New "Walkable Places" Ordinances a Change of Pace for Houston

Emancipation Avenue will be among the three pilot programs for Houston's new "Walkable Places" initiative.
Emancipation Avenue will be among the three pilot programs for Houston's new "Walkable Places" initiative. Photo by G. Paris Johnson
Mayor Sylvester Turner called it a "paradigm shift." Council member Michael Kubosh said he would have been "shocked" if this were brought to council "20 or 30 years ago." On Tuesday, the city took a first baby step toward making Houston, a historically car-dominant city, more walkable by passing a set of ordinances aimed at expanding sidewalks, decreasing the distance between the street and buildings and making streets friendlier for pedestrians and cyclists.

For three years, a committee worked to come up with recommendations on changes to '90s-era policies that favored cars over people on foot. But, calls for development that enhances — in some cases, provides for the first time — the ability to get around the city without a car have been slow to develop in Houston, a city dominated by freeways and sprawl for most of its history.

That will, at least for some parts of town, change.

The new rules remove the 25-foot setback requirement for new commercial construction that has long encouraged developers to put parking lots on the street with buildings pushed to the back. Now, construction can be placed directly adjacent to sidewalks with parking to the side or behind, if needed. More importantly, the new rules eliminate parking requirements, long a pet peeve of many developers in areas where street parking or public lots are prevalent.

Additionally, it requires sidewalks to be six to 10 feet wide, expanding the current five-foot requirement, and a four-foot buffer zone placed between the sidewalk and the roadway, giving room to pedestrians and making way for cyclists. The city even wants portions of the first floor of commercial buildings to have windows or glass doors allowing passers by to have a peek inside.

The requirements do not apply to existing construction, nor will they be applicable everywhere. Neighborhoods with high percentages of single-family dwellings will be exempt, for example. In fact, areas that want the enforcements will need to petition city council for the right to receive a "Walkable Places" designation that would enact the requirements in that neighborhood. The city may also expand the concept into additional parts of the city using what it is referring to as a "Transit-Oriented Development" program that places those requirements in areas near public transportation stops.

The first pilot locations for the ordinances are Midtown, Emancipation Avenue and the area near Hogan and Lorraine Streets on the near north side. Other parts of the city may begin to request similar designations beginning in October and indications are there are plenty who will take advantage.

Looking around in areas like Upper Kirby, portions of the Heights and stand-alone developments like City Centre and Sugar Land Town Square, it is pretty clear that communities are interested in the ability to leave cars behind in areas where development is clustered and walkable.

Whether or not this will spur further bold moves by they city and county is uncertain. Traditionally, Harris County has been practically run by developers, who crafted laws to suit their needs. Whether they will bend to the will of regional government requirements or simply change based on the wishes of consumers is still up for debate.

One large-scale project, however, that will help to define much of what the city does in the long term when it comes to planning and development is the re-construction of Interstate 45 through downtown. How it decides to address the Pierce Elevated, the possibility of submerged freeways with green space above, and the fate of the east end could shape plans for city development for decades.

And we are still waiting for the city to realize that closing Main Street to traffic would be a boon for businesses and pedestrians in the city's core. We have written many times about how that could be a game changer for downtown and recently there have been calls for it as a means of rescuing bars and restaurants.

Still, as Houston lumbers through the untangling of its overly car-friendly past, moves aimed at placing walking and biking over the concerns of drivers are encouraging and give rise to hope that even a city as dominated by driving and developers as Houston can finally take steps in the right direction.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke