Sunday, April 22, 2007

Curing everything, Metro analysis, #2 migration, #6 restaurants, #4 for blacks, see HT,CC!

Time again to hit some smaller miscellaneous items. But first a quick anecdote I think you'll enjoy. My wife and I were watching the very good (albeit a bit twisted) Spanish movie "Volver"on DVD the other night (the Pedro Almodóvar movie with Penélope Cruz). Set in Madrid, at one point a character with cancer says "They offered to take me to Houston. They cure everything there." Not a bad reputation to have in the international community. Pretty cool, in fact.

OK, on to the list:
  • If you're interested, Neal Meyer has put together a pretty comprehensive spreadsheet analysis of Metro's ridership stats from 1997-2007. The short overview: their ridership increased steadily until 2001, then started declining with the light rail construction, spiking up again temporarily after Katrina. The #2 Bellaire bus is their busiest bus route.
  • A company recently ranked Houston #2 for migration, behind Chicago and ahead of Austin, LA, and Atlanta. LA surprises me, since the Census shows them losing domestic population, but this company's data is based on a relatively small survey. Thanks to Houstonist for the link.
  • Houston was recently ranked as the 6th best restaurant city in the nation by Forbes Traveler, and the best in Texas. This is a topic I've covered before: Houston as dining out capital of America, and why we have such a great restaurant scene. Zagat says we eat out more times per week on average than any other major city in America, and at near the lowest average cost. Looking at their criteria, it looks like cost was mostly ignored while tourism was factored in, which is probably why we came in behind those other five cities. From the KHOU story:

"Only New York, Chicago, San Francsico, Los Angeles and New Orleans finished ahead of the Bayou City. Houston was followed by Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Boston and Las Vegas.

Here's what the Web site had to say about Houston restaurants: "San Antonio may have a far more manifest Mexican food culture, but Houston, which spirals forever outward, has far more breadth and depth — from one of the nation’s finest and most elegantly modern Italian ristorante, Tony’s ($110), to Robert Del Grande’s Café Annie ($110), where New Texas cuisine took hold, and Américas ($100), which pioneered Nuevo Latino food in this country. One of the best places to get the most important meal of the day is the funky Breakfast Klub, where the irresistible specialty is waffles and chicken wings."

  • Black Enterprise magazine recently ranked Houston the fourth-best city for African Americans, behind DC, Atlanta, and Raleigh-Durham (???). Thanks to Houstonist for the heads up, and they have some of their own thoughts.
Finally, if you haven't seen the wonderful one-hour Houston documentary "Hot Town, Cool City" yet, you'll have another couple chances this week at the River Oaks Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday, April 25th and 26th at 7pm and 8:15pm. Spread the word to all your friends and loved ones! Thanks.

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At 5:54 AM, April 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess you don't know about Raleigh-Durham. I have one good friend who moved there, and know lots of families who have considered it. Personally, I love Houston - but, just off the top of my head - here are some things Raleigh Durham may have that Houston doesn't - smaller size, less traffic, more "seasonal weather" (true spring, summer, fall, winter). my friend was from the east coast originally, and i think that was a draw. Lots of folks from both coasts have a kind of weird snobbery about the center of the country.

At 7:22 AM, April 23, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I have not been to Raleigh-Durham, but I know it's sort of the "Austin of the east coast", and very nice. I just had no idea it was a notable city for African Americans (Austin really isn't).

At 7:55 AM, April 23, 2007, Blogger John said...

Raleigh-Durham is wonderful - I wouldn't call it the "Austin of the east coast" because it doesn't have the irritating Austin attitude.

I chuckled at that line in "Volver" also! Wonderful movie - Almodovar has developed a real tenderness in his films as he's gone on - tempering his sensibilities. I'd highly recommend "Talk to Her," if you haven't seen it - a lovely, moving film.

At 8:48 AM, April 23, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks. Saw it. I agree.

At 12:29 PM, April 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"more "seasonal weather"

There's alot of us natives that don't like "seasonal weather". Thats one of the main reason I stayed here.

At 3:10 PM, April 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate blogs that jump on that Houston/Dallas debate, but I can't say that I was surprised they were left off the Top 10 restaurant list. I went up to Dallas a week ago to go to my brother-in-law's wedding and what really struck me is how incredibly bland their food options are. It was just one steak/hamburger/fried food place after another. I'm comparing suburbs to suburbs here, not really the high end stuff.

I really wanted to find something worth doing up there outside of just going to the wedding, but it seems like everything worth doing in Dallas is in Ft. Worth (a couple nice art museums for us and a good zoo for my little ones). Am I missing something? How is Dallas considered more of a tourist destination if I live in Texas and I can't really figure out what there is to do there?

At 3:36 PM, April 23, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree - I think Houston has more to offer for tourists than DFW, although they may attract more conventions because of the airport (more flights than IAH) and lakefront resort hotels.

I think zoning/permitting regs play a part in a bland restaurant scene. I've heard that cities are reluctant to permit/approve independent restaurants (or developments that will have them) because they have such a high failure rate, and they fear the image of empty retail. They feel chains are much safer and more stable. In Houston, anybody who thinks they've got a better idea can find a hole-in-the-wall to start, and if they're successful, it's easy to expand from there, and if they're not, somebody else comes along to replace them pretty quickly. Really quite the Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest ecosystem that leads to some great winners over time.

At 7:01 PM, April 23, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just have to respond to this zoning jab.

1. No one in the Houston area is advocating the straw horse you portray in this example. This is anecdotal and likely happened in one small town in Iowa, but the point is that none of the people working on planning for Houston's future are advocating this silly model of a zoning board that makes silly decisions that the city government shouldn't be making.

2. I think that the Houston restaurant scene has several other well-understood causal factors so its just weird to make this an argument against zoning.

2a. We have a great restaurant scene because we have a very diverse and international population. (We can argue about how that diversity relates to planning at some other time)

2b. We have a thriving restaurant scene because Houstonians eat out more than anyone else in the country. In general this isn't really a good thing for our health, but this high demand would naturally boost the restaurant industry and would reasonably lead to higher quality restaurants popping up around town. But the bulk of this demand is satisfied with fast food, so its not necessarily a good thing across the board that we eat out so much, even if I agree that places like Tony's are wonderful to have around (even if I'm not going to get to go there any time soon).

I went back to look at your earlier posts about this and see that you present a series of opinions to explain it, but you seem to ignore the fact that it isn't really a good thing that Houstonians eat out so much, even though it does yield this wonderful market with so many successful entrepreneurs.

I also found this to be a telling quote:

"Houston is so enormous -- it's a freeway city," says Teresa Byrne-Dodge, who publishes the local restaurant review guide My Table. "The commutes eat so much into our free time that we don't have time to cook."

Wouldn't people prefer to have the choice every day of eating out or cooking at home?

Instead that decision was lumped into their housing (and transportation) decision which left them with this undesirable commute. And that decision was strongly influenced by TxDOT making major land use decisions for the Houston region.

At 7:36 PM, April 23, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

If you look at my posts I linked to, you'll see I have a whole host of reasons for our great restaurant scene, but Dallas has many of them too (inc. diversity). I think zoning is one factor in the difference.

Our average commute times are short compared to rail/transit-based cities, so I don't buy that logic. And people do have the choice of their commute. There's always housing available closer to their job, they usually just don't choose it because it's smaller, older, more expensive, and/or in a worse school district.

At 12:07 AM, April 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Normal person: Houston has a better restaurant scene than Dallas. Interesting.

Houston Strategies: Houston has a better restaurant scene than Dallas because Houston has stayed away from oppressive land use policies that place decisions on what people can eat in the hands of bureaucrats.

Gulf Coast Institute: Houston may have a better restaurant scene than Dallas, but this is only because Houstonians are forced to eat out so many nights, since ever-rising commute times don't allow us time to cook meals. These commute times result from a transportation system that subsidizes roads and encourages sprawl, to the detriment of our quality of life.

I love this. Keep going.

At 1:21 AM, April 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really don't think zoning, in and of itself, has a great effect on what types of restaurants sprout up in a given city. A property is either zoned for restaurant use or it isn't, after all, and if an independent restauranteur wanted to open a businesses on a piece of property that's already properly zoned (in an existing strip center, for example), the zonning process wouldn't enter into the equation. The restuarantuer would still have to get the correct building, occupancy and health permits from the city, however.

The situation might be because chains and their franchisees have more money on hand than independent restauranteurs and can therefore better maneuver through a city's permitting process.

At 7:32 AM, April 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Even though I am a huge fan of linking demographics to systemic influences, I'm going to have to propose a different kind of solution.

The odds are that much of Dallas' domestic growth comes from Oklahoma, Arkansas, Northern Louisiana, and small town Texas. These places aren't known for any culinary greatness. Houston is more dominated by Hispanic immigration, Cajun Louisiana, and our natural propensity for seafood from proximity to the coast.

Having said that, I am willing to accept that we may have fewer national casual dining chains here because of the lack of zoning. Building a stand alone restaurant is vastly more expensive then building one in a strip center. Clearly, Dallas' suburbs have a strong preference for stand alone restaurants.

At 8:17 AM, April 24, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

These are some interesting variables I hadn't really considered before: chains have more money to work through the permitting process, and the requirement for stand-alone restaurants driving up costs vs. strip centers (also favoring chains). I do agree somewhat on the Dallas vs. Houston demographics, although if you look at the strict racial breakdowns, we're not all that different.

I'm going to propose another potential cause: in my experience, cities tend under-zone commercial relative to demand (exception: places like CA with a local tax system heavily tilted towards commercial because of property tax caps). Sometimes it's from residential objections, but, more commonly it's from simple economic growth: people have more discretionary income over time (and want to buy more and eat out more), but planners zoned the "appropriate" amount of commercial space many years in the past. Give limited commercial space relative to demand, chains have more financial clout vs. independents, and win the competition.

Finally, to tilt the playing field even more against independents, property owners also prefer the stability of chains as leaseholders. This happens in Houston too, but because our commercial space can expand to meet demand, there's still plenty of affordable space willing to take independents.

At 10:18 AM, April 24, 2007, Blogger tylerldurden said...

we can solve this debate by looking at the other cities on this list. i would bet that san fran, las vegas and NYC all have draconian zoning requirements and still have great restaurants. case closed.

At 1:03 PM, April 24, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those aren't really comparable cities, Anthony.

One reason Dallas might have more chains is that it is such a big test market. Whenever a chain decides to expand into Texas, they almost always go to Dallas first. Also, a very big family of chain restaurants is based in Dallas - the company that owns Chili's, Black Eyed Pea, Macaroni Grill, etc.

I also think lack of zoning is a factor - that and the more diverse mix of cultures we have here. Dallasites seem to like restaurants that are "safe" and "clean," meaning either chains or ultra-tony restaurants like Mansion on Turtle Creek.

At 2:20 PM, April 24, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

SF, Vegas, and NYC have the tourism factor in their favor and the ultra high-end superchefs because they have the big money sloshing around.

Also note that I said zoning/permitting is mostly a factor when approving new developments, where a board of some kind has to give the ok. Older cities like NYC, Chicago, and SF have a lot of old, existing street level retail that has to fill with something, and restaurants are a very common use.


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