Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Observations on the response to Katrina

I originally planned on writing today's post about John Tierney's excellent column in the New York Times this week about the power of high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes and the futility of letting hybrids into the HOV lanes. But the story of the week is Hurricane Katrina, and particularly the slow destruction of New Orleans by rising flood waters.

Tonight, things are looking grim. Looters are getting more aggressive and violent. Gangs with AK-47s are roaming the streets. Wal-Marts have been cleaned out of their guns and ammo. There could be 100,000+ people still in the city. Most will leave voluntarily when transportation is provided, but what will authorities do if there is a hard-core population perfectly happy to continue hiding and looting the city while it's abandoned? How do you empty a 180 sq.mile flooded city? Door to door? With who and what? I don't think the current police force and the marginal addition of National Guard troops is going to cut it. It might be time to call in whatever Airborne army units we have in this country that aren't in Iraq or Afganistan before we have a real-life version of the movie "Escape from New York". These images of looting are going to put many others at risk during future hurricanes, when they would rather evacuate but decide they have to stay to protect their belongings because they can't count on local authorities to move-in in force after the hurricane passes.

While the crisis is ongoing, some attention is starting to turn towards some very hard questions:

  • This flooding potential has been known for years, but why does it seem as if there was incredibly bad planning for it? Why has the planned shelter of last resort - the SuperDome - been such a disaster itself?
  • Why was an mandatory evacuation ordered, but no public transportation provided for those with no means to leave the city? Doesn't seem obvious in hurricane evacuation planning for a deeply poor city that hundreds of buses need to be called up before it strikes?
  • It has been noted that upgrading the levees for a category 4 or 5 was too expensive, and I'm no civil engineer, but why aren't there at least simple gates at the ends of the canals to shut them off if a levee breaks? My wife and I recently got back from a trip to Ottawa, where their canal has quite a few boat locks/gates, which don't really seem that complex or expensive.
  • Stories indicate that the levees were broken for hours overnight before public works found out about it, allowing the breaches to grow dramatically over many hours. In a city totally dependent on the levees to protect it, wouldn't make sense to have arrays of sensors that can immediately detect a breach? Ones that are on their own generator-backed-up power grid? That would enable a rapid response while the breach was small, before it grew to hundreds of feet wide.
  • Again, in city where the levees are so critical, shouldn't a pre-packaged rapid-response capability been in place to respond to a levee breach? Maybe a simple barge with sandbags, concrete, and a crane? Heck, maybe just some barges that can be easily sunk in place to block a gap? Why is the Army Corps. of Engineers having to figure out on-the-fly how to respond to these levee breaches?

Some are already blaming Bush for budget cutbacks in the engineering program to enhance New Orleans protection, and I don't want to sound harsh, but I have to ask: why are the Feds responsible for protecting an untenable city? Why isn't that a local problem? Californians locally absorb the cost of building their buildings and infrastructure to survive an earthquake, but protecting New Orleans from hurricanes and flooding is somehow a national problem? Now that we're in the process of completely building out Galveston island, should we demand that the Feds come down and extend the seawall all the way down? Shouldn't Galvestonians absorb that risk and pay if they want to mitigate it?

CNN is reporting that a lot of people are angry at the slow federal response. My suspicion is that, when the media dig into this story over the next few weeks, they're going to find that the emergency management organizations in Louisana, Mississippi, and Alabama (all poor states) were totally inadequate, and it took the Feds 24-48 hours to figure this out (they're probably used to dealing with Florida, which I'll bet has this disaster-response stuff down to a science). So then the Feds had to step in and take over by sending in resources above and beyond FEMA to compensate for poor planning by those states. Certainly this is a disaster beyond any normal magnitude, but my impression is that these states didn't really have even the most basic plans and resources in place for what was really a very predictable disaster (who would guess a high-powered hurricane might hit Gulf Coast states?!)

(update this morning: Wall Street Journal confirms - "As U.S. Mobilizes Aid, Katrina Exposes Flaws in Preparation - Despite Warnings, Officials Say There Wasn't Clear Plan For a New Orleans Disaster")

The good news is that Houston is reaching out with generous donations and support, not the least of which is the Astrodome refugee shelter. Rice and UH are reaching out to Tulane and other displaced students, as are the TEA and HISD. Mayor White performed admirably on CNN tonight, and so did Judge Eckels on Fox News (both conveying much more competent leadership than many other politicians and government officials I've seen on TV this week). Bill O'Reilly was impressed with the speed of the Astrodome logistics coming together and very complimentary towards Judge Eckels, who simply responded (I'm paraphrasing):

"Houston comprehensively plans for this sort of situation."

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Branding Houston?

I wanted to pass along an interesting radio program about a city branding effort in Chicago. The branding of Houston has always been a keen interest of mine, and I was struck by the number of parallels between Chicago and Houston:
  • Key assets of quality of life, friendly people (that Midwestern thing), infrastructure, scale, geographic centrality, and access to talent and diversity
  • A particular strength in transporation infrastructure
  • Large numbers of Fortune 500 headquarters
  • An attraction to young people not just for quality of life, but as a good city to build a career (lots of job opportunities for self and spouse vs. a smaller city)
  • Biggest negative in peoples' minds is the climate
  • An aspiration to shift from a regional capital to a global city
They developed a pretty popular shared vision for the city, but no tag line (which they dismissed as silly). While I agree that most tag lines are silly in a chamber-of-commerce-boosterism-sort-of-way, it really weakens a branding effort when you can't reduce it to the essential phrase. For example, I can't actually remember what the specific "Chicago brand" was supposed to be. Something vague about being a friendly, global city with talent, diversity, and quality of life. Not exactly snappy.

If you're interested, there was a fascinating dialogue in the Houston Business Journal a few years back about branding Houston (I personally prefer to think of it as a deeper "identity" rather than a superficial "image" or "brand"). Most people seem to agree "Space City" and "Bayou City" aren't really cutting it anymore. While I have my own ideas (posts for another time), I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts in the comments.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The new CTC Intermodality blog

Read it, especially the most recent post on optimizing the new Metro LRT/BRT system to minimize transfers. Really thoughtful stuff. I'm not sure how tricky it is to schedule and route the trains like Cristof recommends, but if it's doable it seems like it would make the system much more rider-friendly.

I'm also a big fan of his third post on our under-exploited HOV network.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Top TV markets vs. metro populations

So the Nielsen Media Research recently announced that Houston has displaced Detroit as the tenth largest TV market in the country. Kuffner comments here, and you can find the complete list here (press release).

I found it interesting that, while we're the 8th largest metro, we only make #10 in the TV markets (and no, I don't think it's because we watch less TV than the rest of the country, although that might be nice). In the TV listings, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Boston move ahead of us while Miami-FtL drops from #6 to #17 (because Nielsen peels off West Palm Beach separately). Part of the discrepancy is just different metro definitions between Nielson and the Census Bureau (like including San Jose with SF or not), but I think demographics figure into it too. Nielsen is looking at "TV households", while the Census is looking at people. Houston has a large Latino population, which tend to have larger households. This gives us a high population count, but a lower household count. This could also be a factor in Miami's big ranking drop.

Another interesting difference is that Nielson will look at the far hinterlands around a metro as long as they watch those local TV stations. As an example, Tampa is only the 20th largest metro by Census definitions, but the 12th largest TV market, and the largest in Florida. I'm sure this is because there is a fairly dense strip of households along the entire west coast of Florida, and they probably watch the Tampa TV stations even if they're way beyond the Census-defined metro area.

As another example, look at Philadelphia, whose metro only has 15% more people than Houston according to the Census, but has 50% more households according to Nielson. I'm betting Nielson is including wide swaths of New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and eastern Pennsylvania in Philly's TV market, even though they can be pretty far from the city itself. What's the common thread between Philly and Tampa? Lots of nearby coastline, and people like to live near a coast, even if it's far from a metro. Certainly Houston has its share of nearby coastline, but it hasn't filled in with the same density as the northeast or Florida (tip: buy now while it's still affordable).

The trends are all about what you would expect: LA, DFW, Atlanta, and Houston all growing strongly (the sun belt); NY, Chicago, DC, and Philly holding even; and Boston, SF, and Detroit declining (all from weak local economies, plus unaffordable housing in Boston and SF).

I have no idea if this will make any difference in the advertising you'll see and hear. How many advertisers restrict themselves to the top 10 markets? Seems pretty arbitrary and limiting, although it does hit almost a third of the country. Maybe now we get to see the "world class" commercials?...

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Garden cities vs. backyards

At David Crossley's Livable Houston meeting yesterday at HGAC, David introduced us to a century-old conceptual model of an "ideal" garden city. The essence of the concept is to replace lots of small parcels of open space - essentially peoples' yards - by combining them into large blocks of parks, greenbelts, wilderness and farmland, while people would live in moderately high-density urban/town cores. The benefits are lots of large, accessible green spaces while making pedestrian and transit-based trips easier (because of the residential and commercial density).

While an interesting concept, I think it runs up against some very powerful desires people have for their own private backyards over public parks:

  • Safe place for the kids to play unsupervised
  • Makes owning a dog much less hassle (almost a quarter of all households)
  • Substantially fewer homeless and panhandlers
  • Backdoor accessibility
  • Privacy
  • Customizable to personal tastes (pool, hot tub, deck, fountains, plants, hammock, etc.)
  • Gardening is one of the most popular hobbies in the world (ironic that the widespread desire to garden would work against a "garden city")

As they would say in the marketing biz, the backyard is a product with a "compelling value proposition", which is probably why people are buying so many of them (aka "the suburbs"). Sure, there are plenty of people who consider a yard one big maintenance nightmare, and they're good candidates for high-density urban living with nice nearby parks (clearly a growing sentiment). But you have to wonder what the realistic long-term market share trends are.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

"New Ruralism" and other misc items

Another collection of small miscellaneous items:

"The idea is a corporate reinvention of new urbanism, an antisprawl movement that advocates compact, old-fashioned towns where residents can commune in parks, shops and restaurants within walking distance of their homes. Instead of connecting with neighbors, new ruralism promotes connecting with the land - though these cabins in the woods come with wireless Internet access and porches with screens that unfurl by remote control.
The target market is people 42 to 60 who, tired of coastal hurricane threats or the beach scene in general, want something more like Walden Pond or Walton's Mountain. Most are expected to use these ranches, camps and farms as second homes, though a surprising number of prospective buyers want full-time rusticity, St. Joe executives said."

It mentions the problem of making mosquito swamps attractive to landowners. If they're successful, they definitely need to bring the concept to southeast Texas...

  • The Houston Business Journal has an article on Houston's strong housing market:

"All listing categories combined, Houston's overall housing market in July experienced increases across-the-board including total property sales, average sales prices, median sales price, available inventory, pending sales -- those listings expected to close within the next 30 days -- and overall total dollar volume on a year-over-year basis. ...

Houston's current median price of $145,500 is 33.4 percent less than the national median price, which reached $218,600 in June, according to statistics released by the National Association of Realtors. "

  • An interesting piece on downtown Vancouver, which seems to have the opposite problem from Houston: way too many high-rise residential buildings and no office development, leading to downtown residents actually reverse-commuting on the rail lines to suburban job centers. One of the causes is a tax code that is tilted too heavily against commercial uses to keep taxes low on residents. Again, a problem very difficult to go back from, because residents are pretty happy with their low tax rates and aren't eager to increase them to lure more jobs. Lesson: tax policies can have unintended consequences.
  • This guy needs to take a deep breath and relax. He rants like a madman about bland big box stores taking over the world, but he does inadvertantly highlight a nice feature of Houston: our lack of zoning and development regulation gives us a much more eclectic city. We're no tightly-controlled "Disney 'Burb" filled only with "safe" big-name stores and restaurants. It may not always be pretty, but it's nice to know that small business entrepreneurialism is alive and well in Houston, esp. among immigrants.

Humor: The Onion on Zoning

Very amusing. The dangers of bureaucrats drunk with power...

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Sprawl and the benefits of frontage roads

I wanted to respond to Roger Galatas' editorial in the Sunday Chronicle about taming new sprawl in Houston. I was skeptical at first, but came around as I realized he wasn't trying to stop sprawl, but just get higher quality development as we grow. Most of his recommendations seem pretty reasonable, although the devil is always in the details - reasonable suggestions can slide down the slippery slope into oppressive regulations pretty easily.

My only strong disagreement regards frontage roads:
"The Texas Department of Transportation should rethink the purpose and use of frontage roads to make our freeways more attractive. In other states, cities without frontage roads have more attractive freeways."
Yes, urban freeways without frontage roads can be more scenic, but they're also a whole lot less functional. My step-daughter just got back from a long road trip to Illinois and Michigan, and one of her primary complaints was the lack of frontage roads (matching my experience in LA): How do I get over there? Can I exit here and still get back on? Where can I get back on? How can I u-turn? Where is the store or gas station or restaurant I'm looking for? It's a nightmare if you're not totally familiar with the area. Frontage roads are a major convenience.

But the best feature of frontage roads is that they put a commercial buffer between freeways and residential areas. Not only does this reduce pollution and noise for residents, it also diffuses opposition to freeway widenings when they become necessary. When TXDoT gets strong opposition to a freeway widening, it's almost always where it goes through a residential area: 10W in the Villages, 59S inside Shepherd, 45N in the Heights.

If people really want better freeway aesthetics, I think the focus should be on better landscaping along with billboard and sign ordinances, not eliminating frontage roads. Don't throw out the baby with the bath water.

Monday, August 22, 2005

How zoning regulations inflate the housing bubble

Slate magazine has a nice, short piece on how zoning regulations drive up housing costs.

If you live in central Dallas, and if you could magically add a quarter of an acre to your lot size, you'd add (on average) about $2,200 to the value of your house. (We know this from comparisons of similar houses on different-sized lots.) Do the same in central Philadelphia, and your house value increases by $8,400; in central Houston, it's more like $17,600. In that sense, central Dallas land is just about the cheapest urban land you can find in this country. Among large cities, only Atlanta, Boston, and St. Louis rank lower.

In theory, that should be great news for Dallas housing prices. But it's not. A house that costs $100,000 to build typically sells for $140,000 in Dallas, maybe $120,000 in Houston, and under $90,000 in Philadelphia.

They go on to explain that the reason the land is worth more in places like Houston is that it is relatively easy to get permission to build on it. Not so in Dallas and most other cities. Zoning regulations restrict supply, which causes prices to spike into bubbles followed by their painful aftermath, often including driving both jobs and residents away.

When you buy a house, you're not just paying for the land and construction costs; you're also paying for a building permit and other costs of compliance. You've got to get the permits, pass the zoning and historic preservation boards, ace the environmental impact statement, win over the neighborhood commission, etc. ...

You can talk all you want about crazed speculators and bubbles in housing prices, but you still have to explain why competitive forces don't bring prices right back down. According to Glaeser and Gyourko, it's ever-expanding zoning laws that get in the way. If you want to lower prices, that's the bubble you've got to burst.

Our minimal level of development red-tape (and therefore strong housing market competition) is another hidden strength of Houston. Amusingly, it's one that we were mocked for for years (the largest city in the country without zoning), but now the shoe is on the other foot, with other cities wondering how they can pare back onerous development regulations without a resident revolt. Unfortunately, it's another one of those one-way slippery-slopes that are very difficult to go back from, similar to unrealistically low property tax caps.

I'm not saying Houston's perfect. There is a need for some historic preservation and directed development near light rail stations, but I think we're trying to accomplish these goals with a more thoughtful, lighter touch than the heavy-handed approaches of other cities. That, plus Mayor White's initiative to streamline the building permit process, puts Houston in a very good position going forward.

Causes and effects of Metro ridership and costs

Rad Sallee at the Chronicle has a piece today on Metro's ridership numbers, and Anne comments here. The overall trends don't look good, with local bus ridership and revenue dropping and costs increasing, moving Metro from a 20% farebox recovery to 14% over the last 4 years. The problem is that there are so many variables in play, it's really hard to figure out exactly what's going on. The article mentions the usual issues:
  • Bus route cuts
  • Bus route changes to link to light rail, making trips more inconvenient with more transfers
  • The Enron collapse, the recession, and the weaker office market downtown
  • The problem of counting boardings instead of trips (a single trip can include multiple transfers/boardings - the new smart cards could answer this if and when they get implemented)
But there are couple other possible causes not being considered:
  • Gas costs have more than doubled in the last couple of years, which could be a big part of Metro's 30% increase in operating costs. I'm sure the rail is part of that too, but it would be nice if Metro broke out what part of the increase is fuel related.
  • After 9/11, interest rates dropped and the automakers slapped huge incentives on cars and trucks to keep them moving off the lots, which, in turn, lowered the prices for used vehicles. You have to believe that enabled a lot of the transit-dependent to become transit-independent. In my mind, that's a good kind of ridership loss, although it probably hasn't been so good for traffic congestion.
What would be really helpful would be some comparative transit numbers to other cities like Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin. That would isolate out national factors like fuel costs and cheap cars to see how we're doing on a relative basis.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Houston gets kudos for Westpark toll road


2005.08.14 HOUSTON AREA

Westpark Tollway opens in Fort Bend Co TX

The Westpark Tollway extension in Fort Bend County on the western fringe of the Houston area opened Aug 10. The extension in Fort Bend County takes the Westpark Tollway from central Houston at US59 and the inner belt I-610 out 32km (20mi) to TX99, the Grand Parkway. The Westpark Tollway of 23km (14mi) was completed within Harris County in three stages, heading west, the first opening May 1 2004 to a bit beyond the Sam Houston Tollway, and another to Highway 6 on Oct 9 2004. The third opened to FM1464 at the Fort Bend/Harris county lines Jun 8 2005.

The road is a striking demonstration of how Texans lead the rest of the U.S. in skill and economy of roadbuilding and willingness to embrace cutting edge technology.

The new extension in Fort Bend Co has no cash toll collection. It is full highway speed open road transponder tolling, like the HCTRA part of the Westpark Tollway.

Economy: for $70m they built a motorway standard pike of 8.9km (5.5mi), 2x2 lanes mainline, 5 sets of slip lanes to frontage roads, 4 interchanges with bridges long enough for those frontage road U-turns, the pavement all out of foot thick (300mm) fully reinforced concrete, plus toll systems. Cost per lane-mile of mainline: $3.14m ($1.97m/lane-km). [Here in Maryland, sadly, we have spent something like $70m on studies, permitting, public outreach on our new tollroad, the Inter County Connector, and that is before detailed design has been done, let alone construction begun!]

Other technical details, as well as pictures and some paragraphs on the Ft. Bend Parkway, are at the link. Toll violations have also dropped from 16% to 2% on the road as people figured out the EZ-tag-only requirement.

My favorite picture caption:
"Houston is tidal swamp so serious roads have pavement built like bridge deck out of heavily reinforced concrete "

Nothing attracts new residents, developers, and growth like a good 'ole "tidal swamp", eh?

(headed to San Antonio - probably no more posts until next week)

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

When the dead leave your city and other minor items

Today, an array of miscellaneous items that are too small for their own posts:

  • Another sad and cautionary tale of Detroit, which has gotten so bad that people are actually unearthing their relatives from cemeteries and moving them to the suburbs at the rate of 400-500 a year (!). For those of you who are wondering, noted urban experts officially consider it a moderately bad sign when even the dead are leaving your city...
  • LA Times article on how high gas prices are incenting a few more people to ride mass transit, but not many. The #1 barrier? Bad schedules and slow trips.
  • Virginia Postrel Dynamist blog post on cleaning up smog in California by targeting the 10% of vehicles that are 50% of the problem. Seems like simple common sense, doesn't it?
  • Houston Business Journal article noting that Texas is at the top of the heap nationally in industrial project spending, with half of all Texas investments coming to Harris County. Pretty good haul for the county: only 15% of the state's population but getting 50% of the industrial investing.
  • New York Times article explaining the popularity of the exurbs to incredulous New Yorkers, who extend their sympathies to all of us not fortunate enough to pay a million dollars for a thousand sq.foot co-op at the center of the universe.
  • Another New York Times piece on creative class slackers moving to Philly because they can no longer afford to live anywhere near Manhattan (see previous bullet point).
  • Washington Post article on the surprising density of western cities vs. eastern ones, esp. LA, which is now the highest density metro area in the country at 7,068 people per square mile, vs. Atlanta as the lowest density major metro at 1,783/sq.mile. Galveston ranked a surprisingly high #11 in the country, at 4,527/sq.mile. Houston is not mentioned in the article, but is a reasonable and healthy 3,300/sq.mile: not too high density with too many cars per square mile (and the resultingly famous LA congestion), and not too low density with long driving distances to get anywhere (Atlanta is also getting quite the traffic congestion reputation).

Monday, August 15, 2005

Houston political leanings: conservative or balanced?

The Bay Area Center for Voting Research just released a report ranking cities from politically conservative to liberal based on the 2004 election. Charles Kuffner has some great comments and article links here. The big story is that the city of Dallas (not the county or metro) got ranked as more liberal (#32) than Austin (#93), which threw a lot of people for a loop. Some people think their data or analysis is just wrong. Others think it's an artifact of all the Republicans leaving Dallas for the suburban cities (including Plano, which ranked as the fifth most conservative city in the nation), along with the large Democratic-leaning African American community in Dallas, which is lacking in Austin. I started out thinking the former, but after I looked at it a while, I came around towards the latter view.

One item in their report that should strike no one as news:
With the findings of this study, the San Francisco Bay Area can now officially be designated the most liberal region in the country. With three cities in the top ten liberal list – Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco – no other region comes close to matching the Bay Area.

As you might expect, Houston is the largest conservative city in the nation. Of the top 10, NY, LA, Chicago, Philly, Dallas, and Detroit are all pretty strongly liberal (inc. Detroit at #1), while Houston, Phoenix, and San Antonio are moderately conservative, with San Diego perched right on the fence as the #119 city in both the liberal and conservative lists. But here's the catch: San Diego voted 55/45 for Kerry over Bush. Houston, as the 62nd most conservative and 177th most liberal (out of 237 total cities), on the surface seems to tilt pretty far to the right, but only voted 53.6/46.3 for Bush over Kerry. The national vote was something like 51/48 (1% other), so Houston is pretty darn close to the national average. The skew is the result of a national bias of larger cities towards liberal. Manchester, NH was the most balanced city I could find in their list, at almost exactly 50/50, and that got it ranked #80 most conservative and #159 most liberal, very close to Houston's rankings.

The bottom line: compared to other large cities, we're very conservative, but compared to the country as a whole, we're right in middle. In my humble and biased opinion, that makes for a more diverse and more interesting city than other cities that are more monocultural (or at least monopolitical).

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Tourists prefer rail transit

In my earlier post on the deeper psychology of rail, I argued out-of-town visitors prefer rail transit over rent cars. This Washington Post article confirms it, although it also makes an argument for good signage:

For visitors to Washington who come from freeway-reliant reaches of Middle America, riding the Metro can be an attraction in itself. But a few trips riding the rails in their comfortable shoes show that the experience can be more than a little bewildering, too.

"We come from a little town, so this is pretty neat," said Teri George, 51, of Mount Vernon, Mo., while her two young grandsons raced up and down the platform at the Smithsonian Station. ...

Despite some confusing rides, many visitors said riding public transportation is a worthwhile adventure.

"I love it," said Leslie Fraser, 30, in town from Fresno, Calif., where she said she's usually stuck in her car. With a camera around her neck and her Frommer's guide opened to the Metro map, she easily found a Dupont Circle-bound train.

"I wish they had these all over the place," she said.

Of course, in Houston, it's more likely to be a business traveler than a leisure tourist, but it still improves their opinion of the experience and the city, which they report back to family, friends, and colleagues. Certainly not a "case closed" pro-rail argument, but one that should be considered nonetheless.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Serious topic, but inadvertently amusing headline

"Many Texas schools fall short of 'no child' goals"

No matter how hard the schools try to discourage them, those darn children keep showing up every August... ;-)

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Annexation and city-county consolidation

Today we have an email from Houston Strategies reader Andre, who is from Houston but currently living in central Florida:

I just wanted to get your feedback on how you feel about annexation and what area is next if any. I know both Lee Brown & Bill White dislike the idea of annexation so it won’t happen in years to come, but since annexation is as much a part of Houston as oil, what area do you feel is up for grabs?

Living about 45 minutes outside of Orlando, I see that Orlando is not into annexation, but the surrounding areas are moving fast in land grabs. Jacksonville has annexed its way to being larger than Houston in land size.

Florida is as liberal in its annexation laws as Texas, and it is interesting in seeing how Orlando focuses on its outer fringe (which is where the attractions are) and Jacksonville annexed just to make itself important.

I was researching another idea that has been used by some cities. Consolidation of county and city govts. Nashville and Louisville both have used it to simplify services that overlap such as fire, police, and emergency care. I wonder if Houston & Harris County could or would do that since Houston already take up so much of Harris County land-wise, it would only make sense for the county to completely merge with Houston and integrate city and county services.

I think that this is a painless way for Houston to acquire more unincorporated land and people without dealing with suburbs.

First off, let me say that this is definitely an area outside my expertise. I'm sure plenty of my readers know a lot more than I do about Houston annexation and city-county consolidation possibilities, and I'm hoping they speak up in the comments. That said, here are my uninformed thoughts:

The Kingwood annexation was so traumatic, I think the city has backed away from pursuing annexation as aggressively. They've been cutting deals with various entities inside the ETJ (extra-territorial jurisdiction, i.e. they can't incorporate into their own city) on "limited purpose annexations." I've heard this has actually created some confusion about what should be considered inside and outside the city, since there are now areas getting partial services.

I understand some deal was cut to protect The Woodlands from annexation until 2011. As far as potential annexation targets, The Woodlands would be at the top of the list, along with maybe Cinco Ranch on the far west side (lots of nice tax base). In the future, if commercial development clusters pop up at the intersections of the Grand Parkway and 290, 249 or 45 (as mentioned in an earlier post), I think they'll go after them too, just like they did Willowbrook Mall and the 249/1960 intersection a few years back: nice tax base with few service requirements.

City-county consolidation is a tricky one. I've heard mention of it from time to time, but never any serious discussion. In theory, the consolidation of services is attractive, but I don't know how much savings are really there. I get the impression they do a good job at not wastefully duplicating too much, but I could be wrong on that.

Other city-county mergers I've heard of seem to talk a lot about moving up the city population rankings, and how that will make it easier to attract economic development (because companies don't know how to look at metro area rankings?). Houston would move from 2M to somewhere just above 3M. Harris County has around 3.6M, but many of those are in other cities like Pasadena, Bellaire, Tomball, etc. That would only move us from #4 to #3, passing up Chicago at 2.8M. If LA (3.8M) had actually voted to break up from the San Fernando Valley last year, we could have moved into second place. New York is firmly entrenched at #1 with 8M. Honestly, I don't think it would really raise our profile any higher on the economic development radar.

There's also the problem that some of the city is already across county lines in Ft. Bend. Much of the ETJ extends outside the county and might be lost, including the big Woodlands prize.

But my biggest objection to exploring a city-county merger is political risk. After reading how incredibly disfunctional many, many metro areas are, I've come to appreciate Houston's pretty effective system at both the city and county levels. If we looked at a merger, everything would be up for grabs in the re-design, and odds are we'd end up with a governance structure worse than we have now, in my humble opinion. We also have a reasonably unified, collaborative political class right now, but the power-struggle over unification could be a very ugly civil war that would poison our political environment for many years and have all sorts of negative consequences.

Bottom line: the costs and risks seem to far outweigh the benefits. The simpler solution is for the city and county to keep working together to eliminate duplicative inefficiencies.

(for those who are interested, I will post an old Otis White column on city-county mergers in the comments)

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

California Paradise: The San Diego Equation

Crawling traffic + $600K median homes = 56% ready to leave town

Followup on downtown office building conversions

Steve emailed me some interesting thoughts on my earlier post about downtown office building conversions, so he's today's guest blogger (emphasis mine):

My own theory about the lack of housing development in our downtown coincides with yours. From my work with interests in downtown Houston a significant issue is landowners of parking lot or underdeveloped properties who are unwilling to invest or do a deal. This is stemming at least partly from the idea that their property will be the next 30-story office tower (or higher). In reality, barring another one-off boom like we had with the energy trading industry (or non-industry, as it turned out), large-scale new office space downtown is a long time in the future (there’s a couple smaller-scale projects happening right now – the Stowers office condos and the Cordish project at Bayou Place, which is not under construction but planned for the near future). They could do residential, either a conversion or ground-up, probably much sooner. But they don’t seem willing to “settle” for residential right now. Besides, the parking lot owners get too much interim income to feel much pressure. Contrast this with Uptown, where there is little to no talk of any more office buildings – the development world has moved on to residential and deals are done accordingly. (No surface parking pay lots either.) This may reverse a little after freeway construction is completed and Uptown gets better regional transit access, but the residential momentum will be hard to stop. I haven’t researched this but it seems like a reasonable theory.

Dallas is a fairly extreme example where the geographical migration of business activity and affluent residences has made their downtown peripheral, not central. Even with good freeways and transit, it’s hard for Downtown Dallas to compete with the suburban centers in terms of access (though it doesn’t take long before they’re congested and inconvenient too). Even more “central” downtowns like Houston’s, along with urban core activity centers like Greenway Plaza and Uptown, face the same challenge. Downtown Houston has been lucky to have had tremendous investment in highways and park-and-ride service that have been a savior to office demand. But when your key employees with school-age children mostly live in Fort Bend, Katy, Cy-Fair, and The Woodlands, the lure of the middle and outer ‘burbs to employers is strong. The Dallas market has adjusted by building offices on the fringe, now attracting urban-style town centers to accommodate those who work at these companies but still prefer a denser environment. This is starting to happen here now too. My prediction: just wait until the Grand Parkway is finally built and is the most direct connector between the top residential suburbs. Then we’ll really see office migration. Hopefully by then downtown Houston will finally have started to build some residential and get its own momentum going.

I'm not sure I totally agree on the effect of the Grand Parkway. Certainly there will be some offices along it, but it's such a large square (rather than a circle), that it won't be much of a direct connection between Sugar Land and The Woodlands. The Woodlands to Katy would be something like a 50 mile one-way commute, plus tolls, which is really pushing it. Maybe a new office cluster at 290 and the GP, which is commutable from The Woodlands, Sugar Land, the west suburbs, and the core - but I think that's within Houston annexation range.

IAH #1 in on-time performance, but why?

Anne at blogHouston has a post about IAH being the #1 on-time airport in the country in June. The Houston Airport System attributes it to the capital improvement program (i.e. the new runway), which is fair - that is certainly extremely helpful - but what's the more important reason? June was the driest ever on record, something like a total of 1/10th of an inch. No thunderstorms = no delays. The storms came back in July, and Houston and Continental felt it:
During the month, Continental recorded a U.S. Department of Transportation on-time arrival rate of 69.5 percent. The carrier's on-time arrival rate was impacted by severe weather, which plagued the carrier's hub operations in both Newark and Houston throughout much of July. Despite these difficult weather conditions, Continental maintained a systemwide mainline completion factor of 99.6 percent.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Dangers of property tax exemptions

Here's another one from Otis White's Urban Notebook on a topic I've written about a few times before:

How to Kill a Community - Pay Up, Stranger

When cities are healthy, they’re buzzing with change. Newcomers are moving in, old-timers are moving out, new housing is built, old housing is rehabilitated, and streets that rarely saw a baby carriage in the past are suddenly chockablock with strollers. Want to kill all that? Enact a “welcome stranger” law.

What’s a welcome stranger law? That’s what they call special property-tax exemptions for longtime residents in the Atlanta area. They work by freezing property assessments, slowing their rise or simply granting ever-larger tax exemptions to homeowners — until they sell their houses. Then the new owner pays taxes on the full value.

These tax breaks are harmful — they penalize new residents, who are the lifeblood of communities — and blatantly discriminatory. How discriminatory? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution looked at two houses in the same suburban Atlanta neighborhood with vastly different tax bills, even though both were valued at about $400,000. One, owned by an old-timer, paid $970 in county taxes; the other, owned by a newcomer, paid $2,798.

So why do we have these harmful and discriminatory tax breaks? Because they’re wildly popular with voters. Georgia’s legislature permitted voters to enact welcome stranger laws in 2000; five years later, 24 counties have voted them in and another five are voting on them later this year. As the Journal-Constitution observed, “Approval is a near certainty.”

Fortunately, they may not last for long in Georgia. A former county commissioner from rural Dade County has filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the welcome stranger laws. Like other states, Georgia’s constitution requires that taxation “be uniform upon the same class of subjects,” and some legal observers believe that the uniformity principle applies to all residents, no matter how long they’ve lived in a community.

As for the man filing the lawsuit, Chuck Blevins has two objections. First, he believes the exemptions hurt communities. “It’s going to be the ruination of us,” he told the Journal-Constitution, “not now but five or six years down the road.” Second, he thinks the tax breaks are unfair. “Most people know when something is just plain wrong,” he said, “but if these people are saying, ’I don’t care if my neighbor is paying higher taxes,’ then fine.”

Unfortunately, this article doesn't do a good job articulating the other negative consequences. One is that houses stop selling and start renting as the tax discrepancy gets larger and larger (why pay extra money to the government when it can stay between two private parties?), and owners make for stronger communities and better upkeep than renters. This is a chronic problem in California.

The other problem is that as local governments need more money, they're forced to squeeze more and more of it out of newcomers, which discourages growth and can lead to stagnation.

Finally, it can be almost impossible to correct the problem after going down this road. Look at California. Warren Buffett pointed out how screwed up their tax system is, but it's impossible for voters to agree to a steep increase in their property taxes, especially since many have now bought the most house they can possibly afford on a cash flow basis, so the money just isn't available to handle the tax increase (i.e. low property tax assumptions are built into housing values and mortgage payments).

Let's hope Texas and Houston never end up being tempted down this road. I'd love to hear other stories and thoughts on this topic in the comments if you have them.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Unity vs. fragmentation in metro areas

Otis White's Urban Notebook has a post on the cautionary case study of Detroit:

Beyond the ’Burbs - Postcards from the Edge

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, the Harvard business professor who writes occasionally about cities, says that to be successful cities need two things: magnets (things that draw outsiders to a place) and glue (things that keep them there). If so, Detroit is overdue for some Krazy Glue.

As the Detroit News reported recently, a growing number of residents are moving so far from the city that “the tenuous connections to Detroit have snapped. Residents have few economic, social and emotional connections to the city or to Detroit’s traditional suburbs.” The newspaper focused on Hartland Township, 58 miles from the city, which has more than doubled in population in the last 15 years. Most who’ve moved there aren’t city residents looking for a slice of suburbia but second- or third-generation suburbanites looking for ... something else.

Initially, that something else is a four-bedroom house on an acre of land for about what they’d pay for a three-bedroom tract house in suburban Birmingham or Livonia. But in time, the News reported, these exurbanites adapt to life in a place unattached to any city, leaving behind not only the cultural and sports attractions of Detroit but the restaurants and shopping malls of the suburbs. Eventually, as they stop reading the big-city newspapers, a kind of urban amnesia settles in. As one resident recalled, in four years of conversations with neighbors, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone mention Detroit.”

Detroit is, of course, an extreme case. As the News points out, the city’s business center is anemic, it lacks a modern transit system to funnel suburbanites back to the city and has zero chance of growing through annexation. Result: Today 74 percent of commuters in the region drive from one suburb to another; only 8 percent commute from the suburbs to the city. The economic center of the region has long since moved beyond the city limits. Today, 78 percent of jobs in the region are more than 10 miles from downtown Detroit — the highest percentage in the nation, the News reports.

But no place should be smug about these things, the newspaper added. “Exurbia is to the 21st century what suburbs were to the 20th century,” it said. And clearly the unattached exurbs will present regions with challenges even greater than earlier generations of suburbs did.

I think unity is one of Houston's great unacknowledged strengths. It's certainly an ephemeral concept, but I think the vast majority of people the metro area are comfortable saying they are Houstonians, whether they live inside the city limits or not (nobody says they're from "Southeast Texas"). Consider other cities' fragmented identities:
  • Dallas vs. Ft. Worth vs. the Metroplex vs. North Texas
  • San Francisco vs. San Jose vs. Oakland vs. Silicon Valley vs. the Bay Area
  • Los Angeles vs. Orange County vs. Riverside/SB vs. Southern California
  • Miami vs. Ft. Lauderdale vs. Palm Beach vs. South Florida
  • DC vs. Virginia vs. Maryland vs. Baltimore
  • Phoenix vs. Scottsdale vs. Mesa vs. Glendale vs. Arizona
A key indicator is if your sports team picks a name other than the core city, like the Texas Rangers, Golden State Warriors, Florida Marlins, or Arizona Cardinals or Diamondbacks. I'm sure a lot of Detroit teams would love to change their names to "Michigan [insert animal or car part here]" for marketing purposes, if they thought they could get away with it.

Other large cities that have been very good at keeping their identity and core focus are New York and Chicago.

I think Houston has been both lucky and smart. Lucky, in that we had few geographic barriers in all directions, so central Houston stayed relatively at the center as the population grew in all directions. We are also reasonably central within one large county rather than broken up among many counties like metro Atlanta or the SF Bay Area. This also helped keep most of the big name attractions in the core of Houston like stadiums and museums. Compare this to Dallas, where the center of gravity has shifted dramatically towards DFW airport, including 2 of the 3 major sports stadiums.

On the smart side, not only do we have annexation powers, we also invested heavily in freeways and HOV transit to the core, so employers stayed in the city instead of fleeing to the far suburbs and exurbs. As I've said before, when employers move 20-30 minutes out, employees then feel comfortable moving 20-30 minutes out beyond that where they can get a big house and plot of land uber-cheap, DC and Detroit being prime examples. When people live, work, and play outside of the core city, they stop really caring about it or identifying with it, and that includes no longer supporting core nonprofit museum, arts, or charitable organizations (another great strength of Houston).

Regional unity may not be the most tangible asset, but it's one we should definitely strive to maintain.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

More on the psychology of light rail

I've been struggling this week to find time to respond to Tom Kirkendall's thoughtful post earlier this week on my psychology of light rail musings, and I've finally found it on a quiet Saturday morning. He raises three very valid concerns:
  1. The distortions caused by simple yes-no voting, when the results might be very different if an array of options were available (an example of where instant runoff voting would be very useful).
  2. Even though the feds cover much of the capital costs of rail, we're locally stuck with the high operating costs, which, in turn...
  3. ...has already forced Metro to cut back some bus routes and it may have to cut others in the future, regardless of the promises in the referendum.
Hopefully, as more rail is added, operating costs might get spread over more passenger miles and reduce costs per passenger mile. Furthermore, I would like to see Metro try more outsourcing to get further cost-efficiencies, particularly with commuter/HOV routes. Allowing subsidized or unsubsidized jitneys might be another "outsourcing" option that could provide better service at lower costs.

Further down below the post is an interesting comment by AMac, who talks about the difficulties of fitting mass transit into the demands of modern life:
"I am a middle-age, middle-class guy, who for years commuted to downtown Baltimore, a city served (if that's the word) by both busses and light rail. Erratic and long hours made carpooling impractical. Yet day-care dropoff and pickup responsibilities made certain arrival and departure times non-negotiable. This combination, and it's hardly uncommon, makes most public transportation commutes pretty undesirable from a-quality-of-life point of view."

That is the great challenge of transit in a nutshell.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Downtown office building conversions

The NY Times has an interesting piece on converting downtown office buildings to residential use, with a focus on Dallas (Planetizen abstract). Houston also seems to have a vacancy problem downtown. Why aren't we seeing more of these conversions, especially in non-class-A space?

My guess? I think building owners are counting on $60 oil to create strong office demand in Houston over the next few years, and they're holding out for commercial leases. On the other hand, I think most owners have given up on downtown Dallas, which doesn't seem to be attracting much commercial interest, even with it being the focus of quite a large light rail network. The companies up there are far more focused on the newer suburban town centers in Frisco, Grapevine, Flower Mound, Las Colinas, and others (Las Colinas just got the new Fluor HQ). At David Crossley's Livable Houston meeting last week, we heard a presentation on the Westchase District improvement plan (great vision with realistic implementation), and they mentioned how impressed they were with the suburban business centers they toured in the Metroplex, but they also acknowledged the weakness in downtown Dallas.

The other cities they mention - Ft. Worth, LA, Chicago - also have commercially-weakening downtowns as corporations move to "suburban villages" with big, new, affordable housing and easier commutes. There's even been a lot of debate in New York about whether the ground zero redevelopment should really be more commercial (low demand) or residential (high demand).

I'd love to see more residential development downtown, but not if it's a sign of weakening commercial demand. Hopefully we'll see demand for both be high, and maybe even get some new towers.

(side note: I'm headed to San Antonio and Austin the next couple of days. Probably no posts until Friday.)

Monday, August 01, 2005

July highlights

Time again for the monthly ritual. Near the first of every month, I'll be adding a post highlighting key posts from the previous month(s), with a particular focus on significant ideas I'd like to see kept alive for discussion and action. The main page will only show about a month's worth of entries, and I know most new readers won't go back into the monthly archives linked at the bottom of the right-side column, so here are the highlights.

July turned out to be a banner month both hits-wise and in the number of posts that seem to merit "highlight" status. I doubt I will be able to keep up this level of productivity in future months, so the highlights list will probably slim down in the future.

From June:
From May:
From April:
And from March:

As always, thanks for your interest in Houston Strategies.