A group of around 50 planners, engineers, architects, transportation employees, community transportation activists, and others gathered at a Livable Houston Initiative meeting on February 25 to participate in a public discussion of the work to draft an Urban Corridor ordinance currently under consideration by the Mixed Use/Transit-Oriented Development Committee of the City Planning Commission. The City hopes to approve an ordinance by this summer according to Steve Spillette, Senior Planning Fellow with the City’s Planning and Development Department, who attended the meeting. The ordinance will be the outcome of the City’s Urban Corridors Planning Initiative for development of streets and other infrastructure along the five new light rail lines METRO plans to add by 2012.
Houston Tomorrow held the public forum to give Houstonians the opportunity to evaluate and discuss a revised (as of Nov. 21, 2008) portion of the ordinance that specifically addresses the pedestrian realm, particularly those areas near future transit stations. Major points of discussion were whether or not the provisions for pedestrian safety and transit accessibility in the ordinance are adequate, and what additions or changes to the ordinance would make it more complete and effective. David Crossley, President of Houston Tomorrow, began the discussion by reviewing the Mixed Use/TOD Committee’s “Revised Goals and Guiding Principles” for the pedestrian realm.
• “Goal 1” of the ordinance is to “ensure [the] provision of [an] adequate publicly accessible pedestrian realm in the corridors, particularly station areas,” through a number of guiding principles, including the adequate accommodation of various physical elements (sidewalks, trees, utilities poles/lines, benches, bicycle racks, etc.), the use of consistent design principles over time in the development of the pedestrian realm, the minimization of curb cuts to improve safety, and the application of these improvements to not only light rail streets, but connecting streets as well.
• “Goal 2” of the ordinance is to “facilitate the development over time of a built urban environment that is pedestrian- and transit-supportive.” The guiding principles for this goal include encouraging new development that incorporates “key” building elements that support pedestrian mobility and access, facilitating new, more compact development within the corridors by offering developer incentives, and allowing the free market to “decide” how land is used and how densely it is developed.
Meeting attendees agreed that the stated goals are good ones in theory, but that they are still too vague and general to determine how effective implementation of the ordinance would be in ensuring a safe, accessible, and walkable pedestrian realm. Kay Warhol of RichmondRail.org said that the biggest problem with the principles and goals of the ordinance is that they don’t focus enough on the pedestrian quality issue and they only strive to reach a point of “adequacy,” rather than excellence.
Most attendees seemed to agree that one of the most important determinants of pedestrian safety and access in an urban transportation system is the presence of an extensive, well-connected, walkable network of sidewalks that extend out from transit stops and into adjacent neighborhoods. Christof Spieler of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition noted that in Houston “we really haven’t provided people with safe places to walk,” but that given better conditions, “Houstonians will walk.”
Several attendees emphasized that sidewalks are part of the transportation system, and must be treated as such. Tom Thompson with Bike Houston said that bicycle access and safety also must be considered part of the urban corridor pedestrian plan, but that the stated goals say nothing about accommodating cyclists. Steve Spillette noted that there is another City effort currently focused on street standards and mobility, and that this project does include a consideration of bicyclists [Unlike the Urban Corridor project, however, there is no public process yet for the mobility plan].
Much of the remainder of the meeting was spent talking about the many obstacles to a better sidewalk network in all of Houston, and in particular its future light rail corridors. Observations and questions about this issue included the following:
One of the main questions at the meeting with regard to sidewalk improvement concerned funding: Who pays to build or improve sidewalks, both along transit corridors and within the network of neighborhood sidewalks not on transit streets - those that provide access to the transit stops?
Josh Sanders of Houstonians for Responsible Growth asked if property owners along rail lines will have to pay for new sidewalks on their property, and what the City’s and METRO’s plans are for this. He added that the City doesn’t offer incentives to encourage developers to build walkable areas.
Steve Spillette said that METRO’s consent agreement with the City makes METRO responsible for replacing any sidewalks they tear up in the process of building the light rail lines, but that it is unclear whether METRO will have to follow the new standards (e.g., a 5’ vs. a previous 4’ min. sidewalk width) set by the urban corridors development code, which is still in the planning process.
Zane Segal with Zane Segal Projects and the Urban Land Institute says that there will be sidewalk requirements on private property.
Lynne McBee of the City of Bellaire said that right-of-way variance is a problem, and that the City (Houston) has backed away from providing and maintaining sidewalks everywhere due to liability concerns, a situation that has left sidewalk building and maintenance up to private property owners, resulting in a patchwork of good and bad sidewalks.
Doug Childers with RichmondRail.org and Morris Architects said that the key issue with the creation of this new transportation development code by the Mixed-Use Committee is to figure out how to change the City’s funding mechanism to achieve what citizens really want. Currently Houston and Harris County do not fund sidewalks as transportation projects. He said that the City must clearly define what the requirements and responsibilities are in the public and private realms.
David Crossley said that he thinks the most important issue is whether or not pedestrians have any rights in this new corridor plan. He asks if the ordinance gives those 40 percent of Houstonians who do not drive the same rights and privileges as those who do drive.
Two meeting attendees brought up the additional issue of drainage and stormwater management, stating that these issues must factor into plans for a pedestrian realm because space will have to be made for both people and infrastructure. Another concern was over inadequate provisions for greenspace, and establishing a balance between paved and water-permeable areas.
Josh Sanders said that infrastructure repair and upgrades should occur consistently (block-by-block) and concurrently with the urban corridors redevelopment/METRO rail development.
Zane Segal announced that later that day the Urban Land Institute would present a much stronger proposal for the pedestrian realm than what the City currently has on the table. View ULI’s powerpoint presentation (4.0 MB) to the Mixed Use/TOD Committee.