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Bringing the suburbs into town

An interesting article from Sunday about the battles, philosophical and otherwise, between residents in Midtown, which is just south of downtown Houston, and developers. Midtown is one of the few places now where you can see real mixed-use development. With its close proximity to downtown, and with the free downtown shuttle that passes through, it’s an attractive place for people who don’t want a long commute to live.

IAN Rosenberg watches every move in Midtown. A passionate advocate of urban living, he has been pleased with some of the neighborhood’s development.

But the sight of a bulldozer at Gray and Bagby makes his blood boil.

He and other Midtown community leaders are trying to create something unique in Houston: a charming neighborhood where people walk to their favorite bookshop, diner, movie house and grocery — a bustling retail and residential mix.

It’s a challenge, because they’re going against the Houston grain.

At Gray and Bagby, CVS Pharmacy is constructing a suburban-style store, with a parking lot in front, next to the spot Midtown leaders are holding up as the model of what the neighborhood should be. They say the drugstore’s suburban design may destroy much of what they’re trying to do.

The CVS/Midtown conflict is emblematic of a bigger struggle in Houston, pitting the developer-friendly, suburban car culture against the effort to create a walkable urban environment designed to attract the “creative class” of young professionals who are said to drive 21st century economies.

CVS sees it differently: Focused on the present, it wants to lure the tens of thousands of commuters driving to and from downtown each day with easy parking.

“You can’t have a store that looks pretty but creates barriers to customer use,” said Todd Andrews, CVS’ director of corporate communications. “They’ll go somewhere else.”

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. I think CVS is wrong, as Midtown really didn’t exist a decade ago and is pretty clearly populated by people who want to live in a mixed-use area, but that doesn’t mean it will suffer at the cash register. It’s only now that amenities like drugstores and grocery stores are being built in this area, and so residents may not have much choice about who they patronize unless they want to drive elsewhere, which defeats the whole point. On the other hand, the more pedestrian-friendly Randall’s may wind up giving CVS a lesson in being a good neighbor. It’ll be fun to watch.

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9 Comments

  1. David says:

    Much the same thing happened in Austin in the Hyde Park area. Strangely, in the end the pharmacy (this one was an Eckerd’s) in question built appropriately — putting the store on the corner against the sidewalk and the parking lot in the back. But about two blocks away, a chain restaurant went ahead and used their standard suburban design, so everyone was still annoyed. Of course that was seven years ago when the big deal was how the “triangle” was going to be developed. In the end the fights went on so long that the economy cratered, and last time I was in Austin (at Easter) the triangle was still unsullied meadow!

  2. Mike says:

    Why does it have to be all or nothing? A few years ago, Conservative pushed to give the C.O.H. Planning & Development Department the power to enforce zoning ordinances. Liberals outweighed in the voting booths, thus no zoning ordinances are in place. That said, who is to say what a neighborhood “should be?”

    In Houston, that happens to be each and every individual property owner. That’s why we have palm readers, massage ‘therapists’, adult bookstores, attorneys, bars, and the like all operating in what used to be residential edifices. This is clearly a ‘not in my backyard’ argument. In reality, those in Midtown have no argument at all. They knew what they were getting into: An unregulated area trying to lure development dollars.

    People are still going to be driving downtown every day. People will still visit the CVS, driving or walking. 20 years from now, there still will be a small minority who risk the walk at nightime. Despite the best efforts of any inner city area to revitalize, this area in particular will always be relatively unsafe. It lies directly between the homeless shelters on the northside of downtown, and the Veterans’ Administration and Ben Taub hospitals in the Medical Center. Then there’s the bus station, what a mess!

    If you want to do something about the developmental pattern of Houston, don’t just stand by and complain about your neighbor. Focus, raise the cash, and campaign for zoning laws.

    A final tidbit: The largest city in the U.S. w/o zoning laws is Houston. Care to guess what the second largest is?……Baytown. What a population jump!!!

  3. Matt says:

    Sadly, contruction on the Triangle (where Lamar and Guadaloupe come together) has finally begun. There’s a fence around it, and pickup trucks are parked constantly on it. It’s only a matter of time before the green space is gone.

  4. Mike says:

    I guess everyone got tired of sitting in Austin traffic. Seems like if you want to go to any chain retail outlet, you have to suffer through the traffic to get out of town to places such as Pflugerville, Round Rock, Leander, and such.

    With such a green political base, it’s kind of humorous how if those folks had spent as much time raising funds as they did protesting the development, they could have purchased the land and designated it’s indefinite use a green space. Good organization with poor planning and unrealistic goals fails every time.

    That’s a tough pill for a lot of those folks to swallow. However, I guarantee that you’ll find the same protestors shopping there (instead of boycotting the businesses). It will be just like all of the green space on the State Hospital property that was developed into an HEB Central Market, condos, and retail outlets. There was a lot of complaining, but in the end, development won out.

    If they had rallied to raise the funds, it would have been an easy victory. Developers won’t through money down the toilet just to have the feeling that they won against the green politicos. They know where to draw the line and invest elsewhere. Frivelous spending and emotional based tactics is NOT how they made their money.

  5. A few years ago, Conservative pushed to give the C.O.H. Planning & Development Department the power to enforce zoning ordinances. Liberals outweighed in the voting booths, thus no zoning ordinances are in place.

    It’s been awhile, but I don’t recall the zoning referendum as being a straight left/right issue. In fact, I recall that developers were generally against it because it infringed on their right to build what they wanted where they wanted to. On the other hand, the anti-establishment weekly Public News was also against zoning. I think if this were to come up for a vote again, you’d see a spectrum of proponents and opponents.

  6. Mike says:

    Point well taken Charles. However, some of the heavy hitters in town were indeed pro-zoning. Hines (Gerald) Interests and Hammes were two that paid for full page advertisements in the Houston Chronicle.

    Folks such as Farb, Gables Residential Trust, and a few other residential builders are saw fit to lobby the Greater Houston Builders Association (GHBA) along with the Associated General Contractors (AGC) as proponents.

    I’m sure there were those against it, such as those looking to redefine uses for specific properties. That might include the parcel of land just west and south of the intersections of Montrose and Washington. This former rice dryer and heavy machinery fabrication parcel lent itself to similar types of business development. However, thanks to the Lanier administration’s efforts, the city coughed up the cash to completely replace the storm drainage (which I believe we can all consider a good thing), underground natural gas and domestic water piping. This cost the city dearly just so those wanting to change the end-use could build condominiums.

    I’m happy it happened, even at my tax dollar expense. I’m happy with what is happening in Midtown. I’m saddened that they didn’t bury the power lines in any of the instances. All I’m saying is don’t be upset when they build a porno theatre next to your $350K / 2000 square foot condo. You know what you’re getting into when you move in from the burbs. Frankly, you should expect it because strangers things have and will continue to happen.

  7. All I’m saying is don’t be upset when they build a porno theatre next to your $350K / 2000 square foot condo. You know what you’re getting into when you move in from the burbs. Frankly, you should expect it because strangers things have and will continue to happen.

    Agreed, which is why the oft-maligned (sometimes justifiably so) deed restrictions must come into play. My neighborhood has been going through that, and it’s a very time and labor-intensive process. In the case of the Midtown folks, it would seem that the developers had the advantage because of that. I don’t know what the right answer is in this case.

  8. Greg Morrow says:

    It may be worth pointing out that “mixed-use” developments like Midtown require high-density housing to sustain–the same “lot-busting” apartments that folks often complain about one breath away from complaints about suburban sprawl.

    If you want your neighborhood to be an old-style urban neighborhood with the energy, diversity, convenience, and lifestyle of Manhattan, it as a necessary consequence has to have the population density of Manhattan.

  9. That’s true, Greg, but there’s a big difference between plopping a couple of lotbusters down in an established neighborhood between two 1200 square foot bungalows, and developing an entire formerly empty block of them. Midtown, which really has mostly apartments and condos now, is a fine place for townhouse farms. In most of the Heights and Montrose, they’re eyesores.