Paul Hester

At the end of July, Houston, with a population of over 2 million spread haphazardly across some 630 square miles, started work on its very first comprehensive city plan. The concept, according to the city’s website, is to prepare Houston for its next million residents, scheduled to arrive within 20 years or so.

“In addition to not having zoning, we’re one of the only cities in the country that doesn’t have what’s called a general plan,” says Guy Hagstette, FAIA, the former director of planning and development for the Houston Downtown Management District. He’s had a hand in most major planning efforts in the city’s recent history, including this one. Scheduled to be completed sometime next year, the general plan aims to craft a coherent vision and knit together myriad scattershot efforts undertaken by individual agencies, commercial developers, neighborhoods, and other odd entities. The purpose, Hagstette says, is to help the city figure out “what we want to be when we grow up, and how we’re going to get there.”

So what does Houston want to be?

The city of Houston is expected to double in population in the next two decades. The Texas Medical Center can be seen at left, Rice University at right.
Paul Hester The city of Houston is expected to double in population in the next two decades. The Texas Medical Center can be seen at left, Rice University at right.

When I visited recently, everyone I met with spoke of the city’s growth and increasing density, especially in the Inner Loop, the area inside I-610, where McMansions have replaced modest homes, multifamily complexes have usurped garden apartments, and high-rise residential towers have sprouted in low-rise districts.

Growth, of course, is Houston’s raison d’etre. According to a recent TheWall Street Journal article, “Success and the City,” Houston has added jobs at a prodigious rate: 263,000 since 2008 (the New York metro area, by contrast, has added 100,000 during the same period). The article preaches the gospel of Houston: lack of formal zoning makes it easy to obtain building permits there and enables the city to be responsive to changing land-use demands.

A lot of things, many of them good, can happen in the absence of zoning. The laissez-faire philosophy enables a certain dynamism. Things can develop here—like the uncanny proliferation of tin-clad modernist houses in one Inner Loop neighborhood—that would never be permitted in a more precious city. Houston has tremendous energy and a copious amount of intellect. Industries like oil and aerospace have long attracted smart, ambitious people. The population is immensely diverse. Houston (though Dallas might argue otherwise) can be thought of as Los Angeles to Austin’s San Francisco. But is an interesting city the same as a good city?

Aerial of Buffalo Bayou Park
Kyoung Lee Aerial of Buffalo Bayou Park

The questions that I kept asking on my visit, and in a series of conversations I’ve had since, are: How much can Houston grow without cultivating more of a walkable, urban ethic? How long can a city that is clearly becoming denser continue to be almost completely car-dependent? Can a city that doesn’t believe in zoning find a way to create streetscapes that are not lined with multilevel parking garages?

“I think there’s a danger that in many cases we’re getting the density with none of the benefits,” Hagstette told me, “because the types of projects that are being developed aren’t being developed with the pedestrian and alternative modes of transportation, transit—bicycles, things like that—in mind. The development community is still thinking about, everyone is entering and exiting their property via an automobile.”

Located near the center of downtown Houston, Buffalo Bayou Park features 20 miles of bike and pedestrian trails.
Tom Fox Located near the center of downtown Houston, Buffalo Bayou Park features 20 miles of bike and pedestrian trails.

I experienced this firsthand during my trip, when Hagstette led me on a bicycle tour of Buffalo Bayou Park, where he’s the project manager. The park includes an impressive 20-mile network of bicycle and pedestrian trails that line the bayou and wend beneath a maze of elevated highways. It’s a shining example of an urban no-man’s land turned amenity.

After the tour, I had planned to ride my B-cycle, a red three-speed from the city’s bike share system, back to a bike station in the Museum District where I was staying—a 3-mile trip. But then the president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, Anne Olson, who had driven me to the park, regaled me with stories about bicyclists killed by motorists (23 in five years, according to a Houston Chronicle investigation).

“In cities like Houston that are contemporary, you drive there, and then you do your urban thing, and then get back in your car and drive home,” says Susan Rogers, the director of the University of Houston’s Community Design Resource Center. “It’s a curious kind of urbanism to me.”

Indeed, the city is currently pursuing a Bayou Greenways initiative, which will feature a collection of 80 miles of bicycle trails (sometimes dubbed a freeway system for bikes). In 2012, taxpayers voted to fund the project partially (at least $100 million of a projected $215 million cost). In May, Houston also struck a deal with CenterPoint Energy to build more bikeways along the rights-of-way under high-voltage utility lines. The problem is that there’s no viable network of on-street bike lanes to feed the greenways. People will have to drive to ride. “The connectivity is just not there,” Rogers says, “the thinking of things as a system.”

Buffalo Bayou Park
Paul Hester Buffalo Bayou Park

Still, there has been plenty of promising new development, as I discovered when I went cruising with Cindi Strauss, design curator of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), in her red Mercedes convertible. She showed me lots of new townhouse developments, the best of them under construction along the route of the new southeast light-rail line scheduled to open by the end of the year. The purple line, stretching 6 miles from downtown through Houston’s Third Ward, a historically working class, African-American neighborhood, is attracting an interesting collection of conspicuously modern, urbane developments. Strauss drove me past Discovery Green, a heavily programmed 12-acre park, opened in 2008, that has inspired high-rise residential development downtown. She also showed me the BBVA Compass Stadium, designed by Populous and home to Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo. Set on the fringe of downtown, it is a lattice-work sculpture, a bit like Beijing’s famous Bird’s Nest, but done with a low-budget industrial palette. It’s a spirited design that contrasts nicely with the pastiche that is Minute Maid Park (HOK), which opened in 2000 as Enron Field and is home to Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros.

Food trucks gather near Populous’s BBVA Compass Stadium.
Paul Hester Food trucks gather near Populous’s BBVA Compass Stadium.

BBVA Compass Stadium
Geoffrey Lyon BBVA Compass Stadium

The MFAH, meanwhile, is working with Steven Holl, FAIA, on an expansion plan that is intended to help enhance the urbanity of its complex. As Gary Tinterow, the MFAH director, explains, the plan will create “wider sidewalks, better crosswalks, bringing some retail café life, to not only the center of the campus, but to the two ends of the campus.” (The plans haven’t been finalized or made public yet.) Tinterow speculates that Houstonians will ride the city’s light rail to the museum and then stroll to other cultural institutions in the area. Although he cautions that there are limits. “The Menil is only 15 minutes away,” he tells me, “but most Houstonians are not going to walk that.”

Tinterow, a native Houstonian who spent much of his career at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is—generally speaking—a Houston defender. He points out that even though Houston famously goes without zoning, that doesn’t mean there aren’t restrictions. “I’m always quick to add, the fact that we don’t have zoning doesn’t mean we don’t have planning,” says Tinterow, uttering a phrase that’s something of a mantra for Houston civic types. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t have deed restrictions, which are more powerful than zoning, in that nobody can change them.” The deed restrictions, he explains, “pass from owner to owner, specifying the setbacks, the volume, the massing, the height. And those pass on in perpetuity, as opposed to zoning, which can be changed by any city administration.”

As I listened to Tinterow, it occurred to me that what zoning is about, ideally, isn’t freezing streetscapes in “perpetuity,” but about managing change. Restrictions specifying setbacks, volume, massing, and height that can’t be changed suggest that Houston isn’t the city it’s reputed to be, the one that effortlessly responds to market demands. Instead, it may be a city that lacks the means to respond. For one thing, the market, even in sprawling Houston, is beginning to demand walkability.

The city’s light-rail system (here running by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) transports about 38,000 riders a day.
Paul Hester The city’s light-rail system (here running by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston) transports about 38,000 riders a day.

Jay Blazek Crossley, policy analyst at Houston Tomorrow, an organization founded in 1998 to tackle quality of life issues, points out that the greater Houston metropolitan area is going to hit a population of 10 million by 2040. “A lot of people think growth is terrible,” he says. By contrast, he believes that “the next 4 million people are what is going to let us fix our city.” Interestingly, one of the problems Crossley sees is that the local ordinances are too inflexible. “Houston is the most restrictive place to build an urban style building in the nation,” Crossley contends. He cites “excessive parking requirements” and “huge” setback requirements. To get around them, developers have to apply to a planning commission for variances. And that process demands political skill and, perhaps, connections. “We’ve heard from developers who have tried to come into Houston,” says Crossley. “The national, big developers don’t build in Houston because they believe the system is rigged towards local developers, and it’s too weird and complex to get through.”

Another thing Crossley brings up is the Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey, a public opinion poll that has been conducted in Houston annually for 33 years. Transit, biking, and walking enthusiasts like Crossley insist that the survey shows public preference skewing their way. “At this point, for the last several years, a majority of people in Harris County would prefer to live in a smaller home where they could walk to things,” Crossley contends.

The catch is that Harris County only represents two-thirds of metro Houston’s population. What the survey actually shows is something like a 50–50 split in the city as a whole, what the Kinder website calls a “divided preference for car-centered vs. transit-oriented developments.” The stated desire for mixed-use development has inched up steadily since 2009, but the concept of having a smaller home in an area where there are some things in walking distance peaked in 2012, with 51 percent being in favor and 47 percent wishing to “drive everywhere.” In the most recent survey those numbers reversed with 51 percent in the “drive everywhere” column. Nonetheless, a majority—49 to 46 percent—prefer spending to improve rail and buses to expanding existing highways. Overall, Houstonians seem to be closely divided over whether they want their city to remain a “drive everywhere” town.

The purple line, which runs from downtown through Houston’s Third Ward, has helped spur transit-oriented development.
Paul Hester The purple line, which runs from downtown through Houston’s Third Ward, has helped spur transit-oriented development.

The strongest evidence of the division is the light-rail system itself. The city voted to build it in 1988 and, after years of political battles—in which former Congressman Tom DeLay (R-Texas) stripped the project of federal funding—the first 7.5 miles of the red line opened in 2004. A 5.3-mile extension opened last year, and the line enjoys a high level of use, about 38,000 riders a day. Two new lines, green and purple, are scheduled to open early next year.

But one local congressman, Rep. John Culberson (R), keeps adding language to federal transportation bills barring the construction of the line through his district. Meanwhile, the representative of the adjacent district, Ted Poe (R), has been fighting to keep the rail lines funded. According to the Houston Chronicle, Culberson insisted that his constituents didn’t want a rail line anywhere near them: “Imagine if you did not want to put a pool in your back yard,” he told the paper, “and your neighbor changed the deed restrictions to make you build a pool in your backyard.”

Culberson’s argument only makes sense if you regard cities as agglomerations of backyards, rather than organized arrangements of private and public space. It’s hard to say whether this narrow view is the cause of governing by deed restrictions instead of by zoning, or its effect.

Discovery Green
Discovery Green

Meanwhile, Houston Mayor Annise Parker (D) issued an executive order late last year calling for the city to remake itself with “complete streets,” ones that are usable by pedestrians and bicyclists. Presumably, this means that the pedestrian experience in Houston—which longtime residents liken to the video game Frogger—will change for the better. But then, there has to be someplace to walk or bike to. And, with the exception of some surprisingly vital sections of downtown (Market Square, Discovery Green) and parts of the adjacent Midtown area, there isn’t much emphasis on things like street-level retail.

“If you build high-density multifamily and there’s nothing to walk to,” Rogers argues, “it’s not going to increase the kind of culture of urbanity in the city at all. I think that the cultural aspects of what makes a good city—as Saskia Sassen calls the ‘cityness’ of a place—is more difficult to put your finger on. And I think Houston doesn’t have that culture.”

Buffalo Bayou Park
Tom Fox Buffalo Bayou Park

So how effective can a city plan be? Can it create a framework for urbanity that lays out what Houston wants to be when it grows up, as Hagstette puts it? The plan will replace some 200 local area plans and allow the city to “stop reacting in a scattershot manner” and “start proactively adopting approaches.” That’s about as specific as the current discussion gets. What the plan will not do, as the mayor told the Chronicle, is promote zoning.

For his part, Hagstette acknowledges that the city plan is unlikely “to result in any tangible change on the ground.” So maybe it’s best to think of it as a rite of passage, a ritual that signals Houston’s newfound maturity in its quest to embrace a culture of “cityness.”

Discovery Green
Discovery Green

BBVA Compass Stadium is serviced by the purple and green lines.
Paul Hester BBVA Compass Stadium is serviced by the purple and green lines.

Inside BBVA Compass Stadium
Geoffrey Lyon Inside BBVA Compass Stadium