Sunday, November 13, 2011

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

What If You Built a High Rise in Houston– and Nobody Complained?

It’s all about the site – The Ashby High Rise and the BBVA-Compass Building

I can see a construction site from my office window. It’s for the BBVA-Compass building, a 22 story high rise going up at 2200 Post Oak Boulevard. The building is similar in height and even bigger than the Ashby High Rise. But nobody’s complaining about it. The BBVA-Compass building’s neighbors are other high-rises and strip centers. Post Oak Boulevard is a major thoroughfare that can easily accommodate more traffic. It’s in the heart of Uptown, which is home to our City’s third-tallest building (The Williams Tower.) Simply put, Post Oak Boulevard is the right place to build a 22 story tower.

The Ashby High Rise is a better building than the BBVA Compass Building. It’s certainly got better massing. The BBVA-Compass building is an articulated box, with a parking garage to one side. The Ashby High Rise has a series of carefully designed setbacks that add visual interest. The BBVA-Compass building has no street-fa├žade to speak of. The Ashby High Rise offers a wide sidewalk, and shops at ground level.

Nonetheless, the Ashby High Rise is a point of contention citywide, and that’s thanks to its site at 1717 Bissonnet. The building will loom above single-family houses on quiet residential streets. Bissonnet is only two lanes at that location; Ashby Street is even narrower. They cannot accommodate more traffic. The shops at ground level will exist as an island; because there are few other stores in the area. The site at the corner of Bissonnet and Ashby could not be a worse place for a 23 story building.

They could solve these problems by choosing a different site for the Ashby High Rise. There’s a big, empty field on the northeast corner of Greenbriar and Highway 59; bisected by Lexington Street. At that location, the building would loom above a few small businesses and the highway. There are already tall buildings on the other side of Greenbriar, so it’s not a big stretch to add another. Access to Highway 59 would alleviate many of the traffic concerns. The neighborhood has a great restaurant scene, with Star Pizza, a 59 Diner, Freebird’s, and other eateries within blocks of each other. The site is close enough to 1717 Bissonnet that they could still go after the same clientele.

I should close by stating that I don’t know the owners of the site at Greenbriar and 59. I’m certainly not working for them. There might be more that meets the eye about that site. I’m just an architect, dreaming as architects do. But this could be a win-win-win for the developers, the neighbors, and the City at large. The developers can build their building. The neighbors can protect their homes. The City can grow in population and density Inside the Loop. The best part: it would put a residential high-rise on a site that seems to be screaming “build it here!”

Friday, September 30, 2011

An Alternative to a Really Bad Idea

Just when I thought I'd heard it all, the USDA is considering allowing the use of food stamps to buy fast food. This is something we should all fight. There are much better ways to reach the same goals.

The argument in favor of food stamps at fast food restaurants is this: Many poor neighborhoods are "food deserts" - places where fresh produce and other healthy foods are not readily available. While they lack healthy foods, "food deserts" are often well-served by fast food chains. So if we allow food stamps to be used in fast food restaurants, the program has a better chance of reaching the people who need it.

It seems to make sense, but it’s fraught with dangers. If we allow food stamps to be used in fast food restaurants, it will cause all sorts of health problems among our nation's poor. (Remember, these are the people who are least likely to have access to quality health care). It’s also a bad idea from an urban standpoint. It’s a stop-gap measure that fails to address the bigger problem of food deserts.

Instead of allowing food stamps to be used in fast food restaurants, we could use tax credits to lure grocers to food deserts. The tax credits could help grocers make a profit in underserved neighborhoods, where they would lose money otherwise. To get the tax credits, they could have to open a store that’s a certain size, and in a neighborhood that’s been identified as a food desert. To keep the tax credits, they could have to continue to sell fresh produce, and accept food stamps.

It’s not without precedent. We already have New Market Tax Credits (NMTC), and those are sometimes used to build grocery stores. We have Section 42 Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) that are used by developers to build low-income housing. The tax credits that I’m suggesting could be similar, but specifically designed to help grocery stores locate to food deserts.

We could pay for the grocery tax credits with money from the LIHTC program, along USD food stamp money. It’d help ensure that the poor can use food stamps in their own neighborhoods. Instead of just compensating for food deserts, this program would help solve food deserts.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A New Ballgame for Urban Blight in Texas

Some of our biggest Super Neighborhood meetings in Braeburn are on the topic of urban blight. It’s the same in neighborhoods throughout Houston, and I would imagine in other cities throughout Texas. Neighbors are mad about urban blight, and we demand that something be done.

It was never easy for the City to condemn a blighted building. Owners were protected by strong private property rights laws. It took years of negotiation; letters; inspections; court dates; hearings; and lawsuits before a blighted building could be condemned. Now, a Texas Supreme Court case, and a series of new Texas laws are going to make it even more difficult.

It’s really a new ballgame for urban blight in Texas. We need to adapt to it, or we risk losing our neighborhoods.

1: Recognize real urban blight, and know what our goals are. A low-rent apartment complex that’s fully occupied and meets code, isn’t blighted. Even when the property is blighted, it might be possible for it to be rehabilitated rather than condemned. Of course we should always be leery of ‘lipstick on pigs’ (cheap, cosmetic repairs to buildings that need much more.)

2: Keep calling the City to report blighted (“nuisance”) properties. Even if the City faces new hurdles to condemning blighted buildings, it can still issue fines and bring owners to hearings. If the owner faces enough of these hearings and fines, usually they either fix the problems, or sell at their own accord to someone who will.

3: Lobby private real-estate developers to tear down blighted buildings, like we lobby the City to do it. Under the new laws the City can’t force owners of blighted buildings to sell for anything other than public use. But private developers can still buy blighted buildings, demolish them, and build other things on those sites. That’s just standard real-estate practice.

4: Lobby for Local, State, and Federal incentives to help developers address urban blight. There are millions of dollars available every year for subsidized development. A lot of that money goes to new development on open land; when it could actually be used to help rehabilitate or redevelop blighted buildings. There are also programs that are specifically designed to help seniors and low-income families repair their homes. These programs could be used to help repair blighted houses in our neighborhoods.

Even before the new laws, my neighbors would get frustrated with the City for not working fast enough to condemn blighted buildings. Now it’s going to be even slower (if they can do it at all). It’s a new ballgame, and we need to adapt to it; or watch as urban blight kills our neighborhoods.

Friday, August 26, 2011

How Houston Could Get Two Shuttles, And Save the Astrodome

Like most Houstonians, I’m angry that Houston did not get a Space Shuttle. We could debate the reasons. I think it was monument snobbery: the view that the Shuttles just have to be in our Nation’s signature cities, and that Houston simply won’t do. NASA’s official reason for denying us a Shuttle – that we allegedly don’t get enough international visitors – could be seen as a veiled admission of it. But instead of lamenting our loss, we should come together in search of another option.

What if Houston was home to a large monument and museum commemorating the Challenger and Columbia Shuttles? We’ve got the perfect building to use for it: the Astrodome. The Astrodome is big enough to house the museum, monument, and also replicas of the Shuttles. Imagine two Shuttles, suspended in the Dome – with glass walkways leading up to them so that visitors can peer in. None of the other Shuttle museums will have anything like it.

The replicas of the Challenger and Columbia could be accurate to the condition the Shuttles were in before they were lost. Visitors could see how technology advanced between 1986 and 2003. The Saturn 5 Rocket and other exhibits from the Johnson Space Center could also be relocated to the Astrodome. There could be an I-Max Theater, along with new exhibits and memorials commemorating the crews of the two lost Shuttle missions. One exhibit could be devoted to the Astrodome and all of the other Houston institutions that owe their names to our Space Program.

Houston has bigger ties to our National Space Program than any other City. It is ridiculous that we didn’t get a Shuttle. But we shouldn’t be bitter about it. We should look for another option. The Eighth Wonder of the World would be a fitting monument to the Challenger and Columbia Shuttles.