ULI CHF panel on Houston's future (+Metro North LRT)I attended the ULI CHF luncheon today hoping for some new material from their panel, but, for the most part, it covered the same ground as the February event. I'm not going to rehash that material, so if you haven't seen it (or want a refresh), it's here and here. The issues and recommendations haven't changed and my agreements and criticisms haven't really either. Mike Snyder had some additional coverage in the Chronicle this morning, with a focus on the 1960 area.
A few new thoughts and observations:
- More calls for homes closer to jobs. If you draw a 1-mile circle around every major job center in Houston, there are all sorts of housing choices around each (another benefit of no-zoning). But people still choose to live elsewhere - maybe for a better house value, neighborhood, or schools - or a spouse that works elsewhere. And then there's the fact that people are changing jobs every few years in the modern economy, but don't want to move every time they do. I'm skeptical at how realistic this goal is.
- I was slightly annoyed by constant references to "Houston's carbon-based energy industry" in their report, which seems like a backhanded way for some resentful people with environmentalist planner leanings to say that we're just lucky and it's not gonna last. I'd like to point out Houston grew pretty well in the 90's too with $20 oil (approximately equal to 'free' by today's standards). Maybe we're doing some things right besides our industry mix?
- I'm not a fan of public visioning processes (one of their core recommendations) because they tend to devolve into utopian wish lists and trade-offs are ignored, but I did like the idea that somebody (HGAC?) needs to get a better understanding of all the complex, systemic interdepencies so we can come up with better solutions than ones that are narrowly focused on specific problems or projects.
- Alan Clark of HGAC has some good ideas on "fixing" Highway 6 and 1960 along the same lines as what's being done for Westheimer. He also made an amusing crack about HGAC "having a few carrots, but no sticks" to encourage good development - which is probably a wise approach. HGAC does have a funded program to encourage "livable centers."
- They had a good insight about two sources of value creation: being close to good transportation infrastructure (well, duh), and "master developer environments across multiple parcels controlled by different owners" creating value from "adjacency predictability." With a focus on the latter, they had a graph showing how single projects have peak value around year 5 then decline, while master projects - like downtowns - start slow but build high and sustainable value over decades. We obviously know how well these work with private developers in the suburbs (very well), as well as in smaller, zoned and controlled cities like the villages (mixed) - but how to do it inside of a big city like Houston? Answer: special purpose districts (often TIRZs), like we have in Downtown, Uptown, Westchase, Greenspoint, the TMC, and others. These voluntary districts are unzoned Houston's answer to capturing the "master planned" value premium in certain areas. To a much lesser extent, strong homeowners associations do the same thing in residential neighborhoods.
- On the problem of aging MUDs in unincorporated areas that can no longer be counted on to be annexed, and they need to be part of a larger and more efficient water-sewer system: at first I thought special-purpose annexations by Houston might be the answer, but then you have the problem of taxes and control without representation (i.e. voting). A better solution might be to spin out CoH water and sewer services into an independent county authority with directly elected reps that can integrate everything (similar to the county flood control district).
Overall, Houston is doing very, very well. Radical changes are not needed and may even be dangerous. It's like that basic rule of health care: "First, do no harm." That calls for a careful, incremental approach, like the role I just described for HGAC.
UPDATE: GCI's take.
One last item on rail: Based on the Chronicle article on Metro's North LRT line in the FTA pipeline, we're looking at $116 million per mile (yes, that's still a Minute Maid Park every two miles) and $34K of capital investment per daily boarder ($68K per daily round trip passenger), leading one commentor to say:
So it is cheaper to buy each passenger not one but two brand new Toyota Priuses and gas them and buy their insurance than it is to build the train.And another:
...applying FTA mandated financial amortization towards the project, it is going to cost about $3.50 per passenger-mile in order to attract a new rider to using transit over the current bus routes which have serviced the area for decades if we employ light rail as the means to do so. Note, that I did not say $3.50 per gallon of gasoline. I said $3.50 for one new rider to travel one mile. So, making an assumption that a new transit rider will be riding light rail for a five mile trip, that single trip will cost taxpayers $17.50. Making a round trip will cost taxpayers $35.00. And no, that is not fuzzy math.I haven't been a big fan of the North line, although it would be critical to a short-term 249 commuter rail line which would increase ridership and drop per-rider costs significantly. I'm curious what my readers think. Does this sound reasonable? Looking forward to the comments.