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Finding a High-Rise Apartment in a Walkable Neighborhood

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By Peter H. Brown (Pedestrian Pete)

Pedestrian Pete’s rich aunt recently passed and left him with a sizeable inheritance, or so he imagined. With an annuity of $10,000 a month, he started looking for a high-rise apartment in an attractive urban neighborhood. The insert in the April 2016 edition of PaperCity — “Sky High Guide” — was just what Pete needed with a listing of choices from 46 different high-rise projects. There are over 10,000 units to choose from, ranging from 800-square-feet to 5,000-square-foot penthouses, and prices are all over the map, from $1,500 a month to more than $9,000.

One thing that amazed Pete is the new marketing definition of “amenities.” A decade ago, the PR marketing folks touted “freeway access,” a work-out room, a pool, maybe a doorman, and covered parking. Today, that standard stuff won’t cut the mustard. Aside from elaborate pools, zen gardens, health spas, starchitects and even “room service,” a major selling point in the PaperCity promotional spiel is “walkability.” Astonished, Pedestrian Pete thought most people couldn’t spell the word. Now it has become a major marketing factor. The basic life-style priorities, at least among the well-to-do, now include “walkability.” But what does this actually mean?

When you read the fine print, “walkability” varies. Only a few of the 46 developments are actually located within an interesting (if not exciting) truly pedestrian area. Even though Central Market may be a few blocks away, no one really wants to live in a land isolated by broken sidewalks, dangerous street crossings, barren parking lots, blighted buildings and those awful overhead poles and wires.

Pete’s Advice to the PR folks (nothing to brag about):

  • A nearby Sam’s Club; who would want to walk to a Sam’s or a Costco, and lug all that stuff back on foot?
  • Proximity to a single institution, such as a school, church or library; not enough!
  • One or two well-known restaurants doesn’t do it either.
  • A strip shopping center a few blocks away is not a big deal.

This underscores Pete’s gripe with the touted ‘walk-score’ ratings, which use the density of shops, restaurants, offices and residential buildings rather than the density of actual pedestrians on foot.

  • Pete gives high scores to projects which tout proximity to rail transit, nearby B-cycle and Zip-car stations.
  • If Buffalo Bayou is in your backyard or Hermann Park nearby, you should have a high walk score, regardless of the number of fast-food joints.
  • Downtown, although emerging as a walkable area with mixed-use infill, won’t reach its potential until we connect the tunnel system to street level sidewalks and redevelop the many vacuous surface parking lots.

True walkability means a location in the midst of street life, within a 5-minute walk (a quarter-mile) of many desirable destinations, and, as we shall see, only a few of the 46 high-rise projects got Pedestrian Pete’s attention.

Pedestrian Pete’s “Walkability” Shortlist:

River Oaks District — Grade: A+

  • Its amazing walkable street grid is lined with of real mix of interesting uses, including a luxury movie theater. This place’s something special.
  • Pete’s best addresses: The Wilshire, The Arabella and Gray House. Expensive, except for SKY House, but the city’s best in walkable urbanism.

Upper Kirby District — Grade: A-

  • Kirby Drive was rebuilt as a higher density, mixed-use promenade street, with proximity to Whole Foods, many shops, office buildings and restaurants. West Ave, and several big mixed-use projects are underway. NO OVERHEAD UTILITY POLES AND WIRES!!
  • Pete’s best addresses: The Kirby Collection (a large mixed-use project itself), Avenue Grove (very mixed-use, has its own park) and Hanover River Oaks (only if you don’t scrape those majestic live oaks!)

The Museum District — Grade: A-

  • Maybe the next densifying hot spot? Originally laid out with small boulevards, pocket parks, and a very walkable grid, the mixed-use stuff in coming. The walkable destinations are superb – numerous museums, emerging retails, incredible Hermann Park, and adjacency to Midtown.
  • Pete’s best addresses: The Southmore (Hines’ tower with its own park), The Mondrian (great design, on hold) and more coming.

Regency Square — Grade: A-

  • Another exemplary big mixed-use project, with a superb street grid, across Allen Parkway from Buffalo Bayou Park.
  • Pete’s best addresses: The Sovereign and a lot more coming.

Downtown — Grade: B+

  • A lot of choice, interesting walks in all directions, but too many “dead zone” parking lots in need of redevelopment.
  • Pete’s best addresses: Market Square Tower (the Theater District, Market Square, and a lot of downtown urbanity). There’s no place like Downtown!

Rice Village — Grade: B+

  • The area, originally designed for cars, is morphing into a bona fide pedestrian zone.
  • Pete’s best addresses: Hanover Southampton.

Post Oak Boulevard/Uptown Park — Grade: C+

  • Like Rice Village, the original footprint, designed for cars and not for people, is hard to overcome, evidenced by numerous beautification schemes fallen short. Pete checked out Post Oak Boulevard; like Montrose; it’s just not a fun place to stroll, a lot of noisy vehicular traffic means too few pedestrians.
  • Pete’s best addresses: Astoria by Randall Davis, Hanover Post Oak in BLVD Place, Belfiore in adjacent and very walkable Uptown Park, expensive and almost sold out. (That tells us a something! It’s not just the building, it’s the urban context.)