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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