Sunday, August 27, 2006

Urban corridor planning in Houston

I attended the City of Houston urban corridors planning event yesterday at the GRB (Chronicle story). They want to collect public input on how development should occur along the expanding Metro LRT/BRT network in the core. Using the great analogy of DNA, they want to shape development ordinances/codes that will create the right kind of development near rail stops, like dense pedestrian-oriented mixed-use street retail with residential above it. They opened with a pretty compelling Powerpoint presentation that I'm hoping will appear on their site sometime soon.

The most interesting statistic to me was the growth forecast for non-office workers either telecommuting or living out of a laptop: from 15% now to 40% by 2012. That's a radical change for the next 6 years, and could have pretty dire consequences for office vacancies but good implications for rush hour traffic relief. On the other side, they had a couple stats that irked me:
  1. The STPP stat about high spending in Houston on transportation, which I've pointed out before is misleading because that spending is voluntary. Because of our low cost of living, people choose to drive expensive trucks and SUVs in Houston, when they could just as easily choose used Honda Civics if they wanted to slash their transportation spending.
  2. Just because only 22% of households are two parent families with children, doesn't translate to 78% of the population being something else. That confuses households and population. The minimum household size for that 22% is three, and it is probably 4-5 on average, whereas the average household size for the other 78% is probably between one and two. That makes the two groups about equal on a population basis.
The rest of the event involved marking up maps in small groups and coming up with lists of priorities, which will get aggregated by their consultants and released in a report. My four comment card points were as follows:
  1. If you want pedestrian to have a chance in Houston's heat and rain, you better have lots of shade and awnings.
  2. Street retail in Houston can't compete against more convenient strip centers unless it's concentrated in pedestrian district with easy backside parking (the residents above the shops are nowhere near enough to support the shops themselves).
  3. Standards, guidelines, and incentives - not zoning. Let the free market work.
  4. Don't be anti-car. The car is the lifeblood of this city, and all of this development will fail miserably if they think they can get away with being hostile to the car, especially with parking. Sure, you can have a narrow "traffic calmed" pedestrian street with some mixed-use street retail, but it better have good freeway and arterial access nearby along with plenty of convenient parking if it wants to thrive. See Mockingbird Station in Dallas as an example. We need to think of this project as nurturing some small-scale pedestrian neighborhoods within a larger car-based city/regional fabric.
I'm not too worried about #2 and #4, because developers will almost certainly insist on it in anything they build. Lessons have been learned from the dead street retail across from Farrago in Midtown.

This event and an article on urbanism David Crossley sent me (sorry, no link) got me thinking about the challenges urbanism will face in Houston. I had planned on including those thoughts in this post, but it's already getting too long, so they'll have to wait for Tuesday night.


At 7:59 PM, August 27, 2006, Blogger Kevin Whited said...

If you want pedestrian to have a chance in Houston's heat and rain, you better have lots of shade and awnings.

Why not tunnels?

I imagine so much Galleria-area traffic congestion would be improved if there were a tunnel system like the well-utilized one downtown. Yet instead of talk about that, we frequently see Houtopian types complaining about the downtown tunnels!

At 8:29 PM, August 27, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Nobody talks about hip-cool tunnel districts. There was actually an article a while back (WSJ, I think) about how tunnels and skywalks in Minneapolis and Dallas were hobbling street retail development because they couldn't get any foot traffic. They're awfully convenient for office workers though. Regardless, I don't see tunnel systems getting developed around transit stops outside of major office building districts.

At 10:19 PM, August 27, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, I largely agree with your comments. I do believe it truly behooves the city, at this point in its history, to facilitate creation of some pedestrian areas. I am not going to underestimate the challenge of this though. With few exceptions, much (most) of the real estate and development community in Houston places minimal or no value on pedestrian access or the public pedestrian environment. The city has experienced tremendous economic success over the decades virtually ignoring it, why is there a need to change?

I won't go into the "whys" here (though I think there some very convincing ones). But your point about parking, shade, highway access, etc. is spot-on. One flaw that I noticed on Saturday was that even the modified photo sets included in the opening presentation, ostensibly showing the potential evolution of districts from auto-oriented conditions to more pedestrian-oriented ones. Well, I'm sorry, but the vertical mixed-use buildings shown as being the end goal are going to be pretty rare under current construction costs and obtainable market rents / prices. And while it's nice to lose the fronting parking lots, where did they go? Many Houstonians need this information to really identify with what's being shown. A much more effective image, one that we would be much more likely to see in Houston, would be showing a strip center moved up to an 8-foot (or wider) sidewalk, with sidewalk retail entrances, and a regular-sized (as the market dictates) customer parking lot behind. Oh, and on-street parking (we've got to have more of that).

Sorry to run on, but one point of disagreement I have to mention. While we should let the free market do its thing, meaning no land use zoning, I think that in areas where we're truly trying to create a pedestrian place, we have to lead the market by changing our existing regulations, such as setbacks. Many (most) commercial developers, even with incentives, will not remove off-street parking from in front of the tenant storefronts. They often won't insert new public streets to break up block sizes. But because it takes so few front parking lots and superblocks to harm the pedestrian experience and pretty much kill the urbanism, we can't allow new development to screw it up. Even though the greater market dictates otherwise at the present time, I do believe it's worth it. The public sector needs to follow through on its end by allowing more street parking, changing its desing standards to wider sidewalks, etc. But requiring a zero setback (in conjunction with other tweaks) is necessary. Probably going to be controversial though. I can see it now, "You'll kill retail in the whole neighborhood!" I don't believe we will. It's not like we should take away parking - just put it in a different spot.

At 7:25 AM, August 28, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Very good points, Steve. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary. I agree many of the fantasy photos/images made me choke. I also think zero setbacks are reasonable in very targeted areas.

At 10:50 AM, August 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I realized overnight that you might call my objective "low-density urbanism." Not that I would do anything to discourage high-density urbanism of course, it's great where we can get it. But we need a vision that's realistic and meaningful for both Houston's real estate economy and the cultural norms of our population yet will integrate respect, and actual market value for, pedestrians into our models.

I hope our private sector can be just as much an innovator here too - what about arcaded, or even partly climate-controlled (yet still see-through and quasi-public) sidewalks in front of commercial structures? Seems like an interesting model that could be very appropriate for us.

At 1:14 PM, August 28, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Kind of like the MarqE center?

BTW, I was thinking about the shade issue and looking at NOLA pictures, and noticed how they use balconies to shade the sidewalks. With the same tropical climate, that's probably a good idea for Houston too.

At 1:32 PM, August 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like the Marq-E if it was turned inside-out; the arcade portion would front an actual street (preferably not the freeway frontage road). The New Orleans example is excellent. Or even Italian cities where the buildings form arcades over the public sidewalks. Many strip centers already have arcade coverings in front of their stores anyway...just get them moved up to the public sidewalk.

At 5:33 PM, August 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Steve's tactic of at least forcing/allowing some retail to move to street frontage would help with a long term trend towards pedestrian friendly areas. If demand for space grew enough parking could be replaced with new structers then moved or condensed into a garage.

I think that creating a pathway towards density is better than the typical build it and they will come philosophy.

At 5:40 PM, August 28, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One comment re: Kevin.

I actually think some tunnels might be helpful to pedestrian traffic. I have seen in Europe a few places where a tunnel went underneath a street so that people could cross some broad boulevards. These aren't like the downtown tunnels with retail, just sidewalks that go under the road. I could see this helping the Galleria area if people could cross Westheimer. Obviously there would be some technical difficulties with flooding and transients.

At 12:28 AM, August 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does what you guys (Steve and Tory) have been talking about, a somewhat urban area with ample on-street parking, minimal setbacks, and a pedestrian friendly, sidewalk environment (though maybe without the residential stacked over retail) more or less describe how Rice Village was before Weingarten redeveloped a couple of blocks in the early 90's? The suburbanization done by Weingarten also wasn't very popular from what I understand.

It seems like the popularity of this neighborhood demonstrates that Houstonians are willing to walk around in the heat a bit and satisfy some ease in parking for an urban experience. For a lot of us, Rice Village was that first "Wow, this is cool!" experience after growing up with nothing but strip malls, before we went off and discovered cities with actual urban neighborhoods. Cut a few of those blocks in half and add some residential on top of those buildings (and plant a few trees), and you've got a real urban area.

At 7:26 AM, August 29, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree the Village is not too far off. They got the hidden parking garages right, but strip parking in front was a mistake, although evidently a requirement for survival in Houston. Even Ed Wulfe is putting a small amount of it into his high-density project at San Felipe and Post Oak. Houstonians see a store from the street, and need to see parking in front of it, even if it's full and they have to drive around back to a garage - at least according to them.

I think the generally accepted shopping mentality in Houston is that a person needs to shop for a particular item, and they visualize the store they want to go to, and if it doesn't have convenient parking in front, they think of somewhere easier to go. When they show up, if the convenient parking is full, they'll go ahead and drive to the garage in back or on the roof, but for them to even make the trip in the first place, they have to have the fantasy that they'll be able to park in front of the store (and more of a fantasy than a couple street spaces in front).

As far as the Village not being "popular", I guess you mean with urbanists, but it draws substantially larger numbers of customers than it used to.

At 1:59 PM, August 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, I didn't say that the Village wasn't popular. I said that Weingarten's demolition of a previously existing building and construction of a more strip-center type building in its place wasn't popular. And I meant with locals, not with urbanists.

Nor do I think that this move by Weingarten shows that strip parking is "evidently a requirement for survival in Houston." The vast majority of Rice Village still offers no strip lots in front of its buildings, and the area remains quite popular.

At 2:22 PM, August 29, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the Village is one of our best examples but we can do far better in terms of parking, pedestrian movement, and aesthetics. It still feels like you're navigating on foot through a bunch of parked cars in much of that area. And let's not kid ourselves, when you're the only substantial retail in the middle of an affluent neighborhood like that, you're more than likely going to have some popularity if you've got good tenants (who are attracted to the demographics). But the Village does show that many folks are willing to put up with some parking hassles and congestion to patronize an urban-ish area.

I'd like to think that every ped-friendly strip center will have a nice supply of on-street parking in front, but that's unlikely to be the case everywhere. In some cases there will have to be a leap of faith that customers will still patronize a business whose parking is (1) ample, (2) easy to find, and (3) safe, even if it's behind, on the side, on the roof, or in a shared neighborhood facility close by. It may require adding rear entrances to the businesses (while keeping the sidewalk entrances) or other design solutions. This is one of our challenges. The strip center at the southwest corner of Elgin and Smith is an example. I notice that it hasn't fully leased yet, though some other nearby standard centers (with parking in front) also still have empty spaces.


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