Downtown suburbia

Lisa Gray writes approvingly of a forthcoming urban development in Sugar Land.

A far bigger project in the works is the Imperial, a 715-acre development that includes the site of the defunct Imperial Sugar refinery – the factory that built Sugar Land, the old industrial center of what was once a company town.

The walkable, bike-friendly development will include a baseball stadium for the minor-league Skeeters; housing (single-family, multifamily and assisted living); restaurants and bars; and an office park. It’ll give spread-out Sugar Land something that feels like the tight-packed middle of town, the place where things happen – something that the area seems hungry for. Even without any residential development at all on the site, the brand-new Saturday farmers market already attracts around 5,000 shoppers from the surrounding neighborhoods.

In the last decade, high-density town-center developments like that have sprouted all over Houston’s suburbs, creating some lively places: among them, Woodlands Town Center, Pearland Town Center and, of course, Sugar Land Town Square. The thing that makes Imperial different is that it isn’t being created entirely from scratch on a bulldozed site. Unlike those other brand-new town centers, it’ll have some history to it.

That sounds great, and some day when I go to a Skeeters game I will be sure to walk around and check it out. I find myself amused by the trend Gray notes of dense urban development being in far-flung suburbia, all of which are places that had been built originally so people could escape the urban environment. Not such a bad thing after all, apparently.

Here in Houston as you know we are undergoing a review of Chapter 42, our land development ordinance, to update the codes that allow and restrict dense development in the city. Nancy Sarnoff has an update on that.

The city of Houston is revisiting changes to its development code that were proposed three years ago but never adopted.

The revisions include expanding the city’s “urban area” to Beltway 8 and requiring additional parking in high-density, single-family developments.

If the changes are approved, developments common in Houston’s inner city, such as compact clusters of townhomes, would be allowed outside the loop, too. Certain neighborhoods, however, would have tools to protect their traditional character.

Click here for the proposed ordinance and a summary of the changes.

City Council will have a public hearing about this new set of changes on Wednesday, December 7, at 9 AM. I don’t feel like I understand what’s going on with this well enough to comment about it. The related parking issues we’ve discussed, but the rest of this is still somewhat formless in my mind. The full Chron story that followed adds another wrinkle to this.

“If you can put a few more homes on a lot, you’re able to sometimes keep those price points down where you can provide some affordability,” said Suzy Hartgrove, a spokeswoman for the city’s Planning & Development Department.


Mike Dishberger, townhome developer and president of the Greater Houston Builders Association, who served on the city committee that worked on the revisions, said the proposed changes could actually result in less development inside the Loop.

That’s because there’s more available land in the suburban areas, he said, and the loosened density restrictions will allow them to build more homes in smaller spaces.

“It changes all the economics of it,” he said.

This is a corollary of what Matt Yglesias was saying when he noted that you generally don’t have to “encourage” downtown-style office development, you just have to allow it. Of course, there is still a fair amount of space inside the Loop that could be ripe for this kind of development. I don’t know what you have to do to get it to happen there, but I do know we should be thinking about it more than we currently are.

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One Response to Downtown suburbia

  1. Peter Wang says:

    The people in Sugar Land and The Woodlands have their thinking-caps on straight about how to naturally evolve toward urban development in a way that will best support the lives of their residents. Unincorporated places, not so much. It take talent, time, and money to do planning. Gee… sometimes you need more focused local government.

    Maybe we who pay 1% METRO sales tax and who see NOTHING from it within 5 miles of our homes should keep that 1% for local planning efforts and end up with something like Sugar Land’s The Imperial in our immediate neighborhoods.

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