Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reinventing Houston

Downtown Houston

Until the late 1960s Houston was primarily a hub for the oil and gas industry. But the oil boom of the 1970s launched the city on a trajectory to become the recognized international city that it is today. A panoply of skyscrapers built since then form an impressive and glittering core for the city. An increasingly diverse population has provided Houston with one of the hallmarks of big city life, superb ethnic restaurants of practically every kind.

The influx of oil and gas money has helped to finance the arts, both graphic and performing. Besides many excellent art museums Houston has its own opera, ballet and symphony orchestra. The museum district includes a natural science museum that I think is rivaled only by the Smithsonian. The Houston Zoo is what one expects in a city as large as Houston. And, there are the requisite sports teams familiar to all who follow professional sports.

While the Houston economy is more diverse than it was prior to the 1970s oil boom when oil and gas, chemicals and shipping dominated, these industries still broadly affect the overall economy since much of the service economy is dependent on them.

What struck me during a recent visit to Houston is that efforts to create a downtown with the kind of around-the-clock activity one sees in other world class cities such as Chicago or New York have so far not succeeded. Houston has long been a sprawled out, car-dependent city. Retail businesses now almost exclusively inhabit the malls, strip centers and small business districts that dot the Houston landscape. The retail that remains in the city center must live primarily off commerce conducted at midday by the plethora of office workers who populate the soaring towers that dominate the downtown.

The city has completed a light rail line that runs from Reliant Park, a football stadium and convention center complex south of the downtown; to the Texas Medical Center, one the world's leading complexes of hospitals and treatment centers; to the museum district and then into the downtown. The hope was that Houston residents would park at the Reliant Park complex and take the train downtown for work, events and shopping.

But old habits die hard. Rather than heralding the light rail line as a great achievement, Houstonians have become polarized over its costs, usefulness, and unintended consequences. It doesn't help that Houston's drivers were so befuddled by the presence of a train on their streets that in its first year of operation the city's single light rail line set an all-time annual record for vehicular crashes involving municipal light rail systems in the United States. Accidents have fallen markedly after new procedures were implemented.

Since Houston sits on soft sediments which run literally miles deep, it was impractical to build the light rail system underground. According to a friend who watched the progress of the above-ground construction, many of the retail establishments along the route were devastated and forced to close. Houstonians simply refused to brave the construction to patronize the affected businesses since it was easier to find what they needed at the many other strip centers and malls in the city. And, while the single line may seem underutilized, this is in part because it is only the first of six planned which would feed each other passengers from various parts of the city.

But the first thing one notices about Houston in this regard is how low the population density is. Cities with heavily used light rail systems have much higher population densities compared to Houston. New York's population density exceeds 27,000 persons per square mile. Chicago has a density of more than 12,000 persons per square mile. Compare this to Houston which has a little more than 3,800 persons per square mile. This is not to say that light rail can't succeed in Houston. But, it would take a sea change in the thinking of this car-addicted culture.

Perhaps most disturbing was that on a clear, dry, springtime Friday evening there was little activity within the confines of the great man-made canyons of the city center except for the theater district and the historic part of the city where a few restaurants and pubs remained opened. After 5 p.m. on weekdays the downtown almost empties out.

My friend, a real estate broker, reports that many new loft apartments and condominiums have been added to the downtown, and these are especially attractive to young professionals. But almost as soon as those professionals start to have children, they flee the downtown for single-family homes in neighborhoods. It seems impossible to build a critical mass of downtown residents who are needed to give it vitality after 5 p.m.

Houston has one very large impediment to the kind of active street life characteristic of successful city centers, an impediment that may elude the understanding of many Houstonians who merely cope with it as a background phenomena: Heat. During much of the year Houston is so hot and humid that most people prefer to stay indoors in air conditioning. The downtown district actually has an extensive set of tunnels and skybridges that allow people to avoid going outdoors and still move through much of the downtown. However intelligent such tunnels and skybridges may seem, the effect is to diminish the already sparse street life in the city center. And, without the "eyes on the street" provided by pedestrians, people don't feel nearly as safe, day or night.

While accidents of geology and climate seem to be conspiring to keep Houston's city center from ever becoming an analog to downtowns in New York or Chicago, there are plenty of examples of cities in hot climates with vibrant street life and healthy urban centers. It is the peculiar legacy of sprawling low-density development, car dependency, and an overreliance on air conditioning--people never let their bodies adjust to the heat--that spells a continuing uphill battle for those in Houston who would like to see its center pulse with activity through all the parts of the day.

Photo Courtesy of Hequals2henry on Wikimedia Commons


beardo said...

I've lived in both Houston and Los Angeles, and they seem to share the same dead central city phenomenon and lack of good rail transit you're describing. According to wikipedia, Harris County's (Houston) population density is 2,302/sq mi; L.A. County's is 2,427/sq mi--roughly the same. Maybe Houston's summer heat and A/C culture is not the decisive factor here?

Wayne said...

I was surprised on a recent visit to Phoenix how pleasant the new light rail system made my visit. My colleague and I took a bus from the airport to the nearest rail terminal - and never used any other transportation in our three-day visit there. This included three trips day-trips to the convention center from our hotel on the north side, an evening sortie to a Suns playoff game, and a trip to the local art museum.

As in Houston, there was much civic angst as the system was being constructed, and I'm sure a number of businesses failed during the construction phase. And as in Houston, the number of train-car collisions was off the charts in the first months of operation. But ridership on the completed system is running 30% above projections. The night of Suns game, extra cars were brought online, and many of the folks on in the car I was in had parked in the satellite lots along the rail line.

Having said that . . . there is not exactly a "there" there in Phoenix either. Phoenix' population density of 2,782 is not statistically different from Houston's or LA's. Many of the condos built along the rail lines appeared to be see-throughs. And the only really vibrant street life seemed entirely dependent on the crowd drawn to the Suns game.

Even so, I was not at all looking forward to the trip to Phoenix and was shocked by how much I enjoyed the trip thanks to that light rail system. That it was a surface rail system with no dark tunnels or turnstiles (transit cops make random sweeps through cars asking for tickets) made the experience extra pleasant.

Anonymous said...

Texas will in short order become the dead zone it was before fossil fuels.

It is a dry desert capable of supporting only modest life, and will return to that equilibrium once the vast inputs of nonrenewable energy and the materials it brings come to an end.