Proposed ordinance: better sidewalks are required; better buildings are optional.

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The City of Houston has spent the past three years on a process to develop new planning ordinances for the streets around METRO’s light rail stations. That process has now culminated in a draft ordinance, which will be considered at a public hearing before the Planning Commission meeting this Thursday, June 11, and will then go to City Council for a committee meeting on June 11.

The ordinance applies to the streets that the light rail lines (and any future light rail lines) run in (so-called “Transit Corridor Streets”) as well as to streets that intersect the transit streets within 1/4 mile of a station (“A Streets”). It contains two provisions, one mandatory and one optional:

The mandatory provision increases the required width of sidewalks on Transit Corridor Streets and A Streets. It requires a 6 foot wide and 7’6″ tall paved pedestrian clear space, free of obstacles such a trees, utility poles, fire hydrants, and signs. However, the city engineer may waive this requirement where there is not sufficient space between the curb and the property line or where it is “technically infeasible.” At the same time, required sidewalk width on other streets is increased to 5 feet, but without the clear space requirement.

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The optional provision reduces the required setback on Transit Corridor Streets and A Streets if the building complies with all of the following provisions:

  • The street must have a pedestrian realm at least 15 feet wide, with no more than 20% plantings (which must be at least 2 feet from the curb if onstreet parking is permitted.) Existing ordinances already require street trees.
  • The building must be within 10 feet of the pedestrian realm for at least 50% of the width of the lot.
  • Any buildings within 10 feet of the pedestrian realm must have a door or window every 20 feet and 30% of the facade within 8 feet of the ground must be transparent.
  • Any fences along the property line must be transparent above 4 feet.
  • No parking may be located between the pedestrian realm and te building if the building is within 25 feet of the property line.
  • Any parking alongside the pedestrian realm must be buffered with 2 feet of plantings.
  • The building must have a front entrance onto the pedestrian realm (though doors may not swing into the pedestrian realm.)

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If a building follows these requirements, it may extend to within 15 feet of the back of the curb. If the curb is more than 15 feet from the property line, that means the building can be built up to the property line; if is less, the property owner must create a public access easement that combines with the public right of way to create a 15 foot pedestrian realm. Currently, city ordinances require building to be set back 25 feet from the property line on major thoroughfares (though some exceptions already exist on chapter 42, and variances are issued.)

These provisions are optional because developers on the committee that developed the ordinance objected to mandatory rules (except sidewalk width, which is very inexpensive.) For dense developments, allowing buildings to fill more of the lot is a significant incentive, so I’d expect that this provision will be used in areas like Midtown with high property values and demand for mixed use development. In other areas, developers can continue to build strip malls with parking in the front.

Both of these provisions will make for a more walkable city. A six foot wide sidewalk is enough for two people to walk comfortably alongside each other, or for two wheelchairs to pass each other. Frankly, that ought to be the minimum everywhere, but it’s particularly important around transit stations. Buildings alongside the sidewalk make it easier, safer, and more pleasant to walk.

But this ordinance is a shadow of what it could have been. The original recommendations of the Toronto-based consultants who started this project, recommendations from the Urban Land Institute, and discussions within the committee went a lot further.

Some of the optional provisions in this ordinance ought to be mandatory. A path from the front door to the sidewalk and plantings between the sidewalk and surface parking are safety issues that help prevent sidewalks from being blocked and pedestrians from being hit.

The ordinance also ignores some issues entirely. The most significant omission from the ordinance is parking requirements. Current parking rules are a “one size fits all” solution for the entire city except Downtown, the Texas Medical Center, Uptown, and Greenway Plaza. A restaurant one block from a rail station in Midtown requires as much parking as a restaurant on FM1960, despite the fact that the Midtown restaurant will have more people arriving on foot or on transit and that Midtown has a high supply of on street parking. That makes no sense, and parking requirements have proven to be a considerable obstacle to developing small lots in places like Midtown.

The Chronicle notes:

City officials, however, said relief from parking requirements would not have been practical because lenders and project tenants are likely to insist on the same amount of parking the city requires.

“It really is kind of a non-issue,” said Michael Schaffer, deputy city planning director.

That’s a strange argument: “The market will take care of this, so we should keep regulating it.” If the market will take care of it, we don’t need regulations.

Another problem is the scope of the ordinance. By limiting both the required and optional provisions to Transit Corridor Streets and A Streets, the ordinance excludes maybe half the streets that are within 1/4 mile of stations. The optional provisions ought to apply to any property within that area. And experience in Houston suggest that quite a few people will walk more than 1/4 mile: most of the Rice Campus, Toyota Center, and Minute Maid Park are all over 1/4 mile from light rail yet attract quite a few light rail riders.

By defining A streets, the ordinance is trying to identify the main feeder streets that will bring pedestrians to rail. But Houston’s often irregular street patterns confound a simple definition. Consider this example from the North Side, which planning staff has used as an example to show how the ordinance would apply.

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The purple street (Fulton) is a Transit Corridor Street and the blue streets are A Streets. I’ve marked some streets in yellow that aren’t A Streets (because they don’t intersect the Transit Corridor Street) but are more direct paths from the station than the A Streets are. A sensible definition ought to include these streets. That will require either a more expansive definition (every street inside the radius is an A street) or a looser definition that gives staff some leeway in creating the official maps that will define A Streets for property owners and city plan reviewers.

The ordinance also has strange consequences for larger developments. Consider a hypothetical development bounded by Main, Berry, Winbern, and Fannin. Main is a Transit Corridor Street, and Berry and Winbern are A Streets. Thus, the development could be built to within 15 feet of the curb on thsoe sides if it follows the rules. However, Fannin is not a A street, so the ordinance doesn’t apply there. Ironically, Fannin, unlike Berry and Winbern, is a Major Thoroughfare with the required 25 foot setback, so that’s where this ordinance would do the most to help. It would make a lot of sense to allow the 15 foot pedestrian zones on all block faces of a development that faces an A Street or Transit Corridor Street on at least one side.

Finally, there’s a huge loophole:

The city engineer shall have the authority to modify the requirements of this section to the extent neccesary to accomodate the sidewalk when determined that it is technically or otherwise infeasible to comply, such as where there is a lack of public right of way or when there is a presence of fire hydrants, mail boxes, utility poles, or other improvements lawfully permitted within the public right of way.

The whole point of pedestrian clear space is that it is clear. But under these rules, every possible obstacle — even newsracks or trees — can be exempted. When it comes to cluttering sidewalks, the biggest offenders are utility companies and the city itself. Today, pedestrians — and especially the elderly and the disabled, who are less able to squeeze around obstacles — are having to walk in the street all over Houston because of electric poles, hydrants, and signs in the sidewalk. Sometimes, they get hit. That is not acceptable. We don’t allow utility poles or fire hydrants in traffic lanes; we should not allow them on sidewalks either.

The biggest flaw within the ordinance, though, cannot be addressed by altering its language. City planning ordinances apply only to new projects. Thus, the wider sidewalks will happen only as vacant lots or existing buildings are replaced with new buildings. Currently, many of these streets don’t have sidewalks at all. If this ordinance is our only tool to improve sidewalks, we will be waiting a long time. Instead, the city and the county ought to use general funds to improve existing sidewalks and build new ones in key locations like transit stations. Sidewalks, like traffic lanes, are transportation; like traffic lanes, they ought to be paid to be paid for with public funds.

We know that Houstonians will walk if they are provided with a good place to walk. And the more people walk, the fewer cars there are on the street. This ordinance, flawed as it may be, is a key step forward. And there’s still time to improve it: show up on Thursday, June 11, 2:30 p.m. at the City Hall Annex to speak to the planning commission, write your concil member, or speak to the Regulation, Development and Neighborhood Protection Committee of City Council on Monday, June 22, 3:00 p.m., at City Hall. Meanwhile, join the discussion in the forums.

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