Sunday, September 17, 2006

Thoughts on urbanism in Midtown

There's been a request for my opinions on the Chronicle Midtown urbanism article last week. The short summary for those who missed it is that Midtown is seeing a lot of development, but not the pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use urbanism people had hoped for, partially because of high parking requirements and a set of city regulations that are oriented more towards suburban forms (like large setbacks, for instance).

I'm not sure I have a whole lot to add to Kevin's and Christof's thoughtful analyses. Obviously, the city recognizes it has a problem, which is why we have the new urban corridors initiative to come up with special development rules around major transit lines. I agree that the parking requirements are probably too high. One good option would be for the Midtown TIRZ to invest in a public parking garage that could serve several blocks, and eliminate the parking requirements for developments on those blocks. Another tactical option that would be helpful in the short-term would be to recognize that a lot of workers in downtown and the Medical Center are willing to ride the rail to restaurants and bars for lunch and dinner, so such establishments within walking distance of rail stops could get an automatic waiver for some or all of their parking requirements.

There's another problem in Midtown though. Take a look at this Google map. Notice that all the diagonal Midtown streets northwest of Main are major feeders to or from Spur 527 off 59. Those streets are critical to getting massive numbers of workers in and out of downtown, and I don't see them ever being conducive to pedestrian-friendly urbanism. Not only are they wide one-way streets that move lots of cars at a pretty high speed, many of the businesses along them are specifically aimed at commuters with easy in-and-out parking, like the Spec's flagship store, and, yes, even the much-despised CVS. It's unfortunate that Midtown's first urbanist development started at Bagby and Gray, because the nature of these commuter roads has kept it from expanding southeast. Any urbanist focus in Midtown needs to be southeast of Travis, particularly along Main Street and the rail line (well, obviously).

So, that's my two cents, for what it's worth. I suspect the city will want to take it slow, and wait until the urban corridor regs get figured out before proceeding to encourage a lot more development in Midtown, especially along the rail line. They'd rather have it slowly develop the "right" way rather than quickly develop in a hodge-podge fashion with ad hoc variances.


At 3:51 PM, September 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it is smart that the city is planning an area-wide development. Yet, why did they not see that if you want urban development along the corridor, you should waive these dumb setback requirements and build garage parking to serve the area in conjunction with the initiation of rail service?

And as far as streets being major thoroughfares out of the city, Houston should look to how Washington D.C. planned traffic flow. Washington lacks the major inner-city highways that Houston has, so almost all the traffic flowing to the burbs runs along surface streets. Lanes on these streets shift depending on the time of day (i.e. mornings three lanes inbound, one lane outbound. Opposite in the evening). Also, Connecticut Ave. in Northwest was one of the major routes for people to commute into Maryland. This didn’t alter or overly damage the urban feel of neighborhoods along the street.

At 8:43 PM, September 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I go to midtown often and all different times of the day. I have never had any problems with the traffic even though I usually travel at least a couple blocks by foot each time.

At 8:59 PM, September 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

am i the only one who doesnt want the politicians to waste our money trying to plan what should go where. I would prefer no hinderances anywhere but at least I say within a half mile of any transit station no regulations except building codes, health codes, and wide sidewalks.

At 2:09 AM, September 19, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have posted a blog entry on this.


At 7:22 AM, September 19, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Neal's post is at

for those who are interested.

I'm a pretty big free market supporter, but I'm not sure it's realistic with parking. There's the "overflow into neighborhood streets" problem - which could be solved by parking meters in theory, but is politically unrealistic (they would lead to resident riots). Then there's the free rider problem: plenty of businesses would want to offer free parking to attract customers, but free riding businesses would set up shop next to them and mooch. Yes, there are ways to enforce, but they're *expensive* - and we as a city have just decided to not deal with all those problems by mandating parking, even if that creates a little land-use inefficiency. Kinda like we use the FDA instead of the free market so we don't all get sick or die from food and medicines - it's just easier than the high transaction costs of a free market. Govt mandates in some cases level the playing field and facilitate more transactions with lower costs, like having a legal system to enforce contracts.

That said, it is important that we always calibrate our parking standards to make sure they're not too high or too low, and that includes a recalibration for businesses near rail stops who can validly point to a customer base that won't arrive by car.

At 3:30 PM, September 19, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's sad that the city's trees are disappearing at an alarming rate. We need a nice city-wide mid-town fire that, hopefully, would burn down many of these town home groupings and would destroy this trend.

At 4:18 PM, September 19, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You are correct in that we would have issues with how we deal with parking in the streets. As things are, "parking is free" (lots of hand waiving going on here) as long as there is no metering, as you point out. Either we ration parking space out with regulations (either creating too little or too much in the process, since planners will NEVER know how much parking will really be demanded) or we ration it out with the pricing mechanism. That also goes for parking in the streets. End of story.

Houston is not the only city that has chosen to deal with the the parking problem via regulation - all cities have. I went to the U.K on holiday in 2002. While in London, I discovered that the general rules on parking in the cental areas within 2-3 miles of the Thames are usually that parking runs at 2 pounds per hour with the requriement that you move your vehicle every 4 hours. Only residents and business owners are allowed to have parking spots. The unspoken message to tourists are that they are expected to take the Tube or buses to get around. Do bear in mind that this is the part of London which was built centuries before the age of the automobile.

More later.


Post a Comment

<< Home