Today 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 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
… 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.
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.