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David Crossley

Planning to plan

Not really sure what to make of this.

“We’ve had a lot of planning in this city and most of us continue to do a great deal of it,” said Central Houston president Bob Eury. “What we haven’t had is the coordination and the ongoing framework for coordination. That’s what is so incredibly important coming out of this process.”

The effort is in its early stages, with Denver-based urban planner, professor and consultant Peter Park having conducted a “plan to plan” in recent months, holding discussions with numerous civic leaders to get a sense of what makes Houston tick and decide what the plan should look like.

City officials presented results of that effort and next steps to a City Council committee last week, to general enthusiasm from council members and civic leaders.

Planning and Development Department director Patrick Walsh said the plan should prevent inefficient decisions, such as paving a street and then tearing it up a few years later to install new drainage pipes, or redundant plans being pursued by the city and local development boards.

It would identify the public’s preferences in specific areas and help guide investment choices, Walsh said. For instance, a park could be a place to relax, or it could be a catalyst for economic development, such as Discovery Green. Or, he said, if it included a trail, it could be part of the city’s mobility system; or it could provide drainage for a nearby public project.

“We are attempting to recognize that there’s been an awful lot of very good work that’s gone on before us,” Walsh said. “It’s time to take advantage of that work and utilize it … There is no need to re-create the wheel here.”


[Mayor Annise] Parker said neither comprehensive planning advocates’ highest hopes, nor opponents’ worst fears, will be realized in the final product.

That sort of rhetoric hasn’t calmed David Crossley or Peter Brown’s excitement. The two smart-growth gadflies launched BluePrint Houston 12 years ago and, despite the time invested, never quite saw the idea take root. The same could be said for a 1994 effort dubbed Imagine Houston.

“I’ve had outside developers who are interested in investing in Houston ask me, ‘Show me your adopted plan so I get a feel for where I might do a project,’ ” Brown said. “I met with deputy administrator of the EPA in Washington … (who) said, ‘Show me your adopted comprehensive plan.’ There wasn’t one. This is going to help us in many, many ways.”

Even those typically inclined to frown at such proposals see promise.

Josh Sanders, of developer-led Houstonians for Responsible Growth, said there was “some initial trepidation” among his members when whispers emerged of a “general plan.” Those fears proved unfounded, he said, as the planning strategy took shape.

“We think the city does need more of a strategic outlook and does need more coordination between its existing plans,” Sanders said. “What we can do a better job of doing is figuring out how to plan and accommodate growth.”

We’ll see what this turns into. No question, there’s a need for the left hand to know a little more about what the right hand is doing. How that will translate into a set of action items, I have no idea. I’m glad everyone seems to be on board with this, I just have no idea what to expect at this time.

Ready or not, here comes Chapter 42

Changes are coming to Chapter 42, the section of Houston’s ordinances that deal with density and development, and to Chapter 26, the section on off-street parking for bars and restaurants and what have you.

The revisions would allow neighborhoods to create special parking areas tailored to their needs, reduce parking requirements for historic buildings, allow the substitution of bike parking for car spaces, loosen rules on how close lots must be to a building’s front door, and make it easier for businesses to share parking.

Bar and restaurant owners would be most impacted by the new rules. Some eateries – dessert shops, carryout restaurants – would need less parking, but requirements on most restaurants would go from eight spaces per 1,000 square feet of floor area to 10, with bars going from 10 to 14.

“We’re trying to redevelop our city, we’re trying to bring renewal and think over the next 10, 15, 20 years. Part of that is to build more walkability into our city,” said Councilman Ed Gonzalez. “I don’t want the parking requirements to be onerous for a small mom and pop shop. The focus should be on building more businesses in those communities, not building more parking lots just to meet, maybe, an arbitrary number that we’re coming up with.”

David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit that works on quality of life issues, has quibbles with both proposed rewrites, but said his key concern is broader.

“We’re not having the right conversation,” he said. “Rather than do all these Band-Aids – and there’s so many of them going on and they often actually disagree with each other, they’re in conflict – why don’t we just do a general plan for the future in which you say, ‘This is how we want to develop and these are the goals we want to have, and so we’ll build transportation and so forth to meet those goals.'”


“If council fails to adopt these amendments, many areas between 610 and the Beltway will remain underdeveloped, blighted and abandoned, while development will rapidly continue inside the Loop and outside the city limits,” said builder Ed Taravella.

Some residents are wary, however, saying the push for density inside the Loop has hurt neighborhood aesthetics and created infrastructure problems, compounded by a lack of city enforcement. That would only worsen if development density extends citywide, they say.

The evidence from the 1999 changes to the ordinance is clear, said Jane West, president of Super Neighborhood 22 in the Washington Avenue area.

“Although it was hoped that this redevelopment would create transit-served pedestrian-friendly environment, in most cases that has not happened. And in many cases, problems such as flooding, inadequate drainage, traffic congestion, and lack of sufficient on-street parking have worsened,” she said. “There’s no reason to believe the expansion of Chapter 42 urban standards beyond Loop 610 will yield a different result.”

What I said about this the last time still holds true. There is a need to unify the development code and treat outside the Loop in the same fashion as inside the Loop, but the issues Jane West addresses are real. Ideally, what I want to see out of this is the encouraging of development in parts of town that really need redevelopment, greater emphasis on walkability, more investment in transit, and a sense of urgency about making life closer in more attractive and affordable. A lot to ask, I know, but we only do this every couple of decades, so let’s try to get it right.

Some of the concerns about revising Chapter 42 and the effect it would have on inner Loop neighborhoods can be addressed via increased enforcement, as Mayor Parker noted in the story. I would hope that this acknowledged need for increased enforcement can be addressed in the next budget, since I’m sure there aren’t enough inspectors and whoever else is needed to handle the current caseload, let alone the caseload that would result from the hoped-for boom in construction that updating Chapter 42 would bring. I feel this is even more true for Chapter 26, the off-street parking ordinances.

Heugel’s Anvil bar is just south of the Cherryhurst neighborhood, where June Spencer is civic club president. Heugel has been a good neighbor, she said, but other area bars and clubs and the popular Hugo’s restaurant, despite its on-site parking lot, have created parking problems.

“I have them parking all along the side of my house, the front of my house. They’re loud at night, they don’t even try to be considerate. They throw garbage,” Spencer said. “They shouldn’t give these people permits to open businesses unless they have the appropriate parking.”

While I have some sympathy for folks like Ms. Spencer, let’s be real here: We don’t own the street space in front of our homes. People are allowed to park there. This is a totally normal thing in most cities. Requiring more off-street parking, especially in inner neighborhoods, will result in more parking lots and fewer new establishments being opened. Neither of these are good things. People parking on the street and then walking to a nearby restaurant or bar are not a problem. People creating disturbances and littering are problems. That can and should be dealt with in a way that doesn’t necessitate restricting parking to a special, permitted few. Let’s please aim for that. While we’re at it, let’s also encourage alternatives to more car parking such as more bike parking. We just approved $100 million plus for expanded bike trails, let’s act like we plan to use them.

Finally, as I noted yesterday, you can give feedback on these and other proposed ordinance here. This affects all of us, so if you have something to say, please make sure you say it.

Closing arguments for the Metro referendum

One way or another, this argument will be settled on Tuesday. What happens after that is still anyone’s guess.

The referendum on Tuesday’s ballot asks whether to continue spending some public transit sales tax money on streets and bridges. Opponents have campaigned against it by recasting the question: Should transit money be spent on roads or rail?

“You cannot do rail expansion if this thing passes,” said David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit organization that studies urban issues to inform discussions of growth and the leading voice against the Metro proposition. “We’re not going to do rail expansion ever again.”

Mayor Annise Parker and the chairman she appointed to the Metro board, Gilbert Garcia, insist that passage of the proposition makes rail expansion more likely. One of the stated purposes of the referendum is to allow Metro to pay down debt, freeing up borrowing capacity that could be used on future rail lines. Referendum opponents are wrong when they say its passage will delay rail, Parker said Wednesday.

“Either they believe that the magic tooth fairy in Washington will shower us with federal transit dollars in the midst of a still very difficult budget cycle, or we’re going to have to pay for that next line that we build ourselves,” she said. “If we want to pay for that line ourselves, once again, we’re not creditworthy unless we pay down our debt. So, how is this going to slow down rail?”

Crossley’s answer to that, which you can hear in the interview I did with him, would be that with the full penny of Metro’s sales tax going to the agency it would be able to afford to do a lot more of the work on the University Line by itself. It’s still not enough for all of it, however, and part of Crossley’s solution depends on the city doing some of the road and utility work. The city’s plan for transit corridors already includes whatever preparations are needed for transit in those corridors, but there’s always a question of timing and priority, as well as how constrained the city might be financially if it lost GMP funds. It’s really not clear to me how this would play out under either scenario.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Crossley and other rail supporters have stepped up their campaign, raising what Crossley estimated is $16,000. He has spent it on 280,000 robocalls and on yard signs, bumper stickers and T-shirts.

In a KUHF/KHOU poll late last month, 43 percent of respondents said they favored the referendum to 28 percent against. The question read to respondents stated that the additional money Metro picks up if the proposition passes will go toward buses, shelters and paying off debt “and not on rail,” though the referendum does not specifically state that. Further clouding the results was that 27 percent were undecided.

“The voters are confused,” said Rice University political science professor Robert Stein, who helped administer the poll. “What’s on the ballot doesn’t tell voters enough to figure out what to do.”

One single poll can only tell you so much. I’ve had a pretty good feeling about the bond issues from the beginning, before that KHOU poll suggested they were winning. With the Metro referendum, regardless of what the poll says, I feel it could go either way. From what I’ve seen in email and on Facebook, the Crossley message has been getting through. I just don’t know whether it’s too little, too late, or not.

KHOU story on the Metro poll question

I noted yesterday that there would be a separate story on the Metro referendum result from that KHOU/KUHF poll of Harris County.That story is here.

A new poll indicates the Metro referendum on Houston area ballots will probably pass, but as early voting began a large number of voters hadn’t made up their minds.

About 43 percent of surveyed voters said they planned to vote for the referendum, while 28 percent planned to vote against it. But more than one in four voters – 27 percent—were still unsure.

“Most voters don’t know what they’re voting on,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU analyst who conducted the poll for KHOU 11 News and KUHF Houston Public Radio. “The ballot caption doesn’t tell them that.”


“I think when people really look at the language, they recognize, ‘Oh, this is great, this is very simple,’” said Gilbert Garcia, the chairman of the Metro board. “Number one, it continues road payments. Number two, it pays down short term debt. And number three, it has money to restore the bus system.”

But the plan has made some strange bedfellows. Longtime allies of Metro have suddenly become its adversaries. Strangest of all, Barry Klein—who has dedicated much of his life to fighting Metro—is speaking out in favor of the transit agency’s referendum.

Rail proponents believe this idea essentially dooms any plans for rail expansion in the foreseeable future.

“We won’t have any more rail if we vote ‘yes,’” said David Crossley, an outspoken opponent of the referendum plan. “And so, if you want rail, you have to vote ‘no.’”

Again, you can see the topline data and the poll questions with responses for more information. You can listen to my interview with Crossley here and with Chairman Garcia and Board Member Christof Spieler here if you haven’t made up your own mind yet. Stein thinks the referendum will probably pass, and that most of those confused undecided voters will probably skip it on the ballot, and I think he’s probably right. Transit advocates have done a pretty good job getting their message out considering their lack of resources, and a win for them is certainly not out of the question. The one thing I know for sure is that the politics of this issue are the strangest I’ve ever seen.

Interview with David Crossley

David Crossley

This week I’m going to take an in depth look at the one contentious referendum on the ballot, the Metro referendum. The purpose and the language of the referendum is whether or not to reauthorize the General Mobility Program, in which Metro turns over 25% of its sales tax revenue to Harris County, the city of Houston, and the smaller member cities, for mobility projects, through the year 2025. There is some question about whether the public will understand what the proposition means, which is partly why I’m doing all this. We begin today with David Crossley, who is one of the leading critics of the referendum. Crossley, the President of the non-profit Houston Tomorrow, believes that voting to defeat the referendum, which will result in the cessation of the GMP and thus provide Metro with the full penny of sales tax receipts, is the only way for Metro to finish building the light rail lines that were promised in the 2003 referendum. Here’s our conversation:

David Crossley MP3

You can still find a list of all interviews I did for this primary cycle, plus other related information, on my 2012 Harris County Primary Elections page and my 2012 Texas Primary Elections page, which I now need to update to include fall candidate information. You can also follow this blog by liking its Facebook page.

Houston Tomorrow versus Metro

David Crossley:

On November 6, you will be asked to vote on whether to stop expansion of light rail transit service in Houston.

If you think that’s a terrible idea, you must vote No.

If you do, you will be going up against some very powerful people and institutions.

But that’s what voters do, isn’t it? Be the deciders?

You’d be saying you’re opposed to elected officials and developers replacing 1,200 square miles of Houston farms and wilderness with sprawl.

But you’d be for a thriving, livable Houston region that people from around the world would want to live in to work, learn, and play in a healthy, happy, prosperous environment.

In the end, we citizens will decide this.

No Means More Transit. Vote No For More Transit.

They’re not alone in opposing the referendum.

Houston Tomorrow, along with the Citizens Transportation Coalition and Better Houston are starting a social media-driven campaign to get people to vote No to the METRO referendum. A no vote, they say, would allow METRO to keep all of its sales tax money and use it however they want.

METRO Chairman Gilbert Garcia says it’s true that right now there’s no money for light rail. But he says the referendum will allow METRO to pay its current debt, which would allow them to borrow money for an additional light rail line.

“If we did not have this referendum and it did not pass, it would just be even longer before we could take on another rail project because we would need to do these two items — increase the ridership and pay down the debt to have greater capacity.”

I agree with what Chairman Garcia says. I’m going to vote for Metro’s referendum.

I do agree that this isn’t the best possible deal Metro could have gotten. Garcia’s original proposal to freeze the GMP payments at 2014 levels would have been better, but it got no support on the Board. The Houston Tomorrow story about the Board’s vote for the revised plan shows what Metro did in fact get.

The Metro Board on Aug. 3 had approved a rough draft for a referendum asking voters directly to approve allowing Metro to keep all of its sale tax revenue.

Board member Christof Spieler said he voted against the referendum language because it does not give enough money to transit, but admitted “this is probably the best deal we can get in the political climate of 2012.”

Not the best possible deal, but the best deal possible. The question you have to ask is whether this deal is better than the alternative of voting it down and thus ending the GMP. If it were to actually happen that the GMP would expire and Metro would get the full penny of sales tax, then clearly the answer is No. But what are the odds that will be the case? Chairman Garcia said after the original referendum that merely re-apportioned the GMP among member entities was proposed that the Board would create a new GMP, thus ensuring that the member entities would continue to get those funds in some form. From the KUHF story:

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who appoints five of METRO’s nine board members, says even if people vote against the referendum, METRO will likely continue sharing its sales tax revenue in a less formal way.

“If the referendum fails, the METRO board can decide anything they want to do with that money and I would fully expect them to commit, going forward, to continuing the general mobility payments in some form. It is naive and, frankly, foolish to simply assume that if it were voted down suddenly 100 percent of that money is spent exclusively on building rail in Houston.”

If that happens, David Crossley wonders why METRO is holding the referendum in the first place.

“They could just say to the voters here’s mud in your eye, just forget it, we don’t agree with your vote and we’re going to do what we want. But if the voters firmly say no, it’s a little hard for me to see how METRO says never mind that vote.”

Metro is required to have the vote, as Crossley knows. If the GMP as is ends, then the money goes to Metro, and the Board is presumably free to do with it as it sees fit. All of the member entities will be interested in spending some of that money on road-related projects. Maybe it’ll be ad hoc, maybe it’ll be some designated portion of the budget, who knows? Maybe that would turn out to be better for transit than Metro eventually getting about 82% of the sales tax revenue, as would be the case under the revised GMP, but it’s far from guaranteed. The bird in hand here is worth quite a bit. The contention that if the voters reject this deal it means they must have wanted more money to go to Metro is a bit of a stretch, too. All we can say for sure it that they didn’t like this particular deal. Maybe they would have preferred to keep the GMP exactly as it is now. Maybe enough people will have voted No because they don’t like Metro and didn’t pay any attention to the details. I wish I felt confident that the public would vote to give Metro more money, but as I said before, I don’t. Given that, I think this is a decent deal.

OK, but what about the restriction that Metro can only use the new funds for non-rail projects? For one thing, that’s only applicable to the extra funds Metro would be getting from revenue growth above what it would gotten under the current setup. Every other dollar Metro gets in it would still be free to use as it saw fit. Having more money available from one source to spend on bus service may well enable it to spend a bit less from the other, which could then be used on rail. But even if it doesn’t do that, the fact remains that Metro does need to spend more on bus service. It has taken money from bus service to spend on rail. Reversing that would allow Metro to fulfill the promise of improved bus service that was also in the 2003 referendum while taking a key talking point away from its critics. Chairman Garcia notes that by increasing overall system ridership via better bus service, that increases public support for Metro as it works towards getting the University and Uptown lines built. All of these are good things.

Finally, one cannot overlook crass political calculations. It was easy to see a path to defeating the original referendum, as the only entity that was likely to be happy with it was the city of Houston. Harris County, the small cities, and transit advocates were all unhappy with it, and I believe that would have been a big enough coalition to defeat the measure. I was prepared to vote against it. Here, it’s just transit advocates that are unhappy. It’s far from clear to me that they can muster up enough support to defeat this version of the referendum, especially if there’s a concerted effort in favor of it. One could argue that instead of working to defeat the referendum, it would be better to work on Metro to spend the extra money it will get, and the extra money it will have from its unrestricted sources as debt service gets addressed, in a way that transit advocates think is best. I’m sure they’ll be doing that anyway after the referendum, regardless of the outcome, but my way would probably be less awkward.

Basically, I don’t see the upside to voting against this referendum. I see the case for it, but not the case against it. I wish the referendum would have been better, but that fight is over. This is what we have to work with, and it’s good enough for me.

Stimulus funds and road projects

Stimulus funds are coming to a road that may be near you.

Texas received $2.25 billion from the stimulus for transportation. That’s on top of the $3 billion it got in federal highway funds this year. The regular federal allotment comes with restrictions. Certain percentages must go to improving safety, relieving air pollution and repairing bridges, for example.

The stimulus money has comparatively few restrictions.

Critics say decision-makers took the money and went on a lane-building binge — directing too much money to new roads, which will encourage more driving, and not enough to mass transit or repairing existing infrastructure.

“Widening roads ultimately gives rise to congestion,” said David Crossley, founder of Houston Tomorrow, a nonprofit that explores urban growth. “They’re asking for more cars to drive on the roads.”

A little-known regional body, the Transportation Policy Council, decided how to spend most of the stimulus funds in the Houston area. The council represents the eight counties of the Houston metro region, and its 24 voting members are drawn from local governments and agencies such as the Texas Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

It either chose stimulus projects directly or approved ones desired by TxDOT.

The stimulus has one big requirement: Projects must begin soon, to create jobs and boost the economy. The Transportation Policy Council focused on projects that were “shovel ready,” meaning the necessary government and environmental approvals were in place. After that, the council looked for projects that had been waiting a long time for funding.


The transportation money is just one stream of stimulus funds flowing into Houston. The Port of Houston got $98 million to dredge the Ship Channel. The Federal Transit Administration allocated $105 million for buses, light rail and Park & Ride lots. But that’s still less than the $181 million set aside to build a section of the Grand Parkway outer loop in an undeveloped part of west Harris County.

Except for the Grand Parkway and a road widening in Stafford, all 15 major road projects getting a boost from stimulus money will be fully funded by it. The Grand Parkway segment is estimated to cost $607 million, and some think that won’t be money well spent.

“There are no people out there,” said Robin Holzer, chairwoman of the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition.

Holzer said the money should have been spent to relieve traffic on U.S. 290 or for commuter rail.

No question, spending stimulus funds on the Grand Parkway is a terrible idea; of course, the Grand Parkway itself is a terrible idea, but it’s one that has juice behind it. It’s a damn shame there wasn’t a better process in place, one that would have rejected this project for stimulus funding, but there’s nothing we can do about that now.

Smart Growth America, a national urban planning coalition, said Texas spent almost half its stimulus road funds on new roads or extra lanes. By contrast, Maryland and North Dakota spent all of theirs on maintenance. Studies show that repair work on roads creates 16 percent more new jobs, according to the coalition.

You can get that full report here. As we know, Metro will get a little bit of stimulus money. More would have been nice, but what really matters now is getting funding through the regular appropriations and approval process for the remaining light rail lines. If we can get that done, it’s all good.