[ FEATURE ]
Planning For The Future
Livable Centers study provides downtown with urban roadmap
by David Theis | 12.01.11

For the would-be urbanite, it was easy to get excited by Morris Architects’ presentation of their Downtown/EaDo Livable Centers Study in downtown’s Incarnate Word Academy last August. Speaking in the venerable school’s auditorium before a large gathering of stakeholders and interested citizens, Morris Architects’ Christof Spieler unveiled the results of his team’s work. 

Spieler’s PowerPoint images showed photographs and drawings of what the east side of downtown proper could be if more of the empty blocks near Discovery Green were converted to housing and hotels, and if the area’s amenities and institutions could be connected to each other more tangibly than they are now.

Other images showed Dallas Street lined with retail from the Hilton Americas to Main Street, and the ground floors in every business were shown as lively and inviting. In the images the sidewalks were filled with pedestrians.

Then the presentation shifted its emphasis to EaDo, the neighborhood that is developing on the east side of Highway 59.

EaDo is home to the rapidly rising Dynamo Stadium, and it already has a handful of restaurants, a concise scene of bars and clubs, and rows of townhouses scattered along Dowling, Bastrop and Hutchins streets. It also has lots of old warehouses and empty buildings, streets that run for a couple of blocks and then abruptly halt, and 300 or so acres of empty lots. But in its images, Morris Architects turned those empty lots into an urban, but not-too dense neighborhood of four-story apartment buildings, and wide sidewalks lined with shops and cafes. Most exciting of all, Spieler showed images of the proposed Bastrop Promenade (also known as the Sister Cities Promenade), a paved and landscaped stretch running from the new stadium six blocks toward I-45. 

Finally, Morris showed drawings of proposed bike paths, some of them dedicated lanes separated by a barrier from automobile traffic. People would be able to bike into EaDo and downtown from all over the East Side and Third Ward without fearing for their lives.

It all looked beautifully plausible. These images and projections made much more sense than does the present day reality, in which land that should be productive and highly valuable sits fallow, and businesses and attractions on both sides of the freeway feel uncomfortably disconnected from each other.

Sister Lauren Beck, president of Incarnate Word, was certainly impressed by the presentation. Even flanked by surface parking lots, Incarnate Word is a very successful school by any measure, but she longs for the underused neighborhood around her to become a lively destination, like some of the urban neighborhoods she enjoys visiting on her travels around the country. 

The Livable Centers Study struck her as both “mind blowing” but also “realistic.”  She thinks that if actual development mirrors the plan, greater downtown Houston will be “a go-to area as opposed to a drive-through area.”

EaDo resident Herschel Donny was intrigued by the presentation as well. Donny moved into the Stanford Lofts when they opened eight-and-a-half years ago because he wanted to be in on the excitement of the downtown boom. He says that he attended the various Livable Centers planning meetings “because I wanted to confirm that I’d made the right decision in moving to east downtown.” Seeing the Morris plan, he felt that confirmation. “I’m optimistic,” he says. “We’re headed in the right direction.”

I agree with all that very much and get excited over the presentation’s images and ideas myself. At the same time, however, I’ve been to enough of these gatherings to know that the word “plan” is a bit misleading. Plan implies that ideas have been agreed to by the decision makers and that action is imminent. 

But that’s not accurate, of course. Plans come and go and none of them are ever implemented exactly as written. In a later conversation, architects Spieler, Mandi Chapa and Doug Childers describe the plan as a “roadmap.” But even this image is not literal. A roadmap tells you exactly where to turn and how far you’ll have to drive to reach your destination. This plan, and others like it, shows the city both its desired destination – urban living – but gives suggestions, rather than instructions, on how to get there.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council commissioned the plan, which was largely paid for with federal transportation funds (the Downtown District paid 20 percent of the cost). H-GAC’s goal is to promote pedestrian-friendly development throughout the region. To date, H-GAC has commissioned 16 Livable Centers studies in the region (Livable Center being defined as “walkable, mixed-use places that provide multimodal transportation options, improve environmental quality, and promote economic development”), ranging from tiny but forward- thinking Waller, which anticipates a population boom in the coming decades, to Galveston. 

The new Downtown/ EaDo plan is one of the most exciting of all H-GAC’s efforts, simply because of greater downtown’s enormous potential for urbanism. Jeff Taebel, H-GAC director of community and environmental planning, says of the new downtown plan, “Adjacent to our region’s largest job center and including many of its major public venues, we know that this area has the potential to be not only a great neighborhood to live, work and play, but also to showcase Houston-style walkable urbanism to visitors from all over the region, and indeed the world.”

But because the city has no zoning regulations, getting the downtown plan implemented will be a challenge requiring time, coordinated efforts and economic support by many. 

Taebel along with the Downtown District’s executive director Bob Eury and their director of planning, design & development Lonnie Hoogeboom, are quick to point out that zoning has its own bureaucratic downsides. Houston, for example, has responded unusually quickly to the market for townhouses because there are few bureaucratic hoops for developers to jump through. And Houston is not devoid of development tools; the city is able to offer developers powerful incentives. For example 380 Agreements allow developers to receive tax incentives for doing specified infrastructure projects, that promote real urbanism. Still, if a developer wants to build a suburban-style project with its parking in front, no one can stop them from doing so, no matter how much harm that project might do to the urban fabric that other builders are trying to create.

Just ask Post Properties, whose lively, two-block-long urban development at West Gray and Bagby has a suburban-style CVS for a neighbor. This corner is pure Houston, and not in a good way. The two projects, one urban and the other suburban, simply shouldn’t be neighbors.  You take your two-block promenade on a wide, inviting sidewalk, passing retail and restaurants, enjoying city life, and then you metaphorically bang your head on the CVS. 

As of now, there is nothing to prevent developers from marring the urban design, especially in EaDo, if they calculate that it’s in their best economic interest to do so. 

If all this is true then what is the purpose of creating such urban plans for Houston? We’ll only end up frustrated in the end, as Ringo said in A Hard Day’s Night. 

Taebel has an answer for that. It’s not as if this question only arises in Houston; other cities are developer-friendly as well. Taebel says, “We plan first, then we get the tools (in Houston’s case, the available incentives). First you need the vision to inspire people.”

“The key to realizing the kind of place envisioned in this study will be achieving some consistency in urban form over more than just a block or two,”  he says. “If all the stakeholders in this area get behind that vision, I’m confident the right mechanism can be found to get it done.”

The plan is, in fact, awfully inspirational. It shows an urban center in which many Houstonians would like to live. In Rice sociology professor Steven Klineberg’s most recent Houston-area survey, he found that more than 40 percent of all Harris County residents want to live a more urban, walkable life. If only achieving that were as simple as combining that number with the Livable Centers Plan and snapping our collective fingers. Then we’d have a 40 percent urban city.

 

BASTROP PROMENDADE RENDERING

I took a walk around the convention center and through EaDo not long after talking to Taebel. I wanted to see the Livable Centers Study area up close and personal by walking it and comparing the envisioned bustling neighborhood of the future with what’s there now. Of all the various pieces to the Livable Centers puzzle, the Bastrop Promenade is perhaps the most alluring. The Promenade, named for the EaDo street it runs along, is also known as the Sister Cities Promenade. Sister Cities of Houston is the champion of the strip’s proposed redevelopment, in which Houston’s 17 Sister Cities will contribute cultural and educational displays.

The Promenade is very exciting in and of itself.  If all goes well it will comprise a six-block stretch between Walker Street at the south side of the new Dynamo Stadium and Bell Street towards 1-45. The project has generated a wide variety of speculative images, one more exciting than the next. Even the most prosaic of those images show a beautifully paved walkway lined by gardens and other greenery. 

But while the Promenade itself is very attractive, it’s the Discovery Green-inspired promise of related development that is most exciting. It’s hard to remember now that Discovery Green (disclosure: my wife works for Discovery Green) opened to some skepticism. Many people doubted that anyone would even go downtown to enjoy a park, much less that a park could generate development. But generate it has, to the tune of a half billion-plus dollars, including One Park Place, downtown’s first new high-rise residential building in decades, Embassy Suites Hotel and Hess Tower.

Planners hope – and expect – that the Promenade will be the impetus for a wave of EaDo development, mostly residential. “The Promenade can be the core of residential,” Spieler told me in an interview. And the parallel street of St. Emmanuel (Hutchins runs between the two streets) is expected to form the neighborhood’s retail and entertainment spine. So my plan is to walk south on the future Promenade, then cut over to St. Emmanuel and head back to the soccer stadium. 

The first half of my walk takes me through the urban jumble of mismatched parts that exists today. There’s a line of warehouses, some of them empty, some of them owned by the Helmsley Corporation. But there’s also more than one line of townhouses. On the proposed Promenade itself, I walk across broken – make that shattered – pavement and see odd mounds of dirt covered in parched looking grass. They look a little like sand dunes and give me the odd sensation of being at the beach in the middle of town. 

As I cross Polk Street I encounter more of these little man-made hills. I see industrial remnants, like a thick pipe jutting out of the ground, looking very lost indeed, as does the unusually tall slab ahead of me. It’s all that remains of what must have been a loading dock for trucks. 

I cross more streets, the drought-dried grass crunching beneath my feet, all the way to Bell, and then turn to look back at the Dynamo Stadium. I knew that it was six blocks away but walking the blocks and now turning to look, I feel very satisfied with the Promenade’s length.

It really could make for a superb urban walk if it’s done right. And the pavement wouldn’t turn to hay.

From there I cut west toward St. Emmanuel but stop for lunch at my one of my favorite area restaurants, District 7 Grill on Hutchins. It’s only open for weekday lunch, so I don’t get by here as often as I’d like. The food is good and fairly adventurous, as far as lunch goes. But what I mostly love is the large deck, built around a sturdy but parched oak tree. It’s one of the city’s best decks and whenever I see it devoid of people, which it always is except for those few hours of lunch, it looks like a waste of a beautiful space. I imagine that if the Livable Centers Study comes to fruition, that deck will be open and filled with diners every night of the week.

From the restaurant I turn onto St. Emmanuel and head north. I look at the old Meridian club, now shuttered, and try to imagine the shopping area to come. There already is a little slice of retail here, the Dang Kyong Modeling Studio – either a survivor or a souvenir of the area’s slightly seedy past. I can’t be sure. 

I also pass auto repair shops and empty lots with knee-high grass. The George R. Brown Convention Center looms one block away. I’ve been told that Houston First Corporation, the quasi-governmental entity that oversees such city-owned buildings as the GRBCC, says that a key element in convention center success is that the surrounding area feel like a neighborhood.  Obviously, these empty lots don’t fit the bill. 

I also pass the rather mysterious looking Malloy’s Cash Register, a large, hulking building with a long, blank wall. I can’t imagine what goes on inside these featureless walls and am reminded that one of the Livable Centers goals is to have lively, active ground floors that don’t leave a pedestrian feeling as all alone as I do here. 

But at least there’s a decent sidewalk, though not one that meets the Livable Centers goal of a 10-foot-width minimum on St. Emmanuel. The plan also calls for metered parallel parking, but says structured parking will be necessary as well once EaDo development takes off. 

Anthony Wegman, owner of Lucky’s Pub, Cork Soakers Wine Bar, and Epicurean Market at St. Emanuel and Rusk, says that parking has already become an issue. The Dynamo Stadium is going up on land that his customers used to park on, Wegman says, and customers are already telling him that parking is too much of a hassle to come to his bar. This is a reminder that in Houston development simply can’t outstrip parking, even if we wish it were otherwise.

Speaking of Lucky’s, I’m now in EaDo’s busy little core:  St. Emanuel between Walker and Rusk. Beside’s Wegman’s establishments, the area includes the very popular music club Warehouse Live and an attractive branch of the Little Woodrow’s chain of bars. Its deck is wedged up against the street in true urban fashion, and for a few steps here I feel like I’m really in a city. A few more blocks like this would be great.

So that’s my EaDo tour. But two of the Livable Centers plan’s three focus areas are in downtown proper –  the Capitol/Rusk Corridor, which will link Discovery Green to Minute Maid Park, and which should become home to a new convention center hotel and perhaps an expansion of the GRBCC, and the Dallas Corridor, which promises a lively mix of retail and restaurants. 

Connectivity is a key goal of the study. That is, each focus area should feel intimately linked to the other areas. In some places, this will be a challenge. One would-be developer sighs that even though Discovery Green is only a few blocks from his property, it feels like it’s five miles away because the space in between consists of surface lots and narrow sidewalks. It’s not hard to imagine wider sidewalks and new construction, especially now that so much construction has already taken place. But making EaDo feel connected to downtown – by foot – is more daunting.  

The walk from Lucky’s to Discovery Green only takes me five or so minutes, but it’s not exactly a stroll in the park. First I have to cross Chartres, which feels more like a highway with stoplights than a street, then walk under elevated Highway 59, with traffic roaring above my head, then trudge along the north wall of the GRBCC, a featureless slab if ever there was one. I turn toward Discovery Green on Avenida de las Americas with some relief; it feels like I’m back in civilization, and I wish again that there were a back door to the GRBCC so that I could just walk through it. Not at all feasible, I know. 

The planners hope that by putting up lighting and other improvements, this crossing under 59 will be less imposing. But it can only be made so inviting, and pedestrians will have to be a little brave – or at least motivated.

Now that I’m here, in front of the GRBCC, it’s easy to envision the new hotels, and perhaps the new apartment buildings, that will fill the surface parking lots all the way to Texas.  This part of the plan will almost certainly be realized. Houston First Corporation has released its own George R. Brown 2025 Plan, which looks for ways to make conventioneers want to come to Houston. Not surprisingly, their plan dovetails with the Downtown/ EaDo Livable Centers Study, according to Ullrich. Both emphasize bringing the streets around the convention center to life and making the area feel more like a neighborhood.  DISCOVERY GREEN RENDERING (BEFORE AND AFTER)

Dawn Ullrich, president of Houston First, talks in particular about the burning need for more hotel space. “Our architects tell us we need 1,000 more rooms yesterday, 1,000 more rooms today, and 1,000 more rooms the day after that.”

Ullrich is optimistic about both plans going forward. “We’re going to work with the Downtown District and put our shoulders to the wheel. We intend to see this happen.”

It’s a little more puzzling to see how the Dallas Corridor will come into being. Ironically, the fact that the Capitol/Rusk Corridor is so empty now means that the area is more of a blank slate, subject to radical, if extremely expensive, transformation.

But between the Hilton Americas and Main Street, Dallas is pretty well filled in, except for a few blocks near Discovery Green. Again, a primary goal of the study is to have active ground floors – unlike the ground floor of the otherwise impressive Hilton Americas, whose recessed entrance is rather cave-like and uninviting. Luckily you do have projects such as One Park Place that built street-level retail into their plans, including a space for a small chef-driven restaurant facing Discovery Green and facing Austin Street, the highly anticipated Phoenicia Specialty Foods. Embassy Suites also plans on opening a street-level restaurant in the near future.  HILTON/DALLAS RENDERING

Unfortunately, the Houston Pavilions, which occupies three blocks along the south side of Dallas, directs most of its foot traffic to its interior passageway, so that the street entrances generate little pedestrian traffic. The good news is that they are working on a plan to enliven the Dallas sidewalk bordering their property. Sidewalk cafes, innovative lighting and better signage will do wonders to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment and draw people toward Main Street.

Of course, the real key to having the area around the convention center feel like a neighborhood is for it to be a neighborhood. That is, for many more people to live there. That is a particular challenge on the downtown side of 59. The high cost of land won’t really allow for midrise, middle-class housing. It’s high-end high-rise or nothing. However there is some thought that residential can be included as part of a development package. In other words, if a developer wants to build a convention hotel they would have to include residential. But this is only a possibility.

EaDo looks more promising in terms of residential, though land values are rising there rapidly as well. “It’s hard to predict what the market is going to do,” Bob Eury said in a recent interview. “Certainly a focus of our organization and others will be to figure out how we increase residential product in both downtown and EaDo. It has to happen for us to be truly successful.”  

So yes, there are maybes and might-be’s going forward. But it’s useful to remember how far downtown has come in the last decade or so. You can look from Toyota Center to the Hilton Americas to Discovery Green to Minute Maid Park – it’s all opened since 2000. And all these developments are in fact the results of plans, even if, as Christof  Spieler told me, “you can’t always tell which plans they came from.”

No doubt that’s what we’ll be saying about the Livable Centers Study 10 years from now. We may not remember the plan’s name, but we’ll know that somebody had a good idea.

Houston, Livable Centers, Planning
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While the [Bastrop] Promenade itself is very attractive, it’s the Discovery Green-inspired promise of related development that is most exciting.
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