new houston ordinance allows developers to opt out of building sidewalks
In late January, Houston City Council passed an ordinance removing requirements that force developers to build sidewalks in certain circumstances where “walks do not connect to other walks.”
In place of this, qualifying developers could pay a fee, which could help fund other sidewalk construction both in the district of said project as well as the city at large. The idea behind the ordinance is to target sidewalk development where it is needed, but it begs the questions, how do we know these sidewalks go to nowhere?
An article by Bisnow discussing the ordinance is titled, “No More Sidewalks to Nowhere,” but what is “nowhere”? TBG Partners Principal Blake Coleman and Senior Associate Jaime Zwiener from Houston wonder if the Council’s decision will create more problems for the future.
It is valid to believe there are some areas not in as dire a need of sidewalks as others, but this could change, especially considering how Houston has developed in the last decade. Sidewalks are a key component of the public realm. In an ever-changing world of development, what might go to “nowhere” presently, may be a key connection in the future, so are we setting ourselves up to be chasing that down the road?
According to the Bisnow article, “The fee will be $12/SF, less than half of Houston’s $30/SF sidewalk construction cost.” Of the $12, 70% remain in the district and 30% go to a general fund. This means that each district is receiving far less than half of the cost of construction for future walks.
“The issue is that the fee is more than what a typical sidewalk costs the private sector to construct (+/- $7/SF) and therefore, too high to incentivize developers to pay into the fund. The fee is also too low for the City of Houston to implement on their own when you consider additional factors like site prep, as well as cost to design and permit, plus escalation over time,” says Blake.
One example of sidewalks being focal to pedestrian circulation is TBG project Robins Landing, a mixed-income master planned community in northeast Houston developed by Habitat for Humanity. Although the site currently does not have sidewalk connections to the adjacent properties, the frontage provides a significant piece of the overall corridor and public realm. Currently there are no sidewalks in the area but the Robins Landing development will provide a significant change and provide a significant piece to the overall pedestrian safety and circulation for community members who traverse through the projects frontage to access the nearest grocery stores, restaurants and schools without a car.
Additionally, the two landscape architects have concerns regarding accessibility and what potential barriers this could pose in regard to ensuring accessible routes from neighborhoods to critical infrastructure.
All in all, the team sees both advantages and disadvantages involving the ordinance and is interested to see how things will play out in development. Their main concern is that the program could create complications down the line, especially if present-day planning doesn’t consider the possibility of a sidewalk to exist in the space one day.