Monday, January 22, 2007

Mayor White's State of the City address

I don't normally directly cover local news, but, through the generosity of the Greater Houston Partnership, I was able to attend Mayor White's State of the City luncheon today as a member of the media (we get the tables in the very, very back corner). Overall, I liked just about everything I heard. I took a lot of notes, and plan on passing most of them along (one of the perks of a blog vs. the limitations of TV and print news).

I think Mayor White remains as popular as ever, but he does have one issue. He's one of those Mayors trying to get the city to do all the less visible "little things" right that add up to one well-managed city (especially when it comes to infrastructure), rather than focus on big-PR "ribbon-cutting" events/accomplishments. That's absolutely the right thing to do (Lanier was like that too). The problem is, when you talk to people, it's clear they like him, but they have trouble naming the things he's done, other than accept the Katrina evacuees (now considered a mixed blessing). This will be a bigger problem if he decides to run for higher office in 2010, like governor. I think he must've heard the same things I have, because the speech was very clear and forceful in articulating his accomplishments at the halfway point of his expected six years in office before term limiting out.

Some miscellaneous accomplishments he noted:
  • Crime is down significantly from a year ago (the post-Katrina surge)
  • Big investments in neighborhood drainage, as well as water and sewer infrastructure overhauls
  • Parks and libraries have longer hours
  • 42 point mobility plan, including light syncing, SafeClear, and promotion of flex work hours (next are rapid mobility response teams)
  • Substantial congestion reduction from accidents and 18% fewer freeway accidents (SafeClear)
  • Unfunded pension liabilities fixed
  • 58% reduction in toxic emissions from a targeted plant
  • Public personnel policies reformed (including incentive pay)
  • New downtown park, privately funded
  • 2,500 tax delinquent foreclosures, 900 of which have had title transferred for new use as affordable housing
  • Smoke free ordinance
  • 5 new non-profit preventative health clinics
  • Rapid transit plan with 3 new starts this year
  • Got 1,300 dropouts back into HISD, with a 95% graduation rate for those in the program
  • Citywide wireless internet access coming soon
  • More city services along with tax discipline
He also talked about how we haven't had to resort to tax incentives as many cities have to attract jobs, which he labeled as discriminatory against existing employers (which they definitely are). Instead, the better way to attract growth is through quality of life, cost of living, good education, and a good entrepreneurial/business culture that's not overregulated. It's given us job growth about double the national rate.

Some programs he's pushing for 2007:
  • "Apartments to standard"
  • Big plan to reduce billboards
  • Better incentives for historical preservation
  • Rapid mobility response teams
  • Privately-funded summer scholarships to increase student retention and performance
  • Penalties for city contractors that don't provide health insurance (he called it "leveling the competitive playing field" because some contractors push the health care cost of their employees on the city/state/feds - didn't catch the details of this one)
The centerpiece push seems to be energy efficiency and conservation. He spent quite a while on it, and clearly wants Houston to be a leader in energy conservation, not just production. Some points he made:
  • The home weatherizing program they did in a poor neighborhood last year saved on average $355 per home over about six months (if I heard right). That's definitely big savings for a low income household. He wants to expand that to 10% of all Houston houses, or about 30,000 homes, over the next 5 years. Lower utility bills makes home ownership more affordable.
  • Wants a goal of an overall 5% drop in energy usage per capita (? - or was it per GNP) over the next 5 years - both fixed and mobile.
  • This will also help with emissions and Clean Air Act compliance, and reduce the need for new plants (most likely to be coal-fired)
  • Called for us to join NY and CA on car fuel efficiency and emission standards
  • Also wants to cut our solid waste output by a similar amount (we have massive landfills)
  • Wants TXDoT's budget delinked from gas consumed via the gas tax (it means fuel efficiency cuts needed funding for roads)
  • Says Wal-Mart is targeting even larger percentage reductions (20-25%) in energy, fuel, and waste, so our goals are modest
  • Energy savings put more discretionary income in citizens' pockets, which further helps those citizens and the city. This mirrors a favorite point of mine: affordability = discretionary income = vibrancy and opportunity.
  • Is planning a major summit of local leaders at the GRB in September to build a plan around these goals.
As usual, he used the term "city of opportunity" a lot - a great theme and identity for Houston.

He asked for two things from each citizen of Houston:
  1. A renewed commitment to supporting our nonprofits
  2. Reaching out to others different from yourself; embracing diversity and unifying in civic cooperation
Putting in my own two cents, my favorite proposal to support both his goals of improved mobility and energy conservation is here, based on the three "keys to unlock our gridlock" op-ed and posts:
  1. Network of high-speed, congestion-priced MaX Lanes (probably involving the conversion of many freeway left lanes and/or HOV lanes)
  2. Competitive, privatized, subsidized express commuter transit services (bus and vanpool) from park-and-ride lots all over the city to all of our multiple employment centers
  3. Cash-out parking at major job centers to incentivize transit ridership and carpooling (employer charges for parking, but gives you an equivalent amount of cash you can either use for parking or keep for yourself if you find an alternate way to work)
I honestly think the combined impact could be huge on congestion reduction, transit ridership, and energy savings, not to mention increased discretionary income from reduced transportation spending. Truly it would be an accomplishment with state and national prominence, and even a few ribbons to cut... ;-)

Update: Chronicle's story and op-ed

45 Comments:

At 5:29 AM, January 23, 2007, Anonymous Neal Meyer said...

Tory,

You are correct in that Mayor White has had do focus on a lot of little things. The City does not seem to spend very much money anymore on noticeable big projects like adding road lanes, both leaving that to the County / Feds and because of NIMBY like opposition.

Some points:

1) I strongly suspect that we are not nearly out of the woods yet when it comes to the municipal pension liability problem. It clearly helped that Mayor White called the special election allowed under state law which allowed municipalities to opt out of the disastrous Texas constitutional amendment (Proposition 15, passed in November 2003) which bans the cutting of government employee pensions.

This issue will increase in urgency because GAAP rules are coming into effect over the next few years which will require governments to change accounting rules to more accurately reflect their pension liabilities up front, rules which were imposed and incorporated in the private sector years ago.

2) It should be obvious that I am a libertarian, but I do believe that our focus on environmental matters should be on controlling emissions at the tailpipe and on the petrochemical plants. I am not sure how much the Mayor can do, but it seems he is making moves in the right direction. People who say (or believe) that we will be able to cure our pollution issues through building a light rail empire are failing to understand the issue as a whole.

3) Smoke free ordainances: If you are a genuine believer in freedom, then the only person who should have a say as to whether smoking will be allowed on their property is the property or business owner. All other arguments (other than obvious public safety hazards like smoking at a gasoline stations), whether they be public health, that smoke free establishments do better business, etc, are all non-issues.

4) I don't know what "incentives" the Mayor has in mind for historical preservation, but the City should be agnostic about this matter. Historical preservation activists can get draconian about wanting to preserve property and buildings that don't belong to them.

Enough for now. You did the public a favor by attending this function and writing about it. No doubt your post will probably be more informative than anything written by the Chronicle.

 
At 8:37 AM, January 23, 2007, Blogger Owen said...

I haven't liked White as mayor (as Kevin Whited would say, his technocratic approach to everything is infuriating) and I think he's failed to focus on some important areas through his tenure, such as beefing up the police force. Moreover, he's supported inane trends like red-light cameras and a smoking ban, which he blithely lists as accomplishments.

Still, there's nothing really wrong with most of what he's proposing here, particularly basic infrastructure improvements, and I sincerely hope that he truly wishes to keep the cost of living down in Houston as our primary attraction. The only new proposals I worry about are historic preservation an billboard eradication.

First of all, billboards get a bad rap. Everyone says they're eyesores, but they don't really harm the atmosphere anywhere on the freeways in Houston -- in a commercial area, billboards actually fit in pretty well. Moreover, without the halo effect, I'd wager most people would admit that they're glad to have something more to look at to break the monotony of the commute.

As for historic preservation, I have no problem with incentives, if they're managed properly. I just worry about Houston going down the road of mandatory preservation, which tends to make development very difficult even when needed. In the 60's and 70's some neighborhoods in New Orleans, for example, were slated at historic districts even though the neighborhood was poor and largely blighted. Forbidding tear towns in such neighborhoods is unwise; it keeps them from coming back. You see the opposite phenomenon in Houston, where blighted neighborhoods see tons of new development.

 
At 11:07 AM, January 23, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Some of us lovers of the free market may enjoy looking at the billboards that line our freeways, but the fact is they make our city look horrendous to people from out of town, and to some of us who live intown. I can't imagine why any tears would be shed if every billboard in the country were eliminated. I hope the three that loom up right as you approach downtown on the North Freeway are the first to go.

There are always a few nightmare stories about what could happen if we had historic preservation laws. What about all the nightmares that have happened without them? Like all those parking lots in the historic district that sit where Civil War-era commercial buildings used to stand, buildings which couldn't meet the shortsighted interests of property owners who probably weren't even from Houston. What if JP Morgan Chase decides a few years down the road that that beautiful banking lobby at 712 Main isn't generating much revenue, and they could benefit a lot more by converting the bottom six floors of the building to parking? If you say that won't happen, I can show you worse disasters that have happened here.

 
At 2:04 PM, January 23, 2007, Anonymous random thoughts said...

Houston needs to realize that billboards are for rural highways and the exurbs. Allowing them within the city, especially the city core only reinforces the poor image of Houston. If you want the city to continue to grow and clean up it's image, the billboards need to go.

 
At 5:28 PM, January 23, 2007, Blogger kjb434 said...

image? image! i always thought it's what on the inside that counts.

The billboards never bothered me personally along the road. Besides, the two stretches of freeway that are the worst will have most if not all removed regardless of what Bill White does. I-45 the north and gulf freeways are under study to be rebuilt. I know the North freeway will need just enough additional right-of-way that will remove most of the run down commercial centers and billboards that are up against the feeder roads. This will leave very few if any billboards left. The gulf freeway from the loop to League City will have the same scenario several years later.

 
At 1:46 PM, January 24, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

When you've lived in Houston for awhile (or grown up here), you become accustomed to the sight of billboards everywhere you go, and don't notice it. When you go on a long road trip around the country and come back, it becomes all too apparent. This is the city that visitors see: slovenly and crass.

 
At 4:03 PM, January 24, 2007, Blogger Owen said...

mike,

The omnipresence of advertising is hardly something that detracts visitors. In Paris, companies put their names and logos in giant letters on buildings lining the freeways, and gigantic ad signs aren't uncommon, and yet nobody dares call Paris "slovenly and crass" even though most other cities do have greater restrictions on logos on buildings.

This inferiority complex many Houstonians have about the city really needs to stop. I'm sick of justifications for laws and programs being what vistors think. How about we do what we've usually done, and make decisions based on our own wants and desires for a change, rather than what we perceive others are thinking?

As for historical preservation, I agree that I don't care for property owners bulldozing historic structures. However, the property is theirs alone, and the free market is best suited to find the most efficient use of land. Goodness knows that the old mansions that used to line Main Street were pretty, but they would be wildly out of place there today. The biggest nightmare, in my eyes, is any effort to turn American cities into urban museums, as many European cities have done. Houston has a long legacy as a freewheeling, laizzez-faire metropolis. I'd hate to see that legacy quashed by harsh preservation measures.

 
At 4:51 PM, January 24, 2007, Anonymous random thoughts said...

Owen-

I know your average right-wing Houstonian doesn't want to hear this, but part of the reason why some places are more beautiful than others IS because of regulation and laws and government restrictions. Ever heard of externalities?

People in Houston are so concerned with private property rights, they don't understand that the free-wheeling atmosphere drives down everyone else's property values. Not exactly something to be desired!

The signs are simply part of the problem but it's a good start. We can finally start changing the national perception of Houston, which almost everyone has to agreed is poor.

 
At 4:53 PM, January 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The inferiority complex has very real roots and causes. To just tell everyone to quit it and act like some smiley chamber of commerce ambassador is not a particularly constructive strategy for solving problems.

The difference between the billboards in Paris and those in Houston is that it is clear that people in Paris genuinely cared about enabling the adverts to exist in a way that didn't detract from aesthetics. The message one gets from driving down the Gulf Freeway is that nobody cares about this place, which feeds the inferiorty complex.

 
At 10:28 PM, January 24, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

You know, I am a fan of the free market. I really like the ideas of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and I usually vote Republican. But if I ever become so giddy about capitalism that I am actually standing up for BILLBOARDS, I hope that someone shoots me.

 
At 10:49 PM, January 24, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Okay, so the last comment sounds overly harsh now that I read it in print. The last phrase is just an expression, not my actual desire.

Seriously though, what would happen to the free market if we got rid of billboards? A few out-of-town companies would no longer make six-figure revenues off of our eyes, and local businesses would have to find other places to spend their advertising money (helping local media outlets). Meanwhile, our freeways would start to look somewhat nice, dare I even say classy.

Call me insecure, but I appreciate aesthetics. The only reason I bring up our outside image is because it's a frequent topic on this forum, and because I figure, if some of you don't care at all how our freeways look, there's no way I'm going to change your mind, so I may as well try to relate it to something you do seem to care about, i.e. money. When people from cities that care more about aesthetics (most cities) are looking to relocate their company and come to a place like Houston, the billboards stick out bad.

Think of when you're on a road trip and you cross a state boundary to a state that doesn't have many sign regulations, and suddenly the highway is lined on both sides with billboards. The state comes off as seedy, doesn't it? Well that's what people see when they come to Houston. It makes a bad impression, and that affects things like attracting companies, etc.

 
At 6:51 AM, January 25, 2007, Blogger Owen said...

random thoughts,

People in Houston are so concerned with private property rights, they don't understand that the free-wheeling atmosphere drives down everyone else's property values. Not exactly something to be desired!

That's my problem. When cities begin becoming obsessed with protecting everyone's property rights, NIMBY becomes the norm. Moreover, having the city pass restrictions to boost property values may help existing landowners, but it also increases the cost of living to newcomers. As I've said, Houston's greatest appeal is a low cost of living. We've become successful focusing on that, so if it ain't broke, why fix it?

As for the national perception of Houston -- sure, it's bad among the bohos and childless yuppies, but Houston is generally popular for families. Frankly, that's enough for me.

 
At 6:54 AM, January 25, 2007, Blogger Owen said...

anonymous,

The difference between the billboards in Paris and those in Houston is that it is clear that people in Paris genuinely cared about enabling the adverts to exist in a way that didn't detract from aesthetics.

Not really. The billboards and building ads in Paris are at least as unattractive as in Houston, and the view from the freeway going in isn't pretty. Paris seems mainly concerned with the historic areas.

 
At 7:00 AM, January 25, 2007, Blogger Owen said...

mike,

You know, I am a fan of the free market. I really like the ideas of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and I usually vote Republican. But if I ever become so giddy about capitalism that I am actually standing up for BILLBOARDS, I hope that someone shoots me.

Don't you support light rail? Historic preservation restrictions? Sorry, but when it comes to urban development issues, you've never struck me as pro-free-market.

Think of when you're on a road trip and you cross a state boundary to a state that doesn't have many sign regulations, and suddenly the highway is lined on both sides with billboards. The state comes off as seedy, doesn't it? Well that's what people see when they come to Houston. It makes a bad impression, and that affects things like attracting companies, etc.

I don't think billboards are "seedy." Even if you think they're ugly, unless the ad itself is seedy, there's nothing seedy about the billboard. Most people do seem to believe that they cheapen the "view" with crass commericalism, but most of Houston's freeways are chocked full of crass commericalism anyway. In fact, billboards along the North Freeway, if anything, allow me to ignore the ugly 60's businesses that line it.

Furthermore, what businesses like is a low-regulation environment. If we go after the threat-of-the-month by enacting new laws, THAT'S the kind of thing that will make us unattractive to businesses. BigCorp could care less about whether or not we have a bunch of billboards, but they do care whether or not we're rarin' to regulate.

 
At 7:17 AM, January 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Furthermore, what businesses like is a low-regulation environment. If we go after the threat-of-the-month by enacting new laws, THAT'S the kind of thing that will make us unattractive to businesses. BigCorp could care less about whether or not we have a bunch of billboards, but they do care whether or not we're rarin' to regulate.

Well said!

 
At 7:37 AM, January 25, 2007, Anonymous Brian S. said...

This is all the more reason why the city needs to keep planting trees all along each and every freeway. If you can't see the billboards for the trees, problem solved. Money, trees too close to moving traffic, and lack of arable land being the difficulties.

 
At 9:16 AM, January 25, 2007, Blogger kjb434 said...

Just give the West Loop and Katy Freeway a few more years and your view will be trees. TxDOT's Green Ribbon Project will transform all of our freeways into green corridors.

The Katy Freeway project alone will plant 75,000 new trees.

US 290 will get the same treatment when reconstruction starts in 2010/2011.

 
At 10:23 AM, January 25, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Owen,

I support historic preservation for landmarks... I can't imagine that the kind of laws I favor will ever affect even a tenth of a percent of the properties in Houston. So the free market is not being damaged, but precious pieces of our history, like Civil War-era buildings or places like the lobby of 712 Main are preserved. I think that's reasonable.

Yes, I am pro-light rail, but I am not in favor of forcing people to live differently or to take mass transit instead of their car to work. I think most Houstonians, even if they rarely use it, like the fact that we have a light rail line here, and don't really mind the couple of bucks they'll have to pay for the system being built. I have introduced many conservative friends from the suburbs to the Main St. line... we "spent a day on the town," and rather than fuming over what it cost, they were wishing there was a line that could also bring us to the Galleria, etc.

So I'm free market, but I'm not an extreme purist... I like my freeways billboard free, I like that there aren't corporate logos on downtown skyscrapers (remember the giant rotating Gulf sign that once dominated our skyline?), I like that we have public parks, and a way to get around town without a car, and I don't think it would ruin our economy to protect a few landmarks.

 
At 12:02 PM, January 25, 2007, Anonymous random thoughts said...

owen-

I find it shocking that you are so flippant about the value of what is likely your most important investment, your home. I for one care about the value of my property and would like to see it increase in value. Have you compared the appreciation of homes in Houston versus other areas of the country; areas of the country where citizens actually protect their investment through reasonable regulations?

And then people wonder why Houston has such a poor image...

 
At 2:42 PM, January 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

random thoughts says


"areas of the country where citizens actually protect their investment through reasonable regulations?"

what you are talking about is people protecting their investment by voting in regulations that do not allow others to make similar investments.

 
At 2:46 PM, January 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

mike (and others),

If a particular historic building is "precious" and the public interest demands that it be preserved, why not just spend tax dollars to buy it and preserve it?

I don't mean that as a rhetorical attack. I'm actually in favor of historic preservation and think it can be a legitimate reason to spend public money. But why not do it directly instead of via regulation?

jt

 
At 4:15 PM, January 25, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

jt,

I'm not a bank... what use do I have for a 36 story skyscraper? Nonetheless, if it has lobby that holds fond memories for generations of Houstonians, and is truly a point of pride for the city, grander and more beautiful than the lobby of the Empire State Building, then it has entered the public interest, and the public has a right to demand its preservation.

What people who argue against historic preservation need to realize is that most of the time when a landmark is destroyed, the owner is an out-of-town (and sometimes foreign) company that is only interested in turning an immediate buck, and has no interest in its value to the city, or even the value the building might generate a few years down the road. If they can make even the slightest bit more money, why should they think twice about wrecking something that has great local value?

In an era where the people who owned buildings were also local residents, and when there was some sense of community and civic duty, you could count on people to make the right decision. Now, when a property is often just a speck on the portfolio of an international corporation, you need laws to ensure that the right decision is made.

Case in point - the River Oaks Theater. This is a highly valued local landmark, Houston's last operating historic movie theater, and it is paying its rent and doing a healthy business. But the corporation that owns it sees an opportunity to make EVEN MORE money by tearing it down and building something else. As the CEO said in a recent Chronicle article, "We are a public corporation... we have fiduciary responsibilities to our shareholders." The shareholders most likely live out of town, and have no civic responsibility to Houston. Hence, why should they think twice about sending in the bulldozers? The only way to stop them is laws.

 
At 4:28 PM, January 25, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Want an even more atrocious case of short-sighted greed? Check out this building:

http://texashistory.unt.edu/permalink/meta-pth-5865:159

This was the Medical Arts tower. If you go to the spot where it stood, you will see an asphalt parking lot. The company that bought it decided to tear it down because, AT THE TIME, they could make more money off parking than they could off an old gothic building. Did our city really need the extra parking? Well, nearby there are dozens of other parking lots, as well as parking garages. I think Houston could have gotten by without one more parking lot. Nor do I think the people that bought it would have been going hungry without that extra revenue.

So what would have happened if there had been laws to prevent its destruction? Today, more than likely, it would be a showcase historical office building, something that adds to our city's skyline, its architectural richness, its historic feel, and downtown vibrancy. You can never rebuild something like that - the craftsmanship is long gone.

Next time there is a recession in the downtown office market, what will go? The Gulf Building? The Esperson Buildings? Another row of Civil War-era buildings on Market Square, like the ones that were wiped out to make parking lots? This is ludicrous. Make some laws.

 
At 4:43 PM, January 25, 2007, Blogger Owen said...

random thoughts,

I find it shocking that you are so flippant about the value of what is likely your most important investment, your home. I for one care about the value of my property and would like to see it increase in value.

I'd love to have my house worth tens times what does now. There are many laws that would increase it's value by taking away the property rights of others -- highly restrictive zoning laws that prohibit new residential development or redevelopment of existing properties, for example (and since I live in New Orleans, believe me, these are on the table).

Ulimately, though, while I'd like my property to be valuable, I wouldn't want to live in a place where properties are outrageously expensive and every little bit of development has to be vetted by just about everyone (think Southern California). I also don't like the "robbing Peter to pay Paul" NIMBY mentality that pervades the notion that government should step in to boost property values. Voluntary arrangements are one thing, but the use of government power to boost your investment is greedy and unjustified.

 
At 4:52 PM, January 25, 2007, Blogger Owen said...

mike,

Believe me, I love old buildings. I think modern architecture is terrible. My house is 120 years old. I cringe when I see a historic structure razed.

But... (and this is a big but)... I think protecting every old building in a city only leads to having that city remain static, and eventually it's relegated to being a gigantic urban museum. The city becomes incapable to changing to suit new needs. Sure, the loss of small bungalow homes from the 20's may make many cringe, but not allowing denser townhome development in an area where the market is moving towards apartments and townhomes strikes me as wrong-headed.

Right now, Houston needs denser development in the urban core. That will mean razing a lot of old buildings. When the choice is between preserving old buildings and allowing change in a city that prides itself on being dynamic, I'll side with change -- because that change is the real tradition of Houston, and it isn't contained in brick and mortar.

 
At 5:26 PM, January 25, 2007, Anonymous bristlecone said...

jt-

"If a particular historic building is "precious" and the public interest demands that it be preserved, why not just spend tax dollars to buy it and preserve it?"

Because that costs money, and everyone else's taxes will need to be raised to pay it.

Far better to take something at the point of a gun than to buy it.

I'm only half tongue-in-cheek. It reminds me of the unintended consequence of the Endangered Species Act, the "Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up" response by some landowners to finding an endangered plant or animal on their property...the landowner loses economic benefit from the property, because 'society" wants the species to exist (but is unwilling to pay for it). The landowner hs to choose between wiping out the creature, or losing the property he may have spent his life savings on.

I would suspect that any preservation ordinance with real teeth but no compensation will be preceeded by the rumble of bulldozers the day before it takes effect.

 
At 6:53 PM, January 25, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Owen,

I don't want to preserve every historic building in Houston. Like you, I think that the inner loop needs to densify. But there are some buildings - maybe a couple dozen total - that I think are vital to the city's history. I think that these need to be protected, and I don't think that protecting such a small number of buildings in a city as vast as Houston will cause us to remain static.

 
At 6:55 PM, January 25, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

bristlecone,

Has that happened in other cities? Were the bulldozers rumbling the day before the historic preservation laws in San Antonio or Galveston took effect?

 
At 7:44 PM, January 25, 2007, Anonymous bristlecone said...

Mike--

the reason Galveston has so many old buildings is that, for many years, it was too stagnant to merit new construction (which would have required demolition). You can look at the Census figures for Houston vs. Galveston starting around 1910 to see this.

I don't have an answer for the San Antonio question, but my gut is tht San Antonio is enough of a tourist attraction that a preservation ordinance was only marginally necesary. I'll look at it and get back to you.

I like old buildings...I took Tory to task for advocating demolishing the "Jesus Saves" church across from Enron. I just think that if Houston's government thinks that "the people" "need" to have old buildings available for their enjoyment, the "the people" need to pay for their purchase..perhaps through some kind of conservation trust, like that used for park land.

 
At 10:57 PM, January 25, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

bristlecone,

You said that the bulldozers would rumble if a preservation ordinance were passed. I mentioned Galveston and San Antonio as two cities where that did not happen. I could have added Austin, Dallas, or a couple dozen other cities.

Why should we pay for historic buildings when we can just make a law forbidding their owners to tear them down? And why shouldn't we make such a law, when treasures like the Medical Arts tower (see above post) have been senselessly lost?

 
At 1:45 AM, January 26, 2007, Anonymous awp said...

the pro regulation people are not listening. So I am going to repeat and clarify what some others have already said.

Some of us who you think are on the other side believe in preservation too. I think if the government believes that the people value something and want it saved then they should pay for it. Buy it outright if that is appropriate, or buy the rights to the redevelopement of it. Like the bank lobby in downtown, negotiate to pay a certain amount to have the right to say that it can never be changed.

Simply, if something is of public value let the public, in a straight forward manner, pay for it. Don't institute a regulation that will steal that value away from its owner, and then also have unintended side effects.

 
At 8:35 AM, January 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

mike,

"Why should we pay for historic buildings when we can just make a law forbidding their owners to tear them down?"

You're certainly no extreme free-market purist.

Surely you'd agree that a local government with that attitude would do some serious damage to the free market, though. Either way, we'll collectively pay for historic preservation. I think that directly buying what we want to preserve is actually cheaper overall, and more just, and more effective. (Especially if we're talking about just a few key landmarks.)

jt

 
At 9:25 AM, January 26, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

jt,

Did I ever say I was an "extreme free market purist"?

Forbidding a couple dozen historic buildings to be torn down in a city of 586 sq. miles will not do any damage to the free market. Nor should people who care about history have to suddenly get in the business of owning skyscrapers.

When a building exists in a city where it is seen and used by other people, there is a certain aspect in which it becomes a public good. What one person does with his/her property impacts, to some degree, everybody else. Classic example: when the Gulf Oil Co., then the owners of 712 Main (incidentally the same building as has the beautiful lobby), put a giant, 45 foot diameter rotating GULF sign atop their building, at that time the tallest in the city. For 15 years, a giant, rotating, lit up gas station sign towered above the Houston skyline, its orange glow visible for miles.

Well this was clearly a case in which one person's "property rights" infringed on everyone else, and so as a direct result of this sign, City Council outlawed corporate signage on downtown buildings. We REGULATED, in other words, but our economy didn't crash, we didn't scare away business, the sky didn't fall...

I would argue that when a prominent building has existed for many years, etching itself into the collective psyche of the city and enhancing its image nationwide, the city has a right to demand it be preserved. It's the same situation of what one person does with his/her property affecting everyone else. If someone tore down 712 Main, or the Rice Hotel, or any of a couple dozen other buildings, the city would unquestionably be hurt. Hence the city has the right to ensure that this does not happen.

 
At 11:09 AM, January 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish I could have seen this gulf oil sign, sounds pretty freaking cool.

 
At 11:18 AM, January 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

mike,

I was merely agreeing with your earlier statement that you are not, in fact, an extreme free market purist. That's pretty clear.

I'm pretty sceptical of a claim that seizing an owner's property rights doesn't have a negative effect on the market. The relevant "right" here is the right of the owner to do what any other property owner can - remove what is on his property and replace it with something ordinary. You seem to be saying that if an owner unwisely allows his building to become beloved by the public, he loses that right, and he need not be compensated for his loss.

That's very different from preventing an owner from putting up something the public considers offensive, which is in turn very different from preventing an owner from doing something unsafe. The rights involved in those cases, and the interests of the public, are different. I'm not talking about those cases when I suggest that it is easier, fairer, and cheaper to the public overall for the government to buy historic buildings it wants to preserve.

Just how far do you think the government's control over a historic building it doesn't own should extend anyway? Just the visible shell? The interior? The methods of maintenance? The use?

jt

 
At 1:41 PM, January 26, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

I'd say anything of especially historic value... usually the exterior, though in some cases (such as a special lobby or public space), a part of the interior could be justified.

 
At 4:02 PM, January 26, 2007, Anonymous Brian S. said...

As an extreme free market purist I thought I would weigh in on the historical landmark debate. Will this hurt the market? Let's examine.

City declares a building an historic landmark, building owner loses potential teardown value (this would be measurable by loss of sale price), community gains utility of historical landmark (not measurable). Which is bigger? Nobody knows because you can't measure it. However, clearly such things as the Eiffel Tower have a positive economic value over their tear down value.

If we are going to have an historical landmark ordinance, which could theoretically produce value, there seems to be an agreement that we don't want to be an "urban museum". How do you limit the growth?

I say, force all historical landmarks to meet a minimum number of signatures to be placed on a ballot. Then the city votes. Could random building "X" get 50,000 people to sign a petition?

 
At 4:56 PM, January 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Could random building "X" get 50,000 people to sign a petition? "


Even better, could random building "x" get 50,000 people to put up the money to save it, since they think it is so valuable.

 
At 5:49 PM, January 26, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

Interesting idea. A building would gain a lot more signatures if people thought it was endangered than if there was no threat. When the news came out about the River Oaks theater last summer, it easily could have gotten that many signatures, but if there was no news, I doubt it could have garnered that interest. At any rate, why 50,000? Isn't the number for most referendums something more like 20,000?

I've already made the case why historic preservationists shouldn't need to be forced into the real estate business. A city's historic landmarks are a public good, except in the most philistine of societies. The public has the right to protect them.

 
At 8:00 PM, January 26, 2007, Anonymous Brian S. said...

50K was arbitrary. I just think that if the hurdle is high enough it will prevent a small organization from getting a building on the ballot, because once it's on the ballot who's going to vote against it?

 
At 2:49 PM, January 29, 2007, Anonymous bristlecone said...

Mike: "Why should we pay for historic buildings when we can just make a law forbidding their owners to tear them down?"

PLEASE tell me you were either joking with that comment, or were overcome with the spirit of debate?

Let's rephrase your comment. "Why should we pay for something of value, when we can get a mob to take it from its rightful owner for free?"

If this is a mischaracterization of what you intended to say, please correct me and accept my apologies.

Because it sounds like you may have a kindred spirit in Robert Mugabe, as well as any hundred carjackers who think they need your shiny sports car more than you do.

 
At 3:02 PM, January 29, 2007, Anonymous bristlecone said...

Incidentally, there is a model that would allow the public to collectively pay for a landmark they value: the State of Texas allows for "Conservation Easements" where a landowner trades a tax break for a promise never to develop his property.

Because the revenue has to be replaced somewhere, everyone else's taxes go up slightly to pay for the new wilderness area that everyone now gets to enjoy.

The devil is in the details of deciding what buildings should be eligible for this treatment and what restrictions would be required, but at least this way, "the community" pays for what "the community" wants to preserve.

 
At 7:14 PM, February 01, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

No, bristlecone, I wasn't joking. I have explained in my posts above that the history of certain buildings constitutes a public good, and as such, the public has the right to protect it. If you want, you can respond to the arguments made in those posts.

 
At 9:23 AM, February 03, 2007, Anonymous bristlecone said...

mike:

"...nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation," 5th Amendment to the US Constitution.

If you think that "the history of certain buildings constitutes a public good," then respect for other people's property requires that you must be willing to pay for it..rather than taking it by force.

 
At 1:18 AM, February 15, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

If you think that historical preservation laws violate the Constitution, then deal with them in court.

 

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