Down the Line, again

In 2004, I wrote an article, “Down the Line,” for Cite in which I looked at the future of urban development along the nearly open Main Street light rail line. Three and a half years later, where are we?

Some parts of the Main Street corridor have changed dramatically. Others are still works in progress. The skyline along Main in Downtown and along Fannin in the Texas Medical Center has changed dramatically, and that change is continuing. In Midtown and the Museum District, change has been slower, and vacant lots remain. But no place along the corridor is stagnant, and the new development has largely been the kind whose residents, employees, customers, and visitors benefit from rail.

In 2004, we were at the end of a development boom Downtown. Four major new highrises — 1500 Louisiana, 1001 Main, 717 Texas, and Five Houston Center — had just been completed, along with six new hotels and several residential projects. Today, we may to be on the verge of a similar boom. A new residential Tower (One Park Place) and a three block retail/entertainment/office complex (the Houston Pavilions) are under construction. Two new office towers have been announced — Trammel Crow’s Discovery Tower and Hines’ new 47-story tower on Main Street Square. And plans were recently announced for the renovation of the old Lincoln Sheraton into a new Omni Hotel. All of these new projects are dense and pedestrian-friendly, and two of them are directly on the rail line.

Meanwhile, the University of Houston Downtown, with its new transit link, has grown rapidly, with a new building on Commerce Street and another under construction just north of I-10.

The Texas Medical Center keeps booming. Despite new hospitals in the suburbs and open land to the south and east, there is a huge amount of new construction in the dense core of the TMC, especially along Main and Fannin. In the past 3 years, 15 new highrise and midrise buildings have opened within a 1/4 mile walk of the rail stations in the TMC.

Like Downtown, the Museum District grew a lot in the 1990s and early 2000s. There hasn’t been a new museum since, but construction on Asia House will kick off soon, and there have been major renovations of two historic mid-rises.

As in 2004, Midtown remains a place of great promise, but that promise has been slow to materialize. Camden is still talking about apartments on the “superblock” at Main and McGowen, and the proposed mixed use project at Ensemble/HCC is now in the hands of a different developer but still hasn’t broken ground. However, Midtown is changing. Vietnamtown is getting less ethnic and more upscale, with three major retail renovations along Travis and Milam. The entertainment cluster around Ensemble/HCC has expanded a bit with the opening of T’afia.

As in 2004, I can count lots of proposed projects along the line: the two Midtown projects, more Downtown highrises and renovations, air rights development at Wheeler and the TMC Transit Center, a new midrise condo in the Museum Districtm a major Lovett Homes project at Fannin South designed by Andres Duany, and the redevelopment of the Astroworld site.

It’s tempting to argue whether all this new development was due to the rail line or not. Some is; some isn’t. But I think that argument is irrelevant. Rail is a way to move more people in limited right of way. It’s helping to absorb the additional travel demand caused by more density. And what’s happened along Main should dispell any doubts that rail discourages development or lowers property values.

There are two lessons to be learned from Main. The first is that the most likely places for more density are the places that are dense already. Activity feeds on activity. We can’t build rail in vacant places and assume it will make them dense. But rail will support more density in places that are already dense. The second is that the growth we’ve seen along Main has been organic. Of the post-2004 projects I mentioned, only Houston Pavilions has received city assistance. Government has provided infrastructure, but growth has come from market demand.

Below: a map of recent projects along the rail line. Everything shown either opened after the rail line did or is currently under construction. The flurry of projects that opened in 2002 and 2003 isn’t shown (though some were started after the rail line’s route had been chosen) and neither are proposed projects that haven’t broken ground, or single family residential projects. I’m sure I’ve missed some projects; please post additions or corrections in the forums. (Click on the map for a larger version.)

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