Sunday, April 26, 2015

ULI finally respects Houston, better federal transit funding, growth, rankings, New Zealand, and more

Lots of big news this week about TXDoT's proposed expansion and revamping of I45N, including eliminating the Pierce Elevated downtown, but I'm going to hold off posting about it until I get a chance to go to the Tuesday public meeting information session.  Instead let's clear out some smaller misc items this week:
  • ULI writes a positive article about Houston! (who would have predicted?) I think planner attitudes are starting to turn our way as they see how vibrant and diverse our open approach is.  Goes into detail about Houston’s approach to land-use regulation. Whenever you hear criticisms of the "Houston way" of development, send them this article.  Hat tip to Josh.
“Proponents of “the Houston way” argue that its combination of patchwork regulation and local control provides valuable flexibility to respond quickly to market shifts and reduces costs for developers, while still protecting neighborhoods’ character and ensuring quality in the built environment.”
"Some of the others in our top 10 are not as renowned as tech centers, but have experienced rapid growth over the past decade. The biggest surprise may be No. 4 Houston, which enjoyed a 42.3% expansion of jobs in tech industries and a big 37.8% boost in STEM jobs from 2004-14. Much of the growth was in the now sputtering energy industry, but also medical-related technology, which continues to grow rapidly. Houston is the home to the Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest concentration of medical facilities. It also ranks second to San Jose in engineers per capita."
Finally, Randal O' Toole at Cato has a great idea for a better way to allocate federal transit funding - more equitable with fewer rail boondoggles.  It might actually get traction in the Republican Congress.  Full report here.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Touring METRO's new rail lines: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

UPDATE 5/2/15: This got turned into a Sunday op-ed feature in the Chronicle.

Today I got to take a media preview tour of Metro's new Southeast/Purple and East/Green lines, which are opening to the public May 23rd.  Metro brought a great team to give us the tour and answer our questions.  Photos below for your enjoyment, but here are my thoughts categorized into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

The Good
  • Fun to ride with really well done stops, including nice art and signage, same as the existing lines.  I used the Red line last week to attend the Astrodome 50th anniversary party (followed my Miller Outdoor Theater), and I have to say it was pretty awesome bypassing the traffic congestion of 25,000+ people attending that event.
  • Pretty quick ride: from EaDo near the Dynamo stadium, it's 6 minutes to the current end of the East Line and 17 minutes to the Palm Center at the end of the Southeast line, although it should be noted we didn't stop at the intermediate stops.
  • UH gets 3 stops which is really good access to most parts of the campus, including the new football stadium.
  • The townhome and apartment boom in the East End is even more impressive than I was aware.  I'm not sure how much of it is related to the new lines, but METRO is certainly happy to take some of the credit.  But there's a problem...
The Bad
  • I think they spaced the first two stops on the Southeast/Purple line (EaDo and Leeland/Third Ward) too far apart to effectively serve the booming townhomes out there.  The EaDo stop is right next to Dynamo/BBVA Compass Stadium and 59, and Leeland is almost next to 45S, with no stops in between. Google Maps says they're about 1.1 miles apart.  Most of the people in those townhomes are going to have a serious walk to use the lines.  I think Metro is going to need to look at building an intermediate stop. Update: Good news - Metro board member Christof Spieler has tweeted me that space for a future station has been left near Ennis and Walker.
  • The East End/Green line won't truly be complete all the way to the Magnolia Park Transit center until the bridge over the freight rail tracks is finished in Spring 2016 (estimated).  Right now it stops at Altic/Howard Hughes.  I asked about the name of that stop - did you know the Howard Hughes was a big developer of the East End?  I had no idea - pretty cool.
  • Check out the bottom two photos below.  See the problem?  UH's new stadium is called TDECU, but the stop is called Robertson Stadium.  They have the same problem with the Reliant/NRG stop, and may have it in the future with Minute Maid and BBVA Compass stadiums.  I was told it's a Board level decision, and they're trying to figure out a policy with all of these frequent stadium renamings.  It's expensive to rename a stop when you consider all the maps that have to change.  I say they charge the company that bought the naming rights for the switchover.  But another option would be to pick generic stop names that are likely to be stable: UH, Astros, Dynamo, and Texans/Rodeo Stadiums.
The Ugly
  • Final cost numbers are $823 million for the 6.6 mile Southeast/Purple line and $587 million for the 3.3 mile East/Green line, for a total of $1.4 billion dollars (!).  To work that out on a per-mile basis, it has to be noted that both lines overlap about a mile downtown, so really only 8.9 miles of new track was created (not 9.9).  That works out to $158 million per mile, folks. Ouch. As nice as they are, that's a hard number to stomach. Did I mention this was the ugly section?
  • Some friendly advice to Metro: given the numbers I just mentioned, I don't recommend continuing to promote the new Taco Bell next to UH as economic development spurred by the new line.  The scale disparity invites unflattering comparisons and humor... ;-)
Overall, I continue to stand by my original thoughts that this money would have been better spent on other transit projects, like an improved and more extensive HOT lane network and Park & Rides with more express service to more job centers - or at least a nice cross-town University line.  I don't expect these lines to generate nearly the ridership of the original Main St. line.  But there's no going back in time, so let's hope these lines can be made as successful as possible to get a return-on-taxpayer-investment, especially when it comes to neighborhood investments and redevelopment.  As UH continues to improve as a Tier One University and generate more on-campus living and activity, I could certainly see the potential for a lot of interesting redevelopment along the Southeast line between the campus and downtown, as well as adding new energy to downtown's nightlife scene.  And the East line may also grow in popularity because the rest of the inner loop has gotten so unaffordable.  We'll just have to wait and see how it develops...

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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Houston's general plan and the real source of wealth inequality: housing and land-use regulation

This week I have three items that all touch on the same theme: the risks of overly restrictive local land use regulation.  The first is an amazing paper by a 26-year-old MIT graduate turning heads over his theory that income inequality is actually all about housing (all summarized in one graph). (hat tips to Payton and Josh)
"Rognlie is attacking the idea that rich capitalists have an unfair ability to turn their current wealth into a lazy dynasty of self-reinforcing investments. This theory, made famous by French economist Thomas Piketty, argues that wealth is concentrating in the 1% because more money can be made by investing in machines and land (capital) than paying people to perform work (wages). Because capital is worth more than wages, those with an advantage to invest now in capital become the source of long-term dynasties of wealth and inequality. 
Rognlie’s blockbuster rebuttal to Piketty is that “recent trends in both capital wealth and income are driven almost entirely by housing.” Software, robots, and other modern investments all depreciate in price as fast as the iPod. Technology doesn’t hold value like it used to, so it’s misleading to believe that investments in capital now will give rich folks a long-term advantage. 
Land/housing is really one of the only investments that give wealthy people a long-term leg up. According to the Economist, this changes how we should rethink policy related to income inequality
Rather than taxing businesses and wealthy investors, “policy-makers should deal with the planning regulations and NIMBYism that inhibit housebuilding and which allow homeowners to capture super-normal returns on their investments.” In other words, the government should focus more on housing policy and less on taxing the wealthy, if it wants to properly deal with the inequality problem."
The second item is how Community Control Is Destroying America’s Cities.  Finally there is some recognition that excessive neighborhood NIBMY power is strangling the ability of cities to grow and spiraling housing costs out of control.  Houston gets mentioned as a good alternative model with our lack of zoning - thank goodness we haven't slipped down that slope of ever-expanding land use development controls... but are we about to?...

That leads to the third piece by Scott Beyer in Forbes about the general plan Houston is developing, which even gives me a short shout out.  There's a lot of good stuff in here, hence the long excerpts:
"Does Houston need this? For those who dislike messing with success, the answer should be no. 
As geographer Joel Kotkin has repeatedly noted here and in other publications, Houston’s pro-growth mentality—which is distinct from the “Smart Growth” ethos of government planners—is central to its success. While many highly-regulated cities have declined, Houston has in the last two decades fostered booming oil, health, housing and manufacturing sectors. Since 1990, its population has grown by 29%, five percentage points above the national average, and it has become the de facto Gulf Coast capital. 
Along with this growth has come increased quality of life. According to data from Praxis Strategy Group, a consultancy affiliated with Kotkin, Houston residents have the nation’s highest standard of living when combining average salary with cost of living, something attributed to its unregulated—and thus cheap—housing market.
If the plan’s point is really just to pursue these goals through more data and coordination, so that officials know, for example, where to build parks and fill potholes, then it should prove benign. But that is rarely the way master plans are interpreted. Instead, their lofty goals are used by officials to justify expanded government. What results is the generic list of Smart Growth measures that planners use to try converting automobile-oriented cities into dense, “sustainable,” European-style ones. 
The plan may also encourage expansion of the light rail system, which Tory Gattis, Kotkin’s colleague, believes is inadequate for the spread-out city, especially compared to the growing taxi and ride-sharing industries. If the plan adds an ambitious open-space preservation program, then Houston can kiss goodbye its pro-development climate. All these policies have been used in heavily-planned cities like San Francisco and Portland, contributing to their high taxes and lack of affordability. 
The ironic thing is that Houston’s outward growth and congestion has already created demand for development inside the I-610 loop, which encompasses downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Given this organic urbanization, master plans may be unnecessary, or even counterproductive. The city’s lack of zoning, after all, has made it inviting for such infill projects. But if the plan creates a litany of new regulations, they could be used by neighborhood activists to discourage development, as happens in planning-oriented cities. If city officials are really interested in greater density—along with other urbanist goals like increasing wealth, job creation, and diversity—perhaps they should scrap the plan and keep Houston like it is."
I think he raises some good points about the risks of this plan, but I also know that there are people actively involved with the general plan development process that are making sure we don't make those mistakes.  Officials are more aware than ever before of Houston's strengths and are being careful not to compromise them as we continue to improve the city.  But vigilance will always be required...

More on Houston's new general plan here and my own thoughts here.

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Sunday, April 05, 2015

New life for the Astrodome at 50, everybody's coming to Texas, our openness to new ideas, the rise of private transit, and more

Hope you enjoyed last week's April Fools post - quite the backlog of items to get to this week:
"Nearly 48,000 people – including President Lyndon B. Johnson – crammed into the glistening new Astrodome on April 9, 1965, to watch the New York Yankees fall 2-1 to the newly renamed Houston Astros." 
"Another way to look at population growth in Houston last year:
A baby was born every 5.5 minutes.
A death was recorded every 14.2 minutes.
Someone moved to the region from overseas every 16.3 minutes.
Someone moved to Houston from elsewhere in the U.S. every 8.0 minutes.
All told, Houston's population grew at the rate of one new resident every 3.4 minutes last year."
"“To be able to say I can make tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people’s lives better every day, that’s meaningful. That’s what actually matters.” 
Spieler grew up in the San Francisco suburbs, he told us, before moving to Houston for college. “I thought Houston was an awful place, but I would put up with it to go to Rice. But by the time I graduated I loved this place.” Our attraction? An openness to new ideas. 
“There are cities which try really hard to block any change. And politically, the questions you get asked are: how long have you lived here? Who were your parents? Who do you know? I never would have ended up on an appointed transit board in a city like San Francisco. This is a city where, if you have good ideas and you’re willing to push for them, people will listen to you. It gives me endless hope for Houston’s ability to keep changing.”"
"When many of these voters think of economic dynamism, they think of places like Texas, the top job producer in the nation over the past decade, and, especially, places like Houston, a low-regulation, low-cost-of-living place. In places like Wisconsin, voters in the middle class private sector support candidates who cut state pensions and pass right-to-work laws, so that economic governance can be more Texas-style."
"If you pretend that the United States is populated exclusively by twentysomething graduates of national research universities, you'll develop the sense that everybody is moving to the city centers of New York, Chicago, San Jose, and Boston. In fact, all three of those metro areas have seen more Americans leaving than coming in the last five years. The cities with the highest levels of net domestic migration since 2010 are Houston, Dallas, Austin, Phoenix, Denver, and San Antonio. Once again, we're talking about Texas. More broadly, we're talking about sprawly metros with fast-growing suburbs in the Sun Belt."

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Wednesday, April 01, 2015

J.J. Watt running for Mayor of Houston

Adding his hat (well, helmet) into an already crowded ring, Texans defensive end and 2014 NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt announced today that he'll be running for Mayor of Houston, instantly vaulting to front-runner status.  Citing Arnold Schwarzenegger as his political role model, he vowed to tackle - literally - Houston's pension, pothole, crime, and traffic problems, saying he expected them to be far easier than many of the offensive linemen and running backs he's had to deal with.  He specifically warned the firefighters that he may have to "get physical" and "bring the hurt" in pension reform negotiations, a remark that sent them scrambling to rethink their position.

He also unveiled an innovative new plan for combating traffic congestion: during rush hours, he pledged to stay helicopter airborne for rapid response to crash scenes where he would personally clear vehicles from the mainlanes to the shoulder using his bare hands.  And further demonstrating his "hands on" management style to tackling Houston's crime problem, he pledged to make himself available in the "bad cop" role for all police interrogations, a move expected to dramatically increase confessions and the case clearance rate.

Asked about campaign funding, Watt noted that his recent $100 million contract with the Texans would allow him to easily self-fund and avoid outside money influences - not that he expected to need to spend much on advertising in any case, "I think a reasonably good number of Houstonians already know who I am - name recognition should not be much of an issue."

Asked about economic development, Watt smiled cryptically and said he expected simply to "have a word" with the Saudi Oil Minister about cutting oil production and increasing prices, "I'm sure we'll be able to come to a handshake deal - a very, very... very firm handshake."

Watt also pledged to personally "sack" incompetent or lazy City managers or employees, a threat that sent waves of fear - and a sudden uptick in productivity - throughout the ranks.

In other news, immediately after Watt's announcement, Adrian Garcia's office sent out a press release stating he was perfectly happy as Harris County Sheriff and had no plans to resign and run for another office.


Hope you enjoyed this year's April Fools post ;-D Here are previous years if you missed 'em and would like a chuckle:

  • 2014: HPD forming task force against ride services
  • 2013: Astrodome to be restored to host 2017 Super Bowl LI
  • 2012: Hobby to close, IAH turned over to United
  • 2008: Neighborhood happy with new Ashby tower modifications
  • 2007: Mayor expands historic preservation, air pollution initiatives
  • 2006: Metro settles Universities/Westpark/Richmond rail alignment
  • 2005: Houston embraces "New Weather Urbanism"