Thursday, March 29, 2007

Houston vs. Dallas, Portland - Who builds more density?

Councilmember Peter Brown recently took a field trip to Dallas to see how they do planning, vision, and density. He believes they are getting more and better dense residential development than Houston. I'm not so sure. Many high-density projects are under construction or announced in Houston, including mixed-use (something the Chronicle recently profiled). I just think ours aren't as high-profile, with big name developers doing mega-projects like Victory Park in Dallas.

The way I see it, cities like Dallas use zoning and planning to restrict development, therefore forcing demand into the few high-profile, high-density projects that they do allow - but at a cost of less overall production (i.e. a lot of potential buyers are turned off because the products they want are not for sale at a price they can afford, due to such restrictions). Peoples' purchasing preferences typically follow this order, assuming similar affordability: 1) stand-alone house, 2) townhouse, 3) condo with a view, 4) condo without a view (packed into a pedestrian district). Houston's open development nature means 1, 2, and 3 soak up a lot of local demand among many smaller, lower-profile projects (the benefit of the market providing what people want), leaving less demand for #4. Thus the lack of high-rise residential development downtown: why pay for such a unit when your view is likely to be blocked by other buildings? To get a highly vibrant, walkable neighborhood, it helps to have a lot of density close together, yet towers naturally spread apart a bit in Houston to provide the best unobstructed views.

The question is: At the end of the day, who gets more high-density and core development, Houston's relatively unrestricted approach, or Dallas' approach of "vision and planning"?

I decided to investigate this question using census data on residential building permits in 2006 (thanks for the link, Skip). The results are quite interesting. I even threw in that paragon of density, Portland, and Phoenix, another city Peter has mentioned having superior vision, planning, and dense development. In each case, I looked at the cities, not the metros, to isolate the results of city-specific planning policies. The census groups permits into the following buckets: single family, two family, 3-4 family, and 5+ family. For simplicity, I looked at the dense category (5+ family) and overall totals. I apologize for the table formatting - I am not proficient at getting Excel tables into HTML blog posts.

Residential Building Permits in 2006

(not MSA)
2005 Population 5+ density buildings 5+ density units Units per Dense Building Dense units per 1,000 pop vs. Hou
Houston 2,016,582 344 9,661 28.1 4.8
Dallas 1,213,825 133 3,424 25.7 2.8 59%
Portland 562,690 56 2,038 36.4 3.6 76%
Phoenix 1,461,575 105 1,670 15.9 1.1 24%

(not MSA)
2005 Population Total buildings Total units Units per Building Total units per 1,000 pop vs. Hou
Houston 2,016,582 7,982 17,491 2.19 8.7
Dallas 1,213,825 3,349 6,731 2.01 5.5 64%
Portland 562,690 1,420 3,551 2.50 6.3 73%
Phoenix 1,461,575 9,299 11,269 1.21 7.7 89%

The results are a pretty clear win for Houston: more dense units, more units per building (except for a slight advantage by Portland), and more new units per 1,000 population. Portland is able to achieve slightly higher densities, but at a cost of about 25% lower unit production per capita. Phoenix is producing a whopping 76% less density than Houston relative to its population. Dallas has about 40% less high-density and overall residential production relative to its population. So much for vision and comprehensive planning.

Houston's free market approach is creating more density (at lower cost, by the way), allowing more people to move into the core with shorter commutes creating less pollution, while also pumping more discretionary income into the core, supporting more vibrancy and amenities. Don't get me wrong - we're not perfect, and there's room for improvement in the way we develop. I am, for instance, curious to see how the urban corridors initiative will try to encourage more pedestrian-friendly density near rail stops for people who desire that lifestyle (mostly mid-rise mixed-use apartments, I suspect). But it's important to recognize that, on a "big picture" level, we're doing very, very well. Our motto should be "continuous improvement," not "comprehensive planning overhaul." If you share that sentiment, please attend the Blueprint Houston Leaders Conference this Saturday morning to encourage them to channel their vision and values in this far more productive and fruitful direction.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Enforcing HOV, rail vs. edgeless cities, arterial underpasses, intermittent bus lanes, and H2 cars

I've been getting an email newsletter from Bob Poole at the Reason Foundation called "Surface Transportation Innovations" for some time. It's always high-quality, usually with several short, intriguing articles on, well, transportation innovations. They come out monthly, and I think I'm going to start covering them pretty regularly in this blog, since transportation is such a critical issue for Houston. Today we'll cover the February issue.
A New Approach to Enforcing HOV Occupancy
...Recall that the original idea of HOV lanes was to reward those who reduced the number of peak-period vehicles by carpooling. So as part of the shift from HOV to HOT, we could refocus the carpools-go-free aspect on commuter trip reduction by allowing only employer-sponsored carpools to use HOT lanes at no charge (or a reduced rate). The local ride-sharing agency could issue transponders to participating employers, who would issue them only to carpool groups which they (the employers) certified as legitimate, regular carpools. Those transponder ID numbers would be identified in the billing/enforcement software as authorized free or discount users.

Hence, on-road enforcement would be entirely electronic: there is either a valid transponder or there isn't, and in the latter case, there is a toll violation. The ride-share agency would need to periodically audit participating employers to be sure the authorized carpools were still active. Whenever a carpool was found to be defunct, the employer would retrieve the transponder, and the tolling software would delete that ID number from the authorized carpool list.

Given that some studies have found that between one-third and two-thirds of all current carpools are actually fam-pools, and that many HOV lanes also have violation rates between 10 and 20%, this redefinition of carpools would dramatically reduce the number of vehicles using the HOT lane without paying. So not only would enforcement costs drop significantly, but net toll revenue would also increase.

I have long argued that vanpools and buses (super-high-occupancy vehicles) should be the only vehicles authorized to use HOT lanes at no charge. But in places where the carpool aspect is considered very important, refocusing the HOV privilege on employer-sponsored carpools would be a major step toward more cost-effective transportation.
The second story is on the problem of rail transit in the new "edgeless cities" of dispersed jobs.
...The new metropolis "is mostly low-to-mid density, automobile dependent, and dispersed."

The new analysis finds that edgeless cities account for almost 40% of the total office space in those areas, while their downtowns averaged 33% and their edge cities just 14%. The balance fell into "urban envelopes" (5.2%), "corridors" (3.8%), and "secondary downtowns" (1.2%). You can download the report at (Houston details p.27)

The most fascinating aspect of the report is not the averages but the differences among these large urban areas. Atlanta and Miami have the smallest fraction of office space downtown, at just 6.7% and 8.7% respectively. The edge-city champions are Houston (33.3% edge-city space), Detroit (27.1%), and Washington, DC (23.3%). And the metro areas with the largest fraction of their office space in edgeless cities are Miami (72.1%), Detroit (54.1%), Philadelphia (54.3%), and Denver (50.8%).

The final sections of the report discuss policy implications. Citing a 1977 study by Pushkarev and Zupan which found that 8,000 people per square mile was the minimum threshold for rail transit (Houston is mostly around 3,000), Lang and colleagues parsed their data to determine the amount of edgeless city office space located in neighborhoods with at least that much density. Atlanta had zero, and another seven had only single-digit percentages (inc. Houston at 6.5%). The most promising were Los Angeles (36.7%), San Francisco (27.8%), and Miami (13.8%).
This reinforces my assertion that commuter rail is not a good fit for Houston, but a network of high-speed lanes with express bus/van service to all the different job centers is.

His third story is on underpasses at arterial intersections, which are often considered too expensive to be practical, but would be very helpful in many parts of Houston.
....a lower-cost version of the idea: the low clearance underpass. Instead of building it to provide the standard 16-foot clearance height, they proposed just eight feet. That permits all current cars, SUVs, and vans to use it, with a one-foot margin of safety. Trucks and buses (10% of the total, in their study) would have to use surface-level through lanes.

The costs of the low-clearance underpass would be lower, because of less excavation and material, a shorter length (39% less, with the same 5% grade), and less need for additional right of way acquisition. Using data from the Hawaii DOT, they estimated the construction cost to be 38% less—not counting any savings from reduced right of way.

...When they estimated the value of the time savings over the course of a year, they estimate that the underpasses would pay for themselves over a two to five year period.

Taking a closer look at their assumptions in this calculation, I find it to be very, very conservative. Personal travel time is valued at just $7.80/hour, truck traffic at $19/hour, and savings were counted for only 250 days/year and for only two peak hours per day. With more realistic assumptions, the break-even period would be even less than the 2-5 years they estimated.
Next, he has a story on "intermittent bus lanes", that give bus-rapid transit the speed benefits of their own dedicated lane, without actually giving them a dedicated lane and its loss of right-of-way. This could be a great idea for the planned BRT lines in Houston, especially through Uptown.
The basic idea is that the lane functions as a regular traffic lane when a bus is not present. As a bus approaches a section of the lane (a block or two), the lane's status changes and usage is limited to bus-only. Obviously, making this work depends on technology for monitoring bus locations in real-time and for alerting drivers (via lane-lighting and variable message signs) about the changing lane status.

The demonstration project took place on a half-mile avenue near the main university area in Lisbon, at the edge of the central business district. It ran for six months, beginning in September 2005. During peak hours, bus speeds were 45-60% higher than without the IBL, with a daily average speed increase of 15-25%. Surveys of motorists showed good acceptance; the IBL was perceived as fair sharing of limited roadway space. Viegas told us they are about to launch a second demonstration, in a more complex location, this time including photo enforcement.

... the IBL looks like a way to provide many of the benefits of an exclusive bus lane without the huge negative impacts on traffic of totally removing that lane from general service.
The final story that caught my eye is the hydrogen BMW.
Limitations of Hydrogen BMW. Like many of you, I'd love to see the widespread use of emission-free motor vehicles. So I was intrigued by BMW's announcement last fall of a hydrogen-powered luxury sedan. Then I read the fine print. First, the H2 fuel tank weighs 369 pounds and takes up half the space in the trunk. And because the liquefied H2 slowly turns into a gas, a half-full tank will completely boil off in nine days. Because the car can only go 125 miles on its hydrogen fuel supply, it also has a gasoline engine and gas tank, good for another 300 miles. Clearly, this project is not ready for prime time. (Source: MIT's Technology Review, January/February 2007)
But here's an alternative version that could yield major greenhouse gas reductions and might be pretty scary to oil companies: an H2 tank a third of that size that gives you about 40 miles (a typical daily usage), and fills up each night in the garage by pulling H2 off of the home's gas line, or even the water line - using cheap nighttime electricity. The normal gas tank gives you extra range when you need it, and since the combustion engine can burn either clean-H2 or gas, there's no need for expensive fuel cells, batteries, or electric motors. If it could be produced affordably, and the H2 cost-per-mile beat gasoline (I've heard raw electricity cost-equivalents of around $0.50/gallon for plug-in cars, but there would be some additional energy efficiency losses with the H2 make-and-burn), you'd have a real winner.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

NY Times covers the Houston boom

The NY Times has had two articles in rapid succession on the boom in Houston. The first one is specifically on the oil boom (thanks to Anthony and Tom for the link), and the second is on one spillover of the boom: a hot property market in Galveston, which they refer to as the "Hamptons of Texas." (also thanks to Tom for the link) On to excerpts:
HOUSTON — The good times are back.

Galvanized by the record profits at energy companies, this city, the center of the country’s energy industry, has shaken off the effects of the Enron implosion six years ago and is enjoying its strongest resurgence in more than 20 years, business officials and real estate developers say.

Some energy companies are expanding and putting up new buildings. Others, like Citgo, Schlumberger and Halliburton, have moved their headquarters to Houston. Oil and natural gas companies have helped reduce office vacancy rates to 15 percent, a five-year low, according to Grubb & Ellis, a real estate company. Job growth is double the national average — 97,400 jobs were created in 2006. The National Association of Realtors says the housing market in Houston is one of the strongest in the country.

“The increase in the oil business has made Houston,” said Randall Davis, a Houston condominium developer. “It feels a touch like the 1980s — everyone is out, the restaurants are full, the bars are full. It’s like New York.”

The good news extends across the city. The port recently opened a $1.4 billion container terminal to tackle soaring traffic. In 2006, it handled 1.6 million 20-foot containers, up 29 percent from 2003. At the Texas Medical Center, hospitals and universities are investing billions in new facilities. Residential and mixed-use developments are going up downtown.


Over the last five years, sale prices for office buildings in Houston have climbed by 34 percent, to an average of $129 a square foot in 2006, according to Real Capital Analytics, a national research and consulting firm. Compared with other large cities nationwide, like Chicago and San Francisco, where prices average $191 and $338 a square foot, respectively, Houston is still a relative bargain.

...lowered the availability rate for Class A space downtown. In the fourth quarter, the rate dropped six percentage points, to 12 percent... Brookfield is banking that Houston will grow even more. It is considering putting up a new office tower downtown, Mr. Clark said, but is holding off until the availability rate for Class A office space drops below 10 percent. He said he expected it to reach that point within a year.

Speculative office buildings are also going up in places like the Galleria and downtown, which have less available space. Work on Houston Pavilions, a $170 million complex with retail space, restaurants and music clubs as well as a 13-story office tower, began downtown in February.

It's nice to see construction cranes over more than just stadiums and the med center for a change. Moving on to the Galveston article:
...East Beach, a lonely strip at the far eastern end of the island. A small trailer with a sign out front was advertising Beachtown, a New Urbanist community of pastel-colored shorefront homes. The sales team inside told them that eventually up to 2,000 shore area homes would be built around three town squares with shops, parks and a lagoon. Andrés Duany, a leading architect in the New Urbanism movement, had designed the project. The Wisemans liked what they saw.

Many fellow Texans feel the same way about Galveston. Houston residents, eager for a second home and flush with cash from the oil boom, have made Galveston Island an emerging Lone Star equivalent of the Hamptons.


Only 51 miles southeast of Houston, Galveston still has plenty of vacant land, low home prices and miles of wide-open beaches. Over the last four years, the average price of a home has risen 89 percent, to $232,800 in January, according to the Galveston Association of Realtors. Prices for water-view lots are now more than double what the Wisemans paid. A single water-view lot at Beachtown costs $300,000, though other lots without views could be as low as $80,000.

“The world has discovered the Gulf Coast,” said James Gaines, research economist at the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University. “You want a second home on the East Coast at an affordable price, and you’re not going to find anything. Here, it’s still available and affordable.”

The turnaround has been significant in a town that as recently as 10 years ago didn’t have enough money to repave roads and install new water lines. Large-scale development had not happened since a hurricane destroyed much of the city in 1900, killing more than 6,000 people.

“Galveston is experiencing a renaissance it hasn’t seen in 100 years,” said Jeffrey G. Sjostrom, president of the Galveston Economic Development Partnership. “The beauty of the development is that it’s comprehensive and diversified. Our eggs are being spread across many baskets.”

The development seems to fly in the face of Galveston’s geography. As a barrier island, the city can flood during tropical storms. Sometimes, its beaches erode. In September 2005, the city was evacuated when Hurricane Rita threatened the island. But home buyers keep coming because a large-scale hurricane has not damaged the island in more than 20 years.

Developers are putting up condominium towers, resorts and acres of homes from one end of the 32-mile-long island to the other. More than 6,500 residential units are under construction; most of them are condos, according to the development partnership. At the western end of the island, Centex Homes is building one of the largest projects, a 1,000-acre development with 2,300 houses and condos.

More than $2.3 billion in commercial, public and residential projects are under way or planned. A new causeway linking the island to the mainland and one of the country’s two laboratories to research emerging diseases are under construction. In the last three years, a new city convention center opened, and Moody Gardens, a complex of museums, water parks and botanical gardens, added a 125-room hotel wing and expanded its exhibition space.

The Port of Galveston calls itself the busiest in the gulf for cruise-ship traffic, thanks to a steady pace of renovations and expansions. After Carnival Cruise Lines decided to use Galveston as a home base for one of its ships, the Celebration, traffic there shot up, said Steven M. Cernak, the port’s director. Last year, the port handled 616,198 disembarking passengers, up from 1,365 in 1999.

“What we’re able to offer the five million people one hour away is not necessarily emerald seas and salty sands, but convenience,” said Richard Anderson, the Falcon Group’s vice president for development. “You can pack the car with your kids or grandkids and be on the beach in an hour.”

The article also has details on some of the condo and home construction projects. The island is definitely booming. I've been wondering for years when it would happen, and it finally has. What they didn't mention is one other key asset it has to lure retiring baby boomers: top-quality health care with UTMB's teaching hospital. I've been trying to convince my parents to invest in real estate down there, but they're worried some sort of weather-related event might happen and wipe out their investment. Sheesh. Wimps. What are the odds that could happen?... ;-) (And how do those odds compare to the risk of another oil crash?...)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Uline, Google Transit, #1 growth, IAH, big homes, and Hot Town premiere

It's definitely time to clear out the rapidly accumulating list of small miscellaneous items:
  • Christof has some good new posts on the Universities light rail line options in Neartown and having a one-seat ride from Downtown to Uptown.
  • Speaking of transit, the NY Times had an interesting story on the Google employee shuttle in the SF Bay area - so large it rivals the transit systems of a lot of cities! It's a much-loved amenity by the employees, who can be productive (or not) with their laptops and wireless internet while they ride. I think it's a big real-world endorsement for the mobility solution I've proposed for Houston, we just need collections of employers at job centers (like Westchase, Uptown, Greenway, TMC, etc.) to step up rather than a single employer like Google.
  • The Greater Houston Partnership announced this week that not only did we add more jobs in 2006 (99,100) than any other U.S. metro, we also added 187,380 residents (Census estimates July 2005 to July 2006) to 5.54 million, moving us just ahead of Miami (5.46m) as the sixth-largest metro in the country (behind NYC, LA, Chicago, DFW, and Philly). There's a good chance we'll pass Philly (5.8m) by the 2010 census. Some more details from the Partnership:
Since 2000, the Houston MSA has gained 824,547 residents — a number greater than the total populations of five states and the District of Columbia. The Houston MSA now has more residents than 30 states and the District.

Houston’s growth clearly reflects the influx of residents from southern Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in late August 2005. Over the previous five years, Houston’s annual gains attributable to migration within the United States averaged just 11,200. In this most recent 12 months, net domestic migration soared to nearly 87,000. In Harris County alone, net domestic migration was positive for the first time in many years, reaching nearly 40,000 after net losses averaging nearly 24,000 annually since 2000.

Net international migration, which averaged nearly 42,000 per year over the previous five years, slipped to 39,000 last year. Since the 2000 census, international migration has accounted for 32 percent of change in total population, while domestic migration has contributed 25 percent. The remaining 43 percent is the excess of resident births over resident deaths.

Harris County, which grew 3.3 percent over the most recent year, accounted for 66 percent of population growth in the metropolitan area, but three suburban counties grew faster: Fort Bend, up 5.8 percent; Montgomery, up 5.1 percent; and Brazoria, up 3.6 percent. Among the 247 U.S. counties with populations exceeding 250,000, Fort Bend and Montgomery respectively had the sixth and ninth highest growth rates between 2000 and 2006. Both grew more than twice the 17.5 percent grown of the entire MSA.
  • The Census Bureau also announced that Harris County is #2 in the nation for population growth from 2000 to 2006, with 486K (to 3.9m), behind Maricopa County (Phoenix) with 696K (to 3.8m) - and they're likely to pass us soon for the title of third-largest county in the nation. That's just what happens when you have 9,224 sq.miles of land (!) to grow in vs. 1,778 for us.
  • 2006 airport numbers are out, and thanks to strong economic and population growth, IAH turned in very strong 7.4% growth to 42.6 million passengers. Asian airports are moving up quickly, so our ranking isn't moving much (16th in the world), but we are 7th in the U.S., behind Atlanta, Chicago, LA, DFW, Denver, and Vegas.
  • Zillow released a list of the top 50 streets in America for average house size, and Lazy Lane in River Oaks came in third at 14,525 feet, behind streets in Beverly Hills and Vegas. Don't worry for the owners - I'm sure they have conveniently-located "You are Here" maps and Segways for every visitor...
  • The final cut of the wonderful documentary on Houston, "Hot Town, Cool City" is premiering March 30 thru April 1 at the Museum of Fine Arts. I saw the rough cut last summer, and it'll make you proud to be a Houstonian. A short Google video preview is available here. Buy your tickets before they run out!
Have a great weekend.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Houston #1 for growth, software pay; top 10 for green tech

Thanks to a forward from Hugh and Wendell, I came across these interesting stats on Houston's spectacular growth lately. This one, on overall residential build rates in 2006, has Houston at number one in the nation with 71,257 residential building permits in the MSA in 2006, ahead of Atlanta (68K), DFW (56K), NYC (61K), Chicago (46K), Phoenix (43K), LA (33K), and SF (13K). NYC and LA are especially weak given their enormous size. We also top the list when measuring single-unit building permits, with 55K. We're not #1 on a percentage growth basis (vs. absolute numbers), but we're in the top 7 on both lists. There's also another table that talks about percentages of single-unit permits vs. totals, where we seem to have a nice balance at 77%.

Another interesting ranking I was recently forwarded (thanks Jack), has Houston as the #4 city in the country for software developer pay ($89K), #1 on a cost-of-living adjusted basis ($103K purchasing power). As you would expect, SF Bay is tops for raw salaries, but they fall from the top 10 to the bottom 10 once cost-of-living is taken into account. Texas does incredibly well on the CoL adjusted list, with all of the top 5 and 6 of the top 7 (only Charlotte NC sneaks in there). Don't underestimate the power of low cost-of-living with a strong and relatively high-paying job base.

Adjusted Salary

Top 10

Bottom 10
1 Houston $102,908
1 Honolulu $38,766
2 Austin $ 93,844
2 San Francisco $44,937
3 Fort Worth $ 91,614
3 San Diego $48,181
4 Arlington $ 91,614
4 New York $50,492
5 El Paso $ 85,741
5 Oakland $51,428
6 Charlotte $ 85,477
6 Miami $51,629
7 Dallas $ 84,489
7 San Jose $51,693
8 Jacksonville $ 81,928
8 Los Angeles $53,948
9 Colorado Springs $ 81,850
9 Long Beach $53,948
10 Atlanta $ 80,565
10 Virginia Beach $55,980

El Paso over Dallas? Who would have guessed?

Finally, a ranking you definitely wouldn't expect: Houston in the top 10 cities for green technology innovation. Yes, we're just a "runner up" to the top 5 of Austin (#1), Boston, and CA, but it's still not bad to be in the same group with SF, San Diego, and Seattle. I'm not usually a fan of SustainLane's rankings, but it's nice to see Houston taking its role as "energy capital" seriously when it comes to alternative energy as well as oil and gas. Richard Florida blogs on the ranking, including a couple Houston-specific comments:

Houston is probably the most interesting given the general attitude that many americans have towards the energy and energy services industry... nice to see that the industry and its eco-system are branching into the future.

Nicely said, David. Houston scored in the top 10 on the initial creativity index, before better measures of racial-ethnic segregation were added. It still does quite well among large metros (over 1 million population). It also has a massive concentration of high-tech, especially in the software industry related to the energy and resource sector. The SustainGovernment report has some detail on clean technology innovation going on there.

Not sure how "racial-ethnic segregation" changes "creativity" (sounds fishy to me), but it's nice to see some kind words for Houston in the creative class discussion for a change.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Architects vs. Economists

I've been doing some more thinking on the comprehensive urban planning debate, and I might have some insight into the two opposing perspectives, which I would characterize as architects vs. economists.

Let's start with economists. One of the major lessons of the 20th century is that economies are too complex to be effectively planned - as the gigantic failures of communism and socialism in Asia and Eastern Europe showed. Free markets are clearly the way to go. Economies can be "guided" somewhat, yes, but comprehensively planned? No.

At the other extreme, we have architects and their buildings. In this realm, clearly, planning is everything. Putting a bunch of construction materials and people on a site and letting the "free market" construct a building without a plan or coordination is clearly not going to work very well.

In between those two extremes, we have a big set of grey areas: economies -> regions -> metros -> cities -> neighborhoods -> streetscapes -> buildings. Free market economics is generally the best model for the left side, and architectural/urban planning for the right, but what about the middle?

Clearly planning can work at a level higher than a building. Think of the core Mall area of Washington DC, or master-planned developments like The Woodlands. The Woodlands may be pushing the practical limits of planning, though. Even with all their accolades, it looks like they left out a lot of stuff people want, because there is an incredible amount of commercial development just outside their boundry along I45.

Houston is a *big* city, and comprehensively planning it is probably a problem on the same scale as planning the economy of Cuba - and notice how well that's worked out for Fidel and the Cubans. Planning is more appropriate at the neighborhood and streetscape levels (like with TIRZ districts, area plans, and deed restrictions).

One problem seems to be that the loudest voice at the city level is biased towards architects and planners, who are very involved in urban affairs (it's their context and lifeblood, respectively), vs. economists, who can pretty easily ignore cities while being very successful in their field (the most famous "urban economist" being Jane Jacobs, who wasn't even professionally trained in economics).

Planners are basically architects on a larger scale, but one big difference is that architects have a building budget, while all planners can do is say "build this, or don't build at all" - essentially a giant obstacle course to builders and their plans, filtering out the ones that don't fit the vision. What does get built looks pretty nice, but it's the proverbial "visible tip of the iceberg" compared to everything that didn't get built or all the needs of consumers, land owners, and citizens that are not being met by "the plan."

At the end of the day, planning is unlikely to achieve what most of its supporters want. The opposite in fact. In almost all other cities, the planners specify density in some areas and not in others. The low-density "neighborhood protection" sails through, but activist NIMBYs use the mandatory public processes and reviews to shoot down most of the higher-density designations and projects - leaving a city with less density, less development, fewer pedestrian and mixed use areas, and less vibrancy. Portland is one of the few cities that has been able to use an all-powerful regional government entity (Metro) to ignore the NIMBYs and force the density through, but now even they are facing a voter backlash. What are the odds any Houston planning effort will get powers anywhere close to Portland's Metro? Pretty much zip, which means Houston would get stuck in the same position as just about every other city in the country that has adopted planning/zoning: low-density, low-development stagnation. No thanks. In the spirit of Jane Jacobs, I'll take a little "messy vibrancy" over that anytime.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Bruegmann on developers' attitudes towards land-use regulations

Recently I received one of those forwarded emails with a long, embedded conversation thread, and one email below from Professor Robert Bruegmann of "Sprawl - A Compact History" fame caught my eye. After securing his permission, I'm passing it along today. I think it's very insightful on the topic of big vs. small developers and their attitudes towards land-use regulations. One of the reasons I often hear for comprehensive urban planning is that "developers want more predictability," yet few local developers seem to support it. I believe this email gets to the essential difference between supporting and opposing developers, and the last paragraph is a particularly pointed zinger:
I hadn't heard about "Regulatory Capture" mentioned by BD but it does seem to be a good phrase to explain an interesting split in the real estate and development community. Many of the major players in the real estate game, in the US represented by large development industry organizations, might have been expected to fight the proliferation of land use regulations, particularly growth management schemes, that have driven up land prices so dramatically in recent years. But instead they have jumped on the "Smart Growth" bandwagon in a big way.

At first glance this seems hard to understand. But really it's exactly as BD says: because members of major development industry organizations tend to work on really big projects, often at the high end of the market and they have lawyers and political clout, they are less affected by the regulatory hurdles than the smaller operators. The most important result for them is the effect that this massive set of regulations has in effectively raising the bar to entry into the development field (Tory: i.e. less competition).

One of the things that doesn't seem to be much remarked on is the class distinction involved here. The heads of most large development organizations share a set of distinctly upper middle class aesthetic and other biases with many land use "reformers." It is easy for them to imagine the good city as having a vibrant and upscale core, a pristine, gentrified countryside in easy driving distance, and all of the less attractive aspects of urban living - notably families of modest means - accommodated out of sight on as little land as possible."

Robert Bruegmann
Professor of Art History, Architecture, Urban Planning
University of Illinois at Chicago

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

5 myths about suburbia and our car culture

I'm a little crunched for time tonight, so a quick pass along from Reason. This overview is inadequate, and I wanted to do some more excerpts, but they would have added up to most of the article, so just read the whole thing (permalink). And don't miss the link at the bottom too.

Myths About Suburbia and Car Culture
In a column for the The Washington Post, excerpted from their new book The Road More Traveled, Reason's Ted Balaker and Sam Staley examine many of the myths about our love for cars and the evil suburbs, including:

We're Paving Over America
"How much of the United States is developed? Twenty-five percent? Fifty? Seventy-five? How about 5.4 percent? That's the Census Bureau's figure. And even much of that is not exactly crowded: The bureau says that an area is 'developed' when it has 30 or more people per square mile. But most people do live in developed areas, so it's easy to get the impression that humans have trampled nature."

Europe Relies on Mass Transit
"Some claim that Europeans have developed an enlightened alternative. Americans return from London and Paris and tell their friends that everyone gets around by transit. But tourists tend to confine themselves to the central cities. Europeans may enjoy top-notch transit and endure gasoline that costs $5 per gallon, but in fact they don't drive much less than we do. In the United States, automobiles account for about 88 percent of travel. In Europe, the figure is about 78 percent. And Europeans are gaining on us."

More Cars Equal More Pollution
"Since 1970, driving -- total vehicle miles traveled -- has increased 155 percent, and yet the EPA reports a dramatic decrease in every major pollutant it measures. Although driving is increasing by 1 to 3 percent each year, average vehicle emissions are dropping about 10 percent annually. Pollution will wane even more as motorists continue to replace older, dirtier cars with newer, cleaner models."

The 5 myths debunked:
1. Americans are addicted to driving.
2. Public transit can reduce traffic congestion.
3. We can cut air pollution only if we stop driving.
4. We're paving over America.
5. We can't deal with global warming unless we stop driving.

You can find the full column here.

"Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion." - Mary E. Peters, U.S. Secretary of Transportation

"The Road More Traveled clearly outlines the transportation infrastructure problems facing our country and examines several innovative funding solutions. This book will change the way Americans view our highways and interstates and show them how we can build better roads at less expense for the next generation." - U.S. Senator Jim DeMint, South Carolina

In The Road More Traveled: Why the Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think and What We Can Do About It, Staley and Balaker debunk several other myths and offer 10 solutions that nearly every city and state can take to reduce traffic significantly. For more on the book and traffic solutions, please click here.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Dubai replacing Houston as the world's energy capital?

Halliburton's statement that they're moving their "headquarters" (really just the CEO) to Dubai seems to have sparked some concerns about Houston's role as the global headquarters for energy. If you haven't caught the stories, here's one from the NY Times, the Chronicle's, and a Chronicle profile of Dubai. Almost all other employees will be staying in Houston, including the COO and CFO. From the NY Times:

On the face of it, the decision to move Mr. Lesar abroad appeared to have less to do with unwelcome headlines than with shifting epicenters for big energy construction projects and exploration from mature fields in North America toward the Middle East and Africa. The move especially underscores the arrival of Dubai as a center for energy deal-making and commerce, a role once solidly filled by Houston.

“My office will be in Dubai, and I will run our entire worldwide operations from that office,” Mr. Lesar, who holds the titles of chairman, chief executive and president, said at the conference in Manama, Bahrain. “The eastern hemisphere is a market that is more heavily weighted toward oil exploration and production opportunities. Growing our business here will bring more balance to Halliburton’s overall portfolio.”

Halliburton is incorporated in Delaware and its stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Mr. Lesar did say that the company was exploring the possibility of listing its shares on markets in the Middle East.

Mayor Bill White of Houston learned of Halliburton’s move only shortly before the company’s announcement this morning, said Frank Michel, the mayor’s communications director. He said he knew of no negotiations to keep Halliburton’s headquarters in Houston.

“It is such an international business; the most senior guys are always on the airplanes,” Mr. Michel said. “Having a corporate group located in the city is different than it used to be.” He noted that Schlumberger had offices in both Houston and Paris.

He said the mayor did not expect Halliburton move to “have a big impact on employment here.”

From the Chronicle:

Halliburton, however, will still maintain a corporate office in Houston, company spokeswoman Melissa Norcross said. And several top executives, including the company's chief operating officer and chief financial officer, will remain here.

When asked if there would be layoffs among the firm's roughly 4,000 Houston employees, Norcross said, "absolutely not."


Pickering cautioned from viewing the opening of the Dubai office as a first step in moving the entire company out of the United States. That would be a large distraction and wouldn't make sense, given that more than 50 percent of the company's business still comes from North America, he said.


Political concerns aside, Dubai represents a convenient location for an oil services company trying to win business from the national oil companies in the Middle East.

"When you look into the future, it's really going to be these (national oil companies) that are going to control the future production," noted Amy Myers Jaffe, a fellow for energy studies at Rice University's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. "Who do the oil service companies work for? They are working for the companies that are producing the oil and gas."

Then the hand-wringing begins:
Texas is the can-do state. But there's no denying that Dubai has become the can-do sheikdom and a potent rival to Houston's supremacy as the center of the oil business.

The move of Halliburton's corporate base from Houston to Dubai is a stark example of the industry's shift in power from North America. The company is moving closer to the oil fields of the Middle East and Africa, and its big national oil firms that control financing, exploration and production.

"The business is changing,'' said Amy Myers Jaffe, a fellow for energy studies at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. "Will Houston remain the center of the energy business? I don't know.''
Time to take a deep breath folks. This is pretty clearly a business development PR stunt: give the sheiks a proud accomplishment of landing a "corporate headquarters", and get a whole lot more business thrown your way as a services company. The thin veneer of the stunt can be seen in the fact that pretty much only the CEO is "moving", and it sounds like he will still spend plenty of time in the U.S. His top executive team (the COO and CFO) are staying here.

Remember that energy is a talent-constrained industry right now, especially when it comes to the more advanced approaches (like deepwater and alternatives). There will be no wholesale moving of jobs from here to abroad - the talent doesn't exist over there, and most of it here is not going to be willing to move. One interesting analogy in technology is the rise of Bangalore in India vs. Silicon Valley here, but they have developed a very synergistic relationship - far from replacing the Valley as a tech and innovation capital. And this is nowhere near that level.

Dubai will be an energy hub, just like London, Paris, and The Netherlands - but it will not be "replacing" Houston as "Energy Capital". There are still vast reserves of energy in North America to be tapped: Mexico, Canadian tar sands, Rocky Mountain oil shale, and both shallow and deep water, not to mention alternative energy sources like ethanol, wind, and solar (WSJ had a recent article on Houston and alternative energy which I hope to post on soon). Houston has the talent and the technology concentration to manage large-scale energy projects here and abroad - and that won't change for the forseeable future.

If you're an "insider" in the energy industry, I'd be happy to hear your perspective in the comments.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Prospects for Texas commuter and inter-city rail

Today is a bit rushed, so I'd like to pass-along an email dialogue I had with reader David Gratvol (with his permission) on prospects for rail to Galveston, College Station, and in the Texas Triangle. Before we get to that though, I'd like to take a short moment to recognize and celebrate Houston Strategies' two-year anniversary. I've learned a ton, both from having to cohere my scattered thoughts into written form as well as from your insightful comments. I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have, and I'm looking forward to the next two years (and beyond). As always, thanks for your readership.

On to the dialogue:

> Dear Mr. Gattis
> I have been a steady reader of your blog for the past
> year and I wanted to tell you that I find it quite
> enjoyable and informative. Your suggestions and advice
> on how to improve our city while still keeping level a
> headed view of what is realistic and what is simply
> "pie in the sky" ideas are refreshing and encouraging.
> Though one of the issues that I wish to ask you about
> is your view on commuter rail. While you have stated
> your dislike quite clearly you seem to have made an
> exception for a Galveston line which I found
> intriguing. As a college student spending the past
> year and a half between Houston and New York it is
> clear why a commuter rail is a success in New York and
> cannot be in Houston. That is New York has weak road
> system for its population resulting in long and
> complicated routes from the suburbs to the city as
> well as a chronic lack of affordable parking. Houston
> is blessed to have the exact opposite (maybe too
> blessed).
> That being said a Galveston line would not primarily
> be for daily commuters to Houston or Galveston but it
> would act more like an intercity rail line. That begs
> the question weather other commuter lines could also
> be good for Houston if the focus was more to make them
> frequent (and maybe high speed) intercity lines. The
> one that comes to mind is the 290 idea that would run
> a line from downtown Houston to College Station.
> Naturally all the logistics and cost would need to
> tolerable.
> With all that said I wanted to know your opinion on
> this and the possibility of other intercity lines such
> as the infamous Texas Triangle and the new Texas T
> bone. Maybe on a slow day you could write a blog on
> the subject. Anyways thank you for taking your time to
> read this and I would be grateful to any feedback.
> Sincerely
> David Gratvol

Thank you for your very kind compliments. Here are the reasons a Galveston line can make sense:

1) local transit at both ends to get you to your final destination
2) highly populated corridor
3) regular congestion on the existing freeway
4) tourism potential in addition to commuters (better overall utilization
for the capital cost)
5) existing tracks that make the cost much more reasonable

Unfortunately, College Station would lack 4 of these 5 (I think the tracks
exist, but I don't know their freight utilization). It really even lacks
commuters. The Galveston line has a major job center at Clear Lake in
addition to downtown and Galveston, so people could live near any of those 3 and commute to another one. There are limited job centers along a line to College Station, and essentially no daily commuters between the two. Because of that, I think Greyhound service is probably adequate between Houston and CS.

As far as broader inter-city rail in Texas, I'm very skeptical of the costs
vs. the benefits, especially because most of the cities in Texas don't have
very robust local transit. It works in the DC-Boston corridor because it's
not hard to get the last few miles to your final destination on local lines,
but that's not true in Texas. If a person's going to have to rent a car or
use a taxi anyway, they really might as well take a cheap and fast flight on
Southwest (or take a Greyhound bus, or just drive themselves). California
is actively looking at intercity high speed rail, and they have a much
higher population and more density than Texas, along with more local
transit, better pedestrian weather, and much more congested freeways and airports. My thinking is wait and see if California successfully pulls it
off first. If so, then maybe Texas should start taking a look.


> Dear Mr Gattis
> Thank you for responding to me so quickly. I would
> just like to add a few more points before bringing
> this question to a close.
> Your five points on what is needed for a viable
> commuter rail are accurate, but the reason I suggested
> that a Houston- College Station rail is not because it
> fits the classic definition of what is needed for a
> commuter rail. the other Metro proposal one towards
> the south west fits that one but falls because of your
> points.
> The reason I suggested it was because of what is in
> College Station. Namely Texas A & M University.
> so point 1 about poor local transportation is mute if
> the station ends on the campus itself.
> Its also quite possible that the University itself
> would be willing to subsidize the construction and/or
> the fare cost for its students (Rice University
> provides free year light rail passes for all its
> students)
> Also Princeton has a small rail line off the NJ
> transit rail that goes straight to the campus.
> To say that A & M would not do something similar is
> not out of the realm of possibility
> Granted the idea would need to be explored, but I
> think it justifies a full ridership analysis to see if
> it would be justifiable. Keep in mind it would have
> other stops so like Jersey Village and Hempstad so
> others would use it to go to Downtown.
> As for the point about intercity rail I have to agree.
> California and the Midwest (around Chicago) have more
> demand for high speed rail. Though I dont quite agree
> that we should wait until California has rail to move
> forward. As you know these things take years (if not
> decades) it could take 15 years for those areas to
> have an effective system, if not longer. To start
> after them would mean Texas high speed rail in 30
> years. Rather it might be a good idea to say 3-5 years
> behind California , but still move the process along.
> We do not want to start a system that is ineffective,
> but on the other hand it would be worse to start one
> when we badly need it. As for your concern about poor
> local transit. With the Light rail in Houston and Dart
> growth in Dallas and even Austin's moves in 20 years
> when it would arrive we will have good local transit.
> Also the point about a quick flight on South West. The
> point would be that the rail could get you from
> downtown to downtown faster than SW could.
> Sincerely
> David Gratvol


I'm just not sure TAMU would generate enough riders to justify a line that long (90+ miles). Princeton does have rail to NYC (50m away), but it also surrounded by suburbs with employees that commute to Manhattan - not the case in College Station. I'm all for better ties between Houston and TAMU though. Maybe there needs to be very nice bus (more upscale than Greyhound - nice seats, tray tables and power for laptops, wireless Internet), that does the route on an express basis (few stops) on a pretty regular schedule. Something that gets a bit of marketing/branding so people know about it and use it. "Aggie Express"?

I agree high speed rail might get you downtown to downtown faster than SWA. But only a tiny percentage of Houston and Dallas jobs are in their downtowns (less than 7% in Houston's case, worse in Dallas). DFW in particular has them spread all over the place. And it would cost tens of billions to move maybe 2-3 thousand people/day, saving them maybe half an hour or so vs. flying. Houston's LRT, for example, cost about $300m for 7.5 miles to move more than 40,000 people a day, and even that's on the edge financially and subsidized (tickets don't cover costs, as opposed to aviation).


Your thoughts welcome in the comments. David also gave me permission to share his email, if you'd like to contact him. In a format to thwart spam-bots, it's gravtol (at)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Congestion-based parking?

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article recently on "The Parking Fix" (seven-day free link, subscriber permalink), including a concept I hadn't seen before: congestion-based parking, i.e. parking rates change dynamically with demand to keep up turnover and insure spaces are available. Excerpts:

As anyone who has ever circled the block for a marginally better spot knows, parking is an American obsession. It occasionally boils over into rage, or worse. Since the parking meter was first introduced 70 years ago, in Oklahoma City, the field has been dominated by two simple maxims: Cities can never have too much parking, and it can never be cheap enough.

Now a small but vocal band of economists, city planners and entrepreneurs is shaking that up, promoting ideas like free-market pricing at meters and letting developers, rather than the cities, dictate the supply of off-street parking. Seattle is doing away with free street parking in a neighborhood just north of downtown. London has meters that go as high as $10 an hour, while San Francisco has been trying out a system that monitors usage in real time, allowing the city to price spots to match demand. (A recent tally there showed that one meter near AT&T Park brings in around $4,500 a year, while another meter about a mile away takes in less than $10.)...

Economists have long made the case that the solution to the parking crunch many cities face lies not in more free or cheap parking but in higher prices. The idea is that higher prices result in a greater churn -- and get more people on buses and subways -- which leads to more open spaces. But this notion has often run up against city planners and retailers arguing that cheap and plentiful parking results in more commerce and, thus, higher sales taxes and a vibrant economy.
Mr. Shoup has popularized what might be called the "85% rule": Cities, he says, should charge whatever rates lead to about 85% of the spots being filled up at any given time, moving rates up or down as demand fluctuates.
The new market-based approach to parking isn't being rolled out everywhere. Many towns and cities still have lower-density development, and parking in those places is likely to remain free until there's a shortage. Also, the most dramatic parking changes are largely confined to commercial areas -- in residential neighborhoods, parking continues to be mostly free and unrestricted.

But the idea has plenty of detractors, starting with those who say the price increases fall disproportionately on people for whom they are a hardship. Also, many market-based plans eliminate minimum parking requirements for developers, which critics say gives developers a profit boost and creates a parking crunch down the line. And, some merchants remain convinced that free or subsidized parking is a necessary ingredient to a thriving shopping district. And, of course, people at any income level rarely welcome paying for something they're used to getting for nothing.
San Francisco, perhaps more than any other city, shows how radically some cities are rethinking their parking. The city is one of the toughest places to find a meter spot in all of America, and there have been a spate of attacks by angry drivers, against parking enforcement officers. One block near the popular Fisherman's Wharf has average stays of four hours -- even though there's a two-hour time limit -- and some spots are filled for days at a time.

Recently, the city hired a company to lay hundreds of 4-inch-by-4-inch sensors along the streets in some areas. The sensors, which resemble reflectors, have recorded some 250,000 "parking events" across 200 parking spots. City planners can now tell you which spots are occupied the longest and how traffic flow affects parking supplies.

If the sensors get a wider rollout, the city has floated a number of ideas. When there's a Giants baseball game at AT&T Park, the city could temporarily charge about the same as private lots near the stadium. The ground sensors are also connected to the Internet wirelessly, which creates the possibility that parking enforcement officers equipped with PDAs could get real-time information on parking violations beamed to them. It also means consumers could get information on which parking spots are open.

About a month ago, the city also installed new kiosks that take credit cards as well as quarters, and boosted prices from a flat rate of $2 per hour to a four-hour rolling rate that starts at $3 and rises to $5, for a total of $15 for four hours. That's more than the day rate at many privately owned parking garages in the area. "We're pricing to match demand," says Tod Dykstra, chief executive of Streetline Networks, which installed the sensors.

I think one of the unappreciated features of Houston is the abundant free parking. I know it's not always attractive looking, but from my limited experiences in Boston, NYC, DC, Chicago, and San Francisco, it really sucks to have to contemplate before every car trip:
  • Will I be able to find parking anywhere near my destination?
  • After how much searching and at what cost?
  • And will I be able to find street parking anywhere near my home when I return?
  • Is this trip really important enough to give up my primo street space near home? Maybe I should just order-in and watch a DVD?...
I have to say, parking hassles are definitely a drag on my definition of "quality of life."

Update: after reading some comments, just to be clear, I think congestion-priced parking is a great idea, I'm just glad Houston doesn't have the same parking hassles as a lot of cities.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Density and mixed-use in Houston

I generally assume most of my readers also read the Chronicle, so I don't usually spend a lot of time pointing out things you probably already saw. But today there are three good articles on Houston's urban development landscape: on density increases inside the Loop, increasing numbers of high-density mixed-use projects, and the difficulties putting together those types of projects, with some good discussion of the various factors that must be considered. The table doesn't seem to be online, but the paper had a table showing that inside the loop (97 sq.miles) has grown from 433,000 people in 2000 to 525,000 today, and may reach almost 700,000 by 2035, an increase in size and density of 60% from 2000.

While this increased density is increasing the local traffic, it's still better to have it going short distances on the local street grid than long-distance from the suburbs on the freeways. And I think it is a key part of Houston's core revitalization. Not just the new housing, but all those people are supporting all sorts of great new and enhanced amenities in the core with their discretionary income: restaurants, theaters, stores, etc. I drive in the core all the time, and the traffic is noticeable, but the grid seems to handle it pretty well most of the time.

It's also heartening to see the mixed-use thing finally starting to take off in Houston, even without the "safety" and "guidance" of comprehensive planning. A few key excerpts caught my eye:
The impending wave of mixed-use construction reflects the willingness of developers to take risks based on the city's current prosperity and projections that the Houston area's population will grow by 3.5 million in less than 30 years, said Kent Dussair, president of CDS Market Research, a Houston-based consulting firm.

Cities such as Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix and Austin are already in various stages of building urban-style projects, while Houston, "with the strongest economy of the bunch," is playing catch-up, he noted.
I think this is at least partially because of our townhome boom, which zoning prevents in most of those other cities. I imagine most of the buyers in those cities would prefer a townhome on their own land if it were available, but since it's not, they settle for a condo in a mixed-use project. In terms of total units being built in their cores, I'd line up Houston against any of them.

Building multi-use projects can prove so costly that some won't take the risk.

Trammell Crow Co. and Morgan Group changed their plans to build an integrated mixed-use project on 24 acres near the corner of Richmond and Weslayan because they didn't think it would work.

"The numbers just got too big, the cost too high and the yield too low," said Michael Morgan, CEO and co-chairman of the Houston-based Morgan Group.

After touring the country studying other mixed-use projects, "we discovered the ones that were economically successful were the ones that had government help," Morgan said. The group has instead opted to build an apartment complex next to what will likely be a big-box retailer.

Ouch! That's a bit scary to read. I have read that many of the developments in Portland have required government subsidies. But it looks like Houston may get quite a few without subsidies. The market will respond with a product people want to buy as long as the planners and regulators allow it.
However, there is a danger of overbuilding in Houston, because it's so easy to enter the market, he said: "You don't know who your competition is going to be, whereas in older cities, it's a long, drawn-out process to get a building permit."
Sounds great to me: Houston citizens get plenty of options at low prices. Ironically, more planned and regulated cities like Atlanta, Miami, and Las Vegas are the ones facing a glut of overbuilt condos right now - not Houston.

City officials say parking, setback and other development rules could change in response to two planning efforts that began last year.

Van Meter consulted on the city's urban transit corridors initiative, which is developing strategies to promote mixed-use projects and other forms of urban development along the path of the Main Street light rail line and five other rail or bus rapid transit lines, mostly inside Loop 610.

Meanwhile, a committee of the City Planning Commission is examining mixed-use and transit-oriented development policies that might be effective in Houston. Both efforts should lead to recommendations to Mayor Bill White and the City Council by this summer, said Marlene Gafrick, the city planning director.

Since Houston doesn't have a zoning ordinance, the recommendations will involve a combination of rules and incentives to produce the desired result, Gafrick said.
Looking forward to what they recommend...

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Peter Brown taking on Mayor White?

Yesterday I attended the Blueprint/Livable Houston lunchtime event at the Upper Kirby District Center. It was packed - I'd say well over a hundred people. I'd characterize it as a regroup-and-rally for the pro-planning forces after the disappointment last year. To summarize, last summer Councilmember Peter Brown got the City Council to approve a measure directing the Planning Commission to come up with a "plan to plan" - a timeline and budget to create a comprehensive general plan for Houston. They came back at the end of December, and instead decided to focus on the top priorities of mobility and drainage, to much disappointment by the pro-planning forces. My understanding is that the mayor influenced the Planning Commission in this more targeted direction, but I have no specific inside knowledge.

Peter Brown attended and was pretty feisty and fired-up. He guaranteed comprehensive urban planning in Houston before the end of his tenure, and noted that he just needs to corral eight votes on the council, with or without the support of the mayor. Pretty bold and gutsy statement. The new strategy seems to be incrementalism: get the council to approve comprehensive general planning in measured stages or phases, starting with approval of vision and values. This is always the easy part for getting consensus. Motherhood and apple pie all the way. Describe a utopian city, and you've pretty much got it. Of course, the hard part is phase 3: legislation, regulations, and ordinances that lead to utopia.

One problem is that the vision and values don't provide the best guidance, because they can easily conflict with one another. I can't think of any debate we've had in this city (or any other city for that matter), where you couldn't pick out the values that supported both sides of the argument. Economic development vs. historic preservation. Congestion relief vs. transit/transportation options. Parks and open space vs. low taxes. Well, really, just about everything vs. low taxes (and taxes directly affect discretionary income available for economic development and jobs). It's all about tradeoffs, and the vision and values aren't very explicit about which ones take priority. The goal here seems to be to take those tradeoffs mostly out of the hands of accountable elected officials and put them in a professional planning bureaucracy.

The group is rallying support with a "big tent" approach. Want more density? Less density? More development? Less development? More social equity? Better education? Lower taxes (via more efficient coordination)? Lower crime? More parks and open space? Better drainage? Less air pollution? Less gentrification? More affordable housing? More transit? Less traffic congestion? Planning is your silver bullet.

I had been inspired after my Leadership Houston debate with Peter Brown about a month ago. I finally thought we'd found some good common ground. More coordination between agencies. Less waste. No zoning or land-use regulation. I felt like we made some progress cutting through the abstract fog of this planning thing to what the real issues and problems were. But now I realize the perspectives are still far apart. Listening to some of the speakers, I wondered if we were living in the same city. They painted a tremendously negative picture of Houston as The New Detroit in need of a major turnaround and overhaul - a city careening towards wasteland status.

My perspective has been that Houston is one of the most successful and vibrant major cities in America today: an economy growing at twice the national average, a robust local housing market among a national slump, a redeveloping core, a wonderfully renewing downtown, an excellent transit system with well-thought-out future plans, the most affordable major metro in the country, an incredible variety of wonderful restaurants, global diversity living in relative harmony, and so compelling we're attracting waves of both domestic and international migrants, including plenty with high skills and education.

Perfect? Absolutely not. But those characteristics seem like a pretty strong argument for "tweak/adjust/improve", not "complete overhaul of how we run the city." What are the specific problems we want to fix? Can we do that with targeted ordinances and incentives? (like the mayor is doing with historic preservation) Easier variances or alternate development codes? (like the urban corridors initiative) Better coordination between agencies? Improved deed restrictions? Area plans? Local district authorities or TIRZs? These approaches are more flexible, targeted, and responsive to the specific neighborhoods and citizens involved, without jeopardizing our foundational urban development framework that has served us so well for so long.