The Unexpected and Underground Houston

Last week the 2015 ULI Spring Meeting was held in Houston. It's a surprising place and known (especially to planners) as the town without a zoning code. The City of Houston, the 4th largest in the United States, is not on everybody's radar as a travel destination. However, it has some hidden qualities that draw so many to live there.



It is more ethnically diverse than you might expect.
http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2013/07/01/195909643/tx2020-houston-racial-ethnic-diversity-americas-future



There is a thriving community of artists and community activists there. Rick Low, a MacArthur Fellow founded Project Row Houses in the Third Ward one of Houston's oldest African American neighborhoods.  The work of the non-profit brings community together through art and is an amazing combination of social commentary, design, and community building.

Sculptures in Buffalo Bayou Park
Art is also present along the Bayous, where private investment is also helping to de-channelize and restore the waterway to become the Buffalo Bayou Park.



If you are looking for Art in Houston, there's also the Menil Collection that is housed in a very understated building design designed by Renzo Piano in 1986. 

Even though Houston doesn't have a zoning code (voted down four times) it does have substituted ways that work like zoning as explained by Ryan Holeywell at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

It has light rail when Austin doesn't. There is a new north south light rail line and there are two more east west lines opening soon.

There is an astonishing network of underground tunnels that are privately owned. The tunnels cover 95 blocks, a total of 6 miles in length. It is not obvious to the street-bound public. In fact, access is restricted to the tunnels is through private buildings during the workday. Tunnels and sky bridges connect office buildings and shopping centers making this a secondary pedestrian network. There are few, if any, clues to the existence of the tunnels from the street level.

http://www.kateyschultz.com/2011/09/85000-houstonians-underground.html

Downtown Houston Management District
http://downtownhouston.org/district/downtown-tunnels





It's worth comparing the tunnel and skybridge systems to places like St. Paul Minneapolis and Montreal. All these systems occur because of extreme weather. In Houston it's the summer (from May to September) that is too hot and humid without air conditioning. The difference is that in St Paul Minneapolis, the bridges are from public investment and in Montreal there is more signage and street-level clues to what is below. 

Also, in comparison to the San Antonio River Walk, also on two levels, you can tell where you are relative to the street above. In Houston, your frame of reference to the world above is not easy to capture. Another peculiar result of underground tunnels is the definition of property rights. For buildings above street level, property rights extend to the centerline of the street and to the portion just under the street (which is not typical for most other places, usually defined to the curb edge and assuming the ground below). 

This context of property ownership has an impact on street trees, if the roots can't go down, they have to build a structure to hold the entire tree plus roots above ground. The resulting street experience is car oriented, with big lobbies, big loading docks, parking garage entrances and walls -- and maybe not as nice as the world below.

As a Californian, I had a different impression of Houston. And now, I feel like I discovered something.