantic Station in Atlanta. And while I can't speak to each business in the Post project, there's a restaurant that's been there since the beginning, and last I checked basically all the retail space was filled.

At 10:37 AM, September 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have also done some research on the three Dallas projects (numerous others are being built up there, by the way) and largely agree with Max's assessments. The Legacy Town Center garages are the best I've ever seen. The residential there is more about making the place feel less dead at non-peak times. West Village was built in an area that was already becoming an urban destination (Uptown Dallas) and pulled in very popular tenants. Its very urban feel was a positive in attracting visitation because it stood out. Mockingbird's transit access means very little for the retail; it's a bigger factor for the residential. Addison Circle, in addition to having somewhat obscure parking, is also hampered by the rather obscure location of the overall project - it's not really on the way to anywhere, there's no high-traffic thoroughfares fronting it, it really is in the "shadows" of Belt Line Road (figuratively). Once you're there, I must admit, the environment is truly lovely, just not conducive to a lot of retail activity.

I think Post Midtown is mostly or fully leased retail-wise now but it took a long time.

As I've said before, ample, easy-to-find parking in any emerging urban-ish district is vital. Urban transit (as opposed to commuter transit) and nearby walking-distance residential are not going to be a major source of patrons for such districts for a long while; the city will have to build up around these environments over the years (decades).

The big question facing us in the short term is whether we as Houstonians are willing to tolerate not having off-street parking spaces between the sidewalk and business fronts, whether in a high-density or low-density area. If the city is serious about creating environments where walking is feasible and enjoyable, I really think we have no choice but to make that jump, and now is the time, even though I fully admit the "market," Tory, and other readers might think otherwise.

At 12:57 AM, September 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me like this these studies of densification that show that places like Houston and Atlanta are not good candidates for mass transit are fundamentally flawed - in that they assume density levels based on where people live, with the assumption that people always walk to the nearest stop.

This doesn't need to be the case for Houston. If we were serious about mass-transit, we could expand upon the successful use of park and ride for bus transit. Then you have 1 stop for Sugar Land, 1 stop for Pearland, 1 stop for the Woodlands, with high speed transit into downtown on grade-separated rail, and transfers from there.

Just because our city is more spread out than European cities does not mean we cannot adapt the old solutions to meet new realities.

I believe that as successful as Houston's bus program is, if you had rapid transit out to popular suburbs, with 15 or 30 minute frequency, you would get a lot more riders than for bus. People prefer rail.

Density based on population and where people can walk to is valid for central destinations perhaps, but not for sources of transport. We can assume that a million people can all drive to their nearest park and ride, even if that is 4 miles away instead of "200 yards" or whatever the standard "old-world" assumptions.

At 9:54 AM, September 02, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Anon 1: each one of those examples, including Atlantic Station in Atlanta, are a retail outdoor "lifestyle center" supported by large parking garages that just happen to have residential on top or mixed in, which is exactly what I'm advocating. They draw customers from all over, mostly by car. But these centers have to have some spacing between them - at least a few miles - to make the economics work, so they're not going to work for the substantial majority of transit stops.

Steve: I agree we need to try some pedestrian-friendly districts with street, backside, and roof parking.

Anon 2: see this post/Chronicle op-ed for why that doesn't work. Bottom line: much slower trips for substantially higher costs.

At 10:51 PM, September 11, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey everyone. I am new here but I am a former Texan (grew up there), lived in the Washington D.C. area for about 6 years, now I am out on the West Coast finishing my grad degree. I am planning on moving to Houston after graduation for work, so I am glad to find a blog about city life in Houston.

Anyway, regarding development, I can tell you from experience in my old neighborhood in Arlington, VA that the METRO caused dense development in former suburban-style neighborhoods of Northern VA. I had friends who grew up in Northern VA and in the past 15-20 years the Wilson Blvd. corridor (which is where I used to live) has built up around METRO stops. This area had many mixed-use high-rise and mid-rise developments. As you traveled out from Wilson Blvd. (which roughly followed the Orange Line) the residential development became less dense. There were also very nice brick town homes ala Brooklyn, NY being built in the area. The area was walkable (I used to walk a lot), but driving was also possible (although it was largely street parking with some underground garage space around certain larger developments). Taxis were plentiful, especially at night. The retail and restaurants along the corridor attracted people because they were high-end specialty stores and restaurants (Apple Store, Whole Foods, several high-end steakhouses, etc).

I think this should be the model for dense development within Houston. This model worked well because it complemented the surrounding low density development in Northern VA. Of course Houston and Northern VA are not identical (less highways in and around Washington, DC which is deliberate). But Northern VA is certainly a “new” urban area, not unlike the area in and around downtown Houston.

Anyway, that’s my two cents. I will certainly monitor the site. I want to learn more about the development in my future home.



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