Development of walkable utopia hindered by... parking regs?

The Chronicle recently ran an interesting story by Mike Snyder on efforts to transform midtown into a great, walkable, urban utopia.

So far, the results are mixed:

Midtown leaders have achieved a remarkable transformation of the area between downtown and the Museum District. They have turned a neglected wasteland into a thriving, rapidly growing community still widely regarded as Houston's best hope of creating an "urban village" where people can work, shop and enjoy themselves without having to drive.

When the Midtown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone took effect on Jan. 1, 1995, developers were "scared to death" to invest in an area where vagrants used drugs in abandoned buildings and vacant lots were choked with weeds, said Charles LeBlanc, executive director of the Midtown TIRZ and Redevelopment Authority.

"We'd give our spiel and you'd look in people's eyes, and you could tell they thought you were crazy," LeBlanc said. "We were finally able to induce a couple of developers to give it a shot."

Those early investments have paid off. Since the TIRZ was created, Midtown's population has increased from about 500 to more than 9,500 and its tax base has grown from about $157 million to more than $800 million.

Apartments, townhomes, restaurants, bars and shops have replaced vacant lots and shuttered buildings. Distinctive street lights, landscaping, brick pavers and signs bearing the Midtown logo have helped to create a unique identity for the area.

The revitalization of Midtown, however, is far from complete.

Passengers zipping by on the MetroRail line that bisects Midtown still see boarded-up buildings and graffiti on Main Street. A vacant building where a young entrepreneur is developing a wine bar serves as bedroom and bathroom for uninvited guests. On many streets, taking a stroll still requires squeezing past others on narrow, unshaded sidewalks.

Actually, only a few pockets of the vast wasteland known as midtown have seen much of a transformation at all. In my part of midtown, there are lots of new townhouses but not much of a sense of community, and not many amenities within walking distance (my gym counts as an amenity within an easy walk, but other than that, there's a wholesale auto parts store); it's easily the worst of the last three neighborhoods I've lived in in terms of walkability and amenities despite being in the geographical "heart" of the city. But closer to downtown, along Bagby/Brazos, there has been some nice mixed-use development, which seems to draw from the neighborhood that has grown over from Montrose/Freedmen's area. That's the exception in Midtown, though, not really the rule.

One of the hindrances to the development of small businesses crucial to the walkable urban utopia envisioned by some seems to be parking, of all things:

The existing rules are frustrating to Ian Rosenberg, a planner and developer who is turning a vacant, 80-year-old Midtown building into a European wine bar and cafe.

Rosenberg said city officials told him he would have to provide more off-street parking than he could create even if he tore down the building, which once housed a dry cleaner. Placing an awning over a sidewalk to provide shade for pedestrians would require a variance, he said.

Rosenberg leased enough parking space to meet the requirement, and he hopes to open his bar on Caroline Street this fall. But he questioned the logic of requiring so much parking when he wants people in the neighborhood to walk to his bar.

Christof Spieler has an excellent discussion of Houston's parking requirements -- and why they don't make sense in some transit accessible areas -- in this post. Indeed, the existing parking requirements may well be too strict in general (although we have seen some nasty fights between neighborhoods and businesses -- usually bars -- when those businesses are constantly short on parking, and there is spillover into residential areas). I've stopped at the midtown Walgreens several times, and it has the same enormous parking lot that all Houston Walgreens stores tend to have. I've never seen more than about six cars there. That's land that's literally being wasted in one of the more livable/walkable parts of midtown, thanks to parking requirements that don't really fit the neighorhood.

Of course, some people think the parking requirements (an example of "planning" that may be too restrictive) aren't the problem, but rather the lack of more comprehensive planning. Here's a letter from Councilmember Peter Brown to the Chronicle on the topic:

THE Chronicle article by Mike Snyder dramatizes the dilemma of Midtown and of many other Houston neighborhoods we are getting the wrong development in all the wrong places. It is primarily due to our minimal, and antiquated, development regulations. A good example suburbia comes to Midtown with a new CVS (how many do we need?) at the corner at Main and Elgin another misbegotten use of prime real estate. We don't need anymore vacuous parking lots and naked boxes in Midtown.

The Houston Planning Commission and City Council can take the lead, now, in drafting "modern" development regulations, which protect our stable neighborhoods and promote a high quality, denser, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly urban environment in prime locations. The city should pay a role in determining the "outcomes" we all expect. Time is a-wasting. We just can't make up a city as we go along.

When social fiddlers like Mr. Brown decide to start planning "outcomes" that punish businesses they deem bad (whether CVS or Wal-Mart) instead of simply tackling some of the regulations that may not make sense in Midtown, I tend to get nervous. And I'm not the only one. Here's a letter to the Chronicle from Lee L. Kaplan:

COUNCILMEMBER Peter Brown cannot understand why there's a new CVS at Main and Elgin? Could it be that people who live nearby want a drugstore, and that CVS has been smart enough to figure that out? At the same time, Brown wants to "revitalize" downtown and make it "pedestrian-friendly." He apparently objects to having a drugstore within walking distance of the people who live there. Sounds counterintuitive to me.

The difference between a Peter Brown and a local resident who lives near Main and Elgin parallels the difference between the failure of El Mercado (which was lauded by council members and ultimately taxpayer-supported) and the success of CVS (which sells things that people want and pays taxes to fund Brown's dreams). And most important, once in place, a "plan" imposed by city planners is almost impossible to revise as times change, while a CVS can exit when there is no longer sufficient demand for its presence.

That's how neighborhoods revitalize themselves.

Mr. Kaplan makes a lot of sense to me, but that still doesn't solve the problem of promoting dense development in midtown as opposed to promoting the development of surface parking lots.

Opinions and/or thoughts?

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Posted by Kevin Whited @ 09/13/06 10:54 PM | Print |

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