Sunday, April 15, 2007

Urban corridors initiative

So I attended the City of Houston Planning Department's event on the urban corridors initiative on Saturday at the GRB. I'd say about 100 or so people attended. The goal is to improve our development regulations around LRT/BRT transit stops to get the most value out of those transit lines, and that means mixed-use, high-density, pedestrian-friendly. They're going to be holding individual workshops for each line, which you should definitely check out if you live along any of the planned lines.

Their logic is pretty compelling:
  1. Millions of people are moving to the Houston metro over the next 2-3 decades, hundreds of thousands of them into the City of Houston itself
  2. That's a lot more cars on the road, straining our existing grid and freeways
  3. A significant number of those newcomers would consider living in high-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods if they're available, and they would walk and take transit for more of their trips
  4. We can get a lot more value out of Metro's planned LRT/BRT network in the core if we encourage this type of development near the stops
I really like the scale/scope of their planning effort. I've written before on the problem of complexity overwhelming planning at larger scales, but this seems like the right fit. They're focused on a 1/4-mile radius around stops, about a 5 minute walk (studies have found this to be most peoples' limit for walking to/from transit). That would add up to a very manageable 15 square miles tops (1/2 mile width times about 29 miles of track), out of about 10,000 sq.miles in the metro, 1,778 in the county, 600 in the city, and 100 inside the 610 loop. That's about 2.5% of the land in the city, yet it has the potential to hold a significantly higher percentage of the city's population. Consider that Manhattan has only 20 square miles - not much larger.

All indications are that the end result will be a form-based development code targeted near the stops, with some mix of incentives. Existing single-family neighborhoods will be protected.

They asked for our input on what we would and would not like to see. I pushed for two elements I consider key:
  1. Sidewalk awnings/shade (including tree canopy), to protect from the sun and rain in our tropical climate.
  2. Diagonal street parking wherever possible (like Cotswold), backed up with extra garage or other parking in the rear, if they want the mixed-use ground floor retail to have any chance at all. I've heard the term "teaser parking" used - insufficient parking in front of a store that people think they will be able to get when they set out on a trip, but they're willing to drive to the more inconvenient parking in back or down the block if necessary when they get there. The pedestrians will not be enough to support the ground retail, and they will have to offer some convenient up-front parking if they want to compete with traditional strip malls to draw customers. Diagonal street parking is best way to do that and keep the urban feel, and it could be either in the public street right-of-way or on the private property (in place of the strip parking lot the developer would usually build). Let's face it, Houstonians are not trained to parallel park.
All in all, it seems like a well run project trying to do some good things in a very focused and developer-friendly way (where possible). I'm looking forward to the May 23rd meeting where they will discuss the results of the individual corridor workshops.

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At 10:03 PM, April 15, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't understand the need for this initative.

If people really want to use public transit, then developers will build projects that reflect that preference. The city should allow builders to meet that demand and repeal any ordinances (e.g., setbacks) that hinder their goals.

The fact is that Houston is and will likely continue to be a city focused around cars. Any development code that fails to recognize this obvious fact and tries to enforce a development model counter to this reality is bound to fail. The shame is that it will likely be counter productive by discouraging development along transit lines. You mention the bait and switch parking. That works the first time, but Houstonians will not put up with long walks from their cars when they can visit shops with convenient parking.

What should be done is to give property owners free reign to design projects that they believe are most suited to the land. Any other way is likely to waste taxpayer dollars and result in fewer and lower quality choices in retail, office, and homes for Houstonians.


At 12:11 AM, April 16, 2007, Blogger John said...

The other benefit of the out-front parking - when it's parallel or diagonal - is that it creates a buffer between the street and the sidewalk, making the sidewalk a much more pleasant space, and encouraging people to use the sidewalk.

Parking in back doesn't "fail to recognize" the car orientation of Houston; it does make it possible for people to bring cars to areas where they can then walk between businesses.

While Houston will never be a car-free city, good development along transit stops will make it possible for some people to have fewer cars - instead of more than one per person being the rule. This isn't an either/or proposition.

At 6:57 AM, April 16, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think they are trying to be realistic about cars and do a code where developers can make the economics work. Right now we have a very suburban oriented code: big setback and parking requirements. Just loosening those generally may not be the right answer. They want to create an alternative "urban" code, which will probably be optional in much of the city, but may be required near the transit stops. In some cases, by reducing the parking requirements, and providing more public street parking nearby, it may actually make the economics for developers better, since they don't have to waste as much of their land on parking.

At 11:01 AM, April 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


What changes around the transit lines that makes you switch from being free market proponent for real estate developement. It is still complicated for any planners to be able to know what needs to go where.

At 11:34 AM, April 16, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The short answer would be pragmatism. Houston is not a "pure" free market now, with things like setback and parking requirements. Those require variances to do urban style development, which adds unpredictability to developer plans. They'd rather have a known, alternate code they can conform to. That's reasonable.

I'm concerned that our growth will create street gridlock at some point, so I'm all for offering good walking/transit alternatives/ neighborhoods to those who want to live that lifestyle. It's just a practical way to accomodate more growth and density.

I'm also heartened that the city really, really wants this stuff to actually get built, so they will bend over backwards to make it developer friendly, rather than create dead zones where nobody will build.

I've said planning makes sense at the neighborhood scale. It works for the master planned communities around Houston. Many Houston neighborhoods were planned and deed restricted. This is simply the city going to these targeted neighborhoods around the rail stops and saying "there's going to be change with the transit, and if we plan it right, with buy-in from residents and developers, it can be pretty nice and functional."

In the end, I'm hoping it will be the equivalent of voluntarily adopted deed restrictions that makes everybody in the neighborhood better off. We'll have to watch it develop.

At 11:46 AM, April 16, 2007, Blogger engineering said...

Nice posting Tory. Glad you calculated the total area covered by the corridors, 2.5%. Good that the city is looking at modifying regulations to encourage use of transit. Not sure I would support the choice of transit technology.
You might consider attending the 2007 Houston Transportation and Mobility Conference this May - more info at

At 11:55 AM, April 16, 2007, Blogger John said...

The short answer would be pragmatism.

That's actually a succinct and complete answer. It's always curious to find these debates taking the form of an ideological struggle, rather than a search for what actually works.

For a great example of the benefits of requiring certain types of development near transit stops see Arlington, Virginia.

At 12:06 PM, April 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


An assumption that you are making that I do not is that the free market chooses automobiles sans government rules. I just don't buy it. I believe that we have an entirely automobile based society because the government has inforced policies that make all other forms uncompetitive. Set back rules, parking lot minimums, subsidized roads and no tolls have changed the true market fundamentals. I'm not an idealist who think that sans regulations Houston turns into a pedestrian paradise, but my guess is that a truely free market would have produced a Houston that is much more densely populated.

At 12:16 PM, April 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Houston is not a "free market" and in many ways is a poorer functioning market than comparable cities.

The redevelopment of urban areas which has happened all over the United States has been slower in Houston because of our badly written city code, alongside the lack of predictability that comes with not having any sort of long term plan.

Most of the good of the Urban Corridors initiative will be undoing the city regulations that keep developers from building real urban developments.

On the other side of that coin, our local governments continue to distort the market by making land use choices, such as building the Grand Parkway, which provide incentives for people to make inefficient decisions about where to live.

If the "free market" types commenting on this blog really cared about a functioning market, they would be focused on TXDOT and HCTRA's land speculation plans (freeway expansion) as well as pushing for a wide sweep of recognizing the costs of doing business, such as true congestion pricing as explained here:

The main problem with our region is that costs are not accurately included in the price of goods, such as the human health costs of coal plants. Businesses (and land owners) being allowed to do whatever they want to do at any time is not a free market. At best you might call that laissez-faire capitalism, but more accurately, its croney capitalism.

At 12:19 PM, April 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

About five posts showed up while I was writing my comment, so to be clear I was responding to the earlier anonymous comments.

At 4:41 PM, April 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Some responses:

"Houston is not a "free market" and in many ways is a poorer functioning market than comparable cities."

1) Name some other comparable cities and describe how it is that Houston is a poorer functioning market than those other cities.

"The redevelopment of urban areas which has happened all over the United States has been slower in Houston because of our badly written city code, alongside the lack of predictability that comes with not having any sort of long term plan".

2) Is redevelopment in of itself always a good thing? What is it in the City code that is "bad"?

As for planning, one of the problems with planning is that the world has a habit of changing on us. As for the Urban Corridors Initiative, I suppose I really don't care whether "real urban environments" (whatever real urban environments are) get built, but it does matter if current regulations get undone and are replaced by an entire set of different regulations.

As for land use choices, I have this to say. If using more land for suburbanization (sprawl) results in someone driving a few more miles back and forth to work everyday, but also keeps the average price of housing in an urban area from spiraling out of sight, then does that constitute economic inefficiency? The added carrying costs of an extra $50,000 in a price of a house, townhouse, or condo over a 30 year mortgage at 6 percent interest is $300+ per month - every month, and don't forget to include the property taxes. The last time I checked, every last one of us has to live within both time and money budget constraints whether we like it or not.

The reason I am asking this question is that I am writing this response from London, a city in which I have spent 9 weeks in during the past 4 months of my life. London has about 9 million people in its urban area (depending on where you stop counting actually). Many people would say that London "efficiently" accomodates its population in an urban area that is probably about 30 miles from east to west and north to south, and is surrounded by a so-called "green belt". It's too bad that the average price of a home in this city is now so high that only 10-20 percent of its residents can now afford to buy a home. Average 1-2 bedroom flats now rent out at 300-700 pounds per week. A headline news story on both the TV and in the newspapers reported that only 25 percent of Britons across all of Britain can now afford to buy a home. What Britons are hearing is the marketplace screaming at the top of its lungs for people to build more (and better) housing, but PM Clement Attlee's post WWII Labor government nationalized property development rights in Britain, a decision which was never been reversed. This was (and is) one of the most effective methods you can dream up of for throwing a wrench into the workings of the marketplace.

I don't care how people slice or dice these realities, but struggling merely to keep a roof over your head does not sound like "quality of life" to me.

You say that the main problem in Houston is that prices of goods are not accurately priced because we do not factor in externalities, but does any urban area in the world do this? If so, then do you really think that the political powers who would be empowered to make these kinds of decisions face any pressures to price them "efficiently"?

You bring up some good points and I think I do agree with you that we should consider more congestion or direct pricing of road use. But there really are good reasons why urban areas have decentralized over the past 200+ years and I just don't happen to see a significant reversal happening anytime soon.

At 8:08 AM, April 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


"...our local governments continue to distort the market by making land use choices, such as building the Grand Parkway, which provide incentives for people to make inefficient decisions about where to live."

As a "free market" guy I agree with this comment. Building speculative freeways is not a "free market" activity. I think a private company would practice a little more JIT delivery than plans to build a hundred miles of freeway through the middle of nowhere to accomodate development 20-50 years down the road.

At 10:08 AM, April 17, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The Grand Parkway is (or will be) a toll road, and will pay for itself. Don't know if you've been out that way lately (south, west, northwest), but almost all of it is already developed or rapidly developing, not 20+ years from now. Segments in areas that aren't growing yet won't be built until they are, because the toll revenue is so critical to cover the costs.

At 2:06 PM, April 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Moving from the bottom up:

On the Grand Parkway: Whether or not it is toll doesn't really make a difference to the fact that HCTRA is making major centuries long land use decisions for our region. Also, all the development you speak of began appearing once the Grand Parkway line was drawn on the map, and from driving out Westpark to Grand Parkway last friday, it seems to me like the most developed area out there is along the existing section of the Grand Parkway. If you look at the density maps for the region, you can clearly see the outlines of beltway 8 and the Grand Parkway, even though most of the Grand Parkway hasn't been built yet.

On properly assigning costs: What Neal says is totally correct, that a single region basically couldn't feasibly institute such a change (although Mayor White is essentially trying to do that with his air pollution efforts). Nonetheless, it still is a big problem that stands between the market in Houston today and a free market. From what I can gather, most energy companies basically expect a national level carbon emissions regulation soon that would do things like make coal much more expensive, while also making "clean coal" more feasible. The best scenario for Houston is for such things to happen at a national and/or international level, so that the competitive playing field is maintained while we get the efficiency benefits of costs being properly reflected in prices in the market. Otherwise the parents of children with Asthma will continue to pick up the bill.

On housing prices: Accepting that $50,000 more for a house is a hardship as you describe, that doesn't make it any less efficient. Cheap doesn't mean efficient and in the case of Houston area housing, cheap has a lot to do with not recognizing costs. Some argue that the Houston region is the most important ecological region in North America. The suburbanization of Montgomery County over the next 30 years will do irreparable harm to that ecosystem. Whatever the long term cost of not having contiguous green space is not recognized in the cheap housing that breaks up those huge chunks of greenspace. That's just one example. Also, housing is a transportation choice as well, so the publicly funded cheap housing across the prairies perverts the transportation decisions of all those individuals. Spending over half an hour to get to work and back is an amazingly inefficient use of time and resources and would not be many people's choice if the housing market were not so lopsided in our region.

On redevelopment and the city code: No redevelopment is not always a good thing, but with 3 million more people coming to the region and strong majorities of current residents saying that they wish they could walk more, lived closer to work, and could use public transit, and with the potential environmental damage of continuing with the current trends and policies, i think that redevelopment is an essential part of Houston's strategy going forward. Not that suburban development is going to stop. It just shouldn't be encouraged by transportation infrastructure and city codes.

The examples of bad city codes have been discussed on this blog before, either with Tory explaining them or in comments, but they are things like parking requirements. Developers say over and over again that the deciding factor in not building in places like midtown is the cost of putting in the required amount of parking for each project. In general the bad city codes are codes that were written for the suburban context but apply to the entire City of Houston in the code, which results in things like the CVS in midtown, which is a suburban development in the heart of Houston and is detrimental to the walkability of that neighborhood.

Also to note, the planning department is amazingly nervous about pissing off the Mayor or doing anything that can be construed as Portland-esque, so I think what you are going to see coming out of the Urban Corridors will be precisely targeted and crafted changes that will nonetheless have very positive effects, as opposed to some sort of throwing out of all the old codes and making up a whole new set.

(Finally) On my saying that Houston is a weaker market:
This was most likely an example of blog comment exaggeration, but I'll tell you the things I was thinking about. One is the slow pace of urban development compared to other cities in Texas and the US. While the region as a whole had the most amount of new starts for an MSA in the US in 2006, this was pretty much the result of suburban single family home development in unincorporated areas of the county. When you look at these same numbers at the city level (I'm working on such a report) we lag way behind Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and other cities across the US (including Portland). Austin's downtown is adding an unbelievable amount of high rises and mixed use developments and our downtown is adding less than a handful.

That's the sort of thing I was thinking about when I said that our economy is weaker. Another aspect is that we are riding high on our energy sector, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself, but it can basically mask the poverty all over our city and other problems in our economy when we look at aggregate numbers to assess the state of our economy. The Greater Houston Partnership should be working furiously to diversify our economy, or who knows what will happen when the next natural downturn in the energy sector happens.

At 3:02 PM, April 17, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Wow, Jay. Very comprehensive. I only have a handful of comments.

Sprawl happens whether or not the Grand Parkway is made. It's happened in plenty of other cities that canceled far outer loop projects (Atlanta and DC come to mind) - it just takes an extreme starfish shape instead of a tighter circle. See the middle of this post:

The data I've seen say Houston is building a lot more urban density in the core than most other cities (although not vs. Austin). See this post:

At 3:15 PM, April 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Re: Grand Parkway

I can't recall exactly when it was finished, but when I was still in college 7-8 years ago during holiday breaks I would travel between my parents' home in the Katy Area to Sugarland to meet my roommate. Once I got off I-10 I could pretty much travel about 90+ mph because there wasn't a soul, home, or business along almost the entire stretch. I'm sure that things have changed to an extent, but how long did it take? I grew up in Pearland and I remember in Junior High taking 288 to Astroworld and my dad doing the same. Even though Pearland has grown considerably since then I wouldn't consider that corridor to be even close to full since they finished access to 518 around 18 years ago. Much of the same can be said for the stretch of the Beltway between 288 and Fairmont Parkway in Pasadena, I-10 West from Katy to Brookshire, 290 from Fairfield to Brenham.

At 3:31 PM, April 17, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm assuming you're talking about the small first segment of the Grand Parkway from 10 to 59.

Most of those are not tolled roads, where financial requirements induce a little discipline. Those are state highways, and that's just politics - who plays the game and gets the funding.

Beltway 8 is tolled, and they made it pretty thin on the south side because they knew it wouldn't generate too much traffic. As a whole, HCTRA has made good decisions and brought in more than enough revenue to cover their costs. Not sure about that particular segment. The northeast piece is another where they're waiting for the growth to justify construction.

At 3:13 PM, April 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know if I agree with diagonal parking if it's at the expense of sidewalk width. You have to consider what is really more beneficial to an urban environment - better parking, or better walking? Part of that extra width could also allow for trees, which will provide the much-needed canopy of shade for walkers.

As to the idea that Houstonians just won't be able to parallel park, while that does have some merit, I have witnessed other areas in Texas where businesses (that served mostly car-based patrons) were able to get along okay either with parallel parking in front or no parking at all in front, but parking lots in the back. I'm thinking specifically of certain streets in Austin like Guadalupe and Barton Springs Dr. I see no reason why we can't create streets in Houston like those.

For those of you complaining about the free market and housing prices, keep in mind that all we're doing here is trading one set of regulations for another in a few select spots. Nothing more.

At 4:32 PM, April 28, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's refreshing to read postings that discuss pedestrians. I was in the Village the other day. It has great potential for pedestrian space.


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