‘Walkable Places’ Ordinance Piloting in Near Northside

The Leader, August 12, 2020
The shaded area in the above map shows where the City of Houston’s new “Walkable Places” guidelines for developments will apply in the Near Northside neighborhood, beginning Oct. 1 (Photo from City of Houston)
It is no secret that Houstonians love their automobiles, but in recent decades there has also been growing public support for measures to increase walkability and decrease traffic congestion.

Now, the Houston City Council has passed a “Walkable Places” ordinance to foster more walkability as well as bicycle and transit use. One of the three neighborhoods where the development and redevelopment program will be piloted is Hogan Street in the Near Northside.

Avenue CDC Executive Director Mary Lawler said the nonprofit developer is aware of and supportive of the walkability effort in Near Northside.
“Our Community Initiatives team has worked closely with Near Northside residents and leaders to enhance walkability and mobility in the neighborhood, leading an advocacy effort to educate residents on how to support infrastructure improvements they want to see in the area,” Lawler said. “We have also conducted walkability audits in the community that were shared with the district’s council member.”

There are parallel programs to spur this walkability — termed “walkable places” and “transit-oriented development” by the Walkable Places Committee, members of which include Bill Baldwin of Heights-based Boulevard Realty and Cynthia Reyes-Revilla of the Northside Village Super Neighborhood Council who previously ran for the District H seat on city council.

The new rules eliminate the 25-foot setback requirement for new commercial construction in the three pilot communities, with the other two being Emancipation Avenue in the Third Ward and Midtown between Bagby Street and the Eastex Freeway. The rules go into effect for new construction on Oct. 1.

The hope is that developers that would orient their parking lots on the street with buildings pushed to the back will now do the reverse and put parking beside or behind their structures.

Construction is now allowed directly adjacent to sidewalks, which are to be 6- to 10-feet wide, instead of the current 5-foot requirement. A 4-foot buffer between the sidewalk and the road for pedestrians and cyclists is mandated.

There is also a reduction or a complete removal of required parking spots and a directive for the first floor of commercial buildings to have windows or glass doors for window shopping.

The transit-oriented development component will take those walkability components to streets within a half-mile of the city’s light rail or bus rapid transit stations.

As Lawler noted, the introduction of the Red Line light rail in the Northline community in 2013 – which improved connectivity of the neighborhood to Greater Houston and expanded transit options for local residents also helped spark additional development in the area.

“This has created greater concern for pedestrian safety and a need for measures that improve walkability and pedestrian amenities,” she said.

Margaret Wallace Brown, director of the city’s Planning & Development Department, said the new rules take into account guidance from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which has done extensive research on what makes roads safer.

“A dense built environment with no significant setbacks constrains sightlines, making drivers more alert and aware of their surroundings,” she said. “Essentially, tight streets with a busy pedestrian realm makes drivers more aware than a wide lane with no activity on the street.”

What the ordinance means for the rest of the city is yet to be determined. Other areas could seek a “Walkable Places” designation if it was supported by a majority of property owners. And city council would also have to approve it.

Greg Ryden, a residential and commercial architect in Garden Oaks, said he thinks the ordinance is a step in the right direction but that it will be easier for big developers to accommodate the ordinance than it will for the smaller shops.

“In order to get the lesser parking count, the right-of-way improvements have to be paid for by the property owner,” Ryden said. “This applies to new buildings and in (those) renovations that trigger a change to the certificate of occupancy permit, too.”

Ryden also said there is a psychology to parking.

“This ordinance doesn’t change that,” he said. “It just reduces the amount required that in some cases was already more than was needed.”

Revive’s Bryan Danna, who continues to do a significant amount of development in Heights, Garden Oaks and Oak Forest area, said he thinks the ordinance has great potential.

“If the multimodal transportation component is optimized and well-utilized, this concept is great for the future of our urban landscape,” Danna said.

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