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urbanism

From industrial to residential

More changes coming to my neck of the woods.

Some of the old warehouses lining a stretch of Sawyer Street across Interstate 10 from the Heights are being primed for new development, as this First Ward area continues to morph from industrial hub to an upscale artsy neighborhood.

Houston-based Lovett Commercial is transforming a 1950s warehouse at Sawyer and Edwards into Sawyer Yards, which will have about 40,000 square feet of space for restaurants, retail or offices.

The company is looking to fill another 5-acre parcel at 2000 Taylor just south of I-10 at Spring Street. The property is across from the Sawyer Heights Target.

H-E-B quashed rumors that it was considering opening a store there, though the grocery chain has been looking around.

“That’s not a piece of land we’re looking at,” said spokeswoman Cyndy Garza-Roberts. “We’ve had an interest of moving into the Heights area for several years now. We just have not been able to identify a location.”

Jon Deal, who has developed artist studios in the area, is planning another project at the old Riviana rice facility at Sawyer and Summer.

The project is called the Silos on Sawyer, and it will include artist studios, creative workspaces and some retail.

The main building contains more than 50,000 square feet.

Deal said he, Steve Gibson and Frank Liu of Lovett Commercial own – separately or in partnerships – at least 35 contiguous acres in the area.

They hope to master-plan the acreage.

“Ideally we’re going to be a campus-type creative community,” Deal said. “It’ll look and feel like a master-planned development in the end, although it’ll keep its raw edge.”

The area is part of a cultural district recognized by the state, Deal said. The program is not currently being funded, he said, but when it is, it will allow artists to seek grant money.

There’s an awful lot of activity going on in this general area, which stretches from Studemont to Houston Avenue between I-10 and Washington Avenue. I consider it a positive for the most part – the existing industrial area didn’t exactly add much to the quality of life in the larger area, and a lot of it is not actively used now anyway – but there are concerns. Mostly, traffic on the north-south streets – Studemont, Sawyer, and Houston – is already a problem, and there are limited options to ameliorate it. Sawyer, for example, is a narrow one-lane-each-way street south of the Target retail center, and as you can see from the embedded image or this Google Map link, there aren’t any other options thanks to the active freight train tracks, which by the way regularly block traffic on Sawyer and Heights. (This is part of the corridor that would be used for some variation of commuter/high speed/light rail, if and when it ever happens.) There is at least the off-road Heights bike trail along Spring Street that connects the area to the Heights (passing under I-10) and downtown (passing under I-45), and there is a sidewalk along Sawyer; it definitely needs an upgrade, and there’s a lot of potential to make it much nicer when the properties west of Sawyer get sold for development, but at least it’s there. The potential exists to turn this part of town into a compelling modern urban residential/mixed-use area. In the absence of any unified vision for the myriad developers to draw inspiration, I hope at least no one does anything to permanently derail such a thing.

Robinson Warehouse, eight years after

From the Free Press Houston Worst of 2014:

What once was there

WORST WASTE OF SPACE: CORNER OF ALLEN PARKWAY AND MONTROSE

In 2006, The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the massive swath of land at the Southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose. This sprawling piece of property is centrally located, is adjacent to some of Houston’s most beautiful natural landscapes, and could serve so many important purposes.

For nearly 10 years, there have been rumors that this property would be developed into one of the largest mosques in Texas, and I am excited for the controversy that will most definitely ensue once that begins to happen. But that said, having such a huge property with huge potential stay dormant and fenced off in the interim is a missed opportunity.

If I had my way, folks would be allowed to play soccer there, a massive urban garden could be temporarily installed, and the space could serve as a rad destination along the Art Car parade route.

It was just before Thanksgiving in 2006 when I first noticed the demolition equipment out in front of this old, abandoned warehouse at the aforementioned corner. It had been a sad bit of urban decay for as long as I’d been aware of it, and as I obsessively documented over the ensuing two months, it vanished, leaving behind a large green field and the promise of something that would eventually be built. For awhile, the space – which goes all the way from Allen Parkway to West Dallas – was open, and was used a few times as parking for the Art Car Parade. Now it has that ugly hurricane fence around it – presumably, for liability insurance purposes – and Lord only knows what its future might hold. I’ve never heard a peep about its status in all this time.

Personally, I like author Omar Afra’s vision for the space, but there are plenty of other possibilities as well. Just about anything would be better than the unusable nothing that is there now. I wish there were something the city could do to entice the current owners to either do something with it or sell it to someone else that will.

Heights-Northside mobility study

Mostly of interest for folks in my area, here’s the city’s report on mobility for neighborhoods in the upper left quadrant of the Inner Loop.

HeightsNorthside

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study

The Planning and Development Department, in partnership with the Department of Public Works and Engineering and Houston-Galveston Area Council, is pleased to announce that the Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility study has been finalized and can be downloaded (see links below).

After an extensive public comment period, the City received 125 comments regarding study recommendations, and letters from area organizations. Over the last several months, the project team has worked with City staff to evaluate all comments and provide responses to questions that were raised. Where appropriate, recommendations were modified to ensure that all final recommendations resulting from this study best serve the needs of the City and community, alike.

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study
Download Full Version (31 MB)

Download by Chapter:
I. Introduction
II. Existing Conditions
III. Community Involvement
IV. Defining Future Mobility Conditions
V. Changing Mobility Considerations
VI. A Balanced Approach: Corridor Sheets
VII. Outcomes
VIII. Next Steps

Appendix A: Data Collection
Appendix B: Thoroughfare Types
Appendix C: Transit Analysis
Appendix D: Hardy-Elysian Option Considerations
Appendix E: Travel Demand Results

Here’s the project website, which has archives of past community meetings and won’t be around much longer. I was alerted to this by Bill Shirley, who highlighted the following bit from the Corridor Streets section that was of interest to me.

“Pedestrian facilities along Studewood Street are in great condition north of White Oak Drive, but virtually nonexistent along the 4-lane segment of the roadway south of White Oak Drive which includes a 4-lane bridge. However, the use of this segment by pedestrians is evident by foot paths flanking both sides of the corridor. The contra-flow lane confuses drivers who are not familiar with its function, and additional signage could help mitigate this issue. The contra-flow lane also causes problems at major intersection due to the lack of protected lefts. At its northern boundary, the corridor terminates into a 6-legged intersection with E 20th/N Main Street/W Cavalcade Street. The current intersection configuration creates confusion, particularly for the pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate.”

I wrote about this awhile back, in the context of the new housing development that will be coming in across the street from the Kroger at Studemont and I-10, and how that area could be a lot more desirable, and a lot less of a burden to vehicular traffic, if that sidewalk were finished and bike options were added. The latter is known to be coming as part of the Bayou Greenways initiative, and it’s exciting to see that the sidewalk is at least on the drawing board as well. I don’t know how long term some of these projects are, but I’m looking forward to them.

Is this the end of the two-car household?

From Streetsblog:

While predicting continued global growth in car sales as countries like India and China become more affluent, KPMG’s recent white paper about trends affecting the car industry [PDF] sees different forces at work in the United States.

In the U.S., says KPMG, car sharing companies like Zipcar, on-demand car services like Uber, and even bike-share will eat away at the percentage of households owning multiple vehicles, especially in major cities. Today, 57 percent of American households have two or more vehicles. KPMG’s Gary Silberg told CNBC that the share of two-car households could decrease to 43 percent by 2040.

In this scenario, KPMG predicts that the rise of “mobility services” will displace car ownership by providing similar mobility but without the fixed costs. The typical new car now costs $31,000 but sits idle 95 percent of the time. Given other options, Silberg told CNBC, many Americans will be happy to avoid that burden.

Other contributing factors flagged by KPMG include increasing urbanization, telecommuting, changing travel preferences among younger generations, and growing traffic congestion in big metro areas.

I’m a little surprised that driverless cars aren’t mentioned here, since that observation about vehicle idle time and its implications for vehicle and ride sharing is a common feature of stories about driverless cars. Make of that what you will.

The Highwayman, who shared that Streetsblog link, looks at this from the local angle.

Some of the services mentioned are already up and running in Houston, and expanding their footprint rapidly. ZipCar is downtown and spreading to other areas, and Uber has stuck around as Houston enacted new laws governing paid rides. In fact, after sort of anchoring its operations within Loop 610, Uber has expanded its footprint (the Uberprint? Ubersphere?) to suburban communities. Wednesday morning, Uber vehicles were available in Katy, Cypress and Tomball (I would have looked at more suburbs, but I got scared they were tracking me and closed the app and considered burning my smartphone).

Still, a lot of Houston isn’t exactly built for just walking down the block and grabbing a ZipCar or hoping an Uber is nearby. Huge swaths of the region are residential, and workers can commute for miles. Many two-income families might hang onto cars. It’s more likely that those living closer in will be less inclined to maintain a two-car household. In the suburbs, not exactly ripe for ridesharing, the change might be in households going from four vehicles to two rather than from two to one.

One possible implication of this KPMG report is that it may lead to greater demand for housing that is closer to employment, retail, and entertainment centers, which today would mean more urban-centric housing, though going forward this may include a good chunk of the more mature suburban areas, as many of them are trying to create urban-like centers within them. I’ve made this point myself in talking about the possible benefits of services like Uber. One reason why far-flung suburban development has been popular is because the cheaper housing more than offsets the larger expenditures needed on transportation. The greater the potential savings on transportation costs, the more attractive closer-in living will be. There are a ton of variables here, so making anything but the vaguest of predictions is dicey business, but this is something to keep in mind. Cities like Houston that are concerned about losing population (and with it political power) to their surrounding suburbs ought to see about doing what they can to facilitate transportation alternatives that allow people to get away from the one-car-per-adult model for living.

Houston needs a swimming hole

A fascinating proposal from Gray Matters.

The good idea: Houston needs a great big swimming hole.

Idea guys: Monte Large and Evan O’Neil, of Houston Needs a Swimming Hole.

Where the idea came from: Enduring the Houston heat. Large, an urban real-estate developer, doesn’t have a car and bikes everywhere. One summer day, the friends asked each other a series of questions while sweating in a coffee shop:

“What if Houston still had the Shamrock Hotel pool?

“What if Houston had a Barton Springs?

“Or our own beautiful big swimming hole in the middle of the city?”

Neither Large nor O’Neil is into the sport of swimming. Their hobby, they say, is helping Houston be cool.

Large and O’Neil recognize several realities about their hometown. Houston is a subtropical environment; it is very close to, yet painfully far from the ocean; and improbably, the city has become a leader in the use of green technology.

They researched available technology and decided that an enormous natural pool that filters the water with plant material would be a symbol of “the marvel Houston is becoming.” According to their research, there are more than 20,000 natural pools across Europe. Managed properly, natural swimming pools have clear water and require no chemicals to maintain. Instead, they are self-cleaning: cattails, water lilies and other water plants serve as natural filters.

Their website has more information. I drafted this awhile ago and hadn’t gotten around to scheduling it for publication, and in the meantime the guys behind this idea have created a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to do a feasibility study. They hope to collect $30K by January 9, and as of this publication were more than 10% of the way there. I’ll probably toss in a few bucks myself.

Anyway, these things are apparently more common than you might think. I’m sure the idea guys will encounter plenty of skepticism as they present this idea, though they say on that Kickstarter page that they have received a lot of positive feedback, which is encouraging. Hey, if such a thing can be built elsewhere – in Austin, in Minneapolis, in Brisbane – then why not here? What do you think about this? Give their Facebook page a like if you approve. Swamplot and Gray Matters have more.

An outsider’s view of the Ashby Highrise

From Governing.com. It contains the Z word, so you might want to shield the eyes of innocent children and Joel Kotkin.

Sue me!

Whatever views one may hold about a city without zoning, it’s hard to deny that Houston has done pretty well for itself over the past generation or so. Its population has grown faster than that of almost any other American city. Its unemployment rate is among the lowest. It continues to attract new businesses no matter what slogan it chooses to adopt for itself. And a growing number of scholars, notably the urbanologist Edward Glaeser, have argued that Houston has done well precisely because it imposes so few restrictions on development.

But will a developmental free-for-all bring Houston the same heady results in the coming decades that it brought in the preceding ones? Or is it, at long last, time to impose a little more order on the unwieldy metropolis? Those are questions that Houston’s development community has spent the past couple of years trying to puzzle out, as it has negotiated the twists and turns of a legal event known to just about everybody as the Ashby case.

[…]

At a minimum, a comprehensive zoning code would dramatically revalue properties all over the city, amounting to a substantial redistribution of private wealth. No elected city leader, not even an outspokenly progressive one like [Mayor Annise] Parker, is going to advocate that.

But neither would it be correct to suggest that free-for-all development will proceed in the future as it did in pre-Ashby times. A precedent for awarding nuisance damages has been set, assuming it is not reversed on appeal. The concessions offered by the Ashby developers over the past seven years seem certain to place pressure on others building where there is significant local opposition. The city government, while backing away from zoning, will be asked to impose new regulations on future projects. One such rule, allowing neighborhood groups to apply for minimum lot size restrictions, has already become law.

But the most interesting question emerging from the case may be whether it will lead to more large infill projects in the central areas of the city. On the one hand, the court and the city government have made it clear that Houston’s build-it-anywhere legal structure will remain more or less intact. On the other hand, the sheer amount of time and effort required of the developers on the Ashby project may send a signal that it remains easier and cheaper to build in the exurbs where they do not have to deal with entrenched community feeling.

Or, still another possibility — developers might draw the lesson that there is plenty of useful work to do in creating urban density, but they have to go about it in a more sensitive and appropriate way than they did on Ashby. That might be the best outcome of all.

One must always be careful to distinguish between the city of Houston, which has grown modestly over the past decade or so, and the greater Houston area, which has grown like gangbusters. Much of that growth in places that aren’t Houston proper has been in empty, generally unincorporated areas. Those places don’t have zoning either, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that the widespread availability of undeveloped land in close proximity to a major urban center is at least as big a factor in the Houston area’s growth as the presence or absence of any municipal codes. San Francisco may be a Kotkinesque nightmare, but I’m pretty sure that if a few hundred square miles of empty turf within commuting distance of the Bay Area were to suddenly materialize, developers would trip over each other rushing out there to buy it up for whatever pieces of cul-de-sac heaven they could build. Anyway, I posted this mostly to provide a recap for anyone who needs to be caught up on the topic, and also because I like the author’s vision of an ideal outcome. These things never happen, of course, but it’s nice to think about once in awhile.

Finally, as an aside and because I don’t feel like writing a separate post for this, the plaintiffs in the Ashby lawsuit – you know, the guys who won the judgment against the developers – have now filed an appeal as well; the developers filed their motion to appeal a couple of weeks ago. They weren’t satisfied with just the money, they don’t want it to be built, which the judge refused to forbid. So we’ll get to litigate this all over again soon enough.

How are those new Chapter 42 regs working?

A little too soon to tell.

Planning and Development Director Patrick Walsh said the changes were designed to make the city competitive with its suburbs by creating more housing options, holding down prices and spurring redevelopment outside the Loop.

“It’s going to be hard to quantify the degree to which these rules are supporting the objective of affordability, but I do think we’re starting to see these rules used to accomplish the goal of reinvestment,” Walsh said. “In even just a couple of months after the rules are in place, we’re seeing some applications for these shared-driveway type developments with some smaller lots. That is a sign of some degree of modest success, and we’re hoping for more.”

[…]

Civic club leaders, concerned about waves of tightly packed two- or three-story patio homes invading established neighborhoods, negotiated for the rules to be phased in over two years. The first phase took effect in late May, with tracts larger than an acre and smaller tracts that are not residential and are not adjacent to residential areas becoming available for development under the new density rules. The rules will apply citywide starting next May.

The Planning Commission has considered or soon will consider three applications that would not have been possible previously.

In east Spring Branch, at Silber and Purswell, Soleil Livin’ Homes plans to build 27 units on a 1.2-acre vacant industrial site. In southwest Houston’s Willowbend neighborhood, a developer seeks to build six lots on half an acre.

And at the northwest edge of the Loop in Garden Oaks, homebuilder Miguel Facundo is building 14 units on the half-acre site of a former roofing business at Alba and Judiway.

Facundo said he plans to build at least 50 more townhomes in the area. He said he has heard chatter about industrial and commercial sites nearby selling to other developers for more such projects. In pushing for the rule changes last year, representatives of Spring Branch-based David Weekley Homes discussed numerous projects they would be able to build in their area once the higher density was allowed.

Facundo acknowledged that the prices he will offer, while perhaps $100,000 cheaper than the homes built under the old rules, will be aimed far above middle-income buyers, in the high $500,000s. Examples from Weekley representatives’ rarely listed price points below $300,000.

“My product’s a little bit different than most of the patio and townhome builders,” Facundo said. “I’m trying to do more of an upscale, a quality build. Then the neighborhood continues to go in the right direction.”

See here for the last update. It’s good that projects like these are being built, though there’s clearly still some work to be done on affordability. Another recent story adds to the anecdotal evidence with the news that over the last 12 months, residential permits within Beltway 8 were up 22.8 percent over the same period last year, which is more than twice the rate as the rest of the city. Beyond that, who knows? I liked the changes made, and I definitely agree with the idea behind them that it’s important to attract development inside city lines – it matters politically and economically. There’s plenty of empty and underused land that’s begging to be put to better use. I hope these new rules will facilitate that, but we need to carefully watch the effects and be prepared to make further changes if needed.

Studemont Junction

Swamplot has an update and some pictures from the to-be-redeveloped Grocer’s Supply truck lot near Studemont and I-10, basically on the north doorstep of my neighborhood.

SIGNS ARE UP at the soon-to-be-former Grocers Supply distribution center across Studemont from Kroger just south of I-10 announcing Studemont Junction, the name meant to bring some . . . uh, conjunction to the odd-shaped 15-acre food-storage facility Capcor Partners bought late last year. To judge from the proposed site plan for the project, that’ll be quite a task.

Developers plan to rope in (beginning at the northern end of the property) some sort of fast-food drive-thru, a bank (with its own drive-thru in back), and enough retail operations to fill a couple of “pad site” retail boxes and a more conventional broken-L shopping center on the site, each structure surrounded by its own dedicated rows of parking. Later, Capcor’s partner Kaplan Management plans to build a 400-unit apartment complex on the western end of the site.

According to the marketing copy on the leasing broker’s website, this multifamily structure, bounded by a small railyard on its south, will “reinforce the urban character of the site and will encourage heavy pedestrian activity along the corridor.” Residents will be able to get to the new complex’s front door from Studemont St. either by wending their way through the retail parking lot or by driving along a proposed new extension of Summer St. past Olivewood Cemetery to a circular drive at Wichman St.

The developer’s webpage for this is here; I encourage you to click the links under “Downloads” to see how they envision things. The comments on the Swamplot post are always useful to read – reaction is more negative than positive, due mostly to the size of the parking lot and the general feeling that this stretch of land near I-10 between Yale and Taylor is being turned into East Katy. My reaction can be summed up thusly – it’s hardly an urbanist’s dream, but given the constraints of that particular property, what did you expect? As I said before, what I really want to see out of this is an improved sidewalk along Studemont/Studewood, all the way from Washington to White Oak, and better bike access, which a couple of commenters on my post say will be part of the Bayou Greenways 2020 plan, then I’ll be happy. Basically, don’t do anything that will later be an impediment for future developers in this area or the city to improve mobility in all forms. I hope that’s not too much to ask.

Walk carefully

Texas cities are not so safe for pedestrians. Yeah, I’m as shocked as you are.

dont_walk

Houston pedestrians better cross with care. The city is the seventh most dangerous in the nation for people on foot, according to a new report from the National Complete Streets Coalition at Smart Growth America, a nonprofit that advocates for neighborhood safety.

Texas ranked as the 10th most dangerous state for walking commuters, with nearly 4,200 pedestrian deaths between 2003 and 2012. That’s roughly 10 percent of such deaths nationally during that time period, according to data compiled from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.

Although the total number of traffic fatalities has decreased nationally, the number of pedestrian deaths has grown. In 2012, 15 percent of all traffic fatalities involved people on foot.

As Congress considers reauthorizing MAP-21, a 2012 law that funds national transportation infrastructure, nonprofits like Smart Growth America and their pro-public safety allies are urging lawmakers nationwide to pass additional federal policy that would ensure pedestrian safety.

“This is about making smarter choices, investing our transportation dollars in projects that help achieve multiple community goals, including public health and supporting local economies,” said Roger Millar, the director of the coalition.

Using numbers from the National Weather Service, the reports says the number of pedestrian deaths in the past decade — 47,000 — is 16 times higher than the number of people who died in natural disasters. But “pedestrian deaths don’t receive a corresponding level of urgency,” Millar added.

[…]

There are two key explanations for the danger of Houston streets, said Jay Blazek Crossley, a policy analyst at Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that examines urban issues in the region. One is the design of city streets, which he said prioritizes speed over safety. The other is that the region has chosen to spend on toll roads over safer urban design, he said.

“Our money is focused on building toll roads in the middle of nowhere,” Crossley said. “Instead of redesigning streets with safety in mind, we’re putting our attention there.”

Crossley added that Houston has made some recent strides. In October, Mayor Annise Parker announced an executive order establishing a citywide Complete Streets policy aimed at protecting pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists and public transit riders.

Dallas and San Antonio are also on the list, though not as high up as Houston. I don’t think there’s any question that the way our streets are built, to accommodate cars first and foremost, is the main reason behind this. As Wonkblog points out, cities that are safer for pedestrians tend to be older ones where the main street grid was built before cars existed, and thus were engineered for walking. The Complete Streets directive will help, but to say the least that’s a long-term fix. I don’t know what there is to do in the short run, but raising awareness can’t hurt. Ed Kilgore has more.

City drops bid for downtown post office

So much for that.

Photo by Houston In Pics

The city of Houston has withdrawn from bidding on the downtown post office, Mayor Annise Parker wrote in a letter to City Council members Tuesday.

City officials said they wanted to keep their options open in bidding on the site, saying it could have a number of uses, chief among them as a location for the city’s planned police and courts complex. Parker’s letter also notes the site could give commuter rail an entry point to downtown.

Some developers eager to scoop up the high-profile 16-acre property at Bagby and Franklin just east of Interstate 45 had expressed their displeasure at the city’s interest in the property to council members in recent weeks.

“When we entered the bidding we did not think that the competition with private interests and the concern about us being in that fight would be as strong as they are and, on second thought, we decided it’s probably best if we do pull out,” Parker spokeswoman Janice Evans said Tuesday.

[…]

Central Houston chairman Ric Campo said the site is crucial to improving the theater district and the northwest section of downtown. The city’s interest, he said, generated ample chatter among those active in the central business district.

“It wasn’t a quiet conversation,” Campo said. “There were voices on both sides. Having the city step aside, there must have been louder voices on the private side. It gets to be a political issue whenever you get something like that.” Should the city be involved or not be involved?”

See here and here for the background. While I’m sure it will be better in the long run for the old post office to become some kind of mixed-use development – this Chron editorial made the point that something other than a government building would be a lot more amenable to the overall plan for Buffalo Bayou – I still don’t quite get the fuss about this. If the process was fair and the city was submitting a fair bid, what’s wrong with that? Be that as it may, the city will look elsewhere for its police and courts complex. That’s fine by me. Houston Public Media has more.

Holmes Road

It kind of blows my mind that something like this could be the case in 2014 in Houston.

Holmes Road

Holmes Road in south Houston, for a stretch, feels less like a city street and more like a weathered country road in Central Texas, even though NRG Stadium and the Texas Medical Center shimmer in the distance.

On the surface, there is no reason this accessible area – over 1,400 acres – should be the city’s largest single mass of undeveloped land.

The problem lies underground. Neither the city nor private developers ever extended sewer service to the area, leading developers to skip it in favor of other sites with more infrastructure and lower up-front costs.

Houston and Harris County officials propose to remedy that by burying an $11 million sewer line along Holmes Road.

The project is still being negotiated but is scheduled for 2016, the same year Holmes is slated to be widened and rebuilt and when Buffalo Speedway is to be extended south through the area.

“A lot of migration in terms of development has moved south to the Pearland area, and I don’t think it’s because the developers desire to be in Pearland,” said Houston’s deputy director of development, Gwen Tillotson. “I just think it’s because we did not have the adequate infrastructure. The longer we delay moving forward on this project, the more opportunities for development we stand to lose.”

Linda Scurlock, president of the South Houston Concerned Citizens Coalition, has lived in the area for 37 years. Holmes Road, she said, has been an eyesore for many of those years, so isolated it invites illegal dumping.

“We’re close to the Medical Center, we’re close to Reliant (NRG) Stadium, we’re close to 610, we’re close to the Beltway, we’re close to 288,” Scurlock said. “We see those as pluses, and we can’t see why there has not been development out here. If you have the infrastructure there, then I think development will come.”

You know how I suggested we build more places to live proximate to the Medical Center as a way of coping with its mobility needs? This is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about. I had suggested it for the undeveloped land along Hiram Clark, but if you look at that Google maps image I provided with that post, you can see the gigantic plot of land south of Holmes Road mentioned in this story as well. I didn’t suggest it as a target for development in my post because I figured it had to be a park or something – it was just too big. You know that former KBR site in the East End that everyone was talking about awhile back? It’s 136 acres, which is to say one tenth the size of this plot. If this expanse of land south of Holmes Road were in the process of being developed right now, you think that might have an effect on Houston’s housing shortage? This is a smart move by the city, and I’m glad to see Harris County playing a role in it as well. I look forward to seeing what eventually comes out of this.

It’s not so cheap to live in Houston any more

It’s the downside of a hot job market and an improving national reputation for being a cool place to live.

BagOfMoney

Business and city leaders often tout the Houston region as one of the most affordable markets in the country. But first-time homebuyers like the Schaefers are finding that image increasingly outdated.

“We are in a hot market, and it does pose some challenges,” said Patrick Jankowski, executive vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership. “There’s a cliché in Houston that you just drive until you find something you can afford. People are finding that’s becoming a farther stretch.”

The housing market has seen sales soar, prices rise and inventory shrink. Many households now could spend up to half their paychecks on housing and commuting.

Jankowski said Houston’s job growth led to an influx of new people seeking housing options in the last few years. He said affordability could be a concern going forward, especially as longer commutes tack on more cost.

[…]

Real estate experts and economists say that, although Houston is still affordable compared to other large markets, double-digit price increases could chip away at that reputation. The pattern could alienate first-time homebuyers, leave the middle class with fewer options and drive low-income residents into rundown apartments.

“It can be a challenge to understand why home price increases can be a bad thing coming out of the recession,” said Janet Viveiros, with the Washington, D.C.-based National Housing Center, who authored a report about affordable housing this year. “House prices are surging, and rents are surging. It puts buyers in a situation where they have to make difficult decisions.”

In Houston, the fact that about 80 percent of housing activity is outside Beltway 8 contributes to its reputation as an inexpensive market.

Home sales and prices from 2013 show strong growth everywhere: Overall, home prices rose 9.4 percent, the Houston Association of Realtors reports in an analysis of sales, prices and inventory for the Houston Chronicle. Inside Loop 610, prices rose 12 percent, and they were up almost 20 percent from the Loop to Beltway 8 and 9 percent outside the Beltway.

[…]

“Is it losing some of its competitively priced housing? A little bit, but it’s not a major concern yet,” Jim Gaines, research economist at the Texas A&M Real Estate Center, said of the area. “The middle class, or working class, can still find affordable housing. It’s just not as abundant as it was.”

Still, he said, recent price increases threaten to hurt.

“If prices go up 12 percent, I guarantee incomes didn’t go up 12 percent,” he said. “If you continue double-digit price growth for several years and don’t get corresponding income, then you get out of whack.”

The median household income for Houston, The Woodlands and Sugar Land is $55,910, according to the 2012 U.S. Census American Community Survey.

The low housing stock is driving up values on all types of properties, according to Sheri Smith, an associate professor in the school of public affairs at Texas Southern University. Working Houstonians who can afford $125,000 to $150,000 houses are being priced out of the market or forced into rentals or housing in the suburban fringes.

“Middle-income individuals are not finding affordable housing,” Smith said.

A recent Rice University study found Houstonians typically pay 30 percent of their income on housing, including mortgages and rents. Compare that to those in New York City who spend 25 percent of their income on housing, 25 percent for Chicago and 31 percent in Los Angeles, based on 2011 data.

Once transportation costs are factored in, almost half of the typical Houstonian’s income – 46 percent – is gone.

I’ll bet those figures are a surprise to a lot of folks. New York especially has a reputation for being an expensive place to live, but if you’re earning enough money, it’s not a problem. Of course, you have to earn a heck of a lot of money in Manhattan or you’re screwed. So Houston still has that going for it.

As for what should be done about the problem, clearly more supply is needed. I’ve talked before about how we really have to do something with the many empty spaces in Houston. The reason so much construction occurs in the far out reaches of Harris County is because that’s where the empty land is. Empty and underutilized spaces exist in Houston, too. We need to figure out ways to encourage construction in these places. That’s going to require an investment in infrastructure in a lot of these places – fixing roads, adding drainage, etc – but the alternative is letting all the growth occur in the hinterlands and dealing with the effects of that.

Another solution is going to be more highrises. It’s the only way to increase the available housing on limited land. Houston does have some limits on where highrises can be built, but the bigger constraint these days is neighborhood resistance. Lots of places are not appropriate for highrises, and you can’t do much about aesthetic objections to them, but traffic concerns can and should be addressed. As I’ve said before, more density needs more transit. As with infrastructure, that’s going to cost some money, but it’s a vital investment. The alternative is to curse traffic for all eternity, as the folks down in Pearland are fixing to learn.

I guess what I’m saying is we can keep doing what we’ve always done and hope it works out for the best, or we can try to figure out some policies that might help alleviate the housing shortage and make the best use of the land we have available, then figure out a way to pay for it. The former is easy, of course, and it’s more or less worked fairly well for the greater Houston area, though arguably not so well for every part of it, and arguably not so well for the city as opposed to the metro area. Doing the latter is a lot harder and there’s no guarantee we can even pull it off, but it has the upside of maybe solving some of these vexing problems that the market tends not to care about. I really don’t expect anything but Door #1, but it can’t hurt to point out that we do in fact have a choice.

Planning to plan

Not really sure what to make of this.

“We’ve had a lot of planning in this city and most of us continue to do a great deal of it,” said Central Houston president Bob Eury. “What we haven’t had is the coordination and the ongoing framework for coordination. That’s what is so incredibly important coming out of this process.”

The effort is in its early stages, with Denver-based urban planner, professor and consultant Peter Park having conducted a “plan to plan” in recent months, holding discussions with numerous civic leaders to get a sense of what makes Houston tick and decide what the plan should look like.

City officials presented results of that effort and next steps to a City Council committee last week, to general enthusiasm from council members and civic leaders.

Planning and Development Department director Patrick Walsh said the plan should prevent inefficient decisions, such as paving a street and then tearing it up a few years later to install new drainage pipes, or redundant plans being pursued by the city and local development boards.

It would identify the public’s preferences in specific areas and help guide investment choices, Walsh said. For instance, a park could be a place to relax, or it could be a catalyst for economic development, such as Discovery Green. Or, he said, if it included a trail, it could be part of the city’s mobility system; or it could provide drainage for a nearby public project.

“We are attempting to recognize that there’s been an awful lot of very good work that’s gone on before us,” Walsh said. “It’s time to take advantage of that work and utilize it … There is no need to re-create the wheel here.”

[…]

[Mayor Annise] Parker said neither comprehensive planning advocates’ highest hopes, nor opponents’ worst fears, will be realized in the final product.

That sort of rhetoric hasn’t calmed David Crossley or Peter Brown’s excitement. The two smart-growth gadflies launched BluePrint Houston 12 years ago and, despite the time invested, never quite saw the idea take root. The same could be said for a 1994 effort dubbed Imagine Houston.

“I’ve had outside developers who are interested in investing in Houston ask me, ‘Show me your adopted plan so I get a feel for where I might do a project,’ ” Brown said. “I met with deputy administrator of the EPA in Washington … (who) said, ‘Show me your adopted comprehensive plan.’ There wasn’t one. This is going to help us in many, many ways.”

Even those typically inclined to frown at such proposals see promise.

Josh Sanders, of developer-led Houstonians for Responsible Growth, said there was “some initial trepidation” among his members when whispers emerged of a “general plan.” Those fears proved unfounded, he said, as the planning strategy took shape.

“We think the city does need more of a strategic outlook and does need more coordination between its existing plans,” Sanders said. “What we can do a better job of doing is figuring out how to plan and accommodate growth.”

We’ll see what this turns into. No question, there’s a need for the left hand to know a little more about what the right hand is doing. How that will translate into a set of action items, I have no idea. I’m glad everyone seems to be on board with this, I just have no idea what to expect at this time.

The city and the downtown post office

Not sure what all the fuss about this is about.

Photo by Houston In Pics

Developers eager to purchase the high-profile U.S. Postal Service site downtown – envisioned in recent years as a park, outdoor amphitheater or a development with housing and entertainment venues – are competing for the property with the city of Houston, which is considering putting its new justice complex there.

Some private interests have sought to dissuade city officials from seeking the 16-acre property, at Bagby and Franklin just east of Interstate 45, which went on the market last fall.

Councilwoman Brenda Stardig said she learned the city had bid on the site from developers, and has spoken with Brad Freels of Midway Development about his concerns with the city’s involvement. Freels could not be reached for comment.

Stardig said she is sympathetic, noting the redeveloped site could be a “jewel” for the city, not to mention a boon for city coffers.

“Unless there’s a real need, I’m not very supportive of having the city competing with private developers on prime real estate in the city, from a cost factor and for many other reasons,” she said.

[…]

The city’s interest, said some City Council members and city officials, is driven by a desire to start fresh on the post office site rather than rebuilding at the current cops-and-courts complex at 61 Riesner, where construction crews would have to work around existing facilities. Other officials said the site could have uses other than for the justice complex.

Councilman Jerry Davis said he was told the city could recoup the purchase price of the 16-acre post office site by selling the 18-acre tract on Riesner, which is just west of the post office site.

Any developers stirring dissent about the city’s involvement likely are doing so out of self-interest, Davis said.

“We’re certainly not going to pay more than what it’s worth,” he said. “I do have full faith in our development department – even though I don’t like some things they do – as far as getting an estimated value from outside appraisers.”

The Riesner site is home to five aging facilities, including Houston’s central jail and the main municipal courthouse. A study concluded the buildings need $55 million in repairs.

Police headquarters at 1200 Travis also needs work and is too small, officials have said; it would be sold and consolidated into the new complex. The new facility would not house a jail, thanks to voters’ approval last fall of a joint city-county inmate processing center.

I have no problem with the city bidding a fair market price for this property. They have a purpose in mind for it, and they can recoup much if not all of the purchase price by selling off the properties that would be vacated if they bought and renovated this site. Sure, it would be nice to have some kind of mixed-use development there, and if Metro ever does build an Inner Katy light rail line, this location would be just about perfect to tie it into the existing Harrisburg and Southeast lines, but there’s no guarantee of either of these things happening. If the city’s perfectly legitimate interest in this parcel – and let’s be clear, it may never get past the “interest” stage – forces developers to make more competitive bids, then that’s fine by me. If a private investor winds up buying this property, I feel pretty confident they’ll be able to get a nice return on it.

Complete Streets coming

This is good to see.

Houston, long ruled by the automobile, will give more consideration to the needs of pedestrians and cyclists in designing its streets and neighborhoods.

Mayor Annise Parker on Thursday said she is drafting, with public works and planning officials, an executive order stating that the city will adhere to “complete streets” standards. The change could enable some neighborhoods to press for wider sidewalks, shadier streets and bicycle lanes, for example.

“Houston streets can and should accommodate the needs of all users, not just those behind the wheel,” Parker told a crowd gathered for the announcement and the dedication of Bagby in the Midtown area as Texas’ first “green” street.

Parker said she would sign the order after fully briefing the City Council, as early as next week. While the order doesn’t directly affect the rules planners and engineers use, supporters say it changes Houston policies from a narrow focus on moving cars to a broader effort to provide mobility for cars and other means of getting around.

Giving thought to pedestrians can lead to subtle but meaningful changes in the standards the city uses to consider applications for new developments and how streets are redesigned or improved.

“This is a process the people are a part of,” said Jay Blazek Crossley, a member of the Houston Coalition for Complete Streets, one of the groups that pushed for the change.

The new standards will apply to projects and streets within city control. State-maintained freeways, for example, are meant to move vehicle traffic and would be unaffected.

As Stace notes, this has also been a priority for CM Ed Gonzalez, so if you like this announcement, thank him as well. Houston Tomorrow has a quote from the Mayor’s verbal remarks at the event on Thursday that I think captures what is actually being changed here:

Frankly, it’s always been possible to do a Complete Street in Houston, but the default has been let’s get those cars moving. Now we want the default to be a Complete Street and anything different than that to be something that has to be the exception.

That’s the key. The Bagby location in Midtown where the event was exemplifies this, because the developers of that area had to get a variance from the city in order to proceed. Under this change, they would not need a variance but someone who wanted to build something the old way would. That won’t have any immediate effect on existing streets, but as Rebuild Houston moves forward you should expect to see at least some of the affected streets get redesigned to incorporate this new vision. See here and here for a basic primer on what “complete streets” means.

The Mayor’s press release has more, as does the press release from CM Gonzalez. As noted in the story, the Bagby Midtown location also received certification as the first Greenroads Project in the State of Texas. See beneath the fold for that press release, The Highwayman and Texas Leftist for more on what this will mean in practice, here for more on what it was about Bagby Midtown that got it this certification, and here for more on Greenroads.

(more…)

On affordable housing in Houston

Interesting.

More Houstonians are spending a higher percentage of their incomes on housing, a new study from Rice University’s Shell Center for Sustainability shows.

The report’s key finding revealed that half of Houston’s City Council districts do not meet the conventional definition of affordable, which stipulates that the average household not spend more than 30 percent of its income to cover rent or mortgage expenses.

“Our incomes aren’t high enough commensurate with affordable housing,” said Lester King, a Shell Center fellow and author of the report, “Sustainable Development of Houston Districts: The Health of the City.”

“It may involve looking at the mix of jobs being available in the city,” he added. “It may involve increases in income relative to increases in the cost of living over time. It may involve also the change in demographics.”

Adding transportation costs makes Houston seem less affordable to even more people.

The average Houstonian spends 30 percent on housing costs and 16 percent on transportation costs, the report shows. The combination of housing and transportation costs, 46 percent, puts Houston at No. 26 in the nation for affordability among the 50 largest cities, King said.

[…]

Since housing prices in Houston are already relatively low, King said policies aimed at reducing transportation costs would help make it a truly affordable city.

Only about 5 percent of Houstonians use public transit.

[…]

It found that residents of District F, which includes the Alief, Eldridge/West Oaks and Westchase neighborhoods, spent an average of 33.6 percent of their income on housing. That was the highest of the city’s 11 council districts.

Other districts with higher levels of people putting more of their income toward housing were on the northeast side of town, as well as parts of south and southwest Houston.

The report notes a significant income disparity between District F and District E, which overall spent less than 30 percent of income on housing.

District F’s median income of $39,766 was less than 60 percent of the median income in District E, which includes Clear Lake and the Edgebrook communities.

“This difference may explain why a higher percentage of households in District F are finding housing costs more unaffordable,” the report states.

The Rice News story on this is here, the Shell Center press release is here, the executive summary is here, the full report is here, and further information is here. I’m not sure how I feel about this particular calculation – it seems to me it says more about income levels than anything else – but if we are going to make it, I’d love to know how it works out for the rest of the greater metro area. What do you think about this?

Hiram Clarke TIRZ

I think this will be a good thing.

CM Larry Green

CM Larry Green

The Houston City Council and the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court approved a plan this month to boost development in Houston’s southwest corner with the creation of a tax increment reinvestment zone.

Under a tax increment reinvestment zone, property taxes generated within the zone’s boundaries are frozen at a set level. As development occurs and property values rise, tax revenues above that level are funneled back into the zone to pay for public projects in hopes of attracting further development.

Over 30 years, the new Hiram Clarke/Fort Bend-Houston zone is expected to divert $141 million in tax revenues into such projects as road repairs, converting utility easements into park space or coordinating with developers to transform South Post Oak, Chimney Rock, Hiram Clarke and West Fuqua into commercial thoroughfares.

“See all the vacant land we have here? All of the development we could have along here?” [Vivian] Harris asked, pointing to an empty lot where tree branches obscure a faded real estate sign.

Harris, who sought the same types of projects in her decades as a community leader with several civic organizations, credits her new boss, District K Council Member Larry Green, with pushing for the creation of the zone.

[…]

Green looks at the new zone as an assurance his district will see the same level of city investment as the 24 other areas with intact zones.

“This area has been neglected in regard to infrastructure improvements,” Green said. “We’ve gotten a lot of residential development, but our commercial is slow coming. If we incentivize it, they would come.”

Joshua Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit that represents developers, said the reinvestment zone, coupled with changes to the city’s development rules and a new state-created management district, could bring developers back within city boundaries by proving Houston is as committed to maintaining the area as the neighboring suburban governments.

“Many businesses are choosing to go across the highway to Pearland,” Sanders said. “Once you push that far out … all these suburbs have invested more recently in infrastructure than the City of Houston has.”

I’m very much in favor of efforts to revitalize areas like Hiram Clarke and the Fifth Ward. It’s great that there’s a lot of demand for housing in certain parts of town, but what’s being built in these neighborhoods is by definition high end. If we want the city to be affordable and available to everyone, we need to build housing in the open spaces and the parts of town that aren’t already premium priced. That’s going to mean some investment in infrastructure, but let’s face it, that’s way overdue in places like Hiram Clarke. This is a step in that direction, and I’m glad to see it.

Texas cities embracing bicycles

It’s a good thing.

In Fort Worth, the mayor hosts occasional bicycle rides called “Rolling Town Halls.” The Dallas City Council could may soon require new businesses to set aside space for bicycle parking. Over in El Paso, officials are developing plans for a bike-share system, which is expected to be the fifth such program in the state after Austin’s makes its debuts this year.

In car-clogged communities around Texas, a biking movement is gaining speed. Midsize and large cities are expanding bike trails and putting roads on “lane diets” to accomodate bike lanes.

“Biking has just exploded over the last year in Houston,” said Laura Spanjian, director of Mayor Annise Parker’s office of sustainability.

While curbing traffic and air pollution prompted earlier interest in such initiatives, those concerns are now overshadowed in some cities by other motivating factors, particularly boosts to public health, quality of life and economic development.

“It’s really being embraced for solving a lot of problems. It’s not this sort of fringe, tree-hugger issue anymore,” said Linda DuPriest, a former bicycle-pedestrian program coordinator for Austin who is now a senior planner for Alta Planning + Design, a Portland, Ore.-based design firm that focuses on bike infrastructure. In June, DuPriest opened the agency’s Texas office in Dallas.

“Texas is really ripe” for an expansion in bike infrastructure, said Mia Birk, the firm’s president and a former bicycle program manager with the City of Portland, widely regarded as a national model for biking infrastructure. “There’s so many cities that are growing and thriving, and really looking for ways to create healthier opportunities for residents and businesses.”

[…]

“People who are trying to attract people and businesses to their cities get it,” said Robin Stallings of BikeTexas, an advocacy group. “If they want to get their kids to come back after college, if they want to get any kind of high-tech industry, they need this stuff.”

“Our population is trending younger, and I think younger populations are wanting more density and want to live closer to where they live, play, shop and eat,” Spanjian said.

[…]

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that within two years of each other, we have four Texas cities with bike-share programs,” Spanjian said.

Developing such programs in Texas poses unique challenges, Birk said, because the cities are more spread out and less crowded than in many other states.

“When you have very high density but that smaller footprint, you also have a competition over space and a lot of humans debating how we use that space,” Birk said. Many Texas cities, she said, have almost the opposite problem: so much space that it is more difficult to convince people that biking is a practical way to get around.

Advocates often stress the value of biking for short trips and as a means of connecting with public transportation.

“About two to three miles is the sweet spot where it really can be more efficient and faster to take a bike,” said Annick Beaudet, a City of Austin planner who had previously worked as bicycle program manager for the city.

Here’s more about Austin’s forthcoming bike share program, and about El Paso’s program, which has run into some obstacles. This is a quality of life issue first and foremost, even more than it is a transportation issue. A lot of people want to live in the inner urban core, younger people especially. Driving and especially parking becomes problematic because there isn’t the space to easily accommodate everyone and their cars. Facilitating biking, especially for short trips, alleviates a lot of these problems and makes it more practical for amenities like bars, restaurants, and small retail to exist. That often requires ordinance and code changes as well, but the cities are dealing with those as well. The cities are competing with the suburbs and outlying areas for new residents and businesses. Solving these problems, and making their spaces be the kind of places new residents want to live is the key.

The townhomes are indeed coming

I have three things to say about this Lisa Gray column.

The dark side of density

“So the bad stuff we’re going to see today,” I asked, “it’ll be a cautionary tale for the suburbs?” I was driving west from downtown on what I thought of, privately, as the Terror o’ Townhouses Tour, a sort of scared-straight exhibit for suburbanites like me, who haven’t realized what a boring-sounding change to city development rules may be about to unleash on our outside-the-Loop neighborhoods.

David Robinson and Jane Cahill West were my guides. As neighborhood activists, they’d both seen firsthand how, 14 years ago, a similar change to Chapter 42 of the city of Houston ordinances made high-density development possible inside Loop 610, transforming entire neighborhoods lot by lot. One-story houses with yards gave way to townhouses so quickly that it became disconcerting to drive down a street you hadn’t seen in a while.

“Yeah,” Robinson said from my Hyundai’s back seat. “We’re interested in how the city is going to educate the suburbs.” (Robinson, an architect, is one of those civic activists who seem to be everywhere: head of the Neartown Association, former president of the Super Neighborhood Association, former member of the planning commission, a candidate for City Council, veteran of a bazillion stakeholders’ committees.)

“Just getting the word out is a problem,” said West in the front seat. (Her résumé is as overstuffed as his: vice president and resident expert on development for the Super Neighborhood Alliance, recent president of Washington Ave/Memorial Park Super Neighborhood Council, a former board chair of the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone for the Old Sixth Ward, and on and on.) “It’s a tough subject to cover.”

“They’re getting hit by a tidal wave,” said Robinson.

1. Some neighborhoods have had it worse under the previous tweaking of Chapter 42 than others. The West End/Rice Military area had the worst of all possible worlds – narrow streets, drainage ditches with no sidewalks, lax or nonexistent deed restrictions, small lot sizes, and initially affordable property values that made it so alluring to developers that wanted to cram as much living space onto the land as they could. Montrose at least generally had sidewalks, and the Heights generally had either sidewalks or deed restrictions, sometimes both. Nobody really knows what will happen to the parts of Houston that will now be subject to the same density rules as the Inner Loop, but if you live in a decent neighborhood in Houston but outside the Loop and are worried about the possible consequences in your area, I’d advise looking at your deed restrictions pronto. You may be protected from some of the rapaciousness that so changed the landscape in the inner core, but it’s best not to make assumptions about that.

2. The problem isn’t so much density as it is density plus car dependence. Montrose was always supposed to be a walkable neighborhood, and to a large extent it still is, which helps it remain as desirable a place to live as it is. Where it all goes wrong is not when you have more residences on a block than before but more cars that need to be parked than the block can handle. Houston has taken a lot of strides towards being less car dependent, at least in the areas most affected by the increased density, since the last revision of Chapter 42, with things like light rail and a vastly expanded bike infrastructure, but as long as every residence with multiple inhabitants of driving age has at least one car for everyone of driving age in it, these problems become intractable. Housing and transportation are two sides of the same coin, and we can’t solve one without the other.

3. For all of the problems that increased density have brought to these historic neighborhoods, we shouldn’t overlook all of the good that has happened in them. I lived in Montrose from 1989 to 1997. When I first went hunting for rental housing with two friends who would be my roommates back in 1989, there were plenty of cheap options to pick from. Unfortunately, they were cheap because they were mostly rundown old houses in sketchy neighborhoods – burglar bars were a prime feature on many of the places we looked at. The Heights was a place that single women were told to avoid because it was too dangerous. I don’t know about you, but on the whole I’d much rather have the Inner Loop of today than the Inner Loop of 25 years ago. I’d much rather have growth than decay. We absolutely need to learn the lessons of the past changes to Chapter 42, and work to fix the things that have gone wrong while working to avoid making the same mistakes elsewhere. But for all the issues, Houston is a much better place economically, culturally, and politically if it’s a place that people want to live in and can afford to live in. That above all is what we need to work towards.

Five years of Discovery Green

Five great years for a great park and an awesome city amenity.

Five years after its opening, more than 1 million people annually come to stretch out on the grassy slope to take in live music and movies with the skyline as a backdrop, to play with Frisbees and soccer balls, to splash in the water fountains. People come to the 12-acre park to ice-skate and walk dogs, to attend festivals and flea markets, to stroll under a canopy of live oaks toward the gardens. Once, they came for balloon rides.

Hotels, office and apartment towers have been shooting up nearby, a good deal in part because of Discovery Green. It’s become the city’s “town square,” said Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau. It’s helped change the city’s image, he and other civic leaders say.

“It corrects the misconception that Houston is mostly concrete and asphalt and acres and acres of nothing to do,” Ortale said.

“Driving from the airport is one impression, and being in Discovery Green is another,” Hagstette said.

About $1 billion in construction or planned construction has or will go up around Discovery Green, “all of it influenced” by the park, said Bob Eury, executive director of the Houston Downtown Management District. About 80 percent of that development is private, he noted. More Discovery Green-influenced projects have not yet been made public, he said.

Eury noted that Hess Tower, overlooking Discovery Green, recently sold for more per square foot than any Houston building.

Marvy Finger, developer of the 37-story One Park Place apartment tower, said he had considered building on the west side of downtown. After discussions on that proposed project fell through, he began eyeing other property. “But I certainly wasn’t going to look at land east of Main!” he said.

He changed his mind after hearing of the Discovery Green plans. One Park Place, the first new residential construction downtown in 30 years, has a 95 percent occupancy, in great part because its residents want to be across from the park, Finger said.

Finger has begun building a two-block-long apartment complex across from Minute Maid Park, and it, too, would not be going up on if not for Discovery Green four blocks away. He credits the park with establishing “a renaissance on the east side of downtown.”

You have to remember that before Discovery Green, there really wasn’t that much east of Main downtown. The Discovery Green site and a lot of the surrounding blocks were just empty concrete lots. Now we have a beautiful and heavily used park, and new downtown residential construction that was built specifically because that park is there. The George R. Brown is much more attractive now as a convention center because this lovely park is right outside its front door, and there’s a lot of related construction set to happen in the coming years. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The Washington Avenue parking benefit district is now operational

From CultureMap:

Meet the meter

It took a while, but nearly five months after Houston City Council approved the first citywide Parking Benefit District for the Washington Avenue corridor, the meters started charging at 7 a.m. on Wednesday.

The City of Houston’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department hopes to solve a handful of issues with the new parking system, including a lack of curbside parking and congested neighborhood streets, while promoting alternate means of transportation like walking, cycling and public transit

By defining the bar-studded thoroughfare as a PBD, approximately 60 percent of the proceeds from the meters — which stretches from Westcott Street to Houston Avenue and charges $1 per hour during daytime hours and $2 per hour at night Monday through Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. — will fund neighborhood improvement projects like landscaping, street maintenance, public safety, lighting, sidewalk and pedestrian improvements.

Visitors can pay to park with credit card or via the Parkmobile App (one that will allow you to add time via smartphone if you get caught up at happy hour); neighborhood residents and business owners will have designated permit parking areas Thursday through Sunday from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

Here’s the official city webpage on the PBD; I blogged about it before here, here, and here. Council will review the district and its results in 18 months. I hope it works as advertised. It’s a straightforward solution that recognizes parking is a scarce resource in some parts of town, and scarce resources should be valued appropriately. It would be great if the PBD provides enough funds to make some infrastructure improvements to Washington Avenue, which has some of the worst sidewalks for what should be a very walkable area anywhere. Via Swamplot, which has some good maps.

Revamped Chapter 42 ordinance finally passes

Strangely enough, in the end it was not very contentious.

Houston City Council on Wednesday voted 14-3 to allow greater single-family home density outside Loop 610, while also strengthening the proposal’s already robust protections for neighborhoods concerned about unwelcome development.

Council voted to drop the threshold of support needed to impose a minimum lot size in an area – preventing the subdividing of lots for townhomes – from 60 percent to 55 percent, and agreed to phase in the new rules, keeping new development out of residential areas for two years.

Mayor Annise Parker, who has said the changes will spur redevelopment of blighted areas and lower housing prices in the city, praised the first fundamental changes to the city’s development rules in 14 years.

“It’s about time,” Parker said. “The city of Houston has to grow, and we have to have a more flexible development tool. ”

Parker said she will engage a group of home-builders and civic leaders to continue the dialogue that allowed the package to come to a vote as related reforms move forward. Neighborhood support largely was won through city promises to improve standards in regulations outside the development code, known as Chapter 42.

In the ordinance itself, the Super Neighborhood Alliance got its phase-in of the new rules. The alliance raised concerns about eyesore Dumpsters at townhome developments; developers now must show where large garbage bins will sit when seeking permits. The alliance also worried about structures being built on property lines, leaving inches between homes; builders now must get written agreement from neighbors to come inside 3 feet.

There are still more things that the neighborhoods wanted, having to do with things like stricter drainage requirements and Complete Streets. Houston Politics goes into some detail on that.

On drainage, Councilman Stephen Costello has worked with engineering colleagues to draft reforms. Today, developers are not required to add detention when developing tracts of less than 15,000 square feet as long as they do not make more than 75 percent of the site impervious.

Costello’s proposal would drop that to 50 percent, a number he said is supported by data collected as part of the Rebuild Houston program. His proposal also would make developers add detention when they redevelop a dormant site in a way that makes water run off more quickly, something current rules do not address.

“I’m pretty pleased with what we have,” he said. “I’m always a little concerned about what happens after the development is done and how we manage the existing infrastructure in place. As areas start to redevelop, we need to make sure the city is there with Rebuild Houston to take care of any existing infrastructure that needs to be replaced.”

[…]

On drainage, Councilman Stephen Costello has worked with engineering colleagues to draft reforms. Today, developers are not required to add detention when developing tracts of less than 15,000 square feet as long as they do not make more than 75 percent of the site impervious.

Costello’s proposal would drop that to 50 percent, a number he said is supported by data collected as part of the Rebuild Houston program. His proposal also would make developers add detention when they redevelop a dormant site in a way that makes water run off more quickly, something current rules do not address.

“I’m pretty pleased with what we have,” he said. “I’m always a little concerned about what happens after the development is done and how we manage the existing infrastructure in place. As areas start to redevelop, we need to make sure the city is there with Rebuild Houston to take care of any existing infrastructure that needs to be replaced.”

The references letter is here. Jane Cahill West was quoted at the end of the story saying that “overall, we’re happy” and that working together on this was beneficial for all. The three No votes were CMs Jerry Davis, Andrew Burks, and of course Helena Brown, who tried but failed to pass an amendment that would have exempted District A from the new Chapter 42 rules. Texas Leftist has more.

Today is Chapter 42 day

Actually, today is almost certainly the day that the Chapter 42 revisions get tagged by multiple members of Council, thus pushing it back for a week. Nonetheless, this is the beginning of the end of a long, long journey. Here’s another story about what that will mean.

The Fourth Ward would not look quite the way it does now, however, if not for a change in city development rules in 1999. That change hiked the density allowed in single-family housing construction inside Loop 610, allowing the building of several homes on what had been one residential lot.

City Council is poised Wednesday to extend that Inner Loop home density citywide in the first rewrite of Houston’s development rules, known as Chapter 42, in 14 years. And that has [Ray] Washington and other south Houston civic leaders on edge.

“You’ve got different developers. Some are going to be good, and you’re going to get a few bad ones. Our goal is to upgrade this community,” said Homer Clark, president of south Houston’s Five Corners Management District.

“If they say, ‘Hey, this is a nice place, I think I’ll go out here and buy me a little piece of land and I’ll just put this out here,’ that’s our fear, that it won’t be consistent with what we’re doing.”

To address concerns about incompatible development, the proposed rules include protections that would allow neighborhoods to impose minimum lot sizes for up to 500 homes at a time, preventing the subdivision of lots for townhomes. The requirement, which would last 40 years, also would restrict any residential or vacant land to single-family homes, keeping out apartment towers and condominiums.

“In Houston, because we’re not a zoned city, deed restrictions are the one thing that’s relied upon to keep your neighborhood consistent and retain that character,” said Suzy Hartgrove, spokeswoman for the city Planning Department. “It (minimum lot size) is a protection that really is akin to a deed restriction that will be established for these neighborhoods that apply and are designated. It’s a strong protection to have.”

The minimum lot size process has existed since 2001, and is applied only on a block-by-block basis. Under the proposed change, 10 percent of property owners in an area must apply, triggering a balloting process through which 60 percent of owners must vote yes to impose the restriction. City staff could revise an area’s boundaries to secure the necessary support.

The proposal is an acknowledgement that deed restrictions are difficult to amend, said Joshua Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit that represents developers.

“We understand the neighborhood concerns, and we think there should be more tools made available to them to protect against any sort of development,” he said.

“It’s not like these rules are in place to protect against bad development. They’re in place to protect the integrity of a neighborhood. We could go in and build something great on one piece of property, but it’s still an issue because it’s damaging the character of the neighborhood.”

[…]

The lot-size proposal is a “huge achievement,” said Jane West of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, though she is concerned areas with many rental properties will struggle with the petition process. That concern led civic leaders to negotiate a phase-in: one year to give neighborhoods time to petition, and a second year during which the new density would be allowed only on tracts larger than an acre; smaller tracts could be developed if most surrounding properties are not residential.

“It will help all the people it can help,” West said. “It depends a lot on the stamina and the abilities of the people in the neighborhood and how badly they want to save the neighborhood.”

See here, here, here, and here for the recent history. This ordinance and the effort to revamp it are big, complex beasts with lots of moving parts and no one really knows what the effect of this or that change will be, but it sounds like the lot size part of it is being well received by all. If both Jane Cahill West and Joshua Sanders think it’s a good idea, that’s saying something.

On a related note, I want to call attention to this comment left by Ed Browne to one of my earlier posts on Chapter 42:

I think that I can speak for the SNA when I say that everyone agrees that the City needs to grow and densify, but there are good ways to grow and bad ways. Tomaro Bell, president of the Super Neighborhood Alliance (SNA), and Jane Cahill West, its Vice President, have experienced the negative aspects of Chapter 42 inside Loop 610 where it has been the law for over 10 years. They and others inside the Loop decided that the rules need to be cleaned up before subjecting the entire City to them. SN 22, along the Washington Avenue corridor, has been a test case for a lot of these issues. Jane gave a tour for City Council members and SN leaders in her area of problems created by Chapter 42 and although many have been addressed by the City, some of the more important ones still need attention.

We had been told by the Mayor and developers that the main thrust for Chapter 42 was to redevelop run-down apartments and strip centers, but no sooner had the SNA removed its objections, then the Mayor started backpedaling – offering to reduce the wait time for neighborhoods to establish minimum lot sizes and setbacks from 2 years for lots under an acre to 1 year for lots under 1/2 acre. Small lots like this are not run-down apartment complexes. They are neighborhoods like yours.

Under street infrastructure for most of Houston is old and antiquated, so we want to be sure that high density building does not occur where the streets have inadequate storm sewers, water lines, and sanitation sewers. When the toilet flushes next door, will you get scalded? But Jane pointed out that high density also makes every detail more important. Where are trash cans stored? Where are mailboxes? Air conditioners? With a requirement of one guest parking spot for every 6 homes, where do guests (and homeowners) really park? In Cottage Grove, emergency vehicles cannot access many homes because too many vehicles are parked on narrow streets. Ladder trucks needed for the 3 or 4 story buildings need a place for the support pads so they don’t topple over. These were Fire Marshall concerns, too, not just Jane’s.

Average lot size can be as low as 1400 square feet, but there is no minimum lot size. Permeable ground can be no less than 150 square feet on a 3500 square foot lot – tiny. Chapter 42 and Chapter 9 are not harmonized; i.e., they contradict one another. Chapter 42 requires green space which increases as the lot sizes reduce until at 1400 square feet 600 square feet of green space is required, but there is no minimum lot size .

Very dense development makes sense in areas that have good mass transit because then people can do without a car, but multiple small shared driveway developments scattered throughout a neighborhood would be messy and would remove the trees and shade that redefine its character. That doesn’t matter to somebody who only wants to make money, but it does matter to the people who’ve searched for the perfect house for their family.

There’s a lot more to what Ed has to say, so go read the whole thing. Just as the changes from 1999 are being revisited now, the key to making this work as best as possible is to be willing to go back and make further tweaks and revisions as issues and problems arise. This is an ongoing concern, it’s not something you can do and be done with. If we see that something isn’t working the way we though it would, let’s not wait another 14 years to fix it.

It’s Chapter 42 week

We won’t know for years what the upcoming revisions to Chapter 42, the development and density codes in Houston, will mean to the city and its development and population patterns. There’s certainly a lot of hope that the changes will be positive.

Southwest Houston, with its glut of apartments and condominiums, is three times denser than the city as a whole.

Whatever the term – aging, blighted, dilapidated – many of those complexes are ripe for redevelopment, as are the empty shopping centers and abandoned warehouses around them. Often havens for crime, these eyesores depress property values and are themselves a drag on the tax rolls.

Some revitalization efforts are underway, but residents like Jim Bigham, president of the Sharpstown Civic Association, are looking for a spark, a catalyst for change.

With a proposed rewrite of Houston’s development ordinance headed to the City Council table on Wednesday, city leaders say they have one.

The new rules, six years in the making, would allow greater single-family housing density outside Loop 610. That, builders say, will enable them to fit more houses on the same piece of land, bringing down the price of each home and making it more likely that market-price housing can be placed on dormant tracts.

“We’re stuck right now. What’s not working is having an empty retail – vacant, crappy – building for 20 years sitting on the same corner,” Bigham said. “We see the overall rule change facilitating redevelopment at some level, and that in itself is a positive thing.”

By their own admission, however, homebuilders will struggle to develop many of the tracts targeted for renewal because they do not have the capital or because they risk being outbid by apartment developers. Experts say land developers, who buy large tracts, invest in infrastructure and then sell individual lots to homebuilders, will play an important role if revitalization is to be widespread.

“Our challenge that we have to think about is, we have an aging city, and we need to think about how we go in and allow for our city to be updated,” city Planning Department Director Marlene Gafrick said. “To some degree, these rules will encourage the redevelopment of property, and you’ll utilize the existing infrastructure that’s already in place where the city has already made an investment in the infrastructure, streets and sewers.”

That’s the plan, anyway. How well it will work, I have no idea. The theory is simple enough – when you’ve got a lot of demand for something, you should try to increase the supply of that something – it’s the ancillary effects that are the big unknowns. Check back in ten years and we’ll see where we are.

One way to know if the revision has been a success is if this trend slows down.

More than 80 percent of the homes that sold last year were outside of Beltway 8, according to a study commissioned by the Houston Chronicle. Compare that to just 6 percent inside Loop 610 and 12.8 percent between the Loop and the Beltway.

What draws people to these far-off suburbs, sometimes 30 miles from downtown? Homeowners cite a multitude of reasons, like schools, shopping and affordable housing. Another big draw is jobs.

Houston’s outlying areas are home to major business districts.

“You keep seeing oil companies and major employers locating outside of downtown. They locate along the West Belt. They’re moving up to The Woodlands,” said Evert Crawford of Crawford Realty Advisors and the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business.

“A lot of people don’t work downtown anymore,” said Crawford, who conducted the study.

[…]

The median price per square foot for a home outside the Beltway was $72.98 last year, according to the housing data. That was up 3.7 percent from 2011, but still less than half of the Inner Loop value of $178.09 per square foot.

That’s an insufficient comparison, since the Chapter 42 revision is aimed at property between 610 and the Beltway, but you get the idea. We’d like to see a higher percentage of homes purchased inside the Beltway in order to say that the Chapter 42 remake is doing what we wanted it to do. Now, single-family houses aren’t the be-all and end-all – there’s a ton of high-end apartment construction inside the Loop, and smaller apartments, the antithesis to sprawling suburban mansions, are a trend as well. A fuller range of metrics will be needed to really get an answer to the question of how successful the Chapter 42 changes were. But since we’ve been talking so much about how the goal is to make it easier to build affordable housing in Houston, then let’s look first at those numbers.

Why we need flexibility in our parking regulations

Here’s the story of Coltivare.

Coltivare and the vegetable garden space

As many of you know, we are in the process of opening Coltivare, our interpretation of an Italian-inspired, American, neighborhood restaurant, at the corner of White Oak and Arlington Streets.

Undoubtedly, one of the most unique aspects to Coltivare, is the potential to have a 3,000 square foot, fully-functioning vegetable garden, directly to the East of our building.

From day one, we envisioned the green space as having the potential to become that, but knew we faced a few hurdles with the City of Houston, fulfilling our parking code requirement. We didn’t let ourselves get our hopes up just yet.

Many of you have probably noticed a lot of “not much” going on with the construction process. This is because we’ve been going through the variance process with the City of Houston Planning Department.

The variance that we are seeking is one allowing us to utilize parking lots that we have leased adjacent to Coltivare, as spaces to count towards our code requirement.

The warehouse space

Across Arlington Street on the North side of White Oak, sits a warehouse space that has been in existence since 1938, best we can tell. Dating back to the 50’s, via Google satellite images, those same spaces have been used for parking. They are used for parking today as they will continue to be used for parking tomorrow. Over the last 80 years, as White Oak’s right-of-way has widened, it has slowly encroached on the depth of these spaces. They sit between 15′-16′ deep now. The City likes 19′. However, there is another 13′ from the back of the spaces to the actual street, leaving plenty of room to maneuver safely. These spaces are already legally being used by the warehouse during they day; we simply want to use them at night.

These spaces are what we are trying to get the Planning Commission to approve regarding our variance. Spaces that are already in existence and being used for parking.

We have historically had a very good relationship with the Planning Commission and do not envy their jobs. Given everything that is thrown at them, they do a phenomenal job keeping the City moving in the right direction. The idea of turning existing green-space into another parking lot does seem counter intuitive to Mayor Parker’s green initiatives though.

Regarding our variance, they have afforded the Heights community an opportunity to voice your support in their approving our parking plan.

Warehouse parking spaces

In a perfect world, we would love for you to inundate their emails with a quick note saying you support our variance to utilize existing parking, rather than turn one of the few green-spaces the community has, into another ugly parking lot.

Contact Planner Dipti Mathur [email protected]

Dipti has been graciously reading through all of these emails, but she needs to hear from you.

Also wouldn’t hurt to cc:

[email protected]

[email protected]

We also would like to invite you to the Planning Commission hearing, March 28th, at 2:30pm, to verbally support the variance. We will send a follow up email as that date approaches, with more details.

Thank you all in advance for your support. We at Coltivare look very forward to serving you for years to come, and cannot imagine doing this in another neighborhood in Houston. The Heights is our home too.

Best Regards,

Morgan Weber & Ryan Pera
Owners, Revival Market & Coltivare Houston

Here’s some background on Coltivare, and here’s a mention of the story on Eating Our Words. For what it’s worth, the neighborhood seems to support Coltivare – I’ve seen emails about this on two separate Heights discussion groups. Embedded in the post are some photos I took of the space in question. The first, if I’ve read all the emails and whatnot correctly, is where the restaurant itself would be, on the northeast corner of White Oak and Arlington. To the east of the building is the grass lot that they want to use as a vegetable garden but which current rules say needs to be used for parking. The second picture is the warehouse across Arlington, where Coltivare would lease parking space. The third photo is the view down White Oak of those parking spaces – there are a few more on Arlington as well. Where I stood to take the picture is basically where the line between the sidewalk and the parking spaces would be. One could argue that any full-size vehicle would be too long for the parking spaces, and would partially block the sidewalk. This is true, but there would still be enough room to walk around such vehicles, and this western end of White Oak has much less pedestrian traffic than the section between Oxford and Studewood does. The inconvenience for pedestrians would be minor, especially if this were only used at night by Coltivare. All in all, I see a lot of merit to their variance request. I hope the city gives it all due consideration; you of course can help with that, as noted above.

One more thing: The blue structure to the east of the Coltivare site and proposed garden is the Blue Line Bike Shop. The Heights Bike Trail is a block away to the north and to the east. I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere, but surely Coltivare will take advantage of the recent changes to the off-street parking ordinances and max out their bike parking in return for a smaller car-park-space requirement. It would just be wrong not to do so.

Another reason why bike parking matters

This comment of the day on Swamplot points out a salient fact about bike parking.

In all honesty, I only ride my bike for fun with the family on the weekends. However, after a couple of very frustrating attempts to park around White Oak to go out to dinner, I recently rode my bike down there with the family for dinner at BBs. While there is a dearth of bike racks, it was so easy to just hop on the bike path, lock up the bikes and go to dinner than weaving in and out of parking lots and side streets trying to find a space for parking. And that is why cycling will eventually become an essential for Houston. We are piling people inside the loop at an unprecedented rate. There is not enough parking in a number of hot spots (Montrose, White Oak, Washington Ave, etc.). People now live close enough to ride their bikes to go out to eat in these areas but don’t because bike amenities are woefully lacking. Or, to put it another way, if you love your car, you should support cycling so there are more parking spaces available for you.

Public House on White Oak

That comment was left on this post. Like this person, my preferred way of getting to White Oak establishments is by bike. I live close enough that driving there should be the exception, but I totally agree about the convenience of bike parking versus the hassle of car parking. The point, though, is that for places on White Oak and Washington and other high-traffic/crowded parking areas, there are basically two types of people: Those that can get there by means other than cars, and those that can’t. It’s very much in the interest of those who have to drive and park to make it as easy and convenient as possible for those that don’t have to drive so that as many of them as possible choose not to. Every one of them who chooses to walk or bike is one less car taking up a parking place, after all. The same is true for places like the Medical Center and midtown, where everyone who arrives via light rail is one less person competing with you for a parking place. The people who have to drive to these places should be the most vocal supporters of pedestrian, bicycle, and transit access to them, and the steady progress of rail line construction should should be taken as especially excellent news. It’s for their own good even if they never use those arrival methods themselves.

Along those same lines, the arrival of more bike share kiosks is as good a thing for the drivers as it is for everyone else.

With the opening of the Ensemble stop and the additional bikes, riders can for the first time check out or return a bike to a station outside the central business district. Previously only three locations — City Hall, Market Square Park and the George R. Brown Convention Center — featured a B-cycle kiosk.

According to a map on the Houston B-cycle website, a station at the Houston Zoo is coming soon.

Hair Balls has more on this. The point I’m trying to get at here is that being an occasional bicyclist is a good thing in and of itself. It’s good for you, and it’s good for the people who are driving to the places you are biking. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. Along those lines, if you look at those two Swamplot posts above, you’ll see the inevitable comments from those who claim it’s too hot in Houston to ride bikes. Well, it’s not too hot right now. In fact, it’s not too hot about nine months out of the year. Personally, I find that even when it is hot out, the nice thing about riding a bike is the cool breeze you get while riding, and at no time were you sweltering in a car that had been left out in the sun. I would also note that one of the most successful B-Cycle cities in America is Minneapolis, and their winters are at least as long and unfriendly to biking as our summers are. But so what? Like I said, this isn’t all or nothing. Bike when the weather is agreeable to you. It’s all good.

One size does not fit all, parking regulations department

This makes a lot of sense to me.

A proposed rewrite of Houston’s off-street parking rules could allow some areas to alter the new requirements or ditch them altogether, part of what Mayor Annise Parker said is an effort to allow tailored solutions in this “city of neighborhoods.”

City planners say the off-street parking ordinance, barely touched since it first was passed in 1989, has been made more flexible with the revisions, none more adaptable than the advent of “special parking areas.”

The idea would allow neighborhoods, with Planning Commission and City Council approval, to create parking districts suited to their needs. City planners say the ordinance deliberately is vague about what rule changes would be allowed and who can apply – described only as “management entities” with a “perpetual commitment” to the area – to allow applicants room to find creative solutions for their unique areas.

“What we’re trying to get away from is a one-size-fits-all policy for the city of Houston,” Parker said. “If we pass these changes, we will have the ability to structure solutions on the micro level instead of just the one macro ordinance. I’m very excited about the possibilities.”

The proposed ordinance also loosens rules on how close parking lots must be to a building’s front door, makes it easier for businesses to share parking, allows substitution of bike parking for car spaces and cuts parking for historic buildings.

There’s a lot here to like. All the places where the rules are being loosened are exactly where I’d want them to be loosened. The increasingly dense inner core is not the same as more outlying areas, and businesses in the inner core should not required to provide suburban amounts of parking for their customers if they don’t think it’s needed. Giving neighborhoods the freedom to come up with their own solutions for their own unique problems, as was done for the Washington Avenue corridor, is the way to go. I’m impressed by how flexible the city has been, and judging by the reactions from stakeholders it seems they’ve addressed a lot of their concerns. Council has now approved the changes, with a further improvement added:

Added to the changes Wednesday was an amendment, suggested by Councilwoman Melissa Noriega, that will allow businesses within a quarter-mile of a transit station to get a 20 percent reduction in parking requirements if they build to city guidelines for development in transit corridors, meant to encourage pedestrian-friendly environments.

Good job, y’all. I look forward to seeing how this develops. CultureMap has more.

In the HAUS

Meet Houston’s first housing co-op.

Technically, this is HAUS, the Houston Access to Urban Sustainability Project, a housing co-op for those willing to work for their cheap rent and board by making meals, cleaning toilets and recycling – lots of recycling.

The three founders, who had lived in or visited co-ops in other cities, began working on the concept in 2010. They wanted to create a home that was kind to the environment, affordable and close to public transportation and light rail.

One of them had purchased an old house on Rosalie in Midtown. They wanted to fill it with like-minded individuals who would promise to do things like plant gardens, hang their clean clothes outside to dry and use bikes to get around as much as possible.

“What I love about what they’re doing is they’re walking the talk,” said Laura Spanjian, the city of Houston’s sustainability director, whose job is to focus on helping “green” the city through improving air quality, energy efficiency and recycling, among other efforts.

The house itself is a sharp contrast to the fancy townhomes that have cropped up around it.

[…]

The housemates take their mission seriously.

Everyone who moves in is required to sign a “sustainability pledge.” Applicants must attend at least two house dinners before being accepted.

Everyone shares in running the houses.

Many of the residents hold officer positions to manage such house operations as maintenance, gardening and the kitchen.

The “labor czar” makes sure everyone is doing their share of the housework.

Each person is responsible for contributing five hours of labor to the house per week.

The Press wrote about HAUS back in 2011. They’ve since expanded to a second house. I might have found this appealing when I was single – I had at least one roommate for eight of the ten years I lived here before I was married, and I like the idea behind HAUS. Obviously, this isn’t for everyone. It’s a niche market, but the niche is likely to grow. People are staying single longer, and there’s a lot more interest these days in living in the urban core, near transit, but there’s a shortage of affordable housing, at least at this time. There’s a lot to like about this if you’re a fit for what they’ve got to offer. If that describes you, go to their website and put in an application. I wish these folks all the best.

City proposes bike parking alternatives

Nice.

Public House on White Oak

Bicycle advocates are cheering a city proposal that would give businesses an incentive to offer bike parking and would require some properties to provide it for the first time, saying the ideas mark a cultural shift in Houston.

“This is a first for Houston and a sign of how our city is evolving,” Mayor Annise Parker said. “It recognizes the popularity of cycling and gives a nod to the fact that there are other modes of transportation besides automobiles.”

The bike-related ideas are included in a proposed rewrite of the city’s off-street parking ordinance, largely untouched since it was passed in 1989. The proposal is expected to go before City Council soon. Debate over the rewrite mainly has focused on its impact on bars and restaurants, many of which would be required to provide more parking.

The city initially had exempted only freestanding restaurants and bars smaller than 2,000 square feet from the higher parking requirements; independent restaurateurs wanted all establishments smaller than 4,500 square feet to be exempt. The sides appear to have reached an agreement that would exempt all restaurants smaller than 3,000 square feet and all bars smaller than 2,500 square feet.

[…]

Under the proposed revisions, new retail, commercial and office buildings 5,000 square feet or larger would need to provide one bike parking space, with another bike space required for every additional 25,000 square feet, up to a maximum of six spaces.

The ordinance also would allow any property, other than single-family homes, to reduce required car parking by up to 10 percent by trading one car space for four bike spaces. A 10,000-square-foot retail business, for instance, could drop its required 40 car spaces to 36 by increasing its bike parking from the required one space to 17.

As you know, I wholeheartedly approve of this. I wouldn’t mind seeing more flexibility on trading car spaces for bike spaces, but the fact that it’s happening at all is a big deal. Even better, the group that has been agitating the most forcefully for this sort of accommodation supports the proposal.

Brian Crimmins, chief of staff in the city Planning Department, also noted that the ability of any business (except single-family homes) to trade up to 10 percent of its required parking for additional bike parking spaces would still apply to all restaurants and bars (even those exempt from the higher parking requirements). That would allow these businesses to drop their car parking to essentially match OKRA’s proposal, he said.

In an email to top city staffers confirming the agreed changes, OKRA president Bobby Heugel said his group plans to vocally support the ordinance if it moves forward as negotiated.

“The manner in which our views were received and incorporated into Chapter 26 is exciting and encouraging as OKRA is new to the local political process,” he wrote. “It’s nice to know that participation can make a difference, and that the sharing of perspectives can result in policies in which a variety of stakeholders concerns(‘) are represented.”

You can see some more detail about the proposals as well as the full text of what the city has out forward and what OKRA had countered with.

The Chron editorializes in favor of the new approach, also with a desire to see it go farther.

We’re pleased that the new regulations include cutouts that allow different neighborhoods to create systems that are right for them. Among the added flexibility – such as reducing parking requirements for historic districts, letting bicycle parking replace a certain number of car spots and allowing shared parking lots – are Special Parking Areas. These would allow management entities to set their own parking management plan – with approval from City Hall.

This flexibility makes the proposed changes a vast improvement over the previous regulations, and the folks at City Hall say they’re trying to engage business owners so they can take advantage of the new rules on day one. City Hall could show more good faith by adopting recommendations by OKRA – the Organized Kollaboration of Restaurant Affairs – to allow more types of bars to be exempted from the higher parking minimums.

Residents worried about parking overflow can protect their neighborhoods by applying for permit parking on their streets, as many cocktail fans have learned while chasing down a tow truck.

But there is a price for living in walkable, dynamic neighborhoods, and it includes folks parking in front of your house. That is a price inner-loop Houstonians should be happy to pay.

Agreed.

The off-street parking debate

I believe the new offstreet parking requirements that have been proposed and are being debated are at least as big a deal as the Chapter 42 revisions. We really need to get this right.

Public House on White Oak

Under the new rules, some eateries – dessert shops, carryout restaurants – would need less parking, but requirements on most restaurants would go from eight spaces per 1,000 square feet of floor area to 10, with most bars going from 10 spaces to 14.

The revisions also would allow neighborhoods to create special parking areas tailored to their needs, reduce parking requirements for historic buildings, allow the substitution of bike parking for car spaces, loosen rules on how close lots must be to a building’s front door and make it easier for businesses to share parking.

As Houston seeks greater density in other initiatives, Councilman Ed Gonzalez said, the city must ensure the best use of its land.

“We’re still going with the basis that we’re going to be a car-dependent community going forward,” Gonzalez said. “What about the pedestrian? How can we better align transit to meet the needs of certain neighborhoods? We should be creating conditions to create more small businesses and more jobs, not more parking lots.”

That is an argument Bobby Heugel, the force behind several nationally acclaimed Houston restaurants and bars, has been making since 2011. He helped form OKRA, an Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs, to advocate for the next wave of independent restaurateurs, who he says would be barred from the market by the proposed parking changes.

[…]

The city proposes exempting freestanding restaurants and bars smaller than 2,000 square feet from the higher parking requirements; OKRA wants the threshold set at 4,500 square feet, regardless of whether a business is freestanding. City officials say they are willing to reconsider both points.

“The only opponents we have are city officials who incorrectly interpret residential concerns,” Heugel said.

As I said before, I have some sympathy for neighborhood residents who are tired of dealing with packed streets full of overflow parkers from nearby eateries and drinkeries, but any solution that requires more paved-over spaces or that discourages future innovation and growth in Houston’s dynamic food scene is a non-starter. The problem is that there’s been a lot of growth in many established inner core neighborhoods, with a lot more residents crowded onto the original plats and new businesses moving in to formerly abandoned spaces, but without a corresponding amount of growth in transit infrastructure. The influx of people and businesses is great and desperately needed, but the huge increase in vehicular traffic and demand for parking in places that were never built to handle it isn’t. As with other places that are dealing with more traffic than they can bear, providing viable non-car alternatives has to be a key component of the solution. Allowing food and drink establishments to trade bike parking for car parking is good, but the ultimate answer is bigger than anything the bars and restaurants themselves can do. Still, we need to remember that a lot of these new places, and a lot of the planned new places, are intended to be part of the neighborhood, and for the neighborhood. Their customer bases for the most part don’t need to drive and park to get there. The off-street parking regulations need to allow them to fulfill that vision. If we’re treating a neighborhood coffee house the same way as a franchise restaurant that fronts a highway, we’re doing it wrong.

Ready or not, here comes Chapter 42

Changes are coming to Chapter 42, the section of Houston’s ordinances that deal with density and development, and to Chapter 26, the section on off-street parking for bars and restaurants and what have you.

The revisions would allow neighborhoods to create special parking areas tailored to their needs, reduce parking requirements for historic buildings, allow the substitution of bike parking for car spaces, loosen rules on how close lots must be to a building’s front door, and make it easier for businesses to share parking.

Bar and restaurant owners would be most impacted by the new rules. Some eateries – dessert shops, carryout restaurants – would need less parking, but requirements on most restaurants would go from eight spaces per 1,000 square feet of floor area to 10, with bars going from 10 to 14.

“We’re trying to redevelop our city, we’re trying to bring renewal and think over the next 10, 15, 20 years. Part of that is to build more walkability into our city,” said Councilman Ed Gonzalez. “I don’t want the parking requirements to be onerous for a small mom and pop shop. The focus should be on building more businesses in those communities, not building more parking lots just to meet, maybe, an arbitrary number that we’re coming up with.”

David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit that works on quality of life issues, has quibbles with both proposed rewrites, but said his key concern is broader.

“We’re not having the right conversation,” he said. “Rather than do all these Band-Aids – and there’s so many of them going on and they often actually disagree with each other, they’re in conflict – why don’t we just do a general plan for the future in which you say, ‘This is how we want to develop and these are the goals we want to have, and so we’ll build transportation and so forth to meet those goals.'”

[…]

“If council fails to adopt these amendments, many areas between 610 and the Beltway will remain underdeveloped, blighted and abandoned, while development will rapidly continue inside the Loop and outside the city limits,” said builder Ed Taravella.

Some residents are wary, however, saying the push for density inside the Loop has hurt neighborhood aesthetics and created infrastructure problems, compounded by a lack of city enforcement. That would only worsen if development density extends citywide, they say.

The evidence from the 1999 changes to the ordinance is clear, said Jane West, president of Super Neighborhood 22 in the Washington Avenue area.

“Although it was hoped that this redevelopment would create transit-served pedestrian-friendly environment, in most cases that has not happened. And in many cases, problems such as flooding, inadequate drainage, traffic congestion, and lack of sufficient on-street parking have worsened,” she said. “There’s no reason to believe the expansion of Chapter 42 urban standards beyond Loop 610 will yield a different result.”

What I said about this the last time still holds true. There is a need to unify the development code and treat outside the Loop in the same fashion as inside the Loop, but the issues Jane West addresses are real. Ideally, what I want to see out of this is the encouraging of development in parts of town that really need redevelopment, greater emphasis on walkability, more investment in transit, and a sense of urgency about making life closer in more attractive and affordable. A lot to ask, I know, but we only do this every couple of decades, so let’s try to get it right.

Some of the concerns about revising Chapter 42 and the effect it would have on inner Loop neighborhoods can be addressed via increased enforcement, as Mayor Parker noted in the story. I would hope that this acknowledged need for increased enforcement can be addressed in the next budget, since I’m sure there aren’t enough inspectors and whoever else is needed to handle the current caseload, let alone the caseload that would result from the hoped-for boom in construction that updating Chapter 42 would bring. I feel this is even more true for Chapter 26, the off-street parking ordinances.

Heugel’s Anvil bar is just south of the Cherryhurst neighborhood, where June Spencer is civic club president. Heugel has been a good neighbor, she said, but other area bars and clubs and the popular Hugo’s restaurant, despite its on-site parking lot, have created parking problems.

“I have them parking all along the side of my house, the front of my house. They’re loud at night, they don’t even try to be considerate. They throw garbage,” Spencer said. “They shouldn’t give these people permits to open businesses unless they have the appropriate parking.”

While I have some sympathy for folks like Ms. Spencer, let’s be real here: We don’t own the street space in front of our homes. People are allowed to park there. This is a totally normal thing in most cities. Requiring more off-street parking, especially in inner neighborhoods, will result in more parking lots and fewer new establishments being opened. Neither of these are good things. People parking on the street and then walking to a nearby restaurant or bar are not a problem. People creating disturbances and littering are problems. That can and should be dealt with in a way that doesn’t necessitate restricting parking to a special, permitted few. Let’s please aim for that. While we’re at it, let’s also encourage alternatives to more car parking such as more bike parking. We just approved $100 million plus for expanded bike trails, let’s act like we plan to use them.

Finally, as I noted yesterday, you can give feedback on these and other proposed ordinance here. This affects all of us, so if you have something to say, please make sure you say it.

Alexan Heights on Yale

If you live in my neck of the woods you’re probably interested in the news (via Swamplot) of the new apartment complex being planned for the empty lot on Yale between 6th and 7th. The RUDH January newsletter has details.

Trammel Crow Residential is planning its first project in the Heights, at the corner of Yale and 6th Streets. At their request, Council Member Cohen invited RUDH to discuss our questions and possible concerns. We prepared a three-page document outlining concerns that ranged from potential traffic impacts, streetscape greening and sidewalk connectivity, safe signalized crossings for pedestrians and cyclists, proposed connections to existing bike trails and park spaces and a desire to ensure the appropriate architectural style to fit the fabric of our neighborhood. RUDH also coordinated with the landscape architectural firm that proposed designs to facilitate converting the new drainage detention pond into community park space (south of the hike and bike path and next to Rutland). At the moment, there are currently no plans in place to make the new drainage detention pond into useable green space.

The good news from the meeting is that Trammel Crow is interested in working with RUDH and community leaders to transform this drainage detention pond into a public green space amenity. The developer also communicated their interest in investing in the surrounding streetscapes and infrastructure in a manner that promotes mobility and creates safe connections for pedestrians and cyclists.

Trammel Crow Residential has committed to share their traffic and drainage studies with RUDH when they become available and stated they would perform mitigations as required by the City. We are hopeful this positive collaboration will lead to a sustainable development and mitigate any newly created problems.

The bit about turning the detention pond into usable green space is interesting and encouraging; see this Swamplot post for more on the pond, which has been under construction for awhile. I don’t know why it is that 6th Street doesn’t go through to Shepherd, but given that it doesn’t a well-landscaped community park is an excellent use of the space. I hope RUDH and the neighborhood folks can help make it happen.

Houston’s BikeScore

Some parts of Houston are very bike friendly. Others, not so much.

Houston ranks in the middle of the road when it comes to overall bike friendliness, but some local neighborhoods are cycling nirvanas, according to BikeScore.com.

The company, which uses census and area commercial information to assess how bike-able communities are, recently updated its maps to include the ability to search a specific address. Click here and plug in your address and it’ll spit out a walk score, and if applicable a bike score, too.

The numbers might surprise you. I plugged in a downtown address, near Market Square Park, and got a score of 82 on a 100-point scale, which is not bad for Houston. I’ll also note it got that grade for being “flat as a pancake,” and for having established bike lanes.

Addresses in The Heights received scores in the high-60s. A Pleasantville address got a 52.

The Montrose and Rice Village neighborhoods scored the best. Many addresses close to Westheimer Road and Alabama Street scored in the upper-80s, in larger part because they have easy access to grocery stores, pharmacies and other amenities.

The city overall scored a 49 out of 100, but as you can see from the map it really depends on where you are. You can read about the methodology here. Personally, I think they ought to account for weather as well. Houston may not be quite as geared towards bikes as Chicago, for example, but I’ll bet we have bike-amenable weather for more of the year than they do. And yes, I consider the summertime to be bike-amenable. One of the nice things about bike riding is that there’s always a breeze. I don’t feel hot when biking in hot weather. Maybe it’s just me, but I think weather and climate ought to be a consideration. Anyway, note that Houston scored better than Austin – our lack of hills is an asset here – and other cities in Texas were not yet rated. Check it out.

Chapter 42 is back

This is going to be fun.

Sprawling, boomtown Houston may be in for another battle over land use and development, this time driven by the most significant changes proposed to the city’s building rules in 13 years.

The rewrite would further a push for density in single-family development, begun inside Loop 610 when the rules were last changed in 1999, by extending those guidelines citywide. The proposed changes also would address problems that have cropped up with the townhomes that proliferated after the 1999 revision, which designated the Inner Loop “urban” and areas outside “suburban.”

City planners and developers say greater single-family density – allowing more homes to be built on a single acre – will spur redevelopment of blighted areas and provide more affordable housing in the city because builders will be able to fit more buyers on each piece of land, lowering the price they have to charge for each house or townhome. They stress the changes would not encourage more apartment towers.

Many residents are wary. Some say the push for greater density inside the Loop has sacrificed neighborhood aesthetics and created infrastructure problems, compounded by a lack of city enforcement. Others fear how the proposal will affect their neighborhoods.

Change can be scary for residents, Planning Department Director Marlene Gafrick acknowledged, but said redevelopment is better than decline.

“We have an aging city. We need to think about how we go in and allow for our city to be updated,” she said. “To some extent, these rules will encourage the redevelopment of property. We’re trying to encourage more single-family residential development outside the 610 Loop.”

On the one hand, this update should allow more dense development throughout the city of Houston, which in turn should make new development in Houston more affordable, and thus make living within the city more competitive with living out in the burbs. This is a good and necessary goal, and though I have expressed concerns about this in the past, I support it, as I have come to the view that the city needs to do what it can to encourage people to live inside its boundaries. Making housing more affordable is a good step in that direction. But the concerns I had before still remain, in that the city’s infrastructure will be greatly taxed by an influx of denser development. Rebuild Houston will deal with some of this, Parks By You will deal with some of this, and the rail lines that are currently under construction and whatever expansion of the bus system we get will deal with some more of it, but it’s not enough. We’ll need a lot more transit – all the rail we voted for in 2003 and then some, and a much bigger emphasis on sidewalks, walkability, and bicycle access. I feel like we’re moving in the right direction, but I worry about how long it will take us to get where we need to be.