Transit Corridor Streets

There’s been a lot of chatter about the Urban Corridors effort this week. Mike Snyder started things off by providing us an update on the ordinance, and several other bloggers have chimed in about it. Most notably, Cory Crow wrote a pretty scathing rebuke of the idea, though I think he was reacting more to the article than the ordinance…

I’ve been pretty buried at work, and I’m leaving this afternoon for a week-long vacation, so I haven’t had time to write as much as I would like to about this. However, Mike asked me to share my thoughts on the matter, and I think it’s probably more valuable to do that now rather than wait until the conversation cools off. I may follow up with more detail later on, but for now, here’s what I have to say about the issue.

The Standards

The proposed standards that the City has developed are good. They follow many of the recommendations that were recommended by ULI, and they provide for most of the critical components of a good interface. Developments that follow them will be nice. However, the City is completely missing the point by structuring these requirements the way they have.

Currently the standard building setback in the City of Houston is 25 feet. But really in most of the city you can already build within 15 feet, 5 feet, or sometimes 0 feet if you meet pretty basic standards. Essentially these are: you’re not building on a major thoroughfare with a planned width of over 80′, and you’re not building across the street from single family homes. There are some other details (to get zero setback you have to build a covered walkway in the first five feet; the building can go straight up above the walkway), but they’re not very restrictive.

These requirements have been a one-size fits all for most major streets in Houston (all ROW’s under 80 feet). Now the City is creating two new designations of streets: Transit Corridor Streets (streets with light-rail) and A Streets (major streets leading to a light-rail station).

The proposal is this: If you want to build in a transit-corridor, you can still build the typical suburban crap that you’ve been allowed to build all along – just leave a 25 foot setback (ie put a parking lot in front). However, if you want to build something with the parking in the back, you’ve got a long list of additional standards to comply with.

The Problem

Let me be clear: if the city adopts the standards as they are written, it will have exactly the opposite of the intended effect. It will be just as easy as it has always been to build suburban, auto-oriented trash near a train station, and it will be HARDER to build an urban building.

The city is taking areas where you could ALREADY build right up to the street and telling you that now you CANNOT do that unless you comply with these additional “Voluntary” design parameters.

This is a punitive measure against exactly the wrong people! This is EXACTLY BACKWARDS from what their stated goal is!

Why this fails:

If the city wishes for people to adopt this voluntary standard they’ve got to ADD an incentive that people DON’T ALREADY HAVE — instead they are taking away something that people have had so far and making you work to get it back.

There is exactly one incentive that the City has at its disposal that could fix this mess: parking requirements. According to Snyder’s article:

City officials, however, said relief from parking requirements would not have been practical because lenders and project tenants are likely to insist on the same amount of parking the city requires.

“It really is kind of a non-issue,” said Michael Schaffer, deputy city planning director.

WHAT!?!?!?! A non-issue!?!

In my business as a development consultant we run into problems with parking requirements on 100% of all projects that come through our office.

Yes, developments need parking; everyone knows this! National retailers certainly have their own parking requirements, and developers that want to sign them will build accordingly.

But what about LOCAL BUSINESSES??? Look at how many of the small Mom and Pop shops around central Houston don’t have a lot of parking. This is because they CANNOT afford it! They own a tiny piece of land and can’t afford to assemble enough for there to be room for a parking lot.

This is why Main Street hasn’t redeveloped fully. The ownership is fragmented into little tiny lots because it was all houses back in the day, and it takes a gargantuan effort to reassemble the land. If the existing owners could just build a traditional storefront and just put as much parking as they could fit on their own property, Main street would be almost completely redeveloped within a very short period of time. Sure, it would be mostly local businesses, and not gleaming new mega-projects, but I personally think that’s a good thing!

LET THE MARKET DETERMINE THE PARKING REQUIREMENTS AND LOCAL BUSINESS WILL THRIVE!

The biggest problem holding back Houston’s urban redevelopment is that national level development companies with the huge capital and expertise to come in, assemble land, and build a large scale project in an urban infill setting are AFRAID of developing in Houston. This is because they see no protection for their investment, because there are no zoning or development standards to keep CVS from putting a box of garbage beside their shiny new mega project.

Post Midtown Square is THE example of this trend. One of the best national developers, Post has built the only project outside of Downtown that is worth emulating. They single sparked the renaissance that has taken place around the Gray / Bagby part of Midtown. And, unsurprisingly, the spread of this quality urban environment was completely cut off on the east by CVS and Capital One.

So, Houston’s development market is a heavily local game, and local developers fall in two flavors:

1. They don’t care about the impact of their development on the surrounding community or city as a whole, and will do anything that makes a profit.

This is the largest contingent of developers. They are totally within their rights, but they are never going to benevolently adopt strict new standards that are intended to create a stronger community because they don’t care. It’s not their job to care, and we shouldn’t act like it is.

2. They do care about the surrounding community, but they are not expert designers and they do not have a lot of expertise at creating projects that spark major revitalization around them.

This is a small portion of the development community. These people are benefitted by a good design guide (or voluntary standard) because it gives them a clear, simple picture of what they should build in order to “do the right thing.” Kudos to these people. The only benefit the standards as currently proposed will have is to provide guidance to this small minority of developers.

What we should do about this:

1. We could adopt Smart Code and a Transect Plan. This would offer the investment protection that national firms are looking for, and it would preserve our existing free-market approach to land-use, while protecting neighborhood from “Ashby” type situations where a developer wants to put a hi-rise in the middle of a healthy neighborhood of single-family houses. This approach would be ideal, but it probably will never fly politically.

2. We make these standards manditory for the specific area they encompass. This is a logical approach because it represents protection of a HUGE public sector investment (the new transit lines) from development types that would syphon value away. The local developers who don’t care about anything would be turned off – perfect.

3. We provide a SIGNFICANT incentive for the adoption of these new standards so that they are very enticing and most people will choose to use them. The only incentive the City has that would be big enough is the parking requirment. THIS is the RIGHT solution for Houston’s political and cultural climate. While not the “perfect” solution, there’s every reason to expect that it would produce a significant percentage of compliance with the new standards, and therefore promote the creation of healthy urban districts surrounding the new light rail.

Now, here’s the critical takeaway. Short of one of those approaches, I think this effort is a waste of time. Just publish a recommended design guide and let the benevolent use it. DON”T MAKE IT EVEN HARDER THAN IT ALREADY IS TO CREATE QUALITY DEVELOPMENT.

If the city isn’t going to support urbanism, they should at least get out of the way. This is just one more example of Houston’s complete and utter lack of comprehension of urbanism and the development industry. If this gets approved as I understand they currently intend it to function, it will have been worse than a waste of time, it will be a huge step backwards.

If someone from the City wants to respond to this and tell me that I’m wrong, please do. I’d love to hear how I’m misunderstanding the issue. I hope and pray that I’m misunderstanding, because if not, we’re in trouble.

Now then, I’m off for a week. We’ll see where things stand when I get home.


Posted: Friday, June 5th, 2009 at 11:32 am
Categories: featured, live
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2 Comments

  1. “Cory Crow wrote a pretty scathing rebuke of the idea, though I think he was reacting more to the article than the ordinance”

    That’s somewhat right. I would add that my general objections also lie in the short-sightedness on the part of the planners as well. I’m still not seeing anything that addresses some pretty fundamental questions regarding both regional mobility and long-term viability.

    It’s possible that smart-codes and transects are a part of the answer, I don’t know. Like you I’m not sure they’d fly politically.

    I keep going back to “make the best of a bad situation”. Either that or move to Chicago.

    • I agree that the City is not showing any long-term vision. There’s a critical lack of leadership on the big picture issues of land development, economic development, and regional mobility.

      What we need, more than anything else, is strong leadership that can take the clear community vision that has been espoused in projects like Blueprint Houston and cut through the bureaucracy and politics and get it implemented.

      So, I hear Chicago is beautiful in the summertime…

3 Trackbacks

  1. [...] It’s too dense to excerpt, so just go and read and see what we’ll be missing. Second, neoHouston cuts right to the chase: Let me be clear: if the city adopts the standards as they are written, it [...]

  2. [...] promote good urban development. Here in Houston this has been looked at recently in the form of the Transit Corridor Streets program and its voluntary design standards. There are pros and cons to the TCS as it has been [...]

  3. A tiny step in the right direction -- August 21, 2009 at 11:35 am

    [...] many of you read my reaction when the City first revealed the draft ordinance. My basic point of view on this issue hasn’t [...]

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