On getting to walkable urbanism

This story about neighborhood opposition to the Kroger 380 agreement doesn’t quite get at what I think are the key issues that need to be discussed.

[O]pponents of both the Wal-Mart and Kroger deals say suburban-style big-box stores don’t fit a widely-held urban vision for Washington Avenue Corridor. They’d like to see more incentives offered for development by small businesses or in more needy neighborhoods.

“It’s a lost opportunity for how we should be developing our urban space,” said Tom Dornbusch, who lives in Woodcrest. “Why don’t we incentivize something appropriate for these sites rather than just servicing the frontage roads on I-10?”

That five members of Houston City Council opposed the Kroger deal at least shows that neighborhood activists have “raised the consciousness” of some council members since the Ainbinder agreement was approved, Dornbusch said.

Dornbusch is an officer in the Washington Avenue Coalition/Memorial Park Super Neighborhood Council, a coalition of homeowner groups well-versed on planning and quality of life issues in this redeveloping area west of downtown. These groups helped raise matching funds for a Liveable Centers Study of the Washington Avenue Corridor.

Former City Councilman Peter Brown, an architect and urban planner with nonprofit Better Houston, has aided their planning efforts.

Like Dornbusch, he thinks the area is well-suited to become a teeming urban landscape that accommodates both pedestrians and transit, either rail or streetcar, which the neighborhoods have embraced.

But right now, economic development favors “the lands, Pearland, Sugar Land and the Woodlands,” Brown said, and that brings big-box stores to the fore.

“These are the kinds of things that city policy needs to consider, and it is evolving. It is evolving toward smaller urban growth. We’re just not there yet,” Brown said.

The issues here, at least as I see them, are whether it’s a good idea for the city to pursue 380 agreements of any kind in areas where development is likely to occur naturally, and whether the developments that are being pursued in these two 380 locations are suitable and desirable from an urbanist perspective. I can’t quite tell from the story whether Dornbusch and Brown are evaluating these deals separately or lumping them together. As I see it, the two sites are fundamentally different. There’s no reason why the Ainbinder/Washington Heights property couldn’t or shouldn’t be connected to and a key part of the walkable urban vision for the Washington corridor. It abuts a neighborhood to the west and apartments to the south – there used to be apartments to the east as well, but they were torn down to make room for more suburban-style development – and is certainly close enough to be reachable from a future Inner Katy rail line stop or streetcar stop at Heights Boulevard. With the West End Multipurpose Center and some townhome development already there, and who knows what to come in where the Center Street recycling center currently is, the Ainbinder location could be an epicenter of a real urban neighborhood. Instead, it’s going to be more like a sinkhole, separating places that should be connected, and that’s just a shame and a wasted opportunity.

The Kroger location, on the other hand, seems to me to be a much better fit for a supermarket or other car-oriented shopping center. Its neighbors are things like Arne’s, the Sawyer Heights Target center, Party Boy, and a truck depot. Where Yale and Heights have sidewalks that can connect the Washington Heights site to either side of I-10 if you ensure there’s a safe pedestrian crossing there, Studemont has no sidewalk from I-10 north to Stude Street, and from Hicks south to Center there’s only a very narrow sidewalk on the east side of the street. The eventual connection of Summer Street ought to be walkable, but Studemont will still serve as a dead end for anyone on foot. Otherwise, it’s basically cut off from Washington to the south and the Heights to the north. Who would ever walk there? With a long-term plan and control of most of the property between I-10 and Center, and Studemont and Sawyer, you could build something urban, but how likely is that to happen on its own? Washington Heights is close to that, or at least it was before Ainbinder screwed it up. Sawyer Heights isn’t.

Because of that, I don’t have any philosophical objections to a grocery store going in at that location, even though I know it’s going to mess up traffic. The question about 380 agreements is going to be more in the forefront – litigation will do that – but I don’t want to lose sight of the suitability question. I think it’s the more important discussion to have.

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3 Responses to On getting to walkable urbanism

  1. Yale St. says:

    The suitability question is rendered moot when the City is providing 380 incentives to build supercenters and strip malls instead of walkable mixed use developments. Step one is to stop the incentive. Step two is to talk about real planning, zoning and incentives to stop the wrong development and make it easier to do the right kind of development. For a city of 6 million, Houston has a ton of land in its urban core that is ripe for significant development. It is a huge opportunity that is currently being wasted by shortsighted development that can quickly fill the pockets of the developers.

  2. MB says:

    The new Kroger store is oriented to the freeway with it’s back-end facing what should be infill mixed-use or high-density residential development.

    Now, check the back-end of the Kroger on Durham out. Not neighborhood friendly. Who’d want to live in front of that or walk by it? The concrete tilt-up construction alone provides no viewpoints out or into the store, so it discourages pedestrian foot traffic and, therefore, reduces security.

    Connecting streets to create smaller, more pedestrian friendly mobility is appropriate and more in line with the historic streetscapes of the Heights. An inappropriately sited enormous grocery store with a gas station serves commuters, not the neighborhood and actually does substantial harm to future development possibilities. This area, so centrally located, should be dense with housing, smaller scale retail, businesses, pocket parks and public amenities. That would reduce the need for endless freeway construction and would create robust communities and generate healthy taxes for the City.

    Respectfully, I submit that the main difference you are noting is that one neighborhood already exists and one does not (but should). The one that does not, may very likely never happen because of current bad development decisions funded by the City that allow Kroger to build without any caveats addressing sustainable building practices, neighborhood friendly orientation, scale, etc. If they want public tax dollars, they should resolve public concerns.

    Ultimately, the same drainage, out-of-scale and suburban style, car-centric development issues will negatively impact both areas. They’re more alike than they are different.

  3. VST says:

    I completely agree with MB’s post above. The new Kroger store meant for commuters and highway drivers, not for locals. If it wanted to grab people headed home to the Heights, it would face Studewood.

    Like the new strip of nonsense on Yale, it does discourages pedestrian foot traffic with it’s massive parking lot and gas station.

    When streets are connected to make a grid and create more pedestrian friendly neighborhoods, whole blocks should not be given up to one store and it’s parking lot. This area has so much potential to have the kind of density that Houston wants and needs. When we finally start to run out of inner loop real estate, this lot will be stuck in it’s midcentury, suburban mentality, difficult to use for anything else because of the environmental impact of a gas station. Never mind the environmental impact on Olivewood Cemetery.

    Have to fully agree here as well “Respectfully, I submit that the main difference you are noting is that one neighborhood already exists and one does not (but should). The one that does not, may very likely never happen because of current bad development decisions funded by the City that allow Kroger to build without any caveats addressing sustainable building practices, neighborhood friendly orientation, scale, etc. If they want public tax dollars, they should resolve public concerns.” Could not have said it any better.

    Houston, more than any other major metro area in the country, is becoming it’s future now. We are a city that is growing in a way no other large city has for decades. We are also missing opportunity after opportunity to make it great. Instead, we settle for the ease of mediocrity. Sad days, indeed.

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