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.


At 10:14 PM, March 29, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cobbling together some disparate data I did come up with some interesting correlaries between things written recently. I vaguely recall it being mentioned on this blog that at one point only 6% of population growth in the Houston Metro was within the loop. Using the recent data that around 90K had moved inside the loop between 2000-2007, and an estimate that growth for this decade will be between 1m and 1.3m(meaning 700K and 910K for the first 7 years). That translates to 10-13% of population growth for the metro area is now inside the Loop.

A Nancy Sarnoff article in the chronicle also mentioned that 1/3 of all apartment units in the city were being built within the Loop. That to me is an astonishing amount. Given the rents inside the loop for new apartment construction I'm not willing to believe in much of any Katrina effect.

Unless something dramatic happens, density is coming rather quickly. Just drive west down Dallas St. and you'll see what's coming.

At 1:05 AM, March 30, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We're comparable in quantity, but in terms of quality, the difference is night and day.

Drive through Houston's high density areas, and what do you see? Walls, gates, and garage doors: a streetscape hostile to human life. Drive through Portland's or some of Dallas's high density areas, and you see pleasant sidewalks with trees, houses that blend in with one another and the surrounding neighborhood, and well-integrated retail. Thanks to planning, quality of life is much better.

Of course, you can't tell this just by looking at numbers - you have to go visit and see for yourself.

At 9:39 AM, March 30, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, buyers seem to think highly of them. They sell pretty much as fast as they get built. A Toyota may not be as nice as a Mercedes, but, at the end of the day, a whole lot more people choose to buy Toyotas.

At 10:37 AM, March 30, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am Houstonian living temporarily in Dallas.

A major difference is that Houston allows people to build what they want where they want it. By extension, Houstonians are allowed to live the lifestyle of their choice.

Just yesterday, my amigo Alan and I attended a lecture by a land use lawyer who was set to argue before the planning commission. The project she was to argue for was a 6-story apartment building in Uptown Dallas. She was certain that the project would not be approved because they did not have the political support of the local city councilmember.

This sort of pattern has long been the trend in Dallas. Very large, poltically connected developers are able to sign development agreements with the city of Dallas. They get very generous tax abatements (90% downtown, iirc), subsidies, and TIF districts that cover only their project. This is what Peter Brown wants to bring to Houston. One district is developed for the profit of connected developers, while the rest of the city pays for it.

Other land use outrages in Dallas include "neighborhood stabilization overlays" which are designed to protect people from the "scorge" of McMansions, big-box moratoria, and the notorious Trinity River Project.

Houston's approach is not only less exensive, it allows people to be freer and is more likely to pay out in long term success. Peter Brown would love to put the brakes on Houston's success and guide a small portion of that development into a district that he can control using our money. He must be stopped.

At 5:54 PM, March 30, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of my professor's in Econ believed that zoning and planning were just politicians asking for bribes.

At 9:05 PM, March 31, 2007, Blogger Bill Shirley said...

Since we're talking about population density and having a 6 family dwelling across from a vacant lot (very common) doesn't have the overall effect that it could. I tracked down the land areas of the cities in discussion.

(it wouldn't allow the <table>, <pre>, or <tt> tags in the comments)

City • Land area (sq mi) • Dense Units per sq mi • v Hou
Houston 579 4.85
Dallas 343 7.49 154%
Portland 134 27.16 560%
Phoenix 475 3.35 69%

I'm not sure that per capita or per area measures tell the full story.

At 10:06 PM, March 31, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Interesting approach, Bill. But somehow your calculations seem off: Hou has 3 times the dense units as Dallas in twice the land area, but a lower ratio per sq.mile? The math doesn't add up. So I reran the numbers in Excel using your land area estimates. For the numerator over land area, I'm using the "5+ density units" column.

City • Land area (sq mi) • Dense Units per sq mi • vs Hou
Houston 579 16.6
Dallas 343 10 60%
Portland 134 15.2 90%
Phoenix 475 3.5 21%

Houston still comes out pretty strongly on top, even vs. Portland.

At 5:33 PM, April 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that gated apartment complexes are what Peter Brown has in mind when he says that other cities are getting more visionary high density development. Ditto for streets lined with garage doors.

Honestly, do you think that people are just making this stuff up? That they are purposely inventing stories about the great projects going up in Dallas and Portland as part of some conspiracy to subject Houston to an Orwellian planning regime that will be the end of freedom, mom, apple pie, and the American way of life?

If you really want to understand what Brown and the others are talking about, why don't you give one of them a call and arrange a trip to Dallas, to see these neighborhoods firsthand? Then you can tell us all about it here.

At 5:42 PM, April 01, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Mike, I've been to both Portland and Dallas. I understand the type of development you're talking about. I agree that it is nice, and there is a slice of the market that desires that kind of development and can afford it. I believe many similar projects have come to Houston and are coming. I am simply pointing out that Houston is doing a better job of creating density and the attendant vibrancy and environmental benefits than more planned cities are.

At 11:12 PM, April 01, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay, fair enough, but there's not much of an environmental benefit to density if the new "dense" neighborhoods are designed in such a way that completely discourages walking. Right now most of our new townhome districts are more like compressed suburbs than real urban environments. This is where planning can help - it gets the different interests on the same page.

Your comments make it seem like the type of neighborhood I am talking about is less affordable than the ones being built. I doubt the townhomes in, say, the Fourth Ward are much more affordable than the ones I am thinking of in Dallas, nor do I think affordability is much of a concern for the people living in them. I just think they were built the way they were because no one bothered to think of how to make it better, and I think people bought them because they didn't know there was a better alternative.

At 6:38 AM, April 02, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I have said before I can be ok (in some circumstances) with neighborhood-level area plans, and I definitely support deed restrictions, which could easily be crafted for walkability requirements as desired.

Affordability is *definitely* a concern for the large majority of buyers in townhomes/condos. I've talked to a couple builders, and they say there are two sets of buyers:

1) relatively small group of childless older professionals/couples, price insensitive for the most part (the group I think you're referring to)

2) a gigantic group of 20-something college grads that would love to own, but $225K is considered the absolute upper limit for their typical salaries.

$225K is considered the magic tipping point where demand drops like a rock. In most cases, once a developer knows he can't make that point, he goes all out on luxury and rapidly gets to the upper 300s, even 400s.

So, net, if regulation of whatever sort pushes units beyond $225K, most will no longer get built, and rather than a young, energetic, diverse core, we'll end up with a slower, older, upper class, Anglo, more genteel gentrification. Not nearly as cool, fun, equitable, or vibrant IMHO.

At 7:50 AM, April 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought most of the townhomes in the Fourth Ward were in the upper 300's and 400's.

Somehow these cities like Portland and Austin that embrace planning have found a way to be attractive to the young, cool, and vibrant group. I think that if you work to create a beautiful environment, the young, cool, and vibrant will find their way in. I'm with you on area plans... I'd rather see them than zoning anyway. Too bad they keep getting shot down.

At 9:14 AM, April 02, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

4th ward, midtown, and museum district are all now top-priced. The affordable ones are now east of 288, east and north of downtown, and around Washington and west of the Heights.

Beware Portland and Austin as role models. They (as well as Boulder/Denver) have a natural environment Houston can't match, both inside and outside of the city. I'll admit we can do better there (esp. w/ the bayous), but mountains, hills, forests, rivers, and lakes are not in the offing for Houston (nor any reduction in our heat/humidity/mosquitos).

At 4:33 PM, April 02, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Kjb: I agree with you personally that Houston is fine in that dept. But the national brand does not reflect that, and there is a relatively large group of youth that I would categorize as "outdoor enthusiasts" where Boulder, Portland, and Austin are far more compelling than Houston. It's just reality, and we have to work within that reality.

At 9:06 PM, April 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I didn't say they were role models. I said they offered planned development that was affordable enough for the "young, cool, vibrant" crowd, which you warned would be driven away if Houston adopted any kind of planning.

At the end of the day, what I'm arguing for is that we make some consideration for aesthetics, and not just cost, cost, cost. Fourth Ward is the perfect example of a neighborhood that could have looked a lot better if some thought had gone in to the development, and the marginally higher costs would not have driven away buyers. Ditto for Rice Military. Simple numeric figures for high density development, when most of that density is either gated apartment complexes or townhomes that do nothing to create a quality street environment, do not impress me.

At 10:36 PM, April 02, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I suppose if aesthetics/"the street environment" is your top criteria. I believe, if people really think they're that important, they'll get adopted into deed restrictions. But more density, regardless of form, does = more environmental benefits from shorter commutes, not to mention the simple benefit of offering more of what people want and are willing to pay for. And costs do have a substantial impact at the margins.

It's not just costs either. I believe if we had a public-process planning regime, very few of the inner loop townhomes would have ever been approved/built, because of protests from existing homeowners that would rather restrict supply and drive up the prices for their homes. It's been shown in almost every other city: the NIMBYs win when given power through a planning bureaucracy.

At 10:50 AM, April 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did I say it was my "top criteria"? Come on Tory, stop making strawmen.

If "very few" of the inner loop townhomes would have been built with a "public planning regime," how did they get built in Dallas?

At 11:10 AM, April 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What is different about the bulk of the townhomes being built in inner Dallas?

At 11:18 AM, April 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Further to my post above... I have not been to Dallas in years, but when I look at their townhome inventory on-line, it appears to me that the vast majority of their townhome development is indistinguishable from Houston's.

At 2:01 PM, April 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Read the above posts, anonymous.

At 2:54 PM, April 03, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Maybe Dallas managed to create a planning process with minimal NIMBY interference points - "less bad" than typical urban planning, but I still prefer Houston's system, and we are generating twice as many units as they are per capita.

At 2:58 PM, April 03, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Mike - I think Anon is saying that, if the townhomes of Dallas are indistinguishable from Houston, what value is planning adding? (other than reducing the number of units constructed)

At 3:17 PM, April 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I did read all of the above posts, Mike. They suggest some great difference, but I don't see it when I go online and look at the inventory of townhomes in Dallas. I see front-loaded garages; I see gated complexes. Exactly the same types of townhome developments as we see in Houston.

At 4:56 PM, April 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This thread is a good example of something Tory has mentioned before. What is the specific "planning" under discussion? Without a more specific topic, it's just the usual philosophical debate over how much say your neighbors or your government should have over what you do with your property. (The answer, by the way, is "some".)


At 7:33 PM, April 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for clarifying, Tory. My second post on this topic describes the difference between many of the townhomes in Dallas and the ones in Houston.

Yes, anon, many of Dallas's townhomes are the same as the ones here. And Dallas has many gated apartment complexes as well. Those are not the projects Peter Brown is thinking of when he talks about cities like Dallas getting more visionary projects as a result of planning.

What planning can do for a neighborhood is expand the developer's scope of vision so that he is not looking at just the one chunk of land and what he can build on it, but how what he builds on that land fits into the larger picture. Instead of just setting things down hodge-podge, you create a streetscape that is pleasant and invites walking in addition to driving. Then there is the integration of retail, which if done intelligently can greatly increase the livability of the neighborhood, and decrease the need for car trips, parking lots, and traffic.

Maybe a lot of this can be accomplished through deed restrictions and area plans. I'm not exactly sure myself what Peter Brown wants when he talks of planning. But the fact that Dallas is getting more of this type of development than we are should bother any Houstonian who wants more out of city life than just a piece of property to call his own.

At 7:34 PM, April 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

*Correction, THE second post on this topic - my first post.

At 2:42 PM, April 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike, I am not trying to be difficult, but can you give me some examples of the "higher-quality" townhome developments in Dallas?

I was just browsing the internet again and came across a nice-looking development called the Vines, but, honestly, it is not really distinguishable from any number of blocks in the Museum District, or Midtown.

At 2:38 PM, July 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Midtown is a prime example of why planning is important. I live in midtown and get infuriated when I see CVS, Walgreens, numerous banks going up with parking lots three times the size of the actual building. They are taking up valuable real estate for property that adds no value to me the resident. There is just a bunch of random crap going up in midtown. They see this exploding population and all of a sudden these huge corperations snatch up the land and just bastardize the area which had a lot of potential.

At 4:28 PM, July 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry guys...Houston is ugly. Period.

I love Houston but got frustrated with the Big Box approach to life.

YUK....I know your econ professor must love the place but will your kids? NOPE.

Take a moment to consider alternatives or to learn from other places rather than bending over backwards to kiss your own behinds.

What the one guy said about midtown is typical of where Houston gets it wrong. Its too bad too because there are lots of plusses like your nightlife....etc....

And quit namecalling your local's unseemly

Sarasota Pete

At 10:02 PM, July 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone who says Houston's surrounding natural environment is not beautiful doesn't appreciate the forests that exist to the north. I am an avid hiker and love to hike in the mountains, but the Sam Houston National Forest to the north of Houston is also very beautiful.

At 7:11 PM, July 27, 2007, Blogger Unknown said...

We have a nice little forest up north, but compared to countless other natures of other cities, it is subpar subpar, not to mentioned it is really far from the the Houston center. We got the short end of the stick here. We are flat, our beaches are dirty, our waters are brown, our humidity and heat are well known. The closest we have is that big brown thing we lovingly called the bayou when others would just call it the dirty water that runs through the city.

So, where does that leave us? Man made structures. Our buildings and streets. If we really want to stand out, we have nothing else, its the buildings and streets. We have to work harder and smarter than any other city cause we got no real world class nature to speak of. But what do we do? We decided to make it worse. We have sprawl, we have hideous strip malls and billboards, we have traffic lights hanging on cables, we have endless eletrical wires and telephone poles slanting in all angles throughout the city. We have dead buildings and empty lots filled with rust and grass.

And where we have the slighest hope, CVS comes in and destroys it.

And did we really do a good job on density? In the strictest definition, we did. “People are closer. Just look at the numbers.” Is that what we really aiming for, to achieve density in the strictest sense of the word? Someone in the above post put it really well, our density in numbers looks good, but go around and what we really see is a compact suburb, not real walkable or real urbane. Our type of density defeats the purpose for an urban city, as it is void of human connection and street life.

We get no slack like other cities do with their natural surroundings, the streets are the only thing we can built upon, but we still manage to sh.. all over it.

At 10:57 AM, July 31, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your article with interest and I must admit that I'm a Dallasite. While the numbers might look much better for Houston that is about all they do. All you have to do is drive around Houston and then Dallas to see what planning or a lack of planning has done for each city. A lack of clear planning and cnetralized review has left Houston a city that is visually an unappealing eyesore.

At 11:56 PM, October 02, 2009, Blogger Max said...

"most people don't move to cities because of the natural surroundings"

They don't when you live in Houston -- if they did, they wouldn't be living there!

Speaking as a Portlander who grew up in Houston, I can say that the natural assets of the Portland area are one of the top reasons why I live here. Hiking, biking, walking, etc are my primary recreation activity.

Houston population density: 3,828/sq mi

Portland population density:
4,288.38/sq mi

I think if I were to sell Houston, what I would sell would be its diversity, the friendliness of people, down-home feel, great "comfort" food*, and low cost of living.

Houston does these things better than Portland, but Portland does a much better job at marketing. ;-)

* Sorry, I hate to use that term but that's what the rest of the US calls it.

At 1:13 PM, March 30, 2010, Blogger ws said...

Regarding density and Portland; Portland has an international airport and the nation's largest urban park essentially right next to downtown in that of Forest Park:,-95.677068&sspn=50.291089,114.169922&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Portland,+Multnomah,+Oregon&ll=45.530523,-122.682438&spn=0.087665,0.222988&t=h&z=13

Note the large green swath of contiguous forest land on its northwest side.

Greenspace hurts density numbers big time.

Regarding PDX Int'l; many cities do not have such close access to airports, or they are not within city limits. Airports take up a lot of space, and in Portland's case, it takes up a lot of waterfront space where residential units might have gone.

We need to consider net density and gross density when discussing actual density of cities in my opinion, as to not mislead anyone.

At 3:49 PM, March 30, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The numbers in this post are not density per sq.mile, which would be affected by parks and the airport (although Houston also has huge airports, a lake, and two giant reservoirs inside the city limits), but are based on dense buildings.

At 9:26 PM, March 30, 2010, Blogger ws said...

People were commenting about pop/sq. mile, and I've seen a few previous posts regarding viewing density this way (gross density, not net density).

Just a clarification point.

At 9:42 PM, March 30, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, I forgot about the other comments, and there are other posts on the blog about density this way. Always slippery, depending on how you want to define the land area.


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