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sidewalks

System reimagining is going to be hard

Because change is hard. It always is.

Transit officials might have reimaginged bus service in the Houston area, but the riders who rely on it for daily trips are asking them to rethink it again.

Since the redesigned bus system was approved in February, concerned riders have appeared at every Metropolitan Transit Authority board meeting worried the changes will leave some riders — notably elderly and low-income Metro users — a farther walk from convenient bus stops and with less effective bus service. Those concerns amplified this week during public hearings to discuss the changes.

Dozens of riders, ranging from disabled transit-dependent downtown workers to late-shift restaurant employees at Houston’s airports to elderly users afraid of half-mile walks, have voiced concerns about the new bus network, set to debut Aug. 16.

“It is the only transportation I have,” said Sharon Bomar, one of many residents of a senior apartment building at 2100 Memorial to oppose the changes.

This is going to be hard. It was hard work getting to here, and it will be hard going forward. This change affects everyone who currently rides a Metro bus, and some of those people will be worse off as a result. The goal, and the hope, is that far more people will be better off, and that some number of people who currently don’t ride Metro buses will be persuaded to do so because the new routes are sufficiently more convenient for them. But again, some people are going to lose. They’re likely the only ones showing up at a meeting like this, since there’s not much for those who like the new routes to say. The good news for Ms. Bomar and her neighbors is that an alternate route that restores her service has been proposed, and it already has the approval of board member Christof Spieler. If any further changes are coming, I figure that will be one of them.

Along with the route displacement, residents in northeastern and southern Houston have raised numerous concerns, including a lack of sidewalks to get to bus stops.

“Look at the reality of my mama, your mama, a grandmother having to walk four blocks for the bus,” Houston Councilman Dwight Boykins told Metro officials.

Boykins, who said he is exploring what the city can do to improve streets and sidewalks, noted some bus stops are “so close to an open ditch that I am sure (riders) fear they will fall in.”

“The last thing I need is for one of my senior citizens to have to walk, and then get hit by a car waiting for the bus,” Boykins said.

No question better sidewalks would be a huge help here, but that’s not something Metro can control. They can do more to improve stops, especially at transfer points, and we should expect to see more shelters at stops thanks to the extra sales tax revenue that Metro is receiving. The thing is, I don’t think we will be able to judge how good the new system is until people start using it. Does ridership increase? Do people say they like it? How does Metro adjust if things don’t go as well as hoped? We’ll see what changes they make in response to this feedback, then we’ll see how it goes in August. Let’s please have a little patience and some appreciation of the fact that there will be some bumps in the road no matter what.

Fixing sidewalks

I like this.

Houston’s leaders often decry the condition of city sidewalks, whether missing, overgrown or buckled by tree roots. Then there’s the safety risks when pedestrians are forced to walk on the crumbling concrete or adjacent streets.

But the city is unwilling to assume responsibility for all sidewalks in Houston – or foot the accompanying billion-dollar bill. That’s why Mayor Annise Parker and City Council members instead are discussing making it easier for homeowners to keep their own sidewalks up to par.

The council [considered] hiring two sidewalk repair contractors with whom fixed prices have been negotiated, as well as changes to city rules that would waive the need to submit detailed plans up front and more than $100 in permitting and related fees homeowners today must pay when replacing sections of sidewalk.

Countless homeowners do not know city rules make them responsible for their own sidewalks, Parker said, but for those who know, the new program could help residents unsure of whom to call for a fix.

“This is designed to allow an easy process for a citizen to say, ‘I want to repair my sidewalk, I want a contractor I can trust, I want to know what the fair price is,’ ” Parker said. “They don’t have to hire our contractors, but we’ve vetted the contractors, we’ve established a price. Even if they don’t use ours, we think it will be helpful because they can go and say, ‘I can go to the city and this is what I’ll pay … can you beat that price?’ ”

The program would allow residents to fill out a form on the Department of Public Works and Engineering website, triggering a visit from a city employee who would decide if the repair was feasible, and, if so, give the homeowner a cost estimate. The homeowner could then pay the city, which would collect a 7 percent administrative fee and pass the rest of the money to one of the preselected contractors. City staff would inspect the company’s work afterward.

The ordinance was passed unanimously by Council on Wednesday. You did know that homeowners are responsible for fixing their own sidewalks, right? As the story notes, this is far from unique to Houston. Ideally, what this plan will do is make it easier, and perhaps a bit cheaper, for someone who wants to do that to get it done. How much effect that will have is unclear to me, but it’s a simple enough thing to do and it won’t cost the city anything. There’s plenty of sidewalk to fix in this town, so every little bit helps.

Uptown needs bikes

So says this op-ed.

Always susceptible to gridlock, especially at Christmastime, the traffic jams now happen year-round and last longer each day. Clearly, Uptown badly needs convenient, reliable alternatives to cars for the tens of thousands of workers and residents who live, work and shop in the area, the largest business district in the nation outside of a traditional downtown.

One such alternative is bicycling. Houston has made impressive progress in recent years to make bicycling safer and more convenient.

The Bayou Greenways Initiative, Safe Passing Law and Complete Streets policy are recent examples, and an updated Bikeway Master Plan, now underway, will identify additional on- and off-street facilities to fill in the gaps in Houston’s bikeway network.

Uptown, however, remains dangerous to navigate by bike, especially during rush hour. Surrounded on three sides by major freeways, there are few safe options to enter the area by bike. Once there, a cyclist must navigate streets designed solely to move cars as quickly as possible, with few accommodations for cyclists. Post Oak Boulevard, Uptown’s signature street, is an obvious example. While biking there can be a death-defying experience, even walking is a daunting and frightening prospect, with sidewalks located right next to speeding traffic.

The proposed Uptown dedicated bus lanes project (“Bus project along Post Oak appears ready to roll ahead” Page B3, Jan. 29) will provide one alternative to driving, especially for commuters in the suburbs who have access to park and ride routes that run to the existing Northwest and proposed Bellaire/Uptown transit centers. The project features a total rebuild of Post Oak Boulevard to add dedicated bus lanes in the middle, while preserving existing lanes for cars.

Unfortunately, the plan as currently proposed includes no bike lanes, and maintains wide, high-speed main traffic lanes. Thus, while it will provide an alternative to driving for suburban commuters, the current dedicated bus lane plan does nothing for Uptown workers who live close enough to bike to work, but who won’t risk their lives (and their families’ livelihoods) to do so. It also does little for local residents who might like to bike to local shops and restaurants or into adjoining neighborhoods and parks, including Memorial Park (now a part of the Uptown tax increment reinvestment zone.)

Adding dedicated bike lanes to the dedicated bus lane project would provide an additional alternative to those who want access to shops, workplaces and restaurants along Post Oak, as well as provide connectivity to adjoining neighborhoods, Memorial Park and the Greater Houston bikeway network.

Bike lanes would also enhance the pedestrian realm by providing a buffer between sidewalks and automobile traffic.

I agree completely. It doesn’t make sense to spend all that money redoing Post Oak Lane and not end up with a street that is more bike and pedestrian friendly. There are two ways to deal with excessive traffic in destinations like Uptown: Make it easier to get there without driving, primarily for commuters, and make it easier for those who are already there to get around within the area without driving. Downtown does both of those things. Uptown is working on the first one, with the BRT line and the HOV lane. It really needs to do the other, and the opportunity to do that begins with the BRT line construction on Post Oak. I want to be clear that this is the Uptown Management District’s responsibility. Metro will operate the BRT line once it is built, but the Management District is doing the design and construction. Please do it right the first time, y’all.

Remaking Allen Parkway

It’ll be different, but it makes sense.

Next summer, after workers have spent months shifting lanes, adding crosswalks and planting trees, Allen Parkway will be a parkway again, at the cost of a slight slowing of vehicle traffic and the reintroduction of traffic signals.

Partnering with the Downtown Houston Management District, city officials expect to start construction on a redesigned parkway after July 4, the date of the Freedom Over Texas celebration in Eleanor Tinsley Park just north of the parkway. The goal, downtown district president Bob Eury said, is to finish the work in time for Free Press Summer Fest in late May 2016.

When completed, the $10 million in changes planned will improve pedestrian and bicyclist access from Midtown and Montrose to the Buffalo Bayou park system and add up to 175 parking spaces for visitors to the growing outdoor offerings along the bayou.

“The goal we have is how do we improve access to this park,” said Andy Icken, chief development officer for the city.

[…]

The work planned doesn’t dramatically change the parkway’s design, only its intersections and medians. Allen Parkway is essentially three strips of pavement separated by small concrete medians. The westbound and eastbound main lanes are accompanied by an access road south of the parkway.

The redesign shifts the eastbound and westbound lanes south and converts the existing westbound lanes into an access road and parking area.

Between the lanes, officials plan grassy medians planted with small trees, meant to calm traffic and bring back some sense of an enjoyable drive.

“We are making Allen Parkway a real parkway and not a raceway,” [CM Ellen] Cohen said.

The most dramatic adjustment for drivers will be signals at four key places.

At Dunlavy, Taft and Gillette, traffic signals will give pedestrians and drivers a safer way to turn onto the parkway. Closer to downtown, officials plan a pedestrian-activated crossing, similar to the signals used along the new light rail line near the University of Houston campus.

The light stays green most of the time until activated by someone needing to cross the street. It then warns drivers by following the traditional shift from green to yellow to red, stopping traffic to let the person cross, then turning green again.

As a driver, I will miss the stoplight-free experience (except for Taft Street eastbound) that has always made Allen Parkway such a pleasure. As someone who would like to take more advantage of the new dog park and other non-car amenities, I approve. There’s no safe place to cross the street east of Montrose. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen, so taking action now is the right move. As the story notes, those lights will be green most of the time, and will add at most a minute to one’s driving time end to end. We can all live with that. If you need something to help you achieve inner peace with this, let me recommend the Psalm for Allen Parkway, which I’m going to copy here because I can’t believe that the defunct Houstonist website is still available:

1 On Allen from Shepherd, I shall not stop.

2 She maketh me to drive down concrete pastures:
she weaveth me beside the brown waters

3 She adoreth my stroll:
she leadeth me to the paths of Montroseness or the Waugh’s take.

4 Yea, though I haul through the valley of the radar of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art speedy;
the cops on Memorial they shake fists at me.

5 Thou preparest a jog path before me in the presence of El’nor Tinsley:
thou doth pointest to down-town toil,
my trip almost over.

6 Surely good views quite worthy shall carry me all through haze and the blight:
and I will dwell on your curves with my Ford forever.

Amen.

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Transportation

Preliminaries

Please note that I have called this part of my manifesto “Transportation” and not “Traffic”. I agree that traffic sucks and that the Mayoral candidates ought to have some ideas for how to deal with it. It’s my opinion that the best answers involve providing as many viable alternatives to getting into the car and contributing to the problem as possible. I believe a lot of progress on this has been made under Mayor Parker, but there’s a lot of unfinished business, a lot of business that’s just getting started, and a lot of business that hasn’t started or may not even be on the drawing board yet, but needs to be. I’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get started.

Metro

The reclamation and revitalization of Metro has been one of Mayor Parker’s greatest successes. That agency was a dumpster fire when she took office – I had no idea how far off track it had gotten. It was Mayor Parker’s appointment of a stellar Metro Board and their subsequent tabbing of George Greanias as CEO/general fix-it man that started the salvation process and got us to where we are now, on the cusp of the last two rail lines opening, the bus reimagining, the marginal sales tax revenue collection, and the generally restored trust in the agency by stakeholders and the public. All Mayors get to appoint their own Metro boards. It should be a priority for all of the Mayoral candidates to ensure they appoint a Board as good as this one has been, and to build on the good work they have done.

Rail

As noted, by the time the next Mayor is inaugurated, all of the current Metro rail construction (with the exception of the Harrisburg line overpass and extension) will be done. With the Universities line in limbo, you’d think that might be the end of rail construction for the foreseeable future, but that’s far from the case. The Uptown BRT line is expected to be operational by mid-2017. There are three commuter rail lines under discussion, one of which – the US90A Southwest Rail Corridor (SWRC) line – was included in the 2003 Metro referendum and which was moving forward as recently as 2012 before being put on hold while the other lines were being finished. Another proposed commuter rail line, along the 290 corridor, would connect to the Uptown BRT line and might wind up sharing space, if not tracks, with the proposed Houston to Dallas high-speed rail line. That privately-financed venture, which is undergoing environmental review and discussion with potentially affected communities, is still seeking a terminus in Houston, and while downtown is preferred it presents some big challenges. One possible solution to that might be to have it end at the Northwest Transit Center, and connect to a light rail line that would need to be built and which could be shared with that 290 corridor commuter line. It’s hard to know how much of this might happen – very little is set in stone, and much could change, or could just not come about – but the potential is there for a lot more rail to be built, and while the Mayor would not be directly involved in any of this, it’s fair to say that he could have an impact on the outcome if he wanted to. For that matter, who’s to say that the Universities line couldn’t move forward someday? I want a Mayor that’s willing and able to advocate for and abet these projects.

Bicycles

As has been noted several times, Houston is a much more bike-friendly city now than it was a few years ago. We have a growing bike share program, an extensive and also growing network of off-road bike trails, a pioneer dedicated on-road bike lane downtown to help connect one trail to another, a local safe passing ordinance with a more comprehensive plan for bike safety in the works, and we have tweaked parking requirement regulations to enable bike parking. But as with rail, with all that progress there is much to be done. Most of the bike trail work has yet to be done; for the work that has been enabled by the passage of a bill making CenterPoint rights of way available as bike paths, it’s still in the conceptual stage. B-Cycle has been a big success but some kiosks are more successful than others, and it’s all still within biking distance of downtown. Moving it farther out, and integrating it more tightly with existing and future transit should be on the to do list. And of course, better connecting people to the present and future bike infrastructure, perhaps via Neighborhood Greenways or something similar, needs to be on it as well. More people on bikes means fewer people in cars. Surely that will help ease traffic woes a bit.

Pedestrians and sidewalks

Again, there is progress here, with Complete Streets and a focus on making residential streets more residential. But Houston is a dangerous place to walk, and a lot of streets have no sidewalks or essentially useless sidewalks. Improving the pedestrian experience is key to making transit more attractive. Improving pedestrian safety may require lowering speed limits. What do our Mayoral hopefuls think about these things?

Roads

So, um, what’s going on with ReBuild Houston? It would be nice to get some clear direction, and a lot more regular information, on that. Beyond that, all I really care about is keeping an eye on TxDOT and making sure they don’t do anything too destructive to existing infrastructure and neighborhoods in their quest to do something with I-45. The next Mayor needs to stay on top of that and do whatever it takes to prevent anything bad from happening.

That’s my view of transportation issues. What would you add to this list?

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.

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.

Neighborhood Greenways

I really like this idea.

Complete Streets means that our local governments prioritize the safety and comfort of all a street’s users regardless of age, ability, or mode of transport. Fixing our streets will be a long-term project, but if we head in the right direction, we will have neighborhoods for our grandchildren to live healthier, happier and more prosperous lives.

Now is the time to make the next big push.

It’s time to build on the Bayou Greenways network, the remarkable trail system that brought together Harris County Flood Control District, the City of Houston, the Houston Parks Board, voters and private funders. Bayou Greenways simultaneously improve flood control, add green space, and provide safe, attractive hike-and-bike trails. If we connect Bayou Greenways to other trails — including the Utility Line Easement Hike and Bike Trail concept — the Houston region will have a massive large-scale grid allowing safe long-distance trips.

That will all be terrific once you’re on that network, on one of those trails. But even if the trail network expands radically, before we can use it, we have to get there from our homes.

The Houston region needs something new — not just Bayou Greenways, but Neighborhood Greenways that would connect those trails to all users, regardless of age, ability, or mode of transport.

[…]

Houston could add 200 miles of Neighborhood Greenways for $50 million — roughly the same cost as adding two lanes to one mile of freeway. We could connect most of the Houston region’s dense urban core — the Inner Loop and the same-sized area just west of the 610 Loop — with safe walking, biking, and driving infrastructure for less than 5 percent of one year’s regional transportation spending budget. For about 10 percent of that regional budget, we could connect most of the city of Houston. That small investment would create a Houston that is dramatically more family-friendly for generations to come.

See here for a full presentation of Neighborhood Greenways. The basic idea is to use side streets as connectors to bike trails and the like, with some modifications to these side streets to make them safer and more attractive to bikes and pedestrians. It’s another way to extend the already-growing network of hike and bike trails, since in order to take advantage of them you have to get to them in the first place. It’s a concept that’s being used in other cities, like Portland and Seattle. The cost of all this is fairly small, and there are federal funds available. What’s not to like? As I’ve said before, there’s no one big solution to reducing traffic and adding capacity. There are a lot of smaller solutions that together add up to much more. It’s up to us to take advantage of these smaller solutions.

Astrodome Park: The population isn’t the problem

Greg Wythe addresses one of the central questions about the proposed Astrodome Park in this comment that I thought was worth highlighting on the front page.

As it turns out, there are a number of apartments situated to the east and north of the Dome. Checking Census data, the counts on the area “un-highlighted” in this map view comes to 13,360 for the immediate Dome walking area.

If we look at just downtown, we have only 4,690 total people there to seed Discovery Green with foot traffic. So, on the surface, the Dome area is significantly better situated. If we factor in Midtown and a generous interpretation of EaDo, we get 13,243 people in the “un-highlighted” version of the downtown map. Still less than would be accessible to the Dome park.

Both maps are from roughly the same elevation, so the expanse of territory of those maps should give a good interpretation. Obviously, not all parts of downtown (let alone Midtown or EaDo) are considered “walkable” to Discovery Green and not all parts of the Med Center apartments are going to be “walkable” to a Dome park.

But even if the downtown area were more populated, I don’t think it would make a case in and of itself – highways and a rail line to the Dome generally mean easier access. If there’s a problem with the proposal, proximate population and access aren’t going to be among them.

Greg’s input – and his maps! – are always appreciated around here, so I’m glad he was inspired to do this bit of research. I have three takeaways from it.

1. It seems clear that the residential population around the Astrodome is not an impediment to it becoming a successful park like Discovery Green. Honestly, when you think about it, Houston’s best parks – here we include Hermann and Memorial, for starters – are destinations. People get there by whatever means is most practical to enjoy their amenities. If Astrodome Park is worth going to, people will go to it.

2. That said, I wouldn’t completely dismiss the walkability question, nor the point that Astrodome Park would be a small oasis of green surrounded by a sprawling desert of asphalt, which may have a dampening effect on attendance. Walkability is about more than just distance to travel, it’s about the experience and utility of walking as a mode of transportation. People associate walking with downtown, if only because wherever you’re going downtown, you’re likely going to park a couple of blocks away from it, and once you do park it’s often expensive and inconvenient to move and re-park. That asphalt desert that would encircle Astrodome Park feels like it might be a psychological barrier to the park. I don’t know how to test that hypothesis without actually building the park, and even I will admit that the total effect of what I’d describing here is likely to be minimal in reality, but I do think one reason why people are skeptical of the idea is because of this. It just doesn’t fit with our perception of the place. Of course, there were people saying the same thing about Discovery Green not too long ago, so take this all with an appropriate amount of salt.

3. Really, what Greg highlights here just enhances what Lisa Gray wrote about and I commented on: It’s the programming. The people that conceived, built, and now run Discovery Green have put a ton of work and a few million bucks into making it a place that people want to go. The evidence that we have so far is that other than invoking Discovery Green as an optimistic analogy, the proponents of Astrodome Park haven’t done any of that thinking or planning or fund-seeking. If and when they show their work on this, we can evaluate their plans and compare them to Discovery Green and see how we feel. Until then, it’s just some pictures on a set of PowerPoint slides.

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.

Redefining residential streets

Streets are about more than just cars. Where the rubber will meet the road on this, as it were, is on busy residential streets like Dunlavy in Montrose, where new city planning codes will have an effect.

Dunlavy is, at least in theory, a four-lane street between Allen Parkway and U.S. 59. Some drivers question whether the outside lanes really count.

Uneven gutters, often filled with debris or small mounds of dirt deposited by passing cars and trucks, line the traffic lanes. Cyclists willing to brave the road dodge potholes and passing cars. Trucks, and most cars, tend to stay in the inside lanes.

“It is not effectively working as a four-lane roadway,” said Amar Mohite, who manages the transportation group in Houston’s planning department.

So in a departure from what many consider the Houston model, the city is calling for reducing the space for cars and trucks. Plans for Dunlavy, along with a handful of other street segments between River Oaks, downtown and U.S. 59 and along the Washington Avenue corridor, will decrease driving room in favor of retaining trees and making parking, bicycling and walking easier.

The proposals, part of a list of amendments to the city’s transportation plan, guide future construction and give developers an idea of what to expect. The changes would appear in the 2014 major thoroughfare and freeway plan.

What’s significant, officials said, is the decision to reduce driving lanes in some spots. The traditional Houston method of improving a four-lane road – turning it into a five- or six-lane road – is falling out of favor in many neighborhoods, with residents reluctant to lose more private land to roads.

[…]

Residents along Dunlavy, and generally around Neartown, told planners they wanted their streets maintained to allow for biking and walking, rather than widened to accommodate more traffic.

“What we said was, make it a neighborhood where you could ride your bike or take a walk,” said Greg LeGrande, president of the Neartown Association, a coalition of civic groups.

Here’s a map, for those of you not familiar with the area. Let’s be very clear about something: Dunlavy is not a thoroughfare. It’s a residential street, with stop signs, houses, cars pulling into and out of driveways, bikes, and pedestrians. Other than a brief stretch just north of West Gray by the post office where it is striped for two lanes on each side, it really is just a little one-lane-each-way road, meant for neighborhood traffic at neighborhood speeds. What distinguishes it from the other little north-south roads between Shepherd and Montrose that cross over US 59 is 1) it goes all the way to Allen Parkway, which gives it easy access to downtown and Upper Kirby, and 2) it has no speed humps. Those things help attract traffic to it, and people treat it like it’s meant for that kind of traffic. My friend Andrea, who used to live on Dunlavy near Gray, would complain bitterly about the drivers that zipped past her house at 40 MPH plus. That’s not what that street is for.

So I’ll be very interested to see what the city proposes to do. I predict there will be lots of whining, mostly from people who don’t live on or near Dunlavy. The city’s planning department will host an open house in late June to explain the amendments, and City Council is expected to consider the changes in September. One thing I’m not sure about is how they propose to make Dunlavy more bike-friendly while reducing the lane widths yet maintaining street parking. As I think about it, it should be doable – Dunlavy really is four full lanes wide, even if it’s almost never used as a four-lane road; there’s plenty of space between moving vehicles and parked cars – I’m just not sure how to visualize it. I look forward to seeing the proposal.

More on the Metro bus system reimagining

Christopher Andrews has a practical look at Metro’s reimagined bus network.

Nearly two weeks ago METRO released the System Reimagining proposal, arguably the biggest service adjustment in METRO’s existence. METRO is currently welcoming feedback on the system. I hope most feedback will be positive, as the reimagined system should provide an opportunity for ridership for more people, and to a larger area of the Houston region, without an increase in costs or major infrastructural improvements. The reimagined system helps to reduce redundancies in coverage and increases the number of “frequent” bus routes throughout the region, creating a grid-like network of bus routes in which riders rely on transfers to reach their destinations.

I looked at the map of new routes and how they would impact my commute, and I thought about improvements needed to accommodate more riders and transfers. Examine proposed routes yourself to learn their physical coverages, frequencies, and surrounding conditions. I could think of no better way to examine the proposed routes than by bike. You can do the same. Then send your comments to METRO or attend a public meeting. It’s time for Houstonians to own their transit routes.

I followed the northwest portion of the proposed 11-Heights-Dallas-Telephone route that goes through the Heights and Montrose into Downtown and then on to the East Side. I kept in mind any infrastructural improvements that are needed, like bus stops, curb cuts, benches, signalization, crosswalks, or bus shelters that would make transferring and ridership more accommodating and comfortable.

He has a lot more at his personal blog. I really like the approach he’s taking here. People get to bus stops by walking or biking to them. If we really want to maximize the potential gains in ridership from the new routes, we need to make sure people can get to the bus stops easily and safely. The city of Houston needs to work with Metro to ensure that sidewalk improvements are in place or in the works for the new routes, and B-Cycle should examine the new map to see where new kiosks might go. I hope to hear more about this as we go.

Reading those posts led me to two others that came out at the time of Metro’s reimagining announcement: one from Jarrett Walker, who was one of the consultants Metro used on the new map, and one from Citylab, which mostly summarized the work Metro and Walker had done. Remember how I said in my post about the reimagining announcement that I wondered if some of the usual light rail-hating suspects would have anything to say about this, since they all claimed to be big bus fans? Well, I haven’t gone trawling through their blogs – life is too short – but I do know that Bill King, the Chron’s one and only op-ed page columnist, has written four pieces since then, and none of them have been about Metro and buses. Nope, it’s been pension, pension, pension, and I hate light rail, always a classic. I’m sure he’ll get around to it sooner or later.

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.

The downtown lifestyle

Demand for residences in downtown Houston is up.

For Krishnan Iyer, moving downtown meant a lot of things: Not having to use his car in auto-dependent Houston, being able to walk to work, to restaurants, to the movies.

The 34-year-old consultant left The Woodlands two years ago for a one-bedroom apartment in the Post Rice Lofts at Main and Texas and hasn’t looked back. Iyer expects many others to follow him in the coming years.

“I think for sure the rising oil prices will have an effect on people moving inward to a place near where they work, and there is a trend of renting among younger people rather than buying,” Iyer said. “There’s going to be demand to live here. It’s not going down.”

With people like Iyer in mind, developers are proposing six residential projects for downtown Houston that could add more than 2,200 new apartments to the urban core, fueled by a $15,000-per-unit city subsidy program that officials now want to expand.

Most of this story is about whether Council should expand an incentive program for developers that build downtown. I’ve no strong opinions about that, I’m more interested in the attitude expressed above. As we know, there are many job centers in the greater Houston area, but it seems to me that downtown is one of only a couple where you could reasonably live and walk to your job. You could probably do that if you lived and worked in the Rice/Medical Center area, and maybe in Greenway Plaza or the Galleria. I can’t imagine doing it in the Energy Corridor or Greenspoint, or in a suburban location like The Woodlands. That’s a niche market, but one that downtown is very well positioned to serve.

More broadly, if one really wants to avoid traffic, one has to be in a position to stay off the roads. That means walking, bicycling (on trails and side roads if possible), and taking the light rail, with buses as the next best thing and carpools or vanpools another step down. You can reduce your exposure to traffic by having a shorter commute or by taking HOV lanes, but you can’t avoid it. Something I keep coming back to in this space is that while we’ve done a lot to make it easier to travel by highway, with more of that to come once TxDOT reveals its master plan for I-45 inside the Beltway, we’ve not done nearly as much for those who aren’t on the highway, which includes all those extra highway drivers once they reach their destinations. This is why I remain skeptical of the grandiose plans to transform I-45 in and around downtown or to build dedicated connectors to the Medical Center from 288. You can increase the capacity all you want on the highways, but the streets and especially the parking lots where all these people will be going aren’t getting any bigger or faster.

The inescapable truth is that we can’t solve traffic problems by adding highway capacity. All that extra capacity winds up generating bigger problems elsewhere. Widening I-10 west of the Loop has caused traffic on I-10 inside the Loop to become a mess, and that mess extends to the surface roads that access I-10, as anyone who remembers what Studemont and Yale and Shepherd were like pre-widening can attest. Ultimately, we are going to have to put more effort and resources into options that get people out of their cars, at least some of the time. That means more transit, more walking and biking, and more affordable housing close to or right in employment centers. That brings us back to the more transit and walking and biking options, because density without those things is just more cars on streets whose capacity can’t be – and shouldn’t be – increased. Downtown has all of that already, which is why it’s so attractive for people who don’t care about having their own plot of land. Near downtown – Midtown, EaDo, Heights, Montrose, and eventually Fifth Ward – has these things in varying amounts, but is struggling to keep up with demand for housing and the strain on infrastructure. Neighborhoods farther out also have these things to varying degrees, at least until you start getting into master-planned-with-cul-de-sacs territory. I don’t think I’m stretching to suggest that the less walkable a place is, the less amenable it will be to transit as well. Places like that are going to have a lot more trouble with traffic going forward because they just don’t have as many alternatives.

And that brings us back where we started. Council did approve the tax break to encourage more downtown residential construction, and I expect that it won’t be long before we start seeing more projects on the drawing board. In the meantime, more and more people will just have to learn to cope with traffic.

How to make the warehouse transition something to look forward to

I have four things to say about this.

Houston developers plan to build a mixed-use project, including upscale apartments and retail, on a 15-acre tract close to downtown, replacing a large produce warehouse that’s occupied the space for decades.

Capcor Partners and Kaplan Management bought the land this week from Grocers Supply, which has been at the corner of Studemont and Interstate 10 for 42 years.

[…]

Josh Aruh of Capcor, which specializes in retail developments, said it’s rare to find such a large piece of land in the Inner Loop and added that the project will make a “big footprint.”

“There is tremendous, continuous demand in this sub-market,” Aruh said. “We believe the scarcity of such a large, contiguous tract so close to downtown Houston, the Heights and entertainment districts is primed for a strong multifamily component. And with frontage near I-10, this property is ideally suited for retail. The size of the tract invites many possible other uses and users that we are currently exploring.”

Aruh said he has already discussed possibilities for the property with grocers, cinemas, restaurants and several big box retailers.

The developers are also working with the city to expand a street to split the property and reduce traffic, he said.

Michael Kaplan of Kaplan Management, which specializes in multifamily developments, said he hopes to build up to 400 high-end apartments, to go with the retail and commercial uses, to meet the demand for housing in the area.

“It’s just in the heart of this terrific growth corridor,” Kaplan said. “It is such a strong area.”

1. I admire their desire to have as small an impact on traffic as possible, because traffic on the stretch of Studemont between Washington and I-10 sucks thanks to the Kroger, the long light cycle at I-10, and the huge number of cars turning left to get onto I-10 and to get into the Kroger. Let me suggest that the first order of business would be to rebuild that piece of road, because it’s axle-breaking awful right now. Yeah, that’ll make traffic even worse for the duration, but the gain will be worth the pain. As for expanding a street – not sure which one they have in mind – let me suggest that what they really ought to consider is adding a street. I presume the entrance to this new development would be opposite the entrance to the Kroger where the traffic light is and where there’s already a left turn lane on northbound Studemont, which currently turns into a wall. Having that entrance street connect to Wichman on the west so that vehicles can access Hicks Street, which passes over Studemont and which connects to Heights via Harvard, will help.

2. If you really want to lessen the impact on traffic in the area, then it’s vital to ensure non-vehicular mobility into and out of this development and to the surrounding areas, by which I specifically mean Washington and White Oak. First and foremost, put in a sidewalk on the west side of Studemont, along the front of the development. There’s already a decent sidewalk on the east side of Studemont, but it terminates immediately north of I-10, where a well-worn path in the dirt connects you up with the bridge over the bayou and the continuation of the sidewalk at Stude Street. That new sidewalk could split at the underpass to give pedestrians the option of continuing on Studemont to Washington or ascending to Hicks and the overpass for better access to Arne’s and Kroger, and on to Sawyer Street if one is adventurous. I took the #50 bus home from work on Friday when this story was run, and I got off at Studemont to walk home from there. It took me 15 minutes to get from Washington to White Oak – I timed it – so having good pedestrian paths between these two streets will make the new development a lot more accessible. Given the traffic and the parking situation on either end, you’d be better off walking from whatever residence they build to Fitzgerald’s or BB’s or wherever you want to go.

3. At least as important as facilitating pedestrians is connecting this development to the existing bike paths and bike lanes nearby. You could take Hicks to Heights and from there get on the Heights Bike Trail, but that’s a mighty big detour if you’re heading towards downtown. And Lord knows, no one in their right mind would want to bike on Studemont to get anywhere. Look at a map of the area. Isn’t the solution to all this obvious?

GrocerSupplyMap1

This just screams for a new trail along the bayou to get past I-10 and eventually hook up with the existing trails. This picture shows how that would be possible:

GrocerSupplyMap2

Pass under Studemont, and pave that truck path to get to the Heights trail. You’d need to build a bridge over the bayou to connect to the new trail adjacent to Stude Park, which you can’t see in this old Google satellite image, but that shouldn’t be a big deal. I have no idea how much this all might cost, but for something like this that enhances mobility there may be federal grant money available. Or, you know, maybe the developers can kick in on this, since it would greatly enhance the value of their property. This might in fact be an excellent candidate for 380 agreement, one that would offer a clear benefit to all involved. I’m sure there’s a way to make this work.

Ed Wulfe, chairman and CEO of retail development and brokerage firm Wulfe & Co., said as Houston becomes more dense and urban, more warehouses will be converted into residential and commercial properties.

“We are changing land-use patterns,” Wulfe said. “Now the need is greater and the market is stronger. Warehouses can only command so much economic benefit.”

4. Density with transit >>> density without transit. The good people of Super Neighborhood 22 have that comprehensive transportation plan for their area that includes various rail and streetcar options for the Washington Avenue corridor. Moving forward on that would be a huge boon to mobility in the area, and to projects like this one and the ones that will inevitably follow. Look, I know people get skeptical whenever non-car modes of transportation are discussed. Most people don’t want to give up their cars, even a little bit. I get that, but in a city this size that still leaves a whole lot of folks who do want alternatives, and these are the people who will be seeking out dense development. We can do it right and make the whole experience a hell of a lot better, which includes the drivers since they’ll have fewer competitors for road space, or we can do it wrong and make a huge mess of it all. You tell me what the right answer is. Swamplot has more.

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…)

More construction on Yale

It’s Alexan Heights II: Midrise Boogaloo.

The first Alexan Heights on Yale

For residents near Yale and 6th street, Independence Day fireworks were nothing compared to the sparks flying when news of another proposed apartment complex came to light July 5.

A heads-up notification from District C Council Member Ellen Cohen’s office to various residents, land use groups and neighborhood organizations told of Trammell Crow Residential’s proposed plan to build a second upscale apartment complex in the area. Reportedly dubbed “Alexan Yale,” the development would be located on Yale between 5th and 6th streets.

The 4.9-acre site is currently home to Fixtures International and is a block south of TCR’s further-along luxury apartment project, Alexan Heights, which fronts Yale St. at 6th and 7th streets.

TCR did not respond to requests for information on the proposed Alexan Yale.

As described in Cohen’s letter, however, the new project is “expected to include four stories of units over two levels of parking, with one level of parking below grade. TCR has the site under contract and is currently performing preliminary due diligence, and they expect to close the purchase of the property by the end of the year. Once TCR establishes a site plan and unit count, they will perform a new traffic study that will include roadways and intersections included in their previous TIA, while also including new intersections on Yale St., Heights Boulevard, and I-10, as well as pedestrian counts.”

See here and here for some background. As you might imagine, neighborhood residents as a whole aren’t particularly thrilled by this. But there’s only so much that can be done about this, and there’s only so much that should be done about it. Dense development is coming, to the Heights and other desirable neighborhoods. It’s where people want to live, and there’s a lot more demand than there is supply. Condo and apartment developments like these help to fill the gap. Unlike the Ashby highrise, this is an appropriate location for a multi-story structure – Yale is basically a thoroughfare, and it’s right near a highway. If you can’t build a six-story complex there, where can you build them?

(Yes, I saw that Chron story yesterday about the five-story development on Morrison Street in my neighborhood that has my neighbors up in arms. I’ll have more on that tomorrow. That’s a completely different situation, since Morrison is a little side street and there are houses all around the property, while Yale is a thoroughfare and these lots are not close to many houses.)

I get why people are concerned about this. My advice would be not to fight this with the intent of trying to prevent it from being built, because that’s at best a longshot. I mean, if Ashby can get built, what reason is there to disallow this? What neighborhood folks could do, and should do, is engage with the developer and the city to push for some specific improvements that would make the overall development better and would help mitigate the traffic impact. For example:

– Good, sufficiently wide sidewalks running along Yale from at least I-10 to the bike trail at 7th. This is still a sore point from the Wal-Mart development, so let’s not make the same mistakes here.

– Install that pedestrian-controlled traffic light where the bike trail crosses Yale, which Trammel Crow has previously said they’d be willing to pay for.

– Talk to TxDOT about adding that dedicated right turn lane on Yale to I-10 westbound, which should help a bit with traffic flow at that light.

– Longer term, engage with Metro and Super Neighborhood 22 to ensure that the area will have suitable bus service as Metro redesigns its bus routes, and that when and if a rail or streetcar line is designed for the Washington Avenue corridor that this high-density cluster between Heights and Yale, and Koehler and 6th is taken into account as well.

This is unlikely to have a large effect in the immediate term, but it will be better than nothing, and it will position the area for future growth, since surely this is not the last such project to be planned – I mean, no one expects that orange juice distribution warehouse on the east side of Yale to be there forever, right? As I see it, it’s this or be forced to react to the announcement of the next project. You tell me which is preferable. Swamplot has photos of the development area, and Hair Balls has more.

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.

Ashby everywhere

Nancy Sarnoff notes a trend.

Coming to a neighborhood near you

Homeowners in the Memorial area held a meeting last month in the lobby of a nearby medical office building to discuss what to do about a large apartment complex being planned in their neighborhood.

They said the project – and other new developments in the area – would lead to too many cars on the narrow, curvy road in front of the apartment site, making an already busy area more congested and dangerous. The residents have spoken at City Council meetings and are planning to commission a traffic study they expect will show severe mobility problems in their upscale neighborhood near Fondren and Woodway.

“We’re intelligent enough to understand that something is going to be built there,” said Rod Crosby, president of the Lake Vargo Homeowners Association. “But we want answers on how that would work out.”

Similar situations have emerged elsewhere around the Houston area as homeowners are increasingly coming together to fight what they see as inappropriate development in their backyards. The instances appear to stem from an improving economy, a stronger interest in urban living and increased development.

The battles have ranged from letter-writing campaigns to carefully planned strategies involving private meetings, public protests and political outreach.

Arguably the strongest example yet involves the so-called Ashby high-rise. Residents of the affluent neighborhoods surrounding the proposed residential tower near Rice University have been protesting the project for years. They’re still fighting against it even though the city said there was nothing that could be done to stop it. The developer recently applied for a construction permit.

The well-publicized battle may be encouraging others groups to take on unwanted development.

“The Ashby protests have definitely provided a blueprint for other neighborhoods to show they can at least make their case in the court of public opinion,” said Matthew Festa, a South Texas College of Law professor who specializes in property law and land use.

I’m not sure how good a model the anti-Ashby activism has been given that construction is scheduled to begin on the hated highrise, but then I suppose there aren’t any better examples to follow. I’m just going to keep flogging the theme that increased density requires increased investment in transit, walkability, and other non-automotive infrastructure. The traffic concerns are real, whether any one location is suitable for a highrise or apartment development or whatever else. We have to give people viable alternatives to the increasingly crowded streets.

On getting to walkable urbanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If fixing the streets is easy, then tell us how to do it

Lisa Gray writes about a guy who thinks Houston’s streets could be much more user friendly if only we tried a little harder to make them be.

“Houston’s streets behave like alleys,” Nathan Norris shouted to the 20 or so people who followed him like ducklings, single file, on Jackson Hill Street’s skinny sidewalk.

Norris is a professional urban scold, a consultant for the town-planning firm Placemakers, who travels the country telling developers, neighborhood groups and cities what they can do to improve their street life.

He gestured, disgusted, at what he saw on Jackson Hill — a prosperous-looking residential street. It’s part of fast-growing Super Neighborhood 22, the area around Washington Avenue’s clubs and restaurants.

But Jackson Hill is not a street where you want to linger.

[…]

“I have traveled far and wide, and I have never run across a city that has as much unmet potential as Houston,” Norris wrote. “And the funny thing is that it would take such a minor change for Houston to reach its potential.

“Imagine New York, Chicago or L.A. trying to undo its business-unfriendly culture. That is not going to happen anytime soon. Dallas and Austin are not going to grow a port.

“But Houston could simply tweak some minor functional design regulations, and the developers would start building beautiful places that could provide Houston a vibrancy and hipness that would attract the next generation of leading professionals.”

I like what he’s saying, but I have two simple questions: What exactly are the simple tweaks that need to be done to make Houston’s streets better? And how do they affect existing streets where there’s unlikely to be much new housing construction?

Documenting the problem is easy enough, and Gray quotes Norris at length: Skinny sidewalks (where they exist at all), lack of trees, and utility pole obstruction. I figure a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are a few I snapped on Jackson Hill the other day.

Where ya gonna walk?

That’s a block south of Washington at the corner of Jackson Hill and Lilian Street; a parking lot for Patrenella’s is right behind where I’m standing. Talk about useless – anyone walking this way will have to take the street, which could be dangerous that close to a busy road like Washington. There were plenty of other examples, all on the same (east) side of the street, or utility poles getting in the way.

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A Montrose/Studemont walkability update

Back in 2008, I put together a photo essay on density and walkability in Montrose, in particular on Montrose/Studemont between West Gray and Washington. It included this photo, taken in front of what was then the old Ed Sacks Waste Paper site:

Legacy at Memorial

Before

Well, the Sacks site is gone, and in its place is a new high rise, Legacy at Memorial, which opened a couple of months ago. Here’s what that same location looks like today:

Now this is what a sidewalk should look like

Now this is what a sidewalk should look like

Now that’s more like it, isn’t it? Getting rid of the wall certainly helped, and a nice wide sidewalk is always good to have. There’s another cool feature about this sidewalk, for which I’ve put more photos beneath the fold. Click on to see them.

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Streetcars on Washington Avenue?

Some big things may be coming to Washington Avenue.

Super Neighborhood 22 — a council of civic clubs in the Washington Ave. corridor — will hold a meeting May 24 to discuss its proposed master plan for transportation in the area.

To deal with increasing development, density and congestion, the neighborhood envisions a streetcar on Washington Ave. to move pedestrians and a trench near Center Street capable of carrying four freight or commuter rail lines, allowing traffic to pass uninterrupted overhead.

The neighborhood’s meeting is scheduled for at 6:30 p.m. at DePelchin Children’s Center, 4950 Memorial Drive. The super neighborhood, one of 88 such groups in the city, covers the space between Buffalo and White Oaks bayous and between the West Loop and Interstate 45.

Super neighborhood president Jane West and vice president Tom Dornbusch said the meeting aims to gather input from community members in hopes of building a consensus around the plan, giving it more weight with policymakers.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the game, instead of letting all these other entities decide where the best place is to put transit through our corridor,” West said. “We’re trying to decide where and how that transit should be directed.” West and Dornbusch both cited Harris County’s plans for commuter rail along U.S. 290 as a reason for action. Many of those commuters work downtown, West said, and must pass through Washington Ave. to get there.

“Super Neighborhood 22 is in the direct path of that route,” Dornbusch said.

I highly recommend you take a look at their detailed presentation of the various options. I got a much better idea of what they had in mind after looking at it. I was all set to write something about how I didn’t like the idea of streetcars on Washington Avenue because that seemed like giving up on the idea of an Inner Katy light rail line, but they’ve got it more than covered. I love the trenching plan for freight and commuter rail lines, and the streetcar network they envision to complement it makes a lot of sense. There’s more, too – sidewalks, hike and bike trails, and so forth. Give it a look, and attend the meeting on Monday if you can.

H-GAC Livable Centers Study of the Ensemble/HCC Station Area in Midtown

Tomorrow night at 7 PM at the Trinity Episcopal Church located at 1015 Holman Street at Main (map) is a public meeting for the H-GAC Livable Centers Study of the Ensemble/HCC Station area in Midtown. You can click on the flyer for the details, but the basic idea is to figure out how to enable pedestrian-friendly development around there – more comfortable sidewalks, building regulations that actually allow good urban buildings, holistic parking solutions, that sort of thing. If urbanism is your bag, this is the sort of thing you’ll like, so check it out.

It’s hard out here on a pedestrian

I’m sure it will come as no surprise to learn that Houston is not a good city for pedestrians, at least from a safety perspective.

Houston ranked eighth on a new list of the most dangerous urban areas for pedestrians.

And the hundreds of deaths and injuries to pedestrians can’t all be written off as mere accidents, according to a report released Monday by two advocacy groups. Poor roadway design and lack of safety features like sidewalks and medians contribute to the death rate.

[…]

The statistics are startling. Almost 5,000 pedestrians die in the U.S. after being hit by cars every year, according to the report by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, two nonprofit, national coalitions that promote more efficient and equitable transportation policies.

All of the Top 10 dangerous cities for pedestrians are in the South, where new growth after World War II created development patterns that favor cars over pedestrians.

You can see the study here (PDF). I find myself in agreement with, and sharing the frustration of, Robin Holzer at the county’s attitude that they only build roads, not sidewalks. Seems to me they’re doing the residents out there a disservice, not to mention jeopardizing their health. But I suppose nothing will change until voters demand it. Swamplot has more.

Seven sidewalk sins

Sid Burgess presents seven examples of how to be pedestrian-unfriendly. How many of them have you seen in the Houston area? I can say I’ve seen all seven. Thanks to neoHouston for the link.

More from neoHouston on the new transit corridors ordinance

Andrew Burleson, also known as neoHouston, was quoted in the Chron story on the new transit corridors ordinance. They only used a few words from him, however, and we all know he had more to say on the topic than that. Fortunately, he has a platform for expressing all those other words, and he used it. Like him, I hope that the city now sees the need to tackle the parking issue, which is long overdue, and that it does so in a way that really provides incentives to create walkable urban development in places where it makes sense.

Oh, and he also took a moment to solve the Ashby highrise problem. All in a day’s work.

Transit corridors ordinance approved

It’s not all that it could have been, but it’s a start.

Passengers stepping off trains in Houston’s expanding light rail network will be more likely to encounter walkable environments and interesting destinations because of action taken Wednesday by the City Council, city officials and transit advocates said.

The council unanimously approved changes in development codes intended to promote dense, urban-style development along the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Main Street rail line and five planned extensions. The pedestrian zone requirements and incentives were developed through more than three years of work by city officials, consultants, development experts and others.

Councilwoman Toni Lawrence said the changes, coupled with plans to expand urban development regulations from Loop 610 to Beltway 8 and high speed rail proposals under consideration for commuters, will have a major impact on automobile-dependent Houston. The measures take effect immediately.

“I’m excited about it,” Lawrence said. “We’re behind cities our size to move forward with rail.”

The changes drew support from real estate organizations including Houstonians for Responsible Growth, which generally resists new development regulation. But others who have followed Houston’s efforts to encourage so-called “transit-oriented development” offered only qualified praise, noting that the city’s consultants recommended more far-reaching changes.

“On the whole, it’s a teeny-tiny step in the right direction,” said Andrew Burleson, a development consultant and blogger. While the incentives for enhanced pedestrian amenities aren’t sufficient, Burleson said, the measure makes progress simply by providing a good definition of “quality urban development.”

The new rules will require unobstructed, 6-foot-wide sidewalks — two feet wider than the current standard — for new development along transit corridor streets and certain intersecting streets near transit stations. In most other areas of the city, the sidewalk standard will be increased to 5 feet.

Nice to see Andrew, a/k/a neoHouston, get quoted in the story. His take on the ordinance is well worth reading, as are each of Christof‘s. I expressed my views here. Note that RichmondRail.org’s proposed streetscape for Richmond Avenue conforms to the six-foot sidewalk width. I hope this new ordinance is a good omen for that.

The streetscape for the Universities line

RichmondRail.org has a suggestion for Metro.

For the coming light rail line to be a true asset to our neighborhoods, the streets leading to the transit stations must accommodate pedestrians more safely and comfortably than is typical for Houston streets outside downtown. If enacted, the proposed transit corridor ordinance (aka the Urban Corridor ordinance, which we hope to see on the City Council agenda for approval soon), would foster the evolution toward a more pedestrian-friendly environment as redevelopment occurs along the light rail corridors. That will take time. We believe that there is a near-term opportunity to achieve a better pedestrian environment along the University Line on lower Richmond Ave.

Virtually all of the public right-of-way on Richmond Ave. from Spur 527 to Kirby Dr. is only 80 feet wide. When METRO builds the University Line, we anticipate that they will also need to rebuild the sidewalks along that stretch of Richmond. What better time to create a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape than when the rail line is being built? However, the right-of-way constraints do present challenges.

Click over, and take a look at their resolution of support for a pedestrian streetscape for more. Note that none of this requires any property takings, and will make the area much more pedestrian-friendly. To me, the highlight is the request to bury phone, cable, and electric utility wires. This will not only enable better sidewalks in the space allocated, as utility poles will no longer be there blocking the way, but will also provide for fewer service interruptions during and in the aftermath of storms. Remember how downtown and parts of the Galleria area never lost power during Hurricane Ike? Doing this will add to the cost of construction, but there’s never a cheaper time to do this than when the streets are being torn up anyway. It’s an investment, one that makes a lot of sense and will pay off in many ways. Check it out, and add your support for the idea.

Cy-Fair parents want their school buses

Parents in the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District react with dismay to cutbacks in school bus service.

“I implore you, please reconsider these routes,” said parent Rachel Gerhardt. “Some are hazardous. My main concern is that my child gets to and from school safely. I don’t want to just hope. I want to know they got there safely.”

Cy-Fair said the state does pay for the buses to continue along routes the state considers dangerous — and they need that money.

“This is a service which we (had) offered for several decades,” said Kelli Durham, an assistant superintended with the Cy-Fair ISD.
“This is a valuable service; however, when you are forced to cut $14.2 million in this year’s budget — we cut $27 million from last year’s budget and $15 million from the prior years due to a lack of state funding.”

The state will continue to cover transportation costs on what are considered dangerous routes, but budget constraints lead to other cuts.

According to school board officials, the board had to make up a budget deficit of more than $14 million because the public wanted services cut instead of losing the 20 percent homestead exemption on property taxes.

I wonder about that. Is it really the case that public sentiment favored keeping that tax cut at all costs, or was it just a sufficiently vocal and motivated minority, plus an easily-cowed board of trustees, that led to this? If it is the latter, that will serve as an object lesson in the importance of organization and paying attention. And, hopefully, the impetus for some candidates who’ll do a better job of doing what the majority wants, not just the sufficiently vocal, to run in the next election.

“(We) respectfully request reinstating bus service or offering an alternative such as bus service for a fee,” said parent Julie Long.

Long said her two elementary-age sons attend Adam Elementary, which is more than a mile from their home.

“Less than 25 percent of the route offers sidewalks,” Long said. “The entire portion between Fallbrook and our neighborhood is pretty dangerous. It’s a two-lane, winding road with no sidewalks whatsoever.”

I note this since the question of sidewalks came up in that previous post. More than a mile is a pretty long distance for an elemetary school student to walk, and without sidewalks, it really is dangerous. Too bad that wasn’t taken into account before.

Peter Brown’s traffic plan

Today I want to take a closer look at Peter Brown’s traffic plan, the highlights of which you can see here, with the longer and more detail-filled form here (PDF). My thoughts:

– As with Annise Parker’s crimefighting plan, I am in general agreement with Brown’s priorities, and believe there is or would be general consensus for many – but not all – of his items. Among them are a number of things that originated with or were expanded by Mayor White, such as construction incentives to speed up infrastructure work, traffic light synchronization, SafeClear, and better coordination of road projects. I for one especially like this bit:

EMPOWER HOUSTON TO HELP

Peter Brown will use the latest technologies to allow residents to instantly alert the City of poorly maintained infrastructure – including potholes and signage problems – to help make roadwork more responsive. Smart-phone applications can enable streamlined reporting to city departments, allowing residents to quickly collect and share photographic evidence of disrepair or neglect. We can also connect with residents via their existing social networks to enhance communication between residents and the City.

Note that the city of Boston has already implemented an iPhone app that will allow residents to snap photos of neighborhood nuisances, such as potholes, graffiti, and blown street lights, and e-mail them to City Hall to be fixed. If they can do it, we can do it.

– That said, there are numerous items here that clearly bear the “Peter Brown” stamp, and not just because almost all of them contain the phrase “Peter Brown will”. Mostly these can be summed up as urban planning in some form. That’s Brown’s passion and I daresay his motivation for running, and it’s clear he’s put a lot of thought into these items. It’s also clear that not everyone will agree with some of them, and to a large extent Brown’s chances of winning this race will hinge on how successful he is at getting people to agree with his vision. I personally find a lot to like in his vision, but I also have serious doubts about how much of it could ever actually get implemented.

– A key component to Brown’s vision is the idea that you can help to decongest the streets by making it possible for people to do less driving in their daily lives.

GROW CLOSER TOGETHER

We should encourage denser mixed-use growth and development near public transit to help reduce car trips and save time. With shops, amenities, and employers all located close to housing, growing livable, mixed-use centers will help minimize the amount of time residents spend on the road. Similarly, encouraging growth near public transportation will give residents more transportation choices.

AFFORABLE CHOICES NEAR EMPLOYMENT CENTERS

Oftentimes, workers are forced to take long commutes because they can’t afford to live near work. Peter Brown will coordinate our housing policy with our transportation plan and enable workers to live closer to their places of employment. We need to ensure a variety of housing choices so that new development is accessible to the entire community.

ENCOURAGE HIGH-QUALITY URBANIZATION

With nearly a hundred square miles of undeveloped land in Houston, we have a tremendous opportunity to shape our future that few other large cities have. Peter Brown will encourage smart, high-quality development of urban density that improves the quality of life and strengthens neighborhoods. A denser Houston would put workers closer to their jobs, allowing them more choices about the routes they take, including better access to the city’s street grid as an alternative to commutes along primary arterials and highways. Aside from the transportation benefits, it will also reduce response times for emergency services and first responders by keeping population centers closer to public safety facilities.

This is classic Brown. He’s talked about this sort of thing for a long time, and again, I think the reason he’s running for Mayor and not another term in Council is because he believes being Mayor is the only way he can really do this stuff.

I think there’s a lot to be said for Brown’s ideas, which include making Houston more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly and expanding transit options. There’s really no reason why Houston can’t have a more walkable, transit-oriented urban core. I realize we’re in a time of the year when the notion of walking anywhere isn’t too appealing to most folks, though as Andrew Burleson has shown, the quality of the pedestrian experience can make a huge difference in that. Most of the year here is just fine for being outside, and as someone who actually has gone to school in two feet of snow, I’d say that on the average our climate is more conducive to that kind of lifestyle than many cities where it is the norm.

Obviously, not everyone wants to live in an urban area, and even if Peter Brown were to achieve everything on his wish list, there’d still be plenty of people living in the burbs. The point is that more people would choose to live in this kind of setting if it were more readily available and affordable, and that there are a lot of things a Mayor can do to make that happen. The irony is that a lot of these things are deregulatory in nature, such as loosening requirements for providing parking, which tends to get lost in the “free market” dogma that arises whenever stuff like revisions to the form-based codes are brought up.

The main critique I have of Brown’s vision is that we’ve already got a lot of density happening in the core, mostly but not exclusively inside the Loop, and it’s already had a significant effect on traffic and mobility in the area. A lot of main roads, at least ones I drive on like Kirby, Shepherd, Richmond, and Westheimer, are already at the point of being nearly unusable, and this has a spillover effect onto residential streets. It’s not clear to me that Brown has prioritized mitigating the effects of some of this unplanned density. Infill development, especially in places that are already reasonably serviceable by transit, makes a lot of sense, but I don’t think we can really tackle this problem without dealing with the places that are plenty dense now.

Part of the reason why I have my doubts about Brown’s ability to get his vision implemented is that the problems we’re seeing now, and will see more of as we continue to densify (whether in a planned fashion or not) are caused by our unwillingness to require developers to pay for the costs they impose on our infrastructure. We’ve crammed a bunch of townhomes into old neighborhoods, but we haven’t addressed the strain this has put on sewers and drainage in most of them. A lot of inner core streets are in disrepair, and the sidewalks, where they exist, are often in even worse shape. How do we deal with this, and how do we pay for it? It makes sense to me to pass at least some of these costs to the developers, but good luck with getting them to accept that. I find this to be a real stumbling block to buying into the vision he advocates.

It’s also the case that some forms of mitigation are necessarily long-term in nature. For instance, Metro could announce tomorrow that it’s designating a Kirby Drive Corridor for its next phase of light rail expansion, and I’d have no faith that they’d even break ground before Mayor Peter Brown finished his third and final term in office. How do you ensure your vision outlasts you? Is that even possible for something like this?

– Moving on, Brown is also talking about encouraging telecommuting, which also has the effect of decluttering the roads, as well as saving gas and reducing our carbon footprint.

INCENTIVES FOR FLEXIBLE EMPLOYERS

Employers who help reduce traffic during peak periods and keep us moving should be rewarded for the time and money they are saving all of us. Peter Brown will find ways to provide incentives for companies that offer flexible schedules and stagger shift times to avoid rush hour commutes, based on the amount of traffic that they are able to off-set.

Brown says the city will lead by example on this, and that’s fine and good. As Houston Politics notes that this approach has been tried, which makes me wonder what Brown can or would do differently. As with Parker’s crimefighting plan, this is more about the what than the how, so that remains to be seen.

There’s more to Brown’s plan, but I think this post is long enough. Since he includes a bit on what Houston’s busiest streets will be in the year 2035, I’ll point you to this David Crossley post which takes a look at some of the other projections for the farthest-out forecast we have of the Houston region. Check it out.

How to do (and not do) urban streets

neoHouston says:

One of the big problems in development today, in particular in the area of city planning, is distinguishing between good urban infill and mediocre urban infill. At first glance the two may look very similar, but they are not. Good urban infill has a great interface, like what you see in the photo above. Mediocre (or bad) urban infill does not. People don’t want mediocre infill, it adds density without adding vitality. People crave good urban infill, because when you combine density and great interface, you get the best part of urban life – vibrant and healthy street-life.

Click over to see the picture (there are several more) and read the post about how to do urban streets right, how to do it wrong, and how doing it wrong can have negative effects that can cancel out some of what was done right. Excellent post, well worth your time. See also this comment on Swamplot for a coda.

Design guide versus transit corridors ordinance

Not sure what to make of this just yet.

Fallout from the long-dormant Ashby high-rise development emerged Wednesday as a potential obstacle to the city’s effort to promote walkable, urban-style development along Metro’s planned light-rail lines.

Neighborhood opposition to the Ashby project, a planned 23-story mixed-use tower whose developers continue to await a permit almost two years after they first applied, inspired changes to an obscure city document known as the Infrastructure Design Manual. The changes include a review process intended to prevent high-density developments from worsening traffic congestion on surrounding streets.

City Council members and speakers at a public hearing Wednesday said certain provisions in the design manual conflict with the goals of the proposed urban transit corridors ordinance. Councilwomen Toni Lawrence and Pam Holm threatened to withhold support from the ordinance, seen by many as a vital first step in creating walkable urbanism in Houston, unless the conflict was resolved.

“Urban corridors and transit streets are getting caught in the trap they set for Ashby,” said Kendall Miller, president of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a group seeking to limit new regulations on Houston’s real estate industry.

[…]

Chapter 15 was added to the design manual in the aftermath of the Ashby controversy, but it simply put into writing procedures that the city already followed, said Andy Icken, deputy director of the Department of Public Works and Engineering.

Icken said he will work with Marlene Gafrick, Houston’s planning and development director, to add language to the transit corridors ordinance clarifying that reduced automobile traffic is likely along corridors where people will be riding trains. That should reduce the need for any traffic mitigation, Icken said.

But Miller, of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, said he remains concerned that Chapter 15 of the design manual gives Public Works personnel too much discretion to require developers to take costly steps to offset traffic impacts. Those costs and lack of predictability could discourage investment in transit corridors and elsewhere, Miller said.

Holm agreed.

“Many of these standards have been put in place to deal with a specific project,” she said, referring to the Ashby high-rise, “and it gives too much decision-making to one person as opposed to setting standards. It is in conflict with the goal of what we’re trying to do with this ordinance as a city.”

I’m not going to take Kendall Miller’s word for it – I think he’s more likely to be concern-trolling than anything else. I’d like to know what folks like Christof Spieler, Andrew Burleson, or David Crossley have to say about this. Having said that, the point that a bunch of us have made all along regarding the Ashby highrise is that the problem with it wasn’t traffic but scale – it just didn’t fit into the surrounding area. Until that is truly acknowledged and dealt with, there’s a real possibility of unintended consequences like this.

Neighborhood concerns about the transit corridors ordinance

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?