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The 1960 blues

I couldn’t tell you the last time I drove through the FM1960 area in northwest Harris County, so I couldn’t have told you that it isn’t aging well. But I can’t say I’m surprised.

The problems affecting Houston’s aging suburban communities drew the attention of a panel of national experts from the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit real estate organization, who studied the Houston region’s unique growth patterns earlier this year.

In a report being presented today, the experts call on local leaders to use transportation funds to guide growth into compact, interconnected urban centers, rather than isolated subdivisions sprawling across the region’s dwindling open spaces.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council, which allocates billions of dollars in federal transportation funds, should support projects that reflect the vision supported by almost all local leaders the authors interviewed during their Houston visit in February, the report says.

This vision includes connecting growth centers through roads, rails and trail; promoting walkable neighborhoods where people live close to where they work and shop; and encouraging voluntary, market-based standards for high-quality developments.

The FM 1960 corridor, in contrast, reflects what happens when developers throw up subdivisions wherever they can make a deal to buy land served by a county road, said Roger Galatas, the chief executive of a real estate consulting business. Galatas is also a board member of the nonprofit Center for Houston’s Future, which commissioned the Urban Land Institute report.

The area’s design, common to many American suburbs, is characterized by residential neighborhoods full of dead-end streets and cul-de-sacs to discourage cut-through traffic, forcing residents to use the adjacent thoroughfare even for short trips to a shop or a restaurant.

“At one time, that was the place to move to,” Galatas said. “But as more developments occurred that were not connected to each other, they built rather ugly retail centers that took advantage of the traffic and created more traffic. People started moving away, and you’ve got declining home values, empty retail centers and a declining tax base. The only thing still functioning is a very wide strip of concrete called FM 1960.”

The traffic issue should have been obvious from the beginning, but I guess the idea that you had to take the main road to get anywhere was appealing at one time. The main problem with the solution being offered is that it seems unlikely to do anything to help the 1960 area. I don’t see how you can undo its disconnectedness and unfriendliness to transit and pedestrians. If we had to do it all over again, sure, this is a much better blueprint. I just don’t think you can get there from here. Tory has more on the report.

By the way, it’s amusing to see some people in the comments blame the arrival of Metro bus service on 1960 for the area’s crime problem. Because Lord knows, unlike everyone else in Houston, criminals don’t have cars and thus must rely on buses and light rail to get to the better neighborhoods.

The Urban Land Institute report is not the first to call for a new approach to suburban growth management in the Houston area. A program sponsored by H-GAC in 2005 known as Envision Houston Region reached similar conclusions about the need to guide growth into interconnected activity centers.

The new report, however, goes further than others in urging local leaders to award or withhold federal transportation funds based on how closely the projects adhere to these principles. This approach, the report says, has been used successfully in other areas where metropolitan planning organizations, such as the H-GAC, expand their roles from research into policy development and implementation.

[…]

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he sees some merit in the idea of using transportation funding to guide growth. But some decisions will always have to be reactive rather than proactive, since people decide where to live based on school quality and other factors besides just transportation, Emmett said.

Joshua Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a real estate group formed last year to limit local regulations on development, said the Houston region’s traditional approach has worked well.

“We believe that the market should determine growth with government supporting consumer demand — not the other way around,” Sanders said.

Way to keep an open mind there, dude. Judge Emmett is certainly correct to note that factors other than how long it takes to get somewhere go into people’s homebuying decisions. The point here is that we’ve spent plenty of money over the years on projects that encouraged growth and helped create demand in empty, isolated areas (two words: Grand Parkway). Why not do a little of the same in areas that will scale better?

UPDATE: Jay Crossley has more.

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