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.”
GHP released their new April Economy at a Glance report with a deep analysis of Houston's population growth over history and where we've ranked over time as well as job and airport growth updates.
Speaking of airport growth, the Wall Street Journal did a good article on the expansion of international flying from Houston. The newest example is that Air New Zealand is coming to Houston! A big international feather in the cap for Houston. It will allow easy routings between ANZ and the eastern and southern U.S. as well as parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. So with this Air New Zealand flight Houston is one of five cities in the world connected to all continents except Antarctica (treating ANZ as one continental region), and the only one in the U.S.! (if you're wondering how that's possible, it's because the other U.S. cities with flights to Australia or New Zealand - LA, SF, DFW - don't have flights to Africa, and we do)
"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."
Touring METRO's new rail lines: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
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:
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...
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.
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...
"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?...
"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...
The ULI released their full report on a future for the Astrodome (Chronicle story, City Lab story). I've discussed it here before and am a big fan - I hope Judge Emmett and the County Commissioners can get traction with it. Interesting side note: this picture of the UH-UCLA "game of the century" at the Chronicle story was taken just a few steps from where my parents watched the game! They said the players looked like ants from that distance...
Speaking of the Astrodome, the 50th birthday party is this Thursday (Chronicle story), including the opportunity to walk on the floor of the dome and gaze up at that amazing ceiling. I hope the 50th birthday celebration is an energetic spark to add some momentum to the new ULI plan.
"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."
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:
Sprawl wins in a solar world, bribing commuters to ride transit, new option to Dallas, downtown's progress, lessons from Chicago and Atlanta
First, an event announcement: long-time readers know I don't do official political endorsements (this is a policy blog), but I have admired Bill King's strong stand on the city's pension crisis (among others), a topic most politicians seem to shy away from. You can learn more about his Back-to-Basics campaign and ask all the questions you like (the man can definitely engage seriously on policy discussions) at his kickoff fundraiser Monday from 5:30 to 7 at Cadillac Bar. Details here.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution has done a major series of articles critiquing Atlanta as falling far behind its peer cities. Everybody knows the worst case scenario for a city is Detroit, but Atlanta is a more realistic cautionary tale for Houston: a city that can't unify to solve big problems like transportation, infrastructure, and education. It has especially underinvested in their freeway network - including a lack of loops/beltways - which is coming back to haunt them. Had we not done Beltway 8 and now the Grand Parkway, we could be in the same situation. They also did in-depth profiles of two peer competitor cities doing much better than them: Dallas and Charlotte, including well done short profile videos. I'm not surprised they didn't choose Houston, where the comparison is muddied by the oil boom (Dallas much less so). And if you're curious for more backstory, Aaron Renn (the Urbanophile) wrote a prescient piece on Atlanta's decline back in 2010.
The solution to these issues, as proposed by Townsend, is "solar-powered, self-driving sprawl." The thinking goes like this: sprawl is the ideal land use pattern for developing a solar grid that can power the electric cars of residents while still providing the electricity that the region needs to function. He quotes from a paper issued in 2013 by University of Auckland researchers:
"[S]uburbia is not only the most efficient collector of solar energy but that enough excess electricity can be generated to power daily transport needs of suburbia and also contribute to peak daytime electrical loads in the city centre... While a compact city may be more efficient for the internal combustion engine vehicles, a dispersed city is more efficient when distributed generation of electricity by [photovoltaic solar cells] is the main energy source and [electric vehicles] are the means of transport."
Avoiding CA's mistakes, Astrodome talk, great rankings, cool H-town video, and more
Let's kick off this week's post with an event announcement: if you have even the slightest interest in the Astrodome, don't miss Jim Gast's talk this Thursday. I saw him speak at Rice, and he has a really compelling mix of great slides and stories of the Astrodome's history - so good I suggested he get it turned into a documentary. As an added bonus, he'll sign a copy of his Astrodome book ("The Astrodome: Building an American Spectacle - A book about the people, technology, and times that built the biggest room in the world") for you. Not to be missed. Details here.
"Paradoxically, perhaps the city’s biggest strength is its sprawl. Unlike most other big cities in America, Houston has no zoning code, so it is quick to respond to demand for housing and office space. Last year authorities in the Houston metropolitan area, with a population of 6.2m, issued permits to build 64,000 homes. The entire state of California, with a population of 39m, issued just 83,000... Joel Kotkin of Chapman University in California argues that thanks to cars, even over its vast size, Houston creates the same possibilities for people to meet and share ideas that generate wealth in denser cities such as New York. Sprawl may not be pretty—but it seems to work."
"Since 2009 the area has welcomed some 1,500 corporate relocations or expansions—and that’s just counting those that created 50 or more jobs, leased 20,000 or more square feet of office space, or invested $1 million or more in capital improvements.
In the past four years, greater Houston grew by half a million people—half from moves, half from births. Population growth means housing demand, and realtors sold more than 425,000 homes in the last five years, amounting to a home-closing rate of one every six minutes, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. What’s more, jobs boost construction, which is why last year Houston topped our list of Building Boom Towns: metro areas with the most new construction.
What’s behind the boom, besides the obvious oil explosion? Exports. Between 2009 and 2013, the value of Houston’s exports grew 74.5%. More than 3,000 companies in greater Houston do business internationally, by Jankowski’s count, from oilfield services giant Schlumberger to Universe Technical Translation. The metro area is now the nation’s top exporter, ahead of New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Detroit. "
Exactly ten years ago today were my very first posts on Houston Strategies: a welcome/kickoff/teaser post and an idea for a UH Institute of Technology campus (the idea didn't take, but I'm still hopeful UH will see the light one day...). And here we are 1,050 posts later with thousands of readers - I can't thank you enough for your support over the years. Over that time the posts have shifted away from ideas and strategies towards summarizing relevant items from around the web for your consideration, but the overall goal remains the same: celebrating what Houston does right and promoting ideas for making it better.
Looking back over the last ten years, what strikes me the most is the incredible shift in Houston's confidence in itself. Ten+ years ago, Houston was almost apologetic about not being Austin/Portland/San Francisco/New York. There was much fretting about our need to attract the college-educated creative class and implement much stronger land use controls along with rail transit, since "that's what global cities do". Since then, they had a massive housing crash, and we've had hyper-growth and come into our own as a city confident in itself and the unique way we do things in Houston, including our market-oriented approach to land use instead of traditional zoning and more flexible and value-oriented busways instead of budget-busting fixed rail (unfortunately we only made that discovery *after* it busted our budgets). We identified specific needs to fix and tackled them, including quality of life issues like parks, bayous, bike trails, flood control, a vibrant downtown, and neighborhood and historic preservation - all within the context of doing things "the Houston way", with a heavy emphasis on philanthropy, ground-up volunteerism, and voluntary opt-ins - with the occasional government support as needed (big projects up next: the Astrodome, hopefully followed soon after by the Ike Dike).
Recognizing that we offer the highest standard of living in the world, as measured by cost-of-living adjusted average incomes (graph here), and keeping a laser focus on maintaining that position as the city evolves. It is by far our biggest asset as a city. We are winning - now don't take our eye off the ball.
Houspitality as our identity and brand - as our version of Hawaii's "Aloha Spirit". I just think it encapsulates us so well and is such a differentiator vs. the bland branding of most cities (more on city branding in an upcoming post).
So ten years yields five big ideas still worth promoting plus a plethora of smaller ones. Not bad - I'll take that. As always, thanks for your readership, and here's to the next ten years being even better!
Social Systems Architect and entrepreneur with a genuine love of my hometown. I cover a wide range of topics in this blog - including transportation, transit, economic development, quality-of-life, city identity, and development and land-use regulations - and have published numerous Houston Chronicle op-eds on these topics. I'm a Founding Senior Fellow with the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and co-authored the original study with noted urbanist Joel Kotkin and others, creating a city philosophy around upward social mobility for all citizens as an alternative to the popular smart growth, new urbanism, and creative class movements. I am a native Houstonian, 6th-generation Texan, attended Rice University for my BSEE and MBA, and a former McKinsey consultant and adjunct faculty member with Leadership Houston. I am currently the founder of Coached Schooling, pioneering a transformational new approach for a more effective and engaging 21st-century K-12 education combining the best elements of eLearning, home and traditional schooling. CONTACT EMAIL: tgattis (at) pdq.net - send me an email if you would like to receive these posts via email, or see the Google Groups signup box below.