Monday, May 10, 2021

Houston meetup 6pm Thursday

Scott Beyer from the Market Urbanism Report and Charles Blain + myself from the Urban Reform Institute - A Center for Opportunity Urbanism are holding a Houston meetup 6pm this Thursday, May 13th at The Pit Room. Look for us at a patio table next door. Hope to see you there! 


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Sunday, May 09, 2021

Four drivers of Texas' rapid growth

A few weeks ago I interviewed Washington Post journalist David Byler on the drivers of Texas' growth, which resulted in an excellent piece he published last week with great analytics, map animations, graphs, and articulation of the drivers: Texas’s population and political power are growing. Here’s why. It concludes with this excerpt:

"Texas has found a simple formula for success — economic opportunity and a low cost of living — and stuck with it. People want simple things: good jobs, affordable housing and room for kids. And they’re willing to move to states that offer them." 
For this post, I wanted to pass along the four growth drivers I shared:
  1. Texas does not allow zoning/land use regulation in unincorporated counties on the edges of cities, so developers build large, affordable, amenity-rich master-planned communities that attract lots of people using Texas Municipal Utility Districts (MUDs), where a developer can float private bonds to build the infrastructure (streets, utilities) paid back by taxes in that community.  It creates a thriving, competitive free market in housing development – much more than you’d see between incorporated cities.  The Woodlands is one of the most famous of these, but there are hundreds (Bridgelands and Cinco Ranch as large examples).  Here’s a giant one going up near DFW.
  2. High standard of living, especially shared among immigrant networks: they know what kinds of houses their extended family members can afford all over the country, and they see the newest and biggest at the most affordable price in Texas (combined with job opportunities). They end up choosing Texas when they come to America. (and remember it’s more than just median house prices – it’s what you get for that price: that $635k in California gets a very old, small house – in Texas $278k gets you a larger, newer house) 
  3. Family-friendly: Declining fertility is a problem all over the developed world, most especially in places where housing has grown expensive. If families can’t afford more space, they shrink the family size to compensate.  In Texas, it’s very affordable and common to get large 4, 5, even 6 bedroom homes in the suburbs with good school districts, which keeps the birth rate up here.
  4. Opportunity Cities: This blog post of mine has a fairly good list of attractive elements in Houston specifically and Texas in general.
Anything I missed? Looking forward to your thoughts in the comments.

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Monday, May 03, 2021

Texas and HTX growth secret, what kind of Texan are you? major climate change solution, TX miracle is more than oil, and more

My lead item this week is a comment I made on the Market Urbanism Report Facebook group: 

Going beyond all the usual reasons given for Texas' high growth, here's the technical overlooked one that I think is a big key: Texas does not allow unincorporated counties to regulate land use (i.e. create zoning), which creates pretty much a totally free market in development just outside cities. Combine that with MUDs (municipal utility districts) that allow private developers to float bonds to pay for master-planned community infrastructure paid back by property taxes on that development, and there is complete flexibility in the suburban/exurban housing market.  And those master-planned communities compete fiercely on price and amenities (far more than incorporated cities do). That, in turn, forces the core incorporated cities to "compete" for private development dollars by not over-regulating - otherwise they'll just jump outside the city limits. It's an overall balance of forces that keeps welcoming development and newcomers with a strong value proposition (high amenities with relatively low costs).

Moving on to some smaller items this week:

"Civic Pragmatists are optimistic yet pragmatic when they think about a changing Texas. Their ideal Texas is one where the state is a leader in the knowledge-economy industries, as well as a Texas where everyone feels safe and like they belong."
“The zoning issue is tough and complex. It balances principled libertarian objections to zoning and the interests of developers, on the one hand, against core principles of federalism and local control, on the other.”
I’d say Houston’s secret sauce is less about not having SFZ (deed restrictions are pretty much the same) than allowing pretty much anything else everywhere that’s not single-family: apartments, towers, retail, mixed-use, offices, you name it.
"In India alone, the equivalent of a city the size of Chicago will have to be developed every year to meet demand for housing. ... 
Michael Ramage of the University of Cambridge told the meeting of a 300-square-metre four-storey wooden building constructed in that city. Erecting this generated 126 tonnes of co2. Had it been made with concrete the tally would have risen to 310 tonnes. If steel had been used, emissions would have topped 498 tonnes. Indeed, from one point of view, this building might actually be viewed as “carbon negative”. When trees grow they lock carbon up in their wood—in this case the equivalent of 540 tonnes of co2. Preserved in Cambridge rather than recycled by beetles, fungi and bacteria, that carbon represents a long-term subtraction of co2 from the atmosphere. 
If building with wood takes off, it does raise concern about there being enough trees to go round. But with sustainably managed forests that should not be a problem, says Dr. Ramage. A family-sized apartment requires about 30 cubic metres of timber, and he estimates Europe’s sustainable forests alone grow that amount every seven seconds. Nor is fire a risk, for engineered timber does not burn easily." 
"So Vyas picked another metropolis that's increasingly become young people's next-best option — Houston.

Now 34, Vyas, a tech worker, has lived in Houston since 2013. "I knew I didn’t like New York, so this was the next best thing,” Vyas said. “There are a lot of things you want to try when you are younger -- you want to try new things. Houston gives you that, whether it’s food, people or dating. And it’s cheap to live in.”
Hear hear!

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Sunday, April 25, 2021

My Land Use without Zoning event, TX #1 for small biz, HTX #1 for diversity, urban transit after covid, sinking I69 in Midtown, and the Be Someone sign is back!

The lead item this week is an event announcement: I'll be one of the speakers/panelists at the Mercatus Center's "Land Use without Zoning: Putting Ideas into Practice" online event on May 18th.  Here's the overview:

"Zoning and land use policy regulations present the greatest barriers to affordable housing and increased urban density. 

Understanding how to navigate and remove these barriers allows for a dynamic housing market and paves the way for successful community development efforts. 

The study of the impact of land use and zoning policy began with Bernard Siegan in his pioneering 1972 study, "Land Use Without Zoning." In his book, Siegan first set out what has today emerged as a common-sense perspective: Zoning not only fails to achieve its stated ends of ordering urban growth and separating incompatible uses, but it also drives housing costs up and competition down. 

Drawing on the unique example of Houston—America’s fourth-largest city, and its lone dissenter on zoning—Siegan explored the impact of a different approach to land use policy and demonstrated how land use will naturally regulate itself in a non-zoned environment and yield a greater availability of multifamily housing. 

While we have gained a greater understanding of the issues created by overly burdensome land use restrictions, these policies still remain in place, restricting the growth of communities and keeping housing costs high. Join us for a discussion of how land use reform battles have evolved over time, how community groups are working to remove these barriers and increase urban density, and how barriers to development can be challenged in court."

Register here - hope to see you there!

Moving on to this week's items:

  • Big piece of good news buried in this one - let the sinking and debottlenecking begin! 
"Though TxDOT has halted development of many segments, the portion along I-69 from Spur 527 to Texas 288 — which includes Wheeler — remains on pace for construction to start next year."

"As of December 2020, the most fuel-efficient means of commuting was the car, followed by light trucks—but only because occupancy embedded in the transit calculations was so drastically low. ...

A major premise of the Biden administration’s transportation agenda is to greatly increase federal spending on transit, compared with only modest, constrained increases for highways (with very little scope for adding highway capacity). This approach poses major risks of putting billions of taxpayer dollars into projects that will have costs far greater than their benefits (e.g., light rail systems for medium-sized cities, megaproject expansions of heavy rail and commuter rail systems, etc.).

At the very least, it is premature at this juncture to commit funding for major new rail transit projects before we have some idea of the extent of transit ridership in the first several years after nationwide vaccinations."
Finally, I'd like to end with a small celebration for whoever repainted the iconic Be Someone bridge - love it!



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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Transit tips from Harvard and Japan, shrinking office space, HTX life science, foreign offices for economic growth, MUD videos, and more

Lots of small items to catch up on this week: 

  • "40 years of Harvard transportation research can be summed up in 4 words: BUS GOOD, RAIL BAD." -Ed Glaser, Harvard economics professor, The Bush Center Leadership Forum April 15, 2021
  • A bit dated but still incredible: "As can be seen on the following chart, during the period from January 2011 to March 2014, there have been slightly more single-family housing starts in Houston (95,037) than in California for the entire state (94,993)." That's a metro of 7 million building more housing than a state of 40 million - crazy!

“The cities with the lowest [office] return rates are on the coasts like New York, San Francisco, and Washington, Kastle said, where long commutes, often on dysfunctional transit systems, are common.”

"In fact, tuck-under townhouses are probably the most successful middle housing type around. In lightly-regulated Houston, builders small and large have been building townhouses, sometimes on courtyards perpendicular to the road. Parking is tucked. Townhouses are usually three stories tall (bad!), sometimes four. A few are even five stories. Their courtyards are driveways (also bad!)."

Finally, some fun, short animated videos on MUDs and property taxes in Texas you might enjoy exploring, courtesy of Triton and hat tip to David. That video on shutting off water to your home would have been real handy for a lot of people during the February winter storm...

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Sunday, April 11, 2021

What Houston Could Lose Because of Harris County's Anti-NHHIP (IH-45N) Lawsuit

This week we have a guest post from Oscar Slotboom making a very compelling case for a long list of benefits from the I45N redevelopment project as well as the risks of cancellation or delay - a list which seems to be getting lost in all the controversy.

Despite the support of the HGAC Transportation Policy Council, Harris County recently filed a lawsuit to block the IH-45 North Houston Highway Improvement project. Let's review the extensive and transformative benefits the NNHIP will provide for Houston, starting at the south end and proceeding northward.

The NHHIP will

  • Remove nearly a mile of elevated IH-69 freeway through Midtown and sink the freeway below ground level. This will be especially beneficial to the new innovation district hub and the Ion, which is adjacent to the freeway.
  • Provide relief for the chronic congestion on northbound IH-69 at Spur 527
  • Remove existing elevated ramps connecting into Chenevert Street
  • Add new long-span arched bridges at Elgin, Tuam and McGowen, providing an attractive architectural enhancement to the area
  • Retire the Pierce Elevated, providing the opportunity for redevelopment or creating one of the most distinctive urban parks in the country, Houston's version of NYC's High Line.
  • Provide relief for the chronic back-ups which occur for traffic connecting to the northbound Pierce Elevated
  • Remove a mile of elevated freeway through east downtown, sinking the freeway below ground level.
  • Provide the opportunity for new parks over the freeway, seamlessly connecting to Eado with the potential to transform the area similar to Dallas' Klyde Warren Park.

  • Provide all displaced residents of Clayton Homes the opportunity to relocate to public housing in the immediate area, or to receive vouchers
  • Relocate IH-10 so it no longer goes through the middle of UH-Downtown
  • Provide the opportunity to consolidate east-west railroads on the north side of downtown, removing the railroad from the UH-Downtown campus and improving development opportunities for the proposed North Canal project.
  • Reduce the footprint of freeways on the west side of downtown and at West Dallas, opening up more space for parkland and recreation. Plans include a new pedestrian crossing at Andrews Street.
  • Apply high-quality architectural standards to all the freeway structures, far better than the utilitarian and unattractive existing concrete structures from the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
  • Improve pedestrian and bicycle accommodations at all freeway crossings
  • At IH-45 and North Main, add a deck over the freeway, which substantially improves the situation as compared to the existing design.
  • Reduce the risk of flooding on the flood-prone section at North Main by applying modern flood control design standards.
Flooding on IH-45 near North Main
  • Provide four managed lanes on IH-45 north of downtown to Beltway 8, which will be an important part of a future interconnected managed lanes network for Houston to promote public transit, carpooling and technologies of the future. The managed lanes will provide the opportunity for two-way high-speed bus service to Bush Airport.
  • Modernize the antiquated interchange at I-45 and Loop 610, which has seen only minimal improvements since its opening in 1962. These improvements will provide relief for the chronic backups on eastbound Loop 610 approaching the interchange.
  • Provide the opportunity for new architectural enhancements and landscaping along the freeway from Loop 610 to Beltway 8, which is currently one of Houston's most unattractive freeways and unfortunately the first impression of Houston for many visitors arriving at Bush Airport.
  • Remove 58 billboards, with most along the North Freeway (reference FEIS page ES-19)
  • Between Loop 610 and Beltway 8, bring the frontage roads up to modern standards to facilitate safe and convenient access to businesses along the freeway.
  • Improve job access for the segment 1 workforce (from Loop 610 to Beltway 8).
    The City of Houston request, which is supported by Harris County, aims to make traffic congestion worse and force people into public transit that goes downtown. But when you think about it, this is entirely wrong for the corridor workforce. This workforce is generally not going to find a match for its job skills downtown. This workforce is far more likely to find a match for its skills at employment locations like Bush Airport, warehouses, industrial facilities, medical offices, factories and construction sites.The Hispanic workforce in particular is heavily represented in the trades, construction and landscape. This workforce goes to on-site work locations and is more heavily dependent on highways than other sectors of the workforce. Making traffic worse will impart disproportionately large cost and inconvenience to this workforce.
  • Provide congestion relief throughout the corridor. The NHHIP will improve freeway sections which currently are ranked among the most congested in Texas, with the following rankings: #3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 13, 15, 17. Nine of the 17 worst congested freeways in Texas will be improved by this project, which is an amazing and remarkable amount of congestion relief for a single project.
As this list shows, this is not just a mobility project, but also a transformative urban improvement project for Houston. TxDOT is spending $7 billion including $5 billion in the downtown area to achieve these improvements for Houston. The FEIS plan was forged over 10 years, and like any complex plan it is a compromise plan, with elements for both sides to like and dislike. As with any compromise plan, you don't come back at the end and say "Oh, I want to keep the parts I like and get rid of the parts I don't like." That's not how a compromise works.

With the lawsuit, there are numerous scenarios in which the currently committed funding of $5.05 billion could be lost
  • Due to delays or insufficient local support, TxDOT could rescind the funding and reallocate it to other projects statewide.
  • The court could require a redo of the environmental process, which would take years and also wipe out existing plans. There's no assurance TxDOT will be willing to fund the Pierce removal and below-grade Eado freeway if the process restarts from scratch. When the West Loop expansion was canceled in 1992, the revised plan was a basic, low-cost plan. We know how that turned out, with the West Loop perennially among the top two most congested freeways in Texas, and usually #1 most congested.
  • Long delays could cause inflationary cost increases in the billions. Construction costs are down about 10% due to Covid, but as the recovery progresses we could see a severe inflationary surge similar to the increase seen after the Great Recession. In the five year period from 2011 to 2016, construction costs increased 60%, which would increase the project cost around $4 billion to $11 billion. (source)
  • Probably now or never. With TxDOT's generally declining financial situation due to reduced fuel tax receipts and declining oil severance tax (which funds Proposition 1), there is no assurance there will ever again be funding for a project of this scope if current funding is lost. TxDOT's funding is currently slated to be in steep decline in the 2030s, as Proposition 7 expires in 2029 and 2032.
  • The Biden "infrastructure" plan, if passed, would to be minimally helpful to TxDOT's long-term financial situation. Only $115 billion (5%) of the $2.3 trillion proposal is slated for highways and bridges. If Texas receives a share proportional to its population (which it probably won't), that would be $10 billion over 8 years, or $1.3 billion per year which is around 8% of TxDOT's $15 billion annual budget. Of course there would likely be numerous strings attached to the money, possibly restricting it to maintenance and repair.
If NHHIP is canceled or defunded because of Harris County's actions, it will be a huge loss for the future of Houston.

UPDATEWe're not the only ones that see the benefits of this project:

Houston Chronicle:  Supporters of I-45 widening say pause puts promises of relief on hold, too

'Others bristle at the concerns voiced by critics who say they are representing minority and low-income groups, when many Black and Latino groups, businesses and residents want the project. Local NAACP officials and others cheered TxDOT for going to unprecedented lengths to include communities, who are not in total agreement with those who argue the project is racist or unfair to struggling families.

“There are people that come on the line that say they speak for the poor, but they have not spoken to them,” community activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad told the Texas Transportation Commission.'

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Monday, April 05, 2021

Are we entering the Distributed Age? Plus perspectives on Houston, TX #1 for infrastructure, and more

My leads this week are a couple of great quotes about Houston:

"Houston has actively deregulated, with the result that it's the only major city in the U.S. today undergoing a transformational change from suburban to urban densities. Houston makes thinkable the unthinkable." 

-Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Land Use without Zoning book letter 

"Once a planning pariah, Houston, with its peculiar lack of zoning, increasingly looks like the future." 

-Nolan Gray in the afterword of the newly updated Mercatus edition of "Land Use without Zoning" by Bernard Siegan.

If you're curious about the recently re-released book on Houston, "Land Use without Zoning" by Bernard Siegan, you can find it here.

Moving on to this week's smaller items:

"Other American cities—notably Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Miami—are challenging NYC’s supremacy in communications, legal and financial services, the arts and business. Political and economic leaders in those cities encourage inclusive growth, development and change." 
"No state handles more of America’s cargo than Texas. In fact, no state comes close. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Lone Star State handles around $2 trillion worth of commodities per year. And Texas has the infrastructure to handle it. Port Houston, the nation’s second biggest, has surpassed Rotterdam as the world’s largest petrochemical complex, officials say."
“A year after the coronavirus sparked an extraordinary exodus of workers from office buildings, what had seemed like a short-term inconvenience is now clearly becoming a permanent and tectonic shift in how and where people work. Employers and employees have both embraced the advantages of remote work, including lower office costs and greater flexibility for employees, especially those with families.” … 
Still, about 90 percent of Manhattan office workers are working remotely, a rate that has remained unchanged for months, according to a recent survey of major employers by the Partnership for New York City, an influential business group, which estimated that less than half of office workers would return by September. … 
“We believe that we’re on top of the next change, which is the Distributed Age, where people can be more valuable in how they work, which doesn’t really matter where you spend your time,” said Alexander Westerdahl, the vice president of human resources at Spotify, the Stockholm-based streaming music giant that has 6,500 employees worldwide.
"As Houston prepares for unprecedented population growth in the coming decades, I predict that the versatile ADU concept will continue to help make our inner-city neighborhoods more affordable and sustainable."
"In 1976, New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable declared that Houston was “the American present and future. It is an exciting and disturbing place,” one that “scholars flock to for the purpose of seeing what modern civilization has wrought.” In her account the city's distinctive character lay in its decenteredness, its seemingly limitless capacity for shape-shifting, and its utter lack of history. Like many observers then and since, Huxtable was struck by the experience of juxtaposition—of form, scale, type, and space—that was a consequence, in part, of the city's infamous lack of zoning regulations and its unapologetic accommodation of private real estate interests"

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Thursday, April 01, 2021

Baylor forfeits to UH after positive covid test - UH goes straight to national championship game!

In an absolutely unprecedented occurrence in NCAA March Madness tournament history, Baylor is being forced to forfeit its upcoming Final Four semi-final basketball game against the University of Houston after their star player Davion Mitchell tested positive for Covid-19, sending UH directly to the national championship game Monday, April 5th! UH is now redefining the classic March Madness "Cinderella story" after being the first team to make the Final Four without defeating a single-digit seeded opponent and now skipping right past the semi-final game straight to the National Championship game - just when you thought pandemic craziness couldn't get any crazier! 

Baylor is of course completely devastated by the news and trying to appeal, but the NCAA covid safety protocols are very strict and pretty clear. Even if every other player tests negative, there's no way to know if they haven't already been exposed and will develop it before the game Saturday.

UH Chairman and Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta issued a statement congratulating the Cougars on getting to the national championship while offering a generous consolation prize to the Baylor players after their sudden season-ending disappointment: once they clear covid protocols they're all welcome to immediately join the cellar-dwelling 13-34 Rockets as an "obvious and immediate upgrade," according to Fertitta.

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

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