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Downtown living

There are two things about this Chron story about the residential population of downtown that I find curious.

Twenty-five years after the residential development of downtown Houston began in earnest, fewer than 4,500 people reside in the city’s central core, an area bounded by Interstates 45 and 10, and U.S. 59.

The exact number isn’t clear – the 2010 Census found fewer than 3,500 people, once those in the county jail and a federal detention center are discounted.

That would be fewer than 1,300 new residents over the past decade, or an average of just 130 people a year.

Advocates for downtown suggest the true number is closer to 4,300, when people who live downtown while working a temporary job are included.

But even that falls far short of the once-heady dreams for downtown, with predictions that the population would approach 20,000 by 2025.

Blame the recession, as financing stalled for projects to convert existing buildings to apartments or to build new high-rises.

And blame the growth of neighborhoods surrounding downtown. Midtown and EaDo, just east of downtown, have added several thousand residents in the past decade.

They are close to downtown, but land costs – and apartment rents – are lower.

For one thing, I’m curious about the calculations made in this article. It was just two months ago, in the sidebar to a story about infill growth, that the Chron told us that ZIP code 77002, which mostly covers that I-10/I-45/US59 area, grew by 28% to nearly 17,000 residents. This isn’t an exact comparison – 77002 includes turf a bit north of I-10, a little patch east of 59, and bits south and west of 45. It doesn’t include the far northeastern corner of “downtown” as defined here, near where 59 and 10 cross. The tiny 77010 ZIP code, which is more or less where Discovery Green is, is also downtown. Still, that’s a big discrepancy. If the figure cited in the earlier Chron story is accurate, then surely it’s not the case that 75% of 77002 lives in those small areas outside the three freeways. But then if that’s the case, how are they counting the population in this story? Something’s not right here.

The other thing about this that I found curious was the glass-half-empty tone. So what if “downtown” has seen slow population growth? There’s plenty of growth all around downtown, in Midtown and the Fourth Ward and EaDo. Maybe all of those folks can’t easily walk to work like the true downtowners can. But some of them are able to, and most of the rest can easily bike or take a short bus ride. Some can take the light rail, and others will be able to soon. And as the story notes, there’s a lot more to do downtown than there used to be, even if it’s declined a bit from its peak due to the recession. If you’ve lived here long enough, think back to what downtown was like 20 years ago. Not even close, right? The measure of the area is a lot bigger than one number. I don’t see what the problem is.

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  1. Barry says:

    I can’t explain the statistical discrepancies, other than to rely on the recent Fareed Zakaria quote “The simplest alternate explanation to a conspiracy theory is usually incompetence.”

    However, the problem you claim to not see is that in other major cities, especially those that are tourist destinations, the areas comparable to 77002 are busy areas (even after 6 pm), where people choose to live, seek food and entertainment, and not only during special events.

    Compared to other city centers, downtown Houston is dead, and the lack of affordable residential development is doing nothing to resuscitate it.

  2. Temple Houston says:

    I moved from Montrose (near the HSPVA) to a Downtown loft in December 2008. From my loft on the weekends, I see more walkers, dog walkers, runners and bicyclists than I saw in my Montrose neighborhood. I also see more derelicts, but not that many more. In both neighborhoods, the amount of affordable housing for single, middle-income people is limited (in fact, it is decreasing in Montrose), while the amount of upper-income housing is increasing. Downtown has a number of updated low income housing (e.g., the DeGeorge Hotel, etc.), while Montrose has almost none (Covenant House). Living downtown requires driving to Montrose or Midtown for a grocery store, but for large parts of Montrose, you have to drive to a park. Both neighborhoods have lots of bars and restaurants, but only Montrose has a movie theater (yes, I can hardly wait for the Sundance to open). Montrose has been a desirable residential area since the late 1960s, but I don’t believe the population has increased greatly since that time. Downtown has lost most of its existing housing stock in the same time period, so new construction is expensive and renovation is for the truly dedicated developer. What was the population of Downtown in 1970? It was considerably less than the current population, for sure. Until the developers follow-through on promised residential construction and don’t wimp out (Houston Pavilion), you won’t have sufficient housing for even 6,000 people.

  3. Barry says:

    Thanks for the reply, I think it helped clarify my thoughts.

    The contrast between Montrose and Downtown makes what I was trying to say clearer: the difference between an area like Montrose and Downtown is that there is very little empty or unused space in Montrose, while Downtown is filled with parking lots, empty buildings, and unused space. the potential for growth downtown is much higher than that of Montrose. I think you have to look at it as a ratio of population to acres of unused space.

    That being said, I don’t think it’s another project like One Park Plaza that’s going to fill downtown with people. You start with brownstones and smaller mid rise developments and move on from there.