Sunday, December 22, 2013

Houston's next hot neighborhoods, identify your dialect, Ashby disaster, rail shopping, and more

Just a few smaller misc this holiday week.  Probably will skip posting next week and see you again in the new year, where I'll be hitting the big milestone of my 1,000th blog post in January! (this one is 997)
  • I agree with the Chronicle: the Ashby ruling is a disaster. If every neighborhood that is slightly nuisanced by a development has grounding to sue, then development predictability goes out the window and we end up with chaos, gridlock, and rising unaffordability as supply gets further constrained.  This has to be overturned on appeal.   Development is regulated by the City - once permits are in place, a developer has to know they have the right to proceed.  People need to clearly understand: if safe predictable conformity is important to you, then make sure you buy in a deed restricted community. If you choose not to, then you take your risk. You have no right to buy next to unrestricted land and then complain when the owner does what he has every right to do with that land.
  • Joel Kotkin shows how 20-somethings do prefer urban living (and Houston is doing ok there), but after 35 they prefer affordable, family suburban living, where Houston really shines and big youth magnet cities start to lose out: NYC, Boston, Chicago, LA, SV.  Where Working Age Americans Are Moving
  • The Wall Street Journal on how to identify the next hot neighborhood.  I'm very interested in reader opinions in the comments on where they think this is happening in Houston.  10-15 years ago you might have said Montrose, Midtown, and Rice Military/Washington Ave.  Now, obviously around the Heights and Garden Oaks, but maybe even further east near the new North rail line? EaDo and the East End?  Downtown itself?  Thoughts?
  • OK, this Chronicle article on the new METRO North rail line had an excerpt that made me do a double take:
"Procell points out that while there are many small strip shops along the Red Line, Northline Commons will be the only major retail center on any of the rail lines (current or coming). He said he foresees a day when a downtown worker will use the rail line to pick up supplies at Office Depot or do some lunchtime shopping at Walmart. The ride from the UH-Downtown stop to Northline Commons takes about 19 minutes."
Wait, he thinks downtown office workers will spend a half-hour each way (once you include walking, waiting, and using stops south of UHD) to go shopping during their lunch *hour*?  Sorry, the math doesn't quite work.  Sounds cool in theory, but I think few will find it practical in reality because the line is simply too slow.
"Urbanists put way too little thought into business climate, which can sound like such a shady way of saying cut services and taxes. But taxes are often the least part of it. It’s the regulatory apparatus that makes doing business in many places too painful to contemplate. This even affects city-suburb investment patterns. I’ve observed that in many places, the urban core is a flat out terrible place to do business, unless you’re very politically wired up. 
This doesn’t usually bother urbanists all that much until a trendy business they like gets affected. For example, an urban farming supply shop in Providence called Cluck got sued when they tried to open. The beautiful and the bearded were outraged and the shop was ultimately approved. But there’s no similar visibility or outrage when a Latino immigrant runs into the red-tape buzzsaw when he tries to open a muffler shop. 
If we want to promote investments in our cities and states, we need to be focused on basics like an objective, predictable regulatory framework that operates in the timely fashion and in which arbitrary denials, rule changes, and such are minimized. This is way more important to attracting capital investment than sexier items like streetcar lines."
Finally, one of the complaints about Houston is that we don't have distinctive seasons like up north.  Is it just me, or is anybody else noticing some impressive fall foliage this season in Houston with some really vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows?  I'm guessing it's the early sharp cold front, but there seem to be a lot of really beautiful trees right now around Houston - something I don't remember noticing as vividly in previous years.  My mom says it's the most beautiful fall she can remember.  They won't last long.  Hope you're enjoying them while you can and have a very happy holidays.  

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12 Comments:

At 7:59 PM, December 22, 2013, Anonymous Rich Robins said...


Happy Holidays Tory and everyone else here. :-)

I predict that the extended Northline rail-related neighborhood will be the next hot place. I saw gentrification take root in Washington D.C. when their rail / subway line expanded into Adams-Morgan neighborhood, and I don't see why it can't happen along the North Line. I'm not so optimistic about SE Houston but that rail line's still in the works anyway.

Anyhow I recently saw these 2 claims made at Houston Metro Rail Development's (unofficial) Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/hmrdev

"In 2012 DART spent $242,592,248 operating buses to move 161,289,332 passenger miles. Light rail on the other hand moved 50 million more passenger miles, coming in with 214,583,584 and it did so for far less money spending $135,927,371. So light rail moved people much further and did so for almost half the cost of the buses."

"One light rail car can carry more people than one bus can. A light rail car lasts 30 to 40 years; a bus lasts 10 to 12 years. Meaning that one must buy a lot more buses to move the same number of people. One person can operate multiple light rail cars; but the same cannot be said for buses, where each one requires a driver. And as anyone owning a business knows, workers are one of the biggest expenses you have. These, along with other reasons, are why light rail costs a lot less to operate than those buses; 66 cents per passenger mile for light rail vs. $1.01 for those buses. Over time, just like in every other city with light rail, that cost disparity will offset the higher capital costs to build light rail making it the cheaper choice long term."

__

The bottom line, though, is the bottom line. Rail expansion has thus far reportedly cost over $100 million per mile. How does that compare to freeway expansion's cost per mile? Perhaps with rail they figure in the cost of the cars, too? Either way, a Richmond Avenue line seems less likely to happen when prices are that high. Might kickback$ be the problem? Gubmint contracts aren't Santa Clau$e...

Season's greetings :-)

 
At 8:32 PM, December 22, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That's a classic case of lies, damn lies, and statistics. The rail lines are the backbone and have all sorts of buses feeding them, pumping up their passenger volume and down their cost per passenger mile. The bus lines cover necessary sparse routes to cover large geographic areas, naturally pumping up their cost per passenger mile. Basically, the most dense/busy routes got cherry picked for conversion from bus to rail, making their stats look good. If those rail routes were run instead by buses running just as frequently and full, those buses would also have a much lower cost per passenger mile. In some cases, it may make sense to convert a backbone route from bus to rail, but you can't then claim it's more efficient by comparing these apples to oranges (rail on backbone routes and buses on sparse routes).

 
At 11:09 PM, December 22, 2013, Blogger Leslie Contreras said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 11:19 PM, December 22, 2013, Blogger Michael said...

>>then development predictability goes out the window and we end up with chaos

If you asked me, or virtually anyone not originally from Houston, the lack of zoning greatly contributes to development unpredictability and lack of clarity for homeowners and other businesses. So I see the Ashby verdict as a great thing for Houston and the people of Houston, and hope it is upheld. One day, all of this fighting will ultimately lead to zoning in Houston, but it will be called something else. Predictability = zoning. Haphazard development = lack of zoning. The status quo cannot survive much longer as density increases and Ashby-esque battles intensify and multiply.

 
At 7:37 AM, December 23, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

If safe predictable conformity is important to you, then make sure you buy in a deed restricted community. If you choose not to, then you take your risk. You have no right to buy next to unrestricted land and then complain when the owner does what he has every right to do with that land.

 
At 9:08 AM, December 23, 2013, Blogger Michael said...

>>You have no right to buy next to unrestricted land and then complain when the owner does what he has every right to do with that land.

Causing structural issues to adjacent properties or the loss of use of homeowner's land, or the loss of homeowner's property value is the developer's problem as this jury verdict shows. Your right to "unrestricted land" ends at my front door.

And in cases such as this, current owners bought next to Maryland Manor or perhaps the preceding structure, where the owner had no intent to build anything like this. So you are asking owners to predict the future in a completely unpredictable environment. I don't think that's possible.

Yes deed restrictions are nice, and partially solve this issue. So does moving to the suburbs. But it is my understanding that there are vast portions of Houston that face this problem so your solution for everyone to steer clear of these areas is not a very good one in my opinion. A better solution would be for developers to listen to community input, and when they do not, as in this case, face heavy fines and / or sanctions. If that doesn't work for developers, then as the Chronicle story implies, developers would prefer predictability to this state - even if that means zoning.

 
At 9:28 AM, December 23, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree they have a case if it causes direct damage to adjacent properties (just like noise, odor, and pollution nuisance laws). But you don't have a right to your property value - otherwise nothing could ever get built. If I buy a house next to a nice big empty lot with lots of nice trees on it, I can't complain when the owner builds on it, even if that reduces my home value. I didn't have any right to that nice lot next door in perpetuity. It's your responsibility to check out deed restrictions around you and don't buy if you're worried about the risk. Those owners have rights to what they can do with that land, and are not locked in to current use. If your area doesn't have deed restrictions, you take the risk, or there is a process for getting the land owners to agree to them - those are your choices. But you don't get to buy and then declare everybody around you must freeze at current use.

 
At 9:30 AM, December 23, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> A better solution would be for developers to listen to community input, and when they do not, as in this case, face heavy fines and / or sanctions.

Wow, so you're advocating that a community should be able to extort whatever they want out of a landowner/developer before getting their approval? I'm pretty sure you'd feel differently if you wanted to add on to your house and the neighborhood said no, or, sure, go ahead, but give us your front yard as a public park.

 
At 9:58 AM, December 23, 2013, Blogger Michael said...

>>But you don't get to buy and then declare everybody around you must freeze at current use.

Nor does a developer get to buy and build whatever they want without a legal fight with the community. Again - at this point - the developers do not want lawsuits where the community could potentially win millions and lower or destroy the profitability of their investment. The citizens do not want unfettered development in their backyards. Where this leads to in my opinion is some form of zoning to achieve the predictability that everyone desires.

I think this case will be upheld because the nearby property owners are directly affected by things like foundation damage.

>>Wow, so you're advocating that a community should be able to extort whatever they want out of a landowner/developer before getting their approval?

I think we already have basically a libertarian paternalistic form of zoning where you get incentives to build in certain areas (like downtown). But in cases where you say "I don't care, I am building the Sears Tower in the Heights" then I think there should be disincentives to do that. I am not talking about a community extorting developers - I am talking about predictable development and the city guiding development such that it makes sense and we do not have these outlier buildings that are not in the interest of the community or the city (which has to provide infrastructure and services for said developments).

 
At 1:53 PM, December 23, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree with liability for foundation damage, although in those cases the lawsuits should happen after the fact rather than based on speculation by dueling engineers.

Zoning just leads to corruption by the zoning board and the politicians that control them - exactly what we don't want. It also creates a completely unpredictable development environment since you can never be sure if you'll get approval.

You say reasonable things, but they tend to devolve into exactly the extortion scenarios I describe. There are examples from cities all over the country.

We do have new regulations about high-rises and buffer zones around them that should prevent this in the future, but the Ashby case was grandfathered since it was announced and permitted before the new law.

 
At 1:55 PM, December 23, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Oh, and btw, zoning is less predictable than deed restrictions, because zoning can be changed at any time by the zoning board (especially by deep pocketed developers with influence). Deed restrictions are an enforceable private contract.

 
At 12:27 PM, December 26, 2013, Anonymous Rich Robins said...

Tory:
Your points are well-taken about how rail costs vs. bus costs can be misleadingly different because buses purportedly take on more of the unprofitable carrying tasks and then feed into rail systems.

Folks in Houston seem NOT to prefer buses, interestingly enough, as this recent Houston Metro statistic suggests:

"Bus ridership is down — from 90 million in 1999 to 60 million today..."

Source: http://www.bizjournals.com/houston/blog/breaking-ground/2013/10/metro-talks-ridership-new-rail-at-ghp.html

Anyhow, costs for expanding the North Line are high (at around $700 million for just over 5 miles of expanded rail). It's seemingly worth mentioning, though, that much of that expanded rail line is elevated. Still, I've read that rail expansion in countries such as Romania is considerably more economical than it is here. Heavy scrutiny of procurement contracts and supervision seem warranted here. Houstonians are taxed until their eyes bleed as it is...

 

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