Wed 27 Apr 2011
Making a Human-Scale Environment for Light Rail passengers
In June 2006 the City of Houston passed the Urban Corridors Ordinance, a major initiative that will encourage denser urban development surrounding the light rail lines to accommodate pedestrianism and transit use. Houston now has many requirements in place that make pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented development nearly impossible (such as a regulation that requires buildings to be set far back from the street). This planning ordinance will create a new set of regulations, standards, and incentives for development on streets along light rail stations, as well as streets that intersect them within 1/4 mile of the station, such as:
- wider sidewalks, clear of obstructions (poles, signs, etc.)
- vegetative buffers between the sidewalk and parking areas
- placing building entrances adjacent to the pedestrian realm
- more parks and plazas accessible to the public
- designing building facades to be at least 30% transparent on the first-floor
This will create dense, transit-supportive development to nurture the success of the light rail, thereby protecting taxpayers’ investment.
Some transit-oriented development advocates say that this ordinance does not go far enough. They say that some of the optional provisions should be made mandatory and that the scope should extend further than 1/4 mile. Also, larger developments that face the transit corridor or a connecting street on at least one side should be entirely covered.
One of the biggest omissions of the ordinance is that it fails to relax Houston’s off-street parking requirement that applies to the whole city (except for a few areas, like the CBD and Med Center) which requires a certain number of parking spaces for every new or remodeled building, based on square footage.
Christof Spieler, the author of Intermodality Blog for the Citizens Transportation Coalition explains the absurdity of this policy:
Parking comes at a very real cost to the building owner: aside from the cost of paving, there’s the cost of the land: Midtown property goes for $50 a square foot, so that’s almost $20,000 a parking spot. Parking comes at a cost to the city, too. Every parking spot is a bit of land that can’t be occupied by a store or a restaurant. It’s land we build streets and utlities for but don’t get any sales tax revenue from. More importantly, it deadens the city. In Midtown, the city rules amount to requiring half of all lots to be occupied with parking (assuming one story buildings and no garages). That’s in addition to the 40% of the land that’s taken up by the streets, leaving only 30% of the land for uses that are actually worth going to. As a pedestrian, you have a certain distance you’ll walk. The more parking, the less you can do within that range.