Tuesday, January 25, 2011

City culture vs. innovation, affordability ranking, the 'Houston way' of development, and more

The list of smaller misc items has been building so rapidly the last few weeks I'll need to split them across a couple of posts:
  • The Urbanophile has a very insightful piece titled "Chicago: The Cost of Clout", making the case that "the Chicago way" of clout/patronage inherently limits their potential as an innovation/tech hub.  I don't think Houston has this problem, although we might be at risk of developing it.  I'd be interested in your thoughts in the comments.  Some excerpts:
Here, merit counts for next to nothing…In New York, everyone wants to know: “What do you do?” In Chicago, everyone wants to know: “Who do you know?” ...
This is what clout in Chicago hath wrought. The culture of the establishment Chicago is simply incompatible with an innovation economy. It’s not just about money or resources. It’s about respect. It’s about what this town respects, and more importantly what it doesn’t. It’s about what Chicago whispers to you about what you should aspire to achieve, what success means in this city, and the subtle – and not so subtle – messages about how you get ahead here.
Until you’ve already made your millions or somehow wormed your way into connections or up through the hierarchy, establishment Chicago has no use for you in its economic plans, no matter what talent, ideas, or ambitions you might harbor.
  • Another interesting post by the Urbanophile has a graph showing Houston ranking highly in terms of freeway lane miles per capita.  Of course, at this point I fear our population growth is definitely outstripping our addition of new freeway lane miles.  It's been a critical key to our successful growth over the decades, and one we really will have to find creative ways to keep up (like more toll roads).
  • An Australian "unconventional economist" says "Why not copy Houston?" (and follow-up), specifically our approach to land use and development, vs. the tight restrictions and very high costs in Australia.  The comments are interesting too, and they clearly need more Houstonians to chime in with local knowledge if you're so inclined.  Hat tip to Hugh.
  • Demographia has just released their 7th Annual International Housing Affordability Survey, with an introduction by Joel Kotkin - and, as usual, Houston is held up in very high regard as one of the most affordable markets, with median home values only 2.9 times median incomes ($160k vs. $54.5k) due to our light touch when it comes to land use and development regulations.  Again, hat tip to Hugh.
  • Alan has shared a neat Google Map he created with me illustrating how difficult cross-downtown traffic will be with all of the new street-blocking developments on the east side.  Unfortunately they just haven't been well thought-out, and I think the blockages will probably keep the near east-side (over 59) from developing as well as it might have with better connectivity.
That's enough for this week.  Stay tuned for more.

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At 10:01 PM, January 25, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would you elaborate on your last point about cross-downtown traffic? Especially the quote "they just haven't been well thought-out." To me, Houston's lack of zoning and limited government planning (both of which have strengths and weaknesses) lead to this exact situation.

Due to the rush-hour migration to and from downtown, it requires high-speed concentrated highways, low-speed car-filled light rail, bikeways and a distributed street grid to be able to convey the population. The only real barrier I see to this is the railroad property. Everything else is a natural part of when downtowns have highways that aren't completely grade-separated.


At 9:25 AM, January 26, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The mistake was the city allowing the stadiums and GRB to be built in such a way that they block most of the grid. It's not an issue with Houston's approach to planning/regs. All of those projects required closing grid streets, and at some point the city needed to say "that's not going to work - we need those streets." IMHO, the soccer stadium should have been put in line with the GRB or another stadium. Additionally, I think it would have made more sense to put Minute Maid and Toyota Center next to each other to share parking.

At 1:40 PM, January 26, 2011, Blogger Kevin Whited said...

I don't think the establishment mentality drives Houston development to the same extent that it controls Chicago development, but it does strike me that there is a STRONG establishment culture in Houston that frequently gets its way (think Yellow Cab and its lobbying, or various real estate dealings that BH has described with "Houston Way" implications, or the regular journalist/politico "roundtable" meetings, or even the pro-establishment Houston Chronicle, which was something of an establishment cheerleader from the start, as reflected by its onetime status as a part of The Houston Endowment).

The Houston Way is not Chicago's, but I'd suggest that yes, we have our own, umm, style. :)

At 4:46 PM, January 26, 2011, Blogger Rail Claimore said...

Tory, I'm one who thinks that GRB and Minute Maid Park should have been built in the same area as the current Reliant complex. It would have had better access to both a high-capacity freeway and to light rail as well. I don't know why cities are so eager to use stadiums and convention centers to spur downtown development. It never works because these venues do not attract a permanent resident population.

Also, I agree with Kevin to some extent. Every major city in the country has its "own way" of doing things. But the fundamental difference is how open these cities are to newcomers who are looking to make a buck in some influential economic sphere, such as real estate. Houston is relatively open compared to Chicago and a lot of other cities. The lack of strict zoning, for example, is both a cause and effect of this. Vested interests in other cities benefit from restricting smaller competitors from the market, and thus support continuously increasing restrictions on development and any other form of business. This cycle perpetuates itself in places like Chicago.

At 6:37 PM, January 26, 2011, Blogger Alon Levy said...

One of the striking things about Houston is that, unlike in Chicago, or for that matter New York, the business establishment is diverse. For one, there are few places in the US where non-Cuban Hispanics feel free to vote Republican in large numbers. Does that indicate that Houston is not dominated by clout like the Rust Belt, or that it is but for some reason the establishment is friendlier to immigrants and minorities?


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