Monday, May 27, 2013

NYT wants to save the Astrodome, Houston rising, Atlanta learns the wrong lessons from us, and more

Let's open this week's post of smaller miscellaneous items with this excellent NY Times essay on the importance of saving the Astrodome: "Astrodome: Dirty and Dated, but Irreplaceable".  Great old pics too.
So it was despairing to hear that the vacant Astrodome might be torn down and its site paved over as Houston prepares to host the 2017 Super Bowl. Demolition would be a failure of civic imagination, a betrayal of Houston’s greatness as a city of swaggering ambition, of dreamers who dispensed with zoning laws and any restraint on possibility.
James Glassman, a Houston preservationist, calls the Astrodome the city’s Eiffel Tower and the “physical manifestation of Houston’s soul.” New York could afford to tear down old Yankee Stadium, Glassman said, because the city had hundreds of other signature landmarks. Not Houston. Along with oil, NASA and the pioneering heart surgeons Michael E. DeBakey and Denton A. Cooley, the technological marvel of the Astrodome put a young, yearning city on the global map.
I sincerely hope someone at the county shows some leadership to pull together a solution, rather than passively sitting back, willing to only review fully-funded proposals, and then defaulting to demolition when that impossibility doesn't happen.

Moving on to this week's items:
Texas still stands head and shoulders above others in their business climate, employee work ethics and living environment.
Texas is best by far. No other state is even close.
A number of my friends do business in both California and Texas. Their experiences are causing them to move as much of their operations to Texas as they can. I only invest in California if I have to!
Texas has it ‘right’ on all fronts.
Texas is the best place to do business, recruit talent, every metric, hands down. New Mexico is our home state and they try, but it just has not yet happened like in Florida, Nevada and Texas.
  • I found this David Brooks' piece on engaged vs. detached approaches to writing/blogging to be thought provoking.  I think I've tried to aspire to be detached, although I certainly have a pro free market and pro Houston worldview (and Brooks points out that even detached writers have a philosophy/worldview).  Thoughts welcome in the comments.
  • Great time lapse animation of satellite photography showing Houston's growth since 1984.  Most of the growth is west of 45, although northeast near IAH grows strongly too.  I like that our growth is somewhat balanced around the core, as opposed to cities like Dallas where it's all to the north and west.

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Monday, May 20, 2013

WSJ shows Houston some love, urban planning flaws, #1 mfg boomtown, and more

Mayor Parker and Houston got a great write-up in the Wall Street Journal Saturday.  The whole thing is truly a must-read (alternate link), but here's my favorite excerpt:
Like Texas as a whole, Houston sells itself as "business friendly," and Ms. Parker ticks off the attractions—ease of permitting, unobtrusive regulations and low taxes. She also supports Houston's limited restrictions on land use, which some here call its real secret sauce. Without zoning, Houston can adjust to shifting market demands—whether for townhouse complexes or retail outfits—faster than most any other city. It looks unwieldy to anyone of the urban-planning persuasion, but it also keeps prices down.
Yours truly also got a quote in the story.  The journalist did an excellent job summarizing an hour+ interview of me with one pithy quote:
Tory Gattis, who writes the Houston Strategies blog, says: "I'd argue we may be the most libertarian city in America. Live and let live; strong property rights; not much corruption; small business culture."
The same WSJ issue also had an inspiring profile of the Houston-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation and their new approach to philanthropy focused on solving really big, long-term problems (vs. standard gifts to charities).  I think they are going to do great things in Houston over the coming years (not to mention nationally and globally).

Moving on to some other misc items this week:
"The urban plans of the future have to combine the capacity first to encourage a city’s entire population, not just college students – an error commonly made in today’s over emphasized reliance on “creatives” – to take up the possibility of innovating and making new companies that meet unforeseen demands in world markets beyond the city.  Scale production, not small shop keeping or running art galleries, is the only path to growth and urban futures that hold the potential to restore communities which means reducing poverty.  But, of course, this, like the capitalism that holds this promise, appears just too messy for planners who, in the end, see the growth of government and its control over all aspects of the built environment as the pathway to the cities of tomorrow, which in their documents look troublingly nostalgic for the towns that once were."
"So far from these lists we know that Houston is really good at moving scams, nurturing business of all sizes, changing business norms, having a healthy housing market, raising rent, creating jobs (lots of manufacturing jobs actually), growing real fast, being mobile-shopping savvy, and generally being “cool” or whatever passes for cool at Forbes magazine. The business mag put us at the top of their cool kids list, and poor ol’ Austin came in at 19 on the Top 20 list. Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Dallas made it on the list at 13, 11, and fourth respectively."
Finally, to end with a little humor, these NSFW Houston T-shirts are very cool, but I am not sure I could wear one in public...

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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Fare-free transit, Houston beats Austin, better commuter transit, and more

Continuing to work through the backlog of smaller misc items...
"When speaking to detractors of the fare-free system, Litchfield likes to point out the measurable savings as well. The transit agency saves money that would be spent on fare collection, in terms of both staff and equipment (the system has 99 buses, and farebox devices sell in the area of $15,000 each). Advertising costs are down, since Chapel Hill Transit doesn't have to promote its pass programs, and the system also saves money that would have gone toward low-income ridership assistance. Last but not least, the buses save time because they no longer have to check passes or wait for fare swipes."
#1 Austin
"Drum roll, please, for this legend in its own mind, a mildly entertaining university town and state capital with fever dreams of greatness, a city whose entire purpose for breathing is to not be like everything else around it. When you're trying to set yourself apart from a place as large and as bold as Texas, you have to work really, really hard. Which could explain why everyone walks around here looking so stressed. Sprawling Austin is one of those unfortunate places that seems really smashing on paper. And then one ruins things by going. You have now been advised. 
Instead, try If your precious snowflake mind can tolerate a little diversity of thought, Houston -- our nation's fourth largest city, if you didn't know -- is currently the place to experience Texas at its most interesting. Sure, this is a city so ugly that sometimes you may be tempted to put a bag over its head, but Houston is also an impressively creative and very fun town, with good museums (the Menil Collection, the Contemporary Arts Museum), plenty of good food -- Austin's own golden boy, Tyson Cole, opened Uchi here recently -- good drink (start with Anvil and Hay Merchant), plenty of music and -- best of all -- fun-loving locals who are generally anything but uptight."
"While 24,000 people an hour is a lot compared with a single freeway lane carrying 2,000 cars an hour with a rush-hour average of 1.1 persons per car, there is no reason why freeway lanes have to be limited to cars. A freeway lane dedicated to buses is capable of moving 1,200 buses per hour safely spaced six bus lengths apart. If WMATA used 80-seat, double-decker buses such as those used in Las Vegas, that lane could move 96,000 people per hour, without even counting standees. 
On reaching downtown, the buses could disperse to various streets, any of which are capable of moving at least 160 buses an hour (40 buses per hour per stop with four designated stops every two blocks). That means directing buses down three or four north-south streets and four east-west streets, allowing most riders to find a stop close to their actual destination. 
The Washington DC region could spend tens of billions of dollars and many years building new subway lines that would provide a modest increase in the rail system’s capacity. Or it could spend a small fraction of that amount of money and time on new buses running on high-occupancy toll lanes that would more than double the system’s capacity. Unfortunately, the political momentum created when DC made the mistake of building rail in the first place will probably doom it to doing the former. The result will be a lot of money spent but little congestion relief."
Finally, in the dark humor department, I snapped this pic of a Rice University parking meter after you've given it your credit card to pay for parking upon exiting.  It doesn't actually tell you how many dollars it's charged you, it just gives you this graphic of the most evil looking smiley face I've ever seen, taunting you with "I've just charged your credit card an obscene amount, but let's keep it a secret until you open your credit card bill, shall we?"

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Can Houston learn from and emulate Cornell's NYC tech campus?

The NY Times has an article with the details on the Cornell NYC Tech university model, including close ties between commercial tech development and academia.  It is an economic development project for NYC as much as an academic one, and one that Houston should consider emulating.  The school is completely focused on masters degree students in the applied sciences - no undergrads or doctoral students - and is thus a perfect fit for catalyzing a tech startup scene.
But the most striking departure of all may be the relationship it sets forth between university and industry, one in which commerce and education are not just compatible, they are also all but indistinguishable. In this new framework, Cornell NYC Tech is not just a school, it is an “educational start-up,” students are “deliverables” and companies seeking access to those students or their professors can choose from a “suite of products” by which to get it. 
Colleges and universities across the country — a great many of which are scrambling to find new ways to finance scientific research, as well as new ways to profit from the fruits of that research — are watching closely. In the last year, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has announced the creation of technology schools by both Columbia and New York University. And Cornell’s president, David J. Skorton, said he had been visited by representatives from other cities hopeful that the Cornell NYC Tech model might work there, too.
But for Cornell NYC Tech, that close relationship is not merely the desired outcome; it is the founding premise. “The campus was set up specifically to increase the talent pool in New York City,” Dr. Skorton said, “to positively influence the New York City economy.”

A longer and even more compelling NYT story on the pioneering Cornell NYC tech campus can be found here.

I really do wish Houston was doing something like this, and have written about something similar in the past with UH.  Rice might also be able to do something similar right now with its BioScience Research Collaborative building in collaboration with the Texas Medical Center.  And just as Cornell is in remote upstate New York but building a tech campus in the city, TAMU could do the same thing here.  In fact, Texas A&M has ambitions to be the largest engineering school in the country, which should have great benefits for Houston.  They want to grow from 11,000 to 25,000 engineering students. Maybe they'd consider a satellite campus in Houston, maybe even at the KBR site?  Lots of possibilities.  This would be a perfect initiative for the Mayor's office to champion if anybody wants to forward this post along...

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