Q&A: Brian Crimmins, city planner, Houston

Four city planners, four different plans for the future. In a bonus series to our special package on the built environment, we ring major U.S. cities to find out what's next. Today's subject: Houston.
Written by Stacy Lipson, Contributor

Four city planners, four different plans for the future. 
As an addendum to our inaugural special package on the built environment, SmartPlanet take the pulse of what's going on across the United States -- through the eyes of four planners in cities across the country.

For the second edition of our four-part miniseries, we check out what's going on in Houston.

Brian J. Crimmins is a senior planner for the City of Houston's Planning & Development Department.

SP: How long have you been a city planner?

BC: I have been working professionally as a city planner since graduating from college in 2006; however I have held positions within the field of planning as far back as 2002.

SP: How long have you worked for the City of Houston?

I have worked for Houston's Planning & Development Department for over five and a half years.

SP: From a planning perspective, what makes Houston special?

I love being a planner in Houston because it lets me be innovative on a wide variety of issues important to my community without the constraints of "the Z-word" -- zoning. Houston is a big, vibrant city that is home to a diverse and growing population. The lack of a city-wide comprehensive zoning plan doesn’t mean that planners don’t have an important role in shaping Houston’s future; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

From a planning perspective, the region’s unique development landscape creates an exciting, fast-paced environment that requires planning professionals to be actively engaged and creative when addressing the dynamics of community's growth and change. We rely on partnerships with decision makers and community stakeholders to design solutions unique to Houston's needs and regulatory structure. Each parcel of land has the potential for countless development opportunities.

The challenge is implementing creative solutions that encourage an appropriate use for the land, while respecting the property owner’s rights. I have found that the end result is usually pretty cool and may surprise you.

SP: What are some other plans you're working on to improve the city?

The Planning & Development Department has been undergoing a multi-year review and update to our regulatory codes to help position the city in a way were it can best serve the region’s changing needs. Ordinances have been amended to allow more flexibility in options available to developers, increased requirements for parks and open space, and better incentives for high density and pedestrian orientated development in areas where these types of developments are most appropriate.

At the same time we have been working on incorporating technology upgrades into the planning process to help engage the public and empower citizens. Our My City Houston website gives the community access to helpful GIS data, the ability to search through permits applied for near their home or business, recent crime data, traffic information and much more.

We’ve also worked to establish Houston’s General Plan online, which is a compilation of plans, regulations, strategies, projections and resources that provide the direction and guidance for Houston’s growth and development. The goal of the General Plan is to provide decision makers with the most up-to-date, useful information and tools to manage our growth. The General Plan provides a way to view and conduct planning efforts in a more cohesive, integrated manner.

SP: Could you offer more detail? How will the new railroad corridors, for example, impact the city?

While the city does take the lead on a number of physical improvements -- such as infrastructure, parks or other public investments -- it is the role of the private sector to build the structures and developments that make up the Houston’s built environment.

One of the roles of the Planning & Development Department is to develop rules and regulations that allow for, and encourage, the private sector to invest in the types of development that improve the quality of life for Houstonians, and make a positive impact on the future of our community.

For instance, the City of Houston embarked on a major initiative in mid-2006 called Urban Corridor Planning. This initiative changed how the City regulates development and designs its streets and other infrastructure in order to create a high quality urban environment in areas along METRO's light rail corridors. This changed the rules that regulate land development and the standards for the infrastructure that supports development along Houston’s existing 7.5-mile rail line, as well as the proposed 30-mile system expansion.

The new ordinance will impact things like the width of streets and sidewalks, the distance between buildings and the street, how many parking spaces a business must have, what type of landscaping must be added, and much more. Each of these items may seem like a minor issue on its own, but when taken as a whole, they create the world we live in and make the difference between having communities we can walk in or where we have to drive everywhere. The overall goal is to promote pedestrian and transit focused development along these “urban corridors”.

We have also proposed amendments to our primary development code, Chapter 42 of the Code of Ordinances, which will provide tools for neighborhoods without deed restrictions to protect the existing development character of the area. In addition, we are proposing that Houston’s “urban area” designation be expanded to allow for denser development in areas that were traditionally governed by rules that promoted lower density suburban style development.

Finally, we’re just completing a two-year process that culminated in the first proposal for major change to our city’s parking regulations since the 1980s. Some of the new tools being proposed include reduced parking requires for the preservation of historic buildings; bicycle parking requirements and additional incentives for businesses to reduce automobile spaces and provide more bicycle parking in urban areas; better shared parking options and incentives; and the ability to modify the regulations to meet area specific needs within “parking management districts."

Overall, our goal as a city has been to create flexibility within our development regulations and establish tools that the development community and our neighborhoods can use to help to ensure that Houston remains a vibrant and sustainable city.

SP: What other projects are in progress?

Several public and private partners have embarked upon a bold initiative focusing on Houston’s bayous, specifically the potential of connected greenways and park spaces along ten of our major bayous. "Bayou Greenways" is an approximately $480 million project that will be tackled by many public and private stakeholders in several phases over ten to fifteen years.

When complete, the greater Houston area will have 4,900 acres of new and equitably distributed green spaces that can also serve the function of flood control and storm water quality enhancement. Three hundred miles of continuous all-weather hike and bike trails will meander through those greenways -- an amenity unparalleled in the nation. This unique project will elevate the city’s standing as one of the top “quality of place” cities in the nation.

There is also Houston Proposition 1, or "Rebuild Houston." The City of Houston has about 6,000 miles of streets, 3,300 miles of storm sewers and 2,800 miles of roadside ditches. At the current rate of rehabilitation or replacement of this vital infrastructure, it is estimated that it will take over 100 years to significantly impact all parts of these systems, well beyond their useful life.

While the City of Houston devotes over $150 million annually to street and drainage capital projects, this amount is still insufficient to appropriately fund the needed improvements and upgrades to the city’s streets and drainage infrastructure. Following the passage of Proposition 1 on November 2, 2010, and the subsequent amendment to the City Charter, the city has been in a process of creating a dedicated, pay-as-you-go, drainage and street fund that will help provide for the long-term needed improvements and for the continued maintenance of these important assets.

Make sure to come back tomorrow for the third edition of our four-part series: St. Paul, Minn.

Illustration: based on original from City of Houston Planning & Development Dept.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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