Thursday, August 03, 2006

Time to step up and improve Houston (landmarks, flextime)

I'm going to mix two topics today, because they're both something where you can actually have a short-term impact. The first is the much discussed redevelopment threat to the River Oaks Landmark Theater and the Alabama Bookstop (Kuff with many links and an update, Chronicle 1, Chronicle 2, Houstonist update). I've been meaning to write about this ever since the story broke, but am just now getting around to it, and I did not expect the story to explode as quickly as it has. I imagine most have you have heard, but for those who haven't, the short version is that Wiengarten Realty is looking to tear down the River Oaks Theater and many buildings nearby (including Marfreless), and replace them with some high-rise residential and new retail, including a 2-story Barnes & Noble. Since Barnes & Noble owns Bookstop, that, in turn, means it is threatened, because they'd be too close together. Clearly it would be a very sad day if Houston lost these two icons.

My sympathies tend to match Barry Klein and Councilman Michael Berry: we have to find a way to preserve landmarks like these without giving up Houston's great strength of constant renewal. There's a risk here of killing a fly with an elephant gun and the whole city paying a long-term price, if we end up with burdensome new permitting, review, and historical preservation ordinances. My problem with historical preservation ordinances is that they're a slippery slope: they start off protecting landmarks everybody can agree on, then get extended by activists over time until they're preserving stuff that nobody cares about and needs redevelopment, because if you dig deep enough, you can always create a story about the historical value of any building ("Frank Lloyd Wright once came to a dinner party here..."). Then developers give up on a city and it stagnates. So they key is to find balance. Tax incentives are good. Maybe some sort of petition requirement with a pretty high hurdle on signatures to force some sort of review and approval (speaking of petitions, you can sign one here to save these two landmarks).

I think Weingarten has to realize the enhanced value of their property when they keep these landmarks. People will pay a premium for history and a sense of place (Joel mentioned The Grove at Farmer's Market in LA as an example of popular redevelopment with preservation). Part of me thinks they're riding the publicity for as long as possible, then they will magnamously announce they're going to build around the landmarks, having generated a ton of positive feelings about the them and therefore a premium for whatever gets built nearby (esp. high-rise residential with walking access to either). I think of it like the fiasco of Coke Classic vs. New Coke: nobody cared about Coke Classic until New Coke threatened it, and then all of a sudden it became a national icon with a ton of brand loyalty. Everybody thinks of it as a big screw up by Coke, but was it really? I don't think they planned it, but they certainly came out of it with a lot more brand value than when they went in. We'll see how this one plays out, but I feel pretty confident everything will work out OK. People sometimes complain about the powerful insiders who make things happen in this city, but in this case, I think those River Oaks power people (like Carolyn Farb) will make sure they get the outcome people are clamoring for.

Moving on to our second topic: Sixel's column today on the power of flextime to reduce traffic congestion, and the Mayor's two-week experiment in late September to see how much it can really help. Mayor White is trying to get as many employers as possible to sign up for an experiment in flextime the last two weeks of September to see how much it can improve traffic flow.

And since 2,000 employees at Johnson Space Center started working flexible schedules this spring to avoid morning and evening drive times, the average travel time along NASA Parkway fell more than five minutes, according to a study by a group of engineers from the city, state and private firms.

These results are "mind-boggling," said White, who has been pitching the idea of flexible work schedules to CEOs around town as part of his efforts to ease traffic congestion.

"By diverting a relatively small amount of traffic, it has a huge impact on traffic," White said at a recent news conference to announce a bigger experiment, which has been coined Flex in the City.

"That's F-L-E-X," said White, who seemed slightly embarrassed that it sounded a bit like Sex and the City.

White is asking employers around Houston to participate in a two-week experiment in September to get even more cars off the roads. Between Sept. 18 and 29, he's asking companies to allow employees whose jobs permit some flexibility to work a compressed workweek, work from home or begin or end their days outside rush hours.

So far, more than 30 companies have signed up, said Kathleen Kelley, director of the Flexible Workplace Initiative for the city of Houston. She is shooting for 10,000 people participating. The volunteers so far include large law firms, hospitals in the Texas Medical Center, real estate companies, nonprofits and accounting firms.

Houston TranStar will test the speeds during peak times to determine whether cars are traveling any faster on major thoroughfares during that time.


Instead of taking an average of 22.7 minutes to travel NASA Parkway from I-45 to Texas 146, it now takes the cars during peak rush hour only 17.5 minutes, according to the study by the Texas Transportation Institute, Texas Department of Transportation, city of Houston, Brown and Gay Engineers and S&B Infrastructure.

Over the course of a year, that saving of five minutes each way works out to 43 fewer hours spent waiting for the car in front of you to move.

More details on the program are available here, including a list of benefits for employers:
My plea along similar lines has been for partial-day telecommuting: if the average employee is now spending three hours a day on email and other computer work, why not let them do that from home in the morning and/or evening and commute at off-peak hours? If that goes well, more employers might eventually allow full-day telecommuting some days of the week, which would have even more dramatic traffic, environmental, and energy-savings benefits.

So lobby your employer to sign up, and pass this along to your social network around town. If we can get enough employers to sign up, the positive impact on Houston could tremendous.


At 4:41 PM, August 03, 2006, Blogger John Whiteside said...

I think your worries about historic preservation becoming onerous aren't realistic, especially in Houston. Having owned property in a historic district (in DC), I've lived with the restrictions - if the rules are created properly, it's not a problem.

The right approach, I think, it to use protection of specific buildings sparingly - but create a review process for development within a district. So, rather than trying to save every historic building in a place, you save the key ones and make sure new devleopment preserved the neighborhood characteristics. In my DC neighborhood this resulted in a great mix of Victorian and very modern architecture, a thriving neighborhood, and profits for developers.

At 8:25 AM, August 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

About your point...

"My problem with historical preservation ordinances is that they're a slippery slope: they start off protecting landmarks everybody can agree on, then get extended by activists over time until they're preserving stuff that nobody cares about and needs redevelopment, because if you dig deep enough, you can always create a story about the historical value of any building ("Frank Lloyd Wright once came to a dinner party here...") Then developers give up on a city and it stagnates."

Can you cite some examples in major cities where that has been the case? I'm skeptical that it ever plays out like that.

At 9:09 AM, August 04, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Just an overall impression I got from years of reading articles about cities and development. Some cities are so attractive from a real estate perspective developers will twist themselves in knots to make it work, but for every one of those projects, you have think hundreds of others didn't even try because the hurdles were too high and/or the city just wasn't that attractive of a development opportunity.

At 10:02 AM, August 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eliminating the many railroad grade crossings on major roads throughout Houston, such as Westheimer and Richmond, would do far more for relieving traffic congestion than flex-time or light rail will ever achieve.

At 10:48 AM, August 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There doesn't seem to be too much stagnation in the cities in this country that have stronger preservation laws than ours (read: every other city in the country). On the other hand, the image problem that Houston has developed in part because it has failed to craft beautiful neighborhoods out of a carefully mixed fabric of past and present buildings has certainly been a setback for our city.

There is an art to creating beautiful neighborhoods - an art that involves combining the best of the past with the best of the present - and Houston has yet to learn that art.

At 11:33 AM, August 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the Mayor wants to improve traffic, he should lobby HISD and the other school districts to flex school start times. I think traffic is better in the summer because parents can go to work when its best for them as opposed to the same time after they drop their kids at school or get them ready. Of course, that brings up the problem if a school didn't start until 9:30, but the parent had to be at work at 8.

At 12:07 PM, August 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Example: Galveston, Texas.

I used to work for an insurance company in Galveston who owned a building it constructed around the turn of the century. In the 1960's the building was vacated because they built a new larger building that consolidated all of their offices. In the 90's after the building had been used solely as document storage the building became too dangerous so the company wanted to tear it down to build a parking garage for their newer building. They were sued by the historical society and prevented from tearing down the building. The city later purchased said building in a land swap. The building still sits vacant boarded up on the bottom floor with busted out windows and spray paint visible in several places around the outside of the building.

Every attempt that the company has made to try to build a parking garage has been thwarted by vacant but "historical" buildings near their main office building. The company has given up efforts to expand their facilities in Galveston so all new positions are in League City where they transferred 200 employees during the 2 1/2 years I worked there. Rumors were rampant about long term plans of moving the entire company to League City.

At 12:48 PM, August 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was looking for examples from major cities, and Galveston in my opinion does not fall into that category. I really don't think there are any good examples from major cities where historic preservation has caused the city to systematically stagnate and developers to run away. Sure, there are no doubt hair-raising anecdotes and war stories out there, but I think this "slippery slope" point is, with all due respect, mythical and unfounded. As John mentioned, I just can't imagine historic preservation become onerous in Houston, Texas.

Small cities, including Galveston, are not really good comparisons because they are so strongly influenced by often quirky local factors that don't so much play out in large cities like Houston. It could be that in the Galveston parking garage example, the person who went before the historical commission was not BOI - "Born on Island" - which is enough in Galveston to put the project down two strikes with a nasty slider on the way and a wide strike zone being called.

At 2:36 PM, August 04, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Bobster: gotta disagree. I think fewer at-grade railroad crossings would help, but rush hour congestion is mostly about freeways, and flextime will help them far more dramatically than any rail changes.

On historical preservation: it is common knowledge that it is more work to redevelop anything in the core than build greenfield in the burbs, and more barriers doesn't help. I guess should have also mentioned the alternative: developers may not abandon a city, but the price of everything (esp. housing) skyrockets, both because of the extra hurdles to build anything new, but also the artificial restriction of supply relative to demand. Real estate development is also incredibly time sensitive: the longer it takes, the much higher risk that it will come online during a recession and money will be lost. The faster developers can get projects done, the lower the risk they will sell into a down market, and therefore the more they can do at a lower price point.

At 2:41 PM, August 04, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Also: Brian, thanks for the example. I disagree with anon that there's much difference between bigger and smaller cities. Galveston is a perfectly applicable example. The problem is that all these things that don't happen because of regs/barriers don't make the news, they just quietly don't happen, and people and governments don't realize what their potential would be otherwise. They're the slow, quiet stagnater of cities.

At 3:13 PM, August 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To borrow from Brian's example, he talks about the company moving from Galveston to League City, and you then infer that regulation is to blame... League City is perhaps the most regulated city in the Houston area, and they ended up with the jobs!

I don't know anything about the specifics of Brian's case example aside from what he reported, but in a broader sense, Galveston as an economic power died 106 years ago. This is not a bad thing - we as a society shouldn't put a major economic center on a barrier island, waiting for any decent-sized storm surge to wipe it away. Historic preservation has been one of the few things that has kept Galveston going, and will keep it going until Galveston is finally washed away.

At 4:51 PM, August 04, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

You are right that historical preservation is important to Galvestion. As I said in the main post: balance without the burden.

At 6:56 PM, August 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is an art to creating beautiful neighborhoods - an art that involves combining the best of the past with the best of the present - and Houston has yet to learn that art.

I agree that there is an art, but is the art of many people over many generations building their own neighborhood so that it suits them. No planner can do it.

At 9:30 AM, August 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't say a planner would do it, anonymous. People do it - yes - but they do it in part by preserving the landmarks that have defined their neighborhood historically. It's all about keeping some connection to the past, keeping a certain historical depth instead of just the shallow present.

I can't believe that preserving a few scattered landmarks would hamper growth in a city of over 600 sq. miles, where even the strongest conceivable preservation ordinance would leave 99% of that land with no restrictions.

People talk about why Houston has such a bad image, but then when it comes to things that affect the aesthetics and charm of a city, all they can think about is money! Has it ever occurred to anyone that maybe part of the reason why our image is bad is that we value nothing about our built landscape except its ability to produce cash?

At 12:24 PM, August 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike is 100% correct. Houston IS creating neighborhoods that reflect its priorities...only those priorities are skewed overwhelmingly toward profit over all else, including quality of life, appreciation of the efforts of those who came before us, walkability and sense of place. The replacement of sturdy structures that stand the test of time with throwaway buildings that must be replaced in 40 years, is emblematic of the throwaway society we have become.

The debate is between those who do not like this superficial new society and those who merely want to profit from it. The latter is winning. Perhaps the River Oaks Theater represents an awakening.


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