Houston's changes, challenges, opportunities, and identity
Apologies for the sporadic posting lately - it's been a crazy couple of months. My Center for Opportunity Urbanism recently held an HBJ-sponsored event (alternate link) to release our major report on Texas Urbanism, with a focus on the Texas Triangle cities. I'll have more to discuss on this in future posts, but in this one I wanted to give my thoughts/notes on the questions the HBJ moderator asked the panel during the event. How has Houston changed in the past 30 years?
Culturally, from provincial to much more cosmopolitan (including restaurants). Much more educated, attracting many more college grads. Higher demographic diversity. Economically full cycle, from the collapse of the first oil boom to the collapse of the second oil boom. Massive growth - more than doubled in metro population. Huge growth and densification inside the Loop, especially townhomes, apartments, and residential towers. Also the rise of the suburban edge cities: Sugar Land, Pearland, Katy, Woodlands, League City.
Obviously the second oil boom was a massive driver. The lack of zoning enabled easy densification. Culturally, our long history of comfort/tolerance with diversity has made it easy for immigrants to move here and assimilate. The energy industry has become much more global. Massive housing unaffordability developed on the coasts which made Houston a much more attractive proposition for all classes (including recent college grads). Freeway investments/expansions helped enable the suburban growth, especially the edge cities.
What are Houston’s biggest challenges?
Traffic congestion, and in turn keeping major employers in the core instead of moving out to the suburbs like Exxon and Shell (solution = network of MaX Lanes – Managed eXpress lanes moving the maximum number of people at maximum speed).
Risk of the fossil fuel industry being replaced with renewables – how long will the transition take and how will we adapt?
Building the Ike Dike before the Big Hurricane hits.
What are Houston’s biggest opportunities?
Continuing to offer the highest standard of living among major metros in the US (esp. for families and mainly thru housing affordability), which helps attract a diversity of talent and cultures.
Continuing to develop a more urban core.
Growing the port, esp. trade via the expanded Panama Canal and downstream petrochemical investments with some of the cheapest feedstocks in the world.
Becoming the city of choice for foreign companies to put their Americas regional headquarters offices.
Houston’s has struggled with its identity in the past. How would you describe Houston?
America’s most affordable global city.
Cultural crossroads of opportunity: Started with South meets West meets Mexico in the 1800’s and evolved from there with immigrants from all over and the international energy industry.
Is it possible for Houston’s dynamic be appropriated in other cities, like Atlanta or Denver since they seem similar. Can they learn from us? They are not as global or diverse as us, but they can certainly learn from our mobility investments (freeways, toll roads, managed lanes) and free market in land use/development.
Standard of living city rankings, best city in TX?, our development future, and more
I know it's been a long time since my last post and I apologize - travel and an overloaded calendar have been conspiring against me. I have a whole lot of backlogged content, but here's a good bit of it:
"For second-ranked Houston, the challenge is much different. Houston’s average pay per job is 30 percent above the metropolitan average, which converts to a near duplicate 29 percent higher COU Standard of Living Index, when adjusted for the cost of living. Houston’s future success will require retention its favorable housing affordability and high pay per job. The upheavals in the energy industry could result in lower pay per job in the future."
"Tory Gattis, founding senior fellow at Houston-based think tank Center for Opportunity Urbanism, envisions the Houston region developing into nine suburban "villages" that would grow to have populations as large as 1 million each. Those "villages" - The Woodlands, Kingwood/Humble, Baytown, Clear Lake/League City, Pearland, Sugar Land, Katy, Cypress and Tomball - would be in addition to the 2 million to 3 million people living in Houston.
In order for that to work, Gattis said, the outer regions would have to work with the Metropolitan Transit Authority to provide express park-and-ride services to downtown, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza and other urban job centers. ... Gattis predicts more mixed-use buildings and high-rises in the urban core, a small number of which will be met with resistance from lower-density neighborhoods around them. The biggest tensions will arise from mobility challenges should more employers move away from the inner city.
In an age of the self-driving car, Gattis says people will be more apt to move farther from the city center, no matter how it affects their commutes.
"They can do email and be productive in the car," he said, "even if it's an hour and a half."
"Houston is easily my favorite Texas city, because it combines the best aspects of the other three. The metro area is similar in size to Dallas, and has the same rapid growth, ethnic diversity, and global feel. In fact, Dallas and Houston sit alone together as America’s foremost boomtowns, each growing by more than 144,000 last year throughout the metro area (the third place MSA, Atlanta, grew by a mere 95,000). But, like San Antonio and Austin, Houston has remained more tasteful than Dallas, with numerous interior neighborhoods that are urban, walkable, and separated from the innards of the city.
Not only is Houston Texas’ best city; it is among a handful of emerging ones in the U.S.—including Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, Denver, Atlanta and Seattle—that will become the dense infill cities of tomorrow, joining the coastal legacy cities. The thing that differentiates Houston from the others, though, is that it doesn’t have the regulatory hurdles to stop this fundamentally market-oriented process. The city has no zoning code, which means a range of densities, uses and architectural styles can go anywhere in the city.
The folk wisdom is that this turned Houston into a sprawling mess like Dallas. But densification is already happening in Clutch City. This year it will lead the nation in multi-family housing construction, with 25,935 units entering the market (Dallas is #2 at 23,159). Much of this is going up rapidly via mid-rises in interior neighborhoods like Midtown, Montrose and Rice Military. Houston has the highest Walk Score of Texas’ big cities. Dallas, meanwhile, may feel more fragmented because of the low-density zoning in its central areas."
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.
"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."
Hurray for the new Astrodome plan which recently passed commissioners court. Just to clarify, folks, it's *not* just a parking garage, but an event venue for conventions, festivals, OTC, Texan games, and the Rodeo that happens to be using a paid parking garage as a revenue-generating way to raise the floor 30 ft. to ground level.
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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."
"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…"
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...
"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."
An excellent defense of MUDs by Stephen Spillette in the Houston Chronicle. If you're not familiar with Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs), they allow developers to build on the periphery while selling bonds to finance the infrastructure of new subdivisions, with property taxes in those subdivisions paying off the bonds. They are a big part of how Houston is able to maintain a strong housing supply and stay affordable.
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…"
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.