Walkability policies take aim at Houston’s driving culture

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Walkability policies take aim at Houston’s driving culture
Image description
Walkability policies take aim at Houston’s driving culture
Emerson Rose owner Bonnie Reay said she chose to open her boutique’s two locations on Westheimer Road in Montrose and 19th Street in the Heights because she knows foot traffic drives business.

“If you’re in a car, you could drive by my store every day to and from work for a year and pull in on a whim maybe one day if a window catches your interest. ... There’s no comparison to foot traffic,” she said.

Older areas of Houston such as 19th Street were developed before certain design standards that cater to driving, such as parking minimums, existed.

Now, with a collection of recent, and proposed city ordinances, policymakers are revving up attempts to promote the design standards that Reay said benefit her business.

Shifting design

In June, Houston City Council expanded the area where parking is not required beyond downtown. As a result, new developments in Midtown, east downtown, and parts of Near Northside will no longer be required to provide a set number of parking spaces, a design option previously only allowed downtown or by special approval.

Policymakers say requiring less parking reduces development costs and pushes transit use, some residents are wary of unintended consequences.

“When businesses are no longer required to satisfy the minimum parking requirements, but all of the parking on the street is still free that allows the businesses to externalize the cost of parking onto the public,” Super Neighborhood Alliance representative Jane West said.

By the end of the year, council is also set to consider two recommendations from the walkable places committee, a group of community representatives who have met since 2017 and made a final proposal in July.

One prong of the committee’s recommendations would create pilot areas requiring walkability regulations for new and renovated development, such as wider sidewalks and parking lots behind buildings instead of in front or beside them, interrupting sidewalks. Developers outside of these pilot areas will be able to opt in to these sets of designs and avoid the traditionally complicated process of getting them approved through variances and fees.

Finding a compromise on parking, such as requiring it behind buildings, may help find a middle ground between walking and driving, Realy said.

“[Our] buildings are generally in front of our parking, and the sidewalks are wider,” she said. “I do think that played a role in me choosing the locations.”

The committee also recommends expanding the reach of the city’s transit corridor ordinance, passed in 2009. It originally targeted roads along METRORail lines and created a set of optional walkable design standards, but they were not frequently used by developers.

Now the committee wants to expand transit corridor rules to include proposed bus-rapid transit lines and make standards, such as ending minimum parking, mandatory  in some areas.

Moving forward

For city officials, the new and amended ordinances prepare Houston for more density and push transit use.

“As Houston becomes more dense, I think the city needs to be more open to being at the forefront of that change. We don’t want to be trying to catch up,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, interim director of the Houston Planning & Development Department.

While the walkable pilot areas will establish district designations within a specific area, it is unclear whether groups of developers will to work together to apply for the designation outside of the pilot areas.

“It won’t happen very often because it all depends upon a developer being able to acquire land. Not all [properties in a row] are going to be for sale at the same time,” Houston-based Urban Planning Consultant Marylou Henry said. “I don’t think it’s going to encourage cooperative development among or between people.”

If developers gain the designation along a section of road, the change they could create is uncertain, said Geoffrey Boothe, Urban Planning and Policy researcher at Texas A&M University.

“If I just buy into a block of land and I was going to put some strip shops on there and I opted into this thing, it’s not really going to change anything around me,” he said. “It’s not going to increase the number of people walking past my project, because everything else around me is going to be same old, same old.”

Some see the flexibility of the changes as a vital starting point, said Planning Commissioner James Llamas at the commission’s June meeting.

“What this framework here will allow is to take our strengths and apply them to the urban core and I’m hoping to show that Houston can also provide great, affordable, walkable, transit-oriented, urbanism,” Llamas said. “This is hugely important for the city.”

‘We’re not Boston’

Policymakers and residents debate how popular the goal is.

“We’re not Boston; we’re not Chicago; we’re not New York; we’re not high density in the sense that while we have a lot of people here, we also have a lot of room,” District G City Council Member Greg Travis said. “We are an automobile town more than anything else.”

A resident of the Washington Avenue corridor, West said this shift is already playing out in some areas.

“People can’t sleep at night because we have people that are parking and going out to nightclubs and coming back screaming at each other,” she said. “We have lived that on Washington Avenue for years and it’s not a pretty picture.”

How Houston will retrofit itself into a model of a city that was founded before car travel will not be simple, but urbanists can look to some stretches of Westheimer Road or 19th Street  to see why residents desire walkable areas, Urban Design Consultant Mariela Alfonzo said.

“There are plenty of progressive developers in Houston who will chomp at the bit to go any places they know are walkable,” Alfonzo said. “They’re going to increase in value exponentially.”

What's next?

Houston City Council will consider approving the new walkable places ordinance and amendments to the transit corridor ordinance. If the transit corridor ordinance is changed the planning department will evaluate which streets will be included and ask for input from area residents. The map of streets will be reviewed annually.
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