Thoughts on Brown and Crossley piecesA couple different items I'd like to respond to today. The first, and largest, is Peter Brown's op-ed yesterday on what he calls the urbanists vs. suburbanists debate, but what I'd call the government-planning-and-control vs. free-market land-use debate. I did appreciate his somewhat concilatory tone of integrating both points of view, which is nice to hear. I like that a most of this debate has stayed pretty civil, which is not the case in a lot of debates I've seen on the net. Nonetheless, I do have some responding points.
He mentions the nice master-planned communities (MPCs) that surround Houston, and uses them to support stronger city planning. I've spoken with Joel Kotkin, Len Gilroy, and others about this topic, and the dividing line between good and bad land-use planning usually seems to be determined by whether it was done by private interests or government. Private interests know they have to meet market demands at the right price, or they will financially fail, so they plan and build exactly what people want and are willing to pay for. Government planners don't have this same constraint, so they can feel free to plan their ideal vision of the city, without regard to whether or not they're specifying what builders can afford to build or people want to buy - and that economic disconnect is what causes the problems. The things that do get built can definitely look nice, but overall it prevents a lot of building, development, innovation, vibrancy and opportunity.
Some of my other thoughts:
- I have trouble reconciling the "unwanted gentrification" in one paragraph with the fleeing creative class in another. Are they gentrifying Houston, or leaving it?
- His growth stats were a bit bizarre to me:
"...yet over the past five years, the city accounted for only 10.8 percent of the region's growth. This is insufficient to support a vibrant city. Nationwide, as a central city, we rank 10th in population growth among major cities, half that of the city of Dallas, a third that of Phoenix."
I ran a spreadsheet on the most recent Census stats from the top 25 cities (not metros). Since 2000, Houston has had the 3rd most absolute population growth (191K), just barely behind #2 Phoenix (192K) and #1 NYC (206K). On a percentage growth basis, we're #5 at 10% - and well ahead of Dallas, #11 on both rankings. The cities ahead of us, like Phoenix, have large swaths of undeveloped land (something the city of Houston doesn't have) that are essentially filling up with standard suburban development. Houston is doing amazingly well here - certainly more than sufficient to support an extremely vibrant city. More vibrant than at any other time in its history, IMHO.
- "New public-private financial tools are necessary to facilitate pedestrian friendly, mixed-use, mixed-income development, with ample middle class housing choices. This should be a fundamental public policy." I honestly hope that's not a call for government subsidies for upscale mixed-use development. I know he says "mixed-income", but these projects are always upscale, with a smattering of "affordable" units thrown in for show. And, of course, once one developer is receiving subsidies, they all start asking for them. Let's please not open this Pandora's Box.