Thursday, May 29, 2008

Houston #1 Best City to Live, Work, and Play - Kiplinger 2008

Just caught this story on HAIF before heading to sleep. Kiplinger has selected Houston as it's overall #1 Best City to Live, Work, and Play for 2008 based on factors like population growth, percentage of workforce in the creative class, income growth, job growth and cost of living. What makes it even more impressive is that we're by far the largest metro in their top 10. These lists usually end up almost exclusively with medium-sized metros like Austin (#6) that have fewer of the typical mega-metro problems (pollution, weak urban schools, crime, traffic congestion, etc.).
In our search for the ten best cities in which to live and work, we sought places with strong economies and abundant jobs, plus reasonable living costs and plenty of fun things to do. When we ran the numbers, some of the places that popped up made us do a double take at first (like maybe Houston?). But we think our formula highlights places destined for future success.
From their profile of Houston:
Population: 5,542,048
Population Growth Since 2000: 14.9%
Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class: 31.3%
Cost-of-Living Index: 88.1 (100 being national average)
Median Household Income: $50,250
Income Growth Since 2000: 13.1%

It's the city of big plans and no rules, beat-the-heat tunnels and loop-the-loop highways, world-class museums and wiry cowboys, humidity that demands an ice-cold martini and the biggest damn liquor store on the planet. How could you not love Houston? (Have I not been saying this for years? ;-)

You can hardly afford not to. Back with a roar after the oil bust of the 1980s, Houston has reclaimed its title as energy capital of the U.S. and added aerospace, technology and medical companies to the mix, generating more than 100,000 jobs in 2007. Not only does the Houston metro area lead the nation in job growth, but also its cost of living stands well below the national average. Housing prices run half those of other metro areas its size.

(more here, and here's their video tour of Houston)
Of course, there seems to be some unwritten rule that a national profile of Houston must mention either Sugar Land or The Woodlands. This one went with Sugar Land as their suburban alternative to the city core.

As I mentioned in my post earlier today, it's nice to see Houston finally getting the recognition it deserves.

Update: KUHF story.

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The French love Houston, NYC QoL, and more

Continuing the list of smaller items from earlier this week, which has already grown quite a bit just in the last few days. Plenty of reading material for your weekend...
  • NYT article on the nightmare of owning - specifically parking and re-parking - a car in NYC. In this case, in the outer boroughs like Brooklyn where you actually need one. You think this factors into their quality of life ratings?... ;-) Excerpts:
Plenty of New Yorkers spend more time each week parking than they do in a house of worship, or visiting aging parents, or reading to kids.
City drivers now plan their entire weeks — entire lives — around being able to move their cars for the hours allotted for street cleaning, then hurriedly move them back, safe and sound for another few days.
“It sort of extends the ‘good-for-tomorrow’ problem, in that you’re afraid to use your car if you’re in a spot that’s good for tomorrow,” Mr. Trillin said. “In a way, you have a car, and you can’t use it. You’ve got yourself a spot that’s just too good to leave, no matter what. You might as well just cement those cars to that street.”

This led him to another only-in-New-York solution: “You might as well sublet it. Have somebody live there. There’s no rent-control laws applying to cars. I think that ought to solve the problem.”
“Parking is such a joke in this neighborhood that no matter what they do, it won’t make a difference,” said Buddy Ferriola, from the deli Pollio on Fifth Avenue. “You got 20,000 cars and 2,000 parking spaces.”

  • Continuing on the theme of NYC's "quality of life," check out this NYT article on what 20-something's have to do to scrape by living there. Absolutely nuts. Because our media so universally worship the city, it lures so many young people who are ultimately disillusioned (they even say in the article they're suffering until their 'big break' comes along). I understand that most give up within a few years and move elsewhere in the country, usually back home or near home.
  • Some great stats on Houston's leading employment growth and home affordability vs. cities in the rest of the country.
  • If you want to see what outsiders from all over the country saw on a Houston bus tour at the recent Preserving the American Dream conference, check out these posts with pictures of the city core and a private master-planned community, Sienna Plantation.
  • A recent Cato study argues "...we can save more energy and reduce more greenhouse gases by encouraging people to drive more fuel-efficient cars and reducing the energy wasted in congestion than by building rail transit." Some excerpts:
Buses today consume as much energy and emit more greenhouse gases, per passenger mile, than the average SUV. Most light-rail systems also consume as much as or more energy per passenger mile than SUVs, and 40 percent emit more greenhouse gases per passenger mile than the average car.

Transit agencies that want to save energy and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions should focus on increasing bus loads or reducing the size of their buses. The average King County Metro bus has 44 seats, yet carries on average just 14 passengers. Concentrating service in areas where loads are higher, and using smaller buses in areas or at times of day where loads are lower, will do far more to save energy than building rail transit.

  • More and more people are starting to explore the linkage between Smart Growth policies and the housing bust, something Texas thankfully avoided: Randal and Wendell, as well as local libertarian Brian.
  • Loren Steffy in the Chronicle on how Houston benefits from a lack of zoning and limited development regulations.
  • The Wall Street Journal on why doctors are moving to Texas and personal injury lawyers are moving out (especially to CA). Tort reform has clearly succeeded here.
  • A Cato report analyzing how long-term transportation planning gets done incorrectly and even abused by metro planners to get the plans they personally want, rather than the ones with the best cost-benefit.
“No plan did sensitivity analyses of critical assumptions. None bothered to project potential benefits or cost-effectiveness or projects considered. All but a handful of plans failed to include any realistic alternatives, and many failed to project the effects of the proposed plan on transportation. As a result, plans lacked transparency: taxpayers and other readers of most plans would have no idea how to projects were selected, whether those projects or the plans themselves were cost effective at meeting plan goals, or even, in many cases, whether the plans met any goals.”

Here's the agenda I'd propose for propelling Austin into the "Superstar City" pantheon: (1) discourage the construction of traditionally affordable housing like garage apartments and duplexes; (2) restrict the amount of land available for multi-family housing; (3) strictly limit multi-family density; (4) limit the construction of upscale condos and townhomes in order to force affluent homebuyers to compete for the scarce supply of close-in housing; (5) ban small-lot and "urban home" zoning; (6) require property owners/developers who build dense developments to shoulder the financial burden for things like affordable housing, parks and infrastructure; and (7) impose onerous design standards to increase the cost of new construction.

We can call it the "progressive" agenda. We'll be in the superstar ranks in no time.

Finally, a novel item to end the list. This French blog talks about the benefits of the low-regulation Houston development model (i.e. an "open city"). Can you believe a French blogger advocating Houston over Paris?! (thanks to Joel for the link) Since I doubt most of you read French, here's Google's attempt at an English translation. Rough, to be sure, but it will give you the gist. Clearly, the word is starting to get out about Houston since the bursting of the global housing bubble. In addition to the French, I also know people from New Zealand and Australia trying to learn from and promote our model. I can see the titles now:
Houston: From Pariah to Paragon...

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Dome studio, gas and transit, updated Metro plan, ants and more

As usual, I've let the pile of smaller misc items get too large again before bundling them into a post, so I'll have to break them up into a couple of separate posts:
  • A pass-along from an email I received on an idea I am wholeheartedly rooting for (vs. the crazy hotel idea):
    This Wednesdays Houston Chronicle featured an article by Maggie Galehouse about a project we've partnered on to convert the Astrodome into a major production studio. A feasibility study regarding the building's potential as such is already underway. Also underway, is an engineering feasibility study regarding the Dome's structural state. If the results of both of these studies are positive, we will proceed full speed ahead. Some impressive folks want to help us make this happen.

    Meanwhile, if you are willing, please go to the above article on-line and post comments in support of this concept. Wouldn't it be wonderful to work full time in our industry in your hometown? Wouldn't it be wonderful to get Houston back into the feature film business? Also, there is an on-line petition to sign that supports the concept of converting the Dome into a production studio, go to

  • The NYT picks up the story of crazy ants taking over Houston. The good news is that they might actually wipe out fire ants in the process.
  • Houston ranked as the 10th best place for young adults. List with scores. Hat tip to HAIF.
  • NYT on high gas prices driving up transit ridership, even in Houston. The most important thing for Metro is to make sure we have adequate capacity to meet demand. Buses or P&R lots turning away people are unacceptable. I hope they make sure they are adequately funded, even if the rail construction schedules have to slip to do it. Excerpt:

Other factors may be driving people to mass transit, too. Wireless computers turn travel time into productive work time, and more companies are offering workers subsidies to take buses or trains. Traffic congestion is getting worse in many cities, and parking more expensive.

Michael Brewer, an accountant who had always driven the 36-mile trip to downtown Houston from the suburb of West Belford (Belfort?), said he had been thinking about switching to the bus for the last two years. The final straw came when he put $100 of gas into his Pontiac over four days a couple of weeks ago.

“Finally I was ready to trade my independence for the savings,” he said while waiting for a bus.

  • Interesting stat I caught on the Reason blog:
    Critics of LRT point out that it is not theoretical capacity that is crucial, but actual ridership and the cost incurred to garner this ridership. National figures indicate that on average, LRT carries about 5,000 people per track-mile per day, while urban freeways carry over 20,000 per lane-mile per day. So, in actual numbers of people served, freeways seem to handle over four times as much traffic as LRT does.

For vacationers, however, there is no one to pick up the extra tab. Stephanie Barga recently paid $350 for a round-trip ticket back home to Houston, about $100 more than she paid in 2007.

Said Ms. Barga, a speech pathologist from Toledo, Ohio: “Thank goodness I’ll be moving to Houston soon.”

Ah yes, returning to the promised land... ;-)

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Report on the Preserving the American Dream conference

First, my apologies for the late post this week. I'm recently back from traveling to Austin and San Antonio and have been overwhelmed with catching up. This will probably be the only post this week.

Second, the title of this post is a bit overreaching, as I was only able to attend Friday evening of the three-day conference. Gonzalo Camacho was able to attend more, and posted his summary/thoughts here. An excerpt:
One speaker mentioned the most sustainable city in the world, Halle-Neustadt which was located in East Germany. If able to read German can read about the city at Wikipedia. The point made by the speaker that under the socialist regime Halle-Neustadt was considered very sustainable because it was designed for high density population and transit oriented. It reached a population of 90 thousand; however, after the (communist) wall was taken out and Germany reunited the population dropped to about 40 thousand. Point was made that this transit oriented city worked well under a tyrant government that forced people to live under provided conditions (multi family, high rise, densely populated buildings) but once people were able to make their own choices moved out.
I moderated a dialogue on land-use regulations and rail transit in Houston. I think it went pretty well, and stayed pretty civil, despite a few monologuing and haranguing questioners during Q&A. Peter Brown and David Crossley both took a lot of heat. Both had PowerPoint slides, and I found myself agreeing with them more than I expected to. David Crossley in particular had good arguments for the synergies of combining a core light rail network with our excellent HOV commuter system, which could be carrying a combined 250,000+ boardings a day when the core rail network opens in 2012. Both he and I believe it will be a superior system to the suburban commuter light rail networks being built in places like Dallas and Denver. Unfortunately, Paul Magaziner pointed out that cost estimates for that rail network have exploded from $50 million to $70m to $120+ million a mile, which raises the question of whether we need to go back to a BRT plan? (debate)

Peter Brown certainly said some things I disagree with, like that Houston's transportation costs are too high (debunked here), as well as characterizing Houston in a far more negative light than I would (crime-ridden, polluted, development anarchy, not getting our "fair share" of growth vs. outside the city, etc.). He surprisingly called for Houston to aspire to LA-level density (about 3x Houston's), despite the obvious problems that's caused for LA (overwhelmed infrastructure, esp. traffic). And I'm skeptical of Peter's "pro-everything" self-characterization throughout his presentation and on his last slide: pro-business, pro-growth, pro-transit, pro-neighborhoods, pro-environment, pro-planning, pro-form-based-codes, etc. I think there are more hard tradeoffs, negative side effects, and unintended consequences here than he acknowledges. He clearly has an architect's perspective that planning leads to perfection (i.e. utopia), rather than looking at cities from a more biological/economic systems perspective of organic evolution (more on this topic here).

That's it from my notes. If you attended any part of the conference, I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Update: From a post-conference email:

The Preserving the American Dream conference in Houston may have been our best yet. Steven Greenhut, of the Orange County Register, wrote an excellent summary of the conference that you can read at

If you missed the conference, you can still watch the many presentations on DVD. We have a complete set of about a dozen two-hour DVDs for sale for $5 each plus shipping. For a list, see

The tour of Houston was a major highlight of the conference. For a tour description, photos, and other conference highlights, see
(specifically here, here, and here)
(and here's Neal's take on the bus tour)

Update 2: Some YouTube videos from the debate:
Part 1 - Intro by Wendell and Tory
Part 2 - Kendall Miller (pro current Houston development approach)
Part 3 - Peter Brown (con current Houston development approach)
Part 4 - Brown/Miller
Part 5 - Q&A

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

PAD conference + CHF luncheon report

A two part post. First, I attended the Center for Houston's Future annual luncheon Tuesday. Dr. Mendelsohn said a few things that caught my attention. With construction over the next few years, the Texas Medical Center will soon be the 7th largest "downtown" in the country, which is really impressive when you think about it. My guesses for the other six, in no particular order, would be NYC Midtown, NYC Downtown, Chicago, DC, Boston, SF, and Houston.

His main push was that the TMC institutions need to compete less and cooperate more, using more collaboration and integration to get synergy that makes the whole greater than the parts. I'm no expert on internal TMC politics, but I suspect that competition has helped make it what it is today vs. more static, semi-monopoly, single-institution dominated cities like the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic. I have no doubt more cooperation would be good for the TMC - I'm just saying there's a role for healthy competition too. That's why Silicon Valley is the capital of our nation's tech industry and not Armonk, NY - home to IBM.

He also reiterated some of Houston's top issues, such as better primary education, low college graduation percentages, and the need for UH to become a top-tier public university.

Moving on to part 2: Please consider attending at least part of the national "Preserving the American Dream" conference this weekend at the Omni hotel near the Galleria, which involves national experts trying to learn from Houston's free market model. Lots of good stuff here. Yours truly will be moderating a debate roundtable dialogue Friday evening on two topics: Houston's approach to land-use regulations with Kendall Miller of HRG (pro) and Councilmember Peter Brown (con), and Houston's light rail transit with David Crossley of the Gulf Coast Institute (pro) and Paul Magaziner (con). This happens after dinner and a welcome keynote by former Mayor Bob Lanier.

I will be unable to attend Saturday and Sunday (my step-daughter is graduating UT-Austin), but you can check out the complete agenda here and download the details here.

To encourage more locals to attend, optional "a la carte" pricing (including meals) is being offered this year if you only want to attend parts of the conference:
Friday bus tour: $25
Friday evening: $50
Saturday: $60
Saturday evening: $60
Sunday: $50
More details and registration info here, although I think it's also ok to just show up at the last minute if necessary (but meal seats may or may not be available).

Hope to see you there!

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Monday, May 12, 2008

A Map to Houston’s World-Class Future (part 2 of 2)

Continuing from part 1 last week:

So what tactical improvements can Houston make to keep its talent pipeline full with young professionals?

It starts with “growing our own.” The easiest young professionals to attract are ones that grow up here, but we have to transform them into educated professionals first. That starts with excellent primary and secondary education. Unfortunately, our current system seems to only work for about a third of students, getting them through high school and on to college. We need a radical flowering of public and private entrepreneurial innovation to create new schools (or new schools within existing schools) - both curriculum and culture - that really work for the other two-thirds of kids. Too much of today’s high school doesn’t feel relevant to kids, so they drop out. Or they squeak by, but fail to go on to college, or don’t have the skills to succeed once they do go to college. Some are “saved” later by a GED and the community college system, but wouldn’t it be far better to offer them a compelling high school experience now (especially in science and math), rather than picking up the pieces later? This is, by far, Houston’s greatest challenge.

The first “mobility decision point” for most people is after high school: how do we attract outsiders – and locals – to college here? It’s about offering quality choices. Rice is excellent, but needs to grow larger (and is). UH needs Tier 1 status like UT and A&M, with state funding to match. We need stronger programs to attract top-tier international students, who are less worried about a “cool college town” than a good education at a good price in a city with a support network of others of their ethnicity/nationality/language/culture – a strength of Houston’s global diversity and 82 foreign consulates. In general, Houston must make every effort to continuously improve, support, and upgrade all our local colleges and universities. They will provide the critical foundation of our talent base.

The second decision point is after college. The first group to attract are our own native sons and daughters that have gone to school elsewhere. If they remember positive experiences growing up here, they’re likely to want to come back. As children, that can mean easily accessible parks with healthy clean air where many hours are spent with friends and family or playing sports. As teens, many know only the “boring family-oriented suburbs” of Houston, and feel little reason to return. With development of a light rail network in our core plus some dense transit and pedestrian-oriented districts, including entertainment and nightlife, we will have more compelling Houston experiences to offer our teens, and those experiences will help to draw them back in their twenties. Those districts will also help to draw the second group of college grads that did not grow up here. Delayed marriage has given rise to a new, large demographic of childless professionals – also known as the “creative class” – that are looking for vibrant pedestrian and transit-oriented mixed-use districts where they can mingle with other young professionals at retail, restaurants, and nightlife. They also look seriously at issues like quality of life, parks, open space, and clean air. They usually have to become thirty or forty-somethings before they appreciate the true value of an affordable house with a reasonable commute – a great Houston strength.

A vibrant entrepreneurial climate also helps attract young professionals. Here, we have great assets in the Houston Technology Center, BioHouston, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, and similar organizations, but Houston would be helped significantly by the injection of more local venture capital. A great way to do this would be for local employers to offer it as an investment option in their 401(k) plans.

Finally, Houston needs to upgrade its tourism experience. All great, world-class cities offer a compelling tourism experience, even if only for a short trip. Even with NASA, the Galleria, and solid museum and theater districts, this has been one of Houston’s most glaring weaknesses, and one that has kept us off the radar for educated, well-traveled professionals. Again, the light rail network and some vibrant pedestrian districts will help greatly, but we really need one powerful, anchor “mega-attraction” that will actually draw people to Houston for at least a long weekend. One niche where I think Houston could be distinctive would be the world’s largest engineering and technology museum – something along the lines of DC’s National Air & Space Museum, Munich’s Deutsches Museum, and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It could even be one of the Smithsonian’s network of National Museums, which have started to move out beyond Washington DC (Design in NYC, Industrial History planned for Pittsburgh). Think of it as Houston’s version of Paris’ Louvre or London’s British Museum. The combination with Space Center Houston could create a national draw, not to mention a wonderful source of educational and career inspiration for our youth. As far as sites, 109 acres just became available at the end of the light rail line with the closing of Astroworld – not to mention the old Astrodome - both easily accessible to downtown and Reliant Park conventioneers. Any well-heeled philanthropists out there?

To sum up, the challenges separating Houston from top-tier world-class status are substantial but certainly achievable with the right focus and resources: innovative schools that truly leave no child behind, upgraded universities, plenty of parks and open space, youth-oriented pedestrian and transit districts, quality of life and clean air improvements, increased venture capital, and a more compelling tourism experience – maybe with a few aesthetic tweaks thrown in (landscaping, signs, etc.) – all while working hard to preserve and grow our existing foundation of strengths and amenities. How about it, Houston?

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

Tues Luncheon: Making Houston a top ten global community

Just wanted to pass this announcement along to my readership. I think a lot of you may find this luncheon pretty interesting if you can attend.

Mendelsohn shares vision of the Center for Houston’s Future in making the region a ‘top ten’ global community

HOUSTON- During the Center for Houston’s Future Annual Luncheon on May 13th, from 11:30-1:30 pm at the Hyatt Regency Houston, Dr. John Mendelsohn, The President of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, will help unveil the dynamic new long-range plan of the Center for Houston’s Future as it continues to advance the Houston Region as one of the top ten global communities in which to live and work.

During the luncheon, Reverend William A. Lawson will also be honored with the Eugene Vaughan Civic Leadership award. Lawson was founding pastor of the large congregational Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston, Texas and creator of the non-profit William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity, WALIPP.

The Center’s strategic goals include bringing the world’s priority issues to the Houston region through research and scenario building and then examining how these issues affect the region through community engagement.

Mendelsohn’s talk will address not only the importance of the Texas Medical Center for Houston but will also touch on broader issues that relate to the region’s competitiveness.

“Among other things, the Texas Medical Center is undergoing expansions and collaborations that will impact the future economic, physical, social and cultural well being of our large community” said Mendelsohn.

John Hofmeister, Former President (Retiring) of Shell Oil Company, Chair of the Annual Luncheon and Chair of the Center’ Strategic Initiatives Committee agrees with Dr. Mendelsohn noting that “As the Center’s new long-range plan unfolds, the Strategic Initiatives Committee will concentrate on developing and communicating possible future scenarios that describe the possibilities for Houston’s future. Creating such scenarios will be an inclusive process that encourages the participation of the spectrum of community interests, priorities and people.”

For more information, visit (registration)

UPDATE: My post-luncheon notes and thoughts.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

A Map to Houston’s World-Class Future (part 1 of 2)

A couple years ago, Bob Sanborn of the Children at Risk nonprofit asked me to write an essay for a book they were publishing titled "Growing up in Houston." My theme guidance was Houston's economic future, kids, and the ever-elusive "world class" moniker. My essay was published, and I've been saving it to put on the blog at some point when there's a lull in other topics (um, like now). It's a bit long to cram in one post, so I will break it across two.

Houston has always been an ambitious and energetic city. The peaks scaled by our 20th-century predecessors have put us within sight of that ever-elusive tallest of peaks – the Mount Everest of “Top-Tier World Class City” populated by greats like New York, Paris, and London. The bad news is that our recent rejection for the 2016 Olympics reinforces that we have some distance to go. The good news is that we have the potential to ride this second energy boom to new heights. But the ascent path is unclear. Previous climbers used trails appropriate for different times that have long since been wiped out by avalanches of social and technological change. Houston will have to carve its own path in the 21st-century amid far more frequent and accelerating landslides of change. Focus, innovation, and rapid adaptation will be essential.

At their core, great cities have always been both creators and aggregators of talented people. They have drawn talent through the power of government (i.e. capital cities), or universities, or a pleasant climate, or natural beauty, or, most commonly, through vibrant commerce – historically due to geographic advantages in trade or natural resources, but more recently through “industry clusters” where a critical mass of talent in one field grows and builds upon itself (energy being the most notable one in Houston). And Houston’s ambitions will undoubtedly rely on a substantial increase in our talent base. The 2015 Strategic Plan by the Greater Houston Partnership has the goal of creating “nationally recognized centers of excellence, innovative projects and targeting initiatives in aerospace, alternative energy, biotechnology, education, energy, entrepreneurial enterprises, health care, information technology, nanotechnology and petrochemical.” Add to that energy trading with its financial skills and international trade with its language skills, and we’re clearly facing a tremendous talent-development challenge.

Rule #1 for developing strategy is to gain a deep understanding of your strengths and weaknesses, then mitigate your weaknesses while building on your strengths. Houston will never attract talent with pleasant weather or natural beauty like Austin, Boulder, Portland, or pretty much all of California. Further working against Houston are an evermore aesthetically sensitive society and telecommuting technologies that let people work from wherever they like. Why would talent choose to live in Houston? It will take a pretty compelling package of amenities to compete.

But make no mistake, Houston starts the 21st-century with a set of amenities 99% of the planet’s cities would kill for: a vibrant core with several hundred thousand jobs; a profitable and growing set of major industry clusters (Energy, the Texas Medical Center, the Port); the second-most Fortune 500 headquarters in the country (26); top-notch museums, festivals, theater, arts and cultural organizations; major league sports and stadiums; a revitalized downtown; astonishing affordability (especially housing); a culture of openness, friendliness, opportunity, and charity (reinforced by Katrina); global diversity; a young and growing population; progressiveness; entrepreneurial energy and optimism; efficient and business-friendly local government; regional unity; a smorgasbord of tasty and inexpensive international restaurants; and tremendous mobility infrastructure (including the freeway and transit networks, railroads, the port, and a set of truly world-class hub airports). It’s a package I like to summarize as “Global Village, American Dream, Texas Spirit.”

Unfortunately, our “amenity package” is not immediately obvious to outsiders making a short trip to Houston, which is a rare event in any case because Houston lacks a strong tourism draw. It’s not easy to explain to others, despite many attempts to market our fair city. It’s a subtle experience that takes time living here to appreciate. And it’s the kind of package that most appeals to older, more mature adults with families – exactly the group least likely to pick up and move because of deep social and economic ties into their existing hometown, especially in two-income households. Twenty-somethings are the most mobile group in our society, and Houston is simply not on their radar. A recent survey had two-thirds of young college graduates picking their city first, and then searching for a job. If we can get them here, they’re likely to be quite happy longer-term as they settle down, marry, buy a house, and start families. So what tactical improvements can Houston make to keep its talent pipeline full with young professionals?

Continued in Part 2 here.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Trains and traffic

While I was in Dallas recently for a cousin's wedding, I came across this cover story in the Dallas Observer (their version of the Houston Press) about downtown traffic snarls caused by DART's too-frequent light-rail trains and the blockages they create. Evidently, DART promised - in writing - a subway conversion when it became necessary, but now seems to be having trouble meeting that obligation.

This debate has not really been on the radar at all in Houston, even though new lines will create new north-south crossings in addition to the existing east-west ones for the Main St line. I'd like to think that Metro, the City, and the downtown boosters are on top of this and have it all worked out, but I don't know. If you have some insight, comments are appreciated (Christof, this means you in particular ;-).

On to the story excerpts:
The real story is that DART could be on the verge of severely shafting downtown Dallas for the next decade. I mean the big shaft. The do-or-die shaft for downtown.

DART must build a second rail line through downtown, some of it in a subway, or downtown is screwed. Unpleasantly, aberrantly so.
Unless DART moves quickly to build the second downtown line, the existing downtown line is going to become a solid wall of trains down Pacific Avenue from the east end of downtown to the west end, with car and bus traffic stacked up at the crossings like cordwood.

That second line downtown is the big story. It has been for nearly 20 years. In 1990 after years of debate, the Dallas City Council forced DART to sign a contract promising to build a second line downtown with a subway when train traffic on Pacific Avenue reaches a certain point.
Now imagine putting a solid wall of trains down Pacific and Bryan streets. Then the only way you can drive from City Hall to McKinney Avenue is by going all the way out of downtown, either west to Industrial Boulevard or east somewhere in deepest East Dallas, because the stupid trains have got you totally blocked off.

What do you do? I know what I'd do. I'd say screw downtown. I've got enough aggravation. If I am a major employer, I don't think I'm going to rent three floors of a high-rise if it's going to take me and my employees an hour to get out of downtown.
According to DART's own published traffic projections, peak capacity for the Pacific Avenue "transit mall" is 24 train trips per hour. DART figures that if 24 trains an hour pass up and down Pacific, that will leave two and a half minutes between them, which should be enough for the cars and buses to barely squeeze through.

(side note: I believe the Main St line is currently running at six minute headways)

Any more trains than that, and the cars and buses are dead in the water. All day long, crossing Pacific will be like trying to cross an eight-lane boulevard at rush hour without a light.

The solution? Don't put all those new trains to the suburbs down Pacific. Build a "second alignment" through downtown with a subway. Why a subway? Well, otherwise the second alignment will still have a tendency to screw up traffic, even if you put it 10 blocks from the first one. It's like two long lines of hurdles 10 blocks apart.

In fact, it could be even worse. You could get caught between the two, so you wouldn't even have the option of turning round and giving up. Then your only option would be to climb up on the roof of your car and hurl imprecations at the Fates. That would be a memorable way to spend your last visit to downtown Dallas. Ever.

The 'burbs will never admit this, but I have been talking to DART board members on both sides, off the record, for months: The truth is the 'burbs don't care if downtown traffic gets backed up. They want their lines. No matter what. If traffic downtown gets messy, too bad. Downtown Dallas is for the City of Dallas to figure out. The 'burbanites are just passin' through anyway.
I won't dredge too deeply through the rest of the DART budget, but it also assumes major new borrowing levels based on two types of costly loans the agency has never taken out before. And it assumes the Texas Legislature will change the law to let DART borrow money without voter approval. (similar rumblings from Metro?)

Listen. If I had to bet right this minute whether they will come up with the money for the second downtown alignment, or they won't—I would put my chips on won't. And they'll tell us they are very, very sorry about it.

In addition, let's hope Metro isn't heading down this same path, despite recent turmoil indicating it might:
On November 22, DART CEO Gary Thomas reveals to the DART board that DART has under-estimated its capital construction costs by, uh, let's see...100 percent. Instead of costing $1 billion, DART's current expansion plans will cost $2 billion, Thomas says.

Thomas explains he has kept the shortfall a secret from his board for a year, because he was hoping it would go away. I submit this is like a guy with a large tusk growing from his forehead. You say, "Gary, pardon me, but you have a tusk on your head." He puts his fingers to his lips and says, "Shhh."

The DART bureaucracy and the suburban members, meanwhile, have come to a peace agreement on Thomas' billion-dollar boo-boo. There will be no formal external audit of DART. A few underlings have been fired. Thomas will keep his job. It's all forgiven and forgotten.

So far, DART is making Metro look pretty good by comparison. Let's hope it stays that way...

Update: Christof responds with his very good analysis (as always).

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Friday, May 02, 2008

Dome films, telework & weather vs. transit, core vs. suburbs, zoning, sidewalk retail

Some miscellaneous smaller items this morning:
  • Marginal Revolution has a post on zoning in NYC, with lots of comments on Houston (use your browser search to find them - Edit menu, 'Find in this page').
"Yes, I am opposed to many forms of zoning. Without zoning our cities would be denser, more eco-friendly, cheaper to live in, more able to produce economies of agglomeration, and more immigrants would benefit from American prosperity. "
  • Evidently I'm not the only one that thinks weather should be taken into consideration when deciding how much of a push for walkability and transit-orientation is appropriate for a given city:
"As for an example of a city truly built around the car, I’d probably point to my hometown of Orlando, Florida (though in its defense, the brutal summers of Central Florida are not particularly conducive to walking and transit)."
"Fixed routes and fixed schedule like bus services won't meet their needs like they did 50 years ago, because what's inherent in the virtual world is there are no predictable schedules."
  • Joel Kotkin notes that while most of the attention of the housing crisis is focused on single-family homes in the suburbs, the urban condo market is taking a much bigger hit - and the "move into the urban core" trend is still a relatively small niche when compared to the bigger picture:
"Rarely reported, however, is the fact that more than 90 percent of all metropolitan growth in this “back to the city” decade has taken place in the periphery. One reason: 80 percent of Americans, according to numerous surveys, want to live in suburbs, small towns or the country. In addition, contrary to the notions of city planners and media cognitive elites, the vast majority of Americans prefer a single-family home to an apartment or condo. For most people, the American dream still means a house with a yard -- not a high-rise apartment.
It is also hard to make a case that urban centers are now attracting hordes of the upwardly mobile and well-off aging boomers, as is often suggested. Studies by the Brookings Institution demographer, William H. Frey, and real estate industry experts have found that relatively few well-heeled empty-nesters are deserting their suburban nests for the core. In fact, most are staying close to home, while about as many head further out than move in."
  • Neal covers a DMN story about ground-level sidewalk retail failing (i.e. staying empty) in mixed-use projects in Dallas. Developers know the market won't support it, but politicians force it anyway. I've seen similar stories on blocks of empty street retail in Portland and LA. With retail, it's all about the parking, because the residential density is never high enough to support the stores on their own.

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