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Houston's Density Revolution Is Just Beginning

For decades, Houston has been the poster child of urban sprawl, growing to nearly 670 square miles. That story is changing. Years of work from the city and redevelopment authorities are finally paying off, as high-density, mixed-use projects break ground all across the Houston urban core.

Downtown Houston skyline

“We’re early in the urbanization cycle,” Ziegler Cooper Senior Principal Scott Ziegler said.

Ziegler Cooper is behind many of the projects increasing Houston’s density, partnering with the likes of Midway on Buffalo Heights, with the Morgan Group for Midtown’s first grocery store and with Hanover on multiple high-rises, to name a few.

“You’re going to see a lot more of these types of projects. Houston is not a very dense city, contrary to most people’s beliefs based on traffic.” 

At approximately 3,842 residents per square mile, Houston isn’t even in the same ballpark as truly dense American cities. New York City clocks in at 28,211 residents per square mile while San Francisco registers 18,581. Even Los Angeles, which many consider a sprawling city like Houston, has more than double Houston’s density at 8,484 residents per square mile, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. 

But Houston's Inner Loop is starting to increase its ratio.

“There’s a migration back to the city,” Ziegler said. “People want off the freeways, to live near where they work. That’s playing into the walkable urban living area.” 

Ziegler said people are becoming renters by choice and are attracted to the amenity-filled lifestyle associated with living closer to the inner city. The live-work-play trend sweeping through multifamily and mixed-use developments across the nation has residents looking to be near the best restaurants and entertainment, which in Houston, means being near Downtown.

Tax Income Reinvestment Zones like the Midtown Redevelopment Authority (TIRZ 2) and East Downtown Redevelopment Authority (TIRZ 15), both adjacent to Downtown Houston, have actively encouraged multifamily development for years. Downtown itself used the Downtown Living Initiative to stoke the same kind of multifamily development. The number of residents has steadily risen in all areas. Midtown Houston has experienced 50% population growth since 2012 and now almost 10,000 Houstonians call it home. Downtown has more than doubled its population to nearly 10,000. The city wants to add 20,000 residents in the area over the next 20 years.

Rush hour on Highway 101 in Silicon Valley.

 With the high cost of land and demand for urban living, most of those residents will likely be affluent. Between 2005 and 2015, the median income of Houston’s inner core increased by 67%, more than any city in Texas, according to analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

The influx of mostly affluent residents into Houston’s inner core has brought gentrification concerns to the forefront, as the demand for urban housing results in rising rents, forcing longtime residents out of the area. 

Gentrification is certainly a negative symptom of Houston’s densification, but on the other hand, dense development may help Houston solve some of its chronic issues, according to Zeigler. 

“Density is downloading our freeways into the inner city,” Zeigler said. “If you download people to a higher density, where things are walkable and bikeable, you take them off the road. That’s our future.” 

Even more importantly, Zielger sees Houston’s return to our inner core as part of the solution to Houston’s chronic flooding issues. 

“Quite honestly, I think if we hadn’t expanded out to the suburbs so quickly, we wouldn’t have near the problem. Those developments are the ones flooding the bayous,” Ziegler said. “If Houston had girdled its growth, we would have preserved prairie, pasture and forest lands for drainage. Suburban development has really taken away our drainage capacity.”

Hurricane Harvey rescue during flooding.

Ziegler knows it is a controversial opinion that could get him in trouble, but he said he stands by it.

“When we build in the city, we have to have retention. We’ll put in underground tanks and detention infrastructure. In addition to that, we’re going even more vertical, two feet above the 500-year flood plain. Before it was two feet above the 100-year flood plain.”

Houston’s lack of zoning may make headlines, but high-rise and mixed-use development in Houston’s inner city is more stringent than single-family home development on the city’s unincorporated, vulnerable edges. As millions flocked to Houston suburbs, local officials ignored stricter building regulations, allowing developers to pave over crucial acres of prairie land that once absorbed huge amounts of rainwater, according to investigative reporting from the Texas Tribune

At the crossroads of gentrification, traffic and flooding, Houston’s densification is one of the most important trends in the city. With the city continuing to grow at a rapid pace, building a resilient and attractive city will be the responsibility of the city’s developers and architects — and they are just getting started.