Author Archive

Washington Avenue. Photo: Raj Mankad.

Houston’s Draft Bike Plan Lays Out Ambitious Vision for City’s Future

The last time Houston made a bike plan was 1993. Many of the streets declared official bike routes then are among the least safe places to bicycle. Take Washington Avenue. Every few hundred feet, a yellow sign with an image of a bicycle declares “Share the Road.” The street, however, has no dedicated bicycle path — not even a narrow one. Cars race down the 12-foot-wide lanes feebly painted with ineffectual “sharrows” that have faded from the friction of tires. Only “strong and fearless” cyclists, who represent less than one percent of the total population, attempt such routes.

The signage on Washington is visual clutter, or worse. It sends the wrong message to potential cyclists, according to Geoff Carleton of Traffic Engineers. If the city designates a route for bicycling, he says, it should be comfortable enough for “enthused and confident” riders, not just the spandex-clad racers in pelotons. Ultimately, says Carleton, a city’s bike facilities fail unless they can reassure the largest segment, as much as 65 percent of the total population, of potential cyclists: those who self-identify as “interested but concerned.” (The other group is the “no-way no-hows.”)

The Houston Bike Plan, a new draft released by the City of Houston, details just such a future. Made public and presented to the Planning Commission, the plan was crafted by Traffic Engineers, Morris Architects, and Asakura Robinson, a team comprising most of the designers behind METRO’s New Bus Network, a dramatic reimagining and restructuring that’s receiving national attention for its success. A grant to BikeHouston from the Houston Endowment provided part of the $400,000 budget for the new plan with additional funds coming from the City, Houston-Galveston Area Council, and the Houston Parks Board.

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Tesla on autopilot along the Southwest Freeway. Photo: Raj Mankad.

The Future Now: Self-Driving Cars in Houston

“I find I speed less when autopilot is on,” says Steve Tennison — hands at his side, feet off the pedals — as his 2015 Tesla Model S 85D smoothly makes its way down the Westpark Tollway.

You are already sharing the road with self-driving cars. This technology may have a profound impact faster than expected, especially on cities like Houston that have multiple centers spread across a huge area. Early adopters like Steve open a window into the near future.

The trip in the Tesla begins in Montrose on a Saturday afternoon. A storm has just cleared and the January sun on my face feels good. Steve operates the vehicle himself and zips onto the I-69 Southwest Freeway. While fiddling with the audio recorder on my phone, I don’t notice that Steve has turned on the autopilot feature. With trucks and cars all around us, the Tesla deftly passes through the grand columns of the 610 interchange.

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Mayoral Runoff Candidates Sylvester Turner and Bill King On Parking, Parks, Pollution, Preservation, and More

In October, OffCite published this summary of the responses to a questionnaire sent to mayoral and at-large candidates. Sylvester Turner, who received the most votes for mayor but not an outright majority, was among the original respondents. We approached Bill King again after he secured a place in the runoff elections, and he responded. Today, as early voting begins, we share the complete responses, as provided by the candidates, below. Early voting runs through December 8; Election Day is December 12.

You can learn more about how the questions were compiled and read full .PDF versions here.

Please provide a brief biographical statement (i.e., education and employment background, any elected offices you have held and years held).

Sylvester Turner: I have served in the Texas House of Representatives [since] 1989, where I am currently Vice Chair of the Appropriations Committee and a member of the Legislative Budget Board. I was Speaker Pro Tem from 2003 to 2009. I chair the Harris County Legislative Delegation. I co-founded the law firm Barnes & Turner in 1983. For the past 18 years, I have owned American Title. I graduated from Klein High School, where I was valedictorian. I received a BA in Political Science from the University of Houston in 1977 and a JD from Harvard Law School in 1980.

Bill King: I grew [up] the son of a union pipefitter, and earned my undergraduate degree from the University of Houston — becoming the first in my family to graduate from college. I went to U of H law school at night, and since then have spent my life building businesses, helping a wide range of local civic organizations, and speaking out on our toughest problems. I am running for Mayor because City Hall has taken its eye off the ball and failed to address the financial crisis that threatens our future, and I have the know-how and the political will to hit these problems head on — and turn our city finances around.

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Flij, a temporary tent in the plaza of the Institut du Monde Arabe, 2014. Photo courtesy of Oualalou + Choi.

“Our responsibility as architects is to invent the form of public-ness:” An Interview of Tarik Oualalou

The seventh annual SPOTLIGHT: The Rice Design Alliance Prize was awarded to OUALALOU+CHOI, formerly KILO Architectures. Founded by Tarik Oualalou and Linna Choi in 2000, the firm has offices in Paris and Casablanca and recently completed the Moroccan Pavilion for Milan Expo 2015. You can see their full talk at The MFAH here. Before Oualalou and Choi accepted the award, Oualalou gave an interview to Cite Editor Raj Mankad, which is presented in an edited form below.

Raj Mankad: You took a tour of Houston with architectural historian Stephen Fox yesterday. Tell me your impressions of Houston?

Tarik Oualalou: It was a pleasure to see it with him because he is knowledgeable in facts and ideas and gossip, which gives an insider understanding of the city. But I have to say, it was a very big surprise. [This is] the first time I have come to Texas. I’ve known Houston through the eyes of our students — the Rice School of Architecture students in our Paris studio. I understand the city through what they say and what they do. Coming here, I realize this city has some incredible things going on and is also incredibly unlucky. Its relationship to landscape is very American in that the landscape defines the city at its core … the parks, the trees lining [the streets], all this is very beautiful.

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Entrance to proposed Houston Arboretum Visitor Center with a vista of restored Gulf Coast prairie. Houston Arboretum.

ICYMI: Big Outdoors, Micro-Living, and More

Houston’s past of “big houses, not housing” and a “sensational lack of convivial public space” is being turned on its head. Molly Glentzer reports for the Houston Chronicle on the Houston Arboretum’s plans, which bring yet more firms of national repute to transform our parks, while RE/MAX markets micro-living in EaDo.

Putting the Wilderness Back in Houston Arboretum
Molly Glentzer, Houston Chronicle
Steven Spears of Design Workshop, Reed-Hilderbrand landscape architects, Lake|Flato architects, Texas ecologists from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, transportation planners from Walter P. Moore, cultural planners from SWCA environmental consultants, Texas A&M University forester W. Todd Watson, and park operations experts from ETM Associates reimagine the Houston Arboretum.

Micro-Living Project Coming to EaDo
Laura Cook, RE/MAX
A 24-story development of units less than 500 square feet will sit on a full 1.4 acre block at the Southwest corner of Leeland and Live Oak in East Downtown.

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Fortsmith Street. Photo: Raj Mankad.

Houston Has a Woonerf

Houstonians want better sidewalks, if the consensus among mayoral and city council candidates is any indication. Please give pedestrians a safe place. Away from the cars. Why, then, did the Energy Corridor Management District invest $391,000 into a design that expects pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists to share the same lane?

First, a trip to The Netherlands. From the late 1960s to the 2000s, urban planner Hans Mondermann broke all the rules. Rather, he dispensed with rules. The streets he designed are “naked.” No stop signs, no speed limits posted, no traffic lights. Instead, drivers intuit risk from the lack of curbs, material choices, lane widths, and other cues. They slow down. Mondermann’s hunch was that people would manage themselves in the safest and most efficient manner if their attention was heightened. Several decades of data have proven him right. As Linda Baker writes for, it sounds crazy, but it works. The “woonerf,” or street for living, was born. Or reborn. Sharing the public realm goes back to the earliest cities on the Anatolian coast like Khirokitia and Çatalhöyük (6,000 BCE).

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Cite 2015 Survey of Mayoral and At-Large City Council Candidates

In the upcoming elections, with early voting beginning October 19 and the big day itself November 3, Houstonians will be electing a new mayor and city council and deciding on several propositions. Cite asked mayoral and at-large council candidates who had announced their campaigns by July 17, 2015, to respond to this form questionnaire, which focuses on Houston’s built and natural environments. The questions were developed in consultation with experts by a steering committee: Raj Mankad, Editor, Cite; Rachel Powers, Executive Director, Citizens’ Environmental Coalition; Jen Powis, Environmental Attorney, The Powis Firm, PLLC; and Teresa Demchak, Attorney and Retired Managing Partner, Goldstein, Demchak, Borgen & Dardarian.

Two mayoral candidates, Sylvester Turner and Adrian Garcia, and 10 at-large city council candidates (Lane Lewis, Tom McCasland and Chris Oliver, Position 1; David Robinson and Andew Burkes, Position 2; Doug Peterson, Position 3; Larry Blackmon, Amanda Edwards, and Laurie Robinson, Position 4; and Phillippe Nassif, Position 5) responded to the questionnaire. These candidates’ full answers are available here and in this compilation organized by question. Below is a summary and highlights of the responses. In the coming weeks leading up to Election Day and the subsequent likely runoff races, OffCite will follow up with more analyses of the responses on key topics. You can click to jump directly to read about mobility and streets; parks, libraries, and community centers; affordability, preservation, and urban development; environment; and community engagement.

The differences among many candidates are not easy to encapsulate. An exception is the race for At-Large City Council Position 1 between incumbent David Robinson and challenger Andrew Burkes. In 2013, Robinson, an architect, defeated then-incumbent Burkes, a businessman, who is running to retake the seat. Robinson is a strong proponent of Plan Houston and general planning. By contrast, Burkes consistently argues for district-level planning.

Below, the background information that accompanied the questions is followed by a summary of the candidates’ responses. Because of space limitations, this summary is not complete and the reader is encouraged to review the candidates’ complete responses to the entire questionnaire.

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Rendering for George R. Brown Convention Center updates. WHR Architects.

ICYMI: Plan Houston Passes and Other News

Several efforts underway for years have come to a head in Houston. City Council approved Plan Houston. As Planning Director Patrick Walsh explains in this Houston Matters interview, though the document is short on measurable goals, it contains the vision, policy directives, and performance indicators that will provide the foundation for more detailed plans that city staff and leaders can work together on more effectively. More news below:

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A Bottom-Up, Unofficial Guide to Cigna Sunday Streets on Washington Avenue

Cigna Sunday Streets HTX is back this October 4, along Washington Avenue between Heights Boulevard and the roundabout from noon to 4 p.m. Watch my video guide to the event below.

Washington Avenue was the site of Houston’s first oil boom — the cottonseed oil boom that is. Around the railyards and warehouses were little cottages for the workers, many of which have been demolished and replaced with townhouses. Density can be great if accompanied by vibrant public life …

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Seriously Cute? An Interview with Andrew Colopy

The Fall 2015 RSA/RDA lecture series begins today, Monday, September 14 with renowned designer, author, and Harvard professor Farshid Moussavi. Below, Cite editor Raj Mankad interviews Andrew Colopy, who curated the series as a faculty member of the Rice School of Architecture, which is also where this publication is based.

Raj Mankad: It’s easier for me to understand the way “cute” is used to describe a poem, a painting, or video than for a work of architecture.

Andrew Colopy: For the sake of simplicity, let’s just say that for something to be understood as cute you need to be able to perceive it as small and simple. It’s easy to see how this condition emerges from the relationship between a parent and child, but anything we can perceive as small and simple can be cute. That’s clear from your example of a poem — a small, deceptively simple (if it’s good) text. How that might relate to architecture has to do with our shifting perceptions of scale and complexity. Consider for a moment what sets your standard for bigness. You might have once said a building, but today it’s hard not to see the entire planet as a constructed object. As a result, buildings seem less significant, and easily slip into cuteness. The “seriously cute” acknowledges that this reduced position isn’t powerless, it just produces a different form of power, a soft power, one inherently concealed. Beauty may still be loved, delight may be pleasurable, but it’s the cute that’s interesting today.

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