David Robinson is an architect and an at-large Councilman for the City of Houston. Throughout his career he has been involved in neighborhood issues. He spent eight years as an officer and two-time president of the Neartown (Montrose) Association, and was elected to serve as chairman and president of the citywide Super Neighborhood Alliance, a term that concluded in January 2013. Mayor Bill White appointed Robinson to the City of Houston Planning Commission in 2007 while he was serving on the board of directors of the Houston chapter of the AIA. Mayor Annise Parker re-appointed him to the post in 2009. He was the first licensed architect to serve the city as a commissioner since the 1970s. Florence Tang recently sat down with Robinson to talk about his background, the future of Houston under the General Plan currently under review, and the role of an architect in public office.
Florence Tang: Where did you grow up and how do you think that has shaped how you view and work in Houston?
David Robinson: I was born in Massachusetts in the town Northampton. My father was a political science professor at Smith College. I grew up in Boston and my mom went to Harvard where she got her doctorate. I spent two years of high school at Concord Academy outside of Boston. It was idyllic and had a strong arts program where I got into photography and where I started my artistic venture. I went to Yale on a portfolio of photos and I wrote an essay about Ansel Adams. I got there and took a lot of art and majored in architecture.
Then I applied to Rice and came to Houston in 1989. I have some family in Houston and that has been a wonderful draw for me. My mom was born in Dallas, so on vacations we would come to Texas and Houston. As a child, I saw the nice, warm side of Texas, where it seemed like it was palm trees, swimming pools, and beautiful buildings. I was leaving New England’s frozen parts and coming to Texas. Because of that, I always kept a warm spot for Texas. I studied the classics and art history at Yale and when we studied the architectural monuments of Texas and the criticism—the sprawl and ugliness—I was left with a jarring feeling because that was not my impression.
As an at-large councilman and vice chair of the quality of life committee, the past couple of years, what major issues have you seen come to the surface from both the city and citizens groups that have been on the forefront of the conversations in Houston?
I am getting used to life on City Council. I have a wonderful office staff at City Hall I am very proud of. The team is incredible. If there is any point to emphasize, we are trying to do the work we have been asked to do. I was appointed as the vice chair of Quality of Life Committee. And I am the only freshman CM to be appointed to a committee. This committee includes four city departments: Parks and Recreation, Health and Human Services, Library, and Planning and Development. We also have oversight over cultural and international affairs, like the Houston Arts Alliance and all the embassies. The other day I met with the Emir of Qatar. I also got appointed to the Houston First Board in an ex-officio capacity. These are the city facilities dedicated to the arts like George R. Brown Convention Center, Hilton Americas Hotel, the Wortham Center, and Jones Hall.
I try to advocate for good design and high quality of life. I hope to be the right advocate for the profession. On the political spectrum, I am progressive. My success is to stay in the mix and understand constituents and listen to my colleagues. I don’t take too many radical positions and not be overly enthusiastic. I want to push the needle in the right direction. And one hopes that I am doing some good and will get re-elected. I have some time to affect policy that affects architecture in our city.
In championing the General Plan, Joe Webb (chair of Blueprint Houston) and Martha Murphree (executive director of Blueprint Houston) have been longstanding advocates. The emphasis is more on the efficiency and coordination of municipal resources.
There is an awkward piece of law written into the charter about the city of Houston adopting a comprehensive plan. What we are currently considering is the removal of language that says Houston will adopt zoning. The General Plan—all with an asterisk, is what we can do according to those who agree to do it—will adopt a framework for guiding Houston in its principles for growth. It’s important to have such a plan based on economic viability. It’s an essential component of our planning and budgeting. Houston needs to coordinate efforts better and communicate with the various stakeholding groups. It is an inclusive process from the city’s side in getting everyone to the table—the steering committee, stakeholder group, support staff, technical advisory committee.
So what is this supposed to do and what does it look like? It’s encouraging leadership, it’s transforming neighborhoods, and it’s keeping it exactly the way it is. That is the consensus. The role of the General Plan is to not mess with something that is stable and good. It’s about the subtlety and diverse nature of Houston’s wonderful neighborhoods. It’s not shoving anything down anyone’s throat. What it becomes remains to be seen.
It’s not a mystery that the funding for the deal and presentations from (Planning and Development Director) Patrick Walsh and stakeholders syncs up with a mayoral election. Mayor Annise Parker only has seven more months in office. It’s not lost on us. We need to make a political commitment. We are living with a strong mayor form of government. What we like as a professional community is some vision and predictability in the market. We know there are some causes of turbulence and market fluctuations. We need to do something to stabilize the economy when it comes to the built environment. It’s a good outcome of the General Plan. People rely on city services—processing, permitting, license renewals—those things should not be complicated or rocket science. We still have a long way on that. We are trying to make the city a better place—administratively, practically, and in the economic environment.
As a former planning commissioner and president of the Neartown (Montrose) Association, I understand you have a deep-seated understanding of the development and community issues. As Houston continues to grow in the next 20 years, what changes and retooling do you see happening?
I live in Montrose and our northern boundary is beautiful with the Buffalo Bayou trail. The Kinder family has recently made a $50 million benevolent gift for the Bayou Greenways Initiative with linear miles of hike and bike trails. Houston is earning a reputation for an incredible commitment to greenways, and developing an interconnectedness and coordinated efforts of the city and county working together. Years ago, there was legislation passed in Austin with language passed about the utility corridors for power lines and easements that was highly contentious. The utility companies refused to allow hike and bike regional corridors. If someone falls or climbs a pole and fries themselves, they could sue the state or utility company. Then two years ago, legislation to provide indemnity was passed in Austin. It freed the urban grid so bayous and the framework are being built out now for the public infrastructure.
In the fiscal budget for last year, I allocated $10-to-$20 thousand to Patrick Walsh in support of the master bike plan. My little brother is the forester in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which has a trail program. I am committed to parks and trails. We have to be working on green space and urban gardens.
How did you come to the decision to seek office? Most architects take the path of licensure and then private practice, but you have walked a different path.
I had served as president of the Neartown (Montrose) Association and was emerging as a leader in the community where I live. I spent five to six years as president of the super neighborhood and was nominated by Sheriff Adrian Garcia to be on the planning commission. In 2003, I had been nominated to the Municipal Arts Commission (MAC) and worked with Rick Lowe. My job on MAC was to sunset it.
On the planning commission with jurisdictional and extraterritorial Houston and Harris County, you have direct oversight over real estate and development across our region. With success on the commission there, I got nominated to the Super Neighborhood Alliance and before long I was president of that organization until 2013. In 2011, I felt the urge to run for City Council, at-large position #2. A huge flock of humanity wanted to get in. There were 10 candidates. I did not win. But I had success in getting my name out there. These things take time. So then I stepped down from the planning commission, then two years later I prevailed, and not by many votes. But for an outsider to take an incumbent, it was a feat.
What architecture projects are you currently working on?
I take on smaller projects. I have to be careful about how I choose clients. My main project is the city and I do practice some architecture. I have two primary clients. We are doing some residential and commercial planning in Houston’s 3rd Ward, the CDC MacGregor Area. The project is on land they have amassed in the Riverside area.
Another project is a renovation of a downtown warehouse at Hutchins and Bell. We are renovating two 5,000-square-foot buildings for Lighting & Electrical Sales company.
Any other thoughts to add about the future?
This terrain I got to inherit, Houston, is an incredible and thriving city with great people and wonderful neighborhoods. We are sprucing ourselves up. There is real activity dedicated to looking good when the Super Bowl comes in 2017 and we have a worldwide stage. The front door of Hobby Airport to 45 is indisputably ugly. We have work to do on Broadway. One long-range vision is a new botanical garden just past 45.
I am pleased to say I am not seeking the mayor’s seat in the future. I love all my jobs. I love being a daddy. My 15-year-old is the center of my life. I love being an architect. I love what God has given me to work with now. If I think back to 2010 and where I was—serving and working in a tough recession time—I would be a fool to predict anything from now.