Sunday, May 17, 2015

ULI overstates the case for walkability, urban libertarians of convenience, TX HSR gets Reason support, and more

Catching up on some smaller items this week...
"Thus, my conclusion on Texas Central Railway is about the same as on All Aboard Florida. Both are private sector projects, to be done via project finance that must be paid back from the project's own revenues. There is little or no risk to taxpayers, federal or state, in either project."
  • Houston ranks #3 on America's Cities of the Future behind NYC and SF.
  • ULI makes the economic case for increased walkability in Houston.  While I do support overall efforts to increase walkability, I suspect they have their cause-and-effect a little muddled here when they claim walkability adds so much value.  Walkability is a proxy for density which is a proxy for an in-demand neighborhood, so of course rents are higher, but walkability isn't necessarily the primary driver (although I'm sure it helps).  That doesn't mean a developer can move a strip center up against the sidewalk and put apartments on top of it in the far suburbs along 1960 and instantly add value to it - in fact he might kill the retail with the inconvenient parking.  Same reason suburban developers don't build large subdivisions of tightly packed mixed-use and townhomes up against the sidewalk.  A comparable analogy would be noting that cars with a top speed over 150mph (i.e. luxury and sports cars) can charge, on average, much higher prices, so all cars should be designed to go that fast - the logic doesn't quite hold.
  • Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) has an excellent piece in the City Journal: "Libertarians of Convenience: Urban progressives favor deregulation—but only for things they like or want to do."  At least the urban left is starting to realize the significant negatives of urban overregulation, but let's hope they broaden that freedom over time to things that aren't part of their orthodoxy.  I love the concluding paragraphs that give a nice shout-out to Houston:
"In Texas’s cities, by contrast, progressives often share, to some degree, the state’s pro-freedom, pro-market ethos. That’s why Houston, though hardly without restrictions on building, has no zoning per se and a pro-market Democrat, Annise Parker, for mayor. Unsurprisingly, it remains an affordable place to live, as do other low-regulation cities, such as Indianapolis. 
At least some on the left appreciate the principle of liberty when it comes to things like free speech: they understand that odious opinions have to be tolerated, or everyone’s liberty is at risk; and that selective free expression isn’t really free. But they fail to see that selective economic freedom brings its own injustices and inequities. Progressives should embrace a broader principle of economic liberty for American cities—not only for the sake of their own pet causes but also because it’s the right thing to do."
"Forty-four of North America's largest airports have "international" in their title. Only one has the word "intercontinental." No word yet on whether Houston's proposed space port will be named "intergalactic." 
Fifteen of the world's 20 busiest airlines serve Houston. They are Delta Air (1), United (2), Emirates (3), American (4), Southwest (5), Lufthansa (6), Air France (7), British Airways (8), Air China (12) Singapore Airlines (14), Turkish Airlines (16), Air Canada (17), KLM (18), and Qatar Airways (19). 
When Air New Zealand starts service later this year, IAH will be the only airport in North America that serves all six inhabited continents. There are only four other airports in the world that can claim the same--Dubai, Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Johannesburg.
When the Houston's Hobby International Terminal opens this fall, Houston will be one of only six markets with dual international hubs"

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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Branding Houston for tourism and improving the flawed I45N expansion plan

A couple big topics this week...

The first topic is this editorial in the Chronicle about Houston's continuing attempts to be more of a tourist magnet and the recent calls for renewed marketing campaigns and a "signature attraction."  As I've advocated before in posts here and especially here, with a little work Houston could carve out a tourism niche around families and STEM: bring your kids to Houston instead of Orlando or DC if you want to inspire them into great STEM careers.  If families go to DC to inspire their kids about our country, they can go to Houston to get inspired about STEM.  Even setting aside the Astrodome museum concept mentioned in those posts, we have all the raw ingredients not only building on our energy, chemical, aerospace and biomedical industries, but also on our top-rated and very popular existing STEM museums like Space Center Houston, The Museum of Natural Science, The Health Museum, The Children's Museum, the Zoo, Moody Gardens and The George Observatory. Stitch those together into a cohesive experience, and we'd really have something appealing to a lot of families from all over the country.  If you know anyone at Houston First, please send this over...

And while we're on the topic of our image/brand, I'll put in another plug for Houspitality.  I get very positive feedback from everyone I've pitched it to.  This also might be a good time to mention a dissertation by Josh Dinsman on branding cities, including an in-depth case study of Houston (he interviewed me as part of his research).  I've been siting on this one for a while waiting until I had time to do a thorough discussion of it, but since that doesn't seem to be happening anytime soon, I want to get it out there for those who might be interested and then hopefully I'll circle back to it for a more in-depth post at some point in the not-to-distant future.

The next big topic is the new I45N expansion plan I discussed last week.  Oscar Slotboom of "Houston Freeways" fame has done an extremely in-depth and thorough analysis of the flaws in the plan, including suggested corrections.  I was planning to try to summarize and highlight parts of it here, but I can't do it justice, especially with his impressive graphics - you'll just need to skim the whole thing.  While we both still support the overall plan, we also agree it can be made much better.  In fact, after reading his analysis and seeing some of the big flaws in the plan, I'm concerned the complexity of this project is stretching TXDoT's design and analysis capabilities vs. their simpler normal freeway widenings.  There are just so many complex connections around downtown (45, 10, 59, 288, Hardy, managed lanes, entrances and exits) that it's hard for one human mind to keep it all straight.  Thankfully Oscar has an exceptional mind for this kind of detail, and hopefully TXDoT will take his analysis very seriously and make the project even better.  If you'd like to comment on his analysis, or just participate in the discussion/debate, HAIF has an active discussion thread on it here.

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Sunday, May 03, 2015

Thoughts on TXDoT's ambitious new plan for I45N

Before getting into this week's post, just a heads up in case you missed it: my Good/Bady/Ugly MetroRail post from a couple weeks ago got refined into a Sunday feature op-ed in the Chronicle today.  They even used a few of my pictures, which was cool.  Most of the feedback on it has been quite positive.

But the real topic this week after attending the TXDoT information session at HCC is their massive $6+ billion plan to redevelop I45N, with the much publicized feature of routing it around the north and east sides of downtown and closing the Pierce Elevated (more on that later).  Much less publicized but almost as epic for many people: it also fixes the much-hated 59N bottleneck at the Spur 527 split where 5 lanes compress down to 3.  That bottleneck routinely backs up for miles at all hours of the day, not just rush hour.  As you can see below, the plan extends down to that part of 59, and includes burying the elevated as well as expanding it to 5 lanes inbound and 4 lanes outbound, a significant improvement over the 3 each direction today. (click the pics for larger versions)

My primary feedback to TXDoT at the information session involves the new westside downtown connector, which is far too downtown-centric in my opinion (see pic below).  It ignores the vast and growing populations of densifying Midtown, Montrose, and Washington Ave that need access to these freeways with connectors from Bagby/Brazos, Allen Parkway, and Memorial, respectively.  Not directly connecting Allen Parkway is an especially large oversight, IMHO.  Improving these connections will also reduce the load on I10W inside the loop, which is where many of these people drive for freeway access today.  I'd even be in favor of keeping the existing westside ramps/connectors as they are currently configured for simplicity and saving money (even without a Memorial connection).

My next big set of feedback involves the new I45 managed lanes, which simply dump downtown instead of connecting through.  Most of my readers know I've been a longtime advocate of having a comprehensive managed lane network across the city that would enable express commuter bus services from any neighborhood to any job center.  That would include communities on the northside that need express commute services to the Medical Center, UH, Greenway Plaza, or other major destinations and job centers on the southside, and vice versa.  If the lanes terminate downtown, then that's not possible.  TXDoT needs to adopt this comprehensive managed lane network philosophy now (as opposed to downtown-centric), so that these lanes all connect together over the coming decades of construction.

Since I'm sending TXDoT this blog post as official public comment/feedback, some other smaller items of feedback are...
  • I45 needs three sustained lanes both directions all the way through downtown, not two.
  • The new I10 express lanes on the north side of downtown crunch down from two lanes to one on the west end near Houston Ave, which seems like a bad bottleneck in the making.
  • Another future bottlenecks is 45 northbound where it drops from six lanes to four at the North Main exit.  At least five of those lanes need to continue through - crunch down shoulders if necessary in the very tight right-of-way.
  • Runnels in the East End needs to continue to connect directly to the feeder and the freeway entrance ramps.  Navigation (which connects to Runnels) is a growing destination street.
Immediately after TXDoT announced this plan, two separate but similar visions came forward for converting the closed Pierce Elevated into a park similar to the extremely popular High Line in NYC.  My friend Oscar Slotboom of "Houston Freeways" book fame makes this Pierce Elevated Park proposal, and another group has made this proposal for Pierce Sky Park.  As beautiful as the renderings at Pierce Sky Park are, they're a little misleading since they assume the complete closure on both the west and south sides of downtown, when TXDoT plans to keep connector ramps to the west side, including over the bayou.  It's likely only the south Pierce would be available for park development.  Lisa Gray gave both proposals a great writeup in the Chronicle, and they also received editorial board support.  I think it would be an amazing city amenity - and hope TXDoT will take them seriously and the downtown folks will keep an open mind, no matter how much they've wanted to bring down the Pierce Elevated for so long as a barrier between Downtown and Midtown.  The barrier is less the structure itself than the constant pounding of cars and trucks - converted into a quiet park along with some enhancements underneath would remove the barrier psychology.  Based on the NYC High Line, a park conversion instead of demolition could pay for itself many times over with increased land values their associated property taxes.  In fact, it could actually cost less than demolition!
"The High Line in New York City generated $500 million in tax revenue from a $150 million investment, according to John Cryer, a spokesman for Pierce Skypark."
My suggestion would be for the Midtown Management District to officially take over as the champion of this Pierce park proposal, given that they both benefit the most and can organizationally sustain the vision and the energy over the many years it would take (the earliest it might actually happen would be the early to mid 2020s after construction is complete and the Pierce is closed).

If you'd like to learn more about the project yourself, here's the official TXDoT page along with this slide presentation which includes detailed renderings (KUHF version with slide notes).  They're taking public feedback until May 31st.

UPDATE: Dug's update at the Chronicle.
UPDATE: A TXDoT visualization video of the project.

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Sunday, April 26, 2015

ULI finally respects Houston, better federal transit funding, growth, rankings, New Zealand, and more

Lots of big news this week about TXDoT's proposed expansion and revamping of I45N, including eliminating the Pierce Elevated downtown, but I'm going to hold off posting about it until I get a chance to go to the Tuesday public meeting information session.  Instead let's clear out some smaller misc items this week:
  • ULI writes a positive article about Houston! (who would have predicted?) I think planner attitudes are starting to turn our way as they see how vibrant and diverse our open approach is.  Goes into detail about Houston’s approach to land-use regulation. Whenever you hear criticisms of the "Houston way" of development, send them this article.  Hat tip to Josh.
“Proponents of “the Houston way” argue that its combination of patchwork regulation and local control provides valuable flexibility to respond quickly to market shifts and reduces costs for developers, while still protecting neighborhoods’ character and ensuring quality in the built environment.”
"Some of the others in our top 10 are not as renowned as tech centers, but have experienced rapid growth over the past decade. The biggest surprise may be No. 4 Houston, which enjoyed a 42.3% expansion of jobs in tech industries and a big 37.8% boost in STEM jobs from 2004-14. Much of the growth was in the now sputtering energy industry, but also medical-related technology, which continues to grow rapidly. Houston is the home to the Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest concentration of medical facilities. It also ranks second to San Jose in engineers per capita."
Finally, Randal O' Toole at Cato has a great idea for a better way to allocate federal transit funding - more equitable with fewer rail boondoggles.  It might actually get traction in the Republican Congress.  Full report here.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Touring METRO's new rail lines: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

UPDATE 5/2/15: This got turned into a Sunday op-ed feature in the Chronicle.

Today I got to take a media preview tour of Metro's new Southeast/Purple and East/Green lines, which are opening to the public May 23rd.  Metro brought a great team to give us the tour and answer our questions.  Photos below for your enjoyment, but here are my thoughts categorized into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

The Good
  • Fun to ride with really well done stops, including nice art and signage, same as the existing lines.  I used the Red line last week to attend the Astrodome 50th anniversary party (followed my Miller Outdoor Theater), and I have to say it was pretty awesome bypassing the traffic congestion of 25,000+ people attending that event.
  • Pretty quick ride: from EaDo near the Dynamo stadium, it's 6 minutes to the current end of the East Line and 17 minutes to the Palm Center at the end of the Southeast line, although it should be noted we didn't stop at the intermediate stops.
  • UH gets 3 stops which is really good access to most parts of the campus, including the new football stadium.
  • The townhome and apartment boom in the East End is even more impressive than I was aware.  I'm not sure how much of it is related to the new lines, but METRO is certainly happy to take some of the credit.  But there's a problem...
The Bad
  • I think they spaced the first two stops on the Southeast/Purple line (EaDo and Leeland/Third Ward) too far apart to effectively serve the booming townhomes out there.  The EaDo stop is right next to Dynamo/BBVA Compass Stadium and 59, and Leeland is almost next to 45S, with no stops in between. Google Maps says they're about 1.1 miles apart.  Most of the people in those townhomes are going to have a serious walk to use the lines.  I think Metro is going to need to look at building an intermediate stop. Update: Good news - Metro board member Christof Spieler has tweeted me that space for a future station has been left near Ennis and Walker.
  • The East End/Green line won't truly be complete all the way to the Magnolia Park Transit center until the bridge over the freight rail tracks is finished in Spring 2016 (estimated).  Right now it stops at Altic/Howard Hughes.  I asked about the name of that stop - did you know the Howard Hughes was a big developer of the East End?  I had no idea - pretty cool.
  • Check out the bottom two photos below.  See the problem?  UH's new stadium is called TDECU, but the stop is called Robertson Stadium.  They have the same problem with the Reliant/NRG stop, and may have it in the future with Minute Maid and BBVA Compass stadiums.  I was told it's a Board level decision, and they're trying to figure out a policy with all of these frequent stadium renamings.  It's expensive to rename a stop when you consider all the maps that have to change.  I say they charge the company that bought the naming rights for the switchover.  But another option would be to pick generic stop names that are likely to be stable: UH, Astros, Dynamo, and Texans/Rodeo Stadiums.
The Ugly
  • Final cost numbers are $823 million for the 6.6 mile Southeast/Purple line and $587 million for the 3.3 mile East/Green line, for a total of $1.4 billion dollars (!).  To work that out on a per-mile basis, it has to be noted that both lines overlap about a mile downtown, so really only 8.9 miles of new track was created (not 9.9).  That works out to $158 million per mile, folks. Ouch. As nice as they are, that's a hard number to stomach. Did I mention this was the ugly section?
  • Some friendly advice to Metro: given the numbers I just mentioned, I don't recommend continuing to promote the new Taco Bell next to UH as economic development spurred by the new line.  The scale disparity invites unflattering comparisons and humor... ;-)
Overall, I continue to stand by my original thoughts that this money would have been better spent on other transit projects, like an improved and more extensive HOT lane network and Park & Rides with more express service to more job centers - or at least a nice cross-town University line.  I don't expect these lines to generate nearly the ridership of the original Main St. line.  But there's no going back in time, so let's hope these lines can be made as successful as possible to get a return-on-taxpayer-investment, especially when it comes to neighborhood investments and redevelopment.  As UH continues to improve as a Tier One University and generate more on-campus living and activity, I could certainly see the potential for a lot of interesting redevelopment along the Southeast line between the campus and downtown, as well as adding new energy to downtown's nightlife scene.  And the East line may also grow in popularity because the rest of the inner loop has gotten so unaffordable.  We'll just have to wait and see how it develops...

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Houston's general plan and the real source of wealth inequality: housing and land-use regulation

This week I have three items that all touch on the same theme: the risks of overly restrictive local land use regulation.  The first is an amazing paper by a 26-year-old MIT graduate turning heads over his theory that income inequality is actually all about housing (all summarized in one graph). (hat tips to Payton and Josh)
"Rognlie is attacking the idea that rich capitalists have an unfair ability to turn their current wealth into a lazy dynasty of self-reinforcing investments. This theory, made famous by French economist Thomas Piketty, argues that wealth is concentrating in the 1% because more money can be made by investing in machines and land (capital) than paying people to perform work (wages). Because capital is worth more than wages, those with an advantage to invest now in capital become the source of long-term dynasties of wealth and inequality. 
Rognlie’s blockbuster rebuttal to Piketty is that “recent trends in both capital wealth and income are driven almost entirely by housing.” Software, robots, and other modern investments all depreciate in price as fast as the iPod. Technology doesn’t hold value like it used to, so it’s misleading to believe that investments in capital now will give rich folks a long-term advantage. 
Land/housing is really one of the only investments that give wealthy people a long-term leg up. According to the Economist, this changes how we should rethink policy related to income inequality
Rather than taxing businesses and wealthy investors, “policy-makers should deal with the planning regulations and NIMBYism that inhibit housebuilding and which allow homeowners to capture super-normal returns on their investments.” In other words, the government should focus more on housing policy and less on taxing the wealthy, if it wants to properly deal with the inequality problem."
The second item is how Community Control Is Destroying America’s Cities.  Finally there is some recognition that excessive neighborhood NIBMY power is strangling the ability of cities to grow and spiraling housing costs out of control.  Houston gets mentioned as a good alternative model with our lack of zoning - thank goodness we haven't slipped down that slope of ever-expanding land use development controls... but are we about to?...

That leads to the third piece by Scott Beyer in Forbes about the general plan Houston is developing, which even gives me a short shout out.  There's a lot of good stuff in here, hence the long excerpts:
"Does Houston need this? For those who dislike messing with success, the answer should be no. 
As geographer Joel Kotkin has repeatedly noted here and in other publications, Houston’s pro-growth mentality—which is distinct from the “Smart Growth” ethos of government planners—is central to its success. While many highly-regulated cities have declined, Houston has in the last two decades fostered booming oil, health, housing and manufacturing sectors. Since 1990, its population has grown by 29%, five percentage points above the national average, and it has become the de facto Gulf Coast capital. 
Along with this growth has come increased quality of life. According to data from Praxis Strategy Group, a consultancy affiliated with Kotkin, Houston residents have the nation’s highest standard of living when combining average salary with cost of living, something attributed to its unregulated—and thus cheap—housing market.
If the plan’s point is really just to pursue these goals through more data and coordination, so that officials know, for example, where to build parks and fill potholes, then it should prove benign. But that is rarely the way master plans are interpreted. Instead, their lofty goals are used by officials to justify expanded government. What results is the generic list of Smart Growth measures that planners use to try converting automobile-oriented cities into dense, “sustainable,” European-style ones. 
The plan may also encourage expansion of the light rail system, which Tory Gattis, Kotkin’s colleague, believes is inadequate for the spread-out city, especially compared to the growing taxi and ride-sharing industries. If the plan adds an ambitious open-space preservation program, then Houston can kiss goodbye its pro-development climate. All these policies have been used in heavily-planned cities like San Francisco and Portland, contributing to their high taxes and lack of affordability. 
The ironic thing is that Houston’s outward growth and congestion has already created demand for development inside the I-610 loop, which encompasses downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Given this organic urbanization, master plans may be unnecessary, or even counterproductive. The city’s lack of zoning, after all, has made it inviting for such infill projects. But if the plan creates a litany of new regulations, they could be used by neighborhood activists to discourage development, as happens in planning-oriented cities. If city officials are really interested in greater density—along with other urbanist goals like increasing wealth, job creation, and diversity—perhaps they should scrap the plan and keep Houston like it is."
I think he raises some good points about the risks of this plan, but I also know that there are people actively involved with the general plan development process that are making sure we don't make those mistakes.  Officials are more aware than ever before of Houston's strengths and are being careful not to compromise them as we continue to improve the city.  But vigilance will always be required...

More on Houston's new general plan here and my own thoughts here.

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Sunday, April 05, 2015

New life for the Astrodome at 50, everybody's coming to Texas, our openness to new ideas, the rise of private transit, and more

Hope you enjoyed last week's April Fools post - quite the backlog of items to get to this week:
"Nearly 48,000 people – including President Lyndon B. Johnson – crammed into the glistening new Astrodome on April 9, 1965, to watch the New York Yankees fall 2-1 to the newly renamed Houston Astros." 
"Another way to look at population growth in Houston last year:
A baby was born every 5.5 minutes.
A death was recorded every 14.2 minutes.
Someone moved to the region from overseas every 16.3 minutes.
Someone moved to Houston from elsewhere in the U.S. every 8.0 minutes.
All told, Houston's population grew at the rate of one new resident every 3.4 minutes last year."
"“To be able to say I can make tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people’s lives better every day, that’s meaningful. That’s what actually matters.” 
Spieler grew up in the San Francisco suburbs, he told us, before moving to Houston for college. “I thought Houston was an awful place, but I would put up with it to go to Rice. But by the time I graduated I loved this place.” Our attraction? An openness to new ideas. 
“There are cities which try really hard to block any change. And politically, the questions you get asked are: how long have you lived here? Who were your parents? Who do you know? I never would have ended up on an appointed transit board in a city like San Francisco. This is a city where, if you have good ideas and you’re willing to push for them, people will listen to you. It gives me endless hope for Houston’s ability to keep changing.”"
"When many of these voters think of economic dynamism, they think of places like Texas, the top job producer in the nation over the past decade, and, especially, places like Houston, a low-regulation, low-cost-of-living place. In places like Wisconsin, voters in the middle class private sector support candidates who cut state pensions and pass right-to-work laws, so that economic governance can be more Texas-style."
"If you pretend that the United States is populated exclusively by twentysomething graduates of national research universities, you'll develop the sense that everybody is moving to the city centers of New York, Chicago, San Jose, and Boston. In fact, all three of those metro areas have seen more Americans leaving than coming in the last five years. The cities with the highest levels of net domestic migration since 2010 are Houston, Dallas, Austin, Phoenix, Denver, and San Antonio. Once again, we're talking about Texas. More broadly, we're talking about sprawly metros with fast-growing suburbs in the Sun Belt."

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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

J.J. Watt running for Mayor of Houston

Adding his hat (well, helmet) into an already crowded ring, Texans defensive end and 2014 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt announced today that he'll be running for Mayor of Houston, instantly vaulting to front-runner status.  Citing Arnold Schwarzenegger as his political role model, he vowed to tackle - literally - Houston's pension, pothole, crime, and traffic problems, saying he expected them to be far easier than many of the offensive linemen and running backs he's had to deal with.  He specifically warned the firefighters that he may have to "get physical" and "bring the hurt" in pension reform negotiations, a remark that sent them scrambling to rethink their position.

He also unveiled an innovative new plan for combating traffic congestion: during rush hours, he pledged to stay helicopter airborne for rapid response to crash scenes where he would personally clear vehicles from the mainlanes to the shoulder using his bare hands.  And further demonstrating his "hands on" management style to tackling Houston's crime problem, he pledged to make himself available in the "bad cop" role for all police interrogations, a move expected to dramatically increase confessions and the case clearance rate.

Asked about campaign funding, Watt noted that his recent $100 million contract with the Texans would allow him to easily self-fund and avoid outside money influences - not that he expected to need to spend much on advertising in any case, "I think a reasonably good number of Houstonians already know who I am - name recognition should not be much of an issue."

Asked about economic development, Watt smiled cryptically and said he expected simply to "have a word" with the Saudi Oil Minister about cutting oil production and increasing prices, "I'm sure we'll be able to come to a handshake deal - a very, very... very firm handshake."

Watt also pledged to personally "sack" incompetent or lazy City managers or employees, a threat that sent waves of fear - and a sudden uptick in productivity - throughout the ranks.

In other news, immediately after Watt's announcement, Adrian Garcia's office sent out a press release stating he was perfectly happy as Harris County Sheriff and had no plans to resign and run for another office.


Hope you enjoyed this year's April Fools post ;-D Here are previous years if you missed 'em and would like a chuckle:

  • 2014: HPD forming task force against ride services
  • 2013: Astrodome to be restored to host 2017 Super Bowl LI
  • 2012: Hobby to close, IAH turned over to United
  • 2008: Neighborhood happy with new Ashby tower modifications
  • 2007: Mayor expands historic preservation, air pollution initiatives
  • 2006: Metro settles Universities/Westpark/Richmond rail alignment
  • 2005: Houston embraces "New Weather Urbanism"