I found this page via Aaron Renn's twitter link and thought I would ad my thoughts, since I happen to be visiting Houston right now for work at the Medical Center.
I visit Houston every 6-8 weeks, theway I visit most major cities in the U.S. I try to get out and enjoy the local environment whenever I go to a city, and since I've been coming here several times a year for almost a decade, I have some favorite things about Houston. I love the live Oaks. I love the museum district and the nearby park with the bandshell. I love The Petrol Station. I love how close Houston is to the Gulf. There are a lot of awesome hole-in-the-wall barbecue places and dives that serve beer out of ice-chests. That being said, Houston is an incredibly difficult city to visit.
With a few very local exceptions, it's incredibly difficult to navigate as a pedestrian. Even in Orlando or Vegas, people don't want to drive from from parking lot to parking lot on seven lane streets. More than once I've asked a hotel employee how to get somewhere nearby and they were unable to relate it without driving directions. I have about eight colleagues who live in the city and suburbs, but even the three or four that live in the city live what in most other places would be considered a very suburban or even exurban lifestyle. I've been to many suburbs in other cities that are far more walkable than urban Houston. Even if the streets have functional sidewalks, most of the buildings are set far back behind large parking lots, which makes for a very disengaging stroll.
I understand that Houstonians have made a lifestyle choice that works for them. However, if you imagine a place that you would recommend that someone else visit, it's unlikely to include this many strip malls power lines. I think the auto-focus has downsides to development, even in the parts of the city that are east to navigate without a car. Near the medical center and near the Art Museum, for example, there are still undeveloped sites that are essentially sitting between two or three other prime destinations. In other cities developers would be gagging to re-develop those lots. In Houston, I imagine that those stay empty, underused or boarded up because A) there isn't pedestrian traffic, even on a very fine scale and
since everyone is in a car, there's not much incentive to develop one site over some other site a half mile distant that may be a greenfield.
This is a critical post, but it's written in honest good faith. If I were in charge, I would do a few fairly easy things.
-Widen the sidewalks and create some pedestrian-focused zones. The Galleria should not have any parking lots abutting the sidewalk, for example.
-Reduce parking requirements in some zones where people already live at density and walk a lot. Near Rice, for example.
-Traffic should be calmed near the Galleria and on many of the awesome oak-lined boulevards.
-Improve pedestrian connections near highways--these are *very* imposing in Houston. Essentially, they often cut off pedestrian access for miles at a time. Even major surface streets can be very difficult to cross in Houston.
-Turn the land next to all those green drainage culverts into bike paths and green parkways through the city.
-Reduce or eliminate the construction of underground or above-ground connectors that force people off the street.
-Stop the development of businesses on access roads. These sites are all over the place and it makes that not only auto--focused, but pedestrian-impossible.