Saturday, February 27, 2010

Reassuring Answers to a Bothersome Question

I was lucky enough to attend the Citizens Environmental Coalition’s “Green Neighborhoods for Green Buildings” symposium last week.

The moderator was a fellow architect and Super Neighborhood President – David Robinson, President of the Neartown / Montrose Super Neighborhood. The speakers were Houston Tomorrow President David Crossley; Jeff Taebel with the Houston-Galveston Area Council (and the author of Livable Centers), and Brian Crimmins, Senior Planner with the City of Houston’s Planning Department.

The Houston-Galveston metropolitan area is set to gain 3.5 million people in the next 25 years, and that means a lot of things. Average Houstonians are right to be concerned about what’s coming. They should ask questions ike: will my neighborhood be demolished to make way for dense development? Will that new development push flooding onto my street? What about other urban problems – noise, traffic, crime….? What if it goes the other way, and my neighborhood is passed-over for new development?

In the Q&A portion of the symposium, I asked: “As Houston grows, do we risk turning our back on post-war neighborhoods?”

The answer was a reassuring ‘no’. First, according to Jeff Taebel, they want to make all of Houston livable; not just the neighborhoods where it’s easy. It may be more difficult to bring the dense, walkable urban core model to a post-war neighborhood; but they’re going to try.

The second answer came from Houston Tomorrow President David Crossley. Basically it’s that neighborhoods know best what type of development should go where. If neighborhood groups are proactive and vocal, we should be able to direct development to where we want it.

I’ve always been skeptical of Houston’s urbanists, because I'm afraid that the parts of Houston that fit the New Urbanist vision will get all the attention; while large swaths of the City will be neglected. The “Green Neighborhoods for Green Buildings” symposium helped a lot with my skepticism. I'm very interested to see how things pan out.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Crime Has Been Lost in Urban Discourse. We need to bring it back.

Seattle is a model of urbanism. The City scores high in the walkability rankings, and they pioneered many urban policies that other cities have followed. Houston Tomorrow actually brought a speaker in from Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods, to see what we could learn from them. But last week video surfaced of Aiesha Steward-Baker being brutally attacked in one of Seattle’s bus tunnels.

The relationship between urbanism and crime is not new. Oscar Newman wrote “Creating Defensible Space” in 1974. Jane Jacobs talked about it even earlier. But nobody seems to talk about it any more. I searched for ‘crime’ on two of Houston’s urbanism websites. Houston Tomorrow had just one article that directly addressed crime and urbanism. NeoHouston had an article with a picture of Andrew Burleson climbing a fence. A Google search was a little more fruitful, but not much.

In the absence of educated discourse, people have developed pretty far-fetched ideas on crime and urbanism, and cities have stopped listening to neighborhood crime concerns.

The far-fetched ideas aren’t worth going into. But neighborhood crime concerns are. A perfect example is happening in Northeast Houston. The City is building a bridge to connect the Songwood and Wood Bayou neighborhoods. People in Wood Bayou support the bridge. It will unite the two neighborhoods and make them both more walkable. People from Wood Bayou will have easier access to Brown Park. But people in Songwood are fighting the bridge because they fear it will bring crime to their neighborhood. Nobody is working on ways to help with Songwood’s crime concerns while also giving Wood Bayou the access they need. They’re just building a bridge.

We could change this if we bring crime back to our discussions on urbanism. Aiesha Steward-Baker was attacked in a bus tunnel in one of America’s most forward-thinking urban cities. If that isn’t reason enough, what is?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

It's not as Simple as You Think - The Latest in the Ashby Mess

Buckhead Investment Partners is now suing the City of Houston for its denial of permits on the Ashby High Rise.

This isn’t just about a rich neighborhood fighting a rich developer’s bad idea. It’s about land-use and regulations in the City of Houston. And it’s about a lawsuit that could have huge implications for our City.

Land-use battles happen all over the City of Houston, and often the City falls on the side of neighborhoods. It’s usually in middle, working class, and poor neighborhoods. The Carnival Night Club in Sharpstown. NRP’s Costa Del Rey Apartments in Southwest Houston. The Magnolia Glen Homeless Shelter in Eastwood. SCC’s Concrete Crushing Plant in Sunnyside. The list goes on. All of these are projects that were either killed or fundamentally changed after neighbors protested.

It’s rare, though, that the developers of these failed projects sue; much less for the eye-popping sum of $40 million. That’s a lot of money. If Buckhead Investment Partners wins, The City of Houston might have to back out of its end of the Dynamo Stadium deal (a move that could cost us our major league soccer team). The City might not be able to fix the hundreds of derelict properties it owns. The Candlelight Trails Condominiums could be around for a bit longer; and neighborhoods might not get the Capital Improvement Projects we ask for.

This is to say nothing of the precedent that Buckhead’s lawsuit could set. Will developers now sue every time their permits are denied? Will the City have to reimburse architects for the time they spend revising drawings per City comment?

We shall see. At any rate, the Ashby mess shows no sign of going away.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Value Added Fallacy - a Rebuttal to Tory G

A few months ago, Chronicle Blogger Tory G wrote “Developers transform underutilized land into better and higher uses by increasing property value.” The statement makes logical sense. But it misses some important points.

First, poorly sited development can cost more than it brings. Consider the case of a dirty factory in a residential neighborhood. The owners increased the value of their property by improving it. But nobody wants to live next to a factory, so the values of neighboring properties decrease. It is entirely plausible that the decrease in neighbors’ property values could be greater than the increase in value at the new factory.

Second, when development deteriorates, the costs to surrounding neighborhoods increase. As an apartment complex starts to deteriorate, for example, the necessity of police and fire protection increases. Units that were intended for young couples now house families – so the schools become overcrowded. These things all cost money for the City to deal with. At the same time, neighbors no longer have the safety and services they once did, so their property values fall. The costs incurred over the life of the apartment complex could be greater than what that complex brings in taxes.

The City of Houston is going to court to demolish the Candlelight Trails Condominiums. It’s going to cost nearly $500,000 to tear down that development, and chances are the taxpayer will bear that cost. The Candlelight Trails Condominiums were built in 1983. The City would have had to collect $19,000 a year over their 27 year lifespan just to cover the costs of demolition.

Tory G’s statement needs rebuttal because Houston is not like other big cities. We don’t rely on a zoning ordinance to dictate what can be built where; and we shouldn’t have to. Developers need to look beyond the borders of their own sites, and beyond the here-and-now.