Thursday, December 27, 2012

Speed humps on the road to urban bliss.

Today, in a change of editorial direction, the Apple Dumpling Gang came out in favor ($$) of urban density projects, even those constructed near traditionally suburban-like, inner-loop, neighborhoods such as the so-called Ashby High Rise.  This reverses a long-standing trend of only advocating for urbanization projects that a.) are of great expense to the taxpayer and, b.) only displace the poor.  It's a situation that I've long mocked on this blog and I have to admit that I'm more than a little disappointed that this piece of low-hanging fruit is seemingly going away.

However, this being Houston, we still live in a target-rich environment when stupidity in urbanization is the norm rather than the exception.  In short: "we're doing it wrong".

Currently, we have news that the Heavily taxpayer subsidized, and financially struggling, Houston Pavilions is losing an anchor tenant in Books-A-Million  and they didn't even throw a goodbye party. Next we hear that Houston's transit backbone was severely hampered by a downed power line which is to be expected with trains, but it's never fun when it happens. Finally, despite some rather silly opposition Houston Metro is considering (again) a proposal to add advertising to buses in (another) attempt to find funding for the much-anticipated "University Line".

Buying into all of these efforts to turn downtown into Houston's go-to destination for drinks, fun and dancing ignores the Houston history that the Apple Dumpling Gang claims to love.  For one, Houston's entertainment districts have constantly changed.  I remember back in the 80's everyone would head over to Richmond and the Loop to places like Fat Tuesdays, The Blue Planet dance club and several other bars.  Eventually, Houston's gangster element started to take over and you were more likely to get mugged than get a beer so the people moved on.  Somewhere in the '90's Midtown was huge.  This was the mid-city centralized location that the urbanists were clamoring for.  Unfortunately, the panhandling population soon figured out that slightly to moderately inebriated people with disposable income were also walking around and could be endlessly hounded for money, so the scene moved again.  The next location was, amazingly, downtown.  With the Super Bowl in Houston and Metro Rail open every effort was made to move all of the partying to Houston's central business district.  This worked for a while, until it was overrun by douchebags and parking problems.  Suddenly the scene needed somewhere else to coalesce for a while, and it was a decentralized mess of wine-bars and boutique wine-bars, at none of which you could find anything worth drinking.

This all changed with the opening of Max's Wine Dive on Washington.  Taking advantage of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of the Heights, Max's leveraged a decent wine list and overpriced food into the beginnings of the Washington Ave. entertainment district.  My prediction is that this district will stay around for two reasons.  One, it's sufficiently centrally located that the urbanists are very happy.  You can read between the lines of today's Apple Dumpling Gang editorial to see this is true.  Second, it's next to a hip neighborhood where there are sufficient numbers of aging hipsters who enjoy paying $25 for a cocktail made from bourbon flavored with sheep pancreas.  As with everything however, this will eventually move on as well, I'm thinking that eventually the relatively low-priced East End is going to see some development.

And that's the problem with the planning behind MetroRail. It's an inflexible system that lacks the ability to react to Houston's ever flexible vibe. 

Let's look at it another way.

In "World-Class" cities such as London, Paris, etc. the design of the mass-transit system is such that you can take a train into the city, and then take buses or an underground Metro throughout the urban core.  You don't see at-grade rail much anywhere and that's the way it should be.

In Houston, you have to take a bus (or drive) on fixed freeways into the city center, and then the plan is for you to ride at-grade rail to where you want to go.  But, and this is a big but, what if, 10 years from now, where you want to go isn't adjacent to the rail system?  Because that is what's going to happen.  Contrary to rail proponents belief, the building of MetroRail hasn't led to a boom of development around the rail line.  Instead, what's happened is that speculators have run up the price of land around the line and developers have started to look at other areas, where land is slightly cheaper, in order to build their cookie-cutter town homes that are far superior to the cookie-cutter houses in the suburbs.

Speaking of the suburbs, has it ever occurred to anyone that the reason their population is booming is due to the fact that a majority of people don't want to live in hotel-style condominiums but would rather have a house, a yard, a dog and 1 5/16 children?  You might not have noticed, but much of Houston's vaunted diversity is currently happening in suburban communities, and many of these communities are the "walkable neighborhoods" over which new urbanists swoon.

After the last election there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Houtopian set who finally settled on the belief that all Houston voters, besides themselves of course, were stupid, fast-food obsessed, brain-rotted simpletons who lacked the ability to understand simple ballot language.

I think they're wrong.  What the voters rejected was a bad transit plan created by bad transit planners who have no real-world experience in how things work.  It's not that Houston isn't open to transit, it's that we're not open to stupid transit designed to cater to only one selected class of privileged people.  The Houtopians have spent a lot of time telling all of us that our lifestyles are "not-sustainable" and that we're shallow, ever-fattening fops for our choices in food and beverage and that if we just live life as they want us to all of Houston will be fairy-farts and unicorn kisses.

They're wrong of course, because if they would have gotten their way you'd have to drive downtown to catch a toy train that wouldn't go where you wanted it to and would be filled with sweaty bikers who would then stain your date's very expensive evening gown.  That wouldn't matter however because, after getting off the train, you'd have to walk 10 blocks to a bus station in 97 degree heat in August to ride somewhere in the vicinity of the restaurant where you wanted to eat but would be turned away from due to you smelling like the back-end of one of the sheep whose pancreas was harvested in order to create your $25 pre-dinner cocktail.

1 comment:

  1. Funny that a guy who extols Houston's grittiness (i.e. blowtorch-bearing art cars) gets squeamish at the thought of sweaty bikers.

    It's true, though, that Houston's light rail has so far been pathetic and that urbanization hasn't materialized around it. However, you have to start somewhere, whether it's the carrot of "urban living" or the stick of increasingly expensive fossil fuels. Houston is somewhat unique in that the new lines are being extended to working class neighborhoods, so the usage of the light rail will most likely be most among workers commuting into town rather than a taxi to take hipsters to their favorite bars. The hipsters here can still afford to fill their Civics and pay for valet parking.


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