Monday, February 11, 2008

More on the Houston ULI panel

Continuing from my last post on the CHF-ULI panel on Houston's future, I'd like to cover some more details from the presentation. I'm going to avoid repeating a lot of the detail in their Powerpoint presentation, such as how the visioning process should work and their other specific recommendations - feel free to review it yourself. You can also read the Chronicle article here.

One of the things they verbalized but did not put in the PowerPoint was our list of strengths and needs. Not a lot of surprises here, but good lists nonetheless.

  • Opportunity
  • Affordability
  • Lack of zoning constraints and a robust development market
  • Strong industry clusters
  • Rapidly achieving critical mass/size to become a global city
  • Can-do, entrepreneurial, optimistic spirit
  • Feeling that growth is good (often not the case in major cities)
  • Array of cooperative regional efforts (GHP, H-GAC, CHF, etc.)
  • Growing jobs and tax base
  • Multi-centered region
  • Strong leadership
  • Youthful workforce
  • Great arts district
  • Geographic gateway to global markets
  • People are moving into the core of the city
  • Keeping the center core strong; not becoming a "doughnut city" with all growth on the edge and a hollowing core (I've argued before that our extensive investment in freeways has been critical here, since jobs stay in the core only as long as their suburban employees can get to them with a reasonable commute)
  • More coordination and communication
  • Long-term regional action plan
  • More progress on flooding, long commutes, waste water management, and air quality
  • Environmental sustainability (protect flood plains, bayous, habitats)
  • Rebranding (probably around "opportunity")
  • More inclusive decision making
  • More development predictability, guidelines, and stability
  • More workforce development/education (a priority Joel Kotkin and I identified in our Opportunity Urbanism report)
  • More downtown housing (<10%>
I believe they nailed the strengths, and got the needs mostly right, although I might quibble with a few points. For instance, the downtown housing problem is from a lack of demand, not a lack of supply. Most people prefer their own home, townhome, large-scale apartment complex with lots of shared amenities, or a high-rise condo with a view - over a downtown condo facing another building across the street - and a little walkable street life is usually not enough to overcome that preference. For people who do put a very high priority on the pedestrian experience, there seems to be enough residential available downtown to meet that demand. It looks like Discovery Green will spark some more, too.

They put a lot of emphasis on a long-term visioning process. Having been through that process with Blueprint Houston, I'm less enthused. It's fun to "envision utopia," but I don't think it necessarily helps us get there all that much. If we could plan our way to utopia, you'd think we'd see more utopian cities in the world - but I don't see too many. Visioning doesn't get into the hard tradeoffs. That's what markets do, as well as the political process. Both citizens and politicians have to make tough decisions on where to prioritize their resources (police? schools? transportation? parks?).

The other trap visioning processes tend to fall in are a godlike narcissism, not unlike the video game SimCity. "Yes, I'll make all newcomers live in high-rise apartments downtown, and turn all of the Houston periphery into a giant nature preserve." Uh-huh. At least in the video game, you can get negative feedback on your decisions from the "citizens." Not so much with maps, markers, and stickers.

A few criticisms aside, I was impressed overall with the group and most of their insights and recommendations, and I hope their report gets some traction among the key players in our region.

Update: Neal Meyer weighs in.

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At 9:59 AM, February 12, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For instance, the downtown housing problem is from a lack of demand, not a lack of supply."

I think one thing that is holding demand back is that there is not a critical mass there of people walking the streets and businesses (like a dry cleaners or grocery) serving them to encourage more people to move in. Once enough brave pioneers move in and downtown establishes itself as a neighborhood, more and more people will want to have this lifestyle.

I also think it's important that the city invest in greenspaces in downtown and midtown right now while land is still relatively cheap, to serve the population that will live there in coming years. Discovery Green was a great move. Additional smart moves would be to extend the bayou park from Allen's Landing down Commerce Street (currently mostly parking lots), thus forming a central link in the Buffalo Bayou chain of parks, and to build a park on the Superblock in Midtown.

At 10:59 AM, February 12, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

I find their whole approach a little off. If we are examining how to be a world class city, should be studying what world class cities do, or should we be studying what other growing cities that are becoming world class cities are doing?

Just like the lack of downtown housing. Should we somehow subsidize it to be more like NY, Chi, London, or is it that we are much smaller city and land isn't as scarce.

By far the largest variable that prevents us from being in the same league as NY, etc... is that we are much smaller. The only way we are going to big there is to become a much bigger city. Secondly, we are not a capital city holding disproportionate power.

In a similar vein: I don't care what Wal-Mart is doing just because they are big. I do care what Google is doing because they are growing rapidly.

At 1:43 PM, February 12, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't think we should assume that because we are growing, we must be doing everything right. Are there ways we could better diversify? Are there segments of the economy that these other cities are attracting, that we could attract if we had certain things?

There are many people who would consider Houston an option if it had a great downtown. Our downtown has lots of potential, but we haven't maximized it. There is a certain set of ingredients that, when mixed together, sparks the kind of vitality that can draw people in. Right now, what the ULI is seeing is that we are missing the residential ingredient. If there were more people living downtown and walking its sidewalks, that would combine with the great skyline, the large work population, the growing mass transit options, and the recreational amenities to create the kind of vibrancy associated with other downtowns of our size.

That, in turn, would attract people who previously just thought of Houston as sprawling and soulless.

At 3:16 PM, February 12, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hopefully the rail expansion will bring more people and opportunities to Downtown. The problem with downtown residential is that there aren't enough amenities (like previously mentioned) and there's too much competition between the various inner loop areas (midtown, uptown, etc.). It seems like the most high rise residential is in Uptown, correct me if I'm wrong though, because all the various amenities around.

At 4:21 PM, February 12, 2008, Blogger Michael said...


>>I don't care what Wal-Mart is doing just because they are big. I do care what Google is doing because they are growing rapidly.

I think if you were in business school, depending on the exact case, you would analyze both. You probably would not just immediately dismiss the case of Wal-Mart. Similarly, NYC and London have done some things we probably want to emulate - even though they are at a different stage of their history right now.

So, I agree it is also important to look at places like Atlanta, Phoenix, Dallas, etc. But looking at what other cities have done over their history, especially when they encountered similar phases of growth to what we are now experiencing, seems like a good idea as well.


At 9:39 PM, February 12, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


I'll agree that there are things to be learned from big cities, but we just need to be careful that we aren't looking at functions of big cities and not functions of good cities.

For Houston, I think the focus on downtown housing is over blown. We need to also look at how to make it easy for developers to piggy back on the area's burgeoning walkable developments.

At 2:30 AM, February 13, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would tend to agree with most of the points mentioned by the ULI panel on your blog, however IMO the BIGGEST and most valuable improvement the City could ever make would be the mass development of the bayous according to this master plan.

At 7:45 AM, February 13, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

"but we just need to be careful that we aren't looking at functions of big cities and not functions of good cities."

Good grief. What I meant to say is:

"we just need to be careful that we aren't looking at functions of big cities, INSTEAD OF functions of good cities"

At 8:13 AM, February 13, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If people are willing to pay what they have to pay to live in New York or London, then they ARE good cities. Imagine if New York or London were as cheap to live in as Houston - they would be growing faster than any city in the world.

In fact, this is probably why they're NOT cheap to live in - at some point their residents decided to make other improvements and not just have more growth. When you're a city in that category, growth is not a big deal. Any city can grow. A great city offers great quality of life to its residents.

A comparison could be made to a developed country like America and a developing one like India. India is cheap to live in, has low quality of life standards, and growth is staggering. America has slowed its growth and adopted much higher standards.

At 9:50 AM, February 13, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The concept that New York and London are not growth cities is ludicrous. Have you seen inner London in the last 20 years. Even Paris and New York have seen immense growth in their cores.

These cities still depend on growth just as much as Houston. Yes, they are much further along, but that has more to do with age than anything else.

Housing costs in New York and London is primarily directed a supply and demand issues. On top of that, local rules limit supply and raise costs.

At 10:50 AM, February 13, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's a "growth city," kjb? Who said New York and London weren't growing?

Brian said that it's a better idea to emulate cities growing quickly than cities that are just big (like New York or London). I simply made the point that just because New York and London aren't growing as quickly as Houston doesn't mean that don't have things that are worthy of emulating.

I don't really see how your point fits in.


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