Comment of the Day: Luck of the Draw

COMMENT OF THE DAY: LUCK OF THE DRAW “Houston lucked out in that it held on to the oil industry, even after a major bust that had the Houston real estate landscape looking much like what we are seeing in parts of FL, NV and CA. The energy industry is now king again, and we are all lucky that the City did not hedge its bets on dot coms, financials or casino gambling. And the energy industry did not [choose] Houston because there was no zoning or because their executives could knock down bungalows in the Heights. The energy industry chose Houston because it was where the oil was. Refineries were built in Houston because it was a good location for them, not because it was cheap to do a strip mall on FM 1960. Yet, Houston’s good fortune has been warped into a specious argument that Houston is successful because it shuns anything that might be good for citizens quality of life, but that would impede a developer’s bottom line. Thus, instead of using our oil riches to construct a better and more liveable city, we think that any attempt to keep a developer from dropping a highrise or big box retailer in a residential neighborhood would send the energy industry packing . . .” [Oh please, commenting on Comment of the Day: Here for the Money]

25 Comment

  • In fact I’d argue that some of our most important jobs in that industry are now creative/professional jobs and stay here because of the critical mass of such people. Companies can loot employees from each other, take advantage of serendipity, etc. A little like Silicon Valley. Which means that in order to keep that virtuous cycle it’s important to keep the city livable, especially for the increasing number of foreigners who find themselves here to work for Big Oil. More walkable neighborhoods, denser cores, and public transit would all help. So also will big cheap suburbs where it’s possible for supporting casts of immigrants to build local grocery stores, churches/temples, etc. Cheap land and expensive land both help.

  • I must ask, how many immigrants do you know? Your goals seem at odds with the things that immigrants and business want.

    “walkable neighborhoods”? “denser cores”? Those are things that SWPLs want. We’ve all seen the “donut hole” graph where the percentage of foreign-born residents is shown.

    Most foreign born residents are living outside the loop, inside (or just outside) the beltway, often to the west side. These are not dense, walkable, transit-focused cores. These are suburbs.

    Immigrants come FROM dense, walkable, transit-focused cores. Immigrants move to America so they can have a house, a car, and room. You don’t know how liberating a suburban house with a two-car garage and yard feels until you’ve lived with another family in an apartment the size of the two-car garage. That transit that you love? It’s not so loved when you need to spend half an hour on it to see more than one tree at a time.

    Transit, density, and walkability are wonderful if you’re a single, childless, young white person (like most of the blog commenters) – but for an immigrant family, it’s what we came to America to get away from.

    “Transit” to us is a place where a kid can kick a ball across the street and not worry about cars. “Density” means not being able to hear our neighbors anymore. Those bums you find so exciting as a twenty-something, fresh in the big city? Not so exciting when you have a twelve year old daughter.

    Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and a place for wealthy, childless white professionals – but the whole city doesn’t need to be based around them, as some commenters here feel.

  • It’s refreshing to hear from someone with a completely different perspective.

    I’ve often wondered why more folks from around the beltway aren’t posting here. There is certainly more to Houston than what lies within 610 loop.

  • I’d argue that the exact location of oil had far less to do with Houston’s winning the title of energy capital than it did with access to railroads and deep water. Infrastructure and geography were key. There was a time when Beaumont might have given us a run for our money; but they embraced labor unions, making the difference IMO.

    Zoning diminishes quality of life, can chase development out to unrestricted areas, provides avenues for political corruption, and adds cost to new development that get passed on to the end user, but I don’t think that it has very much of an effect on economic development. These things do influence business location decisions, but it’s hard to discern the extent of the impact given that the sample size is one!

  • “It’s refreshing to hear from someone with a completely different perspective.

    I’ve often wondered why more folks from around the beltway aren’t posting here. There is certainly more to Houston than what lies within 610 loop.”

    Agree 100%

    You should rename this blog to “Heightslots” or Montroseswamp” or some such.

    Too much inbreeding going on here………

  • Hmmmm….I got the impression that the majority on here had a child or children, hence the need for larger houses and the skepticism for retention of smaller ones. And immigrants come from many countries. The majority I deal with in my profession are from Norway and are connected with the energy industry. In 13 years, only one man has moved here with his family needing a large home. All of the rest have been single or married with no children and have wanted smaller homes in Montrose, Heights or the Galleria area for their first few years due to the location. Many have started families after they got settled and moved to larger houses or were recruited by other firms and relocated outside the Loop – their circumstances and/or needs changed. Great that they could find something without having to move to another city altogether. I think there’s plenty of room in Houston, of all places, for all to find what he/she wants or needs for a particular life situation.

  • I think when Sebastian says denser walkable core for foreign born residents, he’s referring to Norwegians from Statoil, Frenchies from Total…etc, who are mostly professional and I would guess do prefer those things. No idea on the non-europeans though – I haven’t a clue whether the Brazilian transplants at Petrobras Americas love them some suburban sprawl or not (for example).

  • I think what Sebastian is referring to is a tiered system where the haves all live in fancy walkable inner loop neighborhoods and the “supporting cast of immigrants” are kept safely in the suburbs. Perhaps we could implement some sort of fence around the loop to make sure they don’t disturb our urban utopia. Have you considered a career in urban planning Sebastian?

  • If there was any truth to the Comment of the Day, can someone explain why New Orleans isn’t the Energy Capital of World?
    Or Tulsa?
    Or Oklahoma City?
    Or Midland?
    Or Beaumont?
    Or Baytown?

  • New Orleans was at one time a major player. It lost out primarily because of taxes, and the desire of the City of New Orleans to tax certain locations within the city where oil companies had offices. Shell being one of the most visible that relocated much of it’s NOLa based ops to HOUTX.

    I understand the theory that zoning drives development out of zoned areas into unrestricted areas. Seems logical on the face. But HOUTX would almost seem to be it’s own counter to that argument. By that logic, the inner-loop should have thrived. Instead the centers development have steadily fled the inner loop over the last half-century. First out to the loop, then the beltway, and now grand parkway. And further… development has migrated to areas with very restrictive zoning and development guidelines. Sugarland, The Woodlands, and most neighborhoods in Katy and Kingwood come with very strong limitations on building style, form, and proximity.

  • The reason that those other cities aren’t what Houston is is because we have a number very important things that they might only have one or two of: the Port of Houston, almost unlimited land, cheap labor, low taxes, little regulation. There are a bunch of others but you get the idea. NOLA has more than most but NOLA was, and still is to an extent, run by organized crime. Houston’s organized crime happens to be it’s government so the game has always been much more civilized.
    One of those factors is also why development historically moves outward rather than in. There is always cheaper land just a little further out. If they build a business in the sticks the housing developers will follow quickly on equally cheap land. Taxpayer funded roads will quickly follow.

    I’m one of those few native Houstonians but both of my parents moved here. The joke I have always hear is “nobody if from Houston but everyone will work there at some point”

  • So one view says immigrants want the walkable inner loop neighborhoods but current residents want to keep them out and another says immigrants want the fresh-air-snortin’ Green Acres of the suburbs – who are the Authentic Immigrants and Those Who Speak For Them? What do they really want??!! Do men secretly want to be mice? Did anyone expect the Spanish Inquisition?!
    So much for diversity….

  • DaveMcC, out of the places you mentioned, only Sugar Land has zoning. The rest are within the City of Houston or are in unincorporated areas that don’t even have very strict building codes. The success of such places as you mentioned actually further MY point, seeing as how zoning is redundant when even more strict private deed restrictions are carefully crafted and enforced–AT A NEIGHBORHOOD LEVEL–which is how it should be.

  • No one expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is fear…and surprise. Surprise and fear.

  • The Woodlands doesn’t have strict building regulations??

  • Still an armpit

  • The Woodlands is not a municipality, therefore it cannot lawfully adopt zoning ordinances.

    The Woodlands has deed restrictions, not unlike Eastwood or Woodland Heights, which were Houston’s first master-planned communities and were precursors to developments like The Woodlands, Kingwood, Clear Lake City, and Cinco Ranch…none of which are or ever have been subject to zoning ordinances.

    And that’s what most people don’t understand about Houston and zoning, is that a lack of zoning does not mean a lack of land use controls or building codes; in many parts of the City, it’s quite the opposite.

    The urban core looks like a hodgepodge, but since it was developed before modern zoning was even permissible and since the ‘urban renewal’ movement swept the country regardless of zoning status, it was pretty much going to look like that one way or the other.

    Beyond the structures that are already extant, zoning does allow a City to try and direct development into little pockets of town to achieve critical mass…which encompasses most of the net difference between Houston and Dallas…but that kind of sucks if you don’t live right near one of those pockets because the rest of the City is stagnant. (Some might argue that stagnation is stability and that stability is good; I’d argue that such people are boring.) Houston, in contrast, seems to have a relatively huge geographic area that is experiencing slow gentrification at any given point in time, spreading the wealth and also adding to the hodgepodgy urban fabric. Dallas’ zoned approach yields a small number of walkable neighborhoods quickly; Houston’s unzoned approach yields an incrementally more walkable city as a whole.

    The other thing that most people don’t understand about zoning is that it won’t clean up a City. Zoning doesn’t repair cracked streets, pick up trash from the roadside, scrub graffiti, fight crime, add to public parks, etc. Zoning doesn’t make a city look prim and proper; San Antonio is a good example, beyond its touristy areas. So is New Orleans. Houston is geographically and demographically kind of like those two cities, and I think that being prim and proper has much more to do with an east coast, west coast, or midwestern culture that we just don’t have or desire to have, on the whole.

  • TheNiche said “Zoning diminishes quality of life.”

    No. It doesn’t. I’ve lived in Portland, Oregon, a city with strong zoning and planning. It’s one of the most beautiful, walkable, great places to live in the US. Portland is this way primarily because the it took the opposite approach to Houston–enforcing strict zoning and planning.

    I like Houston. I like living here. It’s very different from Portland. And, of course, I moved here because of a job, like so many others. I wouldn’t want Houston to be like Portland. Houston becomes interesting precisely because it is so unplanned, chaotic, and neo-liberal. Houston is endlessly frustrating in a way that a city like Portland isn’t. But the frustration is part of the intrigue of Houston.

    That said, zoning in no way diminishes quality of life. It’s all about your values. If you like walkability, diversity, and urban experience, Portland is wonderful. If you like big houses and lots of land, Houston is wonderful. (In my old Portland neighborhood, I had six coffee shops within walking distance, and none of them were Starbucks. Here in Houston, I have six coffee shops within driving distance, and three of them are Starbucks.)

  • Portland has strict zoning (among other powers that aren’t allowed in Texas, and won’t be). San Antonio has lax zoning. Considering the comparative demographics and local cultures of these two cities and how that shapes their government and retail offerings, which do you think Houston would most closely emulate if it had zoning?

    The answer seems obvious to me.

  • I wasn’t advocating for zoning Houston. Its lack of zoning is one of the things that makes it interesting.

    Rather, I was disagreeing with your blanket statement that zoning diminishes quality of life. If you look at many of the cities we collectively think of as great and beautiful, most of them have strict zoning.

    I do think that Houston could benefit from a few more coherent developments such as Discovery Green or Midtown on Gray. But this takes developers with vision–which isn’t necessarily the norm here.

  • I’m an immigrant who grew up in the suburbs. I like walkable neighborhoods.

  • Why are we only talking about immigrants?

    I am a native Houstonian. Both sides of my family have been here since the early 1900s (going back to great grandparents). I like dense, walkable, well planned neighborhoods. Others like sprawling suburbia and the convenience of strip malls. Not sure why it is a zero sum game though… Why can’t we have both options on the table?

  • Matthew: I still maintain that zoning in and of itself does diminish quality of life. Portland goes so far beyond zoning as that the issue stops being zoning and takes on an entirely different identity. They can do things in Oregon that aren’t allowed in Texas, like put in place an urban growth boundary.

  • Incidentally, it seems that Tory Gattis’ Chronicle blog linked to a study that attempted to isolate the impact of land regulation on housing costs. I can’t look at it at work due to internet filters, so I’m not endorsing it yet. Still…food for thought.