Monday, July 09, 2007

A Tale of Two Chronicle Op-eds

In yesterday's Sunday Outlook section, there were two op-eds relating back to the Kotkin Opportunity Urbanism project I was part of and op-ed I wrote. The first, on quality of life, was excellent. They clearly actually read our report, and I support pretty much everything they wrote. Houston does have a remarkable array of both public and private initiatives going on to improve quality of life, and they are having an impressive impact and deserve our support.

But the second op-ed, by the Chronicle editorial board, was a bit muddled (written by committee, perhaps?), and I feel the need to respond to several of its points. To be fair, some of those points are just passing along what Andres Duany said recently, so, obviously, in that case I'm responding to him rather than the editorial board. On to the excerpts and commentary:
He warns that the worst development danger is the monoculture housing subdivisions that mark the city's periphery. Building hundreds of houses with similar styles and prices that appeal to young parents inevitably causes blight when the style — not chosen to stand the test of time — goes out of fashion and the neighborhood's value declines as its residents age and grow resentful of their lot.
So, Houston clearly needs some "style police", eh? To make sure we don't accidentally build anything that might go out of fashion. Sounds like a great solution. All we need to do is set up an omniscient planning board with godlike powers to see into the future. Should be a snap. And we'll just tell all those "young parents" there are no new, affordable homes for them because, well, really, they'd be making a bad decision that will eventually make them "resentful of their lot" - and we want to protect them from that horrible decision to become homeowners. They really should just stick with their current apartment. Thanks, Duany. Can't believe we didn't see the obvious problem and solution before.

Another mistake was for Houstonians to build their neighborhoods distant from their jobs and their shopping needs. The result is low density but high congestion because nothing can be accomplished without a car.

Evidently, it's not just "young parents" that are morons, but almost all citizens of Houston (and most other cities, for that matter). They're unable to make the "correct" tradeoffs between housing values, school districts, and commute distance.

As a side note, from personal experience and what I've heard from others, shopping in unzoned/unplanned Houston is a far more convenient experience than in more planned cities that force retail into limited zones. Just yesterday a neighbor told me about his inlaws in a planned suburb of Pittsburgh with a 20 minute drive to the nearest grocery (!). In Meyerland, I am within 5 minutes of at least eight grocery stores to choose from.
The arrangement, Duany told a lecture audience at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is highly unfair to the 50 percent of Houstonians who are too young, too old or too poor to drive.
We have a free market. If the demand is there for alternatives, developers will build it (and have). Most of that 50% are kids, and they bike around their neighborhoods just fine. For others, I've noted tons of apartment and condo complexes next to retail centers for easy walking. It may not be classic "urban walkable mixed-use," but it works well for a lot of people. And for longer distances, we have a quite comprehensive Metro bus grid.
Better planning and design, which the market is beginning to offer in the central city, would at once reduce automobile use, congestion, human stress and the high cost of transportation, a minimum of about $9,000 per car per year.
This is incorrect. The $9,000 is a voluntary average, not a minimum. Details here. But I have no objection to a diverse set of living options both inside and outside the city.
Kotkin, however, seems to believe that cities should not invest in improved quality of life if the improvements don't attract talent and commerce. At a Greater Houston Partnership luncheon, Kotkin noted that no one would move to Kansas City because of its new performing arts hall.

Perhaps on this topic Kotkin's analysis misses the mark most widely. People do come to Houston to provide and enjoy its renowned performing arts. Even if they didn't, that would not constitute a reason to deny this city's residents their rich cultural life.
This is a confused misreading of Joel's speech and our report. What Joel objects to are cities ignoring the basics with crumbling infrastructure, failing schools, rising crime, etc. and spending public tax dollars on frivolous things trying to attract the "creative class" (like starchitect museums and performance centers). What he likes about Houston is that we focus tax dollars on providing strong basics (mobility, police, etc.), which enables a vibrant economy, which, in turn, supports and funds private nonprofit initiatives to improve quality of life, like privately-funded performing arts venues and even parks like Discovery Green. That doesn't mean there can't be public quality-of-life investments (stadiums, flood control parks, etc.), but there's a proper private-public balance which a lot of cities in America seem to have forgotten.

Joel and I's assertion is that quality of life investments flow from being a vibrant city of opportunity, a pattern duplicated by cities throughout history. But recently, too many cities have fallen into the trap of thinking the reverse is true: if they pour public tax dollars into "quality of life investments," the creative class, jobs, and economic vibrancy will flock to them - and that's simply not the case. Houston is getting it right: construct a strong foundation of opportunity, and quality-of-life improvements will build on top of it, just as Wulfe and Weekly articulated on Sunday.

Update: blogHouston's take.

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At 9:01 AM, July 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your response to Duany's observation of how housing stock of similar age for similar income groups declines similarly (and en masse) is absolutely ridiculous.

At 9:54 AM, July 10, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

It may be true, but

1) it's no excuse for preventing people from buying what they want and can afford. I've actually heard people acknowledge that their house will probably not go up in value, but they simply appreciate that they have a nice place to live at a price they can afford.

2) Even if it does decline slightly over time, it provides a future source of affordable housing, something cities around the country are desperately screaming for. And, if inside the loop is any indicator, after enough time has passed, they will be torn down and gentrified. That's the cycle of residential real estate.

At 1:58 PM, July 10, 2007, Blogger ian said...

It seems to me like Duany wasn't necessarily demonizing Houston's housing styles; instead, he was criticizing Houston's developments' lack of diversity. Is that really being the "style police?" Furthermore, even if the natural cycle of real estate tends to ebb and flow, why not do our best to curb the upsetting cycle of decay and gentrification?

At 2:56 PM, July 10, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I actually think Houston has tons of diversity in housing. But what would you suggest?

At 3:33 PM, July 10, 2007, Blogger ian said...

I think we could use a castle or two.

At 3:48 PM, July 10, 2007, Blogger ian said...

Seriously though, I don't see it as that big a problem. Housing fads are one thing; vitality of a community is another. If a neighborhood is vibrant with good schools and a wide variety of attractions, then I doubt there will be a huge efflux of people who are simply dissatisfied with their era of house.

At 3:58 AM, July 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Houston's new subdivisions may be a bit monotonous, but the individual houses at least have more variation than the mile after mile of dreary, turn-of-the-century row houses one sees in London after you've left the city centre on the way out of town. And do people really want a lot of architectural diversity? As far as size is concerned, people complain about large new homes being built next to older bungalows. As for architectural style, parts of L.A. get criticized for having too eclectic an appearance. It seems to me that what people really dislike about the appearance of the new subdivisions is the lack of trees. Once the trees finally grow in and the neighborhoods look established, then you hardly notice cookie-cutter houses. I imagine that neighboorhoods like Braes Heights and Ayrshire looked pretty awful in the '50s and '60s when they were being built, but they're rather nice now (apart from some of the monstrous new construction).

At 7:36 AM, July 12, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was planning on writing something, but I think Cloister said it better.

Re Tory: "But what would you suggest?"

I don't think they like to say because it's always frightfully draconian.


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