Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sprawl wins in a solar world, bribing commuters to ride transit, new option to Dallas, downtown's progress, lessons from Chicago and Atlanta

First, an event announcement: long-time readers know I don't do official political endorsements (this is a policy blog), but I have admired Bill King's strong stand on the city's pension crisis (among others), a topic most politicians seem to shy away from.  You can learn more about his Back-to-Basics campaign and ask all the questions you like (the man can definitely engage seriously on policy discussions) at his kickoff fundraiser Monday from 5:30 to 7 at Cadillac Bar.  Details here.

Moving on to this week's items:
The solution to these issues, as proposed by Townsend, is "solar-powered, self-driving sprawl." The thinking goes like this: sprawl is the ideal land use pattern for developing a solar grid that can power the electric cars of residents while still providing the electricity that the region needs to function. He quotes from a paper issued in 2013 by University of Auckland researchers: 
"[S]uburbia is not only the most efficient collector of solar energy but that enough excess electricity can be generated to power daily transport needs of suburbia and also contribute to peak daytime electrical loads in the city centre... While a compact city may be more efficient for the internal combustion engine vehicles, a dispersed city is more efficient when distributed generation of electricity by [photovoltaic solar cells] is the main energy source and [electric vehicles] are the means of transport."

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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Avoiding CA's mistakes, Astrodome talk, great rankings, cool H-town video, and more

Let's kick off this week's post with an event announcement: if you have even the slightest interest in the Astrodome, don't miss Jim Gast's talk this Thursday.  I saw him speak at Rice, and he has a really compelling mix of great slides and stories of the Astrodome's history - so good I suggested he get it turned into a documentary.  As an added bonus, he'll sign a copy of his Astrodome book ("The Astrodome: Building an American Spectacle - A book about the people, technology, and times that built the biggest room in the world") for you.  Not to be missed.  Details here.

In other news, our new Center for Opportunity Urbanism think tank had an incredible inaugural luncheon event last week, with over 200 in attendance (!) and yours truly got some nice pics and quotes on the front page of the Chronicle.  California land use attorney David Friedman gave a scary talk about how environmental good intentions went awry in California starting in the 1970s and, combined with judicial activism, led to complete development and infrastructure stagnation as well as a gutting of the middle class there (housing and jobs).  You can see his slides here. A cautionary tale for Houston and Texas.

Other misc items this week:
"Paradoxically, perhaps the city’s biggest strength is its sprawl. Unlike most other big cities in America, Houston has no zoning code, so it is quick to respond to demand for housing and office space. Last year authorities in the Houston metropolitan area, with a population of 6.2m, issued permits to build 64,000 homes. The entire state of California, with a population of 39m, issued just 83,000... Joel Kotkin of Chapman University in California argues that thanks to cars, even over its vast size, Houston creates the same possibilities for people to meet and share ideas that generate wealth in denser cities such as New York. Sprawl may not be pretty—but it seems to work."
"Since 2009 the area has welcomed some 1,500 corporate relocations or expansions—and that’s just counting those that created 50 or more jobs, leased 20,000 or more square feet of office space, or invested $1 million or more in capital improvements.
In the past four years, greater Houston grew by half a million people—half from moves, half from births. Population growth means housing demand, and realtors sold more than 425,000 homes in the last five years, amounting to a home-closing rate of one every six minutes, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. What’s more, jobs boost construction, which is why last year Houston topped our list of Building Boom Towns: metro areas with the most new construction. 
What’s behind the boom, besides the obvious oil explosion? Exports. Between 2009 and 2013, the value of Houston’s exports grew 74.5%. More than 3,000 companies in greater Houston do business internationally, by Jankowski’s count, from oilfield services giant Schlumberger to Universe Technical Translation. The metro area is now the nation’s top exporter, ahead of New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Detroit. "
Finally I'd like to end with this really well done short promotional video of Houston by the GHP.  It'll make you proud to be a Houstonian (you can make it a more impressive full screen size with a click on the lower right corner brackets).

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Sunday, March 08, 2015

Ten years of Houston Strategies

Exactly ten years ago today were my very first posts on Houston Strategies: a welcome/kickoff/teaser post and an idea for a UH Institute of Technology campus (the idea didn't take, but I'm still hopeful UH will see the light one day...).  And here we are 1,050 posts later with thousands of readers - I can't thank you enough for your support over the years.  Over that time the posts have shifted away from ideas and strategies towards summarizing relevant items from around the web for your consideration, but the overall goal remains the same: celebrating what Houston does right and promoting ideas for making it better.

By far the biggest success story from this incubator of ideas has been Opportunity Urbanism, which led to a TEDx talk, a twin blog at the Houston Chronicle, a couple of commissioned reports, and, most importantly, a new national think tank based in Houston with myself as a Founding Senior Fellow (with our free kickoff luncheon event this Thursday - would love to see you there, details and rsvp here or email me).  Other ideas have not been as successful, but what's the old saying? "If you're not failing, you're not trying hard enough."

Looking back over the last ten years, what strikes me the most is the incredible shift in Houston's confidence in itself.  Ten+ years ago, Houston was almost apologetic about not being Austin/Portland/San Francisco/New York.  There was much fretting about our need to attract the college-educated creative class and implement much stronger land use controls along with rail transit, since "that's what global cities do".  Since then, they had a massive housing crash, and we've had hyper-growth and come into our own as a city confident in itself and the unique way we do things in Houston, including our market-oriented approach to land use instead of traditional zoning and more flexible and value-oriented busways instead of budget-busting fixed rail (unfortunately we only made that discovery *after* it busted our budgets).  We identified specific needs to fix and tackled them, including quality of life issues like parks, bayous, bike trails, flood control, a vibrant downtown, and neighborhood and historic preservation - all within the context of doing things "the Houston way", with a heavy emphasis on philanthropy, ground-up volunteerism, and voluntary opt-ins - with the occasional government support as needed (big projects up next: the Astrodome, hopefully followed soon after by the Ike Dike).

You can find my all-time favorite posts from the first 1,000 here, with the best of the newer ones since then here.  Looking those over, here are the biggest ideas to come out of this blog over the last ten years that I'd like to continue to promote going forward (in addition to Opportunity Urbanism, of course):
So ten years yields five big ideas still worth promoting plus a plethora of smaller ones.  Not bad - I'll take that.  As always, thanks for your readership, and here's to the next ten years being even better!

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Sunday, March 01, 2015

Our evolving "Houston style" general plan

I actually attended this event on the process to create a new general plan for Houston a few weeks ago, but wanted to wait to blog on it until the new web site was up, which it now is (kudos to Jeff at January Advisors).  Definitely worth exploring, and you can give them feedback as well.

So far they have two things:

1. A pretty good vision statement:
"Houston offers opportunity for all and celebrates its diversity of people, economy, culture, and places. Houston promotes healthy and resilient communities through smart civic investments, dynamic partnerships, education, and innovation. Houston is the place where anyone can prosper and feel at home. 
Houston: Opportunity. Diversity. Community. Home."
2. An extensive list of draft goals, which do what most general plans do - describe utopia.

If planning led to utopia, then we'd all live in paradise.  But the problem is that the real world involves tradeoffs and limited resources, and the plans I've seen don't seem to help much with those.  The very good news in this process is that they've agreed up front this will be a "Houston-style plan", which means no zoning or land-use controls (bravo).  People now seem to realize the value of Houston's adaptive, market-based approach to land use and don't want to lose those benefits.  Instead, they are compiling a complete inventory of available policy tools, like TIRZs.  But there can still be some benefits from a general plan, mainly around better coordination, collaboration, and consistency among all of the various entities in this huge city.

The final plan will eventually include:
  • a vision
  • website with plans, policies, and projects
  • key performance indicators (KPIs)
  • neighborhood enhancement strategy
  • growth and development strategy
  • implementation strategy
I had three pieces of feedback for them:
  1. Houston's biggest strength is that it gives people all of the amenities of a coastal mega-city but at far lower cost, so affordability needs to be near the top of the list of key performance indicators.  Since this is a bureaucratic process by committee, I am concerned that there will be way too many KPIs listed, and when there's too many, there might as well be none at all.  They really need to focus on the "Key" part and strictly limit the number of indicators.  The #1 KPI should be maintaining the highest cost-of-living adjusted salaries (and therefore highest standard of living) in the country - more here and the graph at the bottom here.
  2. Be very careful with "neighborhood protection" efforts - NIMBYs fear change and will stagnate the city if you give them the mechanisms to do so.
  3. Since this is a multi-decade plan, they need to take into account the rise of self-driving vehicles and taxis coming in the 2020s.  They will dramatically reduce congestion and parking needs.  At a minimum, they should be considering slowly reducing parking requirements over time and enabling higher densities with less parking.  Ideally, they should just let the market figure out how much parking it needs, and it will adjust very nicely as the new automated vehicles come along.  Automated taxis will also revolutionize transit, and they need to take that into consideration too, including backing off from investing in fixed rail transit, which I believe will be obsoleted for the most part by those taxis.  If we focus instead on buses and managed lanes, then it's all adaptable to the new technology as it evolves.
You can read more on this by my namesake over at Cite.

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