On Monday, we saw four years of development along the Main Street light rail line. Today, a year’s worth on a transit line that hasn’t even been located yet. From Main Street to Greenway Plaza, I count 2,600 new apartments under construction or completed in the last year.
What we see here is the result of market demand for urban living. There is no city policy that encourages the construction of large condos, apartment complexes, and mixed use developments. In fact, city planning regulations make it difficult. Neither is what we see on Richmond due to the prospect of light rail — so many devleopers would not risk so much money on the difficult politics of transit in Houston. The bottom line: people want to live in more central, more walkable, more interesting neighborhoods, and developers see profits in responding.
There’s a lot of growth happening in these neighborhoods, and it’s happening in specific places. As we saw on Main, density tends to follow more density. People want to live near good restaurants and quaint tree-lined streets. That’s why every available piece of land on Richmond in Neartown or Greenway or Upper Kirby is being built up as high-density residential. This is on top of all the density that’s there already. There have been similar pieces of land available south of the freeway — Westpark at Kirby, Westpark at Buffalo Speedway. Instead of 600 apartments, they were developed as a bank branch, a Chick-Fil-A, and a CVS (note the labels on the purple dots on that map– the development south of the freeway is all small and car-oriented). Westpark — a low density suburban setting embedded in the urban core — simply is not a desirable address. From the weedy empty lot behind CVS drive-thru on Westpark, you can see the cranes building the new 300-unit Alexan Kirby on Richmond. It’s only half a mile away, but it’s a world apart.
This new density puts strains on neighborhoods. Not least of those is traffic. Every new unit adds more people to the neighborhood. Absent other options (and local bus is not an option) they will drive. That’s where rail comes in. We can build it, as some have suggested, in places where people don’t want to live right now in hopes that people will want to live there. Or we can build it where people already are, and where more people are coming, to take some of that load. We’ve learned from Main that people will ride rail if it goes where they want to go. We’ve also learned that dense development is most likely to occur in places that are already dense. Rail isn’t causing density — the density is coming anyway. Rail, done right, is a way to deal with the traffic that density brings.
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