Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Pragmatic Approach to Houston’s Future (part 2 of 2)

Continuing from part 1 earlier this week (both parts also posted here, along with other essays). Don't forget to watch Houston Have Your Say on the Future of Houston on PBS Channel 8 tonight at 7pm.

So, given that set of realities, what’s the right answer for accommodating Houston’s growth?
  • MaX Lanes: A comprehensive network of high-speed managed freeway lanes similar to the new lanes on the Katy Freeway. They should include converted HOV lanes and congestion pricing. They could be called Managed eXpress Lanes – or MaX Lanes – that move the maximum number of people and vehicles at maximum speed.
  • Park-and-ride commuter options from every neighborhood to every job center using those lanes. This includes buses and vanpools, both public and private with a flat Metro subsidy per passenger mile. Private operators would compete on schedule, routes, service, timeliness, and amenities like wireless Internet. They whisk commuters nonstop at 65mph directly to their job center and then circulate to get them right to their building. No transfers, no waits, and no walking in our unpredictable weather. Parking lots that are underutilized M-F during business hours – like malls and churches - could become park-and-ride lots.
  • Cash-out parking. To further incentivize transit ridership and reduce cars on the freeways, employers should be required to offer cash-out parking: if an employee is not using a parking space, they should receive the cash value of the spot the employer does not have to provide for them.
  • We do need a small, core light rail network to allow these transit commuters to get around during the day for meetings, errands, and lunch (update 3/8/20: Uber and Lyft solved this problem) – although certainly many of the planned lines could be delayed in order to pay for expanded commuter transit options now, which would have a far better cost-benefit ratio in the short-term.
  • Density near rail stops. Where we do build light rail, we should encourage density near the stops to minimize car trips on our congested street grid. This should be accomplished not through heavy-handed regulation – which is more likely to create dead zones than the desired development - but by offering TIRZ incentives to associations of land owners that voluntarily agree to dense design and build standards in their deed restrictions.
  • Free-market land use. Houston should embrace, extend, and improve our free market approach to land regulation based on voluntary deed restrictions instead of heavy-handed – and often corrupt – zoning. This approach allows supply to match demand and keeps housing affordable for all.
In a recent study of Houston with noted urban scholar Joel Kotkin – titled “Opportunity Urbanism” – we discovered an amazing fact: when looking at cost-of-living adjusted median wages in major metro areas, Houston has the highest standard of living in the U.S. and probably the world. Clearly, we’re doing something very right here, and, with continuous tweaks and improvements, we should keep doing it as we move into our very bright future. Kiplinger recently ranked Houston the #1 city in the country to live, work, and play. Clearly, we’re doing something very right here, and, with continuous tweaks and improvements, we should keep doing it as we move into our very bright future.

Update: Here's the liveblog of the event.

Update 2: Here's the video.

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At 2:33 PM, January 29, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keep Houston Houston!

I will definitely be watching this!

Oh, and be ready for questions meant to throw you off by using a bad premise!

At 8:25 PM, January 29, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the last man who spoke tonight. Maybe I'm unaware but is there DOING with all this TALKING? Are there actual organizations/partnerships happening to help us move forward? Maybe H-GAC is that?

One thing I think is important is we need to get as many perspectives (old, young, rich, poor, families, single, men, women, public, private, developers, land scape artists, engineers, oil execs, teachers etc) as we can, plan and then do it. We'll never get anywhere if we just keep talking. We need to create a group of these people and then let them lead us. If we're going to have public input, let's get it (stimulus money for a massive survey anyone?), then use it.

I also agree that we should use the free market the best we can, but let's use it as a tool and not just let it run wild. Letting it run wild in my opinion is just deciding not to think (or maybe thinking leads to that decision?).

But my main emphasis is let's thing, decide and then DO.

At 8:36 PM, January 29, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Torrey, What is your response to Mr. Brown saying he always has developers coming to him saying they need some guidlines. I'm sure he's not making this up.

I believe we need to do some major inve$$$ting in getting people together to think and come up with a plan. We can spend all the money we want on rails, trails, freeways etc, but if we don't do our due diligence first, then it will all just be a mess. Our first and most important investment should be on planning; no shortcuts and we need some devils advocats in these leadership groups.

At 9:25 PM, January 29, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I had another developer come up to me after the event and say he's *never* heard a developer concerned with what will be built next to his property. He says it's a false straw man.

I am all for voluntary deed restriction agreements and the selling of easements. If a developer needs some guarantees, he can negotiate them.

There is a lot more planning out there than people give us credit for. It's like Carroll said: there's a lot of it, but there needs to be more coordination between the different groups.

At 8:05 AM, January 30, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, what kind of developer were you talking to? Obviously someone who does walled apartment complexes won't be concerned with what's next door the way someone who does quality mixed-use will.

At 8:39 AM, January 30, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, he was clear to say it wasn't just him, but every developer he's networked with, and he's been in the biz a while. That said, he may have a more suburban focus to his developments.

At 11:01 AM, January 30, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, that makes sense that a developer who focuses exclusively on the burbs would say something like that. If you’re developing a giant strip mall or a huge gated subdivision, you’re probably not as concerned with what developments occur on adjacent property (unless it is a landfill or an airport). But I am more concerned with urban development in the city here. Houston has more than its fair share of sprawling suburbs.

For far too long Houston has basically run development in urban areas as if it is out in the suburbs and then people wonder why dense, urban developments are so rare here.

In the end, this city needs better planning. The libertarian, anything goes, thinking was fine when we were dealing with a small population and focusing almost exclusively on suburban sprawl. But when you are developing something like this for example:
(it’s a new townhome in Northern Virginia) you are going to be a little more concerned with what is next door, what is across the street and whether someone decides to build an auto body shop cattycorner to your townhome.

And voluntary agreements sound wonderful and great when you are simply dealing with two parties out in the suburbs but when density increases and the number of parties multiply, the transaction costs of voluntary agreements skyrocket and most of the time become insurmountable. As the anonymous poster above said, we need to have discussion and input from a wide range of sources and backgrounds but in the end, someone has to have the power to make a decision. That is the price of civilization folks. The law of the jungle works great in the jungle, not in the 4th biggest city in the United States.

At 2:26 PM, January 30, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>(it’s a new townhome in Northern Virginia) you are going to be a little more concerned with what is next door, what is across the street and whether

Image url is cut-off in my browser, but here's the link for those interested.

And excellent points common sense!

Also, why should we assume that Peter Brown is setting up a straw man argument? Presumably, he has been contacted by some developers that would like to see some standards in place. Perhaps other developers do not care about standards - but in some of these suburban areas, you already have standards imposed. Nobody is proposing Ashby high-rise in the middle of Cinco Ranch or Sienna Plantation - these areas are already de-facto zoned. And the land values along many of the urban roadways in Houston is already rock-bottom - you are already building something next to a taco vendor, an empty lot, another strip-mall, and a used car lot, so how much lower can the value go? If anything changes next door, it can only be for the better. That will no longer be true as the city offers more valuable, more complex mixed-use development. And I presume Peter Brown is probably referring to more complex / high-end / mixed-use / urban types of projects - but somebody should check with him for more specifics - it would be interesting to hear him elaborate on that subject.

At 5:57 AM, February 02, 2009, Blogger engineering said...

Fascinating how much conversation is focused on transportation and mass transit and the million ways to go about it including TOD and the other million ways to do urban zoning.
There is plenty space in the heart of the city to build homes. I have driven through neighborhoods with acres of land waiting to be developed.
If Houston wants to compete with great cities it better work hard at having a great school system. A 60 percent failure rate is just not going to cut it. With that comes along a prison population of which 80% have not graduated from high school.
Cost of housing and quality of schools must be the number one priority.

At 4:47 PM, February 02, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all--thanks for participating in the debate, you certainly can articulate your views well. If I understood you correctly, you said that Houstonians generally invest their saving from lower housing costs into better cars. It is an interesting hypothesis. Have you seen any data in support of it?


At 7:50 PM, February 02, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks. My last post on it is here, with my arguments:

It also links back to my original post on the topic.


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