Eclectic, walkable and one of top 10
Montrose, the central Houston community known for its diverse lifestyles, vibrant street life and stately historic homes, is being honored by the American Planning Association today as one of the country's 10 great neighborhoods.
Houston's sprawl, absence of zoning and reputation for haphazard development might make its recognition by the national planning establishment something of a surprise. Yet the qualities cited in the award for Montrose — its walkable street grid, carefully preserved historic districts and eclectic mix of homes and businesses — reflect Houston's preference for private rather than government-imposed planning, experts said.
In the early 20th century, long before it became the focus of slum-clearing urban renewal projects or the heart of Houston's gay and lesbian community, Montrose was an elite master-planned suburb, said Stephen Fox, a Rice University architectural historian.
“Its planning has really come from the developers of the individual subdivisions rather than representing any public policy,” Fox said.
Paul Farmer, the planning association's chief executive officer, will announce the awards to Montrose and nine other U.S. neighborhoods today at the Menil Collection museum in Houston.
Some history unsavory
Important chapters in Houston's story have played out in Montrose over the past century.
Lyndon B. Johnson and Howard Hughes once lived there. Banker Paul Broussard was stabbed to death in Montrose by a gang of gay-bashing teenagers in 1991. Men and women have packed its streets for countless parades and festivals. Five of the city's 15 designated historic districts are in Montrose.
David Robinson, the president of the Neartown Association, a coalition of Montrose area civic clubs, acknowledged that parts of the community haven't shed an unsavory reputation for prostitution, drug dealing and other crimes. But civic leaders are working on these issues, he said .
A walkable area
Robinson, an architect who serves on Houston's City Planning Commission, said the award shows that effective planning need not be imposed through heavy-handed government policy.
“It doesn't have to always be a prescribed method of growth,” Robinson said. “It's organic. The street grid, the sidewalks have meant that without zoning and for the most part without restrictive covenants, the area has been able to grow and adapt.”
The street grid — a web of straight streets with short blocks and none of the cul-de-sacs favored in suburban neighborhoods — has helped keep Montrose walkable since the days when people stepped off streetcars and walked to homes or shops, Robinson said.
David Morley, a research associate at the American Planning Association, said Montrose's pedestrian-friendly nature was an important factor in the award.
“It's one of the few places in Houston where people get out of their cars and walk around,” Morley said.
Marlene Gafrick, Houston's director of planning and development, said the award should help to dispel Houston's undeserved reputation as an unplanned city.
“I believe planning occurs at many levels, and one of the differences between Houston and a lot of cities is that a lot of our planning comes from the ground up rather than the top down,” she said.