De Facto Minimum Square Footage

Real Estate as an asset class is a bit of an odd duck, because it typically involves a depreciating asset stuck on top of an appreciating asset.

Obviously, this is not always true. Land values can decline – ask someone from Saint Louis or Detroit. Likewise, structures can appreciate if they possess some characteristic which experiences a surge in demand, such as “Craftsman” architecture. But usually the land goes up and the structure goes down.

Most homeowners don’t think in this way, preferring to think of “their house” as a single appreciating asset. This is why spec builders rarely put small homes on large lots.

Consider the following math. At any given point in time there is a minimum price per square foot for residential construction that will net the homebuilder an acceptable profit. Local builders advertise homes for “as little as sixty dollars a square foot,” so for the sake of argument, let’s call this $70*, exclusive of land and sitework.

Meanwhile, the homebuyer is also thinking in terms of price per square foot. But since homebuyers conceptualize the house as a single asset, they divide the total value including land into the square footage. Realtors eagerly assist in this regard (some even publish the $/SF in the listing) as it frames larger homes as a better “value” and thus encourages higher commissions. What’s a buyer willing to pay? Let’s call it $100.

So now we have an equation. Subtract the builder cost/SF from the homebuyer cost/SF, then divide the cost of the lot by this number. You now have the minimum square footage.

Suppose a lot costs $50,000. Sitework is another $10k. The homebuyer will pay $100 a square foot, the builder needs $70 a square foot, so each square foot nets $30 for the builder. He needs at least $60,000 to break even on the lot. So the minimum house he’ll build will be $60k/($30/sf) = 2000 square feet.

Now suppose he’s allowed to cut that lot in two. Sitework is still $10k per lot, but the raw land that the house sits on was only $25,000. Now the minimum house size to break even is $35k/($30/sf) = 1167 square feet.

But now suppose the builder thinks that you shouldn’t have to buy a big house to get a big lot. He builds the 1167 sf house on the full lot. The house costs $81,667. With the lot and sitework he needs $141,557. That’s $121.40 a square foot. Still not a bad deal. But everything else in that neighborhood is going for $100/SF or less. He’s out there saying “sure, it costs more, but look at how big your yard is!” Meanwhile, prospective buyers who express interest are asked whether they might not want “room to expand” once they’re safely back inside the agent’s Infiniti.

In practice, of course, builders do not sit down and stroke their chin pondering “what is the absolute smallest house I could build that would make me the absolute minimum profit?” No, they build the biggest house they can sell until the demand is exhausted, then the second biggest, etc. Builders will happily throw up a five story stickbuilt home on a 1400 square foot lot, slap on some prefab stucco paneling, grab a stock photo of a woman in a sundress, and pronounce that “your new life inside the loop has arrived.”

These economics are a substantial factor in the replacement of the midcentury suburban paradigm (1400 sf house on a 7000 sf lot) with the current one (4000 sf house on a 4000 sf lot). But they seemed to have missed the attention of the urban planning set, at least on the coasts. Many a Pacific Northwest AICP has explained to me that “minimum lot sizes don’t force builders to build larger homes, they’re just choosing to build big houses.”

But in fact, as land value goes up, so too does breakeven square footage go up. To preserve affordable small houses, then, we need to continually shrink square footage requirements in the face of increasing property values.

Most cities could go far by adopting the Houston minimums of 1400 square foot in urban areas and 2500 in suburban ones. Houston could go further by reducing/eliminating the compensating open space requirements. “Open space” in an urban context ought to be a public good, the province of public agencies and nonprofits. That which isn’t public ought to be the homeowner’s alone.


*This is an oversimplification, of course. Larger houses have a lot of cheap square footage – great rooms and bonus rooms are just joists, floor and drywall. Smaller houses have proportionately more square footage tied up in bathrooms, kitchens and the like. So the assumption of a continuous price per square foot will tend to underestimate the extent to which economics push builders toward larger floor plans.

Distance-Normalized Ridership

One of the most frequent criticisms of Dallas’s light rail implementation is that it carries comparatively few riders for the amount of track that has been built. This is then followed by either criticism of suburban-oriented transit generally, or by praise for Houston’s more urban-centric system.

Recently, it occurred to me to look up the ridership per mile of the Shinkansen network. Using annual figures (since the Shinkansen has a different weekly distribution than commuter-oriented LRT), the bullet train carries 340 million people over 1484 miles of track. DART carries 28.5 million people over 85 miles of track.

That gives the Shinkansen an annual ridership per route mile of 229,101, while Dallas clocks in at 336,096.

Is Dallas’s light rail 50% more effective than the bullet train? It is if you use the same math Houstonians have been using to argue why our system is better than the big D’s.

Clearly, a new metric is needed. I propose that we evenly weight both speed and ridership density. Density, because a system that serves denser-developed areas is more effective than one that serves a few desolate park and ride lots. Speed, because a system that gets you there faster is better than one that’s slow.

Distance-Normalized Ridership takes passenger volume, divides by system length, and then multiplies by space-mean speed. If all other factors are held constant, this number can be raised by an increase in ridership, an increase in average speed, or a decrease in total system length. This also captures one of the most basic tradeoffs in transit planning; do we have more stops, and serve a greater area? Or do we have fewer stations, to provide a faster trip? Finally, Distance-Normalized Ridership also has the advantage of being constant across Metric and Imperial units, because the distance factors cancel each other out. I propose that Distance-Normalized Ridership be expressed in units of riders per hour squared.

To show how this works, let’s look at Houston and Japan.

The combined ridership of the Tokaido, Sanyo, and Kyushu Shinkansen lines between Tokyo and Kagoshima is 219,513,000 passengers per year. This line stretches across 1326 kilometers and takes approximately 6.5 hours to traverse, for an average speed of 204 kilometers per hour.

Dividing 219,513,000 into 1326 yields 165,545 annual riders per kilometer. Further division yields 18.95 hourly riders per km. Multiplying this figure by 204 km/h yields 3866 riders per hour squared, which sounds like a reasonable number. The statistics for the Tokaido Shinkansen alone are 6337 riders/hr2, reflecting the much higher ridership density on that segment.

As of this writing, Houston MetroRail carries 45,751 riders on an average weekday, plus 18,656 on Saturday and 14,494 on Sunday. This adds up to 261,905 every week, or 1,559 per hour. Dividing 1,559 into the system’s 12.8 mile length yields 122 hourly riders per mile, and multiplying by its average speed of just over 15mph yields 1871 riders/hr2.

These numbers make intuitive sense. Japan’s Shinkansen is twice as effective as MetroRail, and the core Tokaido Shinkansen is twice as effective as the network as a whole. The figures are small enough to not be unwieldy (e.g. we’re not talking millions), yet large enough that we can get a reasonable degree of accuracy without using a decimal point.

So what about Dallas? I’m not going to compute them for this post. First, because I’m more interested in proposing a new metric than in producing yet another 713-214 comparison. Second, because I’m unsure of how to weight Dallas’s various lines. DART’s slowest segment also has the most interlining, and how you weight that is a major determinant in systemwide average speed.

What I’d really like is for some outside party – say, Greater Greater Washington’s Matt Johnson – to tally up the distance-normalized ridership for Dallas, Washington, and a number of other systems. I have a feeling WMATA would score fairly decently, given that system’s relatively high speeds.

Tweaking Houston – Infill and Alleyways

As mentioned in the Prologue, this blog takes “Houston basically gets it right” as a default starting point for analysis. To that end, any post suggesting we do things different will first look at the status quo and its pros and cons.

So let’s talk about infill development – specifically, townhomes and midrise.

The Status Quo

There is a long-established disconnect in Houston street design. The planning department, which approves plats, requires a 32′ street section, while the engineering department, which approves streets, only requires 27′ (28′ back-to-back). Everyone submits their plats without curblines, and once they’re approved they build the 27′ street. This gives fire trucks a 14′-15′ drive aisle in which to navigate.

As a backup, a separate portion of the city code allows the Fire Department to restrict parking on one side of any street less than 32′, or both sides of any street less than 26′. If the Chief doesn’t like what the engineers approved, he can order the signs himself.

What everyone agrees on is that a residential street right-of-way needs to be 50′ wide. At full buildout, that looks like this:

This is the street that we build everywhere from Montrose to the Katy Prairie.

The Issues

A 50-foot right-of-way is a fine width for single-family suburban development. Many a New Urbanist has fought tooth and nail to allow one-lane, 26-28′ residential streets in juridictions that required more. Some cities in California and the Southwest require streets as wide as 44′. Nationally speaking, our traditional 27′ is pretty darn good.

But that same street is overkill when faced with infill townhomes on 25′ lots. We know this, because nearly every townhome development in Houston is approved with narrow private alleyways. They’re built in Westchase, off Washington, in Oak Forest and The Heights and EaDo, in the FirstSecond, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Wards.

Clearly our developers think this is acceptable (they’re building it), and our planners and engineers think it’s acceptable (they’re approving it). And in the rare case where infill townhomes are built with a full 50′ section, they look out of scale.

The Alternative

Why not allow narrower public streets? A prototype already exists in the historic brick streets of the Fourth Ward. These streets are so beloved by Houstonians, their removal has (as of this writing) been successfully stopped by court order.

A continuous grid of narrow streets would allow for incremental redevelopment in a way that the current gated warrens of easements do not. Someone 30 or 50 years hence could buy up three or four townhomes and build a midrise apartment block, continuing the gradual, organic densification that has made inner-ring Houston so livable already.

A modern cross-section based on the Fourth Ward’s one-way, one-row-of-parking arrangement can preserve the same 14-15′ drive aisle while giving pedestrians a bit more elbow room.

An ideal street for infill development.

The narrower visual field of a 35′ right-of-way slows traffic and helps pedestrians to take ownership of the space. It also reduces land and pavement costs for developers pursuing infill development. This helps encourage the development of a fine-grained, walkable street grid in areas where it’s currently lacking.

Consider the Alleys

Houston currently requires all alleys to be 20 feet of solid concrete. But if we are to allow streets to be 35′, 20′ for an alleyway becomes overkill.

Narrower examples exist here and elsewhere. The unpaved alleys in Montrose are mostly 12′, including the ones behind Numbers and other businesses on Lower Westheimer. Many of the alleys in Fort Worth are 12′. And the City of Olympia‘s standard alley section explicitly specifies a 12’ ROW with two 3-foot tire paths spaced 3 feet apart.

I’m not completely sold on the long-term performance of tire paths. But other designs, like waffle block with a solid central gutter, could convey Houston’s design storm while allowing lesser rain events to percolate into the soil.

Notes on Peaky Transit

Alon Levy and I are having a pleasant discussion about the pros and cons of American-style commuter rail systems.

One characteristic of most American commuter rail networks is that they are “peaky”; that is, there is a substantial difference in service frequency between peak and off-peak hours. Alon sees peakiness as prima facie evidence of underutilization, something to be avoided. So let’s explore some of the underlying issues that lead to “peaky” transit.

Low density leads to peaky transit

The Main Line to Paoli used to have 15-minute, rapid-transit type service up through the 1970s. The infrastructure is still there to support it, but off-peak service today is every 30-40 minutes. Two things happened there. First, Center City declined in regional importance even as it grew in absolute terms, as places like King of Prussia and Great Valley siphoned off commuters. Second, a large amount of low-density residential development occurred which was not near Philly’s historic rail lines. A 1950’s student commuting to Bryn Mawr/Villanova/Haverford/St Joe’s was likely to live near a streetcar or regional rail line, enabling an all-transit trip. A present-day student is not.

In matrix form, the transit-density relationship looks like this:

Causality runs in all directions. Just as a decline in (relative) density moved the Main Line away from rapid transit, so has the gentrification of Chicago’s North Side moved that area toward more frequent service. For a long time, the Ravenswood L terminated at Belmont on nights and weekends, but in 2000 it was extended into the Loop at all times. Platforms were lengthened from 2009, allowing 8-car trains. More service was added this year, and a future project will add a flying junction to send northbound Ravenswood trains over the top of the Evanston/Howard tracks.

Likewise, low density areas rarely warrant rapid transit style service. In many cities, this leads authorities to propose extensions using different technology, with a forced transfer. Examples include eBart, the Denton A-train, and diesel trains that end at Fannin South.

Seating riders leads to peaky transit

Un-peaky, rapid transit-style services typically see a wide fluctuation in car occupancy. A DC Metro train at late morning may have only 30% of the seats taken, while one operating at the peak will be crammed to crush capacity. The same holds true for the NYC Subway, BART, and the Tokyo suburban network.

Alon lists a 2:1 ratio of peak-hour services to midday services as his ideal upper bound for rail. Most rapid transit outline vehicles have a crush capacity of about 2.5 times their seated capacity. A system with a 2:1 peak service ratio which runs at crush during the peak is thus carrying a 5:1 passenger ratio.

But wait, as the late Billy Mays would say – there’s more. Most subway/metro type services aren’t optimizing midday trains for full loading, they’re meeting a minimum performance benchmark – typically every 12, 15, or 20 minutes. Midday service would not be reduced unless the trains were noticeably empty.

A more realistic system, then, is one that sees a peak-hour loading factor of 2.25 (the threshold at which the operator would consider platform lengthening, reliever routes, etc) and an off-peak loading factor of 0.30 (the threshold at which the operator would consider reducing service).

At a 2:1 service peak, this line is carrying a 15:1 ridership peak.

All well and good, for a metro. But let’s change a couple of our assumptions. Let’s first imagine a system where commutes are very long – say, over 60 minutes. Riders with such commutes immensely value the ability to remain seated, as mentioned by commenters here and here. If we design the service so that peak loading is 1.0 and off-peak is 0.3, our 15:1 ridership peak requires a 4.5:1 service peak.

Let’s also suppose this train consists of loco-hauled diesel trainsets, which are fuel hogs. On an unelectrified line, there is a substantial financial incentive not to run trains at 30% capacity. You might instead consider a service cutback at 75% peak occupancy. The required service ratio in this instance is 12:1, which is well into Metra territory.

This is why brand-new commuter rail systems are more likely to emulate Metra’s peaky service than Paris’s RER. SLC’s Ogden-to-Provo Frontrunner – which largely operates over its own track – drops to hourly at midday. New Mexico’s Rail Runner has no midday service on weekdays, despite zero freight interference. (BNSF actually wants to abandon the Raton Pass line now that they’ve double-tracked Abo Canyon).

Transit bloggers like to imagine that if you provide frequent all-day service to the ‘burbs, you will open up a substantial new market of inter-suburban trips. However this ignores the fact that most of those people will just drive. And while institutional inertia can explain service provision on Metra or the LIRR, it doesn’t explain why New Starts systems, unencumbered by freight or legacy bureaucracy, nonetheless trend towards the same operating patterns.

Peaky transit is self-reinforcing

One of the characteristics which subways and freeways share is that they tend to prod people toward alternate work schedules. The early birds get up even earlier to “beat” the traffic; the late-risers negotiate a delayed start and go home when the worst of the afternoon rush has passed.

Beyond the unpleasantness of a packed subway car or a jammed highway, undifferentiated services are also faster in the off-peak. Dwell times are shorter, average speeds are higher. By contrast, peaky services actually get faster during the peak, because the ridership spike leads to different service patterns.

Let’s take Metra’s UP-West line as an example. Most of the morning service follows a “two-step” pattern in which trains originating from the outer ‘burbs run express from Elmhurst or Glen Ellyn and local trains slot in behind them. But with the 8:05am departure from Elburn, trains make all stops. What was formerly a pleasant 41-minute ride from Wheaton now takes a full 56.

UP-North has an even smaller express window. The first proper express out of Waukegan doesn’t arrive at Ogilvie until 8:19am; the last arrives at 9:15. Thus does the Metra timetable illuminate suburban class differences. The proles out in Kane County are piling onboard at zero dark thirty for their eighty-five thousand, while their boss in Lake Forest is arriving at 8:45 like a civilized human.

For my money, though, the peakiest express in the US has to be on SEPTA’s Paoli/Thorndale line, the artist formerly known as the R5.  The Great Valley Flyer, trains 9526/9561, runs once a day, pulling into Suburban at 7:51 and departing at 5:08. If you can swing it, this train cuts a full 26 minutes off the all-stops local. I haven’t ridden it, but I know a guy who regularly makes the Exton/Center City run, and he says it’s the cat’s pajamas.

Whom shall we serve?

Since rapid transit-level service can only exist in high-density corridors, we’re left with a few options.

(i) Allow the city to grow as it will, and only serve the high-density corridors. Houston’s light rail has taken this approach, although it is mitigated by the existence of an extremely peaky commuter bus network. This helps promote a core of hip, walkable neighborhoods, but leads to a lot of auto-based reverse commuting.

(ii) Attempt to restrict low-density development, nudging everyone towards high-density living. Portland and Vancouver have followed this approach. While this “works” from a ridership perspective, it enrages the red tribe, leading to incoherent George Will columns and pushing growth into more accommodating jurisdictions.

(iii) Attempt to serve everybody with an overlapping set of peaky and non-peaky services. Salt Lake (Trax/Frontunner), Seattle (Link/Sounder), and Los Angeles (Metro/Metrolink) hew to this format. Vancouver gestures in this direction with the West Coast Express, although they really ought to have some sort of Abbotsford/Langley service.

(iv) Build a fast LRT/S-Bahn service that hits 80% of the metro but leaves out the outer-outer ring. Dallas is there; the trains get you to Plano and Rowlett, but there’s nothing in Frisco or McKinney. Denver will be soon; the LRT hits most southern suburbs, but permanently leaves out Castle Rock and Colorado Springs.

All of these options have pros and cons. I have a strong personal preference against (ii), since I believe people should be able to live how they like. Houston has made (i) work, but this is largely because we built out the bus network before we started on rail. If Houston had instead tried to build out an “express streetcar” LRT and outer-suburban HOV at the same time, there would’ve been endless debates of the “why are we spending money on buses to the suburbs when we could promote walkable development” sort.

(iii) and (iv), then, seem like the best options for most North American cities. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement on legacy systems. Additional Metra-CTA connectivity would be good, although I think the Chicago transit geeks are needlessly dismissive of the transfer opportunities that already exist. And the LIRR has some downright questionable operating patterns which Alon has devoted many pages toward improving.

But if we’re going to allow people to live in low-density suburbia, we ought to make peace with peaky transit. Whether that takes the form of the Great Valley Flyer or the West Bellfort conveyer belt matters not.

We Could Be Faster

America has always sprawled, and our rail systems – the historical enablers of sprawl, at least for the first eighty years or so – were adapted to traverse vast lengths of track with alacrity and dispatch. Then we tore out every track we could*, and our domestic railcar manufacturers either converted to bus production or folded outright.

Later, we started building rail again. We imported vehicles from Europe and Japan. And with little institutional memory, we adopted their specs as our own. Today, American rail vehicles underperform their historical predecessors. That ought to change. To wit, a couple areas which could use improvement:


For frequent stopping services, vehicle acceleration has a larger impact on schedule times than overall top speed. The phase change appears to occur between stop spacing of one-mile and one-half mile.

SF Muni PCC #1009, in Dallas livery. c/o Georg Trüb,

PCC cars had a historical maximum acceleration of 4.75 mphps, or about .21 g. You can experience this yourself by riding any number of heritage trolley systems. Stats on older streetcars are hard to come by, but they were likely similarly peppy. More than one operator replaced the as-delivered 25hp motors on their single-truck Birney cars with 50hp units, giving them a power-to-weight ratio 30% beyond the PCC.

Even as the US operators began to abandon their systems, the Czechs continued the design, with the PCC-based Tatra T3 achieving a respectable 4.0 mphps. The T3/T4 and its derivatives continue in service today across the Eastern Bloc.

Meanwhile, the Boeing-Vertol LRV applied PCC levels of power to a vehicle that was 50% heavier, resulting in a service accel of 3.0-3.3 mphps, depending on which source you read. And the early 80’s adaptation of Frankfurt U-Bahn stock by San Diego, Calgary and Edmonton normalized its paltry 2.4 mphps acceleration in the minds of new riders.

Eventually, successive Siemens LRV designs reached the 3.0mphps benchmark. The Houston-spec S70 has a power-to-weight ratio approximately 10% higher than the PCC, but it is not designed to transfer that power to the track as the PCCs did.

Most manufacturers can design to spec if the spec is insisted upon. As an example, the Japanese have perhaps the slowest-accelerating trains of any first world nation. The original Kintetsu 6800 series, with a 2.5 mphps service acceleration, was marketed as the “rabbit car.” The revival rabbit car is even slower. Yet Kinki-Sharyo (Kintetsu’s rolling stock arm) has produced 3.0 mphps, 65mph LRVs for both Dallas and Seattle.

Instead, 3.0 mphps accel appears to be an evolved institutional preference among US transit operators. The Czech-spec Skoda 03T and its derivatives have a horsepower-to-weight ratio that bests the PCC by 50%. Yet the produced-under-license United Streetcar variant is cited at 4.4 feet per second squared – or exactly 3.0 mphps.

One of the major strikes against “modern streetcar” systems is that they underperform relative to buses operating the same routes. But it appears that this limitation is largely bureaucratic. If one US streetcar or LRT operator specs a vehicle with 5.0 mphps service acceleration, others will be sure to follow.


The top speed of the Electroliners is steeped in mythology and lore. 80-90mph seems reasonable, although some have claimed 100+. Likewise, Brill Bullets on the P&W operated at 80mph for a large part of the 20th century. And the Boeing-Vertol LRV was designed for a nominal 70mph top speed, although it only ever saw service on the notoriously serpentine alignments of Muni and the MBTA.

Electroliners power through the Evanston cut. c/o CERA archives

The commuter-oriented heavy rail systems of the 60s and 70s were designed to similarly high speeds. BART was designed to 80mph, while PATCO and WMATA were designed to 75 (since reduced to 65 and 60, respectively). Atlanta’s MARTA was and does operate at 70, while Miami and Baltimore brought up the rear at 60.

Once again, the adoption of the Frankfurt U-Bahn as a de facto LRV standard slowed us down. The original U2 topped out at 50 mph, with subsequent derivations achieving only 55 mph. This must have seemed like a sane and reasonable speed to 1980s transit planners, although Sammy Hagar would disagree.

Dallas’s suburb-oriented LRT network required something faster, so DART spec’d a 65mph LRV. Texan rivalries being what they are, Houston also spec’d a 65mph LRV, even though there’s nowhere on the current system where it can come close to that. Seattle is also largely designed for 65, since that system is imagined to one day link the disparate satellite cities of Tacoma and Everett.

Is 80mph LRT possible? There are engineering tradeoffs to be made. Wheel profile is perhaps the most significant. Higher speeds require a flatter wheel surface, to reduce hunting. But flatter wheels don’t perform as well in tight cornering. All US LRV systems have hewed to a 25m (82′) minimum radius, another spec we adopted from the Germans. An LRV which could comfortably and reliably operate at 80mph would be unlikely to reliably negotiate these corners.

But most LRV networks don’t have minimum-radius curves on their mainline. Dallas appears to stick to 150′ and above, although some yard tracks are as tight as 90′. Houston’s yard trackage includes 82′ corners, but otherwise the only limiting factors on the Main Street line are some #6 turnouts.

Not everyone needs an 80mph LRV. Houston doesn’t, at least with the currently-proposed system. Portland probably doesn’t, given the frequent stop spacing on even outer-suburban lines. But DART, with its extensions to places like Rowlett and Buckner, could stand to benefit. And Seattle’s forthcoming lines may more closely resemble BART than the median US LRT network.**

An 80mph LRV, then, like a 5 mphps streetcar, is just a matter of the right agency making the right request. Who will step forward?



* Of the three cities which saw continuous electric railway operation, from streetcars to LRTs, all were saved only by the existence of tunnels and/or private way which resisted easy conversion to diesel. Boston’s Green Line stuck around on account of the Tremont Street Subway. Pittsburgh’s stuck around as private right-of-way that clung to the sides of Appalachian mountains couldn’t be easily widened or paved. And Muni systematically dismantled everything they could, except where they were foiled by the Sunset Tunnel (N), the Twin Peaks Tunnel (K,L,M), or a close-clearance hillclimb (J).

** Sound Transit is currently mulling two alignments for a Federal Way extension. If the I-5 alignment is chosen, average stop spacing between Othello and Federal Way will exceed 3.5 miles, which is well into BART territory. Average stop spacing on the Bellevue line is raised by long floating-bridge segments.

Updated 1/28/2015: A previous version of this post mis-stated the acceleration of the Tatra T3.

Tweaking Houston – 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 says “hey, 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.


Edge Cities

Alon has a trio of posts up on the question of centralization versus dispersal of populations. His second discusses the formation of Edge Cities as a result of limits on CBD growth, and suggests that their formation is negative due to the burdensome commute they place on lower-income individuals who live on the “wrong side of town.” I share his concern, but think the problem is more intractable than a simple question of supply and demand.

So let’s look at two very different cities, Chicago and Houston.

Continue reading Edge Cities

How Denver Got It Wrong

One of the great planning cockups of the 2010s is the Denver Union Station redevelopment. Originally constructed in 1894-1914 as a through station, Denver Union had adjacent light rail platforms added in 2002. In the last few years, the station has been redeveloped into a stub terminal, requiring a reverse move for all of the four new PRR/NEC spec commuter rail lines that will open in 2016-18. The light rail station was also moved further away.

But this didn’t have to be. A look at historic aerials shows just how recently Denver had the opportunity to go a different direction.

Continue reading How Denver Got It Wrong

Cities for All


Should cities have room for people regardless of race, religion, or creed? Of course. Do you think we should design systems to allow people to age in place, to mingle young and old? Hardly disagreeable.

Should cities contain both people who think like you politically as well as people who are your political opponents? Now we’re getting controversial.

Continue reading Cities for All


A decade ago, one of my professors suggested I consider becoming a planner. I told him I wasn’t interested in telling people what to do. A native of the Pacific Northwest, familiar with the zoning and regulatory frameworks of Seattle and Portland, I conceptualized “planning” and “zoning” as one and the same. Minimum and maximum lot size requirements, density caps, design review… this was something I wanted nothing to do with.

Continue reading Prologue