Monday, June 24, 2013

Top rankings, DART's failure, Perry vs. NY, South vs. North, and more

Some smaller misc items this week:
"Bluntly put, if the South can finally shake off the worst parts of its cultural baggage, the region’s eventual ascendancy over the North seems more than likely. High-tech entrepreneurs, movie-makers, and bankers appreciate lower taxes and more sensible regulation, just like manufacturers and energy companies. And people generally prefer affordable homes and family-friendly cities. Throwing in a little Southern hospitality, friendliness, and courtesy can’t hurt either."

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

County moving forward with my 2003 Astrodome proposal (sorta)

OK, maybe that's a little bit of a stretch.  Back in 2003, I formally submitted a proposal to make the Astrodome a climate-controlled festival events venue.  At the time, it was passed over for the big money hotel conversion that never was able to get off the ground.  Today, HCSCC rejected 19 private proposals and approved their official proposal to Harris County: "convert it to a state-of-the-art conference and exposition center capable of hosting a large number of sports, convention or community events."  Not exactly the same, but pretty similar.  Just took them 10 years to circle back to it ;-) Obviously the Rodeo and OTC are thrilled.  NFL should be excited for the Super Bowl too.  Conversion estimates are 30 months and $194 million.

My second idea, the National Museum of Technology and Innovation (STEM/engineering focus), was included as part of the very impressive Astrodome Tomorrow proposal that was rejected, primarily for financing reasons I suspect.  Although HCSCC claims they will be integrating the best elements of the private proposals, so pieces may end up in the final plan.  I still think NMTI is a great idea for Houston, but have received feedback over the years that the Astrodome is probably not the right facility, so this may be for the best.  I hope the concept is able to move forward at a different location at some point (maybe in the Museum District or on the post office land downtown).

While I am very glad to see the Astrodome get preserved rather than demolished (it was added to a most endangered American landmark list today), I'm disappointed they're talking about filling in all of the facility that's below ground (~25 feet deep).  That seems like such a waste.  I understand that they want the floor at ground level, and that's fine, but build an elevated floor and keep the space underneath.  Even if it doesn't get finished out now, maybe one day it will get a use.  Why expensively fill it in with dirt or concrete?  At the very worst it could be storage.  Or parking!  A space 20+ feet high and probably about the size of two football fields is nothing to throw away, even if requires support columns breaking up the space.  Hopefully the plan is, uh..., not set in concrete ;-)

UPDATE: Here is the official presentation document of the new plan.


Sunday, June 09, 2013

Metro's lost decade, why Houston should be the capital of Texas, our affordability, and more

This week's misc items:
  • Fortune article on a new book about how the the U.S. is bifurcating into high-growth, low tax, low debt central states and low-growth, high tax, high debt coastal states.  Yet another reason to be thankful you live in Texas...
  • Rising Prices Make Homeownership Affordability More Unequal Across the U.S.  Despite the local headlines about Houston home prices moving up, it's relatively mild compared to more constrained metros, with only 12% of monthly average wage needed to pay the mortgage (second lowest after Detroit) and only a 8.7% year-over-year increase in prices.  #1 Honolulu requires a whopping 74% of the monthly average wage to make mortgage payments.  Mega-ouch.  Houston was in the middle of the pack when it comes to rent affordability, requiring 29% of the monthly average wage (vs. 57% in Miami and NYC) and 9.7% YOY growth.  Hat tip to Hugh.
  • Texas Monthly on why Houston should be the capital of Texas instead of Austin, and the debate that ensued.  Yes, it's a bit tongue in cheek.  But still some fair points... ;-)
"So here we are, almost two centuries later. Austin, the capital, has forsaken the risk-taking ways of its founder and more closely resembles its dour namesake. The city is becoming ever more buttoned-down, striving, and full of modern-day “impresarios” (luxe condo flippers and McMansion builders) while insisting it is still the same “weird” Shangri-la it was when LSD and mescaline first came to town. Meanwhile, Houston—whose city father, incidentally, was known for his shaggy mane, gaudy head scarves, and Indian sashes—effortlessly goes about being one of the strangest and most wonderful metropolises on earth
Consider first a few of its contrasts: For nine of the past eleven years, U.S. News & World Report has named MD Anderson the top cancer hospital in the country, while the Rothko Chapel will forever be an idyllic meditation space and the foremost shrine to suicidal depression on the planet. Rice is the state’s only private university with Tier One status (and the University of Houston is vying to become only the third public university in Texas with that status), while 2013 marks the twenty-sixth annual Houston Art Car Parade, a rolling spectacle and movable feast for the eyes like none other. Houston is home to more Fortune 500 companies than any American city outside New York and more taquerías than any ciudad this side of Monterrey. 
Then there’s our sheer cultural heft. More than two million people avail themselves yearly of ballet, Broadway shows, opera, plays, and symphonic music at the nine arts venues downtown. Taken together, the seventeen-square-block theater district has more concentrated seating for arts events than any place besides Broadway. Seven million people a year stroll through Houston’s nineteen museum district attractions; last year the Houston Museum of Natural Science almost doubled in size with a 115,000-square-foot expansion that includes the gobsmacking, Smithsonian-level Morian Hall of Paleontology. And need I mention NASA, or that “Houston” was the first word spoken on the moon?"
  • Excellent Bill King op-ed on how Metro blew it over-focusing on budget-busting light rail over the last decade.  Great concluding excerpt:
"It is a welcome development that Metro seems to be committed to a revival of its bus service. It is unfortunate that we wasted a decade and several billion dollars on building an at-grade system that will do very little to enhance transit in Houston. We can only imagine how good our bus service might be today had Metro spent that decade and those billions on buses. Buses may not have the cool factor that shiny trains do. But if you really want to move a lot of people and really provide an alternative to private car travel, buses are the answer."
Looking forward to some (hopefully) good Astrodome news this week!

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Monday, June 03, 2013

National press continues its Houston love-fest, the essence of our competitive advantage, and more

Another round of smaller misc items this week:
  • Gotta love it: 17 Reasons Why Houston Is The Best City In America in Business Insider magazine.  I'm disappointed that the lack of zoning, a major feature IMHO, is buried under the "international trade" point for some reason.
  • The BBC on 10 reasons so many people are moving to Texas.  I agree with all of them, although #6 is overblown, and #10 is under-appreciated.  Hat tip to Joel.
  • Houston Is Unstoppable: Why Texas' Juggernaut Is America's #1 Job Creator in The Atlantic.  "Houston is blessed by topography and geography. But the city's recent success is really a masterclass in learning from history."  Good explanation of how Houston insulated it from the deep national and global recession and is dominating other cities in terms of job growth since the crash.  Hat tip to Veronica.
  • How the population of Houston breaks down geographically.  Surprisingly, less than 2% of our recent growth has been inside the loop. I found it interesting that the numbers break down so cleanly: about a half-million inside the loop, 1.5 million to the beltway, 2 million outside the beltway but inside Harris County, and then another 2 million outside the county but in the MSA.  Of course you have to think of those numbers as odometers that are constantly growing... ;-)
  • Houston has been ranked as the #4 best performing big city in the country for 2012, and Richard Florida gives his analysis, including "Houston, which has one of the largest concentrations of IT workers and software engineers in the country, is a case study of how resources and ideas can go together to generate growth."  Hat tip to Jessie.
Finally, this interesting graph from The Economist magazine showing life satisfaction as it relates to income in different countries.  This gets to the essence of Houston's competitive advantage: our low cost of living moves people further up these lines even with modest incomes.  News flash: People are just plain happier when their salary goes further (surprise!).

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