Mayor White gets it right on sprawlThe Chronicle has an article this morning on Houston and sprawl which unfortunately repeats the same dangerous myth about sprawl that has hobbled so many other cities. The claim is that we should be "planning the transportation investments that influence where development occurs", but that's really a code phrase for the belief "if we don't build any new roads, everybody will move into nice high density developments in the city core and sprawl will stop."
The Washington DC metro area is exhibit A#1 for how this approach completely fails. They hobbled road building and built heavy rail to the core. What did they get? One of the most hyper-sprawling metro areas in the country. As soon as commuting into the city became unbearable, the employers scattered to the four winds over huge swaths Maryland and Virginia so they could be near new, affordable housing their core middle-class family employees wanted to live in. The cruel irony is that, once my employer has moved 30 miles out of the city, I can now move 30 miles beyond that, live on my own country estate, and still have a reasonable commute. DC metro now has commuters that live in West Virginia! That's 90 miles from the DC core. To put that in a local context, you could live in a beach house halfway down Galveston Island and still be closer to downtown Houston than that.
The paradox that people find hard to grasp is that large transportation investments - and especially freeways - actually reduce sprawl. By providing access to new, affordable housing and making the commute bearable into the city, employers stay here. When employers stay here, that puts a real limit on how far out you can live and keep a reasonable commute - realistically 20-30 miles.
Employers really would like to stay in the core. They have employees scattered over all points of the compass, from Clear Lake to Sugar Land to Katy to The Woodlands to Kingwood - and moving out to any one suburb is going to be seriously disruptive to a good chunk of their employees. But once they bite the bullet and make the move, there's just about nothing that can bring them back. Silicon Valley employers aren't going to San Francisco, Orange County employers aren't going to LA, and the hundreds of auto industry companies in southeast Michigan have no intention of going back into the city of Detroit.
Fortunately, Mayor White seems to have a handle on the real solutions.
Mayor Bill White, meanwhile, said he is launching initiatives to help the city — particularly areas of northeast and southeast Houston that have been "leapfrogged" by new development — capture a greater share of the single-family housing market.
"I don't want, nor do most people in this community want, to tell people where they can and can't live or how long their commute should or shouldn't be," White said. "One person's sprawl is another person's dream house." ...
White agreed that transportation "is a critical issue in defining where and how the city grows." His strategy for directing more growth into the city, however, doesn't involve withholding transportation projects from remote areas.
Instead, White said, he wants to make the city more attractive for development through initiatives such as Project Houston Hope, a redevelopment plan for six neighborhoods just outside Loop 610. The plan calls for making tax-delinquent property available for affordable housing, working with school districts to improve educational quality and building streets and utilities to replace crumbling infrastructure.
With reasonably priced houses available in improved neighborhoods, White said, young families might be attracted by urban amenities such as libraries and entertainment venues that "are difficult sometimes to create in a new community." He said people who live outside the city often tell him they wish they were served by Houston police and firefighters.
White said he wants to more than double the number of single-family housing starts inside the city within two years. He said his staff is researching the current figure for the city; builders typically release new home-construction figures on a regional basis.It's almost enough to make me want to throw out term limits and let him become Houston's version of Mayor Daley (the father and son that have run Chicago for 50+ years).
Update: a follow-up to this post.