Comment of the Day: The Drive Toward a Denser Houston

COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE DRIVE TOWARD A DENSER HOUSTON “Density is fine as long as it’s Not In My Back Yard. Hey, that’s catchy, someone should come up with an acronym for that. in all seriousness, though, there is a transit issue with density that’s related to the character of Houston’s approach to the car. Density in other cities works well because transit in other city cores works well. Houston is . . . working on it. The fear a lot of people have with large vertical density is that assumption that transit follows the plow, so to speak. In Houston, that can be a riskier gamble than elsewhere.” [J, commenting on Regent Square-ish Apartment Tower Possibly Breaking Ground in 2 Weeks]

13 Comment

  • But it’s never really been about density. Houston’s densest neighborhood (in terms of persons per square mile) is actually Gulfton. Nobody would argue that we want to model new development in Houston on Gulfton.
    It’s actually about the -appearance- of density: high and mid rises with retail on the first floor and offices or apartments above; shared party walls; wide sidewalks; transit; urban plazas and parks; accommodations for pedestrians…. You might still only have 5,000 people per square mile, but it looks and feels like you’re in a dense urban environment.

  • In 1976, half a million Flint, MI residents moved to Houston, almost doubling the population. In 1978, almost a million people moved to Houston, this time from Ohio, when the Goodyear plant closed. These were good people, seeking jobs, homes, happiness, accepting Houston as it is, not trying to remake it into their previous homes. In 1980, a national radio program announced that Houston was booming. Between 1980 and 1982, two and a half million New Yorkers moved to Houston. In 1983, half a million Texans moved OUT of Houston. People have said to me, “I’ve lived here for 7 (or 9 or 18) years and you are the first Texan I’ve met.” (Austin was NOT thrilled.)
    Twenty years ago, NYC was known for its crabby attitude. That has changed. I contend that the exodus left more breathing room. Humans are not happy when crowded into too small an area. When was the last time a stranger nodded Hello or smiled or waved, just because you were passing on the street in Houston? I’ll bet it’s been 20 years.

  • To echo ZAW’s comments, one of the most active neighborhoods in Houston in a traditional sense is the Montrose district along Westheimer. On an average night, there are many pedestrians, constant traffic, interaction, etc. But it’s not a particularly dense neighborhood.

    Houston cannot (and never will) replicate cities like New York, London, or Paris. Nor would we want to. But Houston needs to theorize its own model for a working urbanism. Our city does many things right and many things wrong, but I wonder if we continually misinterpret or undervalue what really works about the city. To my mind, these qualities are not found in Bellaire or West U or Katy. Nor can we simply copy other cities’ models for urbanism and expect them to work here. That’s why the vision for transit sometimes seems misplaced: “hey, if it’s good for San Francisco, it’s good for Houston,” despite distinct cultures, landscapes, modes of transit. And the prescriptives for New Urbanism–so ubiquitous in other places–may actually be a poor fit here, because Houston has a compelling grittiness that New Urbanism paints over or attempts to fix. Some of this uniqueness is found in the slightly less manicured zones of the city, such as East Downtown, parts of the Heights, Montrose, etc.

  • @Matt, most all of those pedestrians who are walking along Westheimer in Montrose probably drove a car to that part of town, and either parked that car in the neighborhood or at an establishment. Car culture. Sorry.

  • City Center is one example bringing the aforementioned ‘risky gamble’ successfully to Houston. Primetime free parking in the three garages is a problem. Other than that, I feel this property to be a very nice place to frequent.

  • @markd, if you read my comment, I don’t say anything against the car culture. In fact, I think it’s one of the more interesting aspects of Houston’s urbanism. But because there’s an assumption that walkability = better, we don’t spend much time discussing how to improve Houston’s car culture, only how to make ourselves more walkable.

  • There is definitely something to walking or taking a train: you don’t drive drunk going the wrong direction on the highway.

  • @Sondra. I’m not a Texan, but I’ve met more than a few while living in Montrose. I always nod and usually say hello to whoever I pass while walking around my neighborhood. That would include you too, if I saw you out and about.
    The rest of concerned, or wondering how our unique city will change its unbarness… Get a freaking clue. Until cars were inveted every city (save Venice or others on water) was built for walking. Cars are the problem. I’ve been told more than once Houston used to have street cars and that one line went down the middle of Montrose.

  • This is where you and I differ, Matt. To me, the goal is not to make Houston’s car culture better. I want to provide people with altenatives to driving.
    But we have fallen into a trap, where we concentrate our efforts on a few prewar neighborhoods near downtown – because they look the part – and assume that postwar neighborhoods are beyond hope. This happens all over the country, but in Houston it’s really tragic because most of our City was developed after World War II.
    I brought up Gulfton because not only is it Houston’s densest neighborhood, it is also one of the most neglected. But Sharpstown is in the same predicament. And Oak Forest. And most of Memorial at the other end of the economic spectrum. Most of Houston, really. These areas are too spread out for walkability and rail. But with a few small improvements (a new bus route here; a bicycle path there, a foot bridge), they could be made far less dependent on the automobile. If only we could get out of the trap we’re in.

  • If you’re not too young or too old, you aren’t going with more than about one other person, you don’t have to be dressed up, you don’t care particularly when you get there, you have reasonably decent weather, you have good health and are relatively free from injury, you aren’t going to a dangerous area, and you don’t have to move or carry anything very big, then walking, biking, or maybe mass transit are plausible choices for your everyday transportation needs. I’ll keep my car, thank you.

  • I’m not against people cramming themselves into too small an area. Why not go outside the city limits, build a big wad of practical buildings, with retail on the first floor, etc. and a single train into downtown? Walk all over the place. Enjoy!
    Just don’t tear down beautiful antique architecture and 150 year old trees to do it.

  • @zaw, I understand the environmental argument against cars. But if we assume that cars are becoming more efficient and non-polluting, why is a pedestrian culture inherently better than a car culture? In other cities with a different underlying structure, less sprawl, different weather, I can see your point. But in Houston, it seems like a force-fit, and one that wouldn’t necessarily be used effectively. It seems like walkability is always a default good, and the car always a default bad. Here, though, isn’t it necessary to nuance and calibrate those categories?

    (I agree with your points about the postwar housing and building stock. It should be preserved–though not in amber and for all time. Ideally, we’d preserve it by updating and modifying it, rather than always tearing down.)

  • What compelling grittiness does New Urbanism paint over in Houston?

    How does Houston have a unique car culture or one that is different from any other sprawling town?

    I think people focus on the midtown Montrose areas more because they are easier to repair than the burbs. The infrastructure is somewhat there and you’re also going up against a different mindset. The people in those areas are less likely to get defensive when they hear the term “urban” or “walkable”. The question should be where is urbanism most wanted and where could it be easily implemented? For a walkable bikeable style of living to ever become acceptable in the greater Houston area you need a physical example that’s not a “tower of terror” to show people.

    The demand is there in certain areas , we just need decent street and form based code standards to allow for it to happen.