Sunday, April 30, 2006

Welcome to Jane Jacobs week at Houston Strategies

Famous urban thinker Jane Jacobs passed away last week. For those of you who have been with the blog from the beginning a little over a year ago, you may remember that in my kickoff post I promised an "updated Jane Jacobs for the car-based city." Well, this seems like an opportune time to finally get around to that. I'd like to do a multi-post series this week on her ideas and my thoughts on their application today. Some of her ideas on vibrant neighborhoods from the 1950s still make sense today, but I think others need a re-interpretation through the lens of modern car-based cities like Houston.

But first, I think we'll spend a couple days doing a "Jane Jacobs primer" for those who aren't familiar with her work - with a specific focus on cities (she wrote on many other topics). I want to extend my thanks to Adam Block for prompting me to write on this topic, and here's his very concise summary of her major themes:
To me, a big influence of hers is to think about how big plans fall apart, the availability of opportunity and chaos as a creative force, and thinking about the coercion that lies underneath a lot of planning and architecture.
Well said! But we're getting ahead of ourselves. From a web page summarizing her work is this excellent section covering the essence of her thinking on cities (highlights mine):

Cities and Diversity

Ever since her time in New York Jacobs has lost her heart to city life. She loves the urban dynamic and is fascinated by the people who live, work and amuse themselves in cities. "The city has something to offer to everyone, since it is created by everyone" is one of her famous sayings. This vision is in sharp contrast to the ideal of many city planners and officials from her New York period, like Le Corbusier and [Robert] Moses. According to Jacobs, urban development cannot be planned from behind a drawing table. For her a city is not something abstract. From the title of her first book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) it is clear that she prefers to use a biological metaphor: the city is like a living being that is born, grows, matures, decays and can revive. The elements of the city, "the people, streets, parks, neighborhoods, the government, the economy," cannot exist without one another and are, like the organs of the human body, connected with each other.

In this evolutionary approach streets play an important role: they are the lifeblood where urban dwellers meet each other and where trade and commercial activities take place. The street is the scene a "sidewalk ballet," according to Jacobs, which determines the security, social cohesion and economic development of cities. From this perspective, even taking out the garbage or having a talk with a passer-by is a deed of dramatic expression. These every day acts make a city into a vital city.

In The Death and Life Jacobs expands on the physical conditions which are the foundation of the street ballet. For a good performance of the urban play, she claims, the scene needs to meet four conditions. Firstly, neighborhoods should have several functions, so that there are people on the streets at all hours of the day. If in a neighborhood there is only activity at night, or in the morning, as in many business or commuter areas, activities like hotel and catering, culture and retail trade hardly get the chance to blossom. In neighborhoods with a mix of functions, however, throughout the day these facilities are needed which in itself starts a process of reinforcement. Secondly, Jacobs believes that a city benefits from short building blocks and an intricate street structure. Pedestrians must have the possibility to go round, take a different route sometimes, and thereby discovering something new. Thirdly, there should be enough variation in the residential area: buildings that differ in age, level of maintenance and function contribute to a varied and colorful city image. Lastly, Jacobs advocates a high degree of concentration of people in one place. She supports compact city neighborhoods where different kinds of households and individuals (families, elderly, entrepreneurs, artists, migrants, students) live together. The fact is that this variety on the small scale results in the critical mass which is necessary to maintain an equally varied supply of local facilities. In such a busy and diverse neighborhood the local supermarket, the kebab shop and the chain store can coexist without problems.

Jacobs emphasizes that the spatial conditions for a street ballet cannot do without one another. Only in combination do they lead to the diversity that is needed for a blossoming city life. In this way, urban diversity ensures that there are people close by at every moment of the day. If there are enough "eyes on the street," she claims, crime is not given a chance and the collective feeling of security increases. The variety in functions, buildings and people also plays an important role in maintaining social cohesion. It is not so much about keeping in touch with the neighbors, but rather about interaction on the street, at the bus stops or in shops. This is how people get the feeling of belonging to a community, or being at home somewhere. In order to indicate these loose neighborhood networks, Jacobs talks about "social capital," a term which is very popular nowadays among city governors.

Not only socially, but also economically, urban diversity is of great importance, according to Jacobs. In an area of the city with different kinds of suppliers and buyers, entrepreneurs can share their facilities, such as office spaces and machines, and profit from a varied supply of knowledge and expertise. The cross-fertilization which results from that diversity works as a magnet for companies that are looking for a new place to establish themselves. Additionally, the mix of old and new buildings in the neighborhood gives every type of entrepreneur a chance. In this way, it is possible that a modern stockbroker’s office and a traditional furniture maker are neighbors. According to Jacobs’ motto, "new ideas often need old buildings" so a city neighborhood can grow into a true breeding ground of entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation.

Tomorrow, we'll excerpt the best of several writings and articles about her ideas since her death.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Texans thinking behind Mario over Reggie [UPDATED]

Tom has a great post on the Texans first-draft pick of Mario over Reggie, including links to all the relevant articles. I'm no sports guru, but I'll throw in my two cents. I rooted for Vince after the Rose Bowl, but was slowly convinced Reggie Bush plus Carr was the better choice. Now I'm OK with the Mario choice, even in the face of stinging criticism. I don't think sports columnists/analysts really understand the shift to economics-thinking in a salary-cap era - aka Moneyball - exemplified in the NFL by the New England Patriots who've won 3 of the last 5 Super Bowls. They think the draft is all about getting the absolute best player, but it's really about adding the most marginal value to the team for a given salary expenditure.

Vince, Reggie, or Mario would all be expensive as the first pick, but which is the largest value delta: Vince over Carr, Reggie over Domanick Davis, or Mario on defense? You have to remember that picking a player like Vince or Reggie nullifies or substantially reduces the value of existing team assets like Carr or Davis - thus creating a far lower marginal value to the team than the absolute value of the new player. I think the Texan calculus was that Vince wouldn't add that much marginal value over Carr relative to his marginal cost, and Reggie wouldn't add that much marginal value over Davis relative to his marginal cost, but Mario would add a lot of absolute value to the defense for his marginal cost, without displacing any existing high-value assets on defense.

Mega-stars demand outrageous salaries, and the era of putting together a team of those stars ended with the 1990s' Dallas Cowboys. In a salary-cap world, you want a balanced team of above-average players that aren't big enough "names" to make celebrity-level salary demands. Those players sap salary cap and therefore strength from the rest of the team. The ultimate outcome of the Texans decision is unpredictable, but from an economics viewpoint of maximizing expected value at this decision point with available information, they just may have made the right call.

Update: Two more thoughts on why investing big money in defensive talent may make more sense than offensive talent:
  1. Defensive talent is less prone to injuries. This is doubly true when it comes to celebrity offensive talent that defenses key on for that "bit hit". Build an offense around a critical one or two talented offensive players, and then they get injured, the team is in serious trouble.
  2. Defense has the harder job. Offense knows their plan in advance for each play, and must simply execute. Defenses have to read and react instantly in a collective way with very limited communication (especially in a thunderingly loud stadium). I'm not saying talent is not important on offense, just less so than defense - with the possible exception of the quarterback.
Update #2: Sporting News has the inside story on the pick.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Tech jobs, Kotkin NS, uncool NYC, wi-fi hitches, CVB award, Emirates IAH, commutes and sprawl

It's time again to clean out my "miscellaneous small items" queue, which has exploded in the last week or so. Should provide plenty of linked reading material for your weekend.
  • Texas has been ranked #2 in high-tech jobs, behind CA
  • Joel Kotkin explains the New Suburbanism concept (or, if you prefer, an audio podcast version). He mentions The Woodlands as an example, and has this to say about Houston:
A less extreme but still flawed notion contends that metropolitan areas dominated by auto-centered suburbs somehow lack the intrinsic community values that informed traditional cities. Andres Duany, for example, has written that in sprawling, multi-polar cities like Phoenix and Houston "civic life has almost ceased to exist" and that many people in these areas complain about their quality of life.

Yet one would be hard-pressed to say a Phoenix or a Houston has a less vibrant civic culture -- witness the remarkable grassroots response of Houston to the Katrina disaster. Nor can one say that there has been more widespread disenchantment there than in more traditional transit-oriented cities like Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. After all, these cities have been losing population and jobs while the sprawling ones have been growing. Places like Houston and Phoenix are also developing many of the elements of civic culture, such as great hospitals, museums, and cultural centers, that tend to arise in vibrant, commercially vital cities.
As jobs move to the suburban periphery, the commutes for residents there, as Harvard's Ed Glaeser has demonstrated, tend to be shorter than those who live in denser, more transit-oriented places. Far-flung Houstonians, for example, suffer much shorter commutes on average than New Yorkers or Chicagoans.
  • A column on how Manhattan is becoming uncool, as high costs drive out young people, artists, and independent retail.
  • Problems pioneer cities are having with rolling out wireless internet - and hopefully Houston can avoid.
  • Houston awarded Convention and Visitors Bureau of the Year. Quote: "Houston is certainly one of the more aggressive cities we work with. Everything is always well-coordinated and well-executed. Things just go right when we work with Houston."
  • Emirates is still looking at adding nonstop Houston-Dubai service soon, which would be nice gem in our international service portfolio:

Americans who haven't heard of Emirates soon may get the chance to fly with them. For now, Emirates operates just two daily flights to New York, but Sheik Ahmed said the carrier will add a third flight this year.

As Emirates' order of 60 long-range Boeing 777s starts arriving, West Coast and Midwest terminals might soon see the carrier's trademark Arabic calligraphy tail logo.

"With the introduction of the 777-LR, we can talk about Houston and Chicago," Sheik Ahmed said. "Over the next six years, we'll be receiving one or two aircraft per month."

Studies show 7.6 percent of U.S. commuters traveled more than an hour to work in 2004, the most recent data available, up from 6 percent in 1990. The average one-way commute grew by 13 percent to 25.5 minutes between 1990 and 2000.

In 1990, only in New York state did more than 10 percent of workers spend more than an hour to get to work, Pisarski said. Now that situation can be found in New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois and California as well, he said.


Longer commutes frequently involve people who live in one suburb and work in another, said Alan Pisarski, author of "Commuting in America."

Such a pattern tends to begin with companies moving out of a city to a suburb, enticing workers to move to less-expensive outer suburbs, he told Reuters. "People see this as an opportunity to go farther away," he said.

Such a move may provide more affordable housing or better schools. Even high fuel costs -- Givens spends about $185 a week on gasoline -- can pay off in a better quality of life, Pisarski said.

I've been making this point for a while: the paradox that not making mobility investments - especially freeways - actually encourages sprawl rather than reducing it, because employers move to the suburbs, and then their employees can move even farther out and still have a reasonable commute. Houston has actually done a pretty good job investing in freeway/HOV expansions and kept jobs in the core, thus actually somewhat containing sprawl - especially when compared to cities like DFW and Atlanta. Still, we can only do so much, and, just as NASA in Clear Lake enables commuters from Galveston, I expect growing job centers in The Woodlands and Sugar Land will push people even deeper into Montgomery and Ft. Bend counties.

We do have one helpful countervailing force though: the strength of the energy industry cluster. People who expect to move among different energy companies through their career might choose more central living to enable more employers to be within commuting range without moving. If, for example, you work for Anadarko in The Woodlands and choose to live north of Conroe, you've just created a major barrier to switching employers to one of the more centrally-located energy companies. Cities like DFW and Atlanta have more diversified economies, which makes employer switching a bit less likely and extreme sprawl a bit more likely. If you work for Home Depot in Atlanta, are you very likely to jump to Coke or UPS? If you work for TI in Dallas, are you going to jump to JC Penny or Exxon? Possible, but not as likely as a switch within the same industry. And if you think you're likely to switch, you might give careful consideration to a home location that maximizes your options.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

WSJ says Houston housing is hot (inc. downtownhomes)

The Wall Street Journal today has an article on shifting strength in the housing markets, declaring Houston one of the new hot centers along with Dallas and Atlanta. We're the only city in their list where housing inventory has actually dropped over the last year, a sign of market strength (sorry about the small graphic - it's the largest Blogger would let me do for some reason). The relevant excerpts:

As home sales cool on the East and West coasts, some cities that missed out on the real-estate boom are becoming the strongest markets.

A look at inventories of unsold homes, prices and employment trends points to generally positive signs in Houston, Dallas and Atlanta -- cities that have seen only modest home-price gains in recent years.

Metropolitan areas whose housing markets look less healthy, at least in the short term, include Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. All of them have growing inventories of homes and relatively weak job growth. As a result, houses that a year or two ago might have sold in hours now are languishing on the market for months, and some sellers are cutting prices.


Texas has been a laggard in recent years, partly because job markets were weak in some cities and land for new houses is plentiful. Now, the state's job market is strong, as cities there are benefiting from the oil boom and an influx of people from abroad and elsewhere in the U.S., and housing demand is keeping up with the relentless spread of new subdivisions as Texas cities sprawl. Investors, many from California, are adding to the demand.

Texas home prices could rise 6% to 9% annually over the next several years, up from an average of 4.5% over the past 15 years, says James P. Gaines, an economist at Texas A&M University's Real Estate Center in College Station. He says the state is attracting residents and employers because its housing remains very affordable by national standards.

"I don't see a slowdown coming," says Lorraine Abercrombie, chairwoman of the Houston Association of Realtors and director of marketing for Greenwood King Properties. Last week, Greenwood listed a five-bedroom home in Houston's Wilchester West neighborhood. Within three days of the first showing, the home was under contract for $465,000, well above the asking price of $449,000.

Reinforcing that trend is this story in the Houston Business Journal about downtown townhomes - or downtownhomes for short.

Upscale home builder Frank Liu is planning to build what will be the first traditional residential subdivision in downtown Houston.

Liu is planning a five-home community called Leeland Square Subdivision on approximately 7,500 square feet of land at the southwest corner of San Jacinto and Leeland.

Although downtown's residential contingent is made up mostly of apartments, lofts and condominiums, some builders have ventured into row townhome development in and around the edges of the Central Business District. But Liu's project will differ in that each freestanding home will have its own lot, similar to neighborhoods in more suburban settings.


This project is one component of what Baer sees as a "perfect storm" brewing downtown. The economic boost is being aided by Chevron U.S.A. Inc.'s recent deal to lease 465,000 square feet of office space at 1600 Smith St. and by the $200 million Houston Pavilions mixed-use project, as well as the pending development of the 13-acre Central Park in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center.

"Perfect storm" may be pushing it a bit - office vacancy is still high downtown and not getting absorbed very quickly - but there's certainly a lot of healthy non-office growth and development going on.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Rice promotes Houston

It's late, so just a quick pass-along tonight. Check out Rice University's new web site promoting Houston. Very cool opening top-ten countdown animation with music, and I think the content pages do a great job selling Houston very concisely, especially the "Fact or Fiction" section. Rice is trying to be more competitive attracting top students nationally who might have a negative impression of Houston, and I think this web site can certainly help in that regard. Very well done.

Monday, April 24, 2006

The Anaheim-Houston free-market approach to development

The Wall Street Journal had an op-ed a couple weeks back holding up Anaheim as a model city redeveloping the right way without eminent domain - and what they describe sounds remarkably like what we do in Houston. I know I've expressed more support in the past for economic development eminent domain than most people are comfortable with, but I still admire and support the Anaheim-Houston approach.
Economic redevelopment is a serious, complex issue, but it isn't always done this way; and Anaheim, just north of Garden Grove, is proving it. Although the community faces similar problems, its city council, led by Republican Mayor Curt Pringle, is taking a more freedom-friendly approach to revitalization: protecting property rights, deregulating land uses, promoting competition, loosening business restrictions and lowering taxes.

Anaheim's old downtown was obliterated in the 1970s through past uses of eminent domain and urban renewal. Now, the city (population: 328,000) wants to build a new downtown, and the target location is called the Platinum Triangle, an area of one-story warehouses near Angel Stadium. In the typical world of redevelopment, officials would choose a plan and a developer, offer subsidies and exclusive development rights, and exert pressure on existing property owners to leave the area. Instead, Anaheim created a land-value premium by creating an overlay zone that allowed almost any imaginable use of property. Because current owners could now sell to a wider range of buyers, the Platinum Triangle is booming, with billions in private investment, millions of square feet of office, restaurant and retail space, and more than a dozen new high-rises in the works.

The area is developing quickly, without controversy and without a single piece of property taken by eminent domain. Early signs point to an enormous success. "Too often, I hear my colleagues in local government . . . say that Kelo-type eminent domain and redevelopment policies are their only tools to revitalize cities," Mr. Pringle recently said. "I have a simple message . . . Visit the Platinum Triangle."

The previous planning commission and city council were harsh on small businesses seeking variances; the new council (which took office in December 2002) began overturning one commission decision after another, with the goal of giving local residents and businesses as much leeway as possible.

The council waived fees for homeowners undertaking renovations, on the grounds that the city would gain in the long run by the increase in property taxes. Anaheim also waived fees for business start-ups for three months; some 2,000 new businesses formed in 2005, an increase of one-third from the previous year. It also passed a tax amnesty and eliminated business taxes altogether for home-based businesses. Most cities don't like to allow churches to build new worship centers, because tax-exempt churches typically locate in commercial and industrial areas, taking properties off the tax rolls. Anaheim has eliminated most hurdles for approving new churches. Its housing plan also avoids "inclusionary zoning" -- an increasingly popular approach to mandate that builders set aside certain amounts of "affordable" housing.

"Mayor Pringle is a god in our world," says Kristine Thalman, CEO of the Building Industry Association of Orange County. "He gets it. He understands the regulatory issues and some of the impediments to development."


At the urging of then-Councilman Tom Tait, a Republican with libertarian leanings, he began to look at the command-and-control nature of local planning. He (the mayor) found a surprising ally in Councilman Richard Chavez, a liberal Democrat who agreed that the old rule-bound system was holding back opportunities for the city's emerging Latino community.

Mr. Chavez said he didn't know what to expect from Messrs. Pringle and Tait, but that both helped him early on in protecting the interests of some local businesses that were facing unfair treatment from the city. "Curt created a sense of trust," he says. That trust led to "incredible growth, incredible energy for the city and a success at providing housing at every level. . . . I get very little negativity, even from those on the left side of the aisle." Hermetic partisan politics drop away, evidently, in the face of verifiable success.

In many ways, the Kelo case incited a national property-rights mutiny, with hundreds of localities passing laws that limit the scope of the eminent domain power. Anaheim's circumstance is instructive in a different sense: By decentralizing bureaucracies and loosening cosseted government regulation, it has confirmed the vitality and audacity of private enterprise. The city has made itself a laboratory for free-market thought.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Census on domestic migration

You may have seen the articles about the Census report on domestic net migration (i.e. ignoring foreign immigrants) that came out last week. The overall theme: Americans are fleeing the big cities, although most of those cities are making it up with foreign immigration.

Americans are leaving the nation's big cities in search of cheaper homes and open spaces farther out.

Nearly every large metropolitan area had more people move out than move in from 2000 to 2004, with a few exceptions in the South and Southwest, according to a report being released Thursday by the Census Bureau.

Northeasterners are moving South and West. West Coast residents are moving inland. Midwesterners are chasing better job markets. And just about everywhere, people are escaping to the outer suburbs, also known as exurbs.

"It's a case of middle class flight, a flight for housing affordability," said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "But it's not just white middle class flight, it's Hispanics and blacks, too."

Here's a trivia question you won't believe the answer to: Guess which city is losing domestic migration at the slowest rate (i.e. doing the best) among these six: NY, LA, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, or SF? The answer: Detroit! It would fall into the sixth position in the table graphic at the bottom of this post. Don't believe me? Just check out Table 3 on page 8 of the report. Looks like housing costs trump healthy industry economics when it comes to domestic migration for a city.

Houston has some good news and some bad news.

First, the good news: the Houston metro is only one of three out of the twelve largest that is gaining domestic migration, along with Atlanta and DFW. Only 7 out of the 25 largest are gaining domestically, adding Riverside-SB, Phoenix, Tampa, and Portland. Texas is also healthy with the sixth-highest annual inmigration, behind super-hot Florida ("where the Yankee Boomers all retire"), then Arizona, Nevada, Georgia, and North Carolina.

The bad news: Harris County is losing the tenth-most annually among counties, with an annual domestic outmigration of 23K. Dallas County is in even worse shape, in sixth-place losing over 40K/year (more loss from a smaller county). On the plus side, if you look at the maps in the report, you can see the counties around Dallas and Houston - heck around almost all of the Texas Triangle - are gaining and gaining strongly.

The Wall Street Journal has an article focusing on tech and housing-rich SF and Boston:

An exodus of U.S. workers from the technology-rich San Francisco Bay and Boston areas accelerated early this decade, according to Census Bureau data to be released today.

Meanwhile, high housing costs on both coasts drove more Americans to cheaper cities nearby. One big winner is the inland Riverside, Calif., area. It continued to attract residents from the Southern California coast from 2000 to 2004, experts say. States in the Southwest and Pacific-Northwest continued to attract many disaffected Californians, economists say. But their rate of U.S. migration gains slowed compared with the 1990s, the Census data indicates. Florida continued to attract new residents at a fast clip.

The bursting technology bubble sent people packing from the San Francisco Bay area. The rate of domestic migration out of the area nearly tripled to an average annual net loss of 14.7 people per 1,000 population, compared with a loss of 5.5 people in the 1990s. At the same time, the Boston area, another high-tech hub, lost workers at an average annual rate of 9.5 domestic residents per 1,000 population, nearly double the '90s rate.

Some economists say the losses of skilled workers, coupled with high housing costs, could hamper the ability of the tech industry to attract new labor, at least in those areas. "Today, housing in both Boston and the Bay area is unaffordable" relative to other parts of the country, says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's "If the tech sector takes off, it's going to be much harder to bring in skilled labor for these positions."

During the latter half of the 1990s, when housing prices were lower and the tech sector was booming, San Francisco's job market expanded at an average rate of 3% to 4% a year, compared with 1.3% today, Mr. Zandi estimates. Boston's job market was growing an average of 2% to 3% a year in the late 1990s, compared with roughly 1% today.

More than half of the roughly 973,000 tech workers employed in California in early 2000 had left the industry or the state by 2003 (ouch!), according to the Sphere Institute, a Burlingame, Calif., think tank.


In some large cities, such as San Francisco and Boston, gains from immigrants failed to completely offset the loss of residents to other cities, says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. Census officials say domestic migration tends to be one of the best measures of the impact of economic factors such as job growth and housing prices.

Areas near regions with fast-rising housing costs were among the biggest beneficiaries of domestic migration. In 2004, for example, the inland California region of Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario attracted 46,000 net residents from the Los Angeles metro area, according to In the Boston area, roughly 3,700 net residents relocated to the Providence, R.I., metro area.

Meanwhile, Florida continued to lure domestic immigrants. A combined 41,500 net residents from the greater New York region moved to the Miami, Orlando and Tampa regions in 2004, according to "The New York to Florida highway is still intact," says Brookings' Mr. Frey. Orlando and other Central Florida cities "are new destinations where people are finding jobs. Employers are saying, 'It's more affordable to move to these areas.' The local economy is much more diversified. Central Florida is not just Disney [World] anymore."

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Brain drain, oil booms, and Houston's message to you

A few minor odds and ends today.
  • A mildly interesting article on the SF Bay Area's "brain drain" from the high cost of living. It's worth noting that there's no such thing as an urban paradise: even widely-acknowledged "great and wonderful world-class cities" like SF have major weaknesses/risks they worry about - it's not just a Houston phenomena with our ever-present "world class" and "quality of life" insecurities.
  • Another mildly interesting article on the oil-driven economic boom in Calgary, Canada. Sounds a lot like what I've heard Houston was like in the late 70's/early 80's - might make for nice nostalgia-trip reading for all you old-timers out there ;-)
  • Finally, a writer/blogger I highly respect, Paul Graham, who usually writes on technology topics, has some interesting musings on the culture of Boston vs. California. I find his last paragraph thought-provoking:
"I find every ambitious town sends you a message. New York tells you "you should make more money." LA tells you "you should be better looking." Rome tells you "you should dress better." London tells you "you should be hipper." The Bay Area tells you "you should live better." And Cambridge tells you "you should read some of those books you've been meaning to."
So what does Houston tell you to do? These are a little tongue-in-cheek, but here's what comes to mind:
  • "You should drive faster"
  • "You should eat out more"
...and, most clearly...
  • "You should own a bigger/newer truck/SUV"
Votes/suggestions are welcome and comments are open.

NYT: Storm Evacuees Placing Strains on Texas Hosts

A quick pass-along from the New York Times via Drudge this morning. Excerpts:
To the long list of adjectives used to describe Texans since last summer's hurricanes -— munificent, intrepid, scrappy -— add one more: fed up.

Seven months after two powerful hurricanes blew through the Gulf Coast, elected officials, law enforcement agencies and many residents say Texas is nearing the end of its ability to play good neighbor without compensation.

Houston is straining along its municipal seams from the 150,000 new residents from New Orleans, officials say. Crime was already on the rise there before the hurricane, but the Houston police say that evacuees were victims or suspects in two-thirds of the 30 percent increase in murders since September. The schools are also struggling to educate thousands of new children.


Houston's relationship with its added population is subtle and at times ambivalent. Residents, atomized over a broad swath of land with few interneighborhood connections, seem at one level to be dedicated to helping their neighbors, and are quick to cite numerous examples of continued volunteerism and the improved lives of children who they say are getting a better education than they received in New Orleans.

But they are also keenly aware of spikes in crime, especially in Southwest Houston, where the majority of the poorest New Orleanians settled.

"The city of Houston bent over backwards for these people, and I am glad we did it," said Scott Wilson, 43, who lives in the Montrose section. "But now we are absorbing some of their problems."

Evacuees have been victims of or accused of committing 39 of the 235 murders in Houston since last September, said Houston's police chief, Harold Hurtt. In January alone, there was a 34 percent rise in felonies over the previous year in the city.

"I can't tell you what percentage of that group is evacuees," Chief Hurtt said. "But I am sure they are really represented in that group."

Chief Hurtt said that some of the gangs that once operated in New Orleans housing projects had relocated to Houston, a city plagued with its own gang problems.

In response, the city moved 100 officers working in city jails to high-crime areas, and greatly increased overtime, a tall order for a department that has lost 800 officers to retirement over the last two years.

More in the article about growing the police force, school issues ("the students from Louisiana were substantially behind the Texas kids"), forgotten Rita-damaged areas in East Texas, and federal reimbursement - plus a little controversy:

Not everyone is sympathetic to the needs of Texas, where oil refinery businesses continue to take in millions of dollars in profits monthly, even though state officials say they do not have enough workers because of a housing shortage. In testimony at a recent appropriations hearing, Senator Christopher S. Bond, Republican of Missouri, said he did not believe Texans needed housing money.

"Texas, in the best role of traditional Judeo-Christian charity, provided benefits," Mr. Bond said. "I think it's time we get back to being a good neighbor and not a paid companion."

Senator Hutchison, who spoke next, was not amused.

You tell 'em, Kay Bailey! Let's take a look at how much federal disaster money went to Missouri last time the Mississippi went over its banks...

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Smart growth costs quantified and a sprawl debate

A couple items today. First, an attempt to quantify "the costs of smart growth", by which they mean from housing supply restrictions that usually accompany most "smart growth" programs - whether or not that's the true spirit of the movement (it is often hijacked by no-growthers). Fortunately, according to this study, the cost penalty is generally not a problem in Texas. An excerpt from the Planetizen summary:

The report estimates that planning-induced housing shortages in more than fifty metropolitan areas penalized homebuyers by increasing housing costs by $100,000 to $850,000 per median home. In fifty more, costs are increased by $25,000 to $100,000.

More than 90 percent of the total $275 billion cost is in just twelve states (CA, NY, FL, NJ, MA, IL, WA, CT, AZ, CO, OR, MD) whose cities have the most restrictive land-use rules. The report recommends that those cities relax their rules and urges other cities not to adopt similar rules.

Second, an Orski op-ed on the continuing dispersion/sprawl trends in recent census stats. He talks about a Bruegman vs. Katz debate on sprawl and whether it's the result of natural human choice from affluence or the result of government policy distortions. I like the concluding paragraph:
Neither man saw the "smart growth" movement as having much influence on the future demographic patterns or playing much of a role in reshaping America's urban landscape. Absent from the discussion was the conundrum posed by Anthony Downs, senior economist at Brookings and echoed by David Brooks a columnist for the New York Times, two of the most astute observers of demographic trends. "The biggest factor influencing future population movements," wrote Downs, "is the projected addition of some 64 million people by 2020. It is hard to conceive that this population bulge could be fitted into already built-up areas where neighborhood opposition to increasing density already is fierce." ("Can We Tame Sprawl," Innovation Briefs, March/April 2002). Adjusting to this population bulge has already begun, noted David Brooks in an April 2004 article in the New York Times. "We are living in the age of the great dispersal," he wrote. "Americans continue to move from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and West, but the truly historic migration is from the inner suburbs to the outer suburbs, to the suburbs of suburbia. From New Hampshire down to Georgia, across Texas to Arizona and up through California, you now have the booming exurban sprawls that have broken free of the gravitational pull of the cities and now float in a new space far beyond them." ("Our Sprawling, Supersize Utopia," The New York Times Sunday Magazine, April 4, 2004; see also, "The Age of the Great Dispersal," Innovation Briefs, May 2004). Note: Latest US Census Bureau data continues to show heavy domestic losses in the largest metropolitan areas. From 2000 to 2005, metropolitan areas over 5 million lost 2.7 million population through domestic migration. Metropolitan areas between 250,000 and 5,000,000 gained approximately the same amount. The heaviest domestic losses have been in the core counties. New York City has lost more than 800,000 residents or nearly 10 percent of its population since 2000. The city of San Francisco has lost more than 13 percent of its population. For a detailed analysis by county, see "Domestic Migration: US Metropolitan Areas: 2000-2005,"
As I've mentioned before, Houston is one of only three cities in the twelve 5m+ metros that are still attracting domestic migration, along with DFW and Atlanta.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Metro take note: Tempe's approach to helping small biz during rail construction

I came across this small article in Governing magazine on how Tempe, AZ is helping small businesses along their new light-rail route survive through construction - something Metro might learn from as they plan the new Universities line (wherever it ends up, but especially along Richmond). It also compliments my previous suggestions to Metro for mitigating the negative side-effects of construction. Unfortunately, the article doesn't seem to be available online, so here's my OCR scan from the magazine:
The Hidden Cost of Construction

Tempe will lighten the load for business on a light-rail line

Mom-and-pop businesses along a future light-rail line through Tempe, Arizona, may be able to borrow up to $20,000 at reduced rates. The city, along with the chamber of commerce and a financial institution, has set up a credit line at 1 percent over prime for those adversely affected by construction of a new transit line.

Tempe has committed $100,000 to cover any business defaults. However, since the program is a line of credit, not a loan, if a business fails to make payments, the credit line can be shut off to protect both the lender and the city.

Some 300 businesses are vulnerable to a downturn in sales or other negative impacts as trenches are dug outside their door, large trucks move about in the area or traffic is rerouted. In order to qualify for the line of credit, they have to have been at their location more than two years and have been profitable 12 months prior to getting their line of credit approved. "If a business is otherwise on a track for failing, we don't want them to go into more debt," says Dan Henderson, economic development specialist with the city.

The light-rail line is not expected to be completed until 2008 and businesses will have access to the funds during the entire two- to three-year period. The loan program could be used during utility relocation or other work during the project.

Mesa and Phoenix are looking into similar programs for small businesses along their portion of the light-rail line.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Commuter rail and DFW's transportation future

Sorry about the late start to the blog this week. A little tip from me to you: if you can avoid it (and we couldn't), don't have multiple guests stay at your house while simultaneously having your foundation repaired, especially if such repair involves multiple large holes in your living room floor. Trust me, chaos will result.

Moving on, I came across this op-ed from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on the future transportation options being explored for the DFW Metroplex. They are in the same hyper-growth boat as Houston (actually a bit faster), expected to grow from 5m in 2000 to 9m by 2030. Much of the article talks about the multiple routes Trans-Texas Corridor 35 might take coming up from San Antonio and Austin: west around Ft. Worth, east around Dallas, or right up the middle to DFW airport. Local leaders seem to want all three, and get the state or others to pay for it. Good luck with that. If they get it, Houston should demand the state essentially build the entire Grand Parkway, including connections to the port and IAH.

They seem to have a heavier emphasis on regional commuter rail than Houston, which, as I have said before, is a dangerously flawed strategy in sprawling metros with multiple job centers like Houston and the Metroplex - and the DFW job centers and residents are even more dispersed than Houston. They seem to have the same unsound logic routinely seen with commuter rail network plans:
  1. The belief that a suburban city connected to the rail network is the same as the employers and residents of that city being connected (even if 90%+ of them are more than a half-mile from the stops).
  2. The belief that because two points are connected by the rail network, people will make the trip, no matter how many transfers, waits, walks, and slow trains are required or how poorly the trip times compare to using their cars, or even a point-to-point HOV express bus for that matter.
The maps look pretty and create the illusion of an interconnected regional network, but the realistic trip times are simply not there, and, consequently, neither will the ridership. If metro LA, with more than twice the density of any Texas metro, can't make it work, why does DFW think it can?
Many local elected officials would like a more reliable, ongoing funding source such as a dedicated sales tax to finance expanded regional rail transit. But some statewide elected officials and legislators have balked at supporting legislation to enable that.
No kidding. Maybe they see the folly? Even though it's a tad harsh and out-of-character for me, I think I'm going to have to blatently rip off a Clinton campaign slogan that should become the rallying cry for transit agencies everywhere:

"It's the door-to-door trip times, stupid."

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Tax rankings and caps, how France is like zoning, and "Houston-style" zoning

Another accumulation of miscellaneous minor items.
  • The U.S. Census Bureau ranks Texas second-lowest for taxes per capita (although a solid fourth-largest in total dollars), and yet somehow everyone's whining about excessive property taxes.
  • Speaking of property taxes, I enjoyed the recent Chronicle article covering the dangers of tax caps. Texas should take careful note. I've written on the risks several times before, particularly noting the California case study (more here) and the massive problems there. This article focuses on Florida. An excerpt:

A warning from Florida

But Fred Brummer, a Republican legislative leader in Florida and outspoken critic of that state's low appraisal cap, warned against "folks in the state of Texas ... following us down the road to ruin."

Brummer said a 3 percent annual cap on increases in home values adopted by Florida voters in 1992 has provided many homeowners with lower taxes but also has transferred much of the burden of paying for government "from the wealthy to the not-so-wealthy."


Reported complications

The Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune reported last September that Save Our Homes had prevented many people from being forced out of their homes by ever-increasing taxes.

But it also noted that the amendment had "disproportionately shifted the burden of supporting local government ... to snowbirds and businesses and landlords," who have seen their taxes soar.

"It transformed a system that made sense — where the most valuable property got taxed highest — into a snarl of inequities ... Millionaires in mansions on the water pay the same taxes as middle-class families in cookie-cutter subdivisions," the newspaper added.

It cited examples of neighbors with markedly different tax bills on similar houses, simply because one owner had lived in his house for years and the other only recently had moved in.

The newspaper also reported that apartment owners and their tenants were being squeezed by higher taxes, and that many small businesses were being taxed out of existence.

And many Floridians who want to sell their homes can't afford to move, because they would lose their tax breaks and see their taxes on new houses mushroom.

(for a better solution, go here)

"The regulatory welfare state effectively politicizes all aspects of the economy, making entrepreneurship and dynamism almost impossible.

The same effects can be seen in local communities in America where zoning and urban planning has created the illusion of security and stability. So-called community "visioning", combined with a host of strict regulatory controls on land use, create static places that are resistant to the changes necessary to make them competitive and adaptable in a dynamic environment."

Well, I would submit that urban Houston has a particular style of zoning that works rather efficiently.

We frequently run stories about conflicts over commercial encroachment into inner-city residential neighborhoods.

Near downtown, well-heeled homeowners posted lawn signs protesting a planned dental clinic.

Out southwest, a civic group stalled construction of a hospital expansion.

Up the Loop, outcry from a single-family community threw up a roadblock to development of an apartment complex.

These are just three examples from recent months. Hundreds of such confrontations, most unreported, have taken place and continue to unfold since zoning was zapped nearly two decades ago.

In most cases, a resolution is reached through a process of compromise and accommodation.

It usually goes like this. One elected official, a city council member representing the district, brings parties to the table. After some give and take, an agreement is reached without input from a downtown cabal of zone-meisters.

While the system may not be perfect (and what zoning system is?) this grassroots approach to development seems to work as often as not in "The only major U.S. city without zoning."

Let me say an official "Huzzah!" to that.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Smart Growth's affordable housing failure

Another pass-along from Otis White's Urban Notebook at, in its entirety because there are no permalinks. The problem he describes is less relevant to Houston, because we've been able to keep housing affordable, but it serves as a warning to not back ourselves into the same painful corner other cities have.

Bring Down the Cost of Housing
The Task Ahead for Smart Growth

It’s hard to be against smart growth. It’s like being against marriage or an orderly society. Its purpose is laudable: to bring more rational, sustainable and benign development to our metropolitan areas. And some of the best minds in urban America are laboring in smart-growth efforts. There’s just one problem: It isn’t working.

The most recent census numbers bear out the failure: Even as our inner cities revive, people continue streaming out of cities and close-in suburbs and settling in communities so far away it almost defies the notion of regions. One demographer, Robert Lang at Virginia Tech, doesn’t call them metropolitan areas anymore; he has coined the term “megapolitan” to describe the edgeless creep of development. Snapshot: Formerly booming San Diego County in Southern California was startled recently to learn it was losing population for the first time in memory. And where are San Diegans headed? To distant inland counties like Riverside.

It isn’t for lack of trying that smart growth has failed. There have been lots of good efforts aimed at tying new development to transit. As a result, rail transit is being expanded in most large metro areas, and transit-oriented development (where housing and retail are built in walking distance of stations) is catching on. Still, the exodus continues.

Why? Well, there are understandable reasons that some would willingly endure three-hour daily commutes. They might prefer living on a three-acre plot. Or they may value the schools over the ones closer in. Or they may have an exaggerated fear of urban crime. But there’s a fourth reason that’s pushing even more people to these distant places: This is where housing is being built that working couples can afford.

That’s the situation in San Diego, where the median price of housing is $502,000, up 6.4 percent from last year, well beyond what most couples with children can afford. Hence, the appeal of Riverside County, where housing is cheaper. “What’s driving this [exodus] is the cost of housing,” a demographer told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “It’s just pushing people farther east.”

What it means is that smart-growth advocates have a much greater task ahead than cheering for transit and mixed-use development: If they’re serious about reversing development patterns, they must bring down the cost of housing in cities and close-in suburbs. Difficult? Absolutely. Impossible? Not at all.

That’s because housing isn’t so expensive because the price of land and building materials has skyrocketed; it’s expensive because local governments discourage the construction of moderately priced housing. And they do so because neighborhood groups demand it. (People who live in $500,000 houses don’t care to see $250,000 houses built nearby.) If smart growth is to succeed, then, its promoters will have to convince neighborhood groups that it’s OK to have townhouses and mid-rise condo projects in their midst — that having more young people and retired couples in the neighborhood will actually improve things.

Until they do, all the PowerPoint presentations, academic conferences and coffee-table books cranked out by smart-growth promoters won’t amount to much. Oh, they’ll lead to some attractively designed, mixed-use developments near train stations, but these places will be lifeless. There will be no young people, no children, no elderly living in their midst and certainly no waiters, fire fighters or teachers. Everyone in these developments will be the same: affluent 50-year-olds who’ll wonder why the neighborhood seems so dull.

(I actually think there will be some young professionals, but the overall point is still valid.)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Libraries as the new town halls (and implications for the Astrodome)

I just came across this post (no permalink) from Otis White's Urban Notebook at, and I think it's a perfect compliment to my post last week on converting the Astrodome into a community dome for meetings, lectures, festivals, and, well, maybe a library branch with actual books too. If St. Louis County can support 6,000 meetings/year (about 18 each day of the year), how many do you think Harris County could support at 3.5 times the size? Sure, most of those make more sense at their local branch, but I'm sure plenty of them could benefit from larger meetings and more "critical mass" at a venue like the dome.

Who Needs Books?
Meet Me at the Library

by Otis White

If you were worried about the future of libraries, relax. In many places, these are boom times for library construction. Just one thing, though: Don’t expect to find many books in these new buildings.

Background: A few years ago, there was great cause for concern about libraries. Once a grim but necessary gathering place for high school students with term papers, most students today can find more information online than at the best-stocked central library. And books are so cheap, relative to household income, that middle-class homes overflow with reading materials. Given this, why do we need public libraries?

Answer: for meetings. Take St. Louis, where thousands of groups use libraries for meetings and lectures. Why? Meeting rooms are cheap (or, in some cases, free), some come with audio-visual equipment and, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out recently, most people know where the local library is located. “We don’t go out and recruit groups,” a librarian told the newspaper. “They come to us.”

The numbers are amazing. St. Louis County libraries host about 6,000 meetings a year, the city libraries about 4,200. Suburban St. Charles libraries host 1,300 a year and the Edwardsville public library, with one building, hosted 324 meetings last year — “one for nearly every day of the year,” the Post-Dispatch noted.

So who are all these groups? When the Post-Dispatch checked out the libraries, it found mystery writers at one branch, kids learning yo-yo tricks at another. The Eggart Guild of Greater St. Louis was at one library practicing the delicate art of egg painting, and the Adult Fans of Lego were, well, playing with Legos. Members of the Mountain Lake Hunting and Fishing League were getting together to talk about the ones that got away. The club used to meet at a restaurant, its treasurer told the newspaper, “but [we] got bumped by a funeral and wanted something dependable.”

Footnote: Who else likes libraries? Politicians. In Georgia, suburban lawmakers are larding the state budget with appropriations for libraries in their towns. As one told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Libraries in our area are like the new town halls, town squares. In certain districts, libraries are like community centers and civic centers used to be. When we do legislative town hall meetings, for the most part, we do them at libraries.” Ironically, while spending on library buildings is up in Georgia, per-capita spending on books and maintenance is way down. Then again, books don’t vote.

Monday, April 10, 2006

More on Texas' new approach to toll roads

Continuing from this morning's post, I wanted to speculate on where all this toll-road stuff is headed. I should start with the caveat that I have not followed the development all of these new toll road plans in-depth, so some of what I may talk about here may or may not already be part of what's going on. My apologies in advance if any this is "obvious" or already well known, or, conversely, has nothing to do with current thinking among the transportation shoguns in our state.

The historical evolution of major roads in Texas seems to have gone something like this:
  1. The state builds a highway, and adjacent land owners see huge windfalls from their increase in land values for commercial and residential development. Much political manuvering happens behind the scenes by large landowners to get road projects routed such that they maximize the value of their landholdings.
  2. The state gets tight on funds, so there's a shift towards toll roads to pay for their construction. Adjacent landowners still make out like bandits, but the roads can be risky, since they take a while to develop traffic and cash flows to cover the construction bonds.
  3. The state starts eyeing all this windfall value landowners are getting, which would make these toll roads far less risky if it could be tapped. Why shouldn't taxpayers capture the windfall instead of lucky landowners? What if the state used eminent domain to take not just the highway right-of-way, but the land on both sides, and captured that value for itself? How would it do that? By turning over the land to a private developer through a comprehensive development agreement (CDA), who not only builds and manages everything, but also might pay the state for the privilege. The Trans-Texas Corridor (TTC) is the first large-scale attempt at this approach.
Now, myself and others have pointed out a couple of downsides to this last arrangement of essentially selling off toll roads:
  1. Since the private developer must cover their relatively high cost of capital, they must pay less than the value of the cash stream if the government kept it to itself and used tax-free municipal bonds to fund everything (although I don't know if tax-free bonds are being woven into these agreements as they're currently structured - it seems unlikely if taxpayers would be on the hook if the developer went bankrupt).
  2. The developer gets a monopoly on those tolls, which is doubly dangerous if they also get some kind of "non-compete" guarantee that no competitive roads will get built nearby. They may also intentionally try to restrict capacity increases as demand grows so they can raise tolls.
The first is definitely a loss, but might be made up for by private market efficiency (vs. government operations) and the removal of voter political pressure in keeping tolls artificially low. The government getting into adjacent land development seems particularly problematic.

The second one worries me more. But there's an interesting counter-balancing force that I'm not sure many people have considered. The land adjacent to the highway is valuable specifically because of the number of daily passersby. If tolls get raised too high and restrict traffic, that land also loses value. Commercial tenants might sign leases contingent on certain traffic levels. That gives the developer an incentive to not only keep tolls reasonable, but even expand capacity if needed, which would enable more potential customer visibility and traffic for those businesses, and therefore might command higher rents. Maximizing the total value of the system really involves trying to move as many people through the corridor as possible, and that means having lots of capacity at low prices.

The key to keeping these forces in balance is to force the private developer keep ownership of the adjacent land (although they could lease to anyone). If they build the road, then cash out on the adjacent land by selling it off after the value has been added, we're back to the problem of monopoly pricing with little incentive to keep tolls low or add capacity. To keep their interests aligned with the public interest, they must own and maximize the value of the whole package.

Of course, another downside the state is seeing to this whole approach is unhappy landowners, who are mobilizing political opposition because their financial incentive is being stripped out of the deal. I would think the key would be to get just enough right-of-way to control the commercial development along the corridor and capture its value, but there will also be valuable residential development behind the commercial strip, and that value can still be captured by those landowners. Should work out well in major urban areas like Houston with plenty of demand for residential development, but the prospects may not work out as well for the rural parts of the TTC where residential value is minimal. Those rural landowners will either need a financial incentive structured for them to earn their support, or they may simply get overruled in our democratic political process.

I still have serious concerns about Harris County privatizing our existing toll road network without the adjacent land, but this broader process for new roads is very interesting, and, with the proper public-interest safeguards, may make a lot of sense in addressing Texas' infrastructure crunch as we continue our rapid growth.

Poole/Reason on Tx DOT

Sorry for the late kickoff post this week. Just a quick pass-along this morning from Bob Poole's latest Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter at Reason. Oddly, I got this excerpt out of their email newsletter, but it doesn't seem to be up on their web site yet. He has some interesting and favorable things to say about Texas' approach to solving mobility challenges:

Texas Wants Long-Term Concessions

I’ve said before that Texas is far in the lead in defining 21st-century highways—and TxDOT laid down another marker in January. At a half-day workshop attended by over 400 people, senior officials laid out their plans to make use of the Texas version of public-private partnerships, called comprehensive development agreements (CDAs) in Texan. The bottom-line message is that TxDOT is taking a very aggressive approach to using all the tools the legislature gave it in 2003 and 2005. And while all forms of PPP are available (beginning with plain old design-build), TxDOT made clear that its preferred model is the long-term concession. Why? Because it maximizes opportunities for large-scale, self-supporting toll projects and transfers significant risk from taxpayers to investors.

You can get a nicely presented overview of the rationale for the whole program, called the Texas Transportation Challenge, by clicking on: There you will find that while roadway use is projected to grow by 214% over the next 25 years, highway capacity will increase only 6% with a business-as-usual approach. That’s because current transportation revenues (mostly state and federal fuel taxes) can do little more than keep pace with the need to maintain and rebuild the existing highways. To achieve an acceptable level of mobility by 2030, Texas must close a funding gap of $86 billion.

And that’s what they intend to do via tolling and CDAs. The workshop included a detailed Powerpoint presentation (available on the txdotnews/cda_index.htm portion of the TxDOT site) that explains the overall program, lists current projects being considered for, or already moving forward as, CDAs, and gives highlights of high-profile projects like the first two Trans-Texas Corridor projects, TTC-35 and TTC-69. It also explains how TxDOT will assist private partners in making use of the federal TIFIA and PAB programs. And it emphasizes that TxDOT welcomes unsolicited proposals in addition to planning to issue many RFPs for projects it has identified.

There’s no question that states and urban areas are in competition as good places to live and do business. Some, like Texas, are adopting aggressive approaches to reducing congestion and expanding highway infrastructure, while others are taking a different approach. A natural experiment is in the making. We should have some very interesting results in 20 or 25 years.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Live from the Astrodome?

When I kicked off this blog a year ago, one of my earliest posts was on realistically repurposing the Astrodome, where I expressed some scepticism at the convention hotel concept, and proposed a far less expensive option involving its use as a festival/community dome. Now the NY Times has an article on a strong surge of interest in live lectures, which immediately made me think of a Houston Community Dome. Unfortunately, because of procrastination on my part, that article is now buried in their pay archives - but here is Otis White's Urban Notebook summary, in its entirety since he lacks permalinks:

The New York Times is famous for spotting social trends. Sometimes they’re little more than inflated fads, but about every third one is something substantial. So here’s hoping the latest interesting trend spotted by the Times is substantial and that it spreads across the country. The trend? People in New York are turning out in big numbers to attend lectures.

That’s right. New Yorkers are filling lecture halls, bars and bookstores these days to hear poets, authors, artists and foreign-policy experts stand at a podium and, well, talk. Mind you, some speakers draw better than others. When the New York Public Library staged an event at which magazine editor Tina Brown interviewed French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy on stage, 900 people showed up. “Diane Von Furstenberg and Lauren Bacall were there,” the library’s director of public programs gushed to the Times. “There was a line 150 meters long of people who couldn’t get in. It went around the corridors of the library.”

OK, so people are nuts about celebrities, and what passes for a celebrity among New York intellectuals is a chi-chi French philosopher. But it seems that New Yorkers are turning out for more mundane talkers as well: minor poets, experts on Iraq, run-of-the-mill novelists, art historians and more.

And not just intellectuals are showing up. People are crowding places like the KGB Bar on East Fourth Street to hear authors speak and read from their works. The bar started its lectures 12 years ago to pump a little life into the slowest evenings of the week, Sundays. “Now we do 20 to 25 readings a month,” the owner told the Times. “There is fiction on Sunday, poetry on Monday, Tuesday is mainly nonfiction. On Wednesday there are special events with different literary groups, magazines, journalists.”

Two questions: Why is this good for cities? And why are people suddenly interested in being lectured to? It’s good for cities because assembling large groups on short notice is what cities do best. If people demand more live events, it makes the urban experience more valuable.

But why would people suddenly want to hear experts talk in person rather than on TV or the radio? That’s a bit more mysterious. One observer thought it might be a post-9/11 thing, where people are more interested in serious thought and analysis. Another suggested it might be a sign of aging baby boomers being burned out on Hollywood movies. “They make the same 10 movies,” he said. “How many times can you see the same movies?”

Footnote: There are tricks to turning out big crowds for lectures. The New York Public Library gave its lecture series a jazzier name, “Live from the NYPL.” (It had been called the “Public Education Program.”) It pushed the time for programs from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., so more could come after work. And it switched from mailing brochures to sending out e-mails. The library now has 7,000 names in its lectures database, so getting a big crowd on short notice is a snap.
Now I know Houston is not on the same scale as New York when it comes intellectual culture, but I think there could be a real audience here for this sort of thing. Imagine dozens of simultaneous lectures and classes around sections of the Astrodome on certain weekday evenings or weekends (when there's not a festival, concert, Texans game, or rodeo). It could be like the 30 screen megaplex theater where you just show up and pick from what's available. Leisure Learning Unlimited classes could add to the options. I'm also imagining various cafes, retail booths/shops, and other options to add a little life to the place. The parking revenues alone would cover all maintenance and probably some minor enhancements - with the light rail always an option if you don't want to pay for parking.

In a broader context, the dome could be run by a nonprofit entity that listens to feedback and experiments with adding new attractions all the time - so it would be an evolving place that would continuously be growing more popular with more options that appeal to more people. I think it could be an incredible and unique urban asset for Houston - certainly more so than another expensive convention center hotel with high-odds of becoming a white elephant.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

GHP supports tax reform plan, Houston comparatives, improving HOV lanes, and competitive home-building

Again, an accumulation of minor items of interest into one post:
  • The Greater Houston Partnership announced today its support for the Texas Tax Reform Commission plan, which could save almost a billion dollars a year for Harris County taxpayers. I'm not a tax policy expert, but it seems like a pretty good and fair plan to me.
  • Some neat stats and comparisons on Houston's size from Metroblogging Houston.
  • Go to this Fed report and scroll down to the third graph to see how much better Houston has had it through the last recession vs. the other major cities in Texas. The tables have certainly turned from the late-90s hot tech cities of Dallas and Austin.
  • A professor on improving HOV lane performance. Bottom line: throughput is improved significantly on a per lane basis by having more than one lane, which enables passing. Bodes well for our future 2/4 managed-lane plans, starting with the new Katy Freeway.
  • I really enjoyed Nancy Sarnoff's article in today's Chronicle Business section on the tight home-builder margins in Houston, and I have to excerpt some of the paragraphs:

Drive almost any direction from the city center, and one thing remains constant: home building, and lots of it.

While new-home sales are dipping nationally, builders are putting up — and madly selling — thousands of homes around Houston.

The number of sales were up 19 percent in February from the same month last year, according to estimates from Metrostudy, a local consulting firm.

"To our surprise, we're off to the best year in our company's history," said Will Holder, an executive with Houston-based Trendmaker Homes. "It's absolutely remarkable."

But what's a blessing for some builders can be a curse for others.

Rising costs for land and materials are shrinking profit margins in Houston's booming housing market, where competition limits price increases, and a couple of builders are leaving to focus on other cities.


More builders, however, are coming to Houston than going, he said.

Most of them come here because the region's strong job growth means more buyers, and the vast amount of available land and lack of government controls means far less red tape for builders than in other markets.

"The one thing we've always been able to point to is job growth," said Justin Bono, vice president of operations for Pulte Homes in Houston. "When you're growing jobs, and people are getting new jobs, the first big purchase is a home."


Houston's lower new-home prices are enticing to a wide range of buyers.

This year, Gilpin has seen an increase in buyers from out of state looking for investment properties. She's already sold five homes to Californians who bought new homes here with the fortunes they made selling their West Coast properties.

"They're just blown away at the square footage and the kinds of houses they can get," she said.

Gilpin has been known to send the newspaper's Sunday employment section to potential buyers from other states who are considering moving here because of the affordable real estate alone.

"If they can just find a job here, they can live a better lifestyle," she said. "We're starting to have a reputation that not only do we have a good price point, but we have the job growth."

It's nice to see a positive article on the benefits of growth, limited bureaucratic red tape, and competition - as well as noting the linkage between affordability and quality of life.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Texas: High-rise living and #1 in Fortune 500 HQs

The NY Times has had a recent spurt of Texas articles, most recently a profile of local pastor Joel Osteen, his Houston-based Lakewood Church (the largest in the U.S.), their $72m/year budget (!), his critics, and his next book ("A Little Bit Better Than Your Best Life Now" ;-). Now they're profiling the rise of, well, high-rise living in Texas and specifically Houston (with a picture of Villa d'Este).
NOT all Texans own ranches, but they tend to like good-sized yards even if they live in the city, which is why the state's urban areas sprawl into the sunset. It's possible to run out of gas crisscrossing Houston. The same could be said for Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.

Tall buildings are clustered mainly in downtown areas, which historically have been so deserted at night that tumbleweeds could blow unperturbed across the desolate streets. But now there's life after dark in and around Texas's central business districts, thanks to the construction of residential high-rise buildings. In a marked shift, more Texans are warming to high-rise living, particularly if the properties offer luxury amenities.
According to Property and Portfolio Research, an independent real estate research and advisory firm in Boston, Houston is expected to add 3,119 high-rise condominium units in 2006 versus 1,001 in 2005.
"We are seeing increased demand in Texas for the lock-and-leave condo lifestyle," said Mark Cover, executive vice president for the southwest region at Hines Interests, a privately owned international real estate firm based in Houston. "It appeals especially to people who travel a lot and don't want to worry about their home's security or maintenance while they're gone."
The increase is in contrast to other markets around the country. "In places like Florida, Arizona and California, the markets got overheated, but Texas arrived late to the party and is still very active," said Michael E. Puls, president of Foley & Puls, a real estate consulting firm based in Dallas.
Developers of residential high-rises in major Texas cities say their target is baby boomers whose children are grown. "These people can live anywhere they want, so we're not so much in the housing business as the lifestyle business," said Giorgio Borlenghi, president of Interfin. His company's newly built residential towers have Olympic-size pools, health clubs and day spas, along with concierge and valet service.
But empty-nesters are not the only ones moving into Texas high-rises. They also appeal to young professionals tired of commuting from outlying suburbs.

"The congestion in Austin has increased so much and become such a quality of life issue that people want to live near where they work so they can leave their car in the garage," said Charles Heimsath, president of Capitol Market Research, a real estate consulting firm in Austin.
Another contributing factor is the number of big companies that have their headquarters in the state, including Dell Computer, Continental Airlines, American Airlines and ExxonMobil. These businesses attract employees from all over the world and many are already accustomed to living in high-rise buildings.

Wealthy people from Latin America and the Middle East who have oil or other business interests in Texas are also buying high-rise units in the state.
Like residential high-rises in other Texas cities, the ones in San Antonio offer high-end amenities, at prices ranging from $350,000 to $2 million. "Cheap ones wouldn't do well," said Ms. Garfield in Houston. "It's got to be well-built, luxurious and have a fabulous view for Texans to give up their yards."

Previous post of local second-home purchases by wealthy Latin Americans here.

It's good to finally see the acknowledgement of Austin's massive traffic problems and the quality of life hit they're suffering. I think they're far worse than Houston relative to their size. Lesson learned: not building needed transportation infrastructure does not preserve and improve quality of life, but actually causes it to fall off sharply. I think Austin partially learned its lesson and is half-heartedly trying to catch up now with some major road and transit projects.

Speaking of "big companies that have their headquarters in the state", I got some numbers on the 2006 Fortune 500 today, and Texas has passed up NY for the first time - 56 to 55 - making us the big numero uno, ahead of even CA (52), a state with almost twice our population. Can you say "$60+ oil"? Houston is still a strong #2 with 23 to NYC's 44, and well ahead of #3 Atlanta(14), #4 Dallas (11), and #5 Chicago (10) (city list - everybody else 7 or below). Atlanta still lists BellSouth, which should get absorbed by San Antonio-based AT&T/SBC this year. Chicago, and Dallas for that matter, would have a whole lot more if you looked at their metro areas instead of just the city - but Houston still has almost half of Texas' total, with the rest spread in the "Texas Triangle" between DFW, San Antonio, and Round Rock (, I mean 'Austin').

Monday, April 03, 2006

Winter 1Q06 Highlights

This year, I've decided to do highlight posts quarterly instead of monthly. 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.

This also marks the one-year anniversary for Houston Strategies. I missed the exact date - March 8th - but I thought I'd go ahead and note it here. Blogger tells me I'm up to 326 posts. As always, thanks for your readership, and I hope year two is even better than year one.

2005 Highlights can be found here.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

A great tragedy of food and hunger

Today, my wife and I went to the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center "Gathering of Heros" event at Minute Maid Park for gold-level 2005 blood donors. It was a pleasant enough event, and we were having quite an enjoyable time until I asked about the vast expanses of food that were going uneaten. I don't know if they overestimated the attendance or just over-ordered on food, but towards the end of the event there were still dozens of tables covered with enough chicken strips, empanadas, cheeses, deserts, and other assorted foods to feed hundreds of people. A rather official-looking woman (I didn't get her name), said they would love to give the food to charity, but legal liabilities prevent them from doing so. If anybody got ill from the food, they could sue the Blood Center for untold amounts. They were simply throwing it all away. That staggering waste really depressed me, made all the more acute as we walked by the Star of Hope mission next door to the stadium on the way out to our car.

A clear demand, a clear supply, and a clear desire - all thwarted by our legal system. And this is not an isolated situation. I've been to dozens of banquet events where I noticed plenty of food left over at the end, and I always assumed it would somehow go to those in need. I've made the same assumptions about leftover foods from buffet-style restaurants like Luby's. I guess I was pretty far off-base. I'm betting there are literally tons of perfectly edible food going to waste every day in this city.

It seems there has to be a win-win solution option here, although I don't know what it is off the top of my head. Maybe a state indemnity law for charitable giving? Maybe it needs to go through an intermediate organization with indemnity, like a federal agency? (I seem to remember something from school that the federal government can't be sued without its permission) Local food banks, homeless shelters, churches, and similar charities should be all over this with their political representatives.

Additional solution suggestions are welcome in the comments.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Metro settles Universities/ Westpark/ Richmond rail alignment

Today Metro finally settled the ongoing debate on an alignment for the new Universities light rail line - an argument which has become quite bitter between Richmond advocates on one side and Westpark advocates on the other. Metro, eager to please both sides, and in consultation with the university science departments served by the line, has settled on "quantum transit technology" - which will allow it to serve all possible routes simultaneously. The line will be in a suspended flux state similar to the Schrodinger's Cat thought experiment, and will only settle into a fixed route upon direct observation - so riders or neighbors will be able to collapse the wavefunction into their desired route on-demand - avoiding or plowing through Afton Oaks as they like.

The new official route map can be found here.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of downsides to this otherwise win-win approach. First, according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the train's speed or position can be known at any time, but not both, somewhat complicating schedules. Second, given position probability randomness, the train may occasionally stop somewhere other than along the mapped route, although it is believed that almost all stops should be contained within our solar system.

On the plus side, Metro is exploring time travel possibilities with the new technology, which could be a popular option with riders running late for work or appointments.

(Hope you enjoyed this year's April Fools. Don't miss last year's "New Weather Urbanism" if you haven't read it already, or today's hilarious Hermann Park intermodal station proposal by Christof.)