March 04, 2007
A few thoughts about density

There's a lot of good things that go along with the growth and increased densification of Houston's inner core. Without going into a list, the short answer is that without growth, you get stagnation and decay. It's a positive that people want to live in Houston, inside the Loop, instead of in some far-flung new suburban development.

But it's also important to remember that this growth comes with a price, and I don't just mean unwanted property tax increases resulting from a boom in land values. A lot of the areas where this growth is occurring - places like Montrose and the Heights - don't really have the infrastructure to handle a lot of new residents and their cars. Parking, and driving through these often narrow streets with cars parked on both sides, is a huge issue.

I think I've mentioned that I used to live on a little one-block stretch of Van Buren, just east of Montrose and next to West Dallas. When my then-roommate and I moved into the house there in 1993, there were two other houses, both on our side of the street, and a little warehouse that had been converted into lofts. Both eastern corners of Van Buren were empty lots, and the northwest corner was a normally empty parking lot that had been used for overflow from the American General building.

Well, before I moved to the Heights in 1997, the southeastern corner was converted into townhomes. Both remaining corners have since been built up in the same fashion. A couple of years back, I cut through Van Buren and was amazed to see that the east side of the street was now a no-parking zone, presumably to allow for traffic to flow through at all. Were I still living there, I would not be able to park in front of my own house, on this itty bitty, inconsequential but overbuilt side road. That in a nutshell is the downside of density to me.

This, as much as any architectural concerns, is what the save-the-bungalow types are fighting for, or perhaps fighting against. There's neither an incentive nor a requirement for the developers to do anything to mitigate these or other concerns, such as drainage. Nobody is looking at the big picture.

It's almost laughable sometimes. Look at this story about the recent boom in mixed-use development, something which is also generally a good thing but which also has its downside, and see the absurdity of it all:

It is possible that the other proposed projects will be built, and that it's purely a local supply-and-demand function, according to Michael Beyard, senior retail fellow at the Urban Land Institute.

However, there is a danger of overbuilding in Houston, because it's so easy to enter the market, he said: "You don't know who your competition is going to be, whereas in older cities, it's a long, drawn-out process to get a building permit."

But it's okay, because the good times in Houston's real estate market will go on forever, just like they've always done. Right?

All I've got here is a little free-floating worry. Like a team with too much talent at one position, I'd rather have this problem than the opposite one. At least we're talking about the issues, and bringing some attention to the problems. I suppose it's the best we can do.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 04, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack