I think most people who choose to live in Houston’s urban core would agree that density is a good thing as a general rule. Density done in a half-assed way, which has been Houston’s trademark, not so much.
Density hasn’t been kind to Cottage Grove, a small neighborhood with narrow streets, few sidewalks, poor drainage and scarce parking for the owners of its many new homes and their guests.
Like many neighborhoods inside Loop 610, Cottage Grove in recent years has experienced a flurry of construction of large townhomes that loom over 80-year-old cottages next door. Two or three dwellings crowd sites where one house stood previously. Streets are cluttered with vehicles parked every which way. Water stands in the streets after heavy rains.
“It was shocking to see this jewel of a neighborhood in this condition,” said former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, a senior fellow with the nonprofit Urban Land Institute who toured Cottage Grove two years ago. “It was about the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, to be honest with you.”
The issues in Cottage Grove and other central Houston neighborhoods are on the minds of city officials, neighborhood leaders and others as the city considers the first major revisions to its development code in a decade. The proposed amendments were prompted in part by indications that pressure for dense new development is spreading to the area between Loop 610 and Beltway 8.
Marlene Gafrick, Houston’s planning and development director, said her department’s proposal to extend Houston’s “urban area” from the Loop to the Beltway would give dozens of neighborhoods tools to protect their traditional character and quality of life, such as procedures to petition for minimum lot sizes and building lines.
Some neighborhood leaders on both sides of the Loop, however, worry the measures don’t go far enough to prevent flooding, protect open space or ensure adequate parking. They see the proposals as an extension of the same approach that produced current conditions in neighborhoods such as Cottage Grove.
You can see plenty of other examples of this. The part of north Montrose where I used to live before moving to the Heights is another good example, filled with narrow streets that used to house small bungalows that now feature fewer bungalows surrounded by three-story crammed-in town homes. Streets that used to have a few cars parked on them here and there are now full on both sides – some streets, like the block of Van Buren where I had resided, now restrict parking to one side only – making passage difficult. Longtime residents have been negatively affected by all this.
It didn’t have to be this way. A lot of these old neighborhoods had been in decline and really a shot in the arm from new construction. It just needed to be done in a way that recognized their needs and limits. Improving sidewalks and ensuring that the drainage system could take the increased capacity would have helped. Pairing all this new inner-core growth with expansions and upgrades to public transit, including a more aggressive approach to building out light rail, and making more mixed-use development possible where it made sense, would have made a huge difference. We can’t undo what has been done, but we can try to stop repeating these mistakes, and we can try to address some of the now more urgent needs these neighborhoods have. We even know what needs to be done. The question is, when City Council takes up the new ordinance in August, will we do it, or will we continue down the same path as before?