ULI verdict on HoustonThe Center For Houston's Future convened a panel of national Urban Land Institute experts this week to look at Houston's current situation and coming growth; and, surprisingly, they recommend we do more of what the Center For Houston's Future does (visioning, scenarios, leadership, etc.). Well, ok, maybe the self-promotion was not so surprising. But they actually had a lot of very interesting things to say. So much I'll probably have to spread the content over several posts. This will just be an introductory overview. If you like, you can review their PowerPoint yourself here.
Here were my key takeaways:
- They believe we are well on our way to becoming America's fourth global city in addition to NYC, LA, and Chicago. I was surprised they didn't include the SF Bay Area in their list, but that may have something to do with it being a smaller metro with a small core city and low growth.
- They list as our competitors as NYC, LA, Chicago, Sydney, London, Paris, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi.
- They had two new ideas that I want to explore more in future posts:
- H-GAC should competitively award some portion of its transportation funding based on "livability" criteria (i.e. sustainability, walkability, open space, etc.), as LA, DFW, and Atlanta do.
- Development standards should be improved with the creation of a voluntary system (called R-LIDS) loosely modeled on LEED for green buildings, which would certify that developments meet certain standards and "raise the bar" for all developers. (maybe if Roger Galatas is lucky, he'll be the reference point and the system will be measured as "a percentage of The Woodlands", i.e. "this development is certified 50% as cool as The Woodlands" ;-)
- They believe our greatest asset is affordable housing, which attracts the young and educated, and is one of the most intractable problems in competitor cities.
- They were very opposed to zoning, which is too easy to do badly ("no zoning is better than bad zoning") and would put our greatest asset at risk (see previous point on affordability).
- They though we should continue to embrace and improve our unique approach to development.
- They felt Houston should rebrand itself around the key word "opportunity." The speaker even poked mild fun at the archaic 19th-century locomotive on our city seal. Time to join the 21st century. The mayor has used the term "City of Opportunity" forever, and I'm a fan of "Open City of Opportunity," which I think goes beyond branding to our core identity. I'm all for rebranding, and a new city seal to go with it.
I did get to ask one question in the Q&A period afterward. They recommended rail to the airports, even though they acknowledged the decentralized, distributed, multi-nodal nature of our city elsewhere in the presentation. I asked if that was really the best use limited resources with only 8% of jobs downtown, IAH 23 miles away, and our focus on an express bus lane network instead of commuter rail. They were still very strongly for it, because "every world-class city has rail to the airport," even though they had just finished telling us to embrace our uniqueness and not get too obsessed with how other cities do things.
Another questioner asked how to improve our livability, given that all her friends seem to move away as soon as they can afford to. The answer I wanted to give? I think most people would agree that our biggest livability challenge, by far, is our hot, humid climate half the year. But I'm not aware of any comprehensive planning process that can give us Southern California's weather. It would be awfully nice though...
Update: Chronicle article and part 2 of this post.