Monday, November 21, 2016

Houston's changes, challenges, opportunities, and identity

Apologies for the sporadic posting lately - it's been a crazy couple of months. My Center for Opportunity Urbanism recently held an HBJ-sponsored event (alternate link) to release our major report on Texas Urbanism, with a focus on the Texas Triangle cities.  I'll have more to discuss on this in future posts, but in this one I wanted to give my thoughts/notes on the questions the HBJ moderator asked the panel during the event.

How has Houston changed in the past 30 years?
Culturally, from provincial to much more cosmopolitan (including restaurants). Much more educated, attracting many more college grads. Higher demographic diversity. Economically full cycle, from the collapse of the first oil boom to the collapse of the second oil boom. Massive growth - more than doubled in metro population.  Huge growth and densification inside the Loop, especially townhomes, apartments, and residential towers.  Also the rise of the suburban edge cities: Sugar Land, Pearland, Katy, Woodlands, League City.

Obviously the second oil boom was a massive driver. The lack of zoning enabled easy densification. Culturally, our long history of comfort/tolerance with diversity has made it easy for immigrants to move here and assimilate.  The energy industry has become much more global.  Massive housing unaffordability developed on the coasts which made Houston a much more attractive proposition for all classes (including recent college grads). Freeway investments/expansions helped enable the suburban growth, especially the edge cities.

What are Houston’s biggest challenges?
  • Traffic congestion, and in turn keeping major employers in the core instead of moving out to the suburbs like Exxon and Shell (solution = network of MaX Lanes – Managed eXpress lanes moving the maximum number of people at maximum speed).  
  • Education (Klineberg).  
  • Risk of the fossil fuel industry being replaced with renewables – how long will the transition take and how will we adapt?  
  • Building the Ike Dike before the Big Hurricane hits.
  • Resolving the City pension funding crisis and making them sustainable long-term.
What are Houston’s biggest opportunities?
  • Continuing to offer the highest standard of living among major metros in the US (esp. for families and mainly thru housing affordability), which helps attract a diversity of talent and cultures. 
  • Continuing to develop a more urban core.  
  • Growing the port, esp. trade via the expanded Panama Canal and downstream petrochemical investments with some of the cheapest feedstocks in the world.  
  • Becoming the city of choice for foreign companies to put their Americas regional headquarters offices.
Houston’s has struggled with its identity in the past. How would you describe Houston?
  • America’s most affordable global city.
  • Cultural crossroads of opportunity: Started with South meets West meets Mexico in the 1800’s and evolved from there with immigrants from all over and the international energy industry.
  • Houspitality!
Is it possible for Houston’s dynamic be appropriated in other cities, like Atlanta or Denver since they seem similar. Can they learn from us?

They are not as global or diverse as us, but they can certainly learn from our mobility investments (freeways, toll roads, managed lanes) and free market in land use/development.

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Monday, November 07, 2016

Standard of living city rankings, best city in TX?, our development future, and more

I know it's been a long time since my last post and I apologize - travel and an overloaded calendar have been conspiring against me.  I have a whole lot of backlogged content, but here's a good bit of it:
"For second-ranked Houston, the challenge is much different. Houston’s average pay per job is 30 percent above the metropolitan average, which converts to a near duplicate 29 percent higher COU Standard of Living Index, when adjusted for the cost of living. Houston’s future success will require retention its favorable housing affordability and high pay per job. The upheavals in the energy industry could result in lower pay per job in the future." 
"Tory Gattis, founding senior fellow at Houston-based think tank Center for Opportunity Urbanism, envisions the Houston region developing into nine suburban "villages" that would grow to have populations as large as 1 million each. Those "villages" - The Woodlands, Kingwood/Humble, Baytown, Clear Lake/League City, Pearland, Sugar Land, Katy, Cypress and Tomball - would be in addition to the 2 million to 3 million people living in Houston. 
In order for that to work, Gattis said, the outer regions would have to work with the Metropolitan Transit Authority to provide express park-and-ride services to downtown, the Texas Medical Center, Greenway Plaza and other urban job centers.
Gattis predicts more mixed-use buildings and high-rises in the urban core, a small number of which will be met with resistance from lower-density neighborhoods around them. The biggest tensions will arise from mobility challenges should more employers move away from the inner city. 
In an age of the self-driving car, Gattis says people will be more apt to move farther from the city center, no matter how it affects their commutes. 
"They can do email and be productive in the car," he said, "even if it's an hour and a half."
Finally, Scott Beyer has spent a month each living in each of the major Texas Triangle cities.  Which was his favorite?  Sorry, Austin... ;-)

What Is The Best City In Texas?
"Houston is easily my favorite Texas city, because it combines the best aspects of the other three. The metro area is similar in size to Dallas, and has the same rapid growth, ethnic diversity, and global feel. In fact, Dallas and Houston sit alone together as America’s foremost boomtowns, each growing by more than 144,000 last year throughout the metro area (the third place MSA, Atlanta, grew by a mere 95,000). But, like San Antonio and Austin, Houston has remained more tasteful than Dallas, with numerous interior neighborhoods that are urban, walkable, and separated from the innards of the city. 
Not only is Houston Texas’ best city; it is among a handful of emerging ones in the U.S.—including Los Angeles, San Diego, Miami, Denver, Atlanta and Seattle—that will become the dense infill cities of tomorrow, joining the coastal legacy cities. The thing that differentiates Houston from the others, though, is that it doesn’t have the regulatory hurdles to stop this fundamentally market-oriented process. The city has no zoning code, which means a range of densities, uses and architectural styles can go anywhere in the city. 
The folk wisdom is that this turned Houston into a sprawling mess like Dallas. But densification is already happening in Clutch City. This year it will lead the nation in multi-family housing construction, with 25,935 units entering the market (Dallas is #2 at 23,159). Much of this is going up rapidly via mid-rises in interior neighborhoods like Midtown, Montrose and Rice Military. Houston has the highest Walk Score of Texas’ big cities. Dallas, meanwhile, may feel more fragmented because of the low-density zoning in its central areas."

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