Sunday, November 20, 2011

Don’t Move – Improve: An End to the Urban Cop Out?

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, there was a concerted effort to help the poor relocate to the suburbs. Subprime mortgages allowed the poor to pursue a mirage of safety and good schools. HUD and state agencies prioritized the construction of low-income housing in the suburbs. This was a reaction to studies on ‘concentrated poverty’ from the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. These studies found that people who live in areas with ‘concentrated poverty’ suffer high rates of joblessness, poor education, and high crime. They even suffer high mortality rates, due to the lack of adequate health care in their neighborhoods. The belief was that people who live in socio-economically diverse neighborhoods, are less likely to have these problems.

Unfortunately, we’re now seeing mixed results from our efforts to address ‘concentrated poverty’. The suburbs are more ethnically and racially diverse than ever before. But the economic downfall has created areas of ‘concentrated poverty’ in the suburbs. Suburban Baytown has the highest poverty rate in Harris County. And even in suburbs that did not undergo demographic shifts, the benefits to the poor were not as pronounced as expected. HUD’s Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing Demonstration Program” found that, while the poor are healthier in the suburbs, they do not have better rates of educational achievement and economic self-sufficiency. Worse, moving to the suburbs does not seem to curb risky and criminal behavior among the poor.

This stands to reason. Suburban schools were not necessarily prepared for the emotional and social baggage of children from broken homes and communities. The problem of educational achievement prevented the very poor from finding employment, which in turn fueled risky and criminal behavior. These problems are also present in impoverished neighborhoods, but instead of studying the problems and using our resources to address them, we simply helped people move away.

It’s understandable that we took this cop out. It’s very difficult to improve the quality of life in a poor neighborhood. Isolation needs to be overcome with better transit. Commercial space needs to be constructed to attract employers. Schools need to be carefully tailored to the needs of the community. Medical clinics need to open. Grocery stores and other retailers need to be lured back. Police officers need to be hired. Parks need to be built. Neighborhoods might even need to be rebranded. And all of this is in addition to the rehabilitation and replacement of substandard housing. It’s a huge endeavor, but well worth it. Just look at neighborhoods where this kind of holistic reinvestment has already happened – The South Bronx in New York City for example.

Some might ask: “if we concentrate on poor neighborhoods in cities, aren’t we turning our backs on fair housing and diversity in the suburbs?” The answer is ‘no.’ The suburbs will naturally become more diverse, as attitudes change, and as more minorities reach the middle class. As long as the free market keeps providing us with new suburban housing, there will be no shortage of older housing for the poor. (Taxpayer funding can be used to prevent this older housing becoming slums.)

There’s a saying in the South Bronx: “Don’t Move – Improve.” We owe it to our cities to follow that lead. We must concentrate on identifying the problems in poor neighborhoods and addressing those problems; instead of simply helping people move to the suburbs.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Houston Needs More Public Parking Garages

Houston is expected to grow by 3.5 million people in the next 25 years. As Houston grows in population, most experts agree that our city will become more dense. The logical way to add density is to replace surface parking lots with buildings. This will create problems. Most Houstonians aren’t going to give up their cars in favor of mass-transit, so something has got to give. As residential and commercial development become denser –so must parking. Houston will need more public parking garages.

Some parts of Houston already have public parking garages: Downtown; The Texas Medical Center. In most cases the garages were developed by the same people who developed the adjacent buildings, and they are run by contracted companies. There appears to be two approaches to parking garages in our City. One: charge a fee to anyone who wants to park there, and let people come and go as they please. Two: allow visitors to park for free, but only while they are doing business at that location. A compromise is pay garages, where adjacent businesses can validate parking stubs.

In the future, Metro and the City might chip in to help build these facilities. In some cases the garages could be linked to neighborhood transit centers and run by Metro. In others they might be stand-alone garages, run by contracted companies. The garages could be used to alleviate parking on residential streets. And if businesses worry that they won’t have enough parking under Houston’s parking ordinance, they could pay a fee and use garage parking to meet the requirements.

Public garages could be a win-win for both homeowners and businesses in up-and-coming parts of town. It would make sense for places like Upper Kirby and the Washington Avenue Corridor to get the first such publicly funded public parking garages. And that’s just the beginning. As neighborhoods throughout Houston get more dense, they’ll need parking garages.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Welcome to the new Citizen Architect Blog!

Note that the Civic Architect Blog will no longer be updated with new content. New posts will be made to the Citizen Architect Blog.

The Civic Architect Blog was always really about Citizen-Architecture. From discussions of affordable housing and Houston’s ugly land-use battles; to a talk about bicycles, the Civic Architect Blog sought to bridge the gap between developers and citizens. The goal was to try to explain to average citizens, why urbanists do what they do.

Citizen-Architecture is as old as the United States. Thomas Jefferson was at once a statesman, and an architect. He drafted the Declaration of Independence, and he designed numerous buildings. Of course one would be remiss if they did not mention that Thomas Jefferson was also an unrepentant slave owner. But he was truly the first Citizen Architect in our Country.

Samuel Mockbee re-envisioned Citizen-Architecture with the Rural Studio. He said, “Architects are by nature and pursuit, leaders and teachers.” The new Citizen Architect Blog, like its predecessor, seeks to educate average Houstonians on urbanism and government. Mockbee brought great architecture to the impoverished residents of rural west Alabama. The Citizen Architect Blog seeks to break architects and urbanists of their habit of concentrating on Houston’s Inner Loop; and bring great design to the whole city.

I hope you enjoy the new Citizen Architect blog. And as always, architects, citizens, and others should feel free to comment!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

What If You Built a High Rise in Houston– and Nobody Complained?

It’s all about the site – The Ashby High Rise and the BBVA-Compass Building


I can see a construction site from my office window. It’s for the BBVA-Compass building, a 22 story high rise going up at 2200 Post Oak Boulevard. The building is similar in height and even bigger than the Ashby High Rise. But nobody’s complaining about it. The BBVA-Compass building’s neighbors are other high-rises and strip centers. Post Oak Boulevard is a major thoroughfare that can easily accommodate more traffic. It’s in the heart of Uptown, which is home to our City’s third-tallest building (The Williams Tower.) Simply put, Post Oak Boulevard is the right place to build a 22 story tower.

The Ashby High Rise is a better building than the BBVA Compass Building. It’s certainly got better massing. The BBVA-Compass building is an articulated box, with a parking garage to one side. The Ashby High Rise has a series of carefully designed setbacks that add visual interest. The BBVA-Compass building has no street-fa├žade to speak of. The Ashby High Rise offers a wide sidewalk, and shops at ground level.

Nonetheless, the Ashby High Rise is a point of contention citywide, and that’s thanks to its site at 1717 Bissonnet. The building will loom above single-family houses on quiet residential streets. Bissonnet is only two lanes at that location; Ashby Street is even narrower. They cannot accommodate more traffic. The shops at ground level will exist as an island; because there are few other stores in the area. The site at the corner of Bissonnet and Ashby could not be a worse place for a 23 story building.

They could solve these problems by choosing a different site for the Ashby High Rise. There’s a big, empty field on the northeast corner of Greenbriar and Highway 59; bisected by Lexington Street. At that location, the building would loom above a few small businesses and the highway. There are already tall buildings on the other side of Greenbriar, so it’s not a big stretch to add another. Access to Highway 59 would alleviate many of the traffic concerns. The neighborhood has a great restaurant scene, with Star Pizza, a 59 Diner, Freebird’s, and other eateries within blocks of each other. The site is close enough to 1717 Bissonnet that they could still go after the same clientele.

I should close by stating that I don’t know the owners of the site at Greenbriar and 59. I’m certainly not working for them. There might be more that meets the eye about that site. I’m just an architect, dreaming as architects do. But this could be a win-win-win for the developers, the neighbors, and the City at large. The developers can build their building. The neighbors can protect their homes. The City can grow in population and density Inside the Loop. The best part: it would put a residential high-rise on a site that seems to be screaming “build it here!”