Planning for Houston’s Future

At a recent discussion with Houston city and civic leaders, a look back at the 2015 general plan shows some movement, but much more to go.

Downtown Houston

At a recent discussion with Houston city and civic leaders, a look back at the 2015 general plan shows some movement, but much more to go.

“How are we possibly going to try to fit another million into this city?”

That was the question behind Tuesday’s discussion with city leaders hosted by Blueprint Houston, a non-profit dedicated to promoting and pushing forward the city’s first ever general plan, Plan Houston, created in 2015. With projections showing another one million residents headed for Houston in the next three decades, the urgency for a plan that finally overlays transportation, housing and economic development planning in one document is certainly there.

“The talk has to stop and the plan has to get executed,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner in his remarks to the crowd. But what exactly that means is still a bit amorphous. The plan has 32 goals that broadly speaking support affordable housing, multimodal transportation, investments in education and resiliency. And those goals dovetail with projects underway, like the mayor’s Complete Communities initiative.

“But are we really doing them,” asked Jim Hill, vice chair with Blueprint Houston, of the plan’s objectives.

In framing the discussion, much of the talk was about the “next million” but it was clear that such a plan is also needed for residents that are already here including everything from improved and expanded transportation, increased affordable housing and stronger flood mitigation policies.

“We made some decisions in the 1990s that are impacting us quite a bit today and in so many ways we are now having to play catch up,” said Turner. And more recently, he cited the creation of the Downtown Living Initiative. “The city gave $15,000-a-door to establish residences downtown….it hasn’t achieved its purpose.” Though the mayor says many new people have moved downtown, the lack of affordable housing, particularly in light of such tax incentives for higher end development, is a policy consequence the city now has to address.

Transit was also on the list. “We do need more light rail as part of the equation,” said Turner. “Commuter rail has to be a part of the equation.” And he added that the approved bike plan needs funding, circling back to his “paradigm shift” speech he delivered shortly after taking office about the need to shift resources from ever-expanding highway systems to more multimodal-minded projects.

“One of the reasons why we fell short on the Amazon deal is because they placed a great deal of emphasis on transportation,” said Turner, a sentiment council member Amanda Edwards reiterated, saying, “Being competitive requires us to have a cohesive transit system.”

In outlining such a system, Patrick Walsh, head of the planning department, argued that it was important to push back against the perception that there’s little the city can do to sway development in one direction or another. “There is a lot we can do,” he said.

But the impression from the conversation Tuesday was that in order to accomplish the goals spelled out in Plan Houston, a number of other plans currently in the works have to be implemented. The mayor has organized several task forces already that have produced specific policy recommendations, including one on equity. The City’s Walkable Places Committee has been reevaluating the city code to find ways to encourage walkable development. The bike plan needs more funding. The Complete Communities initiative is in the process of creating plans for the five pilot neighborhoods. And there’s several transit plans in the works, including Metro’s long-range plan and the regional council’s 2045 plan.

For a city with a reputation for no planning, that’s a lot of planning. Indeed, Plan Houston’s page includes a link listing all the many plans from non-profits to government agencies in the works.

Some changes seemed more imminent than others. When it came to flood prevention, for example, the mayor said the city would soon consider, “looking primarily at a 500-year floodplain or more because the 100-year is not doing anything.” And council member David Robinson expressed his support for the change, saying, “Let’s make it so.”

In the end, though, it’s as the mayor says: “The talk has to stop and the plan has to get executed.”

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