Flea Markets Inject New Life Into Houston Neighborhood

How one Houston neighborhood is betting on flea market trucks and other mobile venues to revitalize their community.

Just south of George Bush International Airport in north-central Houston, the 4.2-square-mile Airline Drive corridor has not benefited from the economic boom of the city’s hip neighborhoods. The district suffers from serious blockages that slow new development: It lacks updated water infrastructure and dependable police patrol, endures seasonal flooding, and is poorly connected by roads originally built for rural traffic.

Some of that is about to change. Residents of the Airline Improvement District have flea markets to thank for the recent attention to their underserved neighborhood in the country’s fourth largest city. The merchants contribute a unique culture of commerce here, providing rich entertainment in the process and tripling the area’s population to over 50,000 each weekend. With this success story in mind, the SWA Group developed a community infrastructure plan to empower resilient residents and local businesses to challenge the city and help inject new life into their home without sacrificing its uniqueness.

Out of 400,000 square feet of retail located within the district, 46 percent are flea market vendors along Airline Drive, the main economic corridor. With many young residents living below poverty level, flea markets serve as incubators for entrepreneurial growth and communal pride. And while this activity is the region’s strongest socioeconomic asset, the district management team currently lacks the connective relationships needed with market vendors to grow the local economy.

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It was important, then, for us to leverage the concentrated activity surrounding the flea markets and to create new partnerships between businesses, residents, and district management. Along these lines, we designed a two-pronged programmatic structure to bring new services to the area: Mobile Community Infrastructure (MCI) and Market Mile (MM).

MCI hotspots form community gathering places at key intersections in the district.

MCI will add needed assets and services in a revolutionary but simple way. Our design team reasoned that if food trucks can transform the food/café business, why not let city services and amenities also “go mobile” in order to bring them in quickly and conveniently?

Learning from existing conditions along Airline Drive, MCI takes shape as a fleet of small trucks and specially outfitted vehicles. These mobile solutions provide “soft” services such as a library, grocer, computer labs, finance and language classes, music/dancing venues, and an art gallery, none of which are available now. And they can be on the ground in weeks versus months or years and require significantly less investment than traditional buildings.

A full range of retail and social services can be implemented through a fleet of MCI trucks.

As the Airline District evolves and matures, mobile services may easily give way to traditional facilities, which will fill the vacuum of public service and hard infrastructure existing today. This mobilized solution quickly formalizes a community network by seeding it with basic services, cultivating its culture, and providing educational opportunities.

The design strategy for the Airline District is grounded in immediate improvements to the social infrastructure through the Market Mile branding campaign and Mobile Community Infrastructure installations.

MM infrastructure improvements address the critical, long-standing problems along the boulevard: improving street traffic flow and accessibility, enhancing pedestrian safety, installing bikeways and racks, and adding minimal landscaping to augment the area’s attractiveness. Some sections of Airline will get 8.5-foot-wide sidewalks where tiny or nonexistent ones were common; streetlights will add safety; and the expansion of transit destinations and bus routes to accommodate more visitors is being considered, as is a robust branding campaign to draw attention to the “new” Airline.

This spring, Phase I of the MCI and MM programs get underway with a branding and networking strategy. Key to the overall project is providing a backbone upon which separate interests can collectively realize infrastructural and economic improvements more expediently. Inspired by local entrepreneurial activity, this plan gives district residents and local businesses the ability to mold their own community while maintaining the existing grassroots and organic flow of goods and services.

The idea behind Airline Drive’s transformation was to create a plan of step-by-step changes that could grow as funding is identified. Prioritizing those projects is based on community input and need and creative problem solving. As Airline Improvement District participants have noted, the area’s uniqueness and culture is already drawing throngs of new visitors. Rather than make it another bland, highly-planned district or suburb, they’re leveraging and building upon what makes it special.

Kinder Baumgardner is president/managing principal and Natalia Beard is a designer at SWA Group, a landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm with offices in Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Sausalito, Los Angeles, Laguna Beach, CA, Shanghai and the United Arab Emirates.    

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