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Amid the sprawl, Houston urbanism is on the rise

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Despite being the most sprawled, car-dependent metro in the country, Houston is making strides towards becoming a more urbanized place, according to Governing:

For years, few Houstonians paid much attention to the city’s East End. Home to German immigrants in the early days, the area morphed into a destination for Mexican immigrants, and today it continues to be overwhelmingly Hispanic. Despite being prime real estate—it sits on the edge of downtown—the East End is sparsely populated, and few outsiders visit it except to grab a bite at Ninfa’s, the legendary Mexican restaurant where some Houstonians are convinced fajitas were invented.

The East End has a broad mix of housing, from shotgun shacks that rent for $300 a month to new townhomes worth upward of $300,000. Still, huge swaths of its 16 square miles are empty, with nearly a third of the land considered industrial and a quarter of it entirely undeveloped. As a result, there’s wide open prairie just a short distance from the city’s skyscrapers and stadiums.

That’s about to change. Next year, a new four-mile light rail line will open and run through the heart of the community. More than $7 million has been spent on sidewalks and other pedestrian improvements. A newly opened pedestrian “esplanade” featuring cafe seating and dozens of stalls for vendors just opened in the center of Navigation Boulevard, the community’s Main Street. Parks and trails are set for a makeover. A new cultural center is in the works. Public art is starting to dot the area. Officials are even planning for the possibility of a streetcar to link the northern reaches of the East End to the rest of the transit network.

“At my age, I’m asking God to please leave me just a few more years because I’m happy with what I’m witnessing,” says Jessica Castillo-Hulsey, 62, a longtime local civic leader. “Finally, I’m seeing what I want to see as a resident and a homeowner.”

The work is largely a result of the Greater East End Management District, an entity funded by local businesses that’s getting accolades citywide for finally making things happen in a place where there’s been a long history of redevelopment talk with little to show for it. But the progress happening today also represents a new approach to planning Houston’s future, an approach that values urban compactness and density as a viable alternative to the near-ubiquitous reality of car-dependent suburban sprawl.

While oil made Houston boom, a more complicated set of factors made it sprawl. State annexation laws allowed the city to aggressively absorb surrounding areas, earning it the nickname of “the blob that ate East Texas.” A mechanism exists that allows developers to easily create quasi-governmental authorities to finance far-reaching utility extensions. Meanwhile, it’s always been cheaper for developers to build horizontally than vertically, and because Houston faces few physical impediments such as rivers, lakes or mountains—save for the Gulf of Mexico 50 miles to the southeast—there isn’t any physical reason stopping them. “That’s one of the reasons you don’t have a massive number of high-rises,” says Ric Campo, CEO of the national real estate firm Camden Property Trust, based in Houston. “It’s all about land availability and cost, and it costs a whole lot more to go up than out.”

In addition to being the country’s most sprawling city, Houston also has another distinction that has long fascinated planners in the rest of the country: It’s the largest American city that lacks zoning. That doesn’t make development here a free-for-all the way some outsiders assume. Self-regulating deed restrictions created by developers maintain some neighborhoods’ character. But the situation does create unusual development patterns. “You’ll see vacant lots adjacent to transit, and mixed-use development 20 miles out,” says Jeff Taebel, director of community and environmental planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, the regional planning agency. That’s because it’s often easier for a single developer to plan a site he wholly owns than enact changes based on the visions of multiple property owners.

Essentially the city relies on the market to dictate development patterns, and these patterns are sometimes at odds with what conventional planning might dictate. Even so, advocates, developers and city leaders who don’t always see eye to eye generally believe the arrangement has worked in Houston’s favor over the years, allowing developers to respond quickly to market conditions and keep housing costs low. Regardless of individual Houstonians’ views on zoning, that part of the system is probably not changing. Four attempts at altering it have all failed.

What is changing is Houstonians’ attitude toward urban life. Historically, as Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research succinctly puts it, Houston has been viewed as “the most sprawling, least dense, most automobile-dependent major city in America.” And for many years, Houstonians seemed to be perfectly content with that. But there’s evidence that’s no longer the case. The institute’s annual survey of Houston-area residents last year found that half the residents of Harris County, of which Houston is part, would prefer to live “in an area with a mix of development, including homes, shops and restaurants” as opposed to a “single-family residential area.” Even if you look at the farthest parts of the metro region—the nine counties surrounding Harris County—more than 40 percent of residents prefer the mixed-use option. The results, which are also reflected in recent development patterns, have city leaders, developers and advocates for density buzzing. “It’s not a flash-in-the-pan trend,” Campo says.

The trend seems to be driven by three factors: young adults who are less attracted to suburbs, rising transportation costs, and a concerted effort by Mayor Annise Parker and her predecessor Bill White to promote amenities in the city and especially its core. Houston, of course, is by no means the only city experiencing a renewed interest in urban living. But it may be the most unlikely, and the trend is especially notable given the poor reputation Houston has historically had in the urban planning field. Now, city leaders are trying to respond to market demands they didn’t encounter just a short time ago. As the Kinder study notes, “the challenge today is not in finding residents who want to live in more compact, urbanized communities, but in building places across the region that can accommodate them.”

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But the problem is that even parts of Houston well within its core, like the East End, feel like the suburbs to an outsider, best illustrated by the fact that it’s almost impossible to navigate these areas without a car. A growing cadre of voices is calling on city leaders to do more to transform Houston into a place that more closely resembles a “real” city, not a place ringed by manufactured “town centers” and “Main Streets.” “The only way to stop sprawl is to compete,” says David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, which advocates for density and transit.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done in Houston, where market conditions have sometimes undermined that goal. While there’s plenty of inexpensive housing in Houston—nearly 40 percent of units cost less than $130,000—the majority of high-quality houses at that price point are outside the central portion of the city known as the Inner Loop. Mayor Parker and others acknowledge that they need a better mix of housing types at varying prices in the city core to make their plans a reality.

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