Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Urban Corridors preliminary public findings (and a rebranding proposal)

The Urban Corridors Planning project had a meeting tonight at the GRB to present the preliminary findings from their multiple corridor workshops (coverage of previous meetings here and here). They had an interesting PowerPoint presentation (which should be on their site at some point), as well as some very detailed maps for each corridor designating potential development areas as well as preservation areas, with the goal being high-density, mixed-use, pedestrian and transit-oriented neighborhoods.

The key slide covered policy changes necessary to make this stuff really happen:
  1. Actually make the capital investments in transit, streetscapes, and public buildings.
  2. Reduce developer risk with a TOD-friendly ordinance (vs. our current suburban-only code) as well as a streamlined approvals process.
  3. Reduce developer costs with reduced parking requirements, reduced open space requirements, and financial incentives (!! - not so sure about that last one).
There is some speculation it make take some TIRZ districts to make the necessary streetscape investments (wide sidewalks, trees, benches, diagonal street parking, etc.). The city may also have to get into the neighborhood public parking garage business, which has been a very successful model in other cities (especially Toronto).

Overall though, I think they're on the right track, with the right manageable, narrowly-targeted scope (~2% of the city) and the right neighborhood and developer-friendly attitude (or nothing will happen).

One thought that occurred to me is the need to come up with a more compelling name for this initiative that resonates with the average citizen and city council member. Terms like "urban corridors", "transit-oriented development", "mixed-use", and "high-density" are either not meaningful or negative to much of the public. They need to "get it" - and buy into it - right away when they hear about it. Here are some names I thought of:
  • Londontown Corridors, or maybe Little London (Corridors?) - think of it like another Chinatown
  • Eurocity Corridors
They instantly convey what the look and feel of these areas will be. Anybody who's been to Europe, or even just seen a few movies set there, will "get it." London is probably the top city in the world right now - it's not unreasonable to aspire for 2% of Houston to emulate it and the lifestyle it offers. I also considered Paris, New York, or San Francisco comparisons, but those places can create a visceral negative reaction from some people based simply on politics, which they might have trouble seeing past to the "urban feel" of those places. London is a city admired (or at least tolerated) on both the left and right of the political spectrum, and it has a similar broad diversity to Houston.

If we don't want to get as specific as London, I think "Eurocity" is a nice, broad, generic, all-encompassing term that defines the character we're looking for in these corridors. If you've been to London, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, or just about any other city in Europe (well, maybe not Venice... unless we get another Allison), you'll understand instantly the urban experience being targeted. And almost everybody who's traveled there has pretty fond memories of that experience. It's a great branding for this whole initiative that will help build the positive public sentiment necessary to push through the apathy and obstacles and really make it happen.

Update: "Eurocity Corridors" could also add a coolness factor to the zone that would attract developers, businesses, and residents.

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At 7:57 AM, May 24, 2007, Blogger Megan and Gavin said...

Concerning financial incentives or mechanisms in general to promote public and private investments, TIRZs is only one of many potential tools. One interesting idea that has been floating around is land readjustments, which allows current land owners to form a joint-stock corporation that allows both the current land owners and outside investors invest in the area. The great benefit of this program is that there is no compulsory land taking and their is a large incentive by existing land owners to make it work...more information can be found at...

At 8:25 AM, May 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about "World Class City" Corridors? That seems to work pretty well when anyone else has asked for "financial incentives". Or maybe "Houston Olympics 2028" Corridors.

Seriously, though, I agree with getting rid of setback and many parking requirements, and think that quite a few neighborhoods would become more urban on their own with just that and no special initiative.


At 8:33 AM, May 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, no no No NO NO.

Yes, let us follow through with the visioning process and make the neccessary revisions to the development code required for urbanity. But let us not brand these areas "Londontown," "Eurocity," or anything of the sort.

This isn't about Europe, this is about America. It's about American cities, as we built them - before the planners and the engineers decided we were better off in the suburbs, before extensive laws and codes were passed to stunt naturally-occuring urbanity.

Yes, perhaps "Urban Corridors" is too vague. I would be partial to "storefront districts." But whatever we do, let's recognize this as a homegrown movement. Texas has a long history of good urban design, from the Spanish right up through the 1950s.

At 9:08 AM, May 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It speaks volumes about the American mentality that a good idea cannot stand on its own, that it must have a "cool" name, lest it be considered a failed venture. The flip side appears to be that if a bad idea is given a "cool" name, it will be considered favorably.

The whole idea of "branding" as a requirement for judging an idea's viability makes me ill. Suggesting that Houstonians are so ignorant and politically pigheaded as to think a comparison to San Francisco, one of the world's great cities, would doom a project makes me even more so.

At 11:16 AM, May 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As long as we don't become as expensive as London...whew.

At 7:51 AM, May 25, 2007, Blogger Wally said...

I'd really like to see the slides; I agree that some other "branding" as you call it needs be done; it's difficult for me to quite visualize what is being discussed with the number of current buzz phrases. I'd also have to suggest that connecting the concept to some euro model might inspire some negative recollections such as the London bombings and the annual summer Paris riots. We need some "feel good" terms to carry the day with the broader audience.

At 5:07 PM, May 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about "Classic Urban Corridors"? It has a nostalgia hook to it, and doesn't have the geographic prejudices built in.

At 1:17 AM, May 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't like the idea of naming these after other places... it reinforces the idea that this is a faux environment, rather than something serious and about Houston. I always hate it when people from out of state say things like, "I love the area around Rice University... it's so New England." Uh, no, it's not New England, it's just Houston. We're still working on the rest of the city.

I think if we want these corridors to develop and be real, we should do as little as possible of naming, branding, or selling. Let the areas keep the names they had already. "Midtown," "Museum District," etc. will do just fine. Avoid gateway signs at all costs. Part of the whole urban movement is a return to authenticity; cutesy names and decorative entrances are for the suburbs.

At 10:17 AM, May 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can not understand how the names we might or might not give to these neighborhoods would have a bit of difference. They will all develop their own names organically. I dont believe that anyone makes a decision on wether or not to go shopping, dining or to live in a neighborhood based on the branding. Other than tourists that is, and we should be building for Houstonians, not tourists.

At 10:19 AM, May 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

and I agree with mike all these areas all have names now. Like Midtown, Museum District, Stadium District, Medical Center, Rice. What the hell is wrong with those.

At 4:06 PM, May 26, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Just to clarify, I was in no way saying we'd lose names like Midtown, the Museum District, etc. This would be an overlapping label that would cover the areas of the rail lines under the new urban corridor ordinances.


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