Houston vs. Dallas, Portland - Who builds more density?Councilmember Peter Brown recently took a field trip to Dallas to see how they do planning, vision, and density. He believes they are getting more and better dense residential development than Houston. I'm not so sure. Many high-density projects are under construction or announced in Houston, including mixed-use (something the Chronicle recently profiled). I just think ours aren't as high-profile, with big name developers doing mega-projects like Victory Park in Dallas.
The way I see it, cities like Dallas use zoning and planning to restrict development, therefore forcing demand into the few high-profile, high-density projects that they do allow - but at a cost of less overall production (i.e. a lot of potential buyers are turned off because the products they want are not for sale at a price they can afford, due to such restrictions). Peoples' purchasing preferences typically follow this order, assuming similar affordability: 1) stand-alone house, 2) townhouse, 3) condo with a view, 4) condo without a view (packed into a pedestrian district). Houston's open development nature means 1, 2, and 3 soak up a lot of local demand among many smaller, lower-profile projects (the benefit of the market providing what people want), leaving less demand for #4. Thus the lack of high-rise residential development downtown: why pay for such a unit when your view is likely to be blocked by other buildings? To get a highly vibrant, walkable neighborhood, it helps to have a lot of density close together, yet towers naturally spread apart a bit in Houston to provide the best unobstructed views.
The question is: At the end of the day, who gets more high-density and core development, Houston's relatively unrestricted approach, or Dallas' approach of "vision and planning"?
I decided to investigate this question using census data on residential building permits in 2006 (thanks for the link, Skip). The results are quite interesting. I even threw in that paragon of density, Portland, and Phoenix, another city Peter has mentioned having superior vision, planning, and dense development. In each case, I looked at the cities, not the metros, to isolate the results of city-specific planning policies. The census groups permits into the following buckets: single family, two family, 3-4 family, and 5+ family. For simplicity, I looked at the dense category (5+ family) and overall totals. I apologize for the table formatting - I am not proficient at getting Excel tables into HTML blog posts.
Residential Building Permits in 2006
|2005 Population||5+ density buildings||5+ density units||Units per Dense Building||Dense units per 1,000 pop||vs. Hou|
|2005 Population||Total buildings||Total units||Units per Building||Total units per 1,000 pop||vs. Hou|
The results are a pretty clear win for Houston: more dense units, more units per building (except for a slight advantage by Portland), and more new units per 1,000 population. Portland is able to achieve slightly higher densities, but at a cost of about 25% lower unit production per capita. Phoenix is producing a whopping 76% less density than Houston relative to its population. Dallas has about 40% less high-density and overall residential production relative to its population. So much for vision and comprehensive planning.
Houston's free market approach is creating more density (at lower cost, by the way), allowing more people to move into the core with shorter commutes creating less pollution, while also pumping more discretionary income into the core, supporting more vibrancy and amenities. Don't get me wrong - we're not perfect, and there's room for improvement in the way we develop. I am, for instance, curious to see how the urban corridors initiative will try to encourage more pedestrian-friendly density near rail stops for people who desire that lifestyle (mostly mid-rise mixed-use apartments, I suspect). But it's important to recognize that, on a "big picture" level, we're doing very, very well. Our motto should be "continuous improvement," not "comprehensive planning overhaul." If you share that sentiment, please attend the Blueprint Houston Leaders Conference this Saturday morning to encourage them to channel their vision and values in this far more productive and fruitful direction.