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.