Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Some thoughts on San Antonio; Co-working in Beacon Hill

This post has been a long time coming. A number of weeks ago we went to visit some friends in San Antonio. Not being a native Texan, I don't have a great deal of familiarity with San Antonio, outside of hearing about it from others. I've visited a few times, but certainly not enough to gather all of what is happening in the city. Certainly Houston takes the cake when it comes to flash, glitz and pace of life, but San Antonio by all impressions seems to be a bit more laid back (I mean, even the Spurs seems laid back compared to other NBA teams). It strikes me as a city of neighborhoods and families.

But, I'll admit, there's something alluring about San Antonio and what is happening in the city right now. We spent some time in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, which is located about 2 to 3 miles to the northwest of Downtown San Antonio. Beacon Hill was one of the many neighborhoods that came about due to the expansion of electric trolley lines, in this case the San Antonio Street Railway Trolley. As one of the first platted subdivisions in San Antonio, Beacon Hill reminds me a great deal of Houston's Houston Heights neighborhood.

Beacon Hill has a great housing stock, as well as an active neighborhood association. (Which, by the way, has an incredibly detailed and informative neighborhood newsletter.) As previously mentioned, the craftsmen-style bungalows that line the streets of Beacon Hill reminded me of the Houston Heights, except that there were no Houston-style townhouses. Of course, the development and continued development, of the Beacon Hill neighborhood is influenced by development codes.

Beacon Hill is equipped with a Neighborhood Conservation District, an historic district-lite type regulation, something with elements of a form-based code. (Here is the Beacon Hill NCD document). The intent of the NCD is listed as saying:

While there are a number historical styles that exist in the neighborhood, the intent of the design standards is not to replicate the styles, but ensure the historically common site/building configurations are perpetuated in the future. Substantial porch areas located in the front of the primary structure, walkways that lead directly to a entry space from the street, garages located to the rear of the primary dwelling structure, regular building setbacks across block faces, and vertically oriented windows are some of the common site and building features that are regulated through the Residential Design Standards.
While this particular property lies just outside the Beacon Hill NCD, it is representative of the housing stock of the area.

As we drove around, it was evident that the NCD has facilitated maintaining some common configurations and design, which I would argue leads to a friendlier environment, with large porches and rear-oriented garages (many homes take garage access from rear alleys, something I wish we encouraged more in Houston). Residential and non-residential buildings have different standards within the NCD. For residential the NCD addresses building height, number of stories for buildings, lot sizes, building lines, building size and massing,  and a number of other design guidelines, but doesn't seem as strict as a typical historic district.

For non-residential uses the NCD addresses lot sizes (no larger than 1 acre in Beacon Hill), building lines (no more than a 25 foot setback in Beacon Hill), as well as building height. Other design guidelines included are related to fencing, parking, signage, tree preservation, building materials, among other things.

What was immediately noticeable was the amount of multi-unit buildings located within the district. They weren't out or place, and were generally identical in style to the other homes in the neighborhood. I don't know whether these buildings were converted into multifamily units (which is likely the case with larger homes), or whether these were added as rezonings as time has gone on. If you look at the zoning for the neighborhood, there is a smattering of multifamily sites, most of which conform with the design guidelines of the NCD. This is a reasonable way to achieve a certain design or character of a neighborhood, while also allowing for a mix of residential intensity, something that is necessary, especially when attempting to redevelop corridors like Fredericksburg Road.

But, along with every changing neighborhood comes the fear of change and encroachment of development. Take this case from Beacon Hill, where the owners of the French & Michigan building had hoped to live on the site, as well as operate an art gallery and coffee shop, likely to be welcomed amenities in many neighborhoods. This article from the Rivard Report does a great job of explaining the tension within Beacon Hill, and the cry against gentrification. I will say, however, that minor traffic jams due to increased activity in a neighborhood shouldn't be enough for us to oppose development. From my experience in the neighborhood, there is still a need for vitality, which will mean adding businesses and residences. Unfortunately, after a number of attempts to sort out the situation, French & Michigan moved to another location in San Antonio.

Finally, Beacon Hill can look forward to The Impact Guild, which will be a coworking community in the neighborhood exploring how they can use their vocations to work together for the good of the community. The Impact Guild is being housed in a former building supply company building, which is coincidentally shaped like a lighthouse, appropriate for any neighborhood with the word "beacon" in its name. The building is currently being remodeled, and you can keep up with its progress on The Impact Guild's Instagram account.

During our time in Beacon Hill we visited Chris Madrid's, and I enjoyed the Tostada Burger, accompanied by all that cheese. As we drove around the neighborhood on our final afternoon, we noticed a home being built around a tree. This caught my attention, and the owner happened to see us gawking at his work. He invited us in, and we took at look at his construction. (He assured us he had all the correct permits and inspections. I was a bit unsure.) However, it was an ambitious-looking project, one that can be applauded for his desire to preserve such a large tree. This was yet again another reminder of the uniqueness of certain neighborhoods, and will serve as a lasting memory of my experience in Beacon Hill.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Friday's Weekly Rap Up - July 29, 2016 - "Lazarus" - Trip Lee feat. This'l

"Lazarus" - Trip Lee feat. This'l - Lyrics

Friday's Weekly Rap Up is something that I like to feature at the end of weeks, featuring some sort of rap song, along with how it coincides with the Christian life. This week we have the song "Lazarus" from Trip Lee, featuring This'l.

Last weekend we took part in an evangelism training course at Sojourn Heights, our local church, led by Jeremiah Morris. The training was a speed-through of the gospel of John, and highlighted chapter 11, which features the account of Lazarus.

There's not a ton we know about Lazarus, other than he was a man from the village of Bethany that was sick. This was the same village as Martha and Mary, who would later serve Jesus, with Mary anointing Jesus, wiping Jesus' feet with expensive (a year's wage!) perfume. Back to Lazarus; he was sick, but Jesus ultimately tells his family that Lazarus' illness would not lead to death, but was "so that the Son of God would be glorified through it." Now, that's not necessarily comforting for someone who is losing a family member. Not at all.

It takes Jesus a few days to actually head back to Bethany to see Lazarus. We are told that Jesus waits two days before going to see Lazarus. Some may find that cold and unloving. But, Jesus, in his kindness, sometimes allows sadness and brokenness to take place to reveal our need for him.

We find out that Lazarus actually died. It's not that he just fell asleep deeply for a number of days, but that he actually died. Two days after that, after Lazarus had been dead for four days, Jesus finally takes action, but not before grieving and weeping himself, alongside Lazarus' family. Jesus, at the tomb where Lazarus had been laid, calls "Lazarus, come out." Out he came.

Now, when we see this resurrection of Lazarus, we're called to see our own resurrection in Christ. Jesus tells Martha that "whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live..." (John 11:25). In many ways, we see this same spiritual resurrection in our lives. This is what Trip Lee and This'l are communicating. They're talking about dead men being raised up in Christ. When This'l talks about a missing persons report, he's relating that to the missing former person he was before Christ in his life.

It took a miracle for Jesus to physically raise Lazarus from the dead, and that same work of Christ is being done through miracles of the lives of those around us today, being raised to new life in Christ. What "Lazarus" is communicating is that Jesus still brings the dead back to life. This is evidenced in many lives, where people turn from sin, and live new lives in the joy of Christ.

"He made the blind see and got the lame up
So it’s no surprise he can raise us"

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Market Square Tower

On Tuesday night I had the opportunity to tour the much-anticipated Market Square Tower as a part of Central Houston's CHIME young professionals group. This will be Downtown Houston's tallest residential structure, and will serve as the tallest building on the northern end of Downtown Houston. Designed by hometown architects Jackson & Ryan, the project is being built by Harvey Builders adjacent to Market Square Park.

Philip Schneidau, CEO of Woodbranch Investments Corp. welcomed the CHIME group, updating us on the status of the tower, explaining his desire to build a residential tower in Downtown Houston, and answered a number of questions from those in attendance. He said that Woodbranch had owned the site (a former surface parking lot) for over 20 years, but it was about three and a half years ago when he was convinced building a residential tower was the right move.

Originally, Schnideau suggested a 30-story tower, but was rebuffed by Woodbranch's New York City investors, who suggested a 55-story tower. Everyone involved in the project settled on 40 stories.

After settling its height, Schnideau said each of the parties brainstormed amenities. He noted that there were between 30 and 40, including his and her spas, a golf simulator, and a game room. 

Schnideau noted that the tower is aiming for opening in late October (I believe the leasing agents said October 26). Only about 15 or 16 floors will be ready for the grand opening, as well as all the tower's amenities, with 4 floors being opened each month thereafter. The tower's penthouses on the 39th floor would be the last to be finished.

Paper City featured a story about the tower in June, summing up the number of amenities that Market Square Tower will boast. In that story Schnideau said  “We didn’t feel like there was enough demand." (referring to living units in Downtown Houston.) "Just in the last five years, we’ve seen the demand pick up.” This is no thanks to the Downtown Living Initiative, an economic development program established to spur multifamily and mixed-use development in Downtown Houston. The program aimed at providing this boost to up to 5,000 units. Currently, there are approximately 2,729 units under construction in Downtown Houston, with another 2,458 units planned

When asked about the estimated construction cost per square foot, Schnideau answered "It's a lot." He suggested that the project was over budget, but that it was more important to deliver a great quality product.

After finishing with questions, groups of 10 or so made their way up the exterior construction elevators to the building's 39th floor. This floor will host the tower's four penthouses, which will each cost tenants about $16,000 per month. The view from the units (especially the west penthouse) will be unbeatable.

We took the stairs up to the 40th floor amenity deck, but we were unable to take a walk into the tower's glass-bottom cantilevered pool. The amenity deck is nowhere near completed, but will offer a spectacular swimming setting when it's finished. Residents will be able to gaze down upon to Market Square Park, and face the rest of the Downtown Houston skyline to the south.

The ground floor will likely not feature any retail, aside from something like a cafe or coffee shop. Nothing seems to be final with respect to that space at this point. The building's lobby will feature an intricate marble floor and glass ceilings. It was evident to everyone in attendance that the developers had spared no expense in the materials of the building. Market Square Tower will be a great addition to Downtown Houston.

Here are a few renderings from the tower's website:

Friday, July 1, 2016

Friday's Weekly Rap Up - June 29, 2016 - "Penelope Judd" - Shai Linne

Shai Linne - "Penelope Judd" - Lyrics

It's been a while since my last Friday's Weekly Rap Up. So, back to it.

This past month at Sojourn Heights has been dedicated to the teaching of Romans 5 from our church planting residents. These are men who are being trained to become pastors, and hope to plant churches within different neighborhoods here in Houston.

This past week, Tony Villatoro, a resident who will be planting Sojourn Spring Branch in the coming months, covered Romans 5:15-19. (Listen to the sermon here.) This is a passage of scripture that informs us that the free gift of Christ and his grace is much more than we could ever expect. In the previous week, Carlos Rebollar, another Sojourn church planting resident, covered the previous three verses of Romans 5:12-14, reminding us that as humans we are sinful in nature. Often times we don't recognize or admit this, so we're apt to distance ourselves from Christ, thinking we don't need his work. But, like a visit to the doctor, an accurate diagnosis of our hearts produces a gratitude in our hearts.

So, after the darkness and gloom of the truths in verses 12-14, we're reminded of the beauty of God's grace to us in verses 15-19. The common theme between these verses is that Adam, the first man, sinned, producing God's judgement, but that Christ, the Second Adam, brought justification, or righteousness to our souls.

Tony ended his teaching with verses 18 and 19, reminding us that we must trust in Christ's obedience for our justification, or our right standing before God. It is only in his authority that he allows us to enter his palace, where we are made righteous. That's weighty stuff, but remember, we're trusting in Christ's work, not our own here; it's not a duty, it's grace.

As I listened to Tony, I was reminded yet again of one of my favorite rap songs. It's called "Penelope Judd" by Shai Linne. It's a children's story. But, like CS Lewis says, "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest." So, take a listen to "Penelope Judd". We're reminded of our human, sinful nature (verse 1). That's what we see in the town of Mud. We're then reminded of the fact that our sinful nature was not how God intended us to live (verse 2).

It's in verse 3 that we see what Tony was talking about, and what verses 18 and 19 of Romans 5 addresses: we're made righteous through Christ, not anything that we do.

The next thing she knew, the Prince Himself was at the door
He looked at her, smiled and said, “There’s room for one more”
He reached out and touched her- instantly she was clean
Wearing the brightest robe that she had ever seen
If the Mud kids had seen it, they would have gone blind
“Where’d you get it?”, she asked. He said, “Actually, it’s mine”
Shai closes with this chorus:
Long ago, laid aside my crown
Became a Mud kid, traveled to your town
They kicked me out, didn’t want me around
But those who love me get to share my crown
One act of obedience allows is to receive God's grace, which is much more than we could have ever expected. It's certainly much more than I could have ever expected. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

METRO Houston's New Chairwoman, Carrin Patman; Blogger Luncheon

On Thursday METRO Houston hosted a blogger luncheon, allowing a number of Houston's transportation, design and urbanist bloggers to meet with Carrin Patman, METRO's newly appointed chairwoman. The group included Raj Mankad from Rice University's Cite, David Crossley from Houston Tomorrow, Ryan Holeywell from Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Charles Kuffner from Off the Kuff, Tory Gattis from Houston Strategies, Raised on the Rail, Andrea Greer, and myself. This was certainly a group with a wide variety of perspectives, interests and personalities, but there's no question that transit is important to every one of us.

Patman was appointed chairwoman on April 7, 2016, and is taking over METRO during a period of time where the agency has done a lot of good work in the near past, finishing rail projects (not on time, and, almost finished except for one last bridge on the Green Line), reimagining the agency's bus routes, and repairing relationships with government officials and the community. As Patman rides further into her leadership, she'll be faced with a number of challenges, including light rail and commuter rail conversations, the building of a BRT line in the Uptown, further modifications to the recent New Bus Network, as well as improving commuter experiences on both buses and rail lines.

Last month Patman spoke with Houston Matters, providing some perspective on her first few weeks as chairwoman. This interview gives a great background of the goals that Patman will be setting for the agency under her leadership.

During yesterday's luncheon Patman was joined by members of METRO's Executive Leadership Team, including President and CEO Tom Lambert, as well as Jerome Gray, the agency's Vice President and Senior Press Officer. Kurt Luhrsen, as well as members of METRO's communications team. Patman laid out her major goals as chairwoman, with METRO staff proving more in depth insight as to the status of current or planned agency projects. She highlighted three main goals:

1. A Regional Transportation / Transit Plan
The last plan dates back to 2003, and much has changed in Houston since then. The plan gave us the existing rail lines, except for the University Line, which has now lost any form of federal funding that was once available. Patman said that it is time to start a new plan, likely asking for bonding authority to pay for future improvements, possibly specifying routes or modes of transit. As Houston continues to grow, it's inevitable that there will need to be increased opportunities for transit, not simply adding highway lanes.

Patman said that the agency needs to continue to look at adopting every mode of transit, whether rail or bus rapid transit. She also noted the possibility of a Hobby Airport rail extension as part of the plan, and the need to establish an east-west connection into Houston's Galleria / Uptown District area. It is arguably Houston's fastest growing center, but still does not effectively tie into METRO's Park and Ride system, although this problem is slated to be relieved with the Uptown BRT line. (It's worth noting that the Galleria is linked to Downtown Houston through the 82 bus route, which has been the backbone of the bus system for a long time, and has routes with peak 6 minute frequency, and off-peak frequency of 10 minutes.)

2. New Bus Network Improvements
In her most recent Houston Matters interview Patman noted that change sometimes brings unintended consequences, which METRO has experienced in select areas with respect to the New Bus Network. Selected bus routes were changed, especially in low ridership areas, leaving some riders without bus options. this is especially difficult because many of those left without bus options rely on the bus for transit.

Patman assured that the agency will not leave out those that are without bus service. I think that's a tough promise to keep as many parts of METRO's service area may not justify a route that transports a small number of riders. As seen with the New Bus Network, there is a balance for the agency in providing coverage compared to frequency. Without adding additional resources, likely at a cost, greater frequency (which is probably the more important of the two to many riders) cannot happen.

METRO has been using their Community Connector service in Acres Homes, with fair ridership according to METRO staff. The Community Connector acts as an "on-demand" service within a particular zone to provide connectivity between major destinations and the Acres Homes Transit Center. This program was compared to Helsinki, Finland's now-defunct Kutsuplus program, which acted somewhat as an Uber Pool-type program. Aimed at decreasing the need for private cars and providing a connection between many of Helsinki's north-south oriented bus lines, the program was initially successful, then came to an abrupt end at the end of 2015. The program needed a larger scale in order to be more profitable, and the cost of doing so would have been heavily supplemented by taxpayers. It's important to remember that this is a method for supplementing trips in areas that may not warrant as many frequent bus routes.

3. Marketing and Ridership Experience
Patman's final major goal was the continuation of improving the ridership experience on METRO's bus and rail lines, as well as marketing the system to new users. Charles Kuffner has started posting a series of suggested improvements, one specifically aimed at marketing. Kuffner cites using transit applications to crowd source improvements, essentially depicting a story of transit users and comparing their commutes to those in cars. Kuffner notes that many people claim their trips on transit seem to take longer, but that many probably underestimate the time it takes them to walk to their cars, drive, park and walk to their destinations.

This is likely true, as people crave the personal autonomy of a car, and still may have stigmas about public transit, especially bus service. I mentioned my perspectives regarding the seemingly lingering stigmas of public transit in Houston, where people see the bus system as somehow less sophisticated than rail. METRO is gaining ridership thanks to the New Bus Network, so it seems that this stigma (hopefully) is eroding. METRO's April 2016 ridership levels were down 6% on the local bus network, down 16% on park and ride, totaling a 1% decrease from April 2015. (April also included the Tax Day storms, which closed many METRO routes. The 1% drop in ridership also accounted for a 30% jump in light rail ridership in April 2016, primarily bolstered by the Final Four.) It's still difficult to convince some riders, especially with the condition of some bus stops and rail stations. Continued METRO Police and Fare Inspector presence would be of benefit.

One of the ways METRO can continue to build ridership and market itself, especially among those that bike, is partnering with local bike shops to provide Q-Cards to those that buy a bike during a specific time frame. In 2013 the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico established a bus pass program that provided free bus passes in exchange for the purchase of a bicycle and/or bicycle equipment. This program was aimed at decreasing the number of Santa Fe residents that need to rely on their cars, allowing more residents to use transit. This might allow more residents to fill the gaps, or provide better transportation for that "last mile".

With regard to technology and collecting user experience metrics, METRO can mimic the MuniMobile "Rate my Ride" feature on their mobile ticketing application. For riders, this is a great way of providing instant data related to the comfort of routes or specific buses, as well as trip time and the etiquette of fellow passengers. METRO uses the same software developers as San Francisco's Muni, moovel transit, so the work has already been done. METRO should certainly look into using this technology themselves. Leah Binkovitz at the Kinder Institute provided an update as to the use of METRO's Q Mobile application, noting that in April it accounted for 3 percent of single-day trips. Later this year the application will be able to be used for Park and Ride trips as well.

As the agency looks to serve as a complement to future transit systems, such as the Texas Central Railway, it may be smart in determining how METRO's Q Mobile application may interact with DART or Texas Central, allowing riders to use one application to pay for each service without multiple applications or loading of fares.

Raj Mankad stressed again the need for essentially bridging gaps between adjacent transit agencies to allow longer commutes, such as being able to get to Galveston using METRO's park and ride, along with Galveston-area transit providers. Tory Gattis also talked about the potential for connections between Space Center Houston, arguably Houston's top tourist attraction, and Downtown Houston and Galveston.

In thinking about the physical ridership experience, it is important to remember there are other systems that feed into a transit system, such as sidewalks and the public realm. When the System Reimagining project was announced, I took a little tour of what my new bus commute was going to be. Because much of the New Bus Network would be comprised of a more-frequent grid pattern, that meant passengers would need to transfer buses more often. In my "Ride Your Route" experience I found many of the intersections of frequent routes to lack amenities that make taking the bus comfortable. Houston's unpredictable rain patterns (especially in 2016), as well as the heat, make shelters, sidewalks and proximity important. My largest take away was, "Most importantly, METRO and the City of Houston must focus on improving the pedestrian realm along frequent bus corridors and at transfer points." I think this holds true still today. When we look at crosswalks and the connections between transfer points, adequate shouldn't be the norm when people need to cross major thoroughfares to access their bus routes.

Tom Lambert, METRO's President and CEO, reiterated METRO's desire to work with the City of Houston, as well as TIRZs and management districts, who have a tremendous amount of funding to complete infrastructure projects. Lambert also shared that METRO will be adding an urban design position to their staff. This should allow the agency to better analyze how the public realm, developments, and the bus network interact and contribute to a rider's travel experience.

Lambert also noted the possibility of a pilot project along Westheimer, outside the 610 loop, that would allow buses priority signaling, as well as off-bus fare collection at certain stops. It sounds like the beginning of BRT along Westheimer, which would be of great benefit to many. There's certainly a great deal of roadway to work with, and a number of people to move.

For Heights residents, there was no mention of the Heights Transit Center, and I wasn't able to as about what might be happening with the land and the building. I've always thought this was a great spot for a park, considering the building would already be able to serve as a pavilion.

I continue to be impressed with the leadership of METRO in desiring to hear from their riders, and from bloggers like us. I'm sure each of us there yesterday would love to continue to play a small role in providing our transit perspectives, allowing more people in Houston to travel using public transit.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

America's Pastime: Baseball or Cheap Parking?

A parking lot along Austin Street in Downtown Houston, a few blocks from Minute Maid Park (Saturday, April 16, 2016) 

As the Houston Astros played their home opener last week against the defending World Series-winning Kansas City Royals, america's pastime was restored. No, not baseball: cheap parking at sporting events, or, at least grumbling about the lack of cheap parking at sporting events. The Houston Chronicle featured an article on Tuesday chronicling the high prices that some fans paid to park their car on opening day. Now, remember, this is opening day, not a mid-season matchup against the Minnesota Twins in the middle of July. (Someone paid $60 to park on opening day and didn't get a ton of sympathy in the comments section). The article highlighted the continued construction in Downtown Houston, much of which has taken place on former surface parking lots. (I attended games this past Saturday and Sunday, and parking prices were back to normal. Although, I was disappointed that the Astros took two out of three games from my Tigers.)

The parking complaints even drew a response from Houston's mayor, Sylvester Turner. He offered suggestions that Houston's METRO transit agency might be able to work with the team to create a shuttle system that allows fans to park further outside downtown, and that additional businesses might look to offer their parking garages to accommodate fan parking.

Rest assured parking lot fans, there is relief on the way. There are more surface lots headed to Downtown Houston. Just this week the Astros announced that they had purchased the property that currently houses New Hope Housing's Hamilton Houses. And, not to be outdone, it was announced that after demolishing the Houston Chronicle building, a surface parking lot will take its place (at least for now, we presume).

Parking lots on Preston Street, two blocks from Minute Maid Park

But, as in many other large cities, driving your car into Downtown Houston is not necessary to attend a sporting event. Given Houston's recent new bus network, as well as the recent opening of new light rail lines in the past year and a half, it is a bit surprising that those transportation options are not mentioned at all on the Astros website. The team's directions page offers no suggestion other than driving to the park. This is even more surprising, considering that Minute Maid Park is located within the city's downtown district, and not in a suburban setting, like Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium

METRO has been active on social media for the past week, reminding fans that they can easily access Downtown Houston and Minute Maid Park by bus or light rail. METRO noted that they had partnered with the Astros last year to promote the agency's new light rail lines.

The Minnesota Twins offer fantastic transportation content on their website providing their fans with bus, light rail and train travel information. (I have personally used the METRO light rail to see a Twins game, and it was a great experience.) The Minnesota Twins boast: "Served by light rail, more than 20 bus routes, I-394 express bus service, SouthWest Transit and the Northstar Commuter Rail line, Target Field is more accessible by public transit than any other ballpark in America."

The information that is included on the Twins' website is the sort of information that Houston's sports teams should be providing their fans as well. The Houston Texans provide small mention of METRO's light rail in the team's Parking FAQ's. As the Texans own the parking lots that fans use, it may be more of a business decision to not offer more public transportation options on the team's website. But make no mistake, our athletic teams have the ability to provide continued support of the opportunities that are offered through public transit.

Parking lots along Preston Street, two blocks from Minute Maid Park

Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium, home of the Dynamo and Dash, encourages "guests to consider walking, biking, taking public transit, or carpooling to avoid traffic, save on gas and parking, and reducing your carbon footprint."  The Houston Rockets also feature a page giving fans notice that public transportation to the Toyota Center is possible.

When looking at other baseball teams around the country, many feature descriptions as to how fans can attend games using transit. Even Detroit, which is ridiculed for its people mover and overall lack of regional transit, includes directions on how to use SMART or DDOT to travel.  

Of course, transit robust cities like New York can find mass transit directions on both the Yankees and Mets websites, as can fans of the San Francisco's Giants, and Chicago's Cubs (who strongly encourage the use of public transportation) and White Sox.

When it comes to parking, people generally seem to want to park somewhere close enough to their destination where they can see it. However, in a downtown district this is problematic. To have that sort of access will cost you more, a result of supply and demand. As Houston continues to see its downtown grow and mature, parking, and surface parking especially, may be more costly. But don't be fooled, there is a great deal of parking available downtown. (Check out the Downtown District's interactive parking map to find a lot or garage.) It's also worth noting that based on a 2015 Major League Baseball Fan Index, that the prices for Houston's parking were $15.00, which is almost a dollar lower than the league's average parking price of $15.89.

It might mean you have to walk a few blocks to find a cheaper rate. Of course there are considerations for people that may not physically be able to walk as far, or where taking transit is not practical. But as Houston's downtown continues to mature, you might find that your experience is actually pleasant. You might even find yourself parked on a stool after the game in one of local establishments, forgetting you had to walk a few blocks to park your car. It's important for Houstonians to know that they aren't bound to driving their car to watch the Astros, or any other team professional sports team, or major event, in Downtown Houston. It's a bit freeing to know you've got some other, cheaper, choices. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Art Blocks At Main Street Square: Realizing Main Street Square


This Saturday Houston's own The Suffers will be headlining The Big Bash, a celebration commemorating the inauguration of Art Blocks at Main Street Square in Downtown Houston.

Art Blocks Houston is an effort by the Houston Downtown Management District to further activate and utilize the area of Main Street between Dallas Street and Walker Street through the installation of public art. The Downtown District notes that "From lessons learned about public art's capacity to awaken change in areas that have not yet realized their full potential, Art Blocks strives to enliven Main Street Square." A number of art selections have been placed along Main Street, which also recently saw physical improvements to its streetscape (As did Dallas Street.)

Main Street Square was completed in 2004 in conjunction with the opening of Houston's Red Line light rail. In 2004, Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin visited Houston near the time that the city was hosting the Super Bowl. He noted the contrast of Houston's development in 2004 compared to that of the oil boom in the 1980's. A portion of Kamin's review includes an emphasis on public spaces, and a mention of Main Street Square, Houston's pedestrian mall. Kamin notes that "Of course, lots of pedestrian malls, like the one on State Street that Chicago got rid of in the mid-1990s, have flopped. Yet this one may have a happier fate." Kamin goes on to say that "Of course, one vibrant pedestrian mall will not make Houston a Paris on the prairie." But, the rest of his review, which consisted of commentary surrounding Houston's then-recently-opened light rail, was complementary.

As noted in the summer 2004 edition of the Rice Design Alliance's Cite magazine, Main Street Square is a small remnant of the Making Main Street Happen design competition that led designers Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn to create a master plan for Main Street. (A 1999 Cite article gives even more information behind Houston's Main Street Coalition and Main Street design). Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn might be best known for their design of New York City's Battery Park City. A 2000 Main Street Coalition Strategic Plan for the area re-emphasizes the desire and recognition of public art in maintaining vibrant public spaces, especially one that lies within the geographic center of Downtown Houston.

As many Houstonians know, there are many parts of Downtown Houston that are alive during the 9 to 5 workday, then seemingly become desolate. Main Street is becoming increasingly busy with the addition of new bars and restaurants, but this is primarily north of Main Street Square, whose blocks become a bit desolate as evening sets. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that a number of the blockfaces contain buildings without any active public spaces, or without retail that is open after the work day.

Given its somewhat desolate nature at night, Main Street Square has also been home to a number of people loitering, further keeping people away from its pedestrian plaza. The blocks between Dallas Street and McKinney Street have little to attract anyone to it, aside from a few ledges which to sit. The only retail spaces are Corner Bakery Cafe that sits at the corner of McKinney and Main Street, and is open weekdays from 6:30 AM to 4 PM, and the Main Food Store. The result, a fairly isolated landscape outside of the business day.

Back to the topic of Art Blocks; The Downtown District further provides that "Pop up performances, interactive experiences and community festivals will add to a schedule of events that complements the spirit of the major public art commissions." This is important, as many successful public spaces rely on something to attract people to them, usually programming and activities. This is known as triangulation.

William Whyte's The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces addresses this issue, providing that triangulation is one of the effective ingredients for a successful, social public space. Triangulation brings the passerby into a space. It connects people to places. That is what Art Blocks aims to do.

As I mentioned in a previous post looking at the design of Houston Center, we've looked to our bayous as conduits of activity and vitality. We're rightfully restoring them, attracting a variety of users. William Whyte would also contend that the same should be applied to city streets. He says, "The street is the river of life of the city. They come to these places not to escape it, but to partake of it."

So Houston, get out and enjoy your streets, enjoy some art, and enjoy your public places. Let's hope that this is another example to prove Kamin's 2004 hunch; that Houston's public places can continue to become the places they were envisioned to be.