WALK THIS WAY Only 17 percent of projects eligible for incentives included in the city’s 8-year-old Transit Corridor ordinance have taken advantage of them, reports Hilary Ybarra. So the next city initiative aimed at walkability will take a different approach: “The recently established Walkable Places Committee has been tasked with reevaluating the city code to dive deeper into the issue of walkability in Houston. The committee is currently focused on creating an application-based process to establish specific ‘walkable place’ areas,” she writes. “Under this new system, any neighborhood could voluntarily apply to become a ‘walkable place’ and in doing so establish their own set of self-defined unique rules for development to encourage walkability. These rules would include specific regulations covering the building setback, design of the pedestrian realm, landscaping, pedestrian friendly building design, and parking (a separate subcommittee has been formed exclusively to deal with parking).
But once adopted, unlike the Transit Corridor Ordinance, neighborhood- and site-specific building rules would be required, not optional, for all new development. Though still in the early planning stages — adoption of a new ordinance is targeted for 2019 — the proposal certainly faces challenges. How will a neighborhood come to consensus on new guidelines? What are the incentives to apply to become a ‘walkable place?’ What will trigger the application of the new guidelines to existing development? Are historic structures exempt? And perhaps most importantly, what about the spaces between and connecting to the specific neighborhoods?” [The Urban Edge] Photo of Gray St., Midtown: Mark Taylor Cunningham (license)
COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOW NATURAL SELECTION ELIMINATES HOUSTON PEDESTRIANS “Biology has words to describe the relationship between parking and driving. ‘Arms race’ and ‘co-evolution’ fit pretty well. If you find a creature that has evolved to devote a lot of its energy to producing toxins, you’ll find some other creature that has evolved to survive those toxins — the two are in an arms race with each other, and have co-evolved these capabilities. One becomes a little more toxic, the other becomes a little more immune to that toxin. Other organisms can’t invade that relationship because they aren’t toxic enough or immune enough. From this perspective, large parking lots and heavy reliance on cars can be seen as Houston’s defense mechanism. Houston is immune to walkability because driving and parking have co-evolved to such extremes here. There’s no stable strategy to provide a path from where we are to where the new urbanists want to be.” [Memebag, commenting on Houston’s Pothole Progress; Reagan HS Name Staying for Now] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOUSTON’S 6 TRULY WALKABLE NEIGHBORHOODS “. . . [Y]ou can have walkability even when density is just moderate. Small town downtowns are walkable even though most folks arrive by car. Many commercial neighborhoods in streetcar suburbs built before 1950 are this way. What makes them walkable: comfortable street design (sorry but 40 mph is too fast), frequent safe pedestrian street crossings, ample sidewalks in good condition, pedestrian-oriented buildings that aren’t separated by big parking lots, on-street parking (what Houston lacks in too many places), decent night lighting, and relatively small block sizes. Houston has subsets of these features in numerous places but the whole package is very rare — 19th @ Rutland, Rice Village (mainly just strip malls mushed together), Harrisburg @ 67th, the Historic District downtown, and the main gay bar area in Montrose (awful or nonexistent sidewalks though and lacking night lighting) come close, plus of course Bagby @ Gray. Hence developers building them from scratch (West Ave, River Oaks District, CityCentre, etc.) to satisfy demand.” [Local Planner, commenting on Comment of the Day: Sorry, but Houston’s Never Gonna Be Walkable] Illustration: Lulu
Struggling to make themselves heard above the whoosh of traffic along the Washington Corridor, Better Houston’s Pedestrian Pete (a.k.a. one-time mayoral candidate Peter Brown) and visiting Harvard prof and city planner Peter Park take a very short stroll in this recently uploaded video. Their objective? To lament the guy wires, utility poles, and other hindrances for would-be pedestrians on the few feet of sidewalk they traverse in front of Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Buffalo Wild Wings in this strip center near Leverkuhn at 3939 Washington.
Video: Pedestrian Pete
COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHY WALK, WHEN YOU CAN DRIVE? “If I live in a ‘walkable’ neighborhood I have access to a couple of restaurants and maybe a couple of services but with my CAR I have access to THOUSANDS of restaurants, services, venues, malls, etc. without having to use the same one twice . . . Why would I give a sh*t about a ‘walkable’ neighborhood?!?!??!?” [commonsense, commenting on Apartment Building Replacing Tavern on Gray Won’t Have Any Retail, But Really Wants To Hug the Street Anyway]
Blogging at NeoHouston, Andrew Burleson declares that the connections a building has to the world around it — what he calls its interface — have a big effect on value:
A house may be great, but if it doesn’t have a nice front yard it won’t be worth as much as the house next door that does. Likewise, homes in an area with lots of big trees tend to be valued higher than places without them. The interface is better.
Well, sure. Big trees is nice! But Burleson also claims that the value effects of interface success — and suckage — can travel:
Interfaces are highly radiant, they have a significant impact on the values of surrounding properties, and this value has a tendency to spread. If a street is truly beautiful, every adjacent property is likely to be highly valued. If a street is very ugly, every adjacent property is likely to be somewhat undervalued, even if some individual structures on that street are highly valued.
So why are we jumping over fences in Midtown? It’s all part of Burleson’s photo tour of the “interfaces” of 3 apartment complexes within a few blocks of each other: The Post Midtown Square (the good), the Camden Midtown Apartments (the bad), and 2222 Smith Street (the so-so).
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COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE MIDTOWN CVS DOMINO EFFECT “. . . CVS didn’t follow Post Midtown’s urban scale approach even though its lot was right across the street and the collective wisdom at the time was that Gray and Bagby would be built out with mid-rise, mixed-use developments right up to Main and the new rail line. It seemed so obvious and for those who longed for true urban living in this town, it was a dream coming true. CVS didn’t play ball simply because they didn’t have to. No code required them to build in any way, shape, or form that might have benefited the collective vision of Midtown. So be it, that’s Houston. However, after CVS bucked the urban trend, so did most every developer after them. So instead of all or most of Midtown being walkable, populated with street life like just the 3 blocks developed by Post ultimately became; Midtown’s blocks are populated with suburban style apartments complexes with no street life whatsoever, just block after block of gates and fences. If Houston had had the guts to enact urban design strategies then, Midtown would be the success that similar areas have become in Dallas, Atlanta and other cities. Houston punked out and we are all the losers for decades to come. Ironically the very same developers who fought urban guidelines in Midtown were building successful urban properties in all those other cities at the same time. . . .” [John, commenting on Cul de Sac City: Houston’s Ban on New Street Grids]
COMMENT OF THE DAY: NEW URBANIST FLIGHT “Several posters are spot-on about walkable neighborhoods commanding a premium over traditional suburbs, if all else is equal. Unfortunately you can’t have it all in Houston – neighborhood charm, architecturally interesting houses, walkability, safety, good public schooling, AND affordability. Our growing family is being “forced” out of the Heights for several of the above reasons. If a New Urbanist development existed in the Houston area that was priced similarly to the traditional lollipop surburb, we would go there in an instant. Instead, we’re moving to what we see as the best suburban compromise – the Woodlands. Outside observers will no doubt think we are going to the suburbs because of the cul-de-sacs, but the truth is, we are going despite them.” [CV, commenting on Cul de Sac City: Houston’s Ban on New Street Grids]
Working from a remote and undisclosed location, the now-expatriate Houston engineer known as Keep Houston Houston puts together a rough diagram identifying the city’s “traditional” walkable neighborhoods, and comments:
Houston has no shortage of gridded, walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods. Thing is, they’re all kind of squished together. And with a couple of exceptions, they were all platted out before 1935. What’s there is there. We’re not adding to it.
Developer conservatism plays a role, but is ethereal, subject to evaporate as soon as *someone* steps up and proves that suburban [Traditional Neighborhood Development] is sufficiently profitable. But several city standards and rules are standing in the way.
Are Houston’s development rules really the obstacle?
Keep Houston Houston scans through the city’s development ordinance, then throws together a quick design for a residential neighborhood following the basic requirements. What does that end up looking like?
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