Here’s a fun debate. Which of the five largest Texas cities has the “best” downtown, the one that’s the most fun as a place to live, work, shop, or enjoy an evening out?

Fort Worth has its partisans, even being named America’s best last year by, who praised its “cohesion between cowboy culture and urban sophistication.” With the Riverwalk, the Alamo, some fine old hotels, and a concentration of art deco architecture, San Antonio is a popular choice as well. So too is Austin, which, if more chi-chi than the rest, is today so much more than just Dirty Sixth sleaze and placid views of Lady Bird Lake, all presided over by the majestic and vast Capitol.

As for Dallas and Houston . . . well, both have been steadily improving over the past fifteen years or so, but only someone in the employ of those districts would attempt to tell you with a straight face that either city has the most vibrant downtown in Texas.

My own hometown of Houston might rank dead last. It seems as if preceding generations of Houstonians have labored long and mightily to create what has amounted to a dead downtown. Much of its historic architecture has been demolished to make way for parking lots and skyscrapers. (Just as very tall trees shade out forest undergrowth, so too does an abundance of supertall buildings to street life. At least in Houston.) And then they removed all the life from the streets by building six miles of pedestrian underground tunnels and skyways floating over streets, a system that connects our most important buildings. Though these sheltered walkways are a godsend during a Texas thunderstorm, they siphon away retail and people from the street level, giving the city a Walking Dead aspect, even during weekday lunch hours. Were these walkways at ground level, some of the businesses in the tunnels that cater to the office workers—bodegas, casual restaurants, and suchmight stay open later to catch downtown’s slowly growing residential population. But by around seven each night, they are locked up twenty feet below.

Meanwhile, spurred by the freeway boom of the seventies and eighties, other “downtowns” popped up in Greater Houston: the Med Center, the Galleria area, The Woodlands, the Energy Corridor, etc., none of which possess even what little character has not been erased in old downtown.

I worked for twelve years in the southwestern corner of the 1,200-acre downtown district, and that area shuttered tight each night around six (save for the saint-or-sinner combo of the Downtown Y and the Lone Star Saloon, a glorious old-school dive bar). All else was a mix of abandoned high-rises and empty-for-the-night office towers; sunbaked parking prairies; and the occasional multistory garage. In that sense, it was pretty much like the rest of downtown, only slightly more deserted.  

Author and social critic James Howard Kunstler certainly found that to be the case when he visited a different part of downtown in October 2007.  

It is hard to imagine a more horrifying urban construct than this anti-city in the malarial swamps just off the Gulf of Mexico. And it is hard to conceive of a more desolate and depressing urban district, even of such an anti-city, than the utter wasteland around Houston’s convention center. . . . Luckily, we didn’t have to enter the convention center itself across the streeta baleful megastructure the size of three aircraft carriers, adorned with massive air-conditioning ducts to counter Houston’s gym-sock-like climate. And when I say “street” you understand we are talking about four or six-laners, with no curbside parking, which is the norm for this town. The effect is that every street behaves like an extension of the freeway at the expense of pedestriansbut pedestrians have been eliminated anyway because in ninety percent of Houston’s so-called downtown of glass towers there are no shops or restaurants at the ground-floor level, only blank walls, air-conditioning vents, parking ramps, and landscaping fantasias. 

A few caveats to consider while mulling Kunstler’s criticisms. He was in town to attend a conference on peak oil, and his visit came just before Discovery Green, Houston’s new downtown park/entertainment greenspace, was built atop an acreage of old parking lots near the convention center. And there is—and was—some curbside parking downtown, on most streets, outside of rush hour. Also there were a few restaurants and shops at street level, even then, and now more exist, with a hipster bar boom taking root in the Market Square area and the nearby 300 block of Main, an area where just ten years ago there stood a string of blink-and-you-missed-them bottle service/velvet rope/oontz-oontz dance clubs. Phoenicia, one of the most amazing grocery stores in Texas, has at last filled that void for downtowners, and in grand style. 

Still, too much of what Kunstler wrote remains painfully true. Vast tracts of downtown—much of its southern and eastern sections—remain wastelands of parking lots. It seems more a place to drive to work and then home, than a place to linger or that represents the soul of the surrounding city.

It could be that those four- and six-lane streets (which also extend south through the slightly more lively Midtown) are holding back downtown Houston as much as any other factor, at least according to the theory of Louisville-based city planner John Gilderbloom, a former assistant professor of sociology at the University of Houston.

For the past few years Gilderbloom and his team have been researching the effects of one-way versus two-way streets. During the late forties and into the fifties, some traffic engineers convinced cities that one-ways were necessary for more efficient traffic flow, which is what led to that boon of one-way grids cropping up in city centers across America. (Also, this was during the height of the Cold War, and another argument was that one-ways were necessary to help frantic workers escape Soviet nuclear annihilation. Not kidding.) Gilderbloom, who conducted some of his research in Houston, grants that one-ways do serve that initial purpose (of easing traffic; no evidence yet on what will happen during a nuclear attack), but he found that their hidden costs outweigh the benefits of saving a few minutes on your commute.

He has come to believe that they kill neighborhoods and mom-and-pop businesses, facilitate street crime and traffic accidents, and cause steep declines in property values

Gilderbloom contends that one-way streets kill businesses by decreasing exposure to storefronts, which become harder to see when one direction of traffic is eliminated and easier to whizz past obliviously, as people tend to drive faster than they do on two-ways. (Those familiar with Houston can see this in effect on the one-way sections of streets like North Durham and North Shepherd [seen below], gritty “Muffler Rows” where business and residential development lags far behind the booming immediate surroundings.)

That increased speed also leads to more traffic accidents and more pedestrians struck by vehicles, he says. Pimps and drug dealers love them, he argues, because they can make their transactions at the side of a busy street while drivers speed past in center lanes. They also offer criminals greater fields of vision to spot police and easier means of a quick getaway.

When downtown Louisville, his adopted hometown, switched to two-way streets, what he and his team found was astounding. As reported by the Washington Post:

Where he lives now in Louisville, he and fellow researchers have begun to prove the curious link between how we engineer roads and what becomes of the neighborhoods around them. Their research offers a lot more fodder for anyone who doesn’t like one-way streets simply because they’re baffling to navigate.

First, they took advantage of a kind of natural experiment: In 2011, Louisville converted two one-way streets near downtown, each a little more than a mile long, back to two-way traffic. In data that they gathered over the following three years, Gilderbloom and William Riggs found that traffic collisions dropped steeply—by 36 percent on one street and 60 percent on the other—after the conversion, even as the number of cars traveling these roads increased. Crime dropped too, by about a quarter, as crime in the rest of the city was rising. Property values rose, as did business revenue and pedestrian traffic, relative to before the change and to a pair of nearby comparison streets. The city, as a result, now stands to collect higher property tax revenues along these streets, and to spend less sending first-responders to accidents there.

Gilderbloom has since applied his theory to the entire city of Louisville, and he says that the data he’s compiled proves it to be sound. (Here’s a stat-heavy PowerPoint to back him up.)  

Both Dallas and Austin have already begun conversions on some downtown streets. Houston mayor Annise Parker’s proposal for pedestrian- and bike-friendly, traffic-calming “Complete Streets,” on the other hand, does not call for one-way conversions, and it’s actually been met with stiff opposition from some on the city council who say the project’s price tag, a minimum of $13.9 million, would be better spent on filling in Houston’s many, many potholes. For now, advocates of other modes of transit will have to content themselves with the city’s first protected bike lane, connecting two downtown parks along Lamar Street.

Could conversion of somenobody would argue allof downtown and Midtown Houston’s streets spark a boom of retail and residential development, gobbling up most of the remaining surface parking lots and stitching together the scattered patches of rejuvenation? Or would it cause intolerable gridlock? It sure would be interesting to see what would happen, but at the moment it seems there’s no will to even try. 

And as ever, the city seems to be favoring cars over people. And so Houston’s downtown will remain a place best seen from afar rather than experienced from within, the state’s largest city’s central core beautiful on the outside and ruthlessly efficient inside.

(Photographs by John Nova Lomax)