Comment of the Day: With or Without Light Rail

COMMENT OF THE DAY: WITH OR WITHOUT LIGHT RAIL “I would dispute that the light rail has had any substantive quantitative impact on Houston’s development patterns, except to shuffle around the placement of some developments within a distance of several blocks. (That is to say, for instance, that downtown was destined to pick up a few big highrises over the last decade, but perhaps they were closer to Main rather than Allen Center.) A lot of people forget that the re-gentrification of the Heights took place over a span of decades — without light rail. The gentrification of 3rd Ward, the East End, and the Near Northside has been ongoing for a shorter period of time, and these neighborhoods simply aren’t as well-located as Rice Military — which also transformed without light rail. I would suggest that these neighborhoods are all destined for gentrification, that it will happen slowly because we’re talking about a huge geographic area — and that it would’ve happened with or without light rail, just as with other neighborhoods. I might be swayed if it were the case that some meaningful number of people move to Houston because it has light rail, but aside from some extremely narrow subset of people, that strikes me as bullshit. It’s not an effective economic development tool, and certainly not without zoning (which I also oppose).” [TheNiche, commenting on A First Look at the Strip Center-and-Apartments Combo That Could Go Up Between UH and TSU] Illustration: Lulu

47 Comment

  • I dont understand what light rail can do that a bus can not do a lot cheaper.

  • This is the absolute truth. I have been in the commercial real estate business for 20 years. If anything, light rail has had a negative effect on the redevelopment of Houston’s core.

  • complete bull I would pose to you a series of qustions.
    1.Where was are a large number of midtown development occuring and how far from the rail are the average projects?

    2. Why has every economic area that has seen growth been in a area where the rails are or are planned ? Why did the northline common stale till just a years beforethey started work on the rail.Why did Hcc pick that location of all the places to place its campus.
    3. what was the key selling point for them to place BBVA where they did ? Why are all the new DT construction alone rail lines DT..

    If something occur here and there is a cahnce its a fluke but if it keeps occuring in the same locations you have a pattern.

    People like to pointand say midtown started coming back before the rail was built, I lived there I remember the first condos to go up and it was late 2002 after ground broke on the northline in 2001 just luck I guess ?

  • Seriously? That entire argument and not a mention of…MID TOWN??? the entire area has exploded because of Light Rail, most of the people in that area work and commute to Downtown and the Medical Center. A great deal of office building in the Medical Center on South Main has been due in large part of Light Rail. The arguement that the explosion of growth on Main Downtown would have happened at Allen Center is laughable. It’s amazing that even with all the evidence of the impact of Light Rail you still get people making these absurd arguements. And why does it seem this commentator is picked constantly as Comment of the day?

  • Saying the rail has had nothing but a positive effect on development would be wrong. However, saying the rail had zero effect because things would have happened regardless is, well, more wrong. The biggest negative rail has had is to cause speculators to jack up their holdings along the rail line to absurd prices. That is the reason why development has been slowest DIRECTLY along the line but more rapid a few blocks away. However, it is way more than just coincidental to see things like Hines’ new tower, Skyhouse, Commerce Towers, the Venue at Museum District, 3400 Main, METRO Headquarters, etc… pop up along a Main Street that used to be D-E-A-D to development for decades. Me thinks swamplot chooses troll bait comments to drive hits…

  • Man, I’m in Barcelona right now. Houston’s been good to me and my family, but it really needs serious attention. Light rail is only a very, very, very small start.

  • I love how one group vehemently denies Rail’s impact on development and another just as strongly praises it at the savior to Houston’s real estate woes. The audience seems pretty evenly divided. I am surprised how many people are so viciously anti-rail… Yes, a LOT of money has been spent… well, a LOT of money was spent in the 60’s on the interstate system and where would transportation be without that bit of government excess. The bottom line is that only time will tell if rail has a positive impact on development. (I am not sure it is remotely possible that it has a negative impact as some have suggested) While we wait, keep an eye on one little undeveloped 3rd ward area around the unlikely Leeland/Scott Rail station… commonly referred to by HPD as the “Lost Ward” due to the unending supply of drugs and dealers (“we arrest five dealers at lunch time, and by dinner there are ten more working the streets”). I confidently say this area was light years from any meaningful development without the proximity of rail development. If five years from now Leeland/Scott has shopping/dining/residential… the debate is pretty much settled.

  • benny, buses cannot run on fixed/dedicated routes. extrapolate the disadvantages…

  • If, IF, what you are saying is correct, which I don’t believe it is, it is because Houston hasn’t built enough light rail fast enough. This city is in dire need of as much light rail and commuter rail as possible, and the bottom line is that the city isn’t doing enough to make that happen. Richmond line to the Galleria needs to happen yesterday, I can’t believe a line to IAH isn’t in yet. How can anyone possibly say light rail is or isn’t working with only one working line? That’s possibly the most uninformed opinion I have ever seen.

  • The Rail is needed.

    Houston’s transportation can not be just cars and busses.

    It is time to connected BOTH major airports with rail.

    In order for this city to become world class there needs to be alternate forms of transportation.

  • The current light rail line is really just a demonstration project. It is unfair and a bit dishonest to dismiss light rail as a development tool based on a single strand between downtown and Reliant. Let’s all get back together in about 5-7 years after the new rail lines go into service and see what happens as a result.

  • Just connect it to the airports!

  • Any rider-count of Light Rail is including the unpaying bums to crowd it daily, proudly yelling to each other about bar fights, prison sentences, and robberies (that was this morning’s conversation). It’s not Light Rail, it’s free A/C and group therapy. No way would it fly without federal funding, which tells you something. That being said, it’s convenient for a slice of the population, not the majority which have no choice but to play in traffic daily.

  • Right on, Doofus

  • Considering how slow the planning and implementation process has been, and how much bickering over it we’ve seen, it’s not as if these various areas of the city have had any reason to wait and see what happens with rail. The Houston economy has taken off, and so gentrification has taken off with it. The little “toy train” downtown is one of the most-used lines in the entire Metro system, buses included. That ought to be considered when thinking about the usefulness of light rail.

  • i don’t get how our rail can handle more ridership. all the supporters of light rail claim that it is always full, most used in the US, etc. what happens when the development begins in earnest and ridership shoots up? we built the stations to handle only two cars, which caps ridership at a very low amount assuming substantial new housing is built along the rail line.

  • “…If anything, light rail has had a negative effect on the redevelopment of Houston’s core…”

    Seriously if you are going to make comments like this have some facts to back it up.

  • detroux, since Houston’s rail runs on roads I am not sure what your point is.

  • The redevelopment of Midtown was well underway in the late 1990’s BEFORE the choo-choo train came along.

    The choo-choo actually hurt Midtown by separating into two separate areas. The tracks screwed up the grid by turning lots of east-west into dead ends at Main Street.

    Main Street downtown was BOOMING before the light rail showed up. The streets were packed with cars and people. The street scene and nightlife were as good as Houston has ever seen, and it was all right downtown exactly where it should be. Then Metro tore up Main Street for a few years and screwed it all up.

    Of couse we’ll never know where Midtown would be without light rail. My 20 years of commercial real estate experience and billions of dollars of successfully closed transactions tells me Midtown would be better off today without the choo-choo.

    Go stand in front of any bar, restaurant, retail store, apartment or condo in Midtown and count how many cistomers arrive by train vs car, taxi, bus, bike, or foot.

    The positive effects of the train on the neighborhood are minimal.

  • @Spoonman, I think detroux’s point is that buses won’t have the same impact on development because they can simply be rerouted as development affects ridership. Rail, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere, so it’s either going to drive development elsewhere or attract it to be built in close proximity. I swear all this hootin’ and hollering about rail and downtown is just the same ol’ nonsense. Some people apparently believe downtown should just be left to rot as one huge crumbling swamp of abandoned high rises. Seriously, I wonder if any of them could give a justifiable reason for anyone–business or individual–to exist in downtown. The very fact that some folks live and work down there must be baffling to these people.

  • Bernard- There were a few tin cans going up around 1998 and the Post in 1999, but since light rail broke ground in March of 2001, I’d argue that developers knew of the light rail line by then. Regardless, the amount of growth SINCE the line opened dwarfs the pre-rail 90s. Also, are you really trying to argue that Main Street was better before the rail? Really? I worked on Main St from 1995-1997. The Rice Hotel was a urinal. The 700-900 blocks of Main were disgusting and clogged with bus fumes whereas today there’s a park. 806 Main was a mostly empty office tower and today is becoming a JW Marriott. Humble Tower was mostly empty instead of hosting multiple hotel brands. There was no Pavilions/Green Street. There was an empty building where BG Group Tower now stands. There was a drive-thru McDonald’s where Hines new tower will rise. Sure, there were some dance clubs, but those places have the lifespan of a butterfly. I’d much rather have today’s Market Square and things like OKRA Bar over anything that existing back then although I do miss Power Tools.

  • Midtown was booming in the 90,s ?? How can midtown be booming in the 90.s when it did not even become midtown till 99.I lived in the area I walked the streets, there was no boom just vacant lots and run down homes. I reminder when the park in the area was one of the most drug dealer infested parks in Houston.. Midtown was boomin in the 90s ???? Which parted the cracked streets ? The ruin down getto apt or the vaccant lots???? anybody who lived in Huston in the 90,s know midtown was awaste land. I think once again someone is thinking of montrose and confusing it with

  • Ok We’ll stipulate that some on here did commercial real estate with the Allen Bros., but you’re still wrong about Light Rail, there is NO way Mid Town grows like it has with out Light Rail nor Main St Downtown and to argue otherwise is just not credible

  • The ONLY option to alleviate congestion on freeways during typical rush hour times is MORE light rail. We already have suburban corporate campuses and office complexes but the concentration of workplaces near the city center is still past the tipping point in high quantity to cause slow commutes. Just look at the Southwest and North freeways.

  • The only thing wrong with the light rail system as it exists is that it’s not a part of a much larger transit system that incldues BRT, heavy rail (subway), etc.

    So many many things have come up around so many of the stations of the existing Red Line: The bars and retail right on Ensemble/HCC station, Main St. Square, the Preston station around the fast-developing Market Square, UHD, the upcoming Superblock on McGowen, SkyHouse and the adjacent midrise on Bell, and so on.

    Then you also have the developments around the lines that aren’t even finished like Dynamo’s stadium, revamped Scott St. around UH, EaDo in general, etc.

  • “From Historical Bulldozer:
    Any rider-count of Light Rail is including the unpaying bums to crowd it daily, proudly yelling to each other about bar fights, prison sentences, and robberies (that was this morning’s conversation). It’s not Light Rail, it’s free A/C and group therapy. No way would it fly without federal funding, which tells you something.”

    Uh, dude, the Main Street line was built without federal funding. Zero. So what does that tell you?

  • LRT is like a platform or its own ecosystem – if you want to involve people in it, you have to get people involved.

    Right now it doesn’t exactly go anywhere that needed the help but imagine if they built all the other lines first – they’d have to extend it to downtown and the med center anyway because the hue and cry over “but it doesn’t even go downtown” would be unbearable.

    The more they build it out, the more results will manifest themselves. And building a real subway system that links up with it would be even better.

  • As several people have pointed out, redevelopment of Midtown started in the late 1990s, with some of the buildings we now consider the “anchor” of that area being completed – not just started, completed – in 1998.

    So obviously, rail did not start this redevelopment of Midtown. Its proximity to downtown is what made it inevitable. It’s really only a 10 minute walk to KBR, former Continental building, Chevron, or ExxonMobil. No bike lanes or $300 million rail necessary! I meet people all the time that walk to work from Midtown, from age 22 to 60+.

    Guess how many I’ve met that commute by rail to this part of downtown. ZERO! And why would they? It’s not convenient enough. Buses are. Walking is. Rail is not (for them).

    And the notion that a significant portion of the redevelopment in the last 5 years is due to rail is laughable. Let’s keep score:
    -Upper Kirby – no rail, no rail planned
    -Washington – no rail, no formal route planned
    -Rice Military – no rail, no rail planned
    -Heights – no rail, no rail planned
    And here are the places which are getting rail or were expected to, but are seeing little activity, if any:
    -Southeast line between I-45 and UH OR south of UH
    -East line east of Dowling, so pretty much the whole line
    -Richmond. Sure there’ll be an office building at the corner of Buff Speed, but that’s about it.

    Guys, let’s be real.

  • Light rail may not have been the singular causal agent for development in midtown or the East end, but it is an amenity that developers can cite when they look for financing for a project, or look for tenants for their offices/condos/apartments. There certainly is not the same level of real estate development here along the rail lines as there is in say, Washington, DC, but it is there nevertheless.

  • TheNiche, though I’ve seen you make some well reasoned arguments, this isn’t one of them. Substitute “freeway” for light rail in your comment, and then tell me how much sense that makes. Truth is, any form of mass transportation develppment, be it freeways, subways, or light rail, even jitney routes in third world countries like yours, influence development patterns in a city.

  • They built rail in areas that needed redevelopment… the heights, Kirby, River Oaks, The Galleria, they’re going to get develpement no matter what, they need no encouragement and to compare them to Mid Town is the ultimate Straw Man. It really is all Moot because all the rail will get built as will the Richmond line eventually. Houstonians can’t rely on their car forever, it will be gridlock, thank God the powers that be in Houston are looking to the future instead of the past.

  • Nowhere from midtown is a ten min walk into downtown that is complete b.s. i use to live. In the area. I use to catch the 42 across the street trinty church.. i attended j will jones.. that how far back my connection with the area goes.. another lie.. the first condos to go up in the area did not occur till 2002.. i watch the damn things get bulit everyday since my bus pass right by it

  • Light rail has done a lot of good in Houston, even though it is only effective in a small area.

    I’d like to see a few faster, higher capacity heavy rail lines built across town, connecting downtown with Uptown and points westward. lots of ridership potential there.

    work the bus system to bolster the rail lines and you’ll have a vastly improved system. of course, this would cost billions, so it would never get approved.

  • I can address most of the adverse responses by suggesting that people should read what they’re responding to prior to writing their responses. I DO NOT SUGGEST THAT THERE HAS BEEN NO IMPACT. There has been a shuffling around of development. It’s just that there does not seem to be any compelling evidence of any sort of a significant change to the metropolitan area — to the economic concept of what Houston is or how it functions.

    In downtown, a submarket that is unique in character because it is so heavily served by transit, which employees tend to readily accept, light rail is an amenity. Discovery Green is also an amenity. That’s why you might tend to see more buildings getting built close to these spiffy new amenities rather than in other parts of downtown.

    Midtown and the Museum District are not the same story. There, the history is much more nuanced. Gentrification had begun in the mid-1990’s, spurred on initially by the executives at Enron…of all things. Well before the light rail was built, there was already momentum. At first, it was mostly three- or four-story midrises wrapped around parking garages along the western edges of Midtown, where it was least scary and closest to Montrose. Townhomes began springing up on the smaller lots and quieter streets east of San Jacinto. This pattern preceded the light rail, then continued for many years following completion until — by and large — the westernmost parcels had been eaten up and the financial crisis outright killed the townhome developers. Meanwhile, it IS true that there was land price speculation along Main Street. You can think of it as the marketplace effectively zoning it according to its price for very high density; but that meant that developers would have to wait for rent growth that could justify REALLY DENSE apartment projects. (New apartments in Midtown used to be sorta cheap, in contrast with today’s new apartment prices. It’s easy to forget that.) So, two things happened recently. One is that rents have gone way up, and the other is that there’s not very much land west of Main Street anymore that provides sufficient contiguous acreage for big apartment projects. So now you’re seeing the light rail corridor fill in and quite nicely. It was going to happen one way or the other, but there you go. That’s what I’m getting at.

    Next, consider the Texas Medical Center. Since very nearly everything developable around it is operated by a big institution that is managed by a single entity, Texas Medical Center, Inc., yeah I would strongly bet that they have aligned themselves in terms of the highest density levels to the light rail corridor to some extent. However, there is frankly insufficient capacity between the Smithlands lot and the TMC; the train is already too crowded during peak hours, so they’ve had to bring back shuttles. Since there are shuttles and since there will forever be shuttles, it really doesn’t matter where the growth happens within the campus; with the train full, it will be accommodated with shuttles. They’re short of land too, and they have expanded southward and generally away from light rail.

    @ 2stan: You ask why prospects seem so good in areas where light rail is planned. I could reply by asking why, in your mind, light rail isn’t planned for neighborhoods that seem to lack good prospects? Or for others, like the Heights or the West End where good prospects are mostly fulfilled (without light rail)? I would consider the discussion rather senseless, though.

    @ Pragmaticsolution: You might read some financial reports from various transit agencies and the City of Houston and contemplate where the money should come from. I could suggest some legislative changes that would make it easier on you, but those probably aren’t a realistic expectation

    @ Shadyheightster: When I worked for a developer and was trying to arrange financing, yes I would mention light rail if it existed (among about a hundred other things). I can’t recall anybody giving a shit about most of those things, including light rail. They just want the proforma to work, backed up with valid comps, a favorable (or at least, defensible) track record within the market data for that submarket, and realistic expense assumptions. ALSO, it’s not reasonable to compare a small urban light rail system with an average velocitly slightly below the transit system’s local buses…to a freeway. The impacts are way beyond just apples and oranges, dude; it’s like apples and beef. Both are edible, but neither is alike or goes particularly well with the other. Not that I was inviting such a comparison… Having that kind of conversation seems so very unproductive.

  • Some people have moved and continue to move into the urban core partly because of the light rail. I say build more rail and continue moving Houston forward.

  • Our current light rail system isn’t enough to make a significant difference in economic activity. That said – the impact in MidTown has been significant. Just think if we had a larger system plan!

  • One rail line pushing on the mountain that is Houston development. Of course you can’t see the geologic change from you perspective.

    “It’s not an effective economic development tool”

    It should be judged as an effective transportation alternative, not an economic tool. (And NOT whether it’s an effective transportation alternative for YOU or any one person, but generally)

  • Screw the developers. Sorry–I hope the ones with interesting ideas do well. The others are on their own.

    I’d been commuting via Metro for years–possible because I live in the Greater Heights (as that scum of the earth–a renter) & work in the Med Center. The addition of Light Rail had made the experience quicker & more pleasant. Quite a few Houstonians ride along with me. There’s the occasional bum–but mostly not during commuting hours.

    For those wanting more buses–do you enjoy being stuck in traffic behind them? Especially when they stop to serve passengers? They will never disappear but rail has reduced their number & will continue to do so.

    Failed developers are always looking for excuses….

  • Just to add a nice study to the comments.

    Empirical study shows that the rail line in Houston has had a beneficial affect on property values in the area. It appears that really close to the stations, it does not. The paper doesn’t really comment on developments.

  • How I do love light rail, and the way it can make me wait 5 minutes to make a left turn at Fannin and MacGregor so that the half-empty train can go through the intersection southbound, while a three-quarters empty one heads northbound. I can’t wait until they spread this traffic snarl to Weslayan@Richmond, Edloe@Richmond, BuffSpeed@Richond, Kirby@Richmond, Shepherd@Richmond, … It’s going to make the already-insane commuters who speed through my neighborhood even more insane.

  • No way, LRT and Discovery Green are the platforms and whatever buildings/shopping happen to be nearby are the amenities. If there weren’t these amenities, people would be much less interested.

  • TheNiche, your comments really are a great read.

    You’ll probably disagree with this, but I think there is even more ridership potential on the Red Line than there is now. It sucks that the rail here is right on the street, I would have liked to see a grade separated system, with the capability of 3 or 4 car trains. Perhaps even heavy rail

  • @Anse (#20) My point- A form of public transportation removed from the general traffic is superior to a form that adds to general traffic and congestion. While I think the metro light rail should have been even more removed, I have experienced benefits from the red line that would not be possible were it just another bus route… and that includes development. I live downtown. I wish I had more opportunity to take light rail when I need to leave downtown.

  • We’re limited to two cars on the rail by the dimensions of the downtown block grid – which is another of the many good arguments for grade separation.

    Offhand, I don’t know why they get so completely verklempt about shutting off the cross traffic when the train is still stopped in the station three blocks away, and insisting on exclusive use of a lane in the downtown area – while in the more congested med center they share better (and have fewer accidents, or so it seems). Every other city in the known world manages to have street cars in traffic without the gutters running with carnage and gore.

  • @40 @44

    It’s not even the delayed left turns or the delayed cross traffic that gets to me. The biggest €%#|?€| of all is that traffic on PARALLEL streets has to stop while the train is passing by. An example of this would be Fannin at Cambridge.

    I seriously couldn’t think of another way to reduce capacity of an intersection so effectively short of installing military checkpoints or putting Mr. Magoo in charge of directing traffic.

    @Brandon, Google clearly shows a 10 minute walk from Post Midtown to the old Continental building. Try again. Also, HCAD data will clearly show that some of these residential buildings were indeed built in the ’90s.

  • It dawned on me as I was looking at the Gus Wortham Golf Course / Botanical Garden article that, while Light Rail may not have spurred private development (thanks to the land speculators), it has become a litmus test for public development in this City. If they use bond money to build a new stadium, a museum, botanical gardens, or the like – they pretty much only consider sites with Light Rail access.
    It’s kind of unfair, when you think about it, because deserving neighborhoods wind up not considered for these things. It also makes it all the more frustrating that METRO has put on hold the University Light Rail Line out to Southwest Houston.

  • @ Bill Shirley: We can argue about what might be an effective transportation plan, however light rail is too frequently cited as an economic development tool as though that is a justification in and of itself for developing light rail or high-density development along light rail; and this was the subject matter that prompted the comment of mine that was dubbed “comment of the day”. So I consider your comment basically irrelevant to the subject at hand.

    @ mfastx: You may be surprised to learn that I agree with you! The capacity limitations are only imposed by the lengths of downtown block-faces, so grade separation should have been a priority for downtown. Grade-separation elsewhere (not everywhere) would likewise have enabled higher operating velocities, reduced accidents and downtime, and reduced automobile congestion. As more lines are built and as local bus routes are reconfigured to feed the system, this will become increasingly apparent…and troublesome, I think.

    @ Purdueenginerd: I have dire concerns regarding the quality of the InfoUSA data (which may explain why it wasn’t parsed out for any variables other than the age of a house), however I do think that it tells a story that is consistent with history. If you look to Figure 2, you will see that an upward price trend diverging with regional trends pre-existed the light rail. That said, correlation does NOT indicate causation and I am absolutely NOT in agreement with the conclusion of the study.