Comment of the Day: On Having Your Art Deco Strip Center and Eating It, Too

COMMENT OF THE DAY: ON HAVING YOUR ART DECO STRIP CENTER AND EATING IT, TOO River Oaks Shopping Center highrise plan, Houston, 77019“’Everybody wants walkability, but nobody wants density’ is the urban-planning equivalent of ‘everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.’” [Angostura, commenting on Where Weingarten Plans To Stab That 30-Story Residential Highrise into the River Oaks Shopping Center] Site plan of future highrise development: Weingarten Realty

14 Comment

  • I live about 600′ from where this tower will be and I’m all for it. Bring on the density. We’ve lived with years of construction on Shepherd that went WAY beyond the schedule, years of construction on Buffalo Bayou Park that is thankfully over and then 2 years of the retirement center on Shepherd. It wouldn’t seem right for this area to not have some kind of construction going on.

    More residents in this area will bring more amenities. Vehicular traffic around this area is not really an issue for me. If I didn’t like density I wouldn’t have moved to this area. I just wish Regent Square would get off the ground. I do see that surveyors have been on that site recently.

  • I’m in favor of greater density, but in this case would like more of the original building preserved, or represented in the new design.
    Kills me when I see complaints about increasing traffic in Montrose and bemoaning more town homes being built inside the loop. We live in the city, I expect lots of traffic and people.

  • The issue is not whether people want density or walkablity or both. The issue is that people want PLANNING and PREDICTABILITY. Density is not randomly dropping a 30 story tower every 2-3 miles. If you took all the 20-30 story residential towers that have randomly been dropped inside the loop and put them all in midtown instead of the 3-5 story apartment complexes, you would have real density and walkability. Instead, the random tower hear and there does little for either goal. Also, predictability is also nice when prices inside the loop have gone through the roof.

  • The traffic issue the surrounding neighborhoods keep raising just baffles me. Every time I drive outside of peak traffic hours the roads are empty. I can tell no discernable difference in traffic since the senior center on Shepherd was completed. Traffic flow for just the immediate surrounding populations is a breeze.
    I don’t get the preservation concerns either. It looks nice now and will still look nice with a tower on the property, just more urban. Preservation should never take priority over wealth generation, at least as long as we have things like poverty which dominates throughout Houston.
    I can see how a 30-story tower may sound excessive, but looking at the surrounding wealth, geography and traffic patterns it makes perfect sense. The entire Shepherd/Gray/Dallas area is a perfectly central location for dense high rise living and the city should encourage it.

  • @Old School, I think that’s actually an interesting point you raised about all this. Exactly how much do Houstonians really want to see planned vs. organic growth. My problem is Houston is such a large, spread out and diverse city we would be doing the populace a big disservice by assuming all the varying neighborhoods should be planned in unison or centralized. The true beauty of Houston is we’re not relegated to a simple homogenous commute where everyone goes the same direction to get to work. As such, I don’t think it’s wise to engage in urban planning that fails to accommodate, much less fully embrace, this most central aspect of Houston living.
    I truly believe every single part of Houston should have a high rise if the demand is there; montrose, energy corridor, memorial, westchase, spring branch, heights, west university, bellaire and etc. Why should we NOT want to increase housing options for all the various communities and commuter patterns reflected throughout Houston?
    I’d also really question whether people want high rise living relegated to just one neighborhood. By relying on a planned network of towers you reduce the demand and slow development of alternate housing options . Why would you want to live in a high rise if you’re just looking at other ones? However, if you have an expansive view of the westside / Southampton treescapes or the varying business centers around town then it makes perfect sense. It’s important to note that the transformation Houston is able to undergo in boom times is still rather unique among large international cities and relies on the ability to grow organically and sporadically in pockets as demand sees fit.
    Also, looking at where all the high rises have been built and developed, I don’t think any of them are surprising to planners or the involved neighborhoods. They’re all located along major thoroughfares (if not also on route to major business districts) with easy access to dense commercial activity and transportation. Would it really be surprising for folks to want to live in a high rise by Rice U? by 19th street shopping district? by Bush/Addicks Reservoires?
    I guess this is where my liberal bent take shapes. Rather than neighborhoods dictating what housing options future residents should and shouldn’t have access to, the future development should be provided fair and equal rights in a “development court” where it must be objectively proven by the neighborhood why the development should not be afforded equal rights.

  • @TheNiche Watchout, Joel is coming for your swamplot soapbox.

  • Current urban planning theory says what Angostura did. But in practice it doesn’t work that way. I can point to plenty of places that are dense, but not walkable. I can point to places that are not as dense, but walkable. My current home, First Colony in Sugar Land – is MORE WALKABLE than my old home, Brays Oaks in Southwest Houston, despite being less dense on a people-per-square mile basis. There are a lot more places to walk to and better sidewalk connectivity. Not to mention better landscaping which makes walking more pleasant (though Brays Oaks is getting a lot better on that).
    Once again I surmise that urban planning theory needs some shaking up on this issue. Density doesn’t, by itself, make for walkability. To get walkability you really need planning, good design, and wealth to support the things you want to walk to. And, as I’ve seen, good planning and design, and wealth can actually make up for density to give you walkability.

  • @ Angostura: Beautifully articulated! Great COTD.

    @ HeyHeyHouston: Although Joel and I are often in agreement, we often get there by slightly different means. This is one of those cases. As such:

    @ Old School: The idea of forcing a highrise district into existence poses a chicken-and-the-egg problem. Highrises are expensive to build. Rents have to be astronomically high to justify them, so they tend to get placed in neighborhoods that are already established and popular with many amenities. If, let’s say by ordinance, Midtown had been designated in 2000 as a highrise-only district and highrises elsewhere had been banned outright…well then, Houston just would’ve had a lot fewer highrises, midrises would’ve crowded out areas other than Midtown, and meanwhile all but the western fringes of Midtown would’ve remained a slum. (It’s either that, or in order to achieve its aims, local government would’ve ended up subsidizing housing for very wealthy people — just as it has done Downtown in recent years — and as bizarre as I consider that to be, I’d prefer it be done in Downtown rather than in Midtown because Downtown has legacy advantages that are more easily leveraged.)
    All of this is “PREDICTABLE”, although…so is the weather, but only within a margin of error that increases over time. As for “PLANNING”, Houston does have planning — and quite a lot of it — but it doesn’t have ordinance-based zoning; that has been decided that with referendums time and time again; so we do have a plan. Our plan is to allow landowners to make most land use decisions in a decentralized fashion. Landowners are inconsistent, sometimes irrational, most often greedy, and perfectly human; and the vast majority of politicians and their appointees are drawn from that same pool.
    @ ZAW: You know, that’s true… Aside from big organized events, the place where I consistently see the greatest number of people walking the greatest distances in a public venue is probably at any random Walmart store in the suburbs. Nobody lives there, and yet it is a highly walkable place from sunup to sundown — and then to sunup again! They’re usually very secure, geographically ubiquitous, and pay a big tax bill. Clearly these Walmart stores are paragons of “good planning and design, and wealth”, just as you’ve said, and their status as such ought to be protected and enshrined by local ordinance.

  • Agreed, walkability is probably more correlated with wealth than density.
    Same for historical preservation, seems to have a high correlation with poverty.

  • If it wasn’t clear from my tongue-in-cheek response to ZAW, I would posit that if a walkable place is ordinarily driven-to then there is something wrong with your construct of walkability. As it pertains to urban policy, I would argue that “walkability” has to be considered as a component of a city’s transportation network. (i.e. Is an ordinary and reasonable person willing and able to walk to get from home to work, to go shopping, to go to parks or other activity centers, or to and from bus stops and light rail stations?)
    It happens the be the case that a lot of older buildings were designed with this in mind, in an era when walking was an ordinary and unavoidable part of urban life, but just because many older buildings work within my construct of walkability as policy doesn’t mean that they all do or that newer buildings can’t. In fact…let’s be reasonable about this: what makes the River Oaks Shopping Center historically significant is that it was one of the first big un-walkable strip centers.
    If the issue is historic preservation, let’s just call it what it is. And if the issue then gets framed as an elitist distraction from more pragmatic issues, well…that’s the nail on the head, then, isn’t it?

  • @Joel: Exactly. Wealth drives walkability as much, if not more than, density. Really, wealth has historically driven livability as a whole. Houston’s densest Neighborhood is Gulfton, and that’s certainly not Houston’s most walkable or its most livable neighborhood. And Gulfton is a relatively tame example on the global scale. Favelas in Brazil. Slums in India: these are dense places, but nobody would argue that they are paragons of walkability or livability.
    @Niche: Reducto ad absurdism much? In places with no malls the blue hairs have been known to walk the Walmart, so there’s that. I brought up malls for a reason: as hated as they are by modern urban planners, malls are actually highly walkable environments. And in fact the scale and dimensions of a shopping mall are more or less equal to the dimensions and scale of medieval towns. Add a grocery store, housing, and some outdoor greenspace, and you’d have a neighborhood. I wish more people would do this as a solution in Houston but they’re too deep in their silos and it’s not proven enough economically.

  • @joel, Did you mean to say that walkability has a negative correlation with wealth? I see far more people walking for transportation east of 288 than west.

  • @Googlemaster, I think others have expanded on this for clarity in that we’re referring to walkability as having direct access to and from shops, eateries and grocery stores without the need for transit. A large number of the folks in your example walk to and from transportation hubs in order to access these type of amenities or otherwise generally have far fewer options available to them.

  • @ ZAW: What you call reductio ad absurdum, I call deconstruction. There’s this lingo being presented here (e.g. “walkable”, “historic”, etc.) which, rather than signifying a literal meaning, infers a complex and broad set of concepts, some of which only have meaning and value if considered through the lens of political identity or of shared cultural norms about what qualifies as nostalgic and/or signifying social status. I can’t help but examine this stuff critically. It’s good mental exercise, and IMO it’s a public service.