Comment of the Day: Stuck with That Same Ol’ Mix of Uses

COMMENT OF THE DAY: STUCK WITH THAT SAME OL’ MIX OF USES Drawing of Apartments and Retail“I don’t get people’s desire to live in a Mixed Use development, I lived in one for a couple of years and it’s as useless as a sh*t flavored lollipop. You get tired of the couple of restaurants there within 2 weeks, the drycleaner is not as good as the one you’re used to and you end up driving there anyway, you get all the noise and the traffic to deal with without any real world benefit. It’s the true case of the ‘grass is greener on the other side.'” [commonsense, commenting on Studemont Grocers Supply Redevelopment To Feature Fast Food and Bank Drive-Thrus, Store Pods in Parking Lot Now, Apartments Later] Illustration: Lulu

33 Comment

  • I completely agree in the case of a single mixed-use development. Once you string together many mixed-use developments, however, you have the potential for a truly walkable urban district rather than a single island of mixed-use.

  • @ helios: If you’re content to be within walking distance of a random assortment of stores that are suitable for living, then yes, a few adjoining mixed-use developments can satisfy that requirement. However, if you are very selective about which restaurants and grocery stores you go to or who does your laundry, or if you shop a wide variety of retailers, or if you’ve got a bunch of friends and family scattered throughout a big city, or if your job already requires you to get in a car, then commonsense has a pretty good point that you wind up on wheels pretty often. I would suspect that for most people, the private benefits of being within a walkable mixed-use district do not justify the rent premium and that you could attribute that premium mostly to novelty.

  • Glad the illustration wasn’t of that lollipop.

  • There are a couple of restaurants at the West Ave that I really like (and several more that I don’t) and “mid town” always looks lively on the weekends. I find the mixed use thing kind of corny, but ultimately better than blocks of lifeless mid rise apartments or strings of parking lots with strip malls behind them.

    I would NOT however want to live in one.

  • 1 block in any direction from Rice Village is housing. I think that qualifies as mixed-use than some fake developer-designed selection of vendors amidst their housing. Beats anything. However, not all are by blessed with history to put housing & retail in the same set of blocks so we’re forced to rely on puppet-master developers. So, good points by commensense: I once rented in mixed-use once for 3 months, but was better than the alternative: islands of housing separated by roads from islands of retail.

  • The focus shouldn’t be on single mixed-use developments but rather on walkable neighborhoods. Being able to walk to three things is better than not being able to walk to anything, but not by much. In a truly walkable neighborhood, you ought to be able to walk to anything you need; not just one dry cleaner, but an assortment of them. Not just two restaurants, but twenty or more.

    Moreso than a mix of uses, this requires density. The willingness to mix uses can increase density, of course; the main method of doing so being to put retail on the ground floor and apartments above it on commercial avenues, rather than limiting those commercial avenues to only retail. However, this shouldn’t be seen as some gimmicky “mixed-use apartment complex”, but rather should be seen as the new default method of development whenever new retail structures go up on, say, Westheimer in Montrose, or Main Street in Midtown. You put enough of these developments together and you’ve added a lot of density to your neighborhood.

    The difficulty with implementing this style of development in Houston is parking requirements. They’re just not compatible with a proper commercial avenue in this sense. So until we fix the city codes, mixed-use isn’t going to be done properly anyway (outside of downtown).

  • We’re pretty close in Montrose. I can walk to most of what I need — short drive or rail (which I can walk to) for the rest.
    You’re spot on re: parking requirements. Not until we lessen the grip the city puts on business owners with regards to parking lot sizes will we see really walkable neighborhoods. Parking requirements end up causing less walkability which ends up causing more need for cars, which results in the argument that we need parking requirements.

  • One possible solution is paid parking lots in dense areas. They could be privately owned or COH. For example, a paid parking lot in the area of White Oak and Studemont. Pittsburg has this sort of thing in areas of retail that are in residential areas. Shoppers are pretty much required to park in the lots because street parking is very hard to find. Locals are able to walk or bike to the shopping area (which is very cool) and visitors park in the lots and not on side streets.

    This could work in a few areas of Houston…. parts of Montrose, midtown, 19th Street and others.

  • I think I suggested this one! Yay. Also, I remember this house actually being pretty nice, ignoring the 300k pricetag for a house in the third ward of course.

  • Oh whoops, well this was entirely the wrong thread to have posted in….

  • The true benefit of mixed-use developments is the opportunity to reduce the amount of parking provided. Certain program types work well with others. For example, and office worker is usually parked in their space between 8-5 while other uses, such as residential and retail, pick up before and after those hours. This means the same space can potentially serve multiple uses, reducing the amount of garages and lots. This is a big deal in Houston, where market parking demands for office require about the same square footage of parking as the office space itself.

    Mixed-use development can be about convenience, but the true potential lies in the opportunity to reduce the amount of useless parking and increase density and thus walkability. Houston actually has a mixed-use parking code that allows for this reduction. Ultimately, one could argue that mixed-use developments are not just good for reducing costs for developers, but they are also good for the planet.

  • The new parking ordinance has a provision for “special parking areas”, where the parking requirements can be spread over a number of properties, resulting in de facto mixed-use. To date, no such areas have been designated.

  • @Niche: I am always amazed that you shake your fist at any government intrusion into the market place in favor of the free market, but then a few posts later show utter disdain for pricing decisions made as a result of the free market. Mixed use developments are able to charge a premium because there is real value in what they provide to residents. You cannot have it both ways. You can either believe that people are rational maximizers and that markets reflect rational action, or acknowledge that people are not always rational and allow government to regulate as needed to substitute the collective will for private action.

    But there really is no debate in the real world over whether mixed use development is good or bad. It is a necessity when an area becomes dense. If you pile an area full of multifamily and force everyone to drive to retail in adjacent strip centers, you will end up with Gulfton. If you just build office, with no retail or residential, you end up with Greenspoint. If you are able to balance retail, office and residential in a walkable environment with adequate public transportation, you end up with some of the most expensive real estate in the US (Manhattan, Chicago gold coast, Back Bay in Boston, City Center in Philly, etc.).

  • I’ll be honest – I don’t get this whole mixed use development movement / desire people have. I don’t like this “density” idea and even with things close enough to walk to I do/will still drive – because I like my car. This is Houston, why do we have to become “like other cities” who have the denser urban cores that people are constantly talking about? I want my backyard and green space, my privacy, and I sure don’t want people all up close around me.

  • What is the essential difference between ‘mixed use’ and ‘no zoning’? I don’t know how the legal beagles describe it, but I suppose if my house is next door to a busy, noisy and smelly restaurant, it’s mixed use, but if I live next door to a busy, noisy and smelly body shop, it’s ‘lack of zoning’.

  • Tawnya:

    I don’t know mixed use from shinola, but I have enjoyed living places where I didn’t need a car. I grew up in the suburbs and the only place I could walk was 7-11. Then I moved to Austin for college and discovered how nice it was to be able to walk to everything. When I moved back to Houston I lived in Montrose for the same reason. It was good for my health and cheap. Of course, now that I’ve got a kid I live way the hell out in the suburbs with a pool and yard and all that. But I can definitely understand the attraction of being able to walk places.

  • Mixed-use is a somewhat flexible term; it doesn’t require that different uses are vertically stacked. They could just be side-by-side – the main point is that the different uses are intentionally designed to be easily and comfortably accessible to each other on foot and create mutually reinforcing market value for each other. A single development could be mixed-use internally (like The Galleria) without necessarily intending to reach out to nearby properties in a synergistic or walkable manner. Or you can have an array of single-use separate properties in close proximity that happen to be arranged in a walkable manner, creating a mixed-use neighborhood. While the former tends to get much of the media attention, the latter has the potential to affect a larger geographic portion of the city. Furthermore, if the need for parking can be consolidated and/or reduced, the potential for creating higher value and thus tax base is increased.

    Tawnya and others who want the more affluent core of Houston to remain a place where low-density single family neighborhoods with big yards are utterly segregated away from all other uses, and where the low-density single family suburbia that the core of Houston that makes up the majority of the pre-existing core of Houston remains indefinitely, need to either live in a deed-restricted neighborhood or move to suburbia. The increasing value and attractiveness of the city’s core means that the natural economic trend will be toward denser and more mixed-use development and redevelopment. There is absolutely no good reason for the City to act in a regulatory fashion to preserve the urban core’s original low-density single use suburban nature.

    Instead, the City (and METRO) should be focused on evolving its infrastructure to make denser more mixed-use arrangements as workable as possible by improving its streets (that does NOT mean adding more traffic lanes or increasing driving speeds, outside of timing lights), improving sidewalks, having better transit (primarily buses and bus rapid transit), and even better accommodating biking. Or, and removing parking requirements.

    Folks who don’t prefer this evolution can move elsewhere, while the city can be secure in the knowledge that they will be replaced by other folks who are quite willing to live with it.

  • @Tawyna: I believe you would be much, much happier in a suburb.

  • “You get tired of the couple of restaurants there within 2 weeks”

    Learn how to cook. Duh.

  • “This is Houston, why do we have to become “like other cities” who have the denser urban cores that people are constantly talking about? I want my backyard and green space, my privacy, and I sure don’t want people all up close around me.”

    I think the idea is, a dense urban core will exist for the people who want that, and then the entire rest of the metro area, sprawling 30-50 miles in every direction, can be for people like you. Your way of life is not in danger. But there will be an option for people who don’t just want a back yard and nobody around them, i.e. people who want to live in an actual city.

  • I get it if you don’t like the restaurants, but grocery stores? I mean, an apple tastes like an apple, whether I get it from Kroger, HEB or Safeway. Mrs. Baird’s Bread, greek yogurt (everyone likes yogurt!), it’s all the same. If I can walk 15 feet out my front door and get the same stuff as I would have to drive for 15 minutes to get, I’ll walk, even if it costs more.

  • Shockingly, Manhattan has managed to remain walkable even though only about a third of residential acreage has ground floor retail. (Data here: Brooklyn is pretty clearly doomed to a car-centric future, since less than 10% of residential acreage is mixed use.
    Or, maybe it’s possible for cities to develop with “horizontal” mixed use, where commercial, retail, and residential exist in close proximity. Midtown seems to be developing exactly this way, despite only a small portion of residential having GFR. What keeps horizontal mixed use from being walkable are our stupid and antiquated setbacks and parking minimums. Reform those first before we start mandating GFR in every new apartment building.

  • @Tawnya – Then…just stay in the suburbs. I seriously don’t get your problem here. Basically you are saying “I don’t want to live in the city because it’s not like the suburbs, so I won’t live in the city.” Cool story, bro. Just don’t live in the city and leave all the culture and walkability and density to those of us who would prefer to live the kind of lifestyle that doesn’t require a car.

  • Horizontal mixed use (As in Local Planner’s second case) is more important. Vertical mixed use will be relatively more common along the major thoroughfares where both Retail and Residential values are high. A significant majority of structures will remain single use residential, no matter how dense the city becomes.

  • I understand that some people like the idea of walking everywhere to retail, restaurants, etc. But, why do the rest of us that also want to only be 10 minutes from downtown or to live in a super cute older home have to move “to the suburbs” to keep our car centric lifestyle? May be a shocker to some, but not everyone wants to or CAN walk distances like that because of health issues… but they still want to be close to everything or live in central areas so work commutes aren’t ridiculous. Just saying everyone seems to be pro-densification on here, but hopefully y’all realize not everyone actually wants it.

  • Tawnya, I don’t doubt that there’s quite a number of folks who feel the same as you. However, I think the city will hurt itself far more than help if it tries to squelch this market-based evolution, or tries to change its infrastructure and regulations more to react in a primarily car-centric way than in a multi-modal way.

    Besides, it’s not a completely black-or-white thing, there’s a whole spectrum of walkable densification, including versions that are primarily single family homes with yards (if smaller yards) where you could still easily walk to retail and transit. I lived in one in Oakland for a couple years that was like that, and would be pleased if that type of cityscape developed more here.

    But the main point is, increasing demand for center-city living and associated appreciation of land values are not going to co-exist with the traditional suburban, very car-oriented low-density nature of the historic core of the city over the long term. Might as well get used to it, even if it doesn’t make you happy. You SHOULD be glad however that educated households with disposable income want to live here – without them the city would be in a fiscal downward spiral worse than the problems we already have. See: Detroit (and other cities – Stockton for example) for your ultimate result.

  • start charging $10 for all cars entering the 610 loop. get rid of the parking space requirements. buy Uber stock. there is your walkability.

  • I think Christian summed up my views on this matter well: Houston needs to have more walkable neighborhoods. Slapping up these mixed-use buildings just doesn’t seem to solve the problem – but rather, cause more, especially with the increase in densification + shtload of cars that follow. I don’t live in Montrose anymore, but I really miss the accessibility. I lived near Cherryhurst Park, and to me, this was Houston-living convenience at its finest. It was nice being able to go to restaurants or even take a longer walk to the store without having to deal with my car.
    Funny thing is, when I was overseas, I would walk a good distance to pick up the train. The Fulton rail is 8 blocks from me, but honestly, I just don’t feel like it’s safe for me to cross 45 by foot and walk to the stop. I’ve already had to deal with enough street harassment already (not just in my current hood but also in Montrose), and given some of the nastiest things people have said, I can’t say I’ll feel safer unless I have a quick means of escape…

  • The fact is that most of the areas inside the Loop are low density, suburban style developments that are just older. None of them are likely to become more dense anytime soon. If there’s limited parking at a business, I will not be there, since I am not going to give up my car and walk everywhere.

  • @Tawyna and Gisgo: I think Houston is big enough to always have places like the Heights where people are pro house+backyard without the mid-high rise mixed use of a lot of central Houston areas. I believe the difference is that mixed-use developments integrate a substantial amount of ground-floor retail and above ground housing. We’re not talking about neighborhoods with one house per lot and nearby retail. The reason it’s critical to have these new mixed use developments is so that young single folk like myself can afford a place where we can live and work sustainably. Buying a house in central Houston is not an undertaking that most 20 somethings/single people want or can afford. Developers realize this and are taking advantage of the no zoning around the Montrose/Upper Kirby/Midtown area to build mix-use places. Have you heard about New Urbanism? I think it’s awesome.

  • What would really help the quality of life, especially for those with bicycles, is the City putting up hundreds of No Parking signs on at least one side of every street in neighborhoods with lots of residences. Quality of life would be helped by 1. improved traffic safety for both motorists and cyclists because of much more space to navigate and removal of possibility of accidents from doors opening into the street; and, 2. aesthetics.

    The lack of regs and/or enforcement of them related to developers supplying onsite parking has combined with people not using their garages (whether traditional or multi-story) to park their vehicles, but then using the street (public ROW) as their garage causes this unsightly and unsafe congestion. Some flexibility is inherent in limiting No Parking to one side of the street, and without it the common occurrence of a 2 lane roadway becoming a tiny passageway instead of a full 2 lanes is a blight on our city, particularly inside the Loop, but also in other dense areas. I know personally of a ‘luxury townhome’ HOA who doesn’t have the political will to enforce their parking regs, and so don’t really expect the City to do any better. But one can hope for our City’s aesthetics and traffic safety! Thanks, Swamplot, for your wonderful reporting and facilitation of dialogues.

  • “What would really help the quality of life, especially for those with bicycles, is the City putting up hundreds of No Parking signs on at least one side of every street in neighborhoods with lots of residences.”

    @Damian: beware of unintended consequences. If there are no cars parked at the curb in a residential neighborhood, people passing through the neighborhood drive MUCH faster. My neighborhood has a 20 mph speed limit on my block. Residential parking only, so very few cars parked on the street. I have clocked people at 40mph bombing down our street. Commuters in a hurry don’t give a rat’s behind about the speed limit and the city will not enforce it.