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Ensemble / HCC Livable Centers Study

The study is a strategic plan for the Houston midtown neighborhood’s future

Executive Summary

The following books are the story of a neighborhood in Midtown Houston. This study is focused on the transit district surrounding the Ensemble/HCC station area - though many of the challenges and opportunities are common to Midtown in general. The seven Books cover a lot of ground. We review Midtown’s past as an important window into its present. We look in detail at the current urban fabric and infrastructure in, “Integrate Systems”, and we document the prevailing and emerging patterns of land use in “Identify Districts”. These two Books go on to identify strategies and prioritized objectives for improving the urban fabric and the potential opportunities for strengthening and incentivizing increased land use activity - in line with primary objectives of the Livable Centers program. We address the particular challenges of implementation in terms of funding and regulatory contexts; and we identify speci.c project opportunities and design concepts that could help catalyze greater economic development in the neighborhood. The vision for the future of this particular station area emerges from active engagement with the community, recognition of the opportunities and a clear eye on the challenges. We have set a high bar for the ‘vision’ and the implementation solutions that can make it happen. The story is still being written, of course. It is a vision and a plan for action. We can project a set of desired outcomes, but success depends on the will and effort of many. We are all actors in this story – author, architect, urban designer, engineer, client, citizen, elected of.cial, developer and business owner alike. The publication of these documents is the beginning. We hope and expect that the community and all those who share a passion for Midtown’s history and future will take up the plan and make it their own.

The Challenge

Midtown as a whole has seen a resurgence in recent years. It’s proximity to Downtown, The Medical Center, Neartown and the Third Ward make it convenient to jobs and services and a desirable place to live. Many stakeholders, developers and residents have appreciated its potential for decades. The opening of the Main Street light rail line in 2004 drew more attention to the area. However, much of that has come in the form of real estate speculation that has inhibited new development - particularly the types of mixed-use / transit-oriented development that are desired on or near Main Street. Development that has occurred has generally happened away from the transit corridor on cheaper land, or in the form of adaptive re-use of existing structures. Development and improvements have been fragmented and uncoordinated. Elevated property values, suburban development codes and standards, and the absence of planning linked to meaningful incentives have generally made mixed-use transit related development unfeasible in this area - and in Houston in general. So the key challenge has been to identify a path, or set of coordinated paths to realizing a more active, more walk-able, economically vital mixed-use center around this station area.

The Place

Midtown began as a place to build ‘suburban’ mansions around the turn of the Century. By 1920, residential development was moving westward into Courtlandt Place and the Montrose Addition (now Neartown). Main Street / Midtown gradually became more commercial with lots of restaurants and stores on the street, and walk up apartments above. Streetcar connections to downtown made shopping and living there convenient. The rise of automobile culture and car oriented development patterns in the 1950s meant a demise in the area’s importance. Proximity to jobs was no longer important. Americans were in love with the automobile and the dream of owning a home in the suburbs. A whole new culture grew up around freeways and ranch style homes. Midtown was gradually and mostly abandoned to lesser land uses and blight. Very little new development happened for the next 30-40 years. In the 90’s and early 2000’s, Midtown was again on the radar. Many recognized the importance of its location between the Central Business District and the burgeoning Texas Medical Center. There was (is) also an emerging desire for urban lifestyle around the country, and Midtown has the block size and bona .de history as an urban, ‘transit-oriented’ neighborhood. Development ramped up in earnest by 2000. The opening of the light rail on Main Street in 2004 reinforced its urban status and its potential for transit oriented development.

Approach

Book 1: Road Map, describes our philosophical and technical approach to the project in detail. To address the Challenge, we .rst set out to answer the question, ‘why has so little happened around the Ensemble/ HCC Station?’ We undertook a thorough examination of the existing realities and needs in terms of the physical conditions, economics and market drivers, and the people and context that de.ne the neighborhood today. We wanted to know what speci.cally was needed to change the game in the study area. It was easy to identify stuff to . x and places to build new projects. But, we knew we could not do it all at once. We needed a guiding strategy that would help us prioritize our recommendations for future investment. This needed to be a coordinated plan for improving the public realm - linking proposed improvements to real development and/or redevelopment scenarios. We also know that, regardless of the ‘brilliance’ of the plan, the plan will never see the light of day without public and political support. From the beginning we set out to build this capacity (Book 5: Create Development Capacity) in the community and with community leaders. We met formally and informally with stakeholders of all kinds. We identi.ed those that might take the lead on key project initiatives - both public improvements and private development. Previous studies and our assessment reinforced the fact that there were regulatory and other kinds of barriers to redevelopment in the area. Our recommendations to “Overcome Barriers” (Book 6) identify speci. c changes to development ordinances that currently make desired outcomes more difficult.

We also put numbers to our recommendations. We developed comprehensive budgets and we tested . nancial feasibility. We explored tools and mechanisms for funding the public improvements - and we developed proformas that describe the current viability of specific project types. We envision the Plan as a comprehensive set of strategies and tools designed to be taken up by current and future leaders and stakeholders. We have structured the document as a uni. ed vision and game plan, where each Book can also stand on its own and be used as a guidebook or reference by those with specific charge. Recommendations are tied to each Book, and every recommendation has key agents or leaders identi. ed. This is a living document. It is a 20-25 year vision for the study area. It is not a set of prescriptions or rules. As conditions change and unexpected opportunities and/or obstacles appear, new choices will have to be made. Above all perhaps, the Plan should serve as a prototype tool for analyzing and evaluating those choices.

The ‘Z’ Diagram

The Study Area is centered around the light rail station at Main and Holman. Our analysis identi. ed 3 primary ‘districts’ with signi.cant activity drivers at various times of day and night. In between these districts there are broken pedestrian systems and empty parcels. Walking feels unsafe (especially at night), uncomfortable and even dangerous. In order to build on the existing activity generators, we set out to create stronger links between the districts, and to intensify/ expand the districts themselves. The ideal outcome is for the districts to weave together into a connected fabric emanating from the transit station area - while retaining some of their unique characteristics. Our explorations lead to an initial diagram that describes the key connections between the districts along a ‘Z’ axis. This formed our prioritization strategy and main idea for structuring and focusing initial investments. If we can . x the pedestrian systems and facilitate redevelopment on key sites along the Primary ‘Z’, these isolated districts can be connected and will in turn strengthen the overall area. We also indenti. ed a set of secondary corridors that need to be . xed early in the game as well. Key investments along the ‘Z’ corridors and the secondary corridors hold the potential to change the game in this area.

The Books

Book 1: Road Map is intended to serve as record of our methodology and philosophical approach to the Plan - and a potential prototype for future studies. In Book 1, we have outlined the touchstones that make a Plan truly re. ective of a community and the prerequisites for realization of the plan objectives. We think these touchstones are applicable to most similar studies. The plan is about creating and enhancing places for people - above all else. While we have to address the systems that make it all work, the end goal is a meaningful place that people will visit, move to, remember and come back to. Any study must also provide sensible and integrated solutions. Recommendations must be backed up by good analysis, design, engineering, economics and public outreach. This Book lays out a detailed process for mobilizing an effective interdisciplinary team to achieve practical well-designed and implementable solutions.

Book 2: Identify Districts, captures a snapshot of the current land use, activity generators and building stock and looks for patterns and opportunities to build on. Three distinct districts emerged - The Arts District around the light rail station, the College District at the HCC campus, and the Design District along Elgin. In order to create the sense of place key to any successful projects, the Districts need to strengthen and gain more presence in the minds of the Community. With market realities as a backdrop, we tested the physical capacity of the area at full build out. In conjunction with improving the key systems described below, we looked for opportunity sites and partners that could strengthen the Districts and bring more activity to the area, and we make recommendations for developing the visibility and identity of the districts.

Book 3: Integrate Systems takes a hard look at a number of systems that support and help make a neighborhood livable, convenient, safe and attractive. These include various circulation systems for pedestrians, bicyclists, automobile drivers, and transit riders. Each resident, employee and visitor to the study area needs safe and consistent streetscapes and rights-of-way, parks and public spaces, signage and way. nding, utility service, and parking. These are the systems addressed in the Integrate Systems book. The “Z Connection” illustrates an effective method of prioritizing efforts and resources to initiate change in the study area. The book concludes with a set of prioritized recommendations and projects to be implemented to improve connectivity, walk-ability and to support the continuing revitalization of the area.

Book 4: Close the Gap makes use of the market research and construction cost information to determine the feasibility of public realm improvements and proposed catalytic projects. It identi.es potential public and private funding and .nancing options that have been explored and can help strengthen a positive cost to revenue equation and lead to built projects.

Book 5: Create Development Capacity recognizes the preeminent role of the larger community in carrying the plan forward. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the Plan goals, Development Capacity, is about the leadership that is required to make this plan a reality. We recognize that a critical path to realizing a vision in the area will be . nding the leaders and torch bearers that will take ownership of the vision and ensure that it lives on after we hand it over. This begins with the vision being aligned with the community’s objectives, and ends with hard work and leadership.

Book 6: Overcome Barriers assesses the current regulatory environment in light of the desire for higher density mixed-use development. We identify regulations and obstacles that currently inhibit or discourage the kind of development that is desired. Chief among these is the challenge of parking. Our recommendations for creating comprehensive and managed parking solutions are central to the Plan. The cost of building parking for every potential project is the single biggest hurdle to new development. We make concrete recommendations for new rules and strategies for maximizing the bene.t of on-street parking and optimizing the potential for shared public parking.

Book 7: Build a Catalytic Project. Redevelopment and revitalization is dependent on new projects happening. Our initial research, planning priorities and conversations with stakeholders led to the identi.cation of .ve potential catalytic projects. Two of the projects, the Independent Arts Collaborative (IAC) and the Student Housing project, were designed in detail. Two are plans on the boards with other landowners, and one is proposed for the City-owned property at Main and Francis streets. In varying degrees, these projects have the potential to dramatically change the neighborhood and contribute to the rebuilding of the urban fabric.

The development of this plan has continued conversations that have been underway in Midtown for a long while. It has also started new conversations and de. ned speci.c objectives and strategies for moving forward. These are not prescriptions. But, it is critical that future public investment be tied to a prioritized set of goals. The temptation will always be to spread the dollars around and thereby nominally satisfy the greatest number of agendas. However, changing the game around the Ensemble/HCC Station and promoting a true Livable Center will require prioritization of the plan objectives. It will also require leadership to make the necessary changes in public priorities. Our extreme familiarity and comfort with suburban development standards has to give way to new urban design standards. We need to implement comprehensive tools to mitigate the impact of parking needs on development feasibility and the urban fabric. A true livable center requires that all the pieces come together in a coordinated way. We need to .x systems, get new projects built, generate more activity and regenerate the urban fabric. The plan is the .rst step in that direction. It outlines other steps. But, success will ultimately depend on those that have the ability to in.uence change and the will to see these goals realized. We hand this document off to all of you in good faith that you will take up the charge!