In Houston (!): A textbook example of urban planning

Jun. 5, 2015Houston Chronicle

“Here’s the story,” said Alexander Garvin. “Here’s a New York planning expert who doesn’t think Houston is a stupid place to go, that you can learn something here.”

Post OakTo call Garvin a “New York planning expert” is, he surely knows, to understate his résumé: The bow-tied master of big urban realpolitik, he led NYC2012, New York’s Olympic bid, viewing it less as a celebration of athleticism than as an chance to make large-scale improvements to the city. After 9/11, he was in charge of planning and design at the agency that redeveloped the World Trade Center site. And Garvin literally wrote the book on urban studies: His textbook, The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t, has been a standard in college classrooms since 1996.

And on a recent visit to Houston, he wanted to discuss what is, literally, a textbook example of a vastly improved street: Post Oak Boulevard.

He opened The American City to page 184, part of a chapter called “Retrofitting the City for a Modern Commercial Economy.” At the top left corner of the page was a photo of Post Oak Blvd. that Garvin shot in 1979.

In 1979, Uptown wasn’t yet Uptown; it was “the Galleria area.” The Galleria itself — the glam mall that overnight shifted Houston’s center of retail activity, that introduced Houstonians to indoor people-watching and spawned a gazillion copycat indoor skating rinks — had opened a decade before. And in that time, the land around it had changed from largely undeveloped farmland into edge-city urban sprawl.

Garvin’s 1979 photo shows Post Oak Boulevard’s wide lanes of traffic punctuated by featureless medians. To the road’s left, empty lots sit next to skyscrapers. To the right, there’s an ugly row of power lines. There’s no sidewalk at all, but that doesn’t seem much of a problem: No one, you think, would ever want to walk there. The action was all indoors.

Below that first photo, Garvin points to a second one, just below it on the page, that he took at the same spot in 2007. The lanes, though unchanged, don’t seem so wide. Now the street is punctuated by stoplights. Tall oak trees line the street, and flowers adorn the median. The empty lots have sprouted buildings, and the ugly power lines are gone.  There’s a sidewalk, but it seems skinny: Looking at this photo, it’s possible to imagine a pedestrian walking between the street’s office buildings, hotels and strip malls. And though you can’t see them in the photo, the boulevard by then had also sprouted the series of silvery double arches that are now the street’s trademark.

“That’s a big, enormous change,” Garvin says. Post Oak Blvd. is, in his estimation, one of the three or four best examples of reclaiming the public realm. (The others: Toronto’s waterfront; the Atlanta BeltLine; and the Place de la République in Paris.)

What on earth happened? Why did a street in Houston — Houston! — get so much better?

The answer involves a tax structure, but it’s important, so bear with me. In 1999, the Texas Legislature created something called a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone that can pass bonds, borrowing money that the Uptown Development Authority could use for infrastructure improvements to the area. The bonds would be paid off using the “tax increment” — that is, the increased tax dollars that new development in the spiffed-up area would generate.

Writes Garvin, “Uptown Houston used tax increment proceeds to pay for a $235 million program that added specialty street lamps, signage, stainless steel gateway arches, stainless steel halos over major streets and intersections, bus shelters, sidewalk improvements and landscaping to Post Oak Boulevard and nearby streets. As a result, it is now much easier to find your way and drive around the district. Once people have parked their cars, it is a much pleasanter place to be. In fact, not everybody drives from destination to destination — they often walk.”

But in Garvin’s world, beauty and pleasure are side benefits. The chief measure of whether a public-realm project works is whether it generates sustained, widespread private development. And by that measure, Uptown’s street improvements have been a home run. In a decade when Houston has been one of the fastest-growing cities in America, Uptown has been one of the fastest-growing parts of Houston.

Garvin marveled: Look at those shiny highrises designed by architects such as Philip Johnson! Look at the construction cranes dotting the Uptown skyline! Look at all those new residential towers! “In 1979, I never thought that I’d come back and see this,” he said.

He is equally enthusiastic about Uptown’s plans to continue spending money to make Post Oak Blvd. more pedestrian-friendly. Once utility work is finished, says Bob Ethington, Uptown’s director of research and economic development, the district will begin yet another round of making the boulevard more pedestrian-friendly. The sidewalks will, at long last, be widened. There’ll be better, cooler lighting. And according to Uptown’s website, a new “necklace of green spaces” will “function as calming hideaways from surrounding commercial activity.”

Garvin is thrilled not just by the sidewalks, but by Uptown’s plans to add yet more trees — bringing the street’s current five rows of trees to seven. “They’re not waving the flag, saying, ‘This is an environmental act,'” Garvin said. “This is, after all, the business community. But it is! It’s an environmental act! I’m rubbing my eyes: This is in Houston.”

This latest round of investment, Garvin believes, will transform the street yet again. Over the next 20 years, as the street becomes an ever more desirable place for people to live, hang out, shop and socialize, “strip malls will become underperforming assets.” They’ll be torn down, he said, to make way for taller mixed-use buildings with retail on the first floor and shop windows that hug the sidewalk.

He imagines ever more people leaving their cars in the area’s garages — at their apartment, maybe, or at their office, or paying by the hour — to wander the district by foot, or hopping from spot to spot on circulator buses. Maybe there’ll be street vendors and food carts in the green spaces in front of skyscrapers, he said. Maybe there’ll be music performed on the street.

“This won’t happen tomorrow,” he said. “You don’t build a city in an hour.”

But he believes it will happen: “I’d predict, 20 years from now, that this area will look as different as it did between 1979 and 2007. That’s why I want to come back 20 years from now. I have got to come back.”