Sunday, August 26, 2012

Paying for Ike Dike and rail, aspirational cities, Metro's new GMP, and more

Before I get to some more misc items, a reader recently asked me my opinion on the new Metro GMP  referendum.  Bottom line: Nothing's perfect, but overall I like it. I wish Houston was getting more of its fair share vs. the other entities. But I like the slow, very modest GMP reductions, and that the extra is required to go to critical Metro needs like increasing ridership via buses and reducing debt.

On to the smaller items:
  • The Chronicle on the stalled Ike Dike plan from the lack of funding.  It should reduce home insurance rates dramatically, so why not just tax those insurance plans equal to the savings to pay off the dike and come out ahead?  Nobody pays any more than they already are, and we go ahead and skip all the death and destruction.  If you agree and know any of the decision makers, please pass it along. Would love to see this get done.
  • A Chronicle op-ed calling for more light rail to support pedestrian districts.  It's worth noting that these touted pedestrian districts in The Woodlands and Sugar Land are doing great without any light rail.  Houston also has plenty of these areas, starting with the big daddy, The Galleria. (A/C to boot!)  Then there's downtown, parts of Midtown, Uptown Park, City Centre, and the West U Village.  And new ones are being built near River Oaks and Uptown, including that new project east of the Galleria I forgot the name of.  When you look at all those, we're absolutely smoking The Woodlands and Sugar Land.
  • Speaking of rail, Houston Tomorrow has a story on all the property value increases along the existing rail line.  High value-add along rail lines means Metro could fund them with a TIRZ instead of taxing the broader metro area for lines most will never use.  Why not?  Let the property owners that benefit pay for it.
  • New Geography on the huge burden zoning puts on development.  Yet another point for Houston avoiding the whole mess!
  • The benefits of cities come from size, not density, meaning it's ok if Houston sprawls rather than densifies (or does both, as it is doing). And, as I've mentioned before on this blog, it means it's important for Houston to continue supporting growth, even with the growing pains.
"Specifically, West, a theoretical physicist, and his team show that measures such as gross domestic product per capita and income per capita rise, on average, 15 percent with each doubling of city population....For example, the Seattle and Houston urban areas have population densities much lower than those of Paris, London, Hong Kong and even Los Angeles – yet they still rank higher among the most productive metropolitan areas in the world, according to the Brookings Institution Global Metropolitan Monitor 2011."
Atlanta, Houston and Dallas each have added 300,000 college grads in the past decade. This is far more than Boston’s increase of 240,000 or San Francisco’s 211,000. Once considered backwaters, these Sunbelt cities now all enjoy a critical mass of educated people. 
Houston boasts a percentage of college grads over 25 somewhat above the national average. Dallas-Fort Worth is just about at the national average. The total Houston increase in college grads over the past decade amounts to three times that of the capital of Silicon Valley, San Jose, Calif., twice that of San Diego and more than Philadelphia. Since hipness is not a well-known Houston trait (though it did place first this year on Forbes’ list of America’s Coolest Cities), and climate can hardly be seen as a positive, one has to imagine this growth has something to do with a job machine that has created over 100,000 new positions between 2006 and 2011. 
The addition of college grads leads to changes on the ground that tend to make cities even more attractive to future graduates. In the case of Houston, there’s been a proliferation of more sophisticated restaurants, clubs and bars in growing inner-city districts like Houston Heights, Montrose and Midtown. 
In the past, executives often turned up their noses at the prospect of relocating to the Gulf Coast metropolis, says Chris Schoettelkotte, founder of the Houston-based recruiting firm Manhattan Resources. Now, particularly given the weak national economy, Houston is increasingly competitive in the race to recruit skilled, educated labor, he says. This is particularly true with people at the beginning of their career. “I don’t get the pushback I used to get,” Schoettelkotte says. The message to recruits: “ You try to find a city with a better economy and better job prospects than us.”
That's probably enough items for this week. Be sure to check out this new site, "Houston Has Heart".  I love it! And this brand.  "Houston Has Heart" might even beat out "Houspitality" ;-)  Check out my item near the top of the Most Loved tab ("American Dream").  Vote for it if you like it, and/or add your own.  And their logo is pretty cool too:

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Sunday, August 19, 2012

The coming traffic reduction miracle, more top rankings, sad crazy CA, and more

The queue of smaller misc items is overflowing, so let's work the stack down a bit:
"Meanwhile, Ford says that, by 2017, it will sell cars that can drive themselves in certain conditions, specifically heavy traffic. Once just one-in-four cars on the road have this feature, the company says, travel times in traffic will be reduced by 37.5 percent."
We need a miracle to turn the tide against increasing traffic congestion, and this very well may be it. 
In the case of Houston, its 12% rise in the number of self-employed workers reflects not only widening economic opportunity, but also structural changes in the energy industry, the metro area’s prime economic driver. Since 2005, self-employment in the energy industry has grown 35% (and a remarkable 75% for support activities for oil and gas operations). At least part of this influx, EMSI suggests, could be attributed to land owners cashing in on royalties after leasing their property for drilling, but also to the demand for the increasingly specialized, and often high-tech, services required by that industry.
The entrepreneurial drive in Houston is clearly not a response to economic disaster – the city has a culture that encourages striking out on your own, and low costs and lighter regulation make it easier. Indeed over the past decade, the Texas powerhouse also led the nation in the growth of its 1099 economy, which expanded by a remarkable 51%.
Houston is known for many things: Oil, NASA, urban sprawl and business-friendly policies. But the Texas city deserves to be known for something else: coolness. 
The Bayou City may not be the first place you associate with being hip or trendy. But Houston has something many other major cities don’t: jobs. With the local economy humming through the recession, Houston enjoyed 2.6% job growth last year and nearly 50,000 Americans flocked there in response — particularly young professionals. In fact, the median age of a Houston resident is a youthful 33. 
The result? Over the past decade, the dreary corporate cityscape has been quietly transforming. Stylish housing developments have popped up downtown, restaurants have taken up residence in former factories and art galleries like the Station Museum have been inhabiting warehouses. 
Combine that with a strong theater scene, world-class museums and a multicultural, zoning-free mashup of a streetscape and you have the recipe for the No. 1 spot on Forbes’ list of America’s Coolest Cities To Live.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

A new brand for Houston

"We've probably spent in excess of $75 million in the past 30 years on image campaigns, and we keep coming back and saying, 'Well, that didn't work.'"
 - Former GHCVB CEO Jordy Tollett in the Houston Business Journal
A list of many of those can be found here, including the old standbys "Bayou City", "Space City", and "Energy Capital of the World" (Wikipedia has more here).  And despite many of my own previous attempts on this blog, inspiration has struck me again, especially after reading this recent article at on why every city needs a brand (and more on that here).

A good city brand works on four different levels:
  1. It attracts tourists.
  2. It attracts new residents, especially highly talented and educated ones.
  3. It attracts expanding businesses.
  4. It inspires the citizens and creates a local identity.
But it's very hard to come up with a single brand that does all four.  Even some of the most successful brands don't necessarily hit them all.  Two of the most famous city brands are New York's "I {heart} NY" and Las Vegas' "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."  And in Texas we're all familiar with "Keep Austin Weird."  In this case, I think I've stumbled upon something that can work across all four.

Before I reveal it, I need everybody to drop their cynicism shields.  I don't think the most successful city brand in history, "I {heart} NY" could get off the ground today with our snarky cynical culture.  Just like new songs, sometimes ideas need time to grow on you.  So open up your mind, hold back judgment, and let me  reveal some context-setting definitions and the brand first followed by the supporting reasons.
Noun: The friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.
Adjective: 1) Friendly and welcoming to strangers or guests.  2) (of an environment) Pleasant and favorable for living in.
It started with me thinking of "Houston Hospitality", but then the symmetry jumped out at me it became


What the "Aloha Spirit" is to Hawaii, the "Houspitality" can be to Houston.

Here are some of the key words and phrases people often use when describing Houston and how they fit:
  • Houspitality for visitors and newcomers: welcoming culture to outsiders, friendliness, hospitality (duh), openness to people from all over the world (diversity), amazing restaurants, museums, arts, and other amenities
  • Houspitality for businesses: business-friendly taxes and regulation (including no zoning), culture supportive of  entrepreneurship, open business culture
  • Houspitality for residents: friendliness, openness, affordability, ease of living, high standard of living, social mobility, opportunity, open-minded, charitable (especially after Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey), "big small town"
Some additional supporting reasons:
  • Short and sweet, and people "get it" pretty easily.
  • Fits well with the Texas Medical Center helping people from all over the world (and the word "hospital" is right there).  It also fits well with the airports, port, GHCVB, GHP, and others.
  • It differentiates us from other big cities (ever heard anybody talk about the friendly reputations of NYC, DC, Chicago, SF, or LA? I didn't think so) as well as tourist destination cities (which tend to become jaded towards visitors).
  • UH's Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management uses the motto "We are hospitality", and is one of the top ranked schools in the country for that specialty.
  • Sounds like "vitality", which is another good brand association.
  • I found a cool, somewhat similar concept here, transforming Humanitarian to Houmanitarian.
  • OK, this might be a small stretch, but it could also reference "housing hospitality", as in our affordability (hat tip to Anne Snyder).
  • I think more and more people today are hungry for real community, which is harder and harder to find.  Houspitality is a great brand to convey our real sense of community in Houston.
Finally, I'd like to end with some supportive excerpts from Ken Hoffman's recent excellent column on what Forbes got right and wrong about Houston being America's Coolest City.  I think you'll easily see the Houspitality Spirit running through them...
I remember thinking, am I going to have to change? Am I going to have to learn how to write Texan?
I didn't change anything. That's part of what makes Houston cool. You can come here and stay yourself and fit right in.
Houston is cool because whoever or whatever you are, you're welcome here. The first two years I lived here, I was burning out the copy machine at Kinko's applying for jobs anywhere else. Now I wouldn't leave here for anything. ...
Where better to get better?
When a congresswoman got her head half blown off, she came to Houston to get better. When Middle East oil sheiks need surgery, they come to Houston. We have the best medical facilities in the world. I didn't think that was cool until I was run over by a lunatic in a van and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
I still have no idea what hospital I was taken to. But they fixed me up. That was cool.
We're in this together
And please stop talking about Houston's "diversity." The only thing the word "diversity" does is separate people. Sure, we have ethnic neighborhoods; those are good for a city. It helps in picking a restaurant.
I've never seen a city where people blend more gracefully than Houston.
Houston is cool
I thought it was pretty cool when Houston welcomed Hurricane Katrina victims to ride out the storm's aftermath here. I spent a couple of days in the Astrodome, handing out supplies and clothes to Katrina refugees. I learned a lot about Houston after Katrina. The experience changed me, too.
Being cool is a city that makes you feel like you belong. 
UPDATE 12/13/16: A great personal essay demonstrating Houspitality from a Cuban that made Houston home.


Sunday, August 05, 2012

The A380 beast comes to IAH

And as you can see in the picture, a beast she is.  526 passengers on two decks, including 98 in business class and 8 in first class on the upper deck.  Lufthansa dedicated one of their 10 precious A380s - the largest passenger plane in the world - to the Frankfurt-Houston route, connecting the two largest hubs of the two largest members of the Star Alliance with 50% more capacity.  And I was lucky enough to get to attend the welcoming ceremony on Wednesday.

A lot of interesting facts about this one:
  • It's the first A380 service to Texas, or to any interior U.S. city for that matter - meaning we beat out mega-hub cities Atlanta, Chicago, and DFW.  Impressive. 
  • It's the 4th U.S. destination for Lufthansa's A380s, after NYC, San Francisco, and Miami.
  • Only 78 A380s currently exist in the world, with 180 more on order.
  • The A380 is 30% less noisy than other wide-body airplanes, and we noticed it on the tarmac.  It was remarkably quiet as it pulled up to the gate.
  • They estimated it would take two years for IAH to prepare to handle such a plane, including double-decker upper and lower boarding jetways, but they did it in 8 months and under-budget.
  • Lufthansa is of course targeting the lucrative oil and gas traffic, and specifically mentioned that they connect 35 oil and gas destinations out of Frankfurt.
One pretty disappointing downside for Houston flyers: because of its size, they put the D12 gate for it on the very northeast corner of Terminal D, and there is actually no way to see the plane from the gate area: it's hidden behind a windowless wall and the D11 gate.  They let some of us from the media down on the tarmac to see it arrive, but the large welcoming party at the gate area must have been disappointed, as I'm sure future flyers will be.  Hopefully there's something they can do in the future to give it more visibility from the waiting area - maybe a live video monitor, new window, or even a giant angled mirror to see around the corner...  ;-)

I took a ton more pics, but it's a pain to upload them here, and the Chronicle has a great spread of better pics here, including the interior.  Be sure to check out the spacious first class bathroom (no Emirates showers, but still, wow), as well as the $14k first class seats and sleeper beds.  And Kiah has the full story for the Chronicle here.

OK, one more pic from the plane, for the ladies out there wondering about expected skirt lengths (and widths!) for the flight, but good luck fitting in your coach seat if you wear something like this...  ;-)