Comparing Interfaces: Real Urbanism versus Immitation Urbanism

Post-IntroToday we’re going to take a look at some of the residential infill development that has taken place in Midtown, and see what a difference good interface can make.

If you haven’t read the background material on this one, here’s a quick summary. Interface is the connection between public and private space. It’s the street, the sidewalk, and the edges of a property. Good interfaces are the backbones of a healthy city – they are the places we interact, the places we cherish.

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.

With these concerns in mind many cities have adopted various forms of regulation to try and 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 proposed, and we’ll discuss that more at the end of the post.

What we’re going to look at today is the two main “first-wave” residential developments in Midtown, and one that sits in between them.

  • The first project, Post Midtown Square, is Houston’s best piece of urban development. This project has injected signficant life and vitality into the surrounding area, and is a nearly perfect model of what we should be trying to promote in our urban core. Post has a fantastic interface, which causes there to be a lot of pedestrian activity and street life around the project, and which causes the residual value of the development to spread and create other good developments. Post’s one major weakness is that it is pretty far removed from the light-rail.
  • The second project, Camden Midtown, is an example of mediocre urban infill. While it’s better than vacant lots, it has a pretty bad interface, a worse site layout, and it does virtually nothing to improve street-life in its vicinity. The development’s shortcomings seems greater when you consider that Camden has two huge assets that Post does not: it is very close to a light rail station, and across the street from the best grocery store in Midtown.

The main point of this article is to compare Post and Camden. These two properties are remarkably similar, having developed at about the same time, containing about the same number and type of units, and targetting similar demographics. The difference is what has happened around the two projects, and the reason for that difference is their design.

Along the way we’re also going to look at 2222 Smith Street because it falls almost perfectly between the other projects in location and quality level. This project came after Post and Camden, is smaller, and targets a slightly higher price point – but its useful as an illustration of “mid quality” interface design.

First, let’s look at the sidewalks at Post.

Sidewalks-Post
This is a great sidewalk. The design is highly condusive to pedestrian activity, and you’ll find people walking here all the time. I took all these pictures at about 3pm this Sunday when it was about 104 degrees outside, and you’ll see that in the better designed areas there are people enjoying being outside despite the weather.

As far as other sidewalks go, let’s look at 2222.

Sidewalks-2222

As sidewalks go, this one is not bad. The planting strip and trees between the sidewalk and the street are nice, specifically because it’s ivy instead of grass. Grass is high maintenance and really best as yard material. When you’ve got less than 3′ it’s better to go with ivy or some other kind of low shrubery – it’s more durable and more interesting. This sidewalk neither adds to or detracts from the urban environment – it’s a pass through. If there’s a lot going on around this building, this won’t get in the way. If there’s nothing going on, this isn’t going to spark anything.

Now, here’s Camden…

Sidewalks-Camden

Camden’s sidewalk is not very well designed. The trees are the best part, but they’re blocking the way. The little grass strip between the sidewalk and the street is self defeating – people need that space to walk. This is an example of a suburban design paradigm that is out-of-place in the city. “We’re supposed to leave some grass between the sidewalk and the street, the thinking goes, but in reality this is a waste of space. Where we need grass is in parks with enough room to use it as a playing field. When you have less than that, a mix of cobblestones, shrubs, and trees is more interesting, more durable, and therefore more useful.

Another suburban design paradigm is the fence. The fence provides the illusion of security, but no actual security.

Security-Camden

In fact, this fence is really only intended to hide the utilities that have all been left at ground level instead of placed on the roof where they belong. Worse, though, is that the fence is marketed as a security feature, intended to make people feel safer in the building. This can be counter-productive if it causes people living on the ground floor not to pay enough attention to securing their own unit.

Security-Post

Post, on the other hand, uses pedestrian gates at every entry. These are not easily circumvented, and impossible to squeeze through or climb over. While windows to ground floor units are still reachable, they are elevated and there are no sliding glass doors. This would make breaking in and getting anything out through a window quite difficult. More importantly, however, is the visibility of these units.

Where a burglar at Camden could quickly hop the fence and hide behind it, at Post they would have to try and wait for a lull in traffic (in this case on Webster St.) and a lack of pedestrians out on the sidewalks in order to try and break in through a window without being seen. The opportunity to do that is incredibly rare. Furthermore, if someone did spot a crime happening, because of the location in the heart of the city the police would be on the scene within minutes. I’ve witnessed this when there have been traffic accidents in the area, the police arrived almost instantly. This is real security provided by eyes on the street, and it’s one of the original reasons people chose to congregate in cities.

The overall difference in the communities is most visible in their attitude toward cars. Camden was built primarily for cars, and Post was built primarily for people. This is most evident at the leasing offices. Camden built an internal parking lot and placed their leasing office adjacent to it. Post put their leasing office at the corner of Gray and Baldwin, right on the sidewalk.

Leasing-Camden

Leasing-Post

The leasing office at 2222 is much like the one at Post, and constitutes the one very good block face of that building. There is one drawback, though.

Leasing-2222

Garage-2222

The garage at 2222 illustrates the fundamental problem that keeps most developers from really understanding urbanism. They’re still so fixated on accomodating cars (which is about 90% of the design work in suburban development) that they’re not thinking about the pedestrian experience. 2222 and Camden suffer from this problem, Post does not.

Garage-Camden

Garage-Post

So across the board Post Midtown is better designed than Camden. It is urban, where Camden is suburban.

But why does this matter? It matters because in central locations with supportive infrastructure urbanism will spread. The value of the interface is radiant – it spills over onto adjacent properties. However, a block with really bad interface can significantly dampen the spread of good redevelopment, or cut it off entirely. This is the case when traveling due east from Post. Immediately adjacent to the best urban block in the City we have…

CVS

… the biggest missed opportunity in the city. CVS came in and built a standard suburban box, one that doesn’t even have a connection from the sidewalk to the door. This is the suburban paradigm taken to the max – in the burbs the sidewalk is merely a decoration, so there’s no point in connecting it to the building. This location is only a few blocks outside of Downtown Houston, and from my personal observations living down the street I’d estimate that 30-50% of their customers arrive on foot. All of these people experience a very unpleasant trip through a big empty parking lot every time they come here.

Camden and Post were built at about the same time, in areas that were very, very similar to each other at the time of construction. But redevelopment activity spread very successfully to the north, south, and west of Post Midtown, whereas very little redevelopment activity spread from Camden at all. East of Post the redevelopment activity is significantly dampened by the CVS development. Cut off from Post, developers further east of CVS weren’t able to effectively capture the foot-traffic coming off of Post, and so they made little effort to try and start a new cell of street-life.

When you take these areas and look at them on a map, this is what you see.

Interface-Map

The difference over 10 years in how much more and higher quality development activity has happened in the vicinity of the Post project is amazing. This map barely scratches the surface of the differences between the two – just come down to Midtown and see it for yourself. And this map is hardly comprehensive, I’ve only shown the area within a efw blocks of the two main developments – only the area most directly impacted.

So why does all this matter so much?

The kind of development activity that’s happening around Post could be happening all over the city. There are many reasons why it won’t all happen overnight, but given 10 years it’s unbelievable how much things can change. If we want to see more of this, we should be working as a city to develop smart, lean development policies that reward good design. We need to accept that sidewalks belong in the right-of-way and that the city needs to be a leader in improving them. Large scale developments like Post can and will serve as the anchor for these redevelopment areas, but most urban infill takes place on just one or two lots. Sidewalks don’t work right if they’re not continuous, and they won’t be continuous without strict public mandates or public ownership. Public ownership is the better, fairer approach in this case.

As for what’s going on in Houston today, the Transit Corridor Streets proposal contains a great set of design guidelines for urban buildings, but it only allows these standards to be used in close proximity to the light rail, and it only includes decreased setback requirements as an incentive. We need to encourage these design guidelines to be used city-wide, and we need to put real incentives behind them – such as removing the parking requirements and letting the market determine how many spaces to provide.

Good design, especially good interface design, causes property values to spread, and that attracts redevelopment. The City could be the leader in improving our sidewalks and promoting excellent design guidelines for developing beside them. The sooner we make this a focal issue for the City, the sooner we will see widespread revitalization happening throughout the entire core – not just isolated pockets of trend-setting apartments.


Posted: Thursday, July 16th, 2009 at 2:35 pm
Categories: featured, live
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14 Comments

  1. Seven years ago, we sat at Front Porch and had this very discussion over beers when the CVS was underconstruction and nearing ready to open.

    The question is how do you keep corporations from putting box stores like this when this is the cheaper option?

    Second, I would add, major US university architectural, civil and construction engineering program books are populated with car-based suburban design. Most kids come from suburban cultures so they do what they know best. Outside the box thinking costs many for design firms!

  2. How much talk has there been of a form based code for Houston? I agree that the Post is the best example of good design on new construction in midtown. The fences around many of the residential properties are atrocious. Good fences make good neighbors right! Interestingly enough people don’t realize that gates and fences keep people in as well as keep people out. I would also add to the mix that the Randall’s in Midtown could’ve been done much better. A mix of uses is very important, although not all development warrants it.

  3. Excellent article, Andrew. This should be mandatory reading for anyone that cares about Houston’s future development. I think if more people understood these issues they would be more apt to support and demand them. For me, this article really illuminated what makes good verses bad urban development. Thanks!

  4. I could not have agreed with you more. I am running for Houston City Council this year in District F.

    I had no desire to be in politics as I am not the professional politico type.

    I grew up in an urban area, Boston then lived in Orlando Florida for 13 years… Orlando has also done amazing things with their previously dead daytime only downtown area.

    Houston needs to look at not only the other cities listed here but international cities as well.

    This isn’t college where you get in trouble for copying, but we should use it for inspiration!

  5. Great article. On the plus side, the Midtown TIRZ will soon be improving Gray, Caroline, and Alabama so that they look more like Elgin (and the current McGowen Project) with wider and nicer sidewalks. That should help a lot.

  6. Whew, a lot of comments here before I got a chance to write any replies!

    @irfan: The way to prevent companies from putting cheapo boxes in Houston is to give them a degree of protection for their investment. Take a look at this picture of an urban-format CVS in Atlanta. They know how to do it, they just don’t see the point when they don’t expect anyone else to follow along.

    This leads into the next point…

    @KP: Form-based codes are a great fit for Houston, but haven’t gotten a lot of talk here. Peter Brown has said that he’s interested in seeing an overhaul to Chapter 42 including some form-based elements, but that’s about it.

    The solution is to have a LIGHT form-based code which only defines building placement and height. Eliminate all parking requirements, and don’t regulate land-use or architectural styles. We base the building height and placement requirements on a transect map, basically limiting building heights based on the level of infrastructure available in a district. This solves the Ashby hi-rise issue once and for all without creating a due-process nightmare, and would represent a SIGNIFICANT DECREASE in overall regulation compared to what we have today.

    Combine that with a voluntary design guideline that includes some significant incentives for better design, and we’re set.

    @Robert Kane: I hope you’re paying attention to this, and that you’ll vote accordingly if you win your council seat. Good luck to you.

    And finally, to everyone else: Thanks for the positive feedback, it’s really encouraging to hear how many people have appreciated this post!

  7. This is an excellent review of the complexes, sir. One of the reasons for all of the development to the west of Post has to do with the fact that much of it is encompassed by a tax increment reinvestment zone [including the Post complex]. Midtown is TIRZ #2.

    There are more details about it in the pdf here: http://www.houstontx.gov/budget/05budadopt/XIII_PI.pdf

  8. Andrew, with regard to the regulatory framework for creating a good streetscape–a form-based code addressing only building placement and height would still allow if not encourage all of the poor design decisions you pointed out in your excellent comparison of the Camden vs. Post properties: lack of pedestrian access and visual interest, poor landscaping choices, etc. Percent transparency on the ground floor, awnings and arcades for shade, and multiple mid-block entry points can all be required in or immediately adjacent to downtown and will ease the way for transition to a vertically-integrated mixed use environment once the neighborhood matures.

  9. Leilah:

    You’re partly right, I certainly don’t think a super minimal form based code solves everything, but the primary details it would include are related to where and how you put your building and your parking on the site. So, for instance, no more podiums, no more sea of parking in front.

    By focusing on eliminating the worst offenders, we may still get some Camden Midtowns, but we won’t get any more CVS. That’s a win.

    Combine this with a recommended design guide (which the city already has for it’s urban corridors plan) containing more detailed architectural standards and some incentives for developers to comply with it, and you have a phenomenal transformation from where we are today without trying to force something heavy down people’s throats (which won’t work).

    Over time, if we let districts (such as Midtown or the Heights) that want to create unique environments voluntarily personalize the architectural standards and make them mandatory within their boundaries (by approval of a majority of property owners), then you can have really fine-grained quality urbanism emerge while preserving the variety and freedom that make Houston so vital and entrepreneurial.

    While that may not be a ‘utopian’ solution, I think it’s much more workable to focus just on the most critical issues and give people the opportunity to buy in to the full enchilada voluntarily.

  10. Andrew
    You present some good commentary on the fundamentals of quality landscape and building design in an urban environment, but I would reconsider so closely associating proper site planning with “urbanism.” Urbanism is a broad term that encompasses the full spectrum and goal of urban design – including your topic of walkability and pedestrianism. I suggest that you provide your own definition of urbanism so bloggers understand that urbanism requires good site design, but the definition of urbanism is not entirely relative to the design of sidewalks. Certainly, it is one component, but not the solitary definition. This would expand your topic and give readers more of the big picture.
    Its also a good idea to qualify “good” vs. “bad” urbanism. “Bad urbanism” is somewhat of a paradox, like “bad achievement.” If urbanism is the goal of urban design, then you either have it or you don’t (or you have it sometimes or partially). This is why your definition of urbanism may enlighten your point and your readers.
    Good article…and good luck!

    • Thanks for the comment, CC. I definitely agree with you about terminology, the biggest issue I’ve had is how to convey certain ideas a snippet that people outside the industry will “get” without having to think too hard about terminology. I really wrestled with how to title this article. I’ll keep your suggestions in mind for future posts on the subject!

  11. Should have read your article before leasing at Camden, the area looks unsafe at night, hopefully I am in the third floor and it is more dificult for burglary, however, yesterday 2 apartments were broken into… thinking about relocating now

  12. Excellent visual descriptions and captions. You have an excellent way of conveying these concepts in clear but concise visual and verbal descriptions. Way to go!

7 Trackbacks

  1. [...] 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. [...]

  2. [...] experienced a lot of infill development in recent years — not all of it good, according to Andrew at neoHOUSTON.  What makes some projects great, and others not so [...]

  3. Peter Brown’s traffic plan – Off the Kuff -- August 10, 2009 at 4:38 am

    [...] 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 [...]

  4. [...] Originally Posted by irishlover Why do people always try to wish a place into something it isn't and won't ever be? Houston is Houston partly because of a lack of pedestrian culture the OP mentioned in other cities and partly because of a hundred other reasons that make our city unique. Get over yourself already. Yes Yes, woe are the people that would love to see Houston's urbanity improve. Non Natives and even Natives want a more walkable city. This is a perfect discussion and link about related to this thread. It centers around the development in Midtown in Houston. Comparing Interfaces: Real Urbanism versus Immitation Urbanism [...]

  5. Playing by the Rules -- May 14, 2010 at 9:27 am

    [...] properties around it. Certain design decisions are very positive for surrounding property owners (Post Midtown). Certain design decisions – especially those that inject ’standardized’ suburban [...]

  6. Falkenberg’s Wal-Mart strawman – Off the Kuff -- September 15, 2010 at 3:55 am

    [...] stance on the Washington Heights development, and that I do not in any way speak for them.) As Andrew Burleson has shown, putting suburban-style big box development next to walkable urban development negatively [...]

  7. Quora -- December 28, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    My wife and I are a couple with young kids thinking about moving to Houston. Should we? What are the pros and cons? What is Houston like for “expats”?…

    Christine Peng’s answer is amazing, but I also wanted to add a few points that I haven’t seen mentioned. I lived in Houston (Galleria/Westchase area) for three years, arriving from Wisconsin-via-Pittsburgh and eventually leaving for northern Californ…

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