Monday, January 30, 2012

What to do with Houston's Cistern

Hope you caught Lisa Gray's great Sunday Chronicle article and amazing pictures of Houston's very own unused, underground Cistern.  It's next to the Jamall Skatepark west of downtown along Memorial.  Check out this incredible photograph where the water reflects the columns and the ceiling.


In 1927, he told me, the City of Houston built its first underground drinking-water reservoir - a concrete holding tank roughly the size of one and half football fields on Sabine Street, near Buffalo Bayou. But after decades of service, the reservoir sprang a leak that couldn't be found, much less stopped. So the reservoir was drained, and for years it sat unused: just an odd hill topped with hatches behind a Public Works building.
...
But when the partnership's consultants climbed through the hatch, they were stunned. When their eyes adjusted to the steamy darkness, they saw row upon row of slender concrete columns, 25 feet tall and reflected in about 6 inches of water at the reservoir's floor. From the hatches, light fell in dramatic shafts. The enormous old reservoir, never intended as anything more than efficient infrastructure, turned out to be stunningly, startlingly beautiful: an industrial cross between a cavern and a cathedral.
The place is simply amazing, echoing the beauty of Istanbul's Cisterns (check out how they light them), a major tourist attraction.  The question is what we should do with it...
The question now, of course, is what to do with the Cistern. Hagstette says that everyone now agrees it won't be used for parking or storage. But what should it be? How should the public have access to it? And how will it be paid for? (The Cistern was discovered after the Buffalo Bayou Project had budgeted all its Shepherd-to-Sabine money for other projects.)
...
"Basically, it's a cathedral of light and sound," he said. "Can you imagine the right concert in here? Or art or sound installations? Different lights could change the look completely. Sometimes you might have water on the floor, but sometimes not."
My own idea?  Sure, have art and music, but wrap a major, signature, tourist attraction bar/nightclub/dance club (and restaurant?) around it to generate steady attendance and revenue, not unlike what Studio 54 used to be for NYC.  The kind of place we would all take our out-of-town friends when they visit (just like we take 'em to our favorite restaurants).  To get maybe a bit of a visualization, check out two scenes in this trailer for The Last Days of Disco, at the 0:50 and 1:29 points:



The next big question would be how to pay for it and who would run it. Coincidentally, the answer was on the front page of that very same day's newspaper: Landry's and Tilman Fertitta. Like me, you probably have mixed feelings about his developments, but despite Hair Balls' objections, he's got the deep pockets and the experience to make this an... um... experience - like what they've done with their restaurants, Kemah, and Vegas casino.  It may not be perfect or high art, but at least it would get turned into something interesting with a lot lower chance of dying from a lack of funds or attendance.

Thoughts/ideas/feedback welcome in the comments.

UPDATE: The Chronicle editorial board picks up on this, including a mention of this post.
UPDATE 8/13: Update story and very cool 3D fly-thru video.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Top rankings mania, United HQ, jobs, zoning, Texans, and more

The smaller misc items have been piling up faster than usual lately...
"Throughout the economic crisis, Houston has been the buttoned-down older brother to Austin's hippie slacker. 
While college-boy Austin coasts by on education and arts, Houston shrugs off the cool kids, goes to work every day with its buddies in the energy industry and does what it can to keep unemployment below 8%. Unlike Austin, though, Houston doesn't have to drop its home prices to draw new blood."
"Zoning became a game for poker sharks."
  • The Chronicle editorial board picked up on the WSJ middle-class jobs story I covered last month.  A good strength of Houston.
  • I came across this quote about the United-Continental merger and choice of HQ in a Fortune article.  Based on this and what I've heard about the radical decline in Continental service since the merger, I think I can safely say that they royally screwed up this merger picking Chicago for the HQ over Houston.  It not only raised costs, but helped the much lower regarded United culture win out.
"To be fair, there are some initial benefits to combining operations. Merging headquarters and slashing management costs does help the surviving airline, although it can be limited. For example, United has had to hike the pay of Continental employees by 20% to 30% to entice them to move up to Chicago from Houston, a person close to the company told Fortune. The bizarre reason to remain headquartered in such an expensive city, even with tax breaks, shows that airline mergers aren't always rational."
Finally, I'm a couple weeks too late in sharing this, but it's still pretty cool.  In retrospect, the lyrics at the 3:16 point were poorly chosen.  Oh well.  Next season is looking good.  Go Texans!

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Is our lack of zoning a myth?

Slate has a blog post claiming that zoning-free Houston is a myth (hat tip to John).
"Whenever I talk about anti-density land use restrictions, someone inevitably brings up Houston, where people have heard there are no zoning rules. If overregulation causes low density, people ask, then how come Houston is so sprawling? There are a number of reasons this line of questioning is a mistake, but the most fundamental one is that people misunderstand what "no zoning" means in the Houston context. If land use in Houston were genuinely unregulated, then this Nancy Sarnoff article about possible revisions to Houston land use rules would make no sense. In fact, the city features extensive regulation of minimum lot size and maximum parking requirements just like every other major American city. The specific proposal here, meanwhile, is a mixed bag. 
On the one hand, you'd be allowed to build townhomes and other "urban-style housing" outside of Loop 610. That's good. But on the flipside they're also talking about "requiring additional parking in higher density developments." Parking requirements are pernicious in almost all contexts, but especially so when you have a major effort under way to encourage more residential density. The point isn't that Houston developers should build parking. It's a very auto-oriented city, and if I were building homes I expected to sell to people I'd want to include parking. But there's no reason to require more parking than the market demands."
Well, unless you're reacting to the free-rider/tragedy-of-the-commons problem of street parking.

He's basically arguing that, while we don't have zoning, we do have regulation, which is certainly true.  But that doesn't mean our lack of zoning is a myth.  I think he was looking for a provocative headline.  But what I most enjoyed were some of the comments, where quite a debate developed.  Some favorite excerpts:
Houston still does not have Zoning in the concept that other cities have zoning. While there many development regulations, there is no land use regulations. There are not regulations that restrict what can be built on a piece of land and what that land can be used for.

There is a caveat though, liquor stores and strip clubs can't be built by schools and platted neighborhoods can have their own internal land use controls.

The internal land use controls are in the form of Deed Restrictions. Active neighborhoods keep these restrictions in place and maintain their land use. Neighborhoods that neglect their Deed Restrictions see massive change. It's a very effective way to develop a city and it's more real and natural. Central planning destroys cities by forcing them to develop unnaturally.

The inner loop of the Houston is growing in density at a faster pace without some urban planning zoning it to be denser.
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The most interesting thing about Houston is, outside deed restricted neighborhoods, there are few if any restrictions on the height of Residential or Commercial property.

As a result while we have a decently developed downtown, we have about half a dozen mini downtowns scattered across the city, not to mention the Texas Medical Center which is a small city in its own right.

This also allows condo developers and high rise apartment owners to offer buildings with great views.

It also allows neighborhoods with two story houses near downtown and other premium locations to be affordable and safe.

It is a huge headache for transit managers to deal with multiple job centers, but it is great for traffic because you have tons of rush hour traffic that is multi-directional meaning you do not see freeways as clogged as other cities.
Of course, these points are probably not exactly news to the readers of this blog, but I still thought they were good, concise articulations of how Houston works and the advantages this gives us.  One not mentioned: how it helps us be such an amazing restaurant town - something repeated to me today by a friend visiting from out-of-town for the marathon.

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Monday, January 09, 2012

Homeless solution, GRB growth, #1 mfg, Metro and rail

The smaller misc items stacked up over the holidays:
"Our top ranked area, Houston, is one of only four regions that enjoyed net job growth in manufacturing in the past 10 years. This year its heavy manufacturing sector expanded by almost 5%. Houston’s industrial growth is no fluke; over the past year its overall job growth has been about the best among  all the nation’s major metros. 
Houston’s industrial success owes much to the city’s massive port and booming energy sector, says Bill Gilmer, senior economist at the Federal Reserve office of Dallas. “Houston is about energy — it’s about fabricated metals and machinery,” he says. “It’s oil service supply and petrochemicals. It’s all paced by a high price of oil and new technology that makes it more accessible.” 
This shift towards domestic energy augurs well for a huge and economically beneficial  shift in America’s  longer term economic prospects, he points out. Cheap natural gas, for example, makes petrochemical production in America more competitive than anyone could have imagined a decade ago. Linkages with Mexico in terms of energy as well as autos has made Texas — which is also home to No. 4 ranked San Antonio and No. 15 ranked Dallas — the nation’s primary export super-power, with current shipment 15% to 20% above pre-crisis levels."
Finally, Reason dissects LA's light rail system in this amusing video interviewing passengers on a ride from LAX to Burbank, while pointing out the huge per-rider taxpayer subsidies involved, how it has led to substantial under-investment in bus service, and the hardships that has caused for transit riders.  And unfortunately Metro seems to be on a similar path here, with ongoing cuts to bus service instead of the huge increase promised in the 2001 referendum.  Sadly, the poor, elderly, and transit-dependent suffer while we pat ourselves on the back as progressives for building light rail. Hat tip to Barry.

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Monday, January 02, 2012

2011 Highlights

It's time for the Fall 4Q11 quarterly highlights post, which also sums up all of 2011. These posts have been chosen with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action, and they're mainly targeted at new readers who want to get caught up with a quick overview of the Houston Strategies landscape. I also like to track what I think of as "reference posts" that sum up a particular topic or argument; and, last but not least, they've also been invaluable for me to track down some of my best thinking for meetings or when requested by others (as is the ever-helpful Google search).  They're not quite as useful as they were when I was still doing multiple posts each week, but still have some value (at least for me).

Don't forget we offer an email option for the roughly once/week posts - see the Google Groups subscription signup box in the right sidebar. An RSS feed link is also available in the right sidebar. As always, thanks for your readership, and may you have a wonderful 2012.

December
November
October
  • A remedial lesson in urban form and economics (part 1, part 2)
And from Summer 3Q11:

September
August
July
And from Spring 2Q11:

June
May
April
And from Winter 1Q11:


March

February

January

And don't forget the highlights from the first few years. For what it's worth, I think the best ideas are found there, often in the first year (I had a lot "stored up" before I started blogging) and most definitely in the 5th birthday retrospective.

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