Monday, June 18, 2007

Response to Crossley op-ed

I just submitted this letter to the Chronicle. I tried to keep it short, so I didn't get into the importance of education or the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan, which are two areas where we are in solid agreement. I'm in Boston at a conference this week, so posting and responses to comments may be limited. And thanks to everyone who's sent emails or made comments of support. Much appreciated.
Responding to David Crossley's op-ed ("Last-century strategy won't move Houston forward," Outlook), I have to ask, when did opportunity suddenly become "last century thinking"? Which exactly of are the "ideas that threaten progress" - mobility? growth? affordability? limited government red tape? I suspect David was mostly focused on the last one, noting that land use decisions impact congestion. Yet all the cities with worse congestion rankings than ours have far more government control of land use, and it hasn't helped them. In fact, the most aggressive land-use control cities, like Portland, have seen their congestion increase the fastest.

He notes that Houston needs to attract educated talent, yet the data in our study showed that we are doing exactly that, and quite well. Despite the common misperception, Joel Kotkin and I did NOT attack quality of life improvements, but simply noted that they are built on a foundation of economic opportunity (and not vice versa, as cities have shown throughout history). I think we all agree that quality of life improvements are important - the disagreement is one of prioritization and the role of government vs. market forces and private nonprofits.

Opportunity Urbanism is not a "distraction," but what makes Houston great. Let's build on it - not discard it - as we improve Houston's quality of life for everyone.
UPDATE: they printed it.



At 11:08 AM, June 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good response. The only thing I would have added is that Mr. Crossley's vision for Houston comes not from last century, but from the century before that. He envisions a high-density city united by street-level rail that doesn't serve the automobile. That fits the old streetcar days perfectly, which are gone for a reason.

At 7:17 PM, June 19, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...

I wouldn't worry too much about Crossley's editorial - it was very long, and the disagreements he had with you were vaguely expressed. To be honest, if I were Joe Houstonian reading these two editorials, I don't think I would know what the argument is at all. One says let's have opportunity, the other says let's have quality of life. Neither really states where the conflict is between the two visions.

At 8:59 AM, June 20, 2007, Anonymous Brian Shelley said...


Re: Post on other page about spending public money on beautification.

Don't get me wrong. I support the beautification of the city. I don't support the idea that existing tax payers should provide enough free services so that certain people who did not pay those taxes will move here.

Are there really enough externalities produced by the "creative class" that it makes up for the subsidization suggested by people like Florida and Crossley? Where's the proof? If they were correct I think you would see mass migration to the cities that are centers for the "creative class". The evidence shows the contrary. Only foreign immigration is sustaining the population of places like Boston and San Francisco. I also doubt today that even hot new startups are paying more than a handful of people above market wages.

As far as attracting major corporations, are their grand externalities there either? When Citgo moved it's headquarters and 500 people to Houston did it add even a couple pennies to the income of the average Houstonian? The city makes a business case that the present value of future tax flows exceeds the tax abatements, but does the same case hold true for the "creative class"?

I agree with Kotkin's premise that the real business of the city is helping the day laborer's son become an electician, and his son become an electrical engineer.

For me the "creative class" argument doesn't hold water from an economic perspective.

At 1:15 PM, June 20, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike -

I agree, both the original editorial and the Crossley response were too long, too vague, and not really accessible to Joe Houstonian. And in the response to the response, Joe Houstonian is not going to know why Portland is being discussed... it's not even clear if one means Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine.

Assuming it's Oregon, it's a great city. They don't suffer from serious pollution or dysfunctional public schools or high unemployment or raging crime waves or nightmarish traffic... most issues of which we here in Houston do have to wrestle with.

And then the statement about how all cities with worse congestion than ours have more government land use control... well, so what? All cities with worse [insert any topic here] than Houston have more government land use control, because we have very little government land use control in the city. For example, all cities with worse sports teams than ours have more government land controls. All cities with worse TV news anchors than ours have more government land controls. And so forth.

At 5:25 PM, June 20, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...


Your points may well be valid. But when you get right down to it, I don't really care about the creative class. And I don't care that much about growth (although someone who did would probably want to attract major corporations). I just want to live in a beautiful city.

At 7:47 PM, June 20, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...


Funny last paragraph.

At 7:56 PM, June 20, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agree with Mike - I don't even understand the disagreement entirely. I think opportunity is good, as is quality of life. In certain cases, you are choosing between the two, but I don't think either side says "always err on the side of opportunity" or vice versa, so not sure exactly what the disagreement is on an issue by issue basis.

At 11:07 AM, June 21, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...


Assuming it's Oregon, it's a great city. They don't suffer from serious pollution or dysfunctional public schools or high unemployment or raging crime waves or nightmarish traffic... most issues of which we here in Houston do have to wrestle with.

1. Portland's traffic congestion problems are at least comparable to Houston's. For example, Portland's freeways are congested for a larger part of the day than Houston's, despite the fact that Portland is a much smaller metroplex. I don't know where you get the idea that Portland doesn't have serious traffic issues.

2. Dysfunctional public schools? HISD scores above average on the Stanford 10 test. As urban districts go -- especially those with large immigrant populations -- HISD does fairly well. I know of no data showing that Portland's schools are superior.

3. High unemployment? At the height of the tech bust, Portland had the highest unemployment rate of any major city in the United States. Portland's unemployment rate is still well above the national average -- it was 5.6% as of February. As of May, Houston's unemployment rate was 3.8%.

4. High crime? Houston definitely has a higher crime rate than Portland, but Portland is no slouch. It has crime well above the national average in pretty much every category, and beats Houston in others (such as auto theft and forceable rape).

Please, get your facts straight.

At 12:01 PM, June 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Funny. I write "Joe Houstonian is not going to know why Portland is being discussed... it's not even clear if one means Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine," and here I get a rant from you about Portland (the one in Oregon... I expect the rant about the one in Maine shortly).

For crying out loud, why are you people so obsessed with Portland, Oregon? Here's what Joe Houstonian knows about Portland: Clyde Drexler once played basketball there. That's about it. If he has been there, he probably came away with a positive impression because it is in fact a very nice city.

I provided a brief list of typical big city problems, and observed that Portland is not particularly burdened with these, as a way of saying "what's the fuss?". I was not condemning Houston, though Houston does wrestle with these issues more than Portland.

Your comment about Portland having high unemployment during the dot com bust... Well, yes. And Houston had high unemployment during the 80s oil bust. I bet Amsterdam had high unemployment during the tulip bust in the 1600s. Maybe London had high unemployment during the whale oil bust. The big point is that Portland is in no way comparable to basket-case cities like Detroit when it comes to unemployment. Neither is Houston.

And traffic... have you been to Portland? Have you been on the Katy Freeway or US 290 on a Friday afternoon? No comparison.

But again, why the Portland obsession here? It's like Jan Brady and "Marcia Marcia Marcia!"

And while HISD's schools might be above average for urban districts, that's like saying that one 90 year-old grandmother is a better boxer than another... it may be true, but she's still weak.

I'll reiterate my general agreement with Mike in that if Joe Houstonian read the editorials, he probably scratched his head wondering what exactly it was that the authors had really meant to say and why the were in such disagreement.

At 4:10 PM, June 21, 2007, Anonymous Mike said...


Amsterdam was hardly reliant on tulips by the 1600's. They were at that time an emerging modern economy, and one of the most industrialized cities in Europe. Get your facts straight! :)

I wish people would compare Houston with cities like Dallas, that are similar to us in most respects, when they want to speculate on what would happen if we adopted stricter land use regulations.

At 10:42 AM, June 22, 2007, Anonymous Owen Courreges said...


Portland is the iconic city of the "smart growth" movement -- that explains its relevance to these discussions. It is omnipresent in the planning literature, and of course merits discussion. The op-eds were obviously designed for those interested in these discussions who would catch the reference.

Moreover, my point was that you were intimating that Portland had fewer problems in these areas than Houston. But this isn't so --Portland has above-average unemployment; Houston's is below average. Portland DOES have major traffic issues, and is WORSE than Houston by some statistical measures, your personal anecdotes notwithstanding.

And as for schools, I don't know a basis for comparison from Houston to Portland. I do know that HISD scores above average on the Stanford 10 test, and that's true for all districts, not just those in major urban areas.

Yes, Portland isn't a basket case, but for a city its size it has unusually serious problems with runaway housing costs, cost of living, and traffic congestion. I think Houston does things better than this smart growth icon.

At 6:58 AM, June 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Owen -

"Unusually serious problems?" Climb out of your ideological hole for a minute. For cities of similar aize, St. Louis has "unusually serious problems." Newark has "unusually serious problems." Cleveland has "unusually serious problems". Portland, Oregon does not.

So what if Portland is the "iconic city of smart growth movement"? It just sounds to me like people are trying to pick a fight, and poorly I might add. And Joe Houstonian who read the op-ed, the response, the response to the response, and now the response to the response to the response, is still scratching his head.

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia...


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