Houston’s Counterintuitive Optimism; San Jacinto Mall Redo


Photo of EaDo: Jan Buchholtz via Swamplot Flickr Pool


13 Comment

  • Re: Urban Innovation
    Seriously? Houston is leading urban innovation because of it’s pro growth policies? There is nothing innovative about massive horizontal, outward growth and maintaining affordable housing at the same time. Just about any city could do this if they just said “the hell with it” to growth controls; that’s easy.
    Alternatively, what would be innovative is if a thriving city could experience huge influxes in population growth, be stewards of the environment, and remain affordable, equitable, resilient, and beautiful.
    This isn’t an argument about what policy you believe is best, it’s about what urban innovation is. Houston may arguably be leading some urban innovation, but it’s pro-growth policy with complete disregard for the environment is not innovative, in fact it’s behind.

  • Yeah, I suppose letting the market decide where and what to build is innovating.

  • RE: Visitors Bureau wants to increase Houston visitors to 20M by 2018
    While one should applaud the Visitors Bureau for their gumption to boost numbers, the article was pretty telling in that most of our visitors are local. Strip out that number and the overall visitor numbers are even more stark than the first comparison to NYC, Chicago, San Antonio, et cetera.
    Why can’t we be secure in knowing that our city is NOT a tourist destination? Own it and move on.

  • @JT100

    I agree with your alternatives. I interpret the article as simply pointing out Houston as an example of a large city with no zoning. They try to argue that this will be the model of expansion for the next generation of world city (as opposed to stagnant use regulations in older cities). The parts about minimal real estate inflation were off/inaccurate, as well as failing to point out that the cheap housing is either far from the urban core, or in high crime areas. Either way, we’ll take some good press every now and then.

  • Oh shut up already with the no zoning=Houston success thing already. Austin has seen stronger population growth without being dependent on the energy sector than Houston. And in Austin you cannot hang a new mailbox on your fence without buying carbon offsets, demonstrating that it is free trade from a proper artisanal mailbox craftsman and verifying that its placement will not unduly discharge paper pulp into the Barton Springs aquifer or upset the breeding grounds of the golden cheeked warbler. If zoning or lack of zoning really mattered to overall growth, Austin should have shut down by now.

  • Houston is optimistic because the toxic mold commands us to be optimistic. Things are looking up for toxic mold.

  • Austin is growing out–just like Houston. The insanity within Austin is evidenced by the traffic mess. Good comment about the mailbox, though.

  • @ JT100: There are a few spots inside the city limits that are still greenfield, but most of them are tucked into fairly gritty places where nearly anything at all that gets built is automatically infill and its a win. Your concerns seem to be with what’s going on outside of Houston and that’s just not relevant.

    @ Superdave: Individual neighborhoods have been subject to price appreciation, but there still exists a fair bit of really cheap housing stock over a wide swath of territory. If you can bear to drive an extra ten minutes to amenities such as Whole Foods or a craft beer emporium, and also to places where disamenities exist such as elementary schools that’ll take decades to turn around, then a whole wide world of affordable options in Houston open up to you. That’s how it works. Amenity/disamenity preferences have changed a little bit among consumers but how it has always worked. That’s how it worked when the Heights was affordable, and that’s how it works now that its not.

    @ Old School: Austin’s growth rate in percentage terms has in recent years been faster than Houston’s, but it was a smaller city to start with; Houston’s growth in terms of headcount dwarf’s Austin’s. But that’s non sequitor. What you’re doing is equating growth with “success” and you’re attributing it to a very narrow set of public policies without accounting for even the legacy of each city’s history or the fundamental economic differences between them. Your comparison is just as flawed as when Rick Perry tries to take credit for the “Texas Miracle”. Now how does that make you feel, getting compared to Rick Perry? Seriously man, not your finest hour.

  • JT100,

    every other city (outside Portland) sprawls just as much as Houston. The main difference is we have a lot more flat land to sprawl into and we also are the only city that allows densification as of right.


    Actually it is very “innovative” in as much as we are the only city that even comes close to letting it happen.

    Old School,

    Austin Metro median price = 260,000

    Austin Metro population = 2,000,860

    Houston Metro median price = 212,000

    Houston Metro population = 6,656,947

    Austin is a third our size and already has housing cost a quarter higher. This places real limits on their growth.

  • Ha! Urban innovation my foot! While there maybe small pockets of innovation going on, they are weak at best compared to the real players. Houston grossly prides itself on letting developers dictate its irresponsible, unattractive and environmentally destructive growth. Then residents moan about why it floods so often. Face it, Take it from an actual native, Houston is one bloated oil rich suburb and always will be. Nothing “innovative” about that at all!

  • I think the WSJ is equating “deterministic growth” with “innovation” somehow. Houston, though relatively unplanned, really just uses the price of money to determine its growth.

  • Maybe innovation isn’t the right word, but maybe we aren’t really looking at the cultural construct of innovation in an innovative way. To approach this subject, first you have to critically approach the meta-subject. Is it possible to be innovative by *not doing something*? I think so. Consider the following examples:
    1) I think that you could rightly say that when George Washington rejected an offer to become an American monarch, that was an abdication of a sort. He could have done something and perhaps he would’ve used the powers justly, but he conscientiously decided not to do it. 2) In a different context, look at Colorado. A decision was made to legalize marijuana and to not enforce federal laws pertaining to marijuana. They were the first. Nobody else was doing something by way of *doing nothing*, and since then other places have begun to follow suit. I think that that counts as innovation. 3) Okay, now look at the sustainable agriculture movement and the popularity of organic and non-GMO foods; many of the supply-side practices that are necessary are throwbacks to a very different time, and the demand-side rationalization is at times scientifically suspect — however going backward technologically or doing less with technology while also applying modern scientific approaches toward agronomy…while controversial and many people cannot agree whether this is for better or worse, it would seem to qualify as a kind of innovation.
    Nobody can deny that Houston does things differently, but it does these things in part by not doing something that every other major city does, by bucking the trend…despite repeated opportunities to go along with that trend. Houston is so notable in this regard that the Wikipedia page on “Zoning in the United States” has two sections of text about the history of zoning: “Origins & History” and “Houston”. That’s only Wikipedia of course, but this is one of those facts that urban economists all over the United States go over with great interest because Houston is the one and only control case that exists by which the impacts of zoning can be tested. To my mind…this qualifies as innovation. Zoning may have been innovated when it was first tried in NYC in the 1916, I’ll also grant that, but its precisely 100 years later and — now — Houston’s position is innovative.
    So IMO, what is considered innovative is temporal and context-sensitive, and sometimes involves doing nothing or even going backward. Change can entail doing nothing while everything else is doing something; however, an important characteristic of innovation is that it is voluntary. Houston placed a restriction on itself requiring a referendum and referendums have been repeatedly defeated, so it passes the sniff test.
    Okay, now contrast Houston and Dallas. This is a very reliable control/variable pairing due to them being affected by the same state laws in other respects. Look at the effects (and especially the legacy impacts) of Euclidean zoning on Dallas. On the one hand, yes things tend to be quite a bit more orderly. On the other hand, in the grand scheme of things, commercial uses cluster in nodes and along arterial corridors much like in Houston. To what extent were the zoning regulators totally extraneous to the marketplace or even modeled on the marketplace? To what extent did the marketplace capture the zoning regulators? That’s not really very easy to tell. At a regional scale, moreover, both cities have been subject to sprawl and land use control via deed restrictions and HOAs.
    Now look at Austin. In some ways, Austin is the most innovative; they start from a very strict zoning plan but tend to be willing to provide variances in exchange for negotiated concessions by developers; most of those concessions are superficial, they haven’t effectively resolved any of the big-city problems that affect their not-very-big city, and some variances and public investments are plainly bought.
    Meanwhile, even at a glance, its very easy to see that employment is more centrally concentrated in Houston than in most other sunbelt cities. Its CBD is larger than Dallas, Atlanta, or Los Angeles, and puts emergent metros like Phoenix and Austin to extraordinary shame in terms of the percentage of office space that is situated in the CBD. The Texas Medical Center is a uniform industry cluster unlike any other that I’m aware of and its almost as sizable as the CBD by some metrics. And then of course there’s the Ship Channel, which with few exceptions (and legacy exceptions where those exist, such as in Manchester and north Pasadena) is remarkably well-segregated from housing. Its not only what you’d expect from zoning, it is perhaps even superior.
    Essentially anywhere that municipalities have the ability to restrict (or promote) land use, corruption is a problem; and that includes Houston, such as with 380 Agreements. So, in that respect, Houston was innovative in terms of governance by limiting its own powers and most everything else nets out. The George Washington analogy applies. That’s a kind of innovation.
    This is not without controversy. I mentioned some examples of controversial innovation, but there are plenty of others that have intersections with public policy. Uber comes to mind, and its Houston-relevant. Incumbent property owners and businesses often stand opposed to nearly any sort of change; that’s not innovative, just the same as corruption is not innovative. What’s innovative is when those are the constituents, they have the money and the clout, and they’re overridden anyway in the interests of hypothetical future constituents. Where else does that happen except for Houston (and occasionally in the halls of SCOTUS)? Its a remarkable thing. Without a doubt, its innovative.