Info ~ travel musings for the masses

Today’s question is simple in structure but unbelievably complex in application. Can we restore old neighborhoods without turning them into overpriced and underused parcels of land?

After walking and driving through a number of neighborhoods in Houston that are in dire need of restoration and in the end, residents who care about their community I pondered that question. My quick, off of the cuff answer, at least for Houston, is that it cannot be done. My long, thought out answer is that it can be done but would require numerous people and organizations working together to make it happen.

Just east of downtown there is an area that used to be a warehouse district, complete with a massive rail network. Over the years, as the need for freight in the downtown area has dropped, those warehouses have moved further out of town and left a swath of land with nothing on it. The land is walking distance from downtown, yet most of it stays empty. There has been some development, but for the most part it is just grass. The townhomes that have been built were done quickly and from the looks of it, very cheaply, leaving a lot of them empty. There are no grocery stores or even convenience stores, just warehouses next to grass lots.

The city has decided to build a light rail line through the area, connecting downtown to a slightly more populated neighborhood further east. One would think that this would spur development; It hasn’t. They have also built a bike trail; It’s hardly ridden on.

What’s my point in all of this? The City of Houston and developers have an opportunity to make this area a great example of what urban living could be like. This is a great chance to add to the urban population without making the costs completely unreasonable.

Developers, this is your chance to build capacity without sacrificing history or usability. How you ask? Row style housing at affordable prices, it’s that simple. Build a few blocks of row style houses with maybe a garage on the bottom and people will start to move in. Give the homes small backyards and decent spacing between the front door and the road and people will be happy.

City of Houston, setup the neighborhoods with decent parking markings for street parking, add a few bus stops, and repair the roads. The people will move in. These are large investments for predicted returns, but they’re worth it. Right now that land is barely generating anything as far as property taxes, there is nowhere for it to go but up.

Maybe I am a daydreamer or grasping at straws, but I do have hope that Houston sees the different run down neighborhoods around the city as potential, rather than lost causes. I talk about this subject with my wife pretty often, usually as we are driving through these neighborhoods. I’ll look at an old building and make some remark like, “Wouldn’t that be an awesome office?”, maybe someone with the time and wherewithal has the same feeling.


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  1. Jeff #
    March 23, 2010

    Even in well-established, densly populated cities, it can be difficult to develop old industrial land. In the end, I think it requires a developer with vision, money and the active support of the city in the form of tax incentives. I think another common issue is that many of these sites are brownfields that need to be cleaned up.

    The next time you’re in Philly, we’ll have to go over to the Northern Liberties neighborhood. A developer has literally transformed the whole area by doing exactly what you’re talking about. Like you mentioned, the key is to build a mix of residential and commercial properties and public spaces. The guy in Northern Liberties based his design on the concept of an Italian piazza surrounded by apartments, condos, rowhomes, retail and restaurants. He also built high-end rowhomes and is now in the process of building a supermarket (very important). Easy access to public transportation is also critical. It sounds like the area near you could be a good opportunity for an adventurous and well-funded developer.

  2. Jeff #
    March 23, 2010

    Interesting observations about urban density from the blog The Bellows (

    If the entire population of the United States lived at the density of the New York borough of Brooklyn, then it would fit inside the state of New Hampshire. Makes you think, huh? Or consider this: if the entire world’s population were located evenly within America’s borders, the country would be settled at less than the density in prototypical suburb Fairfax County.

    If the world’s population were built at Brooklyn density, it would occupy about 70% of the state of Texas. At Manhattan densities, you could fit the whole world into Virginia and North Carolina. Leaving the rest of the world empty.

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