Sunday, December 24, 2006

Too much to list

It's time yet again to catch up on what has become a very long list of small miscellaneous items. I'm not sure how much posting I'll be doing over the holidays, so hopefully this will keep you well set with plenty of reading material over the break.
  • A very nice New York Times piece on Project Row Houses in Houston (thanks to Peter for the link).
"Although it’s hard to tell at a glance, this stretch of Holman may be the most impressive and visionary public art project in the country — a project that is miles away, geographically and philosophically, from Chelsea and Art Basel and the whole money-besotted paper-thin art scene."
  • Yet another New York Times article, this one on the new Texas Bowl being played in Reliant Stadium, replacing the Houston Bowl and the Bluebonnet Bowl.
  • A Daniel Yergin article in Newsweek about high oil prices launching a wave of new high-tech energy technologies that could rival the Internet boom. You have to hope that Houston will be a major participant and beneficiary in this side of the new energy boom.
  • An excerpt from an Otis White post on a Detroit report on renewing that city:
"A Detroit business group, Detroit Renaissance, found in a survey that people in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston and Indianapolis thought they lived in the best metro area in the country. Detroiters thought they lived in the worst."

Clearly, four of those cities are delusional... ;-)
  • A Wendell Cox op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle on how restrictive zoning and smart growth can cause housing prices to spiral out of control:

"The escalation of housing prices relative to incomes in the highly regulated markets is not the result of low interest rates. The same low interest rates have not produced the same effect in markets with lighter regulation, such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston or Kansas City. Nor is the escalation a result of demand, as Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston are the fastest growing large metropolitan areas in the nation, yet the median house price has remained below the 3.0 benchmark.

The problem in highly regulated markets is that the supply of housing is not allowed to keep up with demand. If housing affordability doesn't improve, it is not inconceivable that it could at some point have serious effects on the overall economy, perhaps even a "smart growth" induced recession.

The economic and social consequences are ominous. The hundreds of thousands of additional dollars that must be paid to own a home in California, Florida, Oregon or other smart-growth states will mean less money for other needs. Fewer consumer products will be purchased. Fewer jobs will be created.

But, worst of all, there will be fewer homeowners. Lower income and many middle-income households will find their way to the mainstream of economic life blocked by artificially high prices resulting from naive urban planning policies. It seems likely these higher prices will lead in the long run to lower rates of homeownership.

The cost of this urban design extravagance will fall most significantly on minority households, whose income is generally lower and whose home ownership rate remains a full one-third below that of white-non-Hispanics."
  • Following up on my recent post about rubber sidewalks that handle tree roots better, Business Week has a profile of the Rubbersidewalks company.
"While the Rubbersidewalks initially cost Mann's department about 50% more than concrete, they can save money in other ways. Mann says a typical root pruning in his city costs $150 to $300. And because the pavers can be installed closer to trees than concrete, Mann doesn't have to get easements, saving about $300 in legal fees per house. But his ultimate savings will depend on how long the Rubbersidewalks last. Says Mann: "If they only last five years, we may not have made the best choice." Smith says the pavers should last at least seven years.

She sees other benefits as well. The pavers reduce the number of lawsuits from people who trip or fall over broken concrete. They don't contribute to the so-called heat-island effect, which is the increase in urban air and surface temperatures caused by hot pavements, asphalt, and buildings. And, of course, they help save trees and reduce the amount of rubber in landfills."
Like I said before, a tailor-made product for Houston. If you know people in Public Works, please pass it along.
  • A blog post and story on how Massachusetts is hemoraging jobs and college-educated young people, with four straight years of job declines. Their high regulatory, tax, and housing costs not only make them a "mini-Europe" (as the blogger describes), but also the" anti-Texas."
"Workers with bachelor's degrees constituted the largest group of those leaving Massachusetts. In 2003 and 2004, their top destination was Florida, followed by New Hampshire, Texas, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and North Carolina.

"You can already make the argument that New England and the region is in decline demographically," Grogan said. "If we can't solve this problem, then Boston and Eastern Massachusetts, which is the economic engine of New England, is going to go into a long slow decline. We will simply not be keeping up with other regions in the country."

  • Christof has a good post on the difference between mobility and access, which ties well with the concept of "opportunity zones" I've previously described.

"The ideal for a city isn’t how fast one can travel — rural Montana trumped every U.S. Metro area in that regard. The ideal is being able to get to a lot of places — jobs, colleges, stores, restaurants, theaters — in a short amount of time.

Every place has access zone around it — the places which you can get to in, say, 20 minutes. In some places, that zone is a lot bigger than it is in other places. But the key measure isn’t the size of that zone; it’s how much stuff is in that zone.

Houston’s actually doing pretty well by that measure. We’re low density — there’s less “stuff” per square mile — but high speed — so the zone is big.
We should talk about access, and measure access and build for access. Access is opportunity and quality of life. Mobility is just speed."
  • A pretty neat Google maps overlay site that creates traffic congestion "heat maps". It defaults to comparing LA and DC, but you can zoom out and then zoom back in to any city you like. After a short pause, the traffic "heat" should display.
  • The Gulf Coast Institute has started a couple new blogs: one called Process to cover urban planning in Houston, and the other called Connections covering transportation issues.
OK there, I think that pretty much clears out the backlog. Have a happy holidays.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Metro narrows down the University Line options

A Metro board meeting today narrowed down the potential routings of the east-west Universities light-rail line. The Chronicle story is here, along with a link to the west side map and east side map. Metro's official document is here, with summary evaluations of all the alternatives and a good map on p.12. The biggest news is that Afton Oaks is now officially off the table, removing the most vocal opposition group. The line will definitely jump over to Westpark somewhere before Weslayan. Some crossover options I supported, like the UP railroad RoW and Dunlavy, have been eliminated.

The other big piece of news is that they're seriously looking at extending the east end of the line to the Eastwood Transit Center, which would allow local and HOV riders from all over southeast Houston to access the line directly rather than having to connect via downtown (way out of the way). That allows a lot more direct routings for those people to UH, TSU, Midtown, the Medical Center, Greenway, and even Uptown. Kudos to Christof, who's been pushing this idea for a while. I also like that they're looking at much better and closer connections to the TSU campus.

So analyzing the 3 new options on the west side:
  1. The Montrose cutover is the most expensive of the bunch with the lowest ridership. Involves elevation along the side of 59. Lose about 40% of the riders while adding $50 million to the cost. Would barely serve UST, but not be able to serve The Menil Collection. This is the painful Culberson option.
  2. Crossover on Plaza Drive A in Greenway Plaza. Lots of elevated. Misses a few destinations further west.
  3. Crossover at Cummins, near the Edwards Theater. Hits the most destinations, gets the most ridership, and is the most cost-effective. We have a winner.
I like that neither options 2 or 3 lose valuable north-south lanes under 59, which are jammed up enough as it is. My major disappointment is the 2-transfer ride from Downtown to Uptown, which I think will be a substantial inhibitor. I still believe the U-line should curve up to at least The Galleria, and the Uptown BRT should come down to Westpark and then curve out to the Hillcroft Transit Center. That creates a 1-transfer ride from Downtown to the Galleria/Uptown, and gives the Hillcroft Transit Center people a single-seat ride to a larger employment center (116K jobs Uptown vs. 65K in Greenway Plaza - nearly twice as many).

My guess is that this will defuse the most vocal opposition by bypassing Afton Oaks. Hopefully other businesses along Richmond can be reassured they won't struggle during construction because Metro has learned their lesson from the Main St. line and will manage it much better. The best odds of federal funding are the Richmond alignment, and hopefully the big$ Uptown community will put pressure on Culberson to soften his position, since their line won't happen without the Universities line, and that line won't happen without federal funding. Let's hope the political rhetoric fades away and we can come together as a unified community around the best plan long-term for the city.

Metro's calendar calls for a final routing decision by May 2007, and a construction start by August 2008.

Update: Christof weighs in.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Galveston trying to upgrade tourism

AP has a story about Galveston's attempt to upgrade it's tourism image based on the recent consultant's report (thanks to Chris for the link). The article is quite vocal about Galveston's downsides, especially the dirty water and sand. Some excerpts:
One of the best-known but most disparaged beach towns in Texas is trying to figure out how to promote itself to outsiders while acknowledging that the town and its beaches are dirty and largely unappealing.

Residents of Galveston as well as tourists repeatedly cited "dirty beaches" and the town's "unclean feel" during recent interviews conducted by a marketing firm hired to help boost Galveston's image.

The report, commissioned by Galveston's top tourism promoters, found that while the beach is well-known, "neither visitors or residents think highly of it. Flaunt the uniqueness of your island. Your beaches and island are not dirty -- they are colored with stories, history and culture." (had to smile at that spin)

Every summer, droves of Houstonians and other Texans stomp along Galveston's brownish-gray sand to take a summer dip in the tepid, murky Gulf waters that play host to jellyfish and strings of seaweed. Malibu it isn't, they joke, but at least it's close. But selling the town's charms to tourists with other postcard-like options might be a tough sell.


The city gets 6 million visitors a year. North Star found that 72 percent of them come from Houston, just 40 miles up the interstate. But the study also found that the top 10 places visitors come from include two outside Texas -- Chicago and Lake Charles, Louisiana. (Chicago? Must be a sheer-size side effect of America's third largest metro visiting friends and family in the seventh largest metro, and they just happened to go visit the island. Otherwise, I'm pretty sure they'd fly to Florida.)


But some parts of the report stung a bit. Criticism of the island's cleanliness runs throughout the presentation, with comments about "not very pretty beaches," "remarkably seedy" neighborhoods and the town's "unpolished" reputation.


Promoters are eager to exploit the town's magnificent architecture and often tragic history to lure tourists, but they are far less keen about other North Star recommendations. ... Brown said that talking like pirates for a day was probably one of those recommendations where town officials would end up smiling and turning the page. Ditto the proposal to build a huge "pirate's sandbox" in Houston filled with Galveston sand, a pirate's ship and planks to walk.

"They keep mentioning pirates," Brown said. "I think they went a little overboard on the pirates."

One recommendation that city officials rejected immediately was to change the city's name. The proposal to rename it the "City of Galveston Island" provoked such hostility that Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas felt the need to reassure residents that no such change was imminent.

Despite the negative spin of the article, I was talking with a friend (Alan) recently about our prospects for tourism targeted between Galveston and Kemah. Galveston has real potential to be like Charleston, Savannah, or Key West. I think the beaches aren't much of a factor for any of those towns. It's about having a historic walking experience in an interesting town, which Galveston can provide.

Alan also made an interesting pitch for Houston to Galveston commuter rail on existing freight tracks. Most readers know I'm not usually a fan of commuter rail for Houston, but he made an good case. In addition to Galveston, tourists would be able to ride the train and then catch a shuttle bus to visit Space Center Houston, Clear Lake, Kemah, and League City's quaint downtown shops. There's already a trolley to get around on the island. Not having to rent a car and navigate a strange town is a big plus for tourists. Assuming Metro offered express bus service from the airports to the new intermodal terminal north of downtown, tourists could truly get away with being carless. And, of course, the train could move plenty of Houstonians wanting to visit for a day or a weekend without fighting traffic on 45 (or if they want to send their non-driving teenagers). Finally, it might even attract some long-haul commuters during the week if it offered a comfortable ride with big seats and wireless Internet access.

Keys would be:
  • Rerouting freight traffic affordably (or at least sharing the tracks with them). May be difficult if the Port of Galveston starts handling more freight, especially containers.
  • Using the exisiting tracks and probably non-electric propulsion to keep the project affordable.
  • Few stops to keep it fast with an a high net speed.
  • Galveston County would need some sort of transit agency that could collaborate with Metro.
  • Not sacrificing express bus service from southeast Harris County to non-downtown job centers. Yes, transfers would be possible downtown, but they would add so much time to TMC, Greenway, Uptown, or anywhere else as to make the commute completely unreasonable.
Galveston Island and Bay are truly an underdeveloped tourism asset for the Houston metro. One that, with a little effort and some critical mass, has the potential to cross the "tourist attractiveness tipping point" and start substantially drawing from beyond Texas.

Update: Kuff weighs in.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Rankings, rankings, rankings

An Otis White post alerted me to this report by St. Louis comparing itself to 35 other cities over a huge range of statistics - over 80 in fact. If you want to fully see how Houston measures up, I recommend opening it and doing a search on "Houston." Here are my personal highlights of interest:
  • 7th largest metro (although not far from passing Miami, recently passed DC)
  • 6th fastest growing from 2000-2005 at 12%
  • Diversity: highest percentage of Asians in the population outside of the coasts (7th overall, 5.7%)
  • 3rd youngest median age, at 32.9
  • In the top 3 nationally for children under 5 and children under 18 (percent). Can you say "family town"?
  • #1 in the nation for family households at 70.7% (did I mention "family town"?)
  • 7th fastest job growth, 2001-2004
  • 4th fewest drug-related fatalities per 100K population
  • 6th lowest incidence of cancer per 100K population (maybe the refineries and air pollution aren't as bad as we think?)
  • 16th, percent of obese adults, right at the national average of 23%. So much for fattest city, eh?
  • Top 3 for children and adults living in poverty. Not good, although not unexpected given our immigration and affordable housing/cost-of-living.
  • 3rd lowest African-American poverty rate relative to whites
  • Average (15th) employment dispersal outside of the core county, but Dallas and Austin are the top two in the nation for employment leaving the core.
  • #2 for toxic chemicals and bad air days. OK, ignore what I said earlier - clearly a priority problem.
  • Average commute time only 2.1 minutes longer than the national average
  • 6th best change in traffic congestion, 1982-2003
  • Believe it or not, better transit service than New York City (and the national average), according to the MOBILITY INDEX - Annual transit revenue hours of service per households without a vehicle, 2004.
  • 3rd highest federal funding per capita (2004)
OK, those are the ones that jumped out at me, but, like I said, spend a while browsing and you'll learn a whole lot more about how Houston and other cities stack up.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The shotgun marriage of Continental and United

Although in this case, the bride (United) is the one holding the shotgun. Most of you have probably heard the rumor news by now about the potential merger. If you want more detailed background, Tom's got it. I'm not going to repeat the media stories, but instead speculate on reasoning and, should it go through, headquarters (Houston vs. Chicago). I will admit right up front that I called for this merger in a Chronicle op-ed at the end of 2002, right after United declared bankruptcy. The routes and hubs are very complimentary and make a lot of sense: United in Asia and the West/Midwest, Continental in Europe, Latin America, and the East/South. Continental would get access to restricted London Heathrow. Both have a lot of high-end business traveler traffic. The hubs include a who's who of America's top world cities: New York, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and- the newest addition to that group IMHO - Houston (non-world-city hubs include Denver and Cleveland). That company alone would be a nice boost for Houston's national and global reputation.

The first question is why this is happening now, when neither Continental nor United have seemed all that interested in the past (airline mergers are messy, complex, painful things) - and CAL CEO Larry Kellner has even stated his preference for staying independent. People are pointing to the USAir-Delta merger proposal, and it is definitely part of the equation. The simplest way for me to describe it is a simulated UAL-CAL conversation (you can imagine it between the CEOs Tilton and Kellner if you like).
  • UAL: Life's hard. I'm being attacked from all sides. Southwest and JetBlue in DC. Frontier and Southwest in Denver. Virgin America in SF. Southwest in LA and Chicago. I want to get married and make this somebody else's problem before bankruptcy #2 hits.
  • CAL: Uh, yeah, good luck with that.
  • UAL: You're not interested?
  • CAL: No thanks. I'm a happy bachelor.
  • UAL: Oh well, I guess I'll make a play for Delta instead then. They'll have to love me if they want to get away from USAir. I'll be their knight in shining armor.
  • CAL: Whoa, whoa, whoa there! If you marry Delta, then I'll have to merge too to stay competitive, and my options will be Northwest (yuck) or USAir (double yuck). Bad airlines, old planes, second-tier hubs, and major labor unrest.
  • UAL: Hmmm, yeah, good luck with that. See ya later... I've got a ring to buy and a proposal to make.
  • CAL: Hey, wait a minute. Maybe we should talk first...
See what I mean about the bride holding the shotgun?

I'm sure the question on most of my readers' minds is, "If this thing goes through, where will the headquarters end up? Chicago or Houston?" It's a mixed forecast there. Of course, I'd love to see the headquarters end up here - and hope that the City and the Greater Houston Partnership lobby as strongly as they can on that. One very helpful point in our favor is that Continental's management is widely regarded as superior to United's, so that's very favorable to Houston. But here's the problem: from a pure business perspective, Chicago is the better choice. United and American have similar size hub operations at Chicago O'Hare. Each is always looking for an advantage over the other, and United's advantage is that it's the "hometown airline" - vs. American out of Ft. Worth. That carries some weight with fliers in Chicago. On the other hand, Continental essentially owns Houston, whether the headquarters is here or not (the IAH hub is obviously not going anywhere). If I had to guess, I could see the major operational headquarters (and most of the jobs) ending up here, to take advantage of Continental's strong management and operations, but a very thin, symbolic top executive headquarters with few employees will end up in Chicago - very similar to Boeing in Chicago or Exxon in Dallas. One indicator of this potential direction is that Tilton recently announced the movement of the United top executive staff out of United's operations center/HQ in Elk Grove to a downtown Chicago office building (while leaving operations in Elk Grove). Maybe he's looking ahead?

Update: Just found this Chicago Tribune article:

Meanwhile, United and Continental's merger talks, described as preliminary, appear hung up on the issue of which management team would lead the combined company, said a person familiar with the negotiations.

That's a crucial issue that has some civic leaders on edge since it could determine where the airline's headquarters is based. For now, United still plans to move its headquarters to downtown Chicago early next year, said a spokeswoman.

The airline hasn't talked to city officials about if or how consolidation would affect the high-profile move, which United announced this summer in exchange for millions of dollars in federal and state aid.

"It's always a nervous thing, but this city gives them the whole world, and Houston does not," said Paul O'Connor, executive director of World Business Chicago, a non-profit group that promotes economic development in the city. (I'm just going to let that one go - chalk it up to ignorance and bias.)

The two airlines have talked several times about joining forces over the past decade. However, Continental's previous overtures to United and CEO Glenn Tilton faltered after the two disagreed on management control, sources said.

United is the second-largest U.S. carrier, while Continental ranks fifth. Even so, Continental CEO Lawrence Kellner wouldn't be content to play second-fiddle to Tilton, say people who know him.

"Remember, these guys have big egos," said Tom Buffenbarger, international president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents ramp workers and gate agents at United and flight attendants at Continental. "Glenn Tilton is an oilman. It would be a battle of Texas titans."

Pretty much the entire business world realizes Continental has the superior management team. If Tilton is obstinate, Kellner should turn the tables by raising private equity (relatively easy right now) and launching a hostile offer for United on Continental's terms. Tilton's been publicly wishing for industry consolidation for a while now, which reminds me of the saying, "Beware what you wish for. You might just get it good and hard..."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Are "lifestyle centers" real TOD?

A couple recent articles sparked me thinking about lifestyle centers and transit-oriented development (TOD), two independent trends that are getting a little confused because they happen to overlap in rare instances. The first is a Newsweek article on lifestyle centers, Disney-fied "downtowns in suburbia" like we have in The Woodlands or Sugar Land:
Like so many suburbs, Lakewood, Colo., near Denver, never had a downtown. Now it does. Well, actually, what it has is Belmar, a shopping center—only this isn't your basic strip mall. It's what's called a "lifestyle center," an idealized vision of an urban streetscape, with 22 open-air blocks of cafés, performance spaces, offices, housing, parks and, of course, chain stores familiar to anyone who's spent time in the Galleria (can you say Sharper Image and Victoria's Secret?).
The malling of America has taken a decidedly Disney-esque twist. Designed like elaborate outdoor movie sets, lifestyle centers are meant to look like real towns, with curbed streets, parking meters and themed architecture (think Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A.). They're cropping up on the fringes of cities from Washington, D.C., to San Diego: 150 so far, with 100 more in the pipeline. ..."It's a buzzword right now, the trendy thing to call your shopping development,"
Many mom-and-pop retailers, already wounded from the onslaught of big-box chains like Wal-Mart, worry these malls may finish the job. "We sort of resent the fact that these lifestyle centers are calling themselves 'downtowns' when we already have a downtown," says Jeanette Billings, a director of the Downtown Naples Association in Florida, formed recently by local merchants concerned about the opening of four lifestyle centers north of the city. Yet shoppers seem to love them.
The mall, built by General Growth Properties, likes to think of itself as a downtown, though the operators clearly don't want it to be too urban: The "code of conduct" prohibits spitting, swearing, skateboarding and congregating in large groups (unlike downtowns, lifestyle centers are mostly privately owned). Such manufactured civility is part of what convinced Chris Salderman, 32, to purchase a loft condominium at Belmar with his wife. "It gives you the feeling that you're in a city, but without all the chaos," he says. "You can walk around at night and there are things to do, but you don't worry about the drunks on the streets." Urban pioneers of suburbia might want to come up with lyrics of their own: "things will be great when you're not downtown."
Now combine those observations with these from a Wall Street Journal article titled, "Why Some Cities Think Developing At Rail Stops Is a Mighty Good Road":
Opened in 2000, CityCenter Englewood (inc. 438 apts on 55 acres) is one of a growing number of developments offering a mix of uses that have emerged around mass-transit rail lines, a trend that is particularly notable in the car-friendly West. In Dallas, Mockingbird Station on the city's light-rail system boasts an artsy Angelika Film Center, loft apartments that utilize a 1940s warehouse, and retail and office space. And the Del Mar stop in Pasadena, Calif., along Los Angeles's light rail includes 347 apartments stacked over ground floors intended for shops that will give the project a dense, urban feel amid its low-rise Southern California surroundings when it is completed early next year.

Such projects still have plenty of challenges, one of the reasons the Federal Transit Administration counts only about 100 of them nationwide. Because zoning often favors a single use, such as residential or commercial, developers must work with city officials to change the rules. Land can be difficult to assemble. And upfront costs for developers -- especially with demand to include features such as plazas and parks -- are high with financial returns often slow in coming.

In Houston, about half the land along the city's 7.5-mile light-rail line -- which connects a medical center, sports venues and downtown -- is vacant and developers who have locked up parcels are hanging back. "There hasn't been a rush to build," says Kimberly Callahan, a spokeswoman for Houston-based Camden Property Trust, a real-estate investment trust which eventually hopes to build a residential and retail project on several acres it owns along the city's Main Street rail corridor.

Here are my observations:
  • Lifestyle centers are simply the new malls with the roof removed and a few apartments and/or condos on top. They rely just as heavily on drawing in car drivers from a multi-mile radius as a normal mall (with similar parking requirements), and their retail profile is essentially the same as a mall rather true TOD: more Gap/Banana Republic than everyday needs.
  • Notice the small numbers of apartments in these projects. 438 apartments in 55 acres? That's about 8 units/acre - far less dense than normal apartment projects in Houston or most other cities - and of course far too low to come anywhere close to supporting the street retail by itself. And any implication that these developments are meaningfully "taking cars off the road" by allowing people to walk or take transit for errands, shopping, and work is, well, laughable - mainly because a few hundred apartments is a teeny-tiny drop in the bucket of any city large enough to build rail transit.
  • Because lifestyle centers have the same economics as a mall, it takes a lot of population to support one, so cities will be lucky if even one in a couple dozen rail stops gets one. In Houston, most spoke freeways support one or two major malls - I would imagine that ratio would hold about the same for lifestyle centers on long rail lines. Notice how even cities with dozens of miles of rail like Dallas, Denver, and LA can usually only point to one notable lifestyle center TOD.
  • Developers are leveraging cities' and transit agencies' desperation for TOD (because it was promised as part of the package with the rail line) to get public help for what would otherwise be very difficult projects, whether through easier approvals, zoning changes, or eminent domain for land assembly.
  • Non-lifestyle-center TOD (i.e. everyday street retail mixed use) still seems to be a rarity along the newer rail transit lines of the last couple dozen years.
I'm not saying these developments are bad. Far from it. They're actually kind of cool. But people need to be careful not to confuse lifestyle-center malls that happen to be near a transit stop with the real viability (or possible lack thereof) of true transit-oriented mixed use development with everyday street retail in suburban-model cities like Houston, something I've discussed before in my "Challenges to urbanism in Houston" posts (mainly the last few paragraphs of part 2, but also parts 1 and 3). There don't seem to be many examples of successful "plain-old TOD" in newer cities, which is a little worrisome as Houston works on new urban corridor planning and development regulations.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A cautionary warning from Australia to Houston

Today we have an interesting item from Down Under - a report titled "The Tragedy of Planning - Losing the Great Australian Dream" (thanks to Hugh for the link). It laments the extremely high housing prices in Australia due to tight land use regulations, and makes some very favorable comments about Houston and Texas. Their housing is similar in price to most of California, with the median house between 6 to 9 times the median income (actually, LA and San Diego get as high as 11 times). The rule of thumb is to spend no more than 2.5 times your income on a house, which is about where the median house is in Texas relative to the median income.

Some excerpts of interest.
If Australia were applying the liberal systems to development that prevail in Texas for example, a house/land package price would at least halve. Australia’s ration-induced high prices for new developments on the periphery lift prices throughout the city.
Page 66 has an interesting statistical comparison section and table between Texas and Australia, which are very similar in many ways.
Australia has a much larger land area, and thus a much lower population density. Texas has a larger and faster-growing population, a larger economy and crams even more of its population into its five largest cities than does Australia. Texas has more folk who speak a language other than English at home and more residents who were born outside its borders than does Australia.

Nevertheless, they are broadly similar societies.

Since Texas has (much) less land, a greater population, is faster growing and is more productive (both overall and per person) and has an even larger share of its population in its five major metropolitan areas, it would seem likely that housing would be much more expensive in the metropolises of the Lone Star State than in the cities of our island continent.

Yet precisely the opposite is true.
And the comparative section ends with this conclusion:
Texas is a much less linguistically homogenous jurisdiction than Australia, with a higher rate of population growth and migration-in of people born outside its borders. But it is clearly much more able to provide housing policies which are in the general interests of its inhabitants, rather than the preferences of a narrow group of urban planners reflecting the interests of wealthier members of society. In particular, it does not provide policies where, due to constricted supply, demand pressures from newcomers price people out of home ownership. More liberal land use policies are themselves not an inconsiderable aid to social harmony in a diverse society.
Emphasis on that last point is mine. Something to keep in mind as the Houston Planning Commission works on its "Plan to Plan." How do we avoid the negative side effects of planning observed in other cities?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

HOV-to-HOT, St. Arnold goes to Austin, and cool stat maps

Time again to pass along the smaller miscellaneous items. These should give you a few interesting reads and things to do over the weekend.
  • Christof has a couple excellent new posts at his blog on Houston's recently completed and very effective HOV lane network, and a followup post on the conversion going forward to HOT lanes, with some concerns (that I share) about how that conversion is done, and a call to action. As I've said before, express bus/van service is far faster and more cost effective than commuter rail in a city of multiple job centers like Houston. Here's one excerpt in particular I liked on HOV buses:
"Those buses — one of the best suburban commuter transit systems in the country — carry about 40,000 people on an average weekday. Non-METRO buses (Woodlands Express, Trek, and intercity services), vanpools, and carpools carry another 80,000. That’s a total of 120,000 daily trips, roughly the same as 24 freeway lanes.

The HOV lanes started as an experiment. Now they’re an established part of Houston’s transportation system. They’ve also helped shape the city: the additional people-moving capacity into Downtown has helped keep Downtown competitive as an employment center (while Post Oak, which is is not as well served and much more congested, hasn’t seen a new office building since the 1980s). The HOVs have also boosted transit use: the HOV lane buses account for 15% of METRO’s ridership, and 40% of Downtown employees take transit."
  • Evan and Kuff are promoting a new blog advocating state law changes to make microbreweries easier in Texas, since 14 of 19 started so far have failed. They're really just looking for the same treatment as micro-wineries, which seems eminently reasonable to me. USA Today recently listed St. Arnold's in Houston as one of ten great microbreweries to visit in the nation.
  • Finally, a real fun time-waster for your Friday afternoon: Neighboroo, which overlays all kinds of statistics on Google Maps, complete with fly around and zoom-in capability. Note the links on the left to choose your stat. Hit the Air Quality link, for instance, and you'll see that Houston is far from alone in its pollution problems. Hit the Home Price, Tax Rates, or Cost of Living links and be thankful you live in Texas. Fun for hours, depending on how many cities you want to zoom in on with different stats. Thanks to Christof for the link.
Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

How Houston can stay Energy Capital of the World

It's late, so just a quick pass-along tonight. A presentation (PPT, PDF) by Matt Simmons that, at the end, points out how Houston can stay the world's energy capital as new technologies grow over the coming years. My own opinion is that, while it's probably unrealistic to expect our existing set of oil & gas companies to obsolete their own asset base with alternative energy R&D (just as Kodak had to be dragged into digital photography even though they essentially invented it), I think it is reasonable to expect them to monitor the market, buy up small promising energy technology companies and run them from Houston, maintaining our status - just as the big pharma companies do with new drugs. Innovation can happen anywhere (including, hopefully, here), but the big infrastructure companies that commercialize, produce, distribute, and market energy - of any kind - need to definitely stay here if we value our economic future.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

State panel trending the right way on property tax reform

I wanted to comment on this Chronicle article from a couple weeks back on the state's property tax reform task force. I'm happy to report that they seem to be trending in the right direction, and avoiding the major mistakes of places like California and Florida with the knee-jerk response of capping appraisals. First, the excerpts that heartened me:
The Dallas businessman said the task force is likely to recommend changes in state laws and the Texas Constitution to give voters more control over local government revenue growth through automatic rollback elections when tax coffers grow by more than 5 percent.

Citizens now have to collect signatures to petition for a rollback when revenue increases more than 8 percent.

Pauken said the change is almost universally opposed by city and county officials.


The task force also is considering increasing the homestead exemption, which reduces a home's taxable value and provides relief to homeowners.


The Legislature has voted down proposals to lower the cap on annual homestead appraisal growth to 5 percent from 10 percent, and Pauken said he's not sure the task force will recommend an appraisal cap.

Several business groups said the market should continue to be allowed to set valuations. "Appraisal caps are the least desirable" reform, said Bill Allaway, president of Texas Taxpayers and Research Association.

Dennis Patillo, chairman of the Texas Association of Realtors, said appraisal caps are bad public policy because they create "distortions in the market." Older housing stock becomes taxed at less than market value while new construction is taxed at full value.


Texas ranks 44th in the United States for combined state and local tax burden, according to the Tax Foundation, which studies tax policy.

I'm very glad they see the risks of appraisal caps, which I've written about extensively on this blog before. I'm in a bit of a rush tonight, so I'll just end with an email I sent to the task force that includes links to those previous posts:

While I agree there should be improvements, it is incredibly important not to make the same mistakes other states have made in this area. Many states, including Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and especially California have made crippling mistakes here (some articulated in the links below). Texas has some amazing competitive advantages vs. other states, and it would be a tragedy to fritter them away with poorly thought through tax reform. I have put together a list of the relevant links below. I apologize for the volume, but it is a complex topic that needs extremely careful analysis.

The most critical requirement is that assessments match actual market values. When they get out of sync, all kinds of market distortions happen. Increase exemptions or rollback tax rates instead of assessments. It's also important that new homeowners pay the same taxes as existing homeowners with a house of the same value. Again, if these get out of sync, there are all kinds of market distortions and problems that are created (many articulated in the links below).

Outside link on the perils of appraisal caps:

A very good idea here to help retired home owners:

Other posts on the risks: