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In June 2006 Houston City Planning embarked on an initiative to “create a high quality urban environment” along the METRO light rail corridors by changing the way the City looks at development and infrastructure requirements in these areas. After two and a half years of research, public workshops and staff/consultant analysis, the City’s Urban Corridor Planning initiative has entered the implementation phase. The consultant’s report, with recommendations, has been published, along with a description of the City’s implementation approach. The City is now in the process of developing ordinances to actualize the recommendations of this initiative.
Significance to rail on Richmond. A major goal for RichmondRail.org from the beginning has been creation of a more walkable, neighborhood-friendly environment concurrent with the building of light rail along Richmond. We believe that this is critical both to the success of the rail line and to the health and vitality of our neighborhoods. New development standards based on the Urban Corridors work currently offer the best prospect of achieving our goal. But the recommendations in the Urban Corridors report are just that; there are still many questions to be answered and details to be worked through. Perhaps most important for us is exactly how the pedestrian realm is defined. For example, we believe that a generous standard for the minimum width of unobstructed sidewalk should be applied along the length of the rail line on Richmond.
It should be noted that these new rules will only apply to new development and redevelopment. Except where sidewalks are rebuilt as a result of rail construction, any improvements resulting from the new standards will only be evident over time.
Planning Committee meets to consider ordinances. For guidance on how the recommendations should be translated into ordinances, the City has called on the Planning Commission’s Mixed-Use/ Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Committee.
The Mixed-Use/TOD Committee, which is composed of members of the real estate and development community as well as representatives from Houston-Galveston Area Council, Houston Tomorrow, METRO, and City Planning, Public Works and Legal departments, has met three times on this topic. Guided by City Planning Director Marlene Gafrick and Senior Planning Fellow Steve Spillette, the committee is working step-by-step through the elements presented in the Urban Corridors report. At its most recent meeting on December 10, the topic was the pedestrian realm.The Urban Corridors plan proposes a 15 foot pedestrian realm, with 10 feet allocated to utilities and landscaping and 5 feet designated for pedestrian sidewalks (current city standard for sidewalks is 4 feet). The committee was asked to consider:
- Is the proposed standard for the pedestrian realm with a 5 foot “clear zone” for pedestrians adequate?
- Where should the standard be applied? -Only on the transit street around the stations? -In between stations? -On cross streets in the corridor?
One committee member questioned whether a 5 foot sidewalk standard would be sufficient long-term as density increases; another asked how this standard compares to those employed in other cities that are implementing light rail lines. Neither of these questions was fully addressed. However, a key point made by the Planning Department was that within the 10 foot planting/utilities zone there would be flexibility to expand the sidewalk area (e.g., using tree wells and paving in between). In some locations that would mean that virtually the entire 15 feet could be walkable. The committee generally agreed to follow the consultants’ / Planning recommendation on the dimensions of the pedestrian realm. However, at one point photos were shown of pedestrian design in the Woodlands, where they employed 4 foot planters for trees and 6 foot sidewalks. Some members of the committee asked the Planning Department to look into the possibility of modifying the proposal to fit this scenario, yielding a 6 foot minimum pedestrian clear zone. When Gafrick noted that Parks and Recreation had specified 5 foot planters, members suggested looking at tree types that might be more compatible with a smaller planting well or ways to design the wells to maximize the walkable area while also providing for healthy trees.
On the topic of where the standard should be applied, the discussion moved toward the idea of defining a 5 minute walk zone around each station where the codes would apply. Thus, in locations where stations are close together the potential for a continuous walkable corridor would be established. There was also some discussion of how these codes might apply to future stations and other areas of town. Some committee members suggested that there might be a mechanism for an area to opt in to the Urban Corridor codes even if there were no transit station currently planned. One member even suggested that the City needs to complement the new development ordinances with actual investment in walkability, perhaps making use of TIRZ (Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone) funds.
Committee meetings are open. The Mixed-Use/TOD Committee meetings are open to the public but only committee members and City staff are permitted to participate in the discussion. Visitors are asked to sign in and introduce themselves at the beginning of the meeting. The next meeting is January 14 with additional meetings to be scheduled if necessary.
What: Planning Commission Mixed-Use/TOD Committee Meeting
When: Wednesday, January 14, 3:30 - 5 pm
Where: 611 Walker, 6th floor, Raia Conference Room.