Monday, June 02, 2008

CA columnist on Houston as an Open City of Opportunity

This columnist from Orange County, CA recently visited Houston for the Preserving the American Dream conference, and he liked what he saw here. I was originally planning to just highlight excerpts, but I liked so much of it, it ended up being pretty much the whole thing (with my bold highlights).
Closed case for 'open' cities
Urban planning should create "open" cities rather than New Urbanist ones.
Sr. editorial writer and columnist, The Orange County Register

Former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, an old-school Democrat who ran the nation's fourth-largest city between 1992 and 1998, told those of us who attended the American Dream Coalition (ADC) conference in his city last week that he moved there, from a poor, industrial city in East Texas because Houston was "an open city." A person's race or economic background didn't much matter even when he got there decades ago, and it still doesn't matter much in Houston today. Anyone who works hard, he said, can make it in Houston – a city that sophisticates decry as insufficiently planned (it still lacks zoning), too tacky (money is still what matters there) and too "boom-to-bust." Houston remains a place where fortunes soar and fall, and where brashness and bigness aren't frowned upon.

Unfortunately, instead of trying to create cities with grand opportunities, government officials are trying to create compact, expensive, trendy places that appeal to wealthy elites – neat places to go out to eat and attend a concert, but bad places to raise a family and start a business.

Granted, Houston's not everyone's cup of tea, but it's a nice city with an impressive skyline, lush tree-lined neighborhoods, upscale shopping, great restaurants, endless economic opportunities and amazingly low home prices. During one session, Houston city councilman Peter Brown decried the growing lack of affordability in some parts of the city, where a person needs $220,000 to buy a nice house! The room broke out in laughter as those of us from California, Washington and Oregon guffawed spontaneously. As I rode to George Bush airport, I spotted a billboard for a new development boasting prices from the $80s to the $120s. The median home price is in the metropolitan area is $148,000, according to the National Association of Realtors, and anyone with 500 grand – about the median home price in Orange County – can afford a minipalace.

There's more to life than cheap houses, but you can certainly have a better life if you don't have to work three jobs to meet the $3,000 a month mortgage payment.

One obvious reason for the relatively low prices is Houston's location, in a swampy plain with few physical restrictions to stunt the region's growth. But the prices are mostly a reflection of the pro-growth, low-regulation attitude that is dominant in the Lone Star State. Regulations are slimmer than in most places, and that allows builders to respond to market demand. One of the key reasons for the current housing crisis is that when demand shot up, the market couldn't respond in tightly regulated, authoritarian places such as California and Oregon, explained Wendell Cox, a housing expert and Heritage Foundation fellow.

The lead time for putting up new houses was too severe around here – not because of the time needed to build the houses, but because of the months and even years necessary for West Coast builders to negotiate all the political hurdles. So prices shot upon inadequate supply and the bidding war got started, driving homes to inordinate price points. In places such as Houston, the market reacted to the credit boom by building more homes quickly to meet demand. Prices stayed low, so after the bust, there was no precipitous fall.

Low home prices are one indicator of an "open city" – a place where any person can make his mark if he works hard enough. In an open city, where regulations are low and prices are reasonable, it's easy for anyone to get a business permit and open a store or provide a service. That's the American Dream. That's the key to helping recent immigrants make it into the mainstream. It's a lot more cost-effective and kind-hearted than building a massive wall.

Yet as conference presentations explained, the dominant ideas found in city planning offices and among regional planners are Smart Growth and New Urbanism – efforts to set aside open land as permanent open space, to force builders to provide dense housing on small lots, and to replace highway construction with mass transit. The goal is to recreate old-fashioned city living and, supposedly, to enhance the sense of "community" we experience as we live cheek-by-jowl with our neighbors.

As a result, today's planners – and as ADC's outgoing director Randal O'Toole noted, government long-term plans are guaranteed to be wrong – are imposing one new restriction after another on what we do with our own private property. They push for more rules, more control, bigger regional planning bodies, less individual choice. Decisions, one speaker noted, are made either by free people or in the political process. Those are the only choices. In a free society, individuals can decide what to build and how to live – provided they follow some simple, easily understood rules. In un-free places, such as California, one must lobby councils, win over neighbors, pay consultants to twist arms, make promises to city governments. Approvals are based on the whims of the officials; there's no certainty or well-defined rights. Call a society that functions that way what you please, but don't pretend it's free or open.

The modern urban planning profession is, as author Joel Kotkin argued in a recent booklet called "Opportunity Urbanism," about enhancing an "area's ability to attract the wealthiest individuals, the people with the highest skills, and those who can perform the most rarefied economic functions. The resulting 'superstar cities' cater largely to the upper classes and to those who serve them; generally, those cities are becoming too expensive for middle income individuals or families." Hence, urban gurus such as Richard Florida entice cities to embrace policies that attract what he calls the "creative class." But it's perverse, really, for governments to use their power and energy to build cities for wealthy Yuppies, while ignoring – beyond lip service about affordable/subsidized housing – the needs of the middle class and poor.

A New York Times article in 2005 explained the result of such policies in the trendiest cities: "San Francisco, where the median house price is now about $700,000, had the lowest percentage of people under 18 of any large city in the nation … . Seattle, where there are more dogs than children, was a close second. Boston, Honolulu, Portland, Miami, Denver, Minneapolis, Austin and Atlanta, all considered, healthy, vibrant urban areas, were not far behind. … Officials say that the very things that attract people who revitalize a city – dense vertical housing, fashionable restaurants and shops and mass transit that makes a car unnecessary – are driving out children by making the neighborhoods too expensive for young families."

Those cities also lack an entrepreneurial culture. Southern California, for instance, is a fun place to live, but if you want to start a business, you'd be best advised to head for Nevada or Arizona. That's what the activists at the American Dream Coalition are about – reminding the public that when planners take over, our freedom, and our opportunity suffers. I spoke about the city of Santa Ana's Renaissance Plan, which is the effort to drive out long-standing businesses and settled neighborhoods and replace them with high-rise condos and fancy clubs to appeal to this upscale demographic sought-after by planners.

Instead of pitching an
aesthetic vision of recreating an old-time city, city planners ought to promote the ideas expressed by Lanier, of an open city where the future is as endless as the Texas prairie. It's not a bad thing for politicians to remember also: Lanier won resounding victories among every political and ethnic demographic in Houston – a testament, he said, to the enduring political appeal of opportunity.

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At 8:23 AM, June 03, 2008, Blogger engineering said...

Tory, thanks for posting the article. It is a very nice article and pleasant to read about Bob Lanier's thoughts about the city, "open city" with opportunities for all.

At 8:24 AM, June 03, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As much as I like the term "open city", I would suggest the concept of calling Houston the "organic city".

Houston limited regulation and heavy planning arm allows our city to grow organically. Houston grows naturally the way the market and people want it to versus the inorganic way a planner wants it too.

At 2:12 PM, June 04, 2008, Blogger Unofficial Texas said...

While the rest of the world is finally realizing the benefits of an unzoned, sprawling metropolis, unfortunately a bunch of local do-gooders are unable to keep their utopian-style tinkering away from some Houston-area communities. They need to move to Oregon & leave us alone. Watch out for them in your area!

At 4:53 PM, June 04, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love how people who care about the environment, walkable neighborhoods, asthetics, property values, and local neighborhood cohesion and quality of life are termed "do-gooders."

Yes...all Houston needs is more sprawl, more highways, and more strip malls. Thankfully, neighborhoods within the loop are finally starting to rethink the traditional model of Houston development. Considering the property values in those communities (as compared to places like Katy for example), the market seems to agree.

At 8:55 PM, June 04, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

common_sense said...
"I love how people who care ... are termed "do-gooders."

So, you're in agreement then, since you love that term?

At 9:40 AM, June 05, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Strip malls are even in zoned cities. Maybe not in urban areas, but everywhere else they are. The only reason Houston is desnifying inside the loop is b/c of demand and population growth.

There's nothing inherently wrong with them. They work perfect for an automobile city.

At 10:32 AM, June 05, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>Seattle...Boston, Honolulu, Portland, Miami, Denver, Minneapolis, Austin and Atlanta, all considered, healthy, vibrant urban areas, were not far behind. …

>>Those cities also lack an entrepreneurial culture.

So Seattle, Austin, Boston, Portland, Denver lack an entrepreneurial culture - that's rich! Someone call Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and the MIT media lab and let them know about this! Maybe they are behind Houston in the family-owned Washateria category, but these cities are all havens of high-tech, high-income, information and service workers and startups. Maybe it would be a good thing for Houston to offer the so-called "creative class" more perks like more parkland, better bike-ways, lower pollution levels, less visual blight, and better mass-transit in their urban core like these other cities have.

Or maybe we do need more strip-malls, more pollution, bigger signage, and a 20 lane I-10 (which, by the way, is not "organic" - that is "state-planning" at its finest). Will that help us attract the Bill Gates of the future? No, but Perry Homes and Randal O'Toole will be happy.

At 12:58 AM, June 07, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Maybe they are behind Houston in the family-owned Washateria category"


The post above about how we can't seem to create Biotech companies despite our enormous institutions and research should be a good corrective to all this self-congratulation.

If we're ever going to attract people here who aren't connected to oil or simply looking for the cheapest place, we're going to have to do something about the visual blight.


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