Can Houston be a Model for Jacksonville?

November 14, 2014 11 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Ever wonder what a sunbelt sprawler like Jacksonville would look like with light rail and no zoning regulations? Houston would be a good case study to evaluate.

These two cities have a lot of things in common that most would overlook. Both are two of the largest cities in the south that have rapidly grown since the 1950's. Both have multiple beltways or ring roads circling their urban cores, which happen to be penetrated by Interstate 10. In addition, both cities have ports attempting to dredge their channels to accommodate post-Panamax ships. Strangely enough, they also feature skylines that have been dominated with iconic Maxwell House Coffee signage in the past.

On the negative side of things, both Houston and Jacksonville were prime examples of cities engulfed by late-20th century suburban sprawl and downtown's void of 24/7 activity.

Houston just happens to be five times as large and without formal zoning regulations. Despite not having formal regulations, there are land use regulations and covenants that mandate lot size, parking requirements, etc. in many neighborhoods. However, due to its unique zoning practices, Houston features several urbanized commercial districts throughout its boundaries, as opposed to a single centralized downtown district.

Not having formal zoning regulations has had its pros and cons. Some blame a lack of density and sprawl on not having formal zoning regulations while others claim this has led to having lots of affordable housing opportunities for local residents.

Look no further than Montrose for an example of an established historic inner city neighborhood to see the impact of no zoning. Established in 1911, Montrose was developed during the same time period as Jacksonville's Riverside. Like Riverside, the former streetcar suburb features bungalows with wide porches, and cottages along tree-line boulevards. Like Riverside, it is also a major cultural hub that was named one of the "ten great neighborhoods in America" a few years ago by the American Planning Association.

Old and new side by side in Montrose.

Unlike Riverside, the mix of architectural styles and ages is so diverse that it has been called "a uniquely Houston kind of Bohemia, a mad mix made possible by the city's no-holds-barred, laissez faire form of growth."

Whether one likes the mix of styles or not, it's hard to say that it isn't interesting. One can only wonder in a city like Jacksonville, is it possible for an area of town to organically attract a variety of architectural styles within a walkable setting and if so, where?

Another question that has been long debated in Jacksonville is if fixed rail transit can work in a Sunbelt sprawler. It appears that the light rail experiment in Houston over the last decade indicates that it can.

Utilizing the energy behind hosting the 2004 Super Bowl, the $325-million, 7.5 mile initial segment of METRORail was funded with 100% local money. Now in its 10th year of operation and with an average weekday ridership of 43,900 and total annual ridership of over 1.3 million, METRORail ranks as the 2nd most traveled light rail transit (LRT) system in the Southern U.S. and the 12th most-traveled in the country.  Now featuring 12.8 miles of track, METRORail has the second highest ridership per track mile in the country. Unknown to many, the top day for ridership was not Super Bowl XXXVIII, which pulled in 64,005 passengers on February 1, 2004. Instead, the March 19, 2014 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo wins the crown, drawing an impressive 76,925.

METRORail in the Texas Medical Center district.

At 12.8 miles in length, METRORail doesn't provide access to all 600 square miles of Houston.  It performs well because despite the length, it connects to major urban employment centers, Texas Medical Center and Downtown Houston, with each other.  

The Texas Medical Center is the largest in the world with one of the highest densities of clinical facilities for patient care, basic science, and translational research. In and of itself, with 106,000 workers, it's larger than many american downtown's.

Since it's launch, Houston has replaced a large bus rapid transit (BRT) system proposal with plans for additional light rail lines. A major reason for this decision revolved around the argument that BRT can eventually grow into LRT. When the numbers were crunched, it was proven that such a solution would cost taxpayers twice as much money as opposed to flat out going ahead and investing in LRT.

After making that decision, Houston hasn't looked back. The existing system that was 100% funded with local money was leveraged to win an additional $900 million in federal grants for expansions in November 2011. Soon, two additional LRT lines will open with more on the way. Upon their completion, over 60,000 university students will have easy access to downtown Houston via the LRT system.

METRORail's impact on stimulating economic development along its route can't be underestimated.  The best place to see visual change is downtown Houston. Like downtown Jacksonville, it was once referred to as a vertical office park that featured more surface parking lots than people. As recent as the late 1980's, 35% of downtown Houston's land area consisted of surface parking.  Furthermore, as late as 1995, only 900 apartment and condominium units were available in downtown Houston. Today, downtown's core is home to 150,195 workers and 3,500 residents.  55,000 reside in the greater downtown area. Seeking to attract more residents in the heart of the city, a Downtown Living Initiative, that awards $15,000 per unit in tax rebates to developers who create homes or multifamily projects, has been established.

METRORail passes directly through the streets of Downtown Houston

Far too often, in Jacksonville we get bogged down wondering what comes first, the chicken or the egg?  Typically, as a result, we end up doing nothing to enhance our community's quality of life. In reality, the answers we seek are there for us to see if we are willing to look outside the borders of Duval County with an open mind. When such a decision is made, Houston should easily rank as one of the first cities to evaluate.

Photographs by Daniel Herbin. Article by Ennis Davis, AICP. Contact Ennis at

Next Page: More images of Montrose, MERTORail, and Downtown Houston

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