More new features are imagined for the center of Houston than just the new Green Loop highlighted in the just-released Plan Downtown proposal. There’s also a mysterious new Downtown island. Where did it come from?
It’s the result of digging the long-whispered North Canal Channel Bypass, a re-linking of White Oak and Buffalo Bayous north of Downtown. Existing bends and narrow banks along the 2 bayous just east of Main St. restrict the flow of stormwater during flooding events. According to reports, engineering studies have estimated that cutting a straighter diversion channel to bypass the oxbow could reduce flooding Downtown by 3.5 ft.
But digging a new canal while maintaining the existing path of the bayou would create an island out of the area just north of Commerce St. An imagined map of the area in Plan Downtown’s report (rotated so North is aimed down and to the right) shows what car and pedestrian bridges might link it to the mainland:
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Is Houston ready for yet another loop road? Here’s the proposed Green Loop, a 5-mile network of parks, trails, and other public spaces that the neighborhood supergroups behind Plan Downtown imagine ringing in Houston’s bicentennial — if it’s completed by 2036. One of 10 separate proposals in the plan, the city’s littlest loop is meant to take advantage of TxDOT’s proposed rerouting of I-45 to the east side of Downtown — by wrapping the district tightly with a transportation and recreation circuit that could attract adjacent development and help link the city center to adjacent neighborhoods.
Plan Houston’s new report flags ideas and renderings for 3 spots along Downtown’s proposed Emerald Choker: At Buffalo Bayou, on top of I-69 and I-45 once they’re sunk behind the George R. Brown, and on Pierce St. at the Midtown border.
New buildings at the northwest corner of Downtown would face Buffalo Bayou as well as the surrounding streets, lining the waterfront with flood-worthy attractions:
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It’s a Wrap!
COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOUSTON IS USUALLY BETTER WHERE IT ISN’T PLANNED TO BE “I’m going to go ahead and disagree on the value of planning. The best parts of the city (19th St, parts of Washington, parts of Midtown) were developed before the city passed Chapter 42, and would be illegal to replicate today.
What has planning gotten our fair city over the past half-century? Here’s a partial list:
1.) Density caps inside the loop (since repealed), driving multifamily development to areas farther away from downtown, increasing sprawl.
2.) 70+ ft. right-of-ways, which, along with our 25-ft setbacks, result in an absurd 120 feet between facades. Compare that to unplanned, human-scaled environments in pre-19th century cities and the result is 25% of land completely wasted, or given over to automobiles instead of people.
3.) Parking minimums, requiring up to 75% of land be given over to car storage.
4.) 25-ft. retail setbacks, which, combined with parking minimums, essentially mandate strip-mall development.
What Houston does well is where it doesn’t ‘plan.’ We don’t segregate residential, commercial and retail. We don’t limit residential density (much) (inside the loop), we don’t cap multi-family density (any more). All those great, walkable places we travel to on vacation have one thing in common: the almost complete lack of planning. And where they did do ‘planning’ it did more harm than good. The gothic quarter in Barcelona is way more charming than the Eixample, and don’t get me started on how Haussmann screwed up Paris.
Lump me in with the anti-planners on this one.” [Angostura, commenting on Comment of the Day: What Parking Requirements for Bars Really Encourage] Illustration: Lulu
BUFFALO BAYOU PARTNERSHIP NOW LOOKING EAST OF DOWNTOWN, MAKING PLANS The landscape architecture firm that rejiggered the grounds of the Menil Collection and has put forward a new plan for Hermann Park will now be turning its attention to Buffalo Bayou east of Downtown, where the waterway widens ahead of the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay. Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates will lead an effort to create a new master plan for the bayou’s “East Sector” — the section between Hwy. 59 and the Turning Basin — the Buffalo Bayou Partnership announced yesterday. Also on the team of consultants the nonprofit waterway overseers has selected to create the plan: the firm formerly known as Morris Architects, which a few months ago switched its name to that of its parent company, Huitt-Zollars. The partnership says it wants a plan that reflects the cultural and industrial background of the area, that will help connect surrounding neighborhoods to the bayou, and that creates green spaces that can help revitalize that part of Houston. [Buffalo Bayou Partnership] Photo: Buffalo Bayou Partnership
COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOW HOUSTON GOT ITS SPRAWL, AND OTHER TALES OF PSEUDOZONING “Blame our city’s efforts at ‘planning’ in lieu of zoning. In the early 70’s, due to insufficient wastewater infrastructure, the city enacted a ban on apartment buildings of more than 4 units inside the Loop (driving much of apartment development to Uptown and Meyerland) and enforced a 5000-sq.-ft. minimum lot size. This gave rise to the Montrose 4-plex (of which there are still some examples remaining), but put a cap on residential density inside the loop. Then in the 1980’s, we got 25-ft building setbacks, followed by mandatory minimum parking requirements. This added a cap on commercial density to go with the cap on residential density. The rest is history: for the next couple of decades, the car became the focal point of the built environment, and we became the low-density city we are today. With repeal of some of the more retrograde density caps we’re starting to get some residential density, but setbacks and parking minimums are still getting in the way of the necessary commercial density needed for real walkability.” [Angostura, commenting on Comment of the Day: No, Sprawl’s Not Just a Number After All] Illustration: Lulu
Courtesy of a stripe-skeptical reader, here’s a partial walkthrough tour of the new parking scheme along Allen Pkwy. west of Downtown — these days looking a lot more like the flyover videos released of the planned changes last year. Those changes, including a lower speed limit for the rest of the roadway and and some strategic tree deployment, are intended to make the pseudo-highway into a “more urban environment” and to slow traffic down to next-to-a-park speeds. Also included in the deal: a series of crosswalks, like the over-then-over-again setup now striped into place at Gillette St. (seen above posing with the Federal Reserve Bank building, with the former city garbage incinerator site out of the frame to the left).
The new setup divvies up much of the turf formerly occupied by Allen Pkwy.’s westbound traffic lane into angled spaces — some almost long enough to “put 2 normal sized cars in each spot,” the reader claims:
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COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOW HOUSTON’S PARK(ING) PROPONENTS SHOULD TAKE IT TO THE STREETS “While I understand, generally, the sentiment behind this initiative, I think in Houston it may be a little misguided. If we want a more walkable environment, with fewer buildings set back behind parking lots, we actually need more on-street parking spaces (to both accommodate business patrons arriving by car and help buffer pedestrians on the sidewalk), and fewer off-street ones.” [LocalPlanner, commenting on The SUV-Sized Parks Parked By City Hall Will Expire in About An Hour] Photo of Park(ing) Day: Allyn West
FINDING THE RIGHT WORDS TO TALK THROUGH HOUSTON’S RELATIONSHIP WITH SIDEWALKS Taking together a recent rash of of essays complaining about Houston’s walkability, public transit, and sidewalk situation, Joe Cortwright over at City Observatory offers some thoughts on why it might be harder for city planners to buff up the city’s walking infrastructure than focus on its car standards: planners, both locally and nation-wide, don’t have as many ways to measure unpleasant walking experiences, or sufficient language to describe them. Cortwright writes that the anecdotes and narratives put forth by Houston’s frustrated would-be walkers are “rich and compelling in their detail, but lack the technocratic throw-weight of quantifiable statistics or industry standards to drive different policies and investments in our current planning system. [ . . . But] this isn’t simply a matter of somehow instrumenting bike riders and pedestrians with GPS and communication devices so they are as tech-enabled as vehicles. An exacting count of existing patterns of activity will only further enshrine a status quo where cars are dominant. For example, perfectly instrumented count of pedestrians, bicycles, cars in Houston would show — correctly — little to no bike or pedestrian activity. And no amount of calculation of vehicle flows will reveal whether a city is providing a high quality of life for its residents, much less meeting their desires for the kinds of places they really want to live in.” [City Observatory] Photo: Flickr userbpawlik
In the small but growing city tradition of redoing street plans in your spare time, urban planner and general Houston improvement brainstormer Jesse Thornsen has recently launched a website to showcase weekly ideas for making bits the local streetscape easier to navigate (by bike, foot, car, or other means). This morning’s addition: how to smooth out the westward jog in Silver St. as it crosses Dart St. The spot (shown in the above left-to-right conceptual before and after) is southeast of Annex Houston automobile storage and the Silver Street Studios complex; not quite due west lies the Shops at Sawyer Yards warehouse retail redevelopment.
Thornsen’s plan adds sidewalks and a landscaped median (to discourage vehicles from taking the most direct route straight through the jagged intersection). Thornsen points out that the section is designated for both bikes and cars by the Houston Bike Plan; his redo includes bike lanes, including a queuing spot big enough for multiple cyclists to cozy up together as they wait to turn north. Here’s a close up and a cross section:
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Squaring Up in First Ward
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DECIDE TO REDO THAT DOWNTOWN FREEWAY PLAN IN YOUR SPARE TIME Tory Gattis reports in an update to his weekly column that TxDOT is looking over the alternative Downtown freeway plan put forth by Houston-based blog Purple City last week — to see if it can pull any ideas from it. The report, created by a semi-anonymous Houston-based engineer, includes detailed schematics, along with contextualized critiques of TxDOT’s most recently publicized version of plans to rework the interchanges of I-10, I-45, and 59 around Downtown. The Purple City plan appears to have a lot to offer: It would keep the Pierce Elevated as managed express lanes, while exploring options to make its street level pedestrian- and development-friendly. The alternative plan would require less right-of-way acquisition than TxDOT’s and eliminate left-hand exits. There are also bits about developing a new bus rapid transit line between Bellaire and UH, adding a a parallel bikeway network, and expanding the Downtown street grid. The 13-page report is available here; there’s also a scaled schematic of the entire plan. [Houston Strategies; Purple City; previously on Swamplot] Aerial schematic of (rotated) Downtown freeway alternative proposal: Purple City
COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE MISSING LINKS “A great comment and right on the money. Houston also needs to take the reins of community building instead of letting developers drive that bus. Subdivisions/neighborhoods are currently created by private developers without any thought to how they relate to adjacent communities, resulting in islands of development unconnected to each other in any meaningful way. How many times have we seen major roads come to a dead end because there’s a subdivision/office park/whatever right in the way? Houston’s lack of long-range regional planning (and no, I don’t mean zoning) is now coming home to roost, and I only hope it’s not too late to change direction. . . .” [roadchick, commenting on Comment of the Day: Houston’s Primary Unit of Measure] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOUSTON’S MASTER PLANNERS “. . . I’ve talked a lot about the bad way some developers approach growth in Houston. But neighborhoods are addressing it wrong, too. They’re too reactionary. They sit around doing nothing until a developer proposes something they don’t like, then they mobilize to try to kill it. They need to ask themselves ‘what do we really want in and around our neighborhood,’ and then create master plans to communicate it. (The master plans wouldn’t be enforced — that would be zoning — but they could be used by developers to get a sense of what the neighbors would oppose.)
The Super Neighborhoods were supposed to be a venue where this could happen — they were originally under the auspices of the Houston Planning Department. But I’ve found that it’s actually the Management Districts that are doing master plans. It’s great that they’re happening, but Management Districts are paid for by and primarily serve businesses; and single family neighborhoods aren’t even trying to get in on the efforts.” [ZAW, commenting on Dogging the Morrison Heights Midrise with Doggerel] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY: WITH A BULLDOZER AND A PUBLIC WORKS BUDGET, YOU TOO CAN WORK MAGIC! “Maybe we’re the only folks that would consider watching such a show, but it would be interesting if one of the networks would create an Extreme Makeover: Cityscape Edition. Imagine if Peter Park were given a TV show size budget for each episode to improve the urban blueprint of a small area such as this. Think of how such a show could change our nation’s perception and understanding of our cities.” [Thomas, commenting on Why the Sidewalk at the Washington Ave Five Guys Burgers Isn’t Walkable] Illustration: Lulu
Local planning firm Asakura Robinson has released a 250-page study on the past, present, and future — as they would like to see it — of the Washington Corridor. The study seems to stem from Better Block Houston, a kind of experiment the firm performed in a vacant lot near their mural-stained offices on Washington and Silver: The street was transformed into a pop-up plaza: Food trucks rolled in, bike repair stations set up, and local retailers spread out. The study imagines this kind of pedestrian life happening along the entire length of Washington, from Westcott to I-45 and between I-10 and Buffalo Bayou.
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COMMENT OF THE DAY: FIRST WE CROWD “. . . those folks thinking Houston would ever actually be capable of creating infrastructure to adequately manage increased density developments are living in a fool’s paradise. you live in a state where voters actively vote against such propositions by favoring no income taxes and keeping the pressure on no property tax increases to fund such transit initiatives. the density will have to come first, that’s a given.” [joel, commenting on Comment of the Day: Bring It On]