Comment of the Day: The Real Houston Is Outside Those Tiny Urban Islands

COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE REAL HOUSTON IS OUTSIDE THOSE TINY URBAN ISLANDS Parking in Strip Center“Urban enthusiasts live in a bubble. I don’t care where they are. The reality is that the VAST majority of people like getting in a private air conditioned car, driving to an island of shopping or whatever and finding a parking space closest to where they are going without being bothered by street people. Urban enthusiasts are under the delusion that most people want to walk around in sticky moist air and sit at their desk stinking all day from sweat in order to pretend they live in a city that was built before cars were invented so they can live like the people they envy on t.v. A dense urban environment in the inner city would be a novelty and I’m all for it. Choices are great. Downtown and Midtown are shaping up nicely. The center of Midtown is going to have a very cool buzz going on with all the new infill. The Match, Superblock, Mid-Main development, etc. East side Downtown is going to be a beast and so will Market Square. But as cool as it may be to have a tiny, tiny, microscopic sliver of New York in the center of this city, it is totally unnecessary. Our booms have proven that. The VAST majority don’t have a problem with strip malls, blue glass or driving cars to get where they want to go. The VAST majority stay in Houston because they WANT to live in a suburban environment. Jobs? There are jobs in other cities. No one stays in Houston long if they really hate it. You can’t argue with success. Builders keep building things the way they do in Houston because it works. ‘Quality’ is subjective. Some people think Miley Cyrus is quality. But you can’t argue with ‘quantity.’ Houston is fascinating to people (even the haters) because whatever it is, unlike many of those true centers of urbanity on the east and west coast, Houston IS NOT stagnant. Even in slower economic times, things happen in Houston and it is fun watching it grow.” [Blue Dog, commenting on Comment of the Day: Still Waiting To See How Houston Is Going To Turn Out] Illustration: Lulu

25 Comment

  • I’m a junior urban planner. The commenter is right– an astounding majority prefers it –which is why I’m curious about sustainable (not *dense*–but sustainable… which… I know… they don’t balance each other out…) suburban development. Anyone have any links? Developers & planners will always have to cater to people’s wants, but they need to acknowledge and do what’s right for our posterity for frick’s sake.

    It’s a tragedy that the number one method toward human beings living within ecological sustainability will be the attraction and acclamation of capital, but, damn… We probably won’t even ‘get there’ in a reasonable fashion before the majority of us suffer the consequences, lol. At least by the time I’m 40 the ocean will be closer for everyone out in Cypress & Katy. And there will be plenty of Buffalo Bayou to go around downtown…

  • Blue Dog, you’re full of it. You really believe Houston is a sprawling mess because the people living here want it that way? How about the developers built it that way because there is nothing to make them do otherwise? Kind of like the apartment buildings with common attic space that so frequently catch fire?

  • Their our deadly flaws at the heart of sprawling suburban development schemes, and that will never change. All you have to do to recognize this is look at the way almost every suburb grows progressively more blighted after the first decade or two. Because the land value is so low due to the very nature of suburban sprawl, and because the suburban form is itself so cookie-cutter and lacking in identity, there is no incentive to renovate and maintain these areas as they decline. Why would you, when you can just move a few miles further out and build more strip centers and McMansions, ad nauseum?
    You can even see it in the way the suburbs themselves are developing. Which suburbs are the most economically healthy? The ones who imitate a dense city at their center in order to create a sense of place and fulfill the need for walkable, attractive public space which lives even in the staunchest suburbanite. The Woodlands, Sugar Land, and Pearland with their town centers–even Northwest Houston, the most cookie cutter suburbanite’s suburb, has made itself a faux town center in Vintage Park, with apartments and townhomes in walking distance of faux strip center-turned-downtown.

  • I totally agree, there’s a severe OVER-representation of urbanites on Swamplot which makes it seem like Houston wants to be dense, urban, and walkable, but the reality is to the contrary. 99% of Houston doesn’t give a rat’s ass about walkability and actually shun density because it brings noise, dirt, and crime. In my many years in real estate I never heard anyone say “Gee, I really want to buys something close to Randall’s so I can walk there and carry a week’s worth of groceries all the way home like a donkey.”
    I for one love living in a very deed restricted neighborhood with narrow streets and almost no sidewalks, keeps the riff raff away. I also like that I don’t have any commercial property within a mile of my house so there’s no noise or riff raff spillover.
    I also like getting noisy and drunk on Washington or Midtown, taking a wiz on the urban resident’s bushes and driving home to sleep in my quiet castle with a mote with rabbid shark with laser beams on their heads.

  • Another boring blowhard who assumes that everyone thinks like he does. Funny, because almost everyone I know thinks the exact opposite of this nonsense that Swamplot has chosen to spotlight, again. Houston is changing. Houston will change. lucky for all of these people that are so afraid of change, there will likely always be a faraway suburb for them to sit in an hour of traffic to get to, in order to keep living a life devoid of change.

  • Personally, I want Houston to be more like Montreal and will vote and promote each and every measure within my sphere of influence to make it so. The bicycle routes there are separated from automobile traffic and even where there’s construction interrupting the guarded bike paths, the construction crews steer you towards the signed detours. Parks are everywhere in their urban core and it’s a pleasure to walk or bike to a metro stop and then walk a few blocks to a favourite ‘bagel au saumon fumé’ breakfast place. So I guess inspite of what the “Vast” majority mentioned in this thread may or may not desire, I choose Houston to live in and will mold it to my likes and preferences until such time as I choose to live elsewhere.

  • Idiot forgot what it was like in 2001: stagnant isn’t the word, there was a diaspora. Lather, rinse, repeat.

  • @they: to me, “sustainable suburban development” should mean rediscovering older suburban neighborhoods. This is why I push so hard for Sharpstown and other communities like it. It’s why, even though we will be moving to Fort Bend County soon for my son’s school, it will be to an older development. We will avoid the energy-outlay of a new house in a new neighborhood reached by a new highway, and we’ll have shorter commutes.
    Don’t be fooled. Much of our new suburban development isn’t built to accommodate growth. It’s built to allow people to flee other parts of town. Talk to someone who’s bought a house out in Riverstone or Aliana and they might say something like “oh I grew up in Alief. It’s such a shame what’s happened to that neighborhood. We had to move.” You can live in a single family home in Alief, and drive your car to work, and shop at a big box store – just like you can in newer neighborhoods. The house will have a floor plan and features that are not very different from the houses in new developments. But you’ll have to live with nuisance apartment complexes, after hours clubs, SOBs, a lack of green space, and lousy schools. When people say “I grew up in Alief but had to move,” they’re really telling you they fled the nuisances and crummy schools.
    The thing to me is: those nuisances and crummy schools could be solved with the right kind of community involvement and reinvestment. That reinvestment is what I would consider “sustainable suburban development.”

  • @ Christian: I’m fairly cynical about these low-fidelity suburban new urbanist enclaves. They have been promoted so as to signal a sense of community, and yet also class exclusivity. Every facet of their existence seems contrived and dishonest, and being inside such a development is — to me — very uncomfortable. It’s like living through a Twilight Zone episode in which name-brands are a viable substitute for personal identity. By contrast, Walmart is at least an honest experience; it’s an unadorned box wherein everybody from all walks of life can and does go to seek value, and not always successfully, but nevertheless with a sort of humble sincerity. And Walmart (along with its power-center-dwelling ilk) is everywhere. This is one of the things about Houston that I find endearing.

    And it’s not merely a lesson that stops at retailing, either. Owing to its size and vast ETJ, Houston has a vast supply of unzoned and unrestricted (or effectively unrestricted) neighborhoods. These places get funky and take on character with age, so much so that we forget that they all started out as cookie-cutter suburbs…yes, even the Heights and Eastwood and Montrose, but also Pecan Park and Pleasantville and Acres Homes. These are places, just like Walmart, where people of all walks of life go in communal search for value; and although different people are able to afford themselves different lifestyles, they do so in the same space, and for want of one sort of person there would be another. The density of sidewalks or bike trails in this context is all but irrelevant.

  • This is what I’m talking about!

  • You can’t argue with history. And you can’t argue with success. 95% of Greater Houston could be considered suburban. Not having a dense urban environment has never hurt Houston in the past. Obviously suburbia is attractive enough to the people who choose to stay there. It’s not like anyone is forcing anyone to live there against their will, shop there or work there (well, maybe immature little kids who can’t wait to move away from this big dumb town and go to New York when they’re all gwowed up) (awe, aren’t they cute)

    Lot’s of complaints on the internet about it, but adults raising families have better things to do than to worry about ‘walkability’. Mobility is a legit complaint, but most people don’t move to Houston without knowing what they are getting in to. They see the strip malls and traffic jams and they decide that life here is better than whatever God forsaken place they were forced to leave because the couldn’t afford it or couldn’t compete with the local competition.

    Since the people keep pouring in to suburbia and forking over billions of dollars ever year to the businesses in suburban strip malls, buy houses, rent apartments and accept jobs in suburban style McSkyscrapers – what incentive or logical reason would a builder have to screw with a formula that has proven itself so successful?

    Right? I can just hear an investor. “I’m tired of building things that people actually use in this non-dense environment. I don’t want people to have an easy time finding a parking place. I want to take a huge financial risk and build something that the surrounding communities will walk to in the rain and 95 degree heat. I want to turn Katy into an inner city neighborhood and force them into densely packed communities with no back yard and force them to rely on public transportation so they will look cool like they do in New York”.

    Obviously I’m exaggerating to make a point. Truth is, like most who like to read about the stuff posted on Swamplot, I really think high density is cool, fun and exciting. I hope downtown and midtown and uptown keep up the pace, densify to the max and try to mimic the urban buzz found in NYC and SF. But as for the rest of Houston, it is unrealistic to think that urban high densification will happen or should happen. The people that live there, do so because they really really like low density. They like back yards. They like their cars. Houston is big enough to have both options.

    Don’t misunderstand and think I am saying Houston suburbs can’t be improved and that Houston is perfect for everyone exactly the way it is. No one thinks that. No one will EVER think that about anywhere. Just don’t waste your time and energy forcing high urban density on people who don’t want it, because you can’t. Houston suburbs are here to stay so either accept them or waste the rest of your life bitching on the internet to no one.

  • Blue Dog,
    Your successful model of car-driving Greater Houston relies on
    1) Nanny or stay-at-home Mom to shuttle children around,
    B) sufficient income for every driving-age person to own a car,
    C) Parking space everywhere and all the time.
    This is not sustainable outside of Saudi Arabia, just sayin’

  • If nobody cares about sidewalks and bike trails, then why does every poll point to people wanting more sidewalks and bike trails and why are the most desirable neighborhoods next to established parks and trails and full of….sidewalks. I think it’s you that’s talking to no one. These is a reason the most desirable neighborhoods in the city are….the most desirable neighborhoods in the city. Houston’s endless sprawl is not one its most valued features and why is this sprawling metropolis that you claim people love so dearly never on anyone’s most desirable city list??? Hmmmm

  • This is like dumbing Houstonians down to Neanderthals who only care about being close to a Wal Mart and an Academy. There is a reason The Woodlands is Houston’s most desired suburb and believe me it has nothing to do with their proximity to a Wal Mart. It’s the trees, the trails, the parks, a lot of the same attributes of Houston’s most desired inner city neighborhoods…..imagine that.

  • There’s not such thing as The Most Desirable Neighborhoods, it’s only The Most Desirable Neighborhoods In Your Price Range. If you’re at the top of Houston food chain, the most desirable is River Oaks and some parts of Memorial, if you’re a lowly peasant, the most desirable today is far EaDo.
    Also, success of the Woodlands has little to do with it’s trails and parks (I lived there for many years and they were always empty, people always flocked to the air conditioned mall and restaurants). The success of the Woodlands has more to do with it’s DISTANCE from urban blight, poverty, and crime. It also helps to be the crown jewel of Montgomery County real estate so you can dictate taxation and local laws and ignore the Blue leaning Harris county.

  • Shannon, you have very completely missed my the point. In numerous ways.

  • Houston has a chance to implement its own critique of how urbanism can and should be done without zoning, and that implementation actually stands a chance of being truly great.

    The next decade or so will be very intriguing.

  • I think the vast majority of people are choosing to live in not-Houston due to cost. Not-Houston are those places where people can buy a suburban lifestyle for less than 250K, but it is considered part of greater Houston. When I moved to Houston in 91, I lived by the Astrodome, then moved to Montrose–I thought Houston had pretty good public transportation and walkable sidewalks. Of course, a brief move to 45/1960 area showed me what the majority of the Houston-area was like. Now I live in a neighborhood where teardowns are 200K or more, and a new house will cost upwards of 750K–compared to not-Houston (like Cypress where a coworker just sold her circa 2004 home for 170K to move to a new home in Richmond which cost less).

  • But Matx, if cost were the only factor, you wouldn’t have to move way out to Cypress or Richmond. There are plenty of older suburban houses for $250,000 or less that are much closer in. People are really moving way out there not only because of cost, but also to flee the nuisances and lousy schools that seem to infect affordable neighborhoods closer in.
    This is something that gets lost in Houston, as it does in many “new doughnut” cities – and understandably so. It’s a monumental task – beyond the scope of one person. It would require big investments in schools, housing, and infrastructure, and it would make a lot of nightclub, personal care home, and pain clinic owners very angry. Not to mention suburban developers…. It’s much easier to just let these people do their thing, go with the flow, flee ever further out and when a nuisance pops up, further still. But if we did it, our City would be much greener, commutes would be shorter, and people on the whole would have much better lifestyles.

  • Commonsense, good point about price range, though The Woodlands runs the gamut. You are totally wrong in suggesting people are not using the parks and trails in The Woodlands. When you have over 100 miles of wooded/hidden trails, it does tend to spread people out a bit. I see fellow walkers, runners, and bikers every time I go out; and all with a friendly greeting. Maybe you need to move back to see the commuter traffic going “into” The Woodlands. It stands on its own for work and play.

  • How do you argue with a person that says people don’t live in a place called THE WOODLANDS, for trails, parks, green space and uh….Woodlands. I also don’t think people move to The Woodlands just so they can vote the Tea Party line. Talk about dumbing down a group of people. What can I say but: WTF?

  • To say that if you’re poor you can only “desire” to live in the 5th Ward, i mean how dare one have the audacity to aspire to River Oaks! Where do you think you are? America?!
    And niche I didn’t read your comment so I could hardly have misconstrued it.

  • I live in Boston which is pretty much the anti-Houston, moving there as an adult fleeing some of the things Blue Dog celebrates. Born and raised in sprawling Omaha, Nebraska with its struggling downtown qnd leapfrogging subdivisionsI, I came east seeking the density, the option of subways and streetcars and walking because of the relative proximity of destinations, the historic architecture of row houses and institutions, the amenities of a major gateway city with an urban vibe. You’d hate Boston, the high cost of living, the terrible traffic on our chaotic layout of colliding streets, the lack of space, and the cold winters. I don’t like those things either, but I’ve decided to live with them because of the things I do like. You’ve made your choice too, and you intelligently don’t deny that you live in flat, sprawling, hot-humid, ten-lane-wide highway beribboned mass of strip mall

  • …scattered anonymity because you like it. And no snobby eastern elitist transplant so blinkered, he can’t appreciate the collective expression of american freedom that is Post Oak or The Woodlands or Sugarland or cul-de-sac-paradise-of-your-choice will not convince you otherwise. Midtown does seem to me kind of nice though :-)

  • “Even in slower economic times, things happen in Houston”

    You mean like the construction of more “Perry Homes Coming Soon” signs and ribbon-cutting ceremonies for Walmart?