Thursday, February 08, 2007

Planning debate with Councilman Peter Brown plus Metro stats

Today I had the privilege of being an "adjunct faculty" member at a Leadership Houston day on quality-of-life issues in Houston. After watching a great presentation by Ann Lents on all the excellent quality-of-life project(s) momentum building around town, my role was to engage in something like a moderated debate with Councilmember Peter Brown and Reason senior policy analyst Leonard Gilroy on the planning issues that had come up in our op-eds a few weeks back. Actually, I objected to the term "debate", since I prefer to be more consensus and solution oriented, so they renamed it to a "Fierce Conversation" - not really what I had in mind. In any case, it was a lot of fun, with the very engaging Joe Allen moderating. We did it in front of about 50 Leadership Houston people from their 25th class at the Hermann Park Old Club House.

From my perspective, the most important revelation from the whole event was that Peter Brown is not calling for land-use regulation, a very heartening discovery on my part. Joe, our moderator, then made the very incisive point/question: if we're all in agreement that planning is necessary for transportation, drainage, and infrastructure of all types (and that is currently being done), and we also agree land-use planning is bad idea, then what exactly is Peter Brown calling for? It turns out his chief concern is one we can all pretty much agree on: different agencies need to do a better job at coordinating their plans, both within the city and across the county and region. He rolled off a litany of coordination failures that have cost taxpayers millions of dollars. No arguments here - maybe HGAC and/or the CoH Planning Commission can do more to coordinate a broader array of plans across our region.

Peter also listed several specific issues he supports, but I did not have time to respond to. One of the nice benefits of being a blogger is I can do so here.
  • Stronger historic preservation: I can support this on a limited basis, mainly with incentives. The Mayor seems to be taking the right tack. There are risks here, and strong arguments that the public should be willing to pay for it if they want it that bad. The arguments are well debated in the comments here.
  • Limit density in neighborhoods with inadequate infrastructure (mainly sewer/water). You've got to look at the potential increase in the property tax revenue stream and see if it's enough to cover the cost of the infrastructure upgrades. Joe talked about developers paying for the infrastructure upgrades and getting reimbursed from TIRZ incremental property tax revenues. This is a great solution, because it puts the risk on the developer: if the development is not successful and doesn't generate the expected property tax increases, he doesn't get reimbursed and eats the cost. But even without such a structure, I imagine if you looked at the before and after tax streams from all the new townhomes and apartments/condos in the core of Houston, it's probably more than enough to cover needed infrastructure upgrades (on an NPV basis), especially if you consider that most most of those new residents don't have children we have to pay to educate, so their school taxes are pure gravy for HISD and the city as a whole.
  • Brownfields are not getting redeveloped. His proposal seems to be to limit densification in many parts of town where it's happening so as to push it to these brownfields. I really don't think it works that way. My understanding is that the vast majority of these brownfields are in less than desirable parts of town on the north, east, and south sides of town - mostly outside the loop. They're not getting developed because of a simple lack of demand in those areas, and limiting densification in the core will not really change that. They need to be redeveloped by the community groups that do affordable housing, and I think many of them are.
  • He complained that big developers won't come to Houston because our real estate environment is "too unpredictable". He talked about the mixed use projects in Dallas and Atlanta. Amusingly, a participant came up to me afterward and suggested I title this blog post, "Peter Brown likes Dallas better than Houston", but I wouldn't want to wreck that kind of voter havoc on Peter's political career ;-) I would suspect the real reason is not our "unpredictable" environment, but the stiff development competition here which keeps margins very tight. Big $ real estate developers prefer cities with tougher planning, regulatory, and development environments where they can muscle through the red tape and then be insulated from competition for the big returns.
I'm sure I'm cramming too much in one post, but there was also a short presentation by Metro Chairman David Wolff later in the day at the event. I took some notes I thought I'd pass along.
  • The Main St. light rail line has 7,000 riders per day per mile, which is #1 in the nation out of 29 systems.
  • 40% of those riders are new to Metro (not formerly bus riders).
  • The University line is on a schedule about 1-2 years behind the other lines. One year behind in planning, but 2 years behind in estimated completion (Dec 2012 vs. Dec 2010).
  • We have the largest HOV lane network in the U.S., over 100 miles, and it moves the equivalent of 24 freeway lanes worth of people
  • Park-and-Ride has 25 lots, 31,000 parking spaces, and served 8.5 million riders in 2006.
  • They're using a new town-center public-private model for park-and-rides which is very cool, starting with the new Cypress P&R. There will be lots of pedestrian accessible shopping as you transition from your car to the bus and vice-versa.
  • Their light rail accident rate has substantially improved, and their overall bus rate of 0.75 accidents per 100K miles is impressive. I'm pretty sure I couldn't drive a bus on Houston's crowded streets for 100,000 miles without hitting something.
Overall, I think he's got Metro on a pretty good track (so to speak). Right before I left I also got to see some compelling presentations by CoH Elena Marks on air quality (ozone on the right track, but we have to do more on toxics like benzene) and Mary Ellen Whitworth on bayou preservation, both of which are doing great things for Houston and our quality of life (Harris County prison labor to clean up and restore bayous - brilliant!) - but I just can't stretch this post any longer. Have a great weekend.


At 10:22 PM, February 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


What are these projects that wasted millions of dollars because of lack of cooperation by the local agencies? Which agencies were responsible?

At 7:34 AM, February 09, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

He gave several examples, but I'm having trouble remembering most of them. The classic was mostly during the Brown administration: new streets put in, only to be ripped up a few months later to put in new pipes or fiber optics. He mentioned Harris County flood control not coordinating well with Houston Pubic Works (which is responsible for neighborhood drainage). He mentioned a case of some development on Richmond near Montrose (I think) where Centerpoint put up ugly, giant electric poles along the street that not only look bad, they'll have to get ripped out again for the Metro Uline. He mentioned the freeway running through the new Brown park on the eastside, although I think that's because the parkland was donated after the freeway plan. He also supports pushing the routing of power lines along backyards instead of frontyards because it makes streets look a lot nicer, and I agree. They run behind backyards in my Meyerland neighborhood, and it does look a lot nicer, as well as providing a convenient expressway for all the squirrels living in all the backyard trees...

At 9:09 AM, February 09, 2007, Blogger Justin said...

Any chance you could post or post links to any of the presentations?

At 5:44 PM, February 09, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Sorry, no such luck. The only two that had PowerPoint were Metro and Bayou Preservation, although the bayou one was pretty much all pictures.

At 9:11 PM, February 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm still skeptical of using incentives to save historic buildings. What I'd hate to see is every building in the city older than 50 yrs old get a tax break just for being old, thus putting the onus on new construction. What kind of limits are their in existing plan to prevent any historic preservation from getting out of hand?

I still think having to gather sufficient signatures for any preservation plan builds in a natural limit.

At 9:12 PM, February 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Note to self: Copy and paste from Word to check for grammar and spelling after working a 12 hour day.

At 9:21 PM, February 09, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm not very knowledgable on the historic preservation intricacies, but I don't think it's a blanket thing. There are some pretty strict criteria (more than just being old, it has to be significant), and you have to go through an application process and approval to get the breaks.

At 9:35 AM, February 13, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Power lines in neighborhoods should be buried underground as they do here in Virginia and many other places. Power lines in front yards or back yards are an eye sore! Having the neighborhood’s power lines buried underground is also safer in storms. The cost associated in putting the power lines under the ground between houses is very small for the developer of the community.

In Northern Virginia, the only neighborhoods where I see power lines are the ones built in the 80s and older.

At 10:23 AM, February 13, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I've heard that putting them underground is *much* more expensive, esp. in a city prone to flooding like Houston. Very high risk of electrocution means big safety precautions necessary.

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At 9:57 AM, February 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At 11:12 PM, February 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

brian s.,

Historic preservation is in no danger of getting out of hand!

At 11:18 PM, February 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doug Childers of Morris Architects (in a recent Houston Press article) on why we do not see better projects built in Houston (esp. mixed-use):

"Houston developers are really tough; they're really risk-averse. And Houston's not an easy market, because there's not protection for developers. You never know what's going to happen next -- around you or behind you or down the street."

I thought the statement that Peter Brown must like Atlanta and Dallas better than Houston for citing all the mixed-use projects they're getting was asinine. You'd think that the people who read this blog would actually care that Houston is missing out on intelligently-designed, forward-thinking projects while peer cities are getting them, instead of guffawing about Peter Brown.


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