Setbacks for Storefronts

I’m in Washington for TRB, and like all Houstonians with an urbanist bent I’m enjoying the walkability of the place. The thought occurs to me that we could enable the sort of walk-up retail that urbanists like without throwing out the laid-back approach to development that makes Houston so livable in so many other ways. After all, we used to build buildings like this. Consider Lower Westheimer, or 19th Street in the Heights. Why isn’t this stuff still being built?

In the late 70’s, developers put in a variety of condo and office towers on a serpentine Uptown street. Houstonians found the Woodway Canyon aesthetically displeasing, which built momentum for the city’s first development ordinance. Among other things, Houston currently requires a 25′ setback from major thoroughfares, for future expansion and “view corridors.”

This regulation, intended to beautify the city, has instead served to uglify it. Developers occasionally make pleasant use of the space, as with the patio at 4500 Washington or the landscape strip behind the Montrose H-E-B. But nine times out of ten, the required 25′ becomes a row of head-in parking.

Portland, Oregon requires storefront windows in most commercial zones (33.130.230), which has been a major factor in making that city pleasant to walk in. A more laissez-faire, business-friendly Houston approach would say “you can keep building the stuff that was allowed before – but if you do put in windows, we’ll let you push the building up to the street.” Since the current setback regs often lead to uneconomical site design, many would take the city up on the deal.

2 thoughts on “Setbacks for Storefronts”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I think the setbacks and increased parking requirements over time led to parking being in front of buildings. It’d be wasted space otherwise. Fortunately, there are some examples of developments that did not put in in-front parking. One that comes to mind is the new Braun retail center at 20th and Rutland, where the old Heights Baptist Temple was. Original renderings showed a bank or retail center with parking along 20th Street.

    Thankfully they opted not to go that route. Like you say, people want that walkable urban form.

    There are provisions in Chapter 42 that do allow retail to be at a 5′ building line, as well as a 0′ building line, as long as it has an appropriate ROW width. Take a look at section 42-154. It’s not much, but it’s something. I agree though, let’s offer some more carrots to achieve walkable development.

  2. If some regulation is bad, then why immediately propose more (complicated) regulation? Isn’t the obvious solution just to get rid (lessen) of that regulation?

    Chris Andrews: “let’s offer some more carrots to achieve walkable development.”

    Why not start by getting rid of the sticks that prevent walkable development?

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