Monday, July 02, 2007

Thoughts on Brown and Crossley pieces

A couple different items I'd like to respond to today. The first, and largest, is Peter Brown's op-ed yesterday on what he calls the urbanists vs. suburbanists debate, but what I'd call the government-planning-and-control vs. free-market land-use debate. I did appreciate his somewhat concilatory tone of integrating both points of view, which is nice to hear. I like that a most of this debate has stayed pretty civil, which is not the case in a lot of debates I've seen on the net. Nonetheless, I do have some responding points.

He mentions the nice master-planned communities (MPCs) that surround Houston, and uses them to support stronger city planning. I've spoken with Joel Kotkin, Len Gilroy, and others about this topic, and the dividing line between good and bad land-use planning usually seems to be determined by whether it was done by private interests or government. Private interests know they have to meet market demands at the right price, or they will financially fail, so they plan and build exactly what people want and are willing to pay for. Government planners don't have this same constraint, so they can feel free to plan their ideal vision of the city, without regard to whether or not they're specifying what builders can afford to build or people want to buy - and that economic disconnect is what causes the problems. The things that do get built can definitely look nice, but overall it prevents a lot of building, development, innovation, vibrancy and opportunity.

Some of my other thoughts:
  • I have trouble reconciling the "unwanted gentrification" in one paragraph with the fleeing creative class in another. Are they gentrifying Houston, or leaving it?
  • His growth stats were a bit bizarre to me:
"...yet over the past five years, the city accounted for only 10.8 percent of the region's growth. This is insufficient to support a vibrant city. Nationwide, as a central city, we rank 10th in population growth among major cities, half that of the city of Dallas, a third that of Phoenix."

I ran a spreadsheet on the most recent Census stats from the top 25 cities (not metros). Since 2000, Houston has had the 3rd most absolute population growth (191K), just barely behind #2 Phoenix (192K) and #1 NYC (206K). On a percentage growth basis, we're #5 at 10% - and well ahead of Dallas, #11 on both rankings. The cities ahead of us, like Phoenix, have large swaths of undeveloped land (something the city of Houston doesn't have) that are essentially filling up with standard suburban development. Houston is doing amazingly well here - certainly more than sufficient to support an extremely vibrant city. More vibrant than at any other time in its history, IMHO.
  • "New public-private financial tools are necessary to facilitate pedestrian friendly, mixed-use, mixed-income development, with ample middle class housing choices. This should be a fundamental public policy." I honestly hope that's not a call for government subsidies for upscale mixed-use development. I know he says "mixed-income", but these projects are always upscale, with a smattering of "affordable" units thrown in for show. And, of course, once one developer is receiving subsidies, they all start asking for them. Let's please not open this Pandora's Box.
The second item I want to respond to is Jay Crossley's interesting piece on our concept of opportunity zones. I actually agree with much of it. My original piece mentioned density as one of the drivers of opportunity zones: "Growth, infill and density increase the number of people and jobs in a given opportunity zone." And transit should certainly be considered part of the mobility equation. The problem is, I think they're relatively small pieces. A study in LA found that giving cars to the transit-dependent increased the number jobs they could access by 59 times! Pretty much no matter what, even with some substantial density increases around transit, a half-hour in a car will access magnitudes more opportunity than a half-hour on transit. And a good freeway will open up far more opportunity zone to more people than a typical transit line. Livable centers and transit-oriented development are a fine idea for using cars for fewer trips, but lets not fall in to the illusion we can substitute transit-mobility and density for cars and freeways, and have anything like the same size and vibrancy of opportunity zones.

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At 11:03 PM, July 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A study in LA found that giving cars to the transit-dependent increased the number jobs they could access by 59 times!"

I can vouch for this. As an on campus student at UH, I had intership downtown one semester. I rode the bus between Jan and March. There were two buses that went from right in front of the dorms to three blocks from my building downtown, which also happened to be where the parking lot I ended up parking in later. Between getting up early enough to make sure I caught the bus, the circutous (sp) route the bus had to take, and all the stops it had to make, my commute was 45 minutes. When I started driving on my own the commute took ten minutes. Even if I had driven the same routes the buses took, it would have only taken me twenty minutes. At six o'clock in the morning that extra 35 minutes was invaluable to me, especially since I was still a dorm rat.

At 11:14 PM, July 02, 2007, Blogger John said...

The idea that private planning is good and government planning is bad is presented as an assertion with nothing to back it up. Governments do face consequences for bad decisions, and private planning can produce individually profitable projects that, in the long term, leads to a declining overall quality of life (and economic fortunes) for an area.

And nobody's really talking about some master utopian government plan, but any suggestion that as a community we have some interest in overall development is met with this same "private good! government bad!" assertion - even though there are plenty of cities (which many of us have lived in) where more control is exerted over development, and which are economic powerhouses.

There are those for whom this is ideology and the practical results don't matter (I don't think you're one of them). But it's frustrating to hear this assertion over and over with no attempt to demonstrate its truth in any rigorous way.

Reading what you've written here, I keep thinking back to my old highly-regulated historic district neighborhood, which had vibrancy and innovative development I have never seen in Houston.

At 8:03 AM, July 03, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

John: it seems to me deed restrictions can handle the local neighborhood controls and planning you're talking about (for a historic district, for instance). If they're in the best interests of the neighborhood, it should have no trouble getting set up.

Of course, "rigorously" backing up the private vs. public planning problem is pretty difficult. Mostly we have anecdotes, on this blog and elsewhere. But I think, in general, both academically (i.e. economics and other disciplines) and as a society, we've learned that the further the separation between decision making and consequences, the worse results you get. It's a pretty safe rule-of-thumb.

At 9:48 AM, July 03, 2007, Blogger ian said...

Tory -- it seems rather unfair and disingenuous to say that transit can't compete with cars and freeways in terms of access to opportunity zone when our current development is spurred towards cars and freeways. I mean, duh? Especially in LA, your example? It doesn't take half a brain to rationally challenge the notion that "LA is dense". Whoever came up with those numbers were either high or lying. Nobody doubts that transit fairs better in dense environments!

A more convincing, relevant response would have attempted to compare the opportunity zone provided by cars and highways IN A SPRAWLING area (which we have) to that of transit IN A DENSE area (which we could have). Apples to apples, no?

At 12:33 PM, July 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Using one of the many different definitions that we all have for a city(i.e. Metropolitan statistical area, legal limits, limits of area above a certain level of population density.), the authors are correct that L.A. is the most dense city in the country. I saw an article that explained how the authors got to that conclusion, which is correct and meaningless because of the definition of city that the authors chose to use, I don't remember which one it was though.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics.

At 1:37 PM, July 03, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

It's true - over a broad area, LA is the most dense city in America. Not Manhattan level, mind you, but well over twice as dense as Houston. And they do have a comprehensive transit network grid of rail and buses - but it essentially fails in a modern city based on the car - as Houston is.

I have done my own estimates of opportunity zones, and found Houston and Manhattan roughly equivalent (see here: ). But if you drop off from Manhattan's density of jobs, people, and transit (as is the case in pretty much all other cities in America), the opportunity zone shrinks quickly. Is Manhattan a realistic goal for Houston? Honestly - No. Even LA densities are pretty unrealistic for Houston, and transit doesn't really provide much of an opportunity zone there. A nice alternative to the car from time to time? Sure. But relatively marginal.

At 1:36 AM, July 04, 2007, Blogger Ben said...

Deed restrictions are great as long as the neighborhood remains desirable, but they can fall apart when there is a local downturn in value. Not that Houston necessarily needs overlay districts; but i feel too many H-towners claim that deed restrictions = 'zoning lite'

Also, I'd be very interested to know what your opinions are about any kind of absolute scale. For instance, is do you think that developments (private or public) have a greater tendency to fail as they get larger? Likewise, is there a physical distance (not talking about time) past which a job is not as valuable to supporting any sense of community? I live in LA, and in my experience even if someone has a car one of the highest priorities is proximity in finding a new job or new home. Even if people can reach 59x as many jobs, not all of those jobs may really be the best choice (or even be desired).

At 9:13 AM, July 04, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> For instance, is do you think that developments (private or public) have a greater tendency to fail as they get larger?

Absolutely. More complexity absolutely increases risks.

> Likewise, is there a physical distance (not talking about time) past which a job is not as valuable to supporting any sense of community?

I tend to think jobs and a sense of community are often pretty separate things. Not always, but generally. Community is mainly your immediate neighborhood. A very small percentage of the population work there. A job is about finding the highest, best, most engaging use of your skills, which not only is likely to pay you the most, but is also likely to be the most fulfilling. The odds it's in your immediate neighborhood are tiny.

LA has the worst traffic congestion in the nation, by quite a bit. It also has some of the lower average incomes vs. other major cities in America. I don't think that's pure cause and effect, but I do believe there's a strong link. People do compromise their job choices because of seriously constrained mobility, and that means they're probably choosing a lower value-add, lower paying job that's closer instead of a better one a bit farther away.

At 1:35 PM, July 06, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone looking for a great example of the failure of the private sector to act alone in making land use decisions need look no further than the front page of this morning's Houston Chronicle. The image is of a home that has had the same owner for 49 years, with a new roller coaster towering 10-feet off their rear property line. The homeowner is of course powerless to do anything about it.

At 5:43 PM, July 06, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm going to disagree. That's the city of Kemah, which made that zoning exception for the Boardwalk. They wouldn't have had anything to worry about if they had bought into a deed restricted community, like in the city of Houston.

At 9:55 AM, July 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are incorrect. Kemah has no zoning.

Also, the homeowners might very well live in a deed-restricted community. But they might be the last street in that community, and properties to their rear (where the roller coaster is located) could be outside. Or, the deed restrictions in the area could have lapsed. Tilman Fertitta could have bought enough parcels in the community to prevent a vote by a high enough percentage of property owners to renew the deed restrictions, which would have been under-handed but entirely legal.

This family has been in that house for 49 years, and I'm certain that 49 years ago noone would have ever thought that a huge roller-coaster would be installed 10-feet from that property line. There home is essentially worthless now as a residence.

This case represents a number of the flaws in the arguments for strictly private-sector planning.

At 1:28 PM, July 07, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yet they bought into that house knowing what restrictions were - and were not - in place around them. Public sector planning would not have helped them any more. They might have fought Landry's thru govt, but they almost would have certainly lost - the Boardwalk just generates too much income for the city of Kemah.

And their house still has plenty of value. Waterfront property, I believe? Either way, at the very least I'm sure commercial developers would be very interested in being next to the Kemah Boardwalk (like maybe a restaurant). In any case, I'm sure they will do very, very well when they sell.

At 4:57 PM, July 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are plenty of ways to short-circuit deed restrictions if you have money. There could certainly have been restrictions in place when the Killions bought their home. There could even be restrictions in place now on both properties, but the fact is that the Killions would have to duke it out with Fertitta's crafty lawyers, who almost certainly would find an argument for why the restrictions would no longer be enforceable. (perhaps a neighbor has been allowed to park their boat in the driveway, a violation of restrictions that was never enforced, and thus the whole body of restrictions could be arguably thrown out). Deed restrictions are flimsy protection.

The Killions would have had more chance fighting Landry's through their local government than on their own. I sincerely doubt anyone would have created a zoning map that would have allowed a towering roller coaster 10 feet from someone's back yard. In fact, I'd bet no other such example exists in the US. Zoning would have given them more protection than deed restrictions.

Your response is that the property still has plenty of value, which is absolutely true. But as a residential property for them to live in, I'd say that value is all but gone. Maybe they're fine with that. But maybe they've spent the past 49 years working to create a cohesive neighborhood, with decades-long social relationships, and now that's all gone because some fried food magnate wants to make $2 a head for a 120-second thrill ride, and so there goes the neighborhood.

At 9:59 AM, July 08, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'll take a legally enforcable deed restriction contract any day over a bribe-able zoning board.

At 10:08 PM, July 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ummm, yeah.

I'll take my chances in pressing bribery charges against a low-ranking public official over battling Tilman Fertitta's squadron of lawyers and deep pockets any day.

At 9:03 AM, July 09, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Doesn't take bribery, really. Just a well placed campaign contribution, and the promise of a much higher tax base for the city, which can be channelled into their pet projects.

On the other hand, I don't see any reasonable judge or jury throwing out single family deed restrictions for a theme park.

At 1:38 PM, July 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you're a smart developer - and I trust that Fertitta or at least someone in his organization is - you can find ways around deed restrictions that don't involve the courts, if that happened to be the situation. It could certainly be that the Killion home is old enough that it predates common usage of deed restrictions, and that the Killions were never able to get the super-majority they needed to protect their block. That's just a hypothesis. Regardless, their home is now worthless as a residence.


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