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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.

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2 Comments

  1. Linkmeister says:

    “we can’t solve traffic problems by adding highway capacity.”

    Shhhh! That’s treason! That “solution” has been the favored one in cities and states around the country for 75 years, despite its proven failures nearly everywhere. There’s a transportation equivalent to Parkinson’s Law here somewhere.

    “Traffic expands to fit the roads built for it?”

  2. m says:

    Too bad you can’t walk down the residential streets near downtown without fear of getting attacked by stray dogs.

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