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transit-oriented development

Midtown development

The Sunday Chron had a look at some new development coming to Main Street near the Ensemble/HCC station. In it was this observation about what had previously been built in the area:

When the Main Street light rail line opened in 2004, there were hopes that transit-oriented developments would follow, particularly at rail stops, but there has been relatively little growth.

One notable exception is the block next door to the soon-to-open shops at 3600 Main, at the Ensemble/HCC stop: 3700 Main, which houses the Continental Club, the Breakfast Klub, T’Afia, Julia’s Bistro and Mink bar. Four businesses on the 3700 block — the Continental Club, Tacos A-Go Go, Sig’s Lagoon and Big Top Lounge — were developed by Bob Schultz and his partners Steve Wertheimer and Gordon, and investors. Some of those businesses, including the Continental Club, predate light rail.

[…]

Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Main Street Coalition, a group aiming to enhance the street, offered reasons why only a relative few blocks have been developed along the rail line: land speculation, which causes real estate prices to soar and makes development less desirable; the lack of incentives to encourage development; and the recession.

It all depends on how you look at it. Christof Spieler documented in 2007 a whole bunch of new construction and renovation work done along and nearby the Main Street Corridor. The vast majority of it was downtown or in the Medical Center, though there were a few things in Midtown. My own observation is that much of what I’ve seen happen in Midtown, before and since the construction of the light rail line, has happened on the streets near Main Street, but not so much on Main Street. For whatever the reason, that’s been a much tougher nut to crack.

Parking review coming

This ought to be interesting.

The Department of Planning and Development has scheduled three community meetings in April to hear ideas about possible changes in the city’s parking ordinance, which has been modified only slightly since it was adopted in 1989.

From the department’s press release:

Some of the topics that will be discussed include but are not limited to shared parking, parking management areas, types of occupancy and intensity of use (i.e. bars, types of restaurants, etc.), parking incentives for development along transit corridors or for restoration of historic buildings, lifts and valet parking just to name a few.

The meetings will be from 4 p.m.-6 p.m. April 7 at Havens Center, 1827 W. Alabama; from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. April 14 at the Judson Robinson Jr. Community Center, 2020 Hermann Drive; and from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. April 21 at the United Way of Greater Houston, 50 Waugh Drive.

Houston’s urban landscape has changed dramatically since the parking ordinance was adopted in 1989. The area inside Loop 610 has grown much denser, clogging streets in some neighborhoods with the cars of all the new residents and their guests.

At the same time, leaders of efforts to redevelop neighborhoods like Midtown in a more urban style say strict parking requirements and other regulations have hindered their efforts.

“We’ve got to take a look at the ordinance and make it more relevant to today,” the city planning director, Marlene Gafrick, told me.

Parking requirements were not a part of the recent urban corridors ordinance, though there’s clearly a tight connection between the two. It’s good to see this being dealt with now, but it probably should have been part of the earlier discussion. Houston Tomorrow has more.

On a side note, the city of San Francisco recently completed a census of its parking spaces.

Over the last 18 months, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) has tallied every publicly accessible parking space within city limits, including free and metered spaces on-street and every publicly accessible garage [PDF map].

The total number of spaces, as Mayor Gavin Newsom recently announced on his Youtube site, is 441,541. Of the total, over 280,000 are on-street spaces, 25,000 of which are metered. For just the on-street spaces, that is roughly the equivalent area of Golden Gate Park.

I can only imagine what that number would be for Houston. It would be a heck of a challenge just to enumerate downtown’s parking capacity. Of course, San Francisco is a more transit-oriented city than Houston, and as such they need fewer parking spaces per capita. I hope that as Houston contemplates changes to its parking requirements, it takes into account what Houston’s transit system will look like a few years down the line. Yes, I know, that is still up in the air to an uncomfortable degree, but we should assume there will be a more robust system in a few years’ time than there is now, and ideally we will also consider what is yet to come beyond what we’re doing now.

Commuter rail and transit-oriented development

Here’s a peek of things that may be to come, courtesy of Dallas.

The A-train commuter railway is more than a year away from rolling into Lewisville, but plans are already in the works for the city’s first transit-oriented development.

Hebron 121 Station will be part of a 427-acre city reinvestment zone on the northeast corner of Interstate 35E and the State Highway 121 bypass. The developer is describing it as the largest transit-oriented development in Texas. Huffines Communities Inc. is the primary developer of the project.

“Most [transit-oriented developments] are in more urbanized areas and are on smaller properties,” said Elizabeth Trosper, economic development specialist for Lewisville. The city will pay for infrastructure improvements on the vacant land through a 30-year tax-increment financing plan.

“We don’t know of any other projects of this size and scope,” said Phillip Huffines, co-owner of the Dallas company that is also developing a mixed-use community in Arlington.

Now imagine the possibilities for Houston and the places that its proposed commuter rail may eventually go. Pretty exciting, isn’t it? Greg has more, including a picture of the area to be developed.

Ashby’s developer defends his project

Let me start by saying that I agree with Kevin Kirton, the CEO of Buckhead Investment Partners, also known as the developers of the infamous Ashby highrise, when he says that the “trip number” justification that the city used to block that project for as long as they did was bunk, and that the highrise as originally envisioned, is a better use of the space than the compromise version. The city’s regulatory system simply doesn’t allow for a way to deny this project, and the debate that ensued in which we pretended there was a way to do it ultimately served no one’s interests. We do need a better and more consistent set of rules for development, and we haven’t really begun to engage that particular discussion.

None of this changes the fact that the Ashby highrise is a bad idea. It’s incompatible with the surrounding area, and the reason there was such fierce resistance to it is that everyone outside of Buckhead Investment Partners realized that. I want to address two of the points that Kirton raises in his piece, one broad and one nitpicky, to try to illustrate this. First, the small point:

Consider that this project:

• •  Is located minutes from Downtown, Greenway Plaza and the Galleria and within walking distance of Houston’s major museums, the Texas Medical Center, Rice University and Hermann Park’s many amenities;

• •  Is on one of the top five most utilized METRO bus routes in the city and a quick half-mile walk to both the Main Street and Richmond rail lines;

• •  Will connect its residents to the community with its shared restaurant, specialty shop, wellness spa, and a small suite of executive offices.

Actually, the Ashby is about three-quarters of a mile from what should eventually be a rail stop at Richmond and Dunlavy, and nine-tenths of a mile from the Museum District stations on Fannin and San Jacinto at Binz. Fudging numbers doesn’t make me inclined to believe the rest of what you say. And the problem with claiming that this location is walking distance to the Medical Center and Hermann Park is that Rice is in between it and them, and given that it is private property, it may not appreciate a bunch of people using it as a cut-through. I can’t speak to the point about the bus route, but I am curious how many people that currently live in the area use that bus; more to the point, how many future residents of the highrise do you think would use it, and how many current or potential bus riders would disembark there in order to take advantage of its restaurant, specialty shop, wellness spa, or executive suites. Being accessible to transit is only a virtue if it gets used.

And that brings me to my larger point. The problem with Ashby is simply that it’s misplaced. You can claim, as Kirton does, that it somehow fits in with other pedestrian-friendly development by virtue of it being sort of walking distance from them, but the fact remains that there will be no network effect from putting a mixed-use highrise at 1717 Bissonnet. By that I mean that there won’t be anything else in its immediate vicinity that will also be of interest to someone who is on foot in the area. Ashby is and almost surely forever will be surrounded by nothing but residences. It’s a destination unto itself. Nobody who goes there will then walk to a neighboring shop or eatery or what have you because there aren’t any, and won’t be any. Contrast that with my hypothetical alternate location on Richmond, where a bunch of commercial development already exists and more will likely follow as the stretch of Richmond from Shepherd to Montrose attracts transit-oriented development as Main Street has. The equivalent stretch of Bissonnet is almost exclusively residential. Someone who gets off the Universities line at Richmond and Dunlavy will have a bunch of places to walk to. Someone who gets off the bus at Bissonnet and Ashby is probably going home.

An Ashby highrise that’s actually located in the vicinity of other dense, pedestrian-friendly properties is a valuable addition to that area, one that likely would generate a lot of excitement. An Ashby highrise located in the middle of a bunch of houses is at best a curiosity, and at worst a blight on the existing neighborhood. That’s been the problem from the beginning. To me, the best outcome once we realized that there was nothing to be done to stop Buckhead under the current rules is to come up with a revised set of rules for future Ashbys that will encourage the former and discourage, if not actually forbid, the latter. Unfortunately, we’re no closer to that now than we were when the project was first announced. And I don’t see how we’re going to get there from here.

Mixed use development on the west side

I don’t know about you, but when I think about mixed-use development in Houston, I’m usually picturing it inside the Loop, or maybe in the Galleria area. But there’s no reason it can’t be farther out from the core.

The new CityCentre in west Houston may be the most fully realized example of the [mixed-use] concept, according to Scott Shillings, president of Riverway Retail, a Houston-based retail/tenant representative.

He noted that CityCentre has the four main components of mixed-use: residential, retail, office and hotel. And it is a pure mixed-use development, he maintains, in that it isn’t adjacent to a mall. And unlike some other local mixed-use projects, CityCentre has retail anchors: a cinema and a huge fitness center.

“The term ‘mixed-use’ gets thrown around a lot, but, to me, this is the first time that Houston has actually seen it in its full depth and breadth,” Shillings said: “Architecturally and functionally, they’ve done a great job.”

[…]

Located near Interstate 10 and Beltway 8, the 37-acre site houses clean-lined contemporary brick buildings, brick streets and pleasant landscaping.

CityCentre has an elegant luxury hotel, Hotel Sorella; a sleek movie theater, Studio Movie Grill; and Norris Conference Center.

CityCentre contains several residential projects: the recently opened 370-unit Domain apartments and 35-unit Brownstones at CityCentre, which are for sale.

The 250-unit apartment project the Lofts is set to open next month.

[…]

CityCentre is next door to Town & Country Village, which has a Randalls and numerous shops and restaurants.

Town & Country Village is a big benefit to CityCentre, said Anita Kramer, senior director of retail and mixed use development at the Urban Land Institute.

“You can build these places that are walkable but have no connection to anything else,” she said. “It’s very useful to the CityCentre residents” to be next to Town & Country Village.

Certainly having it near a grocery store is a good thing, especially if there’s a pedestrian connection between the two. It kinda defeats the purpose if you have to always drive from one to the other.

I’ve been to CityCentre, though I didn’t give it any thought at the time. Tiffany and I saw “Julie & Julia” at the Studio Movie Grill about two weeks ago. It’s a theater like the Alamo Drafthouse in that it has full restaurant and bar service, which you order from your seat. We went there because we wanted that experience without having to drive halfway to San Antonio to get to one of the Drafthouse locations. We enjoyed it, and will look there first the next time we want to do that.

In case you’re wondering, this site is where the old Town and Country Mall used to be. I’m glad to see it turn into something this cool.

I will say that I think there is, or at least there should be, a fifth component to mixed-use development. That would be nearby transit options, to further minimize the parking requirements. The good news is that it looks like there’s a plan for that.

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.

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.

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.

The down side to a good economy

Traffic congestion hasn’t gotten any better.

Rising gasoline prices in the last half of 2007 produced less traffic, according to an annual study by researchers at Texas A&M University’s Texas Transportation Institute. The typical urban commuter spent one less hour stuck in traffic that year, and wasted one less gallon of gasoline than the year before.

Although the study analyzed data only through 2007, the researchers said they were fairly confident that the trend continued in 2008, as the recession kept people and products off the roads.

“Not as many people are driving, they are sitting at home because they don’t have a job to go to,” said Tim Lomax, a research engineer who co-authored the study of 439 urban areas.

The national average time lost to traffic in 2007 was 36.1 hours, down from 36.6 a year earlier.

But the Houston region did not see a dip in congestion because the recession has not hit as hard here, Lomax said. Rush-hour delays in Houston stayed flat from the previous year. In 2007, drivers here wasted an average of 56 hours in stopped or slowed traffic, and burned 40 gallons of fuel while doing it.

That means Houston, the nation’s fourth-most populous city, also ranked fourth in time lost to traffic. Los Angeles, at 70 hours, ranked highest. Houston has been steadily climbing in the ranks for years.

“The places like Houston where the ranking got worse, those are the places that had pretty good economies,” Lomax said. Urban areas like Oklahoma City, Raleigh-Durham, and Charleston, S.C. also experienced the blessings of economic growth and the related burden of more traffic, Lomax said.

All in all, that’s a tradeoff most of us would take. But maybe one of these days we’d like to keep our traffic from getting worse as our economy grows. Then what?

The study concludes that congestion can only be eased through a mix of solutions, such as adding lane capacity, increasing public transit, offering workers flexible hours and telecommuting, using technology to better manage accidents and traffic flow, and promoting “denser” land use so people don’t have to drive as far to work and shop.

In other words, expect the trend to continue for the foreseeable future. Eye on Williamson has more.

ULI Mayoral candidate forum report

As I am not a member of the Urban Land Institute of Houston, I did not get an invitation to their members-only Mayoral candidate forum on Thursday, which got a brief mention in the Chron on Friday. Fortunately, Andrew Burleson is a member, and he was there. He’s got a detailed report of the proceedings, which I highly recommend. Check it out.