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Houston: Metro rail still a dividing line


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Jan. 16, 2005, 12:46AM

One year later, Metro rail still a dividing line

Some point out lots sitting empty; others say change, developers need time


Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle

Depending which way you turn your head at the Ensemble/HCC stop on Metro's light rail line, it appears great things are starting to happen - or the area is going nowhere.

In one direction, stylish shops and eateries are popping up. There's the cosmopolitan Julia's Bistro with its violet and mango interior and glass windows overlooking the train. Tacos A-Go-Go, a hip taqueria sporting a statue of Carmen Miranda, will open in several months.

But look in another direction, and the neighborhood seems full of empty lots, boarded-up buildings and panhandlers.

Both optimists and pessimists can make their case about how the 1-year-old light rail will shape development along the route.

Some believe the rail will generate something new for Houston: dense "urban villages" where people live, work and play. And some don't.

Since the Main Street light rail opened, no major development has sprung up along its seven-mile corridor. Experts advise that patience is required; it takes five years or more for such growth.

But Houston, a city with no zoning, could pose a challenge: Unlike in many other cities with rail lines, no rules here encourage urban environments combining residential, office and retail space.

Developing in time

In the late 1990s, when city and Metro leaders were trying to sell Houstonians on a light rail line along Main, they emphasized the economic benefits of new development.

Today, a year after the rail line opened, the adjoining landscape looks much as it did before the line was built.

"It's incredibly disappointing that nothing has happened on Main Street of significance," said David Crossley, president of the Gulf Coast Institute, a nonprofit group promoting quality-of-life issues.

Metro Chairman David Wolff counsels patience: "I'm not at all disappointed. These things take years."

Michael Bayard, a senior research fellow at the Urban Land Institute, agreed. In Washington, D.C., he said, it's taken from five to 28 years for development to take off around subway transit stops.

"Development is a complicated business

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> "Adam Brackman, a self-described urban broker, says the Main Street corridor needs to attract hip, edgy retailers who "embrace the street and help create a sense of place."

Ha! The suburban shopping malls are chock full of "hip, edgy retailers". They locate in the mall because that's where the affluent teens cruise.

How about lining Houston's new light rail with some optometrists' offices, home-cooking cafes, shoe repair shops, community theater, day-care centers, and grocery stores.

No, instead they think "new urbanism" means "rich yuppies willing to pay exhorbitant rents and step over sleeping transients for the privilege of saying 'I help my community by living downtown where I don't have to drive'.

Blyech! I got caught at a red light yesterday next to that rail station. I didn't feel safe even sitting in my car and I'm a grown man and former professional Vale Tudo fighter.

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