September 11, 2006

When Zoning Inhibits Walkability

A small but determined group of developers, planners and civic leaders has struggled for 12 years to create a unique urban environment in Midtown," according to the Houston Chronicle.

"Much of what they are trying to achieve — a walkable neighborhood with a vibrant street scene — is forbidden by city development rules still focused on the automobile. "

"Unfortunately," developer Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Main Street Coalition, told the Chronicle, "the Houston way is slow and painful."

Is Massachusetts any different? How hard is it to get appropriate zoning for a suburban business district to allow mixed use and buildings at the sidewalk? How likely is it that pedestrian needs for screening between sidewalk and traffic ever get consideration, or do planners think solely about the widest streets possible? Does anyone think about how to make appealing as well as safe crosswalks so someone wants to walk from one side of the street to the other, or are communities thinking solely about creating the best traffic sewers possible, that can carry maximum amount of cars as quickly as possible? Do local towns think about walker appeal, or just maximizing parking? 

Back in Houston, "Despite [their] obstacles, Midtown leaders have achieved a remarkable transformation of the area between downtown and the Museum District. They have turned a neglected wasteland into a thriving, rapidly growing community still widely regarded as Houston's best hope of creating an 'urban village' where people can work, shop and enjoy themselves without having to drive.

"Apartments, townhomes, restaurants, bars and shops have replaced vacant lots and shuttered buildings. Distinctive street lights, landscaping, brick pavers and signs bearing the Midtown logo have helped to create a unique identity for the area.

"The revitalization of Midtown, however, is far from complete."

For example, zoning regulations mandating 25-foot setbacks anywhere "outside of downtown gives pedestrians little to see except parking lots." Indeed. And a developer working to turn an old vacant building into a European wine bar and cafe is being frustrated by demands for off-street parking (the idea is to get people living nearby to walk there), and a decorative awning to shade pedestrians requires a variance.

But how'd they accomplish what they've done so far in Midtown? A special Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone helped encourage development, although the head of the area's Redevelopment Authority admitted that at first (in 1995, ""We'd give our spiel and you'd look in people's eyes, and you could tell they thought you were crazy." The area then featured homeless people using drugs in empty buildings as well as weed-filled vacant lots.

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