Sunday, September 27, 2015

Houston *is* different from zoned cities, zoning drags GDP, defending Houston, impressing outsiders, and more

It's been a busy few weeks with the Opportunity Urbanism TV interview, TXDoT meeting on the 45N plan, and the Zillow Housing Roadmap to 2016 panel, so the backlog of smaller miscellaneous items has grown to bursting.  Apologies for the lack of timeliness on a few of these...

First, I have to call BS on this.  Yes, we have reasonable land-use regulations, but they are far from zoning and Houston is qualitatively different from other cities like Dallas.
  1. Massive exhibit #1: the townhouses covering the inner loop where single-family homes once stood.  No zoned city would allow that.  Without that flexibility, inner Houston would be much lower density and covered in McMansions that look like Bellaire and West U with similar pricing.  
  2. Exhibit #2: residential towers all over the place, instead of clustered downtown or in other skyscraper zones.  
  3. Exhibit #3: apartment complexes going up anywhere they can get the land, pretty much no matter what was sitting there before, like industrial or commercial uses - typical zoning doesn't allow that.  
Houston is a denser, more vibrant, more eclectic, and - most importantly - more affordable city because it lacks zoning.  Don't let anyone try to convince you otherwise.
“No, please don’t be sorry. I love living in Houston. It’s a great place to live and I have a great life there. It’s actually not that place that you might imagine it to be. In fact, it’s one of the country’s most ethnically diverse and progressive cities. My children go to school with kids from all over the world. And the wine and food scene there is great, too.”
Finally, some followup material from the Zillow Housing Roadmap to 2016 panel.  First, they created a summary article here, which includes some quotes from me as well as this conclusion:
Houston, we Have a (PR) Problem 
If you were asked to name America’s most diverse city by population groups, you might say New York. The fastest-growing? Maybe San Francisco. Most affordable? Probably Detroit, or another ailing rust-belt market. 
But in reality, Houston is at or near the top of all those superlative lists, and more. That that isn’t immediately obvious to most Americans – let alone foreign visitors to America – speaks volumes about Houston’s PR problem. Houston’s reality – it is a vibrant, growing, well-educated, affordable and diverse city full of opportunity – doesn’t square with its popular image. 
During our visit, we were constantly surprised by Houston, by the passion and thoughtfulness of its advocates and the creativity of its solutions to its mounting challenges. 
They also published a nice short video below on their Houston visit.  Note: despite what the guy in the video says, Houston is *not* increasing population by 50% in the next 5-10 years, whether you look at the city or the metro.  Most likely that will take a couple of decades or so...

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Mayoral candidate forum on Houston planning this Saturday

Wanted to pass this event along to my readers, which should be quite interesting.  Unfortunately I will be at the conflicting Rethink Education Summit and won't be able to make it, but I'm looking forward to reading about it and hearing from any of you that do attend.

Mayoral Forum - Plan Houston: A Roadmap to Success
Hear the Candidates’ Strategies for Houston’s Growth

What: Hear Houston's top mayoral candidates address key components of Plan Houston strategies for growth and development, transportation/mobility, housing, neighborhoods, and infrastructure. Blueprint Houston has advocated for a general plan for Houston for more than a decade.

With Houston City Council expected to vote in September on Houston’s first general plan, known as Plan Houston, the city’s next mayor will have a significant impact on how the plan is implemented.

When: 9 a.m.-11:30 a.m.
            Saturday, Sept. 26                         

Where:        Houston Community College, central campus auditorium
1300 Holman
Park in the lot at Alabama and San Jacinto streets. Use rear entrance to building by the auditorium.

Who:  Participating candidates are Chris Bell, Steve Costello, Adrian Garcia, Ben Hall, Bill King, Victoria Lane, Marty McVey and Sylvester Turner.

Attendees are asked to please RSVP to

Sign language interpretation services will be provided.

Event co-sponsors: AARP, American Institute of Architects, American Planning Association, American Society of Landscape Architects, Bike Houston, Citizens Environmental Coalition, Citizens Transportation Coalition, Complete Streets Coalition, Houston Tomorrow, Kinder Institute at Rice University, League of Women Voters and Super Neighborhood Alliance.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The big picture on Houston's growth and housing market

Zillow's Housing Roadmap to 2016 has been touring various cities across America, and it stopped in Houston last week were I served on a panel discussing housing trends and policy in Houston.  I had a great time, and the Chronicle summarized us here and the tweet stream is here (my favorite one ;-)

Raj had a fantastic idea of using church parking lots to develop affordable housing projects in gentrifying neighborhoods, since churches have a stake in maintaining neighborhoods through gentrification and aren't necessarily trying to absolutely maximize the value of their land.  As long as they get the parking they need on Sunday mornings (probably in a garage that goes with the project), they should be happy to get more value out of the land while also preserving neighborhood affordability.  Raj had another great idea that we should be slowly reducing Houston's minimum parking requirements for projects - especially in the urban core - as more people use services like Uber, transit, biking, and walking to get around, and with a the big flip to driverless vehicles coming in the 2020s with an attendant dramatic drop in the need for parking.  We can begin that transition now and start re-purposing a lot of that parking land.  I've always been an advocate of letting the free market sort out parking rather than having it imposed by the City - this is a good time to start that process incrementally.

I also got to meet the CEO of Neighborhood Centers, Angela Blanchard, and came away very impressed. They're doing amazing things with upward opportunity in our poorest neighborhoods using an innovative approach, and recently got a fantastic profile in the NY Times.

To clarify some of my quotes in the Chronicle, what I said is that we might see more employers set up along the Beltway 8 ring so they can bring in both family employees from the suburbs and singles from the urban core with reasonable commutes. Look at what Exxon has done south of The Woodlands, although they biased more towards the family employees, which are the significant majority of their workforce. As far as the Grand Parkway being the last ring we'll need for a few decades, remember that the area of a circle is pi * r^2. As that radius increases, each additional mile adds a *lot* more land area. The Grand Parkway will be 170 miles long - almost here to San Antonio! Assume development 5 miles on either side of it, 170 x (5+5) = 1,700 sq. miles, at 3,000 people per mile is 5.1 *million* people being accommodated out there, which is almost a doubling of what we have now in the metro (6.5 million) and definitely a few decades of our growth

As part of the tour, Zillow has published a lot of good analysis of the Houston housing market you can find here with some additional overview stats here.  Here are some of my favorite excerpts from the research:
Overall a great set of conversations, and my hat's off to all the great people I met, especially those working on the constant struggle of providing good affordable housing to our disadvantaged populations.

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Exciting improvements to the new I45 plan plus the future of managed lanes

First, a quick event announcement: Please join me at Zillow’s housing forum on Wednesday, September 16th, 8:30-11:00am, at the Hilton Americas-Houston downtown (1600 Lamar St).  I (along with other local experts) will discuss how Houston - one of America’s fastest growing cities - is planning for its future growth while keeping Houston’s housing market affordable.  See the full agenda and register for the event here.  First time I've ever had to share the stage with another Tory, which is definitely going to be confusing!

Moving on to the subject of this week's post, Oscar Slotboom of Houston Freeways fame and myself were able to meet with TXDoT representatives Sept 4th to discuss the new I45 plan (sincere thanks to Commissioner Jeff Moseley for making the meeting arrangements).  I was really impressed with how seriously they've taken our input and feedback (as well as others') and excited about some new directions.  Oscar's details of the new developments are included farther below (including the Pierce Elevated Park), but first here are some big takeaways I came away with:
  • They fixed a lot of the problems I previously described here and here.
  • The net average speed increase is predicted to be +24mph, which is a really big improvement!  Also, it may make substantial progress at helping Houston reach clean air attainment goals, which is nothing to sneeze at (pun intended ;-).
  • I pitched them on a new vision for TXDoT in an era of declining resources and limited ability to widen freeways: a comprehensive network of managed lanes in urban areas always providing a high-speed option, primarily for express buses but also HOVs and dynamic toll-payers.  These lane networks are critical to keeping commutes tolerable, employers from fleeing to the suburbs, and maintaining the vitality and tax base of our core cities.
  • They realize they have a bit of a branding problem with managed lanes, and seemed genuinely excited about my own proposal from way back: MaX Lanes (Managed eXpress Lanes) moving the maximum number of people at maximum speed.  They may use different strategies that change over time to reach that goal, such as dynamic tolling, high-occupancy requirements, or eventually even driverless vehicle restrictions, but the overall goal of these lanes never changes: move as many people as possible at high speed.
  • Discussion ensued about how these managed lane networks might be connected without creating a completely unmanageable tangle of ramps, like, for example, if managed lanes on 45N needed to connect to (hypothetical) ones on 610N to connect people over to Uptown.  My own suggestion came from watching True Detective season 1, which includes this image from the opening credits showing a traffic circle connecting two freeways in Metairie, LA (see Google satellite map here).  It's called a three-level stacked roundabout.  Evidently these were used long ago when freeways were much smaller, but they bog down once they are wider and carry more traffic.  But they're perfect for easily connecting a small set of 1/2/4 managed lanes to another small set of 1/2/4 managed lanes. I really hope TXDoT takes a serious look at this option for connecting up our managed lane network.
  • And the really big news: They're actually considering my old idea of connecting the 59/527 spur to I45 through Midtown with cut-and-cover tunnels under Bagby and Brazos! In fact, it might even be something they consider before construction, so they can act as a reliever during the massive I45 rebuild!  Totally speculative right now, but they seemed genuinely interested in exploring it, especially after starting to think of it as a much cheaper/easier cut-and-cover trench project rather than boring deep, expensive tunnels.
Overall, I'd say my feelings on the project have evolved from mild supporter to mildly opposed and now back to strong support as TXDoT continues to make improvements to the plan.

Kuff has three additional updates to the plan here.

Details from Oscar Slotboom at HAIF below:


I attended a meeting at TxDOT on September 4 where TxDOT provided an update on the status of the plan. Overall the news is good. The items which are my most serious concerns are being fixed. Numerous other issues are still under review, and some items won't be changed to the extent I would like to see. But overall, I'm pleased.

The plan analysis has been updated at


Good news on expected modifications
1. Interstate 45 will have at least three continuous lanes through downtown. This fixes my most serious design concern of the entire project, although details on the merging and transition zones need to be verified to be sufficient in the next official release.

2. Interstate 45 will have five regular lanes in each direction under North Main, and five regular lanes in each direction between Loop 610 and downtown. A long northbound collector lane from downtown functioning like a long on-ramp will help minimize the risk of a bottleneck in this area. There will also be numerous other improvements in the area addressing neighborhood concerns. No additional right-of-way is needed except for maybe a minor impact to the fuel station on the northwest corner at North Main. This design looks like it will be the best is can be given the constraints, and fixes my second most serious design concern.

3. A ramp from westbound I-10 to the southbound downtown spur is expected to be added, solving the problem of downtown access from westbound I-10.

Promising modifications under study

In order to maintain a staging area for the GRB center, they are looking at placing the staging area on a deck over the freeway trench and then swerving Hamilton toward the east, away from the GRB, so that the staging area is immediately adjacent to the GRB. Hamilton would be above the freeway trench in this area, rather than on the ground on the west side of the trench as shown in the original plan.

Observation on the Pierce Elevated

HNTB mentioned that the price of downtown land around the Pierce Elevated is around $100 per square foot, with a net to TxDOT after legal and professional fees around $65. Since the Pierce Elevated uses around 14 half blocks, with each half block around 250x125 feet (31,250 square feet), that translates to $3.1 million per half block or $43 million overall, with a net around $28 million. Of course, those numbers are rough ballpark numbers and real estate prices fluctuate.

It seems feasible and reasonable that the City of Houston could afford $28 million for Pierce Skypark land. In comparison, the proposed park on a deck over the freeway near the GRB will be far more expensive, at least $100 million just for the deck and a total cost between $150 and $300 million, depending on the size and amount of features.

Items still under review

For eastbound Allen Parkway into downtown, it originally appeared that a loop on-ramp would be added (similar to the existing loop ramp), but now more options are being considered, including adding a northbound on-ramp at West Dallas which Allen Parkway traffic would also use.

For the downtown spur section south of Allen Parkway, the configuration with Heiner Street (currently side-by-side) is under review and could be changed to a configuration with frontage roads.

Previously reported

Access to the I-45 managed lanes in the downtown area will be improved, and some access points are still being studied.

Better connections between the I-45 managed lanes and Loop 610, although details were not available.

No connections between Memorial and the downtown spur.

Items of Concern which TxDOT says do not need changes, or cannot be changed 

No additional regular lane capacity on I-45 is expected between Loop 610 and Beltway 8. As of July this was under consideration, but appears to be rejected. I'm still hoping for a longer section of five regular lanes each way north of Loop 610.

Changes to the access between downtown and SH 288 will be minimal, with only a potential minor improvement to the southbound ramp at downtown entrance.

In the south Midtown area, changes to the on/off ramps to/from US 59 are also expected to be minor, but this area is still under review with a meeting planned in Midtown later this month.

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Monday, September 07, 2015

Opportunity Urbanism TV interview

This is my hour-long public access HMS TV interview by David Hutzelman on Opportunity Urbanism from last week (plus lots of good stuff on Houston). Despite some of the awkwardness - they couldn’t give me control of the slides and had trouble keeping up with my pace - I think it came out ok.  I’ll be making a similar presentation at the Preserving the American Dream conference in Austin in November if anyone wants to make the trip.

Fun fact: my left hand stays under the table wrapped in a paper towel because I smashed my finger in a door right before the show started and it would not stop bleeding.  "Playing through the pain", so to speak. ;-) Enjoy.


Thursday, September 03, 2015

TV interview + caller Q&A tonight

Just wanted to give all of my readers the heads up that I will be on Houston local cable access HMS TV this evening from 6:30 to 7:30pm discussing Opportunity Urbanism, including the ability for you to call in and ask questions.  Hope you get a chance to check it out and call in!

Watch HMS TV live online here or on Comcast 17, AT&T U-Verse 99, Phonoscope 75, TV Max 95, Sudden Link 99.