Walkability policies take aim at Houston’s driving culture

Image description
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.


African American Library Houston
African American Library celebrates 10 years

The library formerly housed the first public school for African Americans in Houston.

At the annual State of the County address Nov. 15, County Judge Lina Hidalgo spoke on several initiatives launched in 2019, including criminal justice reform and emergency recovery, among other topics. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)
Lina Hidalgo reflects on boundary-pushing first year in State of the County address

Early childhood development will be major focus of 2020, Hidalgo said.

River Oaks Baptist School expansion
Houston private schools experiencing enrollment, building boom

Private school Houston enrollment is growing, while national trends show declines.

Houston Private School Guide 2019: K-12 schools, tuition, enrollment, deadlines

Parents have a variety of education options beyond the public school system. This guide includes a list of area private schools as well as information to help parents make the best decision for their children. Would you like to suggest a school to include in our guide next year? Leave us a suggestion in the comments or send an email to hrmnews@communityimpact.com.

Houston residents have two chances to see Kanye West at Lakewood Church this weekend. (Courtesy Lakewood Church)
Here’s how to see Kanye West at Lakewood Church

Kanye West will appear with Pastor Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church.

Travis Weaver owner of Manready Mercantile
Manready Mercantile: General goods store provides high-quality, handmade items

Manready Mercantile got its start in 2012 when owner Travis Weaver started making and selling his own handmade candles out of his apartment.

Al Quick Stop
Al Quick Stop: Family-owned Montrose bodega 'has a little bit of everything'

For almost 30 years, the Montrose area has had neighborhood bodega Al Quick Stop, a place to pick up a pack of cigarettes, a razor, some snacks or a six-pack that has become much more.

Houston Sichuan restaurant Pepper Twins charts two new locations

Sichuan-style Chinese restaurant Pepper Twins will open a location inside Houston’s Galleria, 5065 …

Courtesy Orangetheory Fitness
Orangetheory opens Highland Village location

Orangetheory Fitness opened its 23rd Houston-area location on Nov. 13 at 2400 Mid Lane Road, Ste. 150, in …

In a split 3-2 vote, the Harris County Commissioners Court passed a nonbinding resolution in favor of legislation requiring universal background checks for all Texas firearm sales, including those involving an unlicensed gun dealer and stranger-to-stranger gun sales, at its Nov. 12 meeting. (Courtesy Fotolia)
In split vote, Harris County approves resolution supporting universal background checks for all Texas firearm sales

The nonbinding resolution's passing demonstrated the court's support of legislation requiring universal background checks for all gun sales in the state, including those involving an unlicensed gun dealer and stranger-to-stranger gun sales.

Ahead of the Dec. 14 mayoral runoff election for the city of Houston, Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman announced plans Nov. 12 to move the county’s ballot box collection center to a more centralized location in hopes of expediting election result returns. (Emma Whalen/Community Impact Newspaper)
Harris County clerk to move ballot box collection center to centralized location in effort to expedite election result returns

Ahead of the Dec. 14 mayoral runoff election for the city of Houston, Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman announced plans Nov. 12 to move the county’s ballot box collection center to a more centralized location in hopes of expediting election result returns.

One of the major themes found in the report was a nearly 24-year range in average lifespan that varied across the county from as low as 65 years to as high as 89 years. According to the report, the Memorial/Bear Creek area has the highest average lifespan, while the East Little York/Settegast area has the lowest. (Courtesy Harris County Public Health)
Benchmark study reveals 24-year lifespan variance, high obesity rates and limited health care access across Harris County

A study by Harris County Public Health found life expectancy in Harris County alone varies by nearly 24 years depending on where a resident lives.

Back to top