Tuesday, April 26, 2016

WSJ features innovative Houston, reviewing drainage regulations, the problems of zoning, who's moving here and why

A few quick small items before the main item:
  • Lots of op-eds calling for new development regulations after last week's flooding. I do think it's a good idea for the city and surrounding counties to form a joint commission (like this one at H-GAC) to review water runoff retention regulations for development and come up with a list of recommendations.  The city can't do it alone - what really matters is the fast growing areas outside the city, especially to the west and north that drain to bayous through the city.  The Grand Parkway is going to add a lot of new development, and that development has to hold back its runoff or things will only get worse in the city.
  • Great infographic on Houston's growth and migration patterns, including where people are coming from and our affordability (unfortunately too big to embed here).
  • Eight ways exclusionary zoning makes our communities more expensive and less just. A really strong, comprehensive list. Many cities are getting seriously messed up by this.  Again, give thanks we don't have this issue in Houston - it's all but impossible to fix once a city goes down that path.
  • WSJ: Why the Great Divide Is Growing Between Affordable and Expensive U.S. Cities. Turns out if you allow supply to keep up with demand, prices stay reasonable - surprise!  That especially applies to outward suburban growth.
Finally, yesterday the Wall Street Journal had a special section on The Future of Cities, including the lead article, "Five Cities That Are Leading the Way in Urban Innovation".  Guess who made the list?! The excellent blurb on Houston, in its entirety: 

HOUSTON: Thriving but affordable
Pro-growth policies and light regulation, especially the lack of traditional zoning. make it easier and faster to build—and help keep housing more affordable for middle-income families than it is in coastal cities.

Many successful cities—most notably, London and San Francisco—have a glitch in their operating systems: Though they are growing rapidly, too many people are finding they can’t afford to live there.

Not Houston. From 2010 to 2014, the Texas city added more than 140,000 people, a 6.7% increase and second only to New York in the U.S. But the difference between Houston and other high-growth cities is that it has expanded its housing stock to accommodate its new residents. In roughly the same period, the Houston metro area issued construction permits for 189,634 new units, the most in the nation. It is not surprising, then, that more than 60% of homes in the larger Houston metro area are considered affordable for median-income families, according to the National Home Builders Association, compared with about 15% in the Los Angeles area.

Houston has “shown a capacity to grow without the kind of massive real-estate inflation that makes settling into places like New York, San Francisco, Boston, as well as London, all but impossible for middle-class families,” says Joel Kotkin, a fellow in urban studies at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

Many factors contributed to the recent growth spurt: Houston is the hub of the recently booming oil industry, which is now going through a painful bust. It boasts a nationally recognized medical center and is home to a thriving port. But affordable housing also contributed, Mr. Kotkin and others say, thanks to pro-growth policies and a light regulatory touch, especially the lack of traditional zoning.

No zoning makes it easier and faster to build, especially in response to changing economic conditions. A developer can avoid a lengthy and expensive rezoning process to build a townhome complex in a declining neighborhood of aging single-family homes. It might have to upgrade sewer lines and streets, but development costs are still low compared with other places. Although prices have risen some as builders replace older homes with nicer housing, the city stays affordable because so many new homes can quickly come on the market to keep up with demand.

The lack of zoning “actually does give the developer and design communities the ability to do things unlike anywhere else,” says Tim Cisneros, a Houston architect.

Says Mr. Kotkin: “While many on the ocean coasts yearn to restore the 19th-century city, the Texas cities are creating a template for this century.”

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Our philanthropic and culinary cultures, Chicago you have a Houston problem, Austin's over-regulation, and the fading American Dream

Some smaller misc items this week:
"According to Charity Navigator, Houston sits near the top among major U.S. metros in total philanthropic assets, percentage of income given to charity, and financial health of its largest charities. In 2015, the organization ranked Houston number one, just ahead of San Diego, in overall philanthropic culture."
"Chicago ... you have a Houston problem. Chicago is no longer the only global game not on the Atlantic or Pacific seaboard. The Texas Triangle beckons Iowa college grads. "
"With full recognition that our credibility is suspect, I nonetheless come today to proclaim Houston one of the great eating capitals of America. I mean (and here I mount the mechanical bull) far better than anywhere else in Texas, better than anywhere else in the Southwest, better for that matter than in my current place of residence, Washington, D.C. That the nation’s fourth­ largest city is no longer one gigantic steak platter for oil barons should not constitute breaking news. One can go on about the city’s indigenous assets, such as its array of Gulf Coast ingredients and its surprising multiculturalism. 
But the main reason for Houston’s culinary ascent is economic. ...the Bayou City “is very affordable and full of people who like to go out at night and spend money.” It costs probably one-third less to build and design a restaurant here than in California, he said, adding, “I can afford to pay sous chefs full time and be able to spend the weekends fishing and duck hunting with my boys.” 
Such cost savings are passed on to Houston’s consumers, who can enjoy a first­-rate meal here for maybe two­-thirds of what such a dinner would come to in New York or San Francisco."

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Monday, April 11, 2016

Defending the Pierce Elevated and other thoughts on TXDoT's plans

After my post a few weeks ago on Purple City's alternative I45 plan through downtown, TXDoT very graciously brought in myself, Oscar Slotboom, and the editor of Purple City (preferring anonymity) to discuss the suggestions.  They had pretty comprehensively analyzed the plan and raised many issues for discussion.  It's unclear how much of it will be incorporated (I didn't get the impression it would be much), but they were very open-minded and analytical throughout the conversation. Clearly everybody wants to come up with the best possible plan, and their existing one is very good - but even very good plans have potential for improvement.

My biggest concern still exists: the MaX lanes don't connect continuously through downtown, meaning that express transit services trying to get from one side of the city to job centers on the other side are going to have trouble.  The Purple City plan attempted to fix this by keeping the Pierce Elevated, which is certainly controversial.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there are advantages beyond mobility/traffic capacity/MaX Lanes to keeping the Pierce Elevated that are not being considered.

Right now, the Pierce creates a clear dividing line between two very distinct neighborhoods (and management districts): downtown and midtown.  If it weren't there, would giant downtown office towers start being constructed in midtown? Would they destroy the character of midtown? Would the land suddenly appreciate to downtown levels and make simple retail, apartments, restaurants, or bars financially infeasible? Midtown is one of Houston's great neighborhoods - do we really want to put it at risk? (full disclosure: I live there)

Imagine if the Pierce had never been built: downtown and midtown may never have evolved as distinct neighborhoods - it might have all been one big downtown. That would have diluted downtown over a larger land area, probably with more surface parking lots.  The current land area constraint of downtown forces intensification in a way that is probably good for downtown, and allows midtown to flourish separately with a distinctly different character.  They're almost like Manhattan vs. Brooklyn (on a much smaller scale, of course) - would Brooklyn even exist in its distinctive way if the East River didn't divide it from Manhattan?  Maybe the Pierce Elevated is the East River of Houston?  Kind of puts it in a different context when you think about it that way, eh?

There have been other discussions over at HAIF on keeping the Pierce, mainly to help preserve many blocks of newly thriving EaDo from being consumed by the widened 45+59 on that side under the new plan.  In any case, I hope this sparks a wider conversation about the potential value in keeping the Pierce and/or modifying the new I45 plan.

Speaking of TXDoT plans, they're holding a public meeting tomorrow/Tues on their plan for express bus lanes along 610W connecting the NW Transit Center to Post Oak.  Oscar Slotboom of Houston Freeways believes the plan has very serious flaws, which he has detailed here, include diagrams for a better design (and I tend to agree).  In this case, it looks like TXDoT - in a well-meaning effort to be responsive to public input - has made some crippling compromises to satisfy the Uptown Park folks.  While I respect TXDoT's efforts to be responsive, they also have a duty to build good systems that serve the entire region well, even if that sometimes means that narrow special interests don't get their way.  Please check out the critique and alternative, and if you agree then please send feedback to TXDoT, whether online or at the public meeting.  If enough of the public says these kinds of bad compromises are unacceptable, maybe they'll make changes.  And while you're at it, maybe mention that the Pierce Elevated isn't so bad... ;-)

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Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Defending urban freeways, smart growth wrong approach to climate change, efficient spending, big TX, and more

Hope you enjoyed last week's April Fools post. CultureMap stole the theme of my 2008 April Fools about the Ashby high-rise! But it was a good one worth repeating. Can't believe this Ashby controversy has dragged out over 8+ years - will it never end?

Moving on to lots of small items to catch up on this week:
"The paper shows that there is little potential for meaningful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction from urban containment policies (smart growth, including anti-suburban housing strategies, transit, etc) and that doing so would be expensive, not only in dollars, but also in economic displacement. 
The paper also cites research (McKinsey and others) to the fact that material GHG emissions reductions can be achieved by selecting strategies based on their return cost effectiveness. In other words, urban containment and smart growth is not a necessity to reduce GHG emissions, and is best avoided."
"This map shows (roughly) how large the Lone Star State is. Points in the map’s red section are closer to somewhere in Texas than the opposite sides of Texas are to each other.
That’s right: You can be in Fargo, or Atlanta, or San Diego ... and be closer to Texas than Texas is to itself.
That’s what the map below says. Texas is big."

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Friday, April 01, 2016

TXDoT responds to Mayor Turner's call to rethink urban transportation and freeways

Responding to Mayor Turner's call to rethink their approach to urban transportation, combined with support for the demolition of the Pierce Elevated downtown and criticism of the Katy Freeway expansion (despite moving more than twice as many people as before), TXDoT released a new transportation vision and plan for Houston today.  Embracing the widespread praise for freeway removal as well as the much easier budget affordability of demolition than expansion, TXDoT announced their plan to revert to this 1973 map of Houston below, including removal of 290, 249, 288, most of Beltway 8, the Hardy, Westpark, the Grand Parkway, and the 610 Ship Channel Bridge.  In addition, 45, 10, 59, and 610 will all be returned to their tidy 1973 sizes of 4 or 6 lanes.

"The light bulb moment for us was when we asked, 'If freeway expansions are bad, then what's good?' - and the answer was immediately obvious: removals must be good. The logic is irrefutable," said TXDoT Houston District Engineer Quincy Allen.

Even though demolition is expected to take many years, TXDoT announced equivalent lane closures effective immediately so citizens could begin getting used to the new transportation paradigm. They expect people will have little trouble adapting to the new urban form, simply riding transit, biking, or moving closer to their employers.  "We really expect very little disruption," said Allen, "in fact we expect Houston over time to become a Utopian paradise of dense walkability similar to Mexico City or Bangkok."

TXDoT further announced that if this plan is as wildly popular as they expect, they will begin work on a phase two to remove the remaining freeways and revert to the pre-WW2 freewayless map, but that funding for the additional demolition may require a voter-approved bond issue.  "That's the Holy Grail goal for us - heck, at that point we can shut down the department and all retire on our nice state pensions - but we're going to have to ask the public to be patient. These freeways weren't built in a day, and it will take time - and funding - to remove them," said Allen.

Houston, 1973
Hope you enjoyed this year's April Fools post ;-D 
Special thanks to my dad for sharing the old road atlas.
Here are previous years if you missed 'em and would like a chuckle:

  • 2015: J.J. Watt running for Mayor of Houston
  • 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"
  • Labels: