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Urban Corridors

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Went to the Urban Corridors discussion, it was pretty good. The complete recap including some more background on urban corridors is available at http://neohouston.wordpress.com/2009/02/26...rridors-debate/. Enjoy!

Part 1: The Goals

The city is considering these two goals:

Committee Goal 1: The ordinance will ensure provision of adequate publicly accessible pedestrian realm in the corridors, particularly station areas.

Committee Goal 2: The ordinance will facilitate the development over time of a built urban environment that is pedestrian and transit supportive.

These goals seem to work pretty well. They're big and a little vague, but they work. There were also a set of guiding principles listed below these to add some clarification, if you'd like to see the complete statement you can view it as a PDF, here.

There was strong consensus that there were some important things missing. The following additional goal statements were offered up for discussion, with my comments underneath:

Suggested Goal 3 (from David Crossley): Design the ordinance so that street design complies with Context-Sensitive Solutions for urban areas.

David is suggesting linking the design of the street and sidewalk together to form a more complete street, based on the recommendations of the Institute for Transportation Engineers. I couldn't agree with this idea more, I think the city would do well to replace their current design manual with the ITE manual.

Suggested Goal 4: Design the ordinance so that new streets use best practices of storm water managment, flood control, and light-imprint design.

This one was suggested by a woman whose name I didn't catch, she said she was involved in HGAC's water quality efforts. I think there's merit here, certainly the street designs could better accommodate best practices in storm water management. The only problem I have with that is that it should be a city-wide effort, not limited to urban corridors.

Suggested Goal 5: Design the ordinance to place equal importance on the needs of cyclists.

This was suggested by a man from Bike Houston. I think this is also a good idea, though it may not be the top priority of the corridor. I would place a greater emphasis on allowing bikes on the busses and trains themselves, and on providing bike racks! Honestly, if there are going to be parking requirements, these should include bicycle parking.

Suggested Goal 6 (from Joshua Sanders): Design the ordinance to ensure surface and subsurface improvements are done simultaneously when these new standards are implemented.

Joshua Sanders, from Houstonians for Responsible Growth made this suggestion. I tend to agree, though I think this is something to include in the city's working policies rather than the ordinance itself.

Part 2: The Details

The next part of the discussion looked at the details of the urban corridors project, especially the design of the sidewalks.

Here is the City's recommended sidewalk design:


The big questions surrounding the sidewalk design came in three major categories:

1. Should the sidewalks be located strictly inside the right-of-way, or should they extend onto private property?

The crux of that debate is this: when there's not enough room for the desired sidewalk section (15′ from back of curb), should the city acquire additional ROW, or should they city require developers to allow the sidewalks to be built on their property.

I think this one is pretty obvious. The city needs to acquire the ROW and own the sidewalks. There are plenty of reasons for this, not the least of which is control, consistency, and liability for accidents. These things are public concerns, and they need to reside in the public realm. Developers should be allowed to (and certainly would) tie in to the sidewalks with additional landscaping and open patios etc, but they don't need to have the responsibility for the main through way.

2. Who should build these sidewalks, and when?

This discussion centered whether or not the city should build these themselves, or whether the city should require property owners to build these the same way they require parking lots to be built whenever they require a building permit. There was also quite a bit of discussion as to whether METRO should be the one to build them, since they would be tearing up the streets that form the heart of the urban corridors to put in the transit lines.

This debate is valid, and it's frustrating. There's no reason for the City not to fund sidewalks, they're every bit as important to the functionality and health of the City as sewer pipes and major thoroughfares, and as one participant in the discussion pointed out, they are cheap in comparison to other kinds of infrastructure.

There are limits to the City's funding, however. Currently property owners are required to build 4′ sidewalks and parking lots whenever they develop or redevelop a property (anything requiring a building permit). Why not just continue that pattern? I think if the parking requirements were dropped in urban corridors, the city could reasonable ask for the new, enhanced sidewalks to be funded by the property owner upon redevelopment. The problem is, that means it will be a long, long time before there's any consistent span of sidewalk space, and that destroys the purpose of this sidewalk design.

The point about METRO paying for these was well received, the problem is METRO claims they have no money to do this, and the consent agreement they have with the City does not require them to, as it holds METRO only to replace the sidewalks that existed before the street was rebuilt. That's a shame, but I'm not sure there's a lot that can be done about it now.

3. Is this the right design for the sidewalk?

This discussion really didn't last long enough, I think this is the most important question. We can come up with a funding mechanism, we can find a policy that Houstonians will support, and we can get these built. HOWEVER, if we want them to work properly we MUST build them RIGHT. If we're not going to do it right, we shouldn't do it at all.

Now, the basic section is good, but I think there's a major problem here: 5′ is not sufficient through-way for an urban sidewalk. The recommended section is very vauge about how the other 10′ in the sidewalk section are to be used. Part of it will be used for tree planters, but not all 10 feet. Part of it can become on-street parking, that's usually about 8′. Part of it can become 'sidewalk cafe' seating.

In order for the sidewalks to accomplish their goal (allowing people the choice of walking for local transportation) they need to have at least a 6′ clear zone, and an 8′ clear zone would be better. This zone doesn't have to be perfectly straight, marked off with lasers, anything like that, but there needs to be a continuous space at least 6′ wide that stays clear of any permanent (ie signs / poles) or semi permanent (ie cafe tables) barriers.

The other problem with the 5′ through-way is that the city is proposing to offer developers zero setback from these sidewalks. More specifically, they're suggesting that buildings be allowed 15′ from the back of the curb (in case the city elects not to buy the ROW and the sidewalk zone is on the private property), but the end result is the same.

Now, I would ordinarily be singing and dancing about how great it is to get zero setbacks. Setbacks are a waste of time, money, and valuable property, and we don't need them. However, the city needs to either WIDEN the profile of their sidewalk zone (and acquire the additional ROW) to leave a 2′ building edge zone, or require a 2′ setback. The reason for this is pretty simple: people generally won't walk within 2 feet of a wall.

That 2 foot buffer between the through-zone and the building doesn't need to be lost space. It can have plantings, it can have benches or displays, whatever really. But there needs to be at least 2 feet of space between the edge of the through way and any walls.

Another solution to this would be to design the sidewalk standard so that the 'buffer zone' is either 7 or 8 feet depending on the size of the street (enough to accomodate an on-street parking lane), the 'through way' is immediately adjacent to this, and the remainder of the sidewalk section is 'flex space' which can be used for outdoor seating, etc. However, when you take into consideration the additional width (1-3′) the city really needs in the through-way, this is basically the same as just defining an 'edge zone' as the 2 feet between the through way and the building line.

What say you, is the city's sidewalk idea brilliant or bogus?

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What say you, is the city's sidewalk idea brilliant or bogus?

The comments were very balanced and hit at the heart of the issue. Who builds, when do they build, and on what land? Who maintains? Who has liability?

I'm all for improving sidewalks that will allow transit to be more effective, but the idea is very hard to criticize at all until the crucial details become available. The lack of clarity is my criticism. The ideas presented are sufficient as a vision, insufficient as a plan.

Edited by TheNiche
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