Monday, January 21, 2013

Onward downtown soldiers, or something.

Once the announcement was made that Houston's downtown Macy's was closing there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth among Houston's insider set.  This, almost immediately, led to the Mayor creating a downtown retail task force of questionable need (Something! must be done.) and, now being a few weeks on, the cities former newspaper of record deciding to go whole hog for downtown by dedicating many column inches in the Sunday opinion section to ideas on creating a vibrant central district.

Apparently, Houston, your crazy affection for staying dry and cool are destroying our fair downtown's ambiance.  Granted, not us much as your stubborn refusal to go along with the idea of packing 4 Million people inside the Loop but your avoidance of the streets in 100 degree Summer weather and Spring rain showers are eating at the heart of our area.

Strangely enough, many of the things that the new urbanists want to eliminate in downtown Houston are most of the things that make it a nice place to work.  As someone who used to work downtown, I can attest to the joy of being able to take tunnels and climate controlled pathways when you wanted to go somewhere. Yet, in terms of returning Houston to the 50's, they're viewed as a large part of the problem. You have to wonder if these pie-in-the-sky ramblers in bowler hats realize that pedestrian bridges and the tunnels are the solution to a problem that's not going to go away no matter how much you plan?

It's clear that the urbanists don't like Houston's climate, and that they'd like to change it, but their ideas for forcing people out into it seem insane at times.  Take building more residential space downtown.  Don't you think that if there was sufficient demand developers would be falling all over themselves to build high-rent luxury residential space in the center district? Of course they would.  However, the market has priced itself in and people have decided that MidTown and the Heights are where they'd like to reside. The plus to the Heights is that they can keep both their urban pretentiousness and a suburban-style back yard in many cases.

The odd thing about downtown Houston is that everyone seems to have an idea on how to save it but, for all of those ideas (many of which include increasing the number of residents) you don't see anyone acting on them.  Living downtown is the residential equivalent of mass transit for the wealthy, it's something for other people to do so their drive-in is less congested and they can feel better about their city all while keeping the things they hold dear.  In most cases, people like the idea of having a quaint, Norman Rockwell downtown with streets bustling, tiny shops open selling artisan goods, newsies hollering Extra! Extra! and brandishing their iPads every time the Chron releases as new photo slide-show full of 1/2 naked women, and the toy train running back and forth, they really do.  Where the resistance comes is when you ask them to trade out 1700 square feet and a driveway for 500 square feet and a dodgy lift.  This resistance increases exponentially when they have children.  Throw in no pet (or small pet only) policies and well, urban living doesn't stand a chance.

Don't get me wrong, I know that there are some of you reading this who like the idea of high-rise living and I think that's grand.  Unfortunately, not enough of you are out there because you're not seeing that type of development really take root.  Don't blame Houston, blame the numbers. You might want to take an inward glance as well, toward some of Houston's champions for all things urban.  In many cases, the things that they're advocating do nothing to advance urban life and in others, they're harming it.  The argument against advertisements on Metro buses due to "visual blight" is just silly, as is the refusal to admit that MetroRail is a bad idea built on top of a senseless route network. The Chronicle is to blame for this as well, with their admitted bias toward the toy train and their inability to understand the city that they're reporting on.

I've stated before that Houston is not a world class city. It's just not.  Part of the facts that back up this assertion are items like this where it is striving to be something else.  A real "world class" city is comfortable in its own skin, it embraces what makes it great and is constantly creating new, which then becomes trends that the regional cities try and emulate.  In Houston, we're constantly trying to tear down the things that make us great and unique in favor of creating copies of things we find in say, New York. Modern Houston doesn't invent, it copies.  At one time Houston did invent. It gave us the downtown Foley's which was a truly unique experience and the Astrodome.  Given the current state of those ground-breaking buildings it's no wonder that many in Houston's urbanist set want to see a return to those heady days. Unfortunately, you can't go back, the only choice is to move forward, and Houston's leadership is too used to playing small-ball and copycat to really allow us to do that.


  1. First of all, I think while it's true the tunnels kill off street activity, more effort could be put into integrating the tunnels with the street. There are only a few ways to enter and you'd never know about them unless you actively looked for them. Houston could borrow from an Arabian souk model like Enclosed districts that shelter people from the sun and heat, yet provide attractive, lively spaces for pedestrians.

    World class cities didn't just invent awesome new things, they also copied well-tested ideas that worked. For instance, many of the world class US East Coast cities were just copies of Old World cities in a new environment. And really, the Astrodome was just a copy of earlier large stadiums with just the added notion of being fully covered by a dome. So I don't see Houston copying anything as a problem, as long as they're the right ideas.

    It's true that most skyrise-loving "urbanists" are Heights dwellers who complain about parking in Montrose and move into a 2,000 square foot house as soon as they have a kid.

    For me though, promoting urbanism isn't just to make Houston a "world class" city, it's that I want a city I can walk around to do my daily business and not compete with giant SUVs barreling down the street 2 feet from the craggy sidewalk. I also see it as an imperative in the face of global warming and increasingly expensive energy.

    1. I re-read my post and I really don't think I made the argument that you're debating. Or, maybe I did. You seem pretty sure of it.


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