Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Houston parallels to Atlanta's sprawl debate

Houston and Atlanta are very similar cities in a lot of ways: fast-growing, modern, sprawling, car-based, southern cities of roughly the same size with few geographic barriers to growth. So you could replace the word "Atlanta" with "Houston" in a set of recent Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) articles on sprawl and have the points pretty much hold up the same as they do in Atlanta. It starts with a sprawl-defending Q&A interview with author Robert Bruegmann of "Sprawl: A Compact History." I've covered him plenty here before, so I'll just jump straight to his Houston comment:
Downtown Atlanta is a really good case. My impression is that it has been on the verge of gentrification for a long time, but it just keeps sputtering. There's never been enough critical mass, and there've been too many attractive alternatives, particularly to the north, so downtown has not quite started its revival of a residential district. But if it follows in the path of virtually all the other cities that are comparable, it will. You'll start seeing an awful lot of people wanting to live downtown in high-density districts.

With its Midtown phenomenon Atlanta follows the model of Houston. Midtown became a second downtown and in many ways eclipsed the original downtown. Eventually these old downtowns find a niche. As in Manhattan, which I think could very easily become a high-end cultural and residential resort area, rather than a business center. That may in fact by the fate of downtown Houston and downtown Atlanta somewhere down the road.
Sound like our downtowns are in similar situations? I think when he says Midtown Houston, he means Uptown/Galleria-area Houston. Midtown Houston has in no way eclipsed the original downtown. Uptown has in some ways, although I think downtown has made quite a comback in the last decade. But Uptown seems to have more residential momentum than downtown with all the existing and under-construction condo towers.

The whole thing is worth reading if you have the time.

AJC then follows with pro and con sprawl op-eds by their own editors. Len does a good job deconstructing the con case with a Houston spin at Out of Control, so I'm not going to go into it here. I think the title of the con is not very accurate, "Free market would never pick sprawl". It's an ongoing debate whether we have a true free market going on in Houston or elsewhere. Does Houston have regs that force sprawl? (to be discussed in a future post) Do we have govt subsidies that encourage it? My personal belief is that it is the natural inclination of people: rising affluence seeks more private space. But I do agree with con op-ed that natural density would be higher without a lot of zoning and permitting regs. Relatively unregulated Houston has shown an inclination towards more density than regulated Atlanta, which has about 2/3 of Houston's density. Houston allows more apartment complexes and townhome densification.

After discussing the acrimony in the sprawl vs. smart growth debate, there's an excerpt I like from the pro op-ed:

As it [sprawl] has evolved in metro Atlanta, it is not, then, the consequence of white flight, nor is it evidence of a social malady. It is, quite simply, a lifestyle option that allows poor people to have the quality of life that once was exclusive to the well-to-do. Outward development offers people something they prize: "privacy, mobility and choice," as Bruegmann explains it.

"By privacy I mean the ability to control your own environment, and one of the ways you can do that relatively easily is if you have your own plot of land and your own house.

"By mobility, I mean physical mobility and also social and economic mobility.

"And choice — that means you can do a lot of different things."


As for metro Atlanta, discussions about how to handle the inevitable growth — inevitable unless we actively conspire to create a high-tax, anti-development regulatory environment (Portland, Ore., is the oft-cited poster community for this) — could proceed if we left some of the baggage at the door.

Skycaps at the next Envision Houston meetings, anyone?


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