Public has final chance to weigh in on new policies aiming to make Houston more walkable

GreenStreet is a 570,000 square foot mixed-use, walkable development located in downtown Houston along the METRORail, an area that would be subject to new development guidelines being considered by the city.
GreenStreet is a 570,000 square foot mixed-use, walkable development located in downtown Houston along the METRORail, an area that would be subject to new development guidelines being considered by the city.

GreenStreet is a 570,000 square foot mixed-use, walkable development located in downtown Houston along the METRORail, an area that would be subject to new development guidelines being considered by the city.

After nearly three years of planning, two local policy changes that aim to make Houston more dense and pedestrian-friendly are taking steps toward final City Council approval this spring.

One policy change recommends expanding the reach of the city’s Transit-Oriented Development Ordinance, passed in 2009. The ordinance gave developments near the city’s METRORail lines the option to use a set of walkable design standards, such as eliminating required parking and creating wider sidewalks, without paying certain fees or getting special approval as is typically required by the city. A 2014 study from Texas Southern University, however, found that many developers did not opt in to the program.

Now Houston’s Walkable Place Committee is recommending to make those development standards mandatory in some areas along METRORail lines and forthcoming bus-rapid transit lines as well.

Another effort known as the Walkable Places Ordinance establishes Walkable Places pilot areas. The goal of the ordinance is to create three pilot areas in Midtown, the Near Northside and East Downtown. Within these designated areas, plans for new construction and renovations would be required to follow a set of design guidelines that promote walkability and are specific to that area of town.

As written in the proposed ordinance, groups of developers in an area can also get together and apply to earn a Walkable Places designation outside of the pilot sites. To apply for the designation, they would create a design plan for their area that promotes pedestrian accessibility, and when approved, the development would be exempt the same fees and approval processes that the pilot areas are exempt from.

James Llamas, former planning commissioner, member of the Walkable Places committee and member of the Midtown Management District spoke on behalf of the management district at a January Planning Commission meeting. He voiced approval of the framework and the plans for the Midtown pilot area. While the group sees opportunities for some changes, such as including Midtown’s stretch of West Alabama Street in the pilot area, Llamas said he is still confident the final proposal will benefit his part of town.

“We believe the proposed framework will improve outcomes in a variety of ways and ensures better large-scale redevelopment projects while enabling small-scale infill that has previously been difficult,” he said.

Often highlighted in debates about these policies are the consequences of eliminating parking requirements used to promote density.

Several members of the Museum Park Super Neighborhood, which includes the area surrounding the Museum of Fine Arts and Hermann Park, spoke against some aspects of the policy proposals.

Julie Farr, executive Director of the super neighborhood, said they support pedestrian-friendly policies, however as representatives of a popular visitor destination and site of rapid residential development, the increased density allowed by these changes will increase traffic beyond public transit’s ability to offset it.

“We could see very negative effects in an already parking-stressed area,” she said.

Feedback can be provided on the Houston Planning Commission website or during three upcoming public hearings at Houston City Hall at 901 Bagby Street, Houston.

Next steps:

Public comment submission periods

Walkable places ordinance framework: Jan. 9 - March 5

Walkable places pilot areas: Jan. 23 - March 5

Public hearings

Walkable places ordinance framework: Feb. 20

Transit-oriented development ordinance amendments: Feb. 20

Walkable places pilot areas: March 5
By Emma Whalen

Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered health care and public education in Austin.


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