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Texas Medical Center a leading example of new innovation district

The “anchor plus” model

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Houston’s Medical Center is cited as a leading example of an “anchor plus” innovation district in a new report published by the Brookings Institution. Innovation districts are the materialization of the growing trend of corporate urbanism, in which companies and young millennial workers are abandoning suburbs in favor of densely populated urban areas. Innovation districts connect economy shaping, place making and social networking in order to foster open innovation between businesses. An innovation district is physically compact, accessible by transit, and will have mixed use housing and retail. This aligns with the desires of young millennial workers: a short or non-existent commute to work, and a natural space to network and connect with other like-minded innovators.

The “anchor plus” model is where a city uses an anchor institution, such as the Texas Medical Center, to spur an explosion of growth in the district, with a mix of related firms, entrepreneurs, and spin off companies in the area. The Texas Medical Center is being reconfigured to fit a new purpose which favors global competitiveness over commercial redevelopment. This intentional effort to foster innovation through otherwise disparate sectors will create new jobs and revitalize surrounding neighborhoods. Bruce Katz, the vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings, briefly explained his research at an event marking the release of this research: 

Such places “supercharge the innovation economy,” Katz said, as each innovation job in a metropolitan area generates five additional local jobs. Some districts emerge from an “anchor plus” model in which urban areas are re-imagined with anchor institutions such as universities, research institutions, or companies at the heart of a burgeoning space for innovation…

Discussing the need for cities to create a “vision for growth,” Katz suggested that cities “find out who you are and do it on purpose,” making use of a Dolly Parton quote which would resurface throughout the event.
“Here’s the bottom line,” Katz said:

I think we’re at the beginning of the wave of growth of innovation districts in the United States. Again not because someone came up with some smart, federal program but because this is organically aligned with the destructive dynamics of our era, and represents a clear path forward for cities and metro areas. So our message today is that local leaders across many different sectors would be wise to unleash their own distinctive districts. Global companies, financial institutions, would be smart to embrace them. The state and federal government should get in the service of this growth because it is productive. It is innovative. It is inclusive. And it is sustainable. And the result could be the step toward building a much stronger and resilient economy going forward.

If Houston continues to reshape the Medical Center district along the anchor plus model, it will have remarkable effects on the overall growth of the city. Julie Wagner, a scholar with Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, spoke to Houston Public Media and noted the following:

“Houston really has its eyes set on advancing an innovation district off the considerable economic strengths of the Texas Medical Center. And that’s comprised of forty-three member institutions.”
Wagner says forming such districts can have a dramatic effect on a city, even when economic activity is at a standstill. She notes the economy of Barcelona, Spain was flat-lining when it launched 22@Barcelona in the year 2000. By 2012, the district had generated 7,000 new companies and roughly 85,000 jobs.

Public transportation in a compact urban district is essential to the overall growth of an innovation district. Physical infrastructure of a city which favors walkability, public transit and cycling has fueled innovation districts such as Cambridge’s Kendall Square and Philadelphia’s University City. The success of the Texas Medical Center’s growth as an innovation district depends upon city leaders’ understanding of the key groundwork crucial to its growth.

The Medical Center is currently undergoing a study that will “strategize alternative mobility solutions and system improvements in an area of substantial traffic growth.” The consultant team hired for this study, led by Parsons Brinckerhoff, Inc., is focusing on building additional freeways and parking spaces in the area, which is upsetting many of TMC’s local residents, according to the Houston Chronicle

Medical Center officials predict another 28 million square feet of offices and health care facilities will be developed on the campus over the next two decades. More development means more visitors and workers, which planners estimate will require an additional 50,400 parking spaces, along with wider roads and more transit capacity.

City officials, Medical Center administrators and consultants developed a long list of options to unclog roads and add transit and bike choices in the Medical Center area as part of a months-long study prepared by a team of consultants.

At a public meeting Thursday, area residents and others scoffed at some of the plan’s boldest ideas, which officials stressed are a starting point for improvements, with many proposals likely headed for the dust bin. Ideas that drew skepticism ranged from burying the Red Line light rail tracks through the Medical Center - at a cost of $725 million - to building elevated express lanes along Old Spanish Trail.
“If they’re going to do that, I won’t be here long,” said Paula Black, 29, who rents a house in a cluster of homes off OST, near her job just south of the Medical Center. “I don’t want a freeway, or whatever, right outside my door.”

The problem is that freeway-like traffic volumes come into the Medical Center daily. Planners expect the deluge of vehicles will only grow as more doctors’ offices and hospital rooms are built.
Even if just more than half of the projected Medical Center development occurs, and the number of parking spaces per square foot remains constant, about 26,000 new spots - roughly the same number now available at Reliant Park - would be needed.

While the study suggests a combination of building wider roads and more public transit to accommodate the increased traffic flow, it seems to favor road building, despite its high cost, estimated at $120 million dollars, as opposed to the $30 million estimated for increased transit in the area. While local residents want to see a change to walkability in the area, the planners continue their focus on accommodating the increased auto traffic.

Thursday, residents who live near the Medical Center favored proposals that didn’t create elevated lanes and didn’t put wide parkways right outside their doors.
Others said the plans missed an opportunity to dramatically improve transit and biking access in the area. Traffic, many said, is only severe during peak commuting times.
For far less cost, and better results, the Medical Center and city should put more emphasis on transit to and from the area, and better shuttles and sidewalks inside the campus, cyclist Todd Redmon said.
“I’d rather see something that’s different than what got us in this mess,” he said.
Planners, however, were skeptical about eliminating cars.
“We want to serve everyone,” Gunda said. “We want to see pedes­trians. We want to serve autos and transit. … Whether we like it or not, they are all coming.”

For more information regarding the Texas Medical Center Transportation study, click here.

Send an email to the study’s organizers with questions and/or comments.


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