Sunday, October 16, 2016

New GHP Tower, Houston attracting talent as a knowledge capital, saving the Astrodome, and more

This week I was able to attend the media preview of the Greater Houston Partnership's new tower and offices next to the GRB.  It is an amazingly well-designed space that will be fantastic for hosting outside visitors and promoting economic development.  I took my own pictures, but the Chronicle pictures here are better if you want to check it out, or the Twitter feed pics of the event here.

Moving on to this week's items:
"Among knowledge capitals, Houston had some of the strongest economic indicators, including its GDP per capita and GDP growth between 2000 and 2015. Its trade, air passenger traffic and research profile also scored well. 
Overall, Houston ranked third of the 19 knowledge capitals, behind Chicago and Dallas. Houston actually out-performed Dallas in all but four categories: venture capital per capita, educational attainment, overall metropolitan area population and air passenger traffic. 
But there’s room to improve. Houston actually ranked lowest of all 19 knowledge capital cities when it comes to educational attainment, and in the bottom three for venture capital investment. 
But as Houston continues to grow, these rankings may not hold. Houston is already on track to surpass Chicago’s population. And the University of Texas has eyed an expansion in Houston, adding to its university scene. The Texas Medical Center continues to add jobs and boost the city’s research potential. And a planned — if delayed - new terminal at Bush International Airport promises to bring more air traffic to the region."
Finally, I wanted to pass along this intriguing and thought-provoking quote Barry sent me.  I love it!
"WE WILL NEVER FIX GOVERNMENT UNTIL WE ABANDON THE CENTRAL PLANNING MODEL OF REGULATION. We must return to the Framer’s conception of a “Republic” in which officials act on their best judgment and are accountable for how they do. Of course law is vital—to set goals and governing principles, and hierarchies of accountability, and, sometimes specific rules, as with pollution limits. But when law tries to supplant human judgment, it fails. Life is too complicated to be governed by dense rulebooks. That’s the core flaw of modern government. Law can’t think. People on the spot must take responsibility to do what they think is right, and be accountable for how they do. Talking about “better management” and “less red tape” and “new systems” will do nothing without human authority to make necessary choices. What reformers need to talk about is putting humans in charge again."

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Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Houston's lack of zoning held up as a model nationally plus the City Journal on Texas Rising

I'm back from travel and quite a few items have definitely accumulated, especially around the topic of zoning, which I'll focus on this week.  But first, City Journal just released their special issue titled "Texas Rising," including many pieces by Center for Opportunity Urbanism staff and affiliates, including this great sidebar on Houston by COU Fellow Anne Snyder.  I read it cover to cover on my flight back, and I can't recommend it highly enough.  Many fantastic pieces on how Texas works (or does not, in some cases - there's always things to improve), including key ones by Aaron Renn on the Texas Triangle and Joel Kotkin + Wendell Cox on Texas-style Urbanism.

On to zoning. The big news is that the White House is taking on zoning over-regulation as a barrier to housing supply and affordability, including very specific recommendations for enabling more housing to be built.  Pause here for a moment of thankfulness that Houston doesn't have this problem compared to most cities in America, especially on the coasts.  Scott Beyer covered the story in Forbes with this great excerpt:
"But anecdotal evidence shows that global megacities that embrace rapid construction, such as Houston and Tokyo, can maintain affordability despite populations that are both fast-growing and wealthy. The academic literature shows that this isn’t an accident; regulations that restrict supply really do make areas more expensive, while a hands-off attitude creates more elastic markets and lower prices. It’s nice that America’s highest level of government has caught on."
I think the Chronicle's response was excessively negative, seeming to imply we have the same woes when ours are at nowhere near the same scale as the coasts.  Our median housing price to income ratio is a healthy 3.5, while theirs can easily top 6 to 9.  And somehow they lump inequality into the issue, which is just reflective of the high-paying jobs and industries in Houston. The most equal big cities tend to not have those types of jobs or industries, like, say, Memphis or Tampa.
"Housing advocates, urban planners and city leaders have called recently for a more comprehensive plan to address the affordability, preservation and economic issues surrounding housing in Houston."
Didn't we just do that?  And, btw, there's now a whole new Twitter feed dedicated to showing how Houston is naturally densifying in healthy ways.  Even the Boston Globe is extolling Houston's non-existent zoning code:
"More cities should emulate the example of Houston. It has no zoning code, and voters have repeatedly refused to authorize one. There are regulations aplenty in Texas’s largest city, but there’s no zoning. By and large, it is market incentives that determine what gets built where — not buckets of rules imposed from above by omniscient city planners
The results are impressive. Industry, housing, and business sort themselves out without Big Brother’s help. In the process, they have turned Houston into one of the nation’s fastest growing cities — popular, affordable, eclectic, and diverse. Treat private property rights with respect and deference, and what you get is a booming, blooming city. Maybe Boston ought to try it."
And a similar piece extolling Houston's approach from Washington DC:
"Single family zoning is somewhat of a third rail in American local politics; it's exceptionally rare for residents of suburban-style neighborhoods to allow denser development. Urbanist commentators have noted that "missing middle" housing—forms like duplexes and small multifamily apartments—has been regulated away in most American cities. Houston represents an important dissent from the notion that single family neighborhoods are to be preserved at all costs. 
The results of these reforms have been remarkable. Areas that were once made up entirely of ranch-style houses, McMansions, and underused lots are now covered in townhouses
But the key insight here is that piecemeal densification is possible, and it works. Houston has found a way to add significant amounts of housing without sprawling."
Nolan Gray at Market Urbanism is now writing detailed pieces on Houston's approach to land use so other cities can learn from it, including this absolutely excellent one with the best-detailed summary on our approach I've seen so far.  If you can only send one link to someone to explain Houston's approach to land-use regulation, this is the one to send.  I'll end with this excerpt from it:
"Houston was the only major city to hold a public vote on comprehensive zoning and it was the only major city to turn it down. For decades, folks scoffed at Houston for refusing to implement residential segregation, mixed-use prohibitions, and density restrictions. It turns out that Houston was right all along, and that’s worth talking about."

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

New COU video, the land-use trilemma, national Cistern coverage, Houston's millennials, and more

Several items this week, but first, our Center For Opportunity Urbanism has released its first short promotional video!

"In sum, less government regulation means lower housing costs."
  • Richard Florida on the difficulties of density - which peaked in America in the 1950s - and the land-use trilemma (below). No matter what you do, there are tradeoffs. And we need to recognize the reality that, as society gets wealthier, people want more personal space.

  • Atlantic CityLab talks about Houston's Cistern, which I visited on Saturday. Just amazing. Highly recommend the tour, especially as this may be your only chance to see them "raw" - next year they'll start hosting art exhibitions.  The 17-second echo is a pretty incredible experience, and the water is such a perfectly still mirror you'll swear there's another walking ledge down below...
"Clothing can protect you from rain, wind, and cold while biking – it cannot protect you from extremes of heat and humidity that Denmark does not face. Nobody has yet invented the air conditioned jacket. Houston should certainly improve its biking infrastructure where it can, but let’s not harbor any illusions about significantly reducing cars and their very critical air conditioning in this city…"

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Should Houston have its own version of the Sydney Bridge Climb?

I recently learned that there are plans to completely rebuild the Beltway 8 bridge over the ship channel even taller/higher than the existing (quite high) span.  It reminded me of my own amazing experience climbing the Sydney Harbor Bridge in 2014, which is the most popular tourist attraction in Sydney.  And it is a *huge* moneymaker: roughly $250 per person, with groups of 12 ($3k!) going out every few minutes all day long - do the math!  Honestly, it might generate more money than many of HCTRA's toll plazas.

So I'll raise the question: should we try to design our new bridge to offer a similar experience?  Yes, I understand that the ship channel view is not exactly Sydney Harbor, and that Houston is not a tourist destination the way Sydney is, but I still think it could be a popular attraction with an impressive view worth integrating into the new bridge design.  I will say from personal experience the view is only part of the experience - the thrill and adventure of the climb itself is a big part of it, and ours could be as impressive if not more than theirs.  In fact, theirs has a lot of cumbersome safety overhead because the bridge was never designed for tourists to climb it (continuously connected safety harnesses and those blue jumpsuit outfits so you can't drop anything on the cars below). If tourist climbing was integrated from the beginning, a lot of that hassle (and cost) could be eliminated.  There might even be an elevator and viewing platform option for the less adventurous (or disabled). And of course this assumes that the new bridge design would have very high tower pylons that would be worth climbing, not like the current design.  If it's cable-stayed like the Fred Hartman bridge, the climb (and elevator) could be integrated into one of the tall tower pylons (like this one in Maine) and/or the large main cable, rather than along the steel arch like in Sydney.

So cool idea or crazy? A tourist attraction to put Houston on the map? Looking forward to your thoughts in the comments...


Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Fixing local regs to encourage entrepreneurship, zoning = crony capitalism, defending MUDs, and more

A few small items this week:
"When people hear “crony capitalism,” they usually envision corporatist policy at the higher levels of government. It might be the federal Export-Import bank subsidizing Boeing, or Nevada granting Tesla tax breaks. But perhaps the most common form is the kind occurring in your own backyard. In many U.S. municipalities, zoning codes have evolved from reasonable public protections into regulatory cobwebs that benefit the rich over the poor. If a crony system is, according to Investopedia, one where “instead of success being determined by a free market and the rule of law, the success of a business is dependent on the favoritism that is shown to it by the ruling government,” then zoning is cronyism’s localized version. 
Most readers are likely familiar with zoning’s practical purposes, such as separating incompatible uses or expelling nuisances. But they may not realize just how comprehensively it is now used to micromanage society, impose petty moralism and protect special interests."

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Monday, August 29, 2016

A New Yorker rediscovers Houston, Ike Dike case, 2004 vs. 2017 Houston, and more

This week's items:
  • A Tale of Two Super Bowls: Houston in 2004 vs. 2017.  Some pretty cool statistical comparisons, like nearly double the hotel rooms, ~25% more airport flights, 67% more restaurants (!), and the Galleria has almost doubled its annual visitors! And how crazy would it be if the game is an exact rematch? But here's to hoping it's the Texans instead, which are looking pretty solid with a 3-0 preseason.
"In 2004, the New England Patriots defeated the Carolina Panthers 32-29 at Reliant Stadium. According to sports analysts, we could see this exact same matchup in the newly renamed NRG Stadium in 2017. Will Cam&Crew have a major chance at redemption? Only time will tell…"
Finally, a longer but great piece in Thrillist, "Houston Has No Problem" by local that moved to NYC and has been amazed by how the city has matured since.
In New York City, I noticed the difference over the years. It went from people saying “Why would you ever go to Houston?” to “I wanna check that place out!”
It does an amazing job extolling Houston's virtues and what makes us a great city.  It'll make you a proud Houstonian all over again. Highly recommended.

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Monday, August 22, 2016

Zoning shrinks the economy, TX cities as people, Astrodome, appreciating townhomes, helping homeless, and more

Lots of smaller items this week:
  • A cool video proposal for what to do with the Astrodome. The proposal is to strip it to its frame as a park for events. Great visuals. An Eiffel Tower for Houston. That is somewhat appealing, but I hate to give up the potential enclosed, air-conditioned, climate-protected space, especially given Houston's harsh weather.  Couldn't it be a park and events space while staying enclosed?  And I think that's the county's current concept/plan.  Then there'd be a place we could hold events and festivals in the summer and winter, instead of just the spring and fall.

"Bryan Mistele, the CEO of traffic tracker Inrix, argues in the Seattle Times that proposed new light-rail lines will be “obsolete before they are built.” Specifically, he says, automated, connected, electric, and shared vehicles–which he abbreviates as ACES–are already changing how people travel, and those changes are accelerating. 
Sound Transit, Seattle’s regional rail transit agency, wants voters to approve a $54 billion ballot measure this November for more light rail. This, Mistele points out, is more than twice the cost of the Panama Canal expansion, yet isn’t likely to produce any significant benefits.
$54 *billion* (!!).  Wow - that's a lot of money for what will soon be a very large white elephant. Thank goodness Houston METRO isn't trying to jump off a similar cliff...
"Cashman’s argument is that self-driving cars won’t be “affordable,” while public transit is. Excuse me? In 2014, American transit agencies spent $59 billion to move people 57 billion passenger miles (see page 106). That’s more than a dollar per passenger mile. 
All spending on cars and driving, meanwhile, amounted to $1.1 billion (add lines 54, 57, and 116 of table 2.5.5). Highway subsidies in 2014 were about $45 billion (subtract gas tax diversions to transit and non-highway purposes from “other taxes and fees”). For that cost, Americans drove 2.7 trillion vehicle miles in light-duty vehicles. At an average occupancy of 1.67 people per vehicle (see table 16), that’s 4.5 trillion passenger miles, which works out to an average cost of 26 cents a passenger mile. 
In other words, transit is only “affordable” because three-fourths of the cost is subsidized, while less than 4 percent of the cost of driving is subsidized. I’m in favor of ending both subsidies, but someone has to pay those costs; when adding them in, driving is four times more affordable than transit."
"Whatever they look like, townhouses increase the housing supply in a relatively low-impact way. They can help keep Houston affordable while its coastal rivals commit economic suicide."
“...a study published last year by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti which estimates that the U.S. economy is 14 percent smaller as a result of constraints on housing development.”
Finally, a little humor from George Rogers, who recently visited Houston from Chicago:
If Texas cities were people
Collin County (North Dallas): A Dad trying to be cool.
Austin: A Hipster trying to be cool. Lives at Urban Outfitters.
Fort Worth: Urban Cowboy.
San Antonio: Fort Worth's tejano buddy.
Houston: A nerdy kid that doesn't care about being cool.
Dallas: A dudebro that blows money at Neiman Marcus.
El Paso: Isn't that in New Mexico?
Dallas: I'm cool because I blew 500 dollars at Neiman Marcus.
Austin: I'm cool because I blew 500 dollars at Urban Outfitters.
Houston: What is cool anyways?

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Houston vs. NYC, Austin's rail fail, Tokyo's free market in land use, CA zoning impacts, and more

A few items this week:
"During my time there, I figured out a lot—about Houston. My hometown, I realized, is easy. The mail comes on time. You don’t have to wait for an hour, crammed in a small space with dozens of other people, just to get a prescription. You can use a full-size grocery cart at the grocery store. You don’t have to ask an employee to use his hook to pull down a package of toilet paper for you. You don’t have to lug your heavy groceries six blocks home. You don’t reach the end of May and find yourself trudging through sludgy gray ice, incredulous that it can still be so…darn…cold. You don’t find yourself freezing, needing a restroom, waiting for a train that never comes, before giving up and spending money you don’t have on a cab. Instead, you get to drive. 
That’s what I learned about Houston during my time in New York. What did I learn about New York? It’s a great place to visit. In the very late springtime.
"This new evidence adds to the extensive body of work demonstrating that land-use regulations reduce the stock of housing relative to what we would see in a free market. It’s particularly important in California, home to some of the country’s most regulated cities and the cities where land-use liberalization could have huge potential benefits in terms of allowing more people to live in high-productivity places."
"In the 1980s, Japanese cities were experiencing the same inflated housing bubbles that U.S. cities are today. Their planning methods, moreover, were rooted in Western notions about separating uses and limiting density. The federal government recognized that these regulations were the problem, so in 2002, it passed the Urban Renaissance Law. The law stripped municipalities of the ability to control private property. As a result, owners can build a variety of uses on their land, regardless of resistance from local bureaucrats or neighbors."
Who would have guessed that the Japanese could be more free market than America? Could you imagine if states or the federal government did something similar here?! 
"The line accounts for 2.6% of Austin’s transit ridership, while using 8.5% of the annual operating expenses for transit. 
Each trip taken on the rail costs taxpayers dearly, according to data provided by Capitol Metro. In 2014, the rail line had an operating deficit of $12.6 million. The upfront capital costs of $140 million, when amortized at 2% over 30 years, creates an additional $6.2 million annual cost to taxpayers. Add these two sums up, and then divide them by the line’s number of annual unlinked trips—763,551—and the per-trip subsidy works out to $24.62. Another commentator estimated that this figure is $18, compared to $3 for every bus boarding. Jim Skaggs, the retired CEO of Tracor and a local rail skeptic, wrote on his blog that “each average daily, week-day, round trip rider is subsidized an average of about $10,000 per year.”"
"Their causes for success are multi-faceted, and refute some of the received wisdom, but mostly boil down to their open economies. According to Site Selection magazine, Houston and Dallas were second and third, respectively, among the nation’s 10 largest metro areas in economic development in 2015. Texas was the leading state for economic development, and the two metros accounted for 70% of this...The recent growth has bolstered two metros that already have among the strongest corporate presences in America, and a state that has become famous for poaching companies and people from California, Illinois and New York. Much of it can be attributed to their good business climates at both state and local levels.

This begins with taxes. Texas is one of seven states that currently have no income tax, and has the fifth-lowest overall state tax burden, according to Forbes data. Texas and its various localities, including Houston and Dallas, also have light regulations regarding land use, labor rules, business permitting and compliance costs. Together, these two factors—light taxes and regulations—explain why Dallas, for example, was named America’s best business climate by, and why Texas routinely ranks near the top in economic freedom, recently improving its score even as economic freedom declines nationwide.
While NIMBYs often get road projects canceled around the nation (not to mention housing, offices and other aforementioned projects), this hasn’t stopped Houston and Dallas from building them. Both metros are among the leaders in per capita highway miles, sporting a large network of tolled and untolled highways. This has enabled multiple corporate job clusters to develop throughout both metros.
Indeed, Dallas and Houston reaffirm the notion that corporations and their workforces seek out places less for the generic lifestyle reasons, than for reasons that are simple, even blunt. They want reduced costs, whether that means low taxes, subsidies, or cheaper labor. They want ample space to expand, and a regulatory climate that allows this expansion. And they want infrastructure that will efficiently tie it all together. Texas’ two biggest metros are providing these conditions for economic development, and that is why they’re getting so much of it."

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