Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

density

The autonomous cars/mass transit debate

Seems to me this should be a “both-and” rather than an “either-or”, but you know how I get.

Autonomous vehicles that will outperform buses, cost less than Uber and travel faster than cars stuck in traffic today are two years away. Or 10. Or 30.

But visions of the future they’ll bring have already crept into City Council meetings, political campaigns, state legislation and decisions about what cities should build today. That unnerves some transportation planners and transit advocates, who fear unrealistic hopes for driverless cars — and how soon they’ll get here — could lead cities to mortgage the present for something better they haven’t seen.

“They have imbued autonomous vehicles with the possibility to solve every problem that was ever created in transportation since the beginning of time,” said Beth Osborne, a senior policy adviser with the advocacy group Transportation for America. “That might be a tad bit unrealistic.”

In Indianapolis, Detroit and Nashville, opponents of major transit investments have argued that buses and trains will soon seem antiquated. In Silicon Valley, politicians have suggested something better and cheaper is on the way. As New York’s subway demands repairs, futurists have proposed paving over all that rail instead for underground highways.

Autonomous cars have entered policy debates — if not car lots — with remarkable speed. And everyone agrees that making the wrong bets now would be costly. Cities that abandon transit will come to regret it, advocates warn. Driverless car boosters counter that officials wedded to “19th-century technology” will block innovation and waste billions.

[…]

Highways today can carry about 2,000 cars per lane per hour. Autonomous vehicles might quadruple that. The best rail systems can carry more than 50,000 passengers per lane per hour. They move the most people, using the least space. No technology can overcome that geometry, said Jarrett Walker, a Portland-based transportation consultant.

“Let’s talk about what we can predict,” he said. “The problem of the city is a problem of sharing space. In 2100, the problem of the city will still be a problem of sharing space.”

By that logic, cities should invest even more in high-capacity rail and dedicated bus lanes in key corridors. Autonomous vehicles might handle other kinds of trips — rides from the train station home, or through suburban neighborhoods, or across the parts of Las Vegas without rail.

This possibility is not radically different from today. Uber and Lyft offer the closest approximation to how people will behave in an autonomous future, when consumers use cars they don’t own. Both companies are frequently cited by opponents of transit. But they also now back big transit investments, without which their riders in congested cities would be stuck in even worse traffic.

No system of autonomous cars could be more efficient than the New York subway, said Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation policy and research. Uber needs that transit, just as it will need electric scooters and bikes and the congestion pricing it also supports in New York to ensure that cheaper transportation doesn’t simply lead to more traffic.

I see a lot of value in finding ways to use autonomous cars as shuttles to help solve “last-mile” problems. Find places where getting people to and from bus stops across large parking lots or other non-pedestrian-friendly turf as a way to entice more bus usage, for example. Here in Houston, that might also mean connecting people in the farther-flung parts of the Medical Center to the light rail stops. I don’t see any value in claiming that autonomous cars will replace transit, or in arguing that transit projects should be put on hold until autonomous cars are more prevalent. We need solutions for the short term, and this is what can help for now. Let’s focus on that.

Kinder Houston Area Survey 2017

Here’s the press release.

The majority of area residents don’t just feel okay about living in Houston – they would choose to stay in the Bayou City even if given a choice to move, according to the 2017 Kinder Houston Area Survey. The 36th annual survey also revealed that traffic continues to be the dominant concern, people are less worried about crime and are increasingly supportive of immigration and gay rights.

Rice University Sociology Professor Stephen Klineberg, founding director of Rice’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, conducted the survey and will publicly release this year’s findings today at the annual Kinder Institute Luncheon at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Houston. Tom Bacon, founder of Lionstone Investments, will be the inaugural recipient of the new Stephen L. Klineberg Award for his work as chair of the Houston Parks Board and his leadership of the Bayou Greenways 2020 Project. The award recognizes an individual who has made a lasting positive impact on Greater Houston.

Life in the Houston area

Traffic continues to be the biggest problem facing people in the Houston area, according to 24 percent of this year’s survey respondents. Another 16 percent mentioned the economy and 15 percent crime. Despite these concerns, more than two-thirds of all area residents in 2017 said they would stay in the Houston metro area even if they could choose to move away.

Area residents’ preference for alternatives to car-dependent sprawl continues to grow. By 56 percent, the respondents in 2017 were more likely than at any time since the question was first asked in 2007 to say that they would prefer to live in “an area with a mix of developments, including homes, shops and restaurants.” Forty percent would prefer a “single-family residential neighborhood.”

“These shifts reflect the very different life circumstances of Americans today,” Klineberg said. “The number of families with children living at home continues to decline across the country – replaced by empty nesters and young creatives, and by single-person and elderly households. So it’s not surprising that, even in Houston, people are looking for more compact urban neighborhoods.”

There’s a lot more, beginning with the 2017 survey homepage here, multiple Urban Edge posts about the survey here, and two Chron stories to boot.

As go gas prices, so goes interest in transit

It is what it is.

gas-prices-sign

Cheap gasoline has Texans driving more, indicating that efforts to promote mass transit or bicycle commuting are falling short, a new statewide poll suggests.

As folks hit the road, though, they are increasingly supportive of investment in transit and bike safety, even if perhaps they’d rather see others try it first.

“It’s one of those things where everybody thinks it is a good idea, but nobody seems to be using it,” said Tina Geiselbrecht, a co-author of the report and leader of the public engagement planning program at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

The poll, released Tuesday, is the first update to the Texas Transportation Poll since its creation in 2014. In those two years, car-centric Texas became even more devoted to driving, based on responses of more than 4,300 drivers, including more than 1,000 in the Houston region. Among the findings:

93 percent of drivers rely on an automobile as their primary way to travel, up from 91 percent in 2014. Vehicle ownership is also up statewide.

Roughly 1 in 7 Texans, 14 percent, had used public transit in the past month, compared to 25 percent of those polled two years ago. Fewer reported bicycling, walking and carpooling as well.

Gasoline prices, which have remained low in the state, were far less of a factor for drivers. Less than 30 percent of drivers were traveling less because of fuel prices, compared to 61 percent who said they were cutting back in 2014.

Geiselbrecht noted fuel prices in 2016 were about two-thirds what they were when pollsters asked people their opinions two years ago. Opinions on many things remained roughly the same, such as the interest people have in increased transportation spending, despite many thinking public officials squander some of the money.

“While people think there should be increased funding for transportation … nobody wants it to come out of their pocket,” Geiselbrecht said.

A copy of the study is here. I currently have a short commute into downtown, and I carpool with my wife. On the occasions when I have to be in early or when my wife has an after-work errand or appointment, I take the bus. In a few months, I’m going to be moving to another location out on the west side of town, and will be driving solo when that happens. Metro service is mostly nonexistent in this area; there is a bus route nearby, but I’d have to make two transfers to get to or from this location, so it’s just not an option. The main change for me is that this will be the longest commute I’ll have ever had in nearly 30 years of living in Houston. To put it mildly, I’m not thrilled about it. Life is too damn short to spend that much time in the car.

For better or worse, mine is a minority opinion, or at least one that carries little political and policy weight. I’ve said before, we need to come to terms with the fact that at some point we just cannot prioritize optimizing the travel times of single-occupancy vehicles over everything else. There’s only so much road capacity we can create, and the cost of doing so, which heavily subsidizes these solo trips, keeps increasing. That means that at some point, we need to prioritize density and transit, so that people can be closer to the places they most need to be and can get to and from them without having to drive. I have no idea when this might happen – at this point, I doubt I’ll live to see it – but it’s what we’re going to need.

MUDs and debt

Another story about the least-understood form of debt and taxation in Texas.

BagOfMoney

In Houston’s conservative suburbs, where local governments are loath to raise taxes, the thankless task of hiking revenues has fallen to hundreds of so-called municipal utility districts created for developers to finance water and sewage systems, roads and other amenities.

These MUDs, as they’re called, have virtually unlimited power in bright red, anti-tax Texas to sell bonds and levy property taxes.

The state’s leading tea party conservatives, Comptroller Glenn Hegar and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, have championed their creation in what ethics reformers say is a clear example of special interest influence in Austin.

All told, lawmakers who carry bills creating MUDs and other water districts have collected $3.5 million in campaign contributions since 2001 from law firms that specialize in creating those districts on behalf of developers or do bond work on their multimillion-dollar deals, a Houston Chronicle investigation has found. The Chronicle used a state database to pinpoint which law firms work for water districts. The data doesn’t include developers, who also contribute large sums to legislators.

Both Hegar and Patrick say MUDs and other water districts have played a critical role in developing infrastructure and creating jobs. They deny campaign contributions have anything to do with the bills they’ve carried. But both also say they are concerned about surging property tax burdens levied by school districts, towns, cities, counties – and MUDs, their less accountable, largely anonymous first cousins.

MUDs and other water districts have to date issued more than $60  billion in outstanding debt and face almost no government oversight of their spending. While most voters know the names of their mayors and city council members, many have no idea who runs their local MUD – or even what a MUD is.

James Quintero, director of the Center for Local Governance for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin, wants the legislature to protect taxpayers by preventing local officeholders from “off-loading” the delivery of public services to MUDs and other “special purpose districts” that contribute to the property tax burden and often lack transparency.

See here for past blogging on this topic, and be sure to read the whole story. Anyone who is surprised by the connection between MUD law firms and the politicians who push MUDs should probably go lie down in a quiet room for awhile. I know one should never read the comments, but I was struck by the number of commenters on that story who basically accused the Chronicle of being “anti-development” for having written this. I don’t doubt that MUDs are an effective mechanism for spurring development in currently undeveloped placed. The question I have is whether this is the best way to spur development in currently undeveloped places (*) or if perhaps a better mechanism may exist. To put it another way, if we could emulate Metro’s bus system redesign and start with a blank map of Harris County and its governmental entities and undertake the task of reimagining them all from the ground up, would we want to design something that looks like what we have now, or would we go a different direction? Call me crazy, but I think we’d gravitate towards the latter. That doesn’t mean that we can easily or pragmatically move in a different direction from where we are now, but it is worth reminding ourselves that what we have now, with its heavy reliance on this unhealthily symbiotic relationship of officeholders and niche law firms, not to mention millions of dollars in debt being ratified by elections in which literally two people vote, is not the only possible option. The Chron’s Chris Tomlinson has more.

(*) There is of course the completely separate question about whether it is a good idea to spur development in undeveloped places at all, or whether it would be better to spur it in already-developed places, with more investment in transit and other non-car modes of travel. That is a conversation that is very much worth having, but it would make Dan Patrick’s head explode, and so it is unfortunately beyond the scope of this blog post.

Who’s willing to pay for more flood mitigation?

I have three things to say about this.

Commissioner Steve Radack

Commissioner Steve Radack

Harris county’s four commissioners said Wednesday they could support either a property tax increase or reallocation of funds in the county budget to better fund flood control projects after a series of storms and floods this spring destroyed property and claimed the lives of more than a dozen people.

[…]

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he would support a tax increase if there was a concrete plan on what to do with the extra revenue, and Gene Locke of Precinct 1 said through a spokeswoman he could likely get behind such a measurebut also would want the federal government to help pay more for flood control projects.

The two other commissioners – Jack Cagle in Precinct 4 and Jack Morman in Precinct 2 – said they would not support increasing the tax rate but could support reallocating funds to tackle flooding problems.

County Judge Ed Emmett declined to comment, but said through a spokesman he would not weigh in before a specific proposal was on the table.

The discussion about a possible property tax rate increase was sparked by recent comments Radack made at a meeting with a civic group in Cypress, which was recently hard-hit by flooding.

“I will tell you right now, I will vote for a tax increase for the Harris County Flood Control District,” Radack said to dozens in the audience last week, noting that he’s the only commissioner on court who has ever voted for a property tax increase. “But I’m one person. I’m not criticizing my colleagues. I’m just telling you this. That’s the way it is.”

On Wednesday, Radack reiterated his support for a tax increase, but qualified his position somewhat saying he would want to see a list of projects vetted by the public and by county government and would want to involve the city of Houston and the federal government in helping fund the projects.

He said he would want to have county voters weigh in on a potential bond issue that outlined that list of projects.

“I would support a tax increase for flood control, I would support it,” he said. “Now bear in mind, you don’t just have a tax increase without a plan.”

[…]

The tax rate for the flood control district is currently about 4 cents per $100 of assessed property value, [county budget officer Bill] Jackson said. That includes the amount designated directly for the flood control district – 2.7 cents per $100 – as well as a chunk that’s being used by the county to pay down debt.

The flood control district’s property tax rate can be raised by commissioners to no more than 30 cents per $100, Jackson said.

Morman was adamant, however, that he would not support an overall tax increase to solve the problem.

“I’m a homeowner, most of my constituents are homeowners, we already pay enough property taxes,” Morman said. “It’s kind of like enough is enough at some point.”

Morman said he could also support reallocation of funds, but did not know exactly where that money would come from.

Locke could in theory support a tax rate increase, though he would need to see the final plans and would want the federal government to help pay for more flood control projects, spokeswoman Mary Benton said.

Cagle said he would not support an overall tax increase, but would support reallocating funds toward flood control from the county’s public hospital district. In the past, they had been reallocated toward the hospital district and away from flood control, he said.

“I believe the taxpayers are interested in a reallocation of the tax base back to making flood control the priority that it once was,” Cagle said.

1. This was what Radack was talking about when he made his infamous “some people enjoy flooding” remarks. The Press had a story that ran after I published that included his thoughts on the tax rate, and I think there’s a lot to what he’s saying here. He definitely put his foot in his mouth on this point – I get what he was trying to say, but you’d think a guy who’s been in office for as long as he has might have a better grasp of how not to say things in the worst possible way – and he deserves the heat he’s getting, but the rest of what he said should not be lost.

2. Morman and Cagle’s insistence that we don’t need to raise any more revenue, we just need to shuffle things around in the budget is a load of bollocks. How much should we be spending on flood mitigation? What specific budget items would you cut to make up the difference between what we now spend and what you think we should spend? Give me details and then maybe I’ll believe that you’re not just dodging the question.

3. All that said, the single best thing we could do going forward to not make our flooding problem worse is to stop paving over the undeveloped land that currently serves as the best flood mitigation we’ll ever have. People have been saying for years that the Grand Parkway would be a disaster from a flooding perspective, but that didn’t stop the County from building a massive road in the middle of what used to be nowhere to serve the needs of people who didn’t live there yet. If we ever got serious about encouraging denser development and transportation solutions that support it, we’d have less mitigation to worry about having to pay for.

What makes transit successful?

It’s pretty basic, as this report lays out.

A new report released [Tuesday] by TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to improving urban mobility, finds that developing transit in walkable areas and offering frequent, fast bus and rail service is the key to increasing urban transit ridership.

The report, “Who’s on Board 2016: What Today’s Riders Teach Us About Transit That Works” draws on results from three focus groups and a survey of 3,000 people in 17 U.S. metropolitan areas with varying levels of transit development and ridership. It builds on the findings from TransitCenter’s first Who’s On Board report released in 2014—the largest-ever attitudinal survey of transit riders—which showed that Americans from coast to coast think about and use public transit in remarkably similar and often unexpected ways. The latest edition of the Who’s On Board series offers several core findings to inform how government agencies and elected officials approach transportation, land use, and development policy:

  • The most important “first mile/last mile” solution is walking. The majority of transit riders, including 80 percent of all-purpose riders, typically walk to transit. This finding underscores the importance of putting transit stations in busy, walkable neighborhoods; building offices and housing within walking distance of transit; and providing more and safer pedestrian routes to transit.
  • The two most important determinants of rider satisfaction with transit are service frequency and travel time. The availability of information and conditions at the station or stop were also important, suggesting that real-time information and shelters are important amenities for transit agencies to provide. On the other hand, power outlets and Wifi were rated the least important items out of a list of 12 potential service improvements.
  • There are three common patterns of transit use: occasional riders who take transit once in awhile, commuters who take transit regularly but only for work, and all-purpose riders who take transit regularly for multiple purposes. Transit agencies should strive to grow this third category of rider, as they are the most reliable and financially efficient customers to serve. All-purpose riders are more prevalent where it’s easy to walk to transit, and where transit is frequent and provides access to many destinations.
  • Transit riders are sensitive to transit quality, not “captive” to transit. For decades, transportation professionals have talked about two kinds of transit riders: car-owning “choice riders” who use transit when it meets their needs, and carless “captive riders” who will use transit regardless of its quality. Who’s On Board finds that the “captivity” of carless riders is severely overstated. People who live and work near better transit ride transit more often, whether or not they own cars. When transit becomes functionally useless, there are very few people who will continue to use it; agencies can take no one for granted.

Who’s On Board offers several recommendations for local governments and transit agencies to improve transit service, including creating dedicated lanes to reduce travel time, improving frequency on routes with high ridership potential, and zoning to concentrate development around transit corridors.

“There’s no magic bullet for transit, but there are some simple rules. Make it easy for people to walk to transit, put it close to important destinations, and make transit frequent, fast, and reliable,” said Steven Higashide, Senior Program Analyst for TransitCenter and leader of the foundation’s opinion research program. “Transit lines that don’t follow these rules–like commuter rail with parking lots at every station or slow streetcars that don’t connect to other transit–tend to perform poorly. Frequent transit networks in walkable neighborhoods reduce reliance on cars, spark economic growth, and create vibrant urban places.”

“Who’s On Board shows that discussions about transit often ignore what really drives transit ridership. In Houston, we bucked the trend by redesigning our entire local bus network to improve frequency and travel time—and total ridership is up more than 10 percent,” said Christof Spieler, a Houston METRO Board Member. “If every city followed the report’s advice and focused transit investments on frequency, travel time, and walkability, we could make transit useful to millions more people across the country.”

The full report is available for download here.

More information about the report is available here. If you look at the Recommendations on page 12 of the report, you’ll see that pretty much everything there was implemented by Metro in its bus system redesign. The main thing that still needs to be done, which is the first recommendation for local governments on page 13, is improving sidewalks. Every dollar that we can reasonably spend towards that goal will be worth it. Read the report and see what you think. The Chron story on this is here, and Urban Edge has more.

Appeals court reverses Ashby damages award

It’s kind of amazing to me that the Ashby Highrise saga is still a newsmaker.

Sue me!

In a major ruling that could stymie future legal challenges against developers, a state appellate court has reversed a key portion of the 2014 judgment awarding damages to residents opposed to the controversial Ashby high-rise.

Neighbors of the residential tower proposed for 1717 Bissonnet at Ashby had claimed it would reduce the value of their homes, intrude on their privacy and create a slew of other problems. A judge in Houston two years ago concluded there was no way to legally stop the project.

But he said the residents were entitled to $ 1.2 million in damages, even though construction had yet to begin.

The eagerly awaited opinion filed Thursday in the 14th Court of Appeals is a big win for the Houston development community and it brought the partners involved a sense of vindication as they prepare to move forward with the project.

“A decision to uphold damages in this type of case would have set a dangerous precedent for urban growth and economic prosperity, not just in the city of Houston but throughout the state of Texas,” Matthew Morgan of Houston-based Buckhead Investment Partners said Friday. “We are grateful to the Texas Court of Appeals for making it clear that zoning by nuisance law is not how things get done in Houston, Texas.”

The reversal applies to damages awarded to 20 homeowners near the site at 1717 Bissonnet and Ashby where Buckhead has been planning a 21-story residential tower the company said it still plans to build in the leafy neighborhood near Rice University.

[…]

Thursday’s opinion also reversed the ruling that the developers would have to pay the homeowners’ legal fees.

The appeals court affirmed the remainder of the judgment, including the trial judge’s refusal to grant an injunction halting the project.

In recent years and likely a result of the earlier Ashby ruling, property owners in Houston’s urban core have filed lawsuits to stop developers from building.

If the court had upheld the damages, it would have set a precedent for future cases, said Matthew Festa, a professor at Houston College of Law who specializes in land-use issues and who testified for the developers’ side during the December 2013 trial.

“Basically it would have hung a million-dollar price tag on the building permit,” he said.

A copy of the decision is here. The original ruling was made in 2014, and we are past the tenth anniversary of this case. As the story notes, the residents could try again after the thing gets built and it is shown to lower their property values, but who knows if that will ever happen? Despite the setback, as a Swamplot commenter notes, they’ve delayed the project well past the real estate boom time in Houston, and if nothing else bought themselves at least a decade of not having this highrise as their neighbor. Not that bad an outcome no matter what happens next, really.

Reimagining Lower Westheimer

This ought to be interesting.

Lower Westheimer is one of Houston’s most well-known streets, but on some fronts its reputation isn’t a positive one. Narrow and bumpy, the street is both a hub of retail and recreation activity and also a harrowing bike or automobile trip from time to time.

Everyone has a story or a suggestion of how to make it better – and next week the city is going to carve out time to listen to them in hopes of improving one of Houston’s premier streets.

“That is one of the most economically vibrant, critical corridors in the city,” said Geoff Carleton, principal at Traffic Engineers Inc., a local transportation planning and consulting firm. “The priority there should be the place-making and developing walkability where it helps keep that tax base in place.”

As part of ReBuild Houston, officials are considering design changes for the street, a months-long process started by an advisory committee, moving to public comment on Monday evening. Officials guiding the process said while no final designs will be shown for what Westheimer should look like from Shepherd to Main. Westheimer turns into Elgin at Bagby.

“We will be presenting background material and existing conditions information and asking the public for their preferences and priorities,” said Matthew Seubert, a senior planner with the Houston Planning and Development Department.

Swamplot has a map of the area in question. One of the things hampering transit in the area is the curve in the street between Mandell and Commonwealth, combined with the narrow lanes that make it impossible for one of the articulated (i.e., longer and higher-capacity) buses to run on Westheimer. That’s a problem, given how busy that bus line is. Seems to me the obvious solution is to reduce Westheimer to one lane each way for that stretch. It’s functionally one lane each way between Hazard and Mandell anyway, thanks to there being on-street parking. I’m sure the subject will come up, and you can make your own voice heard at that public meeting. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of this.

Turner reiterates the need to rethink transportation

New audience, same theme.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s transportation future – and perhaps its economic vitality – relies on more options than new freeway lanes to make room for more cars, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Tuesday.

“The solution is to increasingly take advantage of other modes of travel,” Turner told business and elected leaders at a lunch event hosted by Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston Region.

The mayor, who has talked about a transportation “paradigm shift” since taking office in January, mentioned a laundry list of mobility projects that Houston must embrace, ranging from regional commuter rail to improved pedestrian access.

Nothing by itself can abate Houston’s growing congestion, the mayor acknowledged, but together the options could reform how people travel. Also, he favors a better balance of state and federal transportation funding, which heavily supports highways over public transit in the region.

“We will have to make choices on how to use limited space on streets to move people faster,” Turner said, noting that nine out of 10 working residents in the area rely on their own vehicle to get to and from work.

Houston today – and in the future – is a far different place than the one its highways initially served. Rather than a development pattern focused solely on downtown, Houston is an assortment of small, concentrated job and housing centers. Turner said the city’s transportation should reflect that by offering walkable solutions and local streets capable of handling the traffic in places such as the Texas Medical Center and Energy Corridor.

“We can connect the centers together with regional transit,” Turner said. “We need to focus our limited funding in these areas.”

[…]

As mobility options increase, the mayor said it will be up to officials to focus attention where certain transportation solutions can do the most good and ignite the least political furor.

“I will not force light rail on any community that does not want it. I will not do it,” Turner said. “We must stop trying to force it on places that do not want it and give it to neighborhoods and people in this city who want it.”

Minutes after his speech concluded, listeners were already dissecting the mayor’s statement on light rail and its obvious reference to the decadelong discussion of a proposed east-west rail line along Richmond Avenue to the Galleria area.

See here for thoughts expressed by Mayor Turner to the Texas Transportation Commission in February. I wouldn’t read too much into that comment about “forcing” rail into places that don’t want it. For one thing, the opposition to the Universities line has always been loud, but there’s never been any evidence that it’s broad. The evidence we do have suggests there’s plenty of support for that line in the neighborhoods where it would run. In addition, recent remarks by Turner-appointed Metro Chair Carrin Patman suggest the Universities line is still on the agenda. Perhaps there’s a disconnect between the two – in the end, I can’t see Metro putting forth an updated rail referendum that includes the Universities line over Mayor Turner’s objection – but I doubt it. I would just not read too much into that one statement without any corroborating evidence. Houston Tomorrow, which has video and a partial transcript of Mayor Turner’s remarks, has more.

Beyond that, this is good to hear, and even better to hear more than once. The reality is that as with things like water and energy, there is only so much room to add new road capacity, and it starts getting prohibitively expensive, in straight dollar costs as well as in opportunity costs, to add it. It’s far cheaper to conserve the capacity that we already have, which in the case of transportation means getting more people to use fewer cars. I talked about all this at the start of the Mayoral race last year, and I’m heartened to see that Mayor Turner’s priorities have been in line with many of the things I was hoping for. A lot of this talk still needs to be translated into action, but you can’t have the action without the talk first, to make people aware of the issues and get them on board with the solutions. The Mayor has done a good job of that so far, and it’s great to see.

Will the Ashby highrise ever get built?

Who knows?

Sue me!

Penelope Loughhead’s house in the leafy neighborhood near Rice University abuts the land where, nearly a decade ago, a proposed high-rise sparked a land-use battle that resonated citywide and throughout the local development community.

This week marks two years since a judge ruled the proposed Ashby tower could go forward after a monthlong trial and jury verdict that agreed with residents that the 21-story tower would be a nuisance to surrounding property owners. The judge agreed to some of the roughly $1 million in damages jurors assessed against Houston-based Buckhead Investment Partners but denied residents the permanent injunction they were seeking to halt the project.

Yet the 1.6-acre lot sits empty as both sides await a decision on their appeals.

“It feels like we’re in limbo,” Loughhead said. “We’re in the dark. We know they are allowed to build, but no ground has been broken.”

The developers declined to comment, citing the ongoing appeals process. They did not answer questions about the status of the project, although they previously told the Chronicle that the construction was moving along despite the appeal.

[…]

Attorneys for both sides made their cases during an appellate hearing in September. A decision could come down any day, attorneys say.

In documents filed with the 14th Court of Appeals, the attorney for the developers, Raymond Viada, argued against the damages that jurors awarded 20 residents who live near the Ashby project’s 1717 Bissonnet address. He wrote, in part, that the developers altered plans for the project after the jury’s decision and before the injunction hearing. Therefore, the project discussed in trial, which was ruled by the jury to be a nuisance, was no longer what his clients were proposing.

Viada wrote that the developers, who have already invested $14 million in the project, changed plans to reduce lighting from the garage, place planters on the amenity deck to add privacy and reconstruct its foundation to limit the impact of damage to surrounding homes. He wrote that the developers expect to net $72 million in profit if the project is not stopped.

See here for all the Ashby blogging you can stand. As I said the last time, it really boggles the mind to realize how long some lots in extremely desirable parts of town have been empty. The old Robinson Warehouse, Allen House, The Stables, and Ashby sites have been fallow for going on ten years. They remained unbuilt through a multi-year real estate boom that was especially hungry for inside-the-Loop properties. Now, in the midst of a low-oil-price downturn, it’s hard to imagine any of them changing status any time soon, and that’s without taking the Ashby lawsuit appeals process into account. I keep thinking that one of these days something will change, but all I’ve gotten for my trouble is that much older.

The Ashby legacy

What hath it wrought?

Sue me!

The plot of land where developers promised the so-called Ashby high-rise would be built in an affluent neighborhood still sits empty.

Yet the 1.6-acre lot at 1717 Bissonnet, which in 2007 sparked a battle that came to symbolize the impact of a lack of formal zoning in Houston, is still high on the minds of land-use experts, city leaders and developers grappling with development policy around the region, an expert panel said Monday.

“We are watching for the repercussions going forward,” said South Texas College of Law professor Matthew Festa, who specializes in land use. “We start in a city without a formal zoning code. But we have a lot of those types of rules.”

[…]

Festa said that with the various land use restrictions in Houston, in the form of minimum-lot sizes, historic districts and residential buffer ordinances, the region has “de-facto zoning.” This has led to many questions and sets up battles over where to build and about density versus preserving what is already there.

He said there are equity issues on both sides.

“Wealthy neighbors pass the hat and hire top-notch attorneys. What happens to the ones that don’t have those resources?” Festa said. “Nowhere is this stuff more intense than land-use battles.”

[…]

There is also an ongoing battle over a proposed affordable housing complex in a neighborhood between Tanglewood and the Galleria. That Houston Housing Authority project is a test case for new federal pressures and a Supreme Court decision that requires that affordable housing is built in high-opportunity neighborhoods, said Kyle Shelton, a researcher with the Kinder Institute at Rice University.

“It intimately ties into the same debate as Ashby,” Shelton said. “It raises the question for Houston: Does this ‘de-facto zoning’ get us a Houston that works for everybody? Ashby provided an interesting contradiction for Houston.”

Festa, who testified for the developers’ side during the Ashby trial, said he has watched the case since the beginning. He said the property rights issue is a sensitive one because people will sense a threat to their homes, their biggest purchase and largest asset.

“Land use really does motivate people,” he said. “It’s the communities that we live in.”

As noted in the story, one of the legacies of the Ashby highrise is the reverse Ashby lawsuit that was recently filed. You have to wonder if we’d be having these issues now if we’d passed that zoning referendum in the 90s. Be that as it may, I still believe the following: One, the Ashby location was a terrible place for a 21-story high-rise. This Swamplot comment puts it in a way that I hadn’t previously considered but which makes perfect sense. Two, we really need to revisit this issue as a city. What are the legitimate ways that a homeowner or neighborhood can oppose a proposed development near them? Combat by lawsuit isn’t doing anyone but the lawyers any good. And three, will the inner city’s best known long-vacant sites like the Ashby location and the Robinson warehouse ever get redeveloped? Now that we’re on the downslope of the last economic boom, it’s hard to see why anything would change if it hadn’t during the good times. The Robinson site will “celebrate” ten years of nothingness in January (the Ashby site will hit that mark later next year). When you consider how much construction has occurred around it in that time, it’s almost mind-boggling. Maybe they’re just cursed, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens next when there’s a ruling in the Ashby appeal.

The reverse Ashby

You have to admit, this is kind of clever.

Sue me!

A Houston developer has filed a pre-emptive strike against the owners of a luxury high-rise near the Galleria to head off an “inevitable lawsuit” over its plans to build a tower next door.

“We’re a little bit in shock,” said Karen Brown, president of the Cosmopolitan Condominium Association, which is now a defendant in a lawsuit filed by the developer this week in Harris County.

Brown said Wednesday that her group met with the developer, Dinerstein Co., several times to discuss homeowners’ concerns over the size of the proposed tower, its proximity to their own 22-story building, and related traffic and safety issues. She said the association wants the building to be half as tall and 100 feet farther away.

“They want to build a 40-story building 10 feet from us,” Brown said. “We think that’s unreasonable.”

But she said she was surprised to learn that the owner of the lot next door, an affiliate of Dinerstein Co., had filed suit against her group.

The dispute concerns a proposal to build a high-rise condo on the northwest corner of Post Oak and San Felipe, adjacent to the Cosmopolitan, 1600 Post Oak Blvd. The developer purchased the 1.5-acre parcel, currently a shopping center, last year.

In its lawsuit, the developer is asking for a declaratory judgment prohibiting the homeowners association from asserting a nuisance claim for the construction of the tower. It also wants a judge to declare that the association does not have standing to assert an action “based on alleged violations of city ordinances.” Attorney’s fees are also being sought.

The developer claims in the lawsuit that it addressed concerns raised by the condo owners by modifying the proposed building’s design. The changes included lowering the height of the parking garage, allowing it to line up with the Cosmopolitan’s garage; moving the building’s cooling systems to the roof; and designing the structure so views from the Cosmopolitan would be less obstructed.

Basically, “we’re suing you before you can sue us”. Well, the best defense is a good offense, so one can see the allure. Nancy Sarnoff adds a few details.

“It’s an interesting strategy for the developer to file first and to be the plaintiff,” said Matthew Festa, a South Texas College of Law professor who specializes in land-use issues.

But other than the role reversal, “it’s replay of the Ashby,” said Festa, referring to the nearly 10-year-old case in which homeowners opposed a developer’s fully entitled plans to build a residential tower in their upscale neighborhood near Rice University.

[…]

In a paper presented at a land-use conference in Austin last year, Houston real estate lawyer Reid Wilson wondered if nuisance law could become a routine land use weapon to oppose new development in what he calls “nuisance zoning.”

“Nuisance law is intended to protect an owner from adjacent uses which substantially interfere with the owner’s use and enjoyment of their land,” he said. “The problem is that nuisance is determined by a judge, so a developer never knows for sure if the ‘nuisance zoning’ will apply until the judge rules.”

In the Ashby case, the plaintiffs argued multiple claims, including that the high-rise would worsen traffic and block sunlight, and that its construction would damage the plaintiffs’ house foundations.

Wilson, whose firm defended the Ashby developer in litigation, said nuisance law needs to be clarified. He hopes the pending opinion in the appeal will do just that.

See here for all my prior Ashby blogging, and here for more on the appeal of that verdict, which who knows when will be resolved. I’m just gonna keep the popcorn warm and see how this goes. Swamplot has more.

Uptown living

It’s a thing that is happening.

Home to the city’s glittering epicenter of retail, with a dramatic skyline dominated by the towering Williams Tower and other office buildings, Uptown Houston is best known for the places where people work and play. Increasingly, it’s a place where people want to live as well.

A $1.7 billion investment in condominium towers and apartments over the last five years there has pushed residential development past retail as a percentage of overall real estate. Uptown is now 28 percent residential, compared with 25 percent retail.

Leaders at Uptown Houston, which runs the tax increment reinvestment zone and management district there, say residential opportunities are still in their infancy. Another 4,000 living units are under construction.

“Office, residential, retail and hotel all sort of blend and work together to create an urban neighborhood,” Uptown Houston president John Breeding said. “I think we’ve reached a new level of urbanization.”

The office market still dominates in Uptown, which ranks among the top 15 biggest office centers in the nation. Office makes up 37 percent of the district.

But residential is on the rise. O’Brien’s complex recently opened at 1900 Yorktown, the eight-story building advertising units with built-in wine cellars, oak floors and a large “Vegas-style” pool.

Announced residential projects in the Galleria area include a 26-story development called Belfiore being built at Post Oak Lane and South Wynden Drive, and a 28-story condominium tower called Astoria on Post Oak Boulevard. The Wilshire, a 17-story condominium project, and the SkyHouse River Oaks apartments replaced a 1960s-era apartment complex on Westcreek, now adjacent to the recently opened River Oaks District.

[…]

The regional housing market, long dominated by spacious single-family homes in suburban areas, is evolving as buyers increasingly are attracted to urban locales where it’s possible to walk to nearby attractions, said Jacob Sudhoff of Sudhoff Properties, a high-end real estate brokerage firm specializing in condo sales.

The Uptown-Galleria area is ground zero for this change as international buyers, oil executives and downsizing empty nesters trend toward the luxury for-sale units.

“Houston has finally turned into a condo market, and in the past we never were,” Sudhoff said. “There’s a correlation between amenities, walkability and the location of these condominiums.”

I think it’s a good thing that formerly non-residential areas such as Uptown now feature actual residences. The best way to avoid and reduce traffic is for people to be places where they don’t need to get into a car to go about their business. This is why things like sidewalks, bike paths, and transit matter. Some number of people who work and shop in the Uptown area have no choice but to drive there. If the people who do live there or live close to there can do those things by walking, biking, or taking Metro – and if there are more of those people to begin with – then they’re not competing with the folks who have to drive for space on the Loop. (I’ve made the same argument about parking for bikes at restaurants.) Doesn’t that make sense? Now if we could figure out how to get some more affordable housing into and around places like Uptown, then we’d really have something. I’m sure the next Mayor will get right on that.

The Woodlands versus its neighbors

I have three things to say about this.

The Woodlands prides itself on being the best-planned community around, with tree-studded neighborhoods, miles of trails, sprawling parks and a town center with a distinctly urban feel.

Across Montgomery County, however, some see The Woodlands as a snooty, well-off enclave that grouses about its tax dollars subsidizing services elsewhere.

Unfair or not, those hard feelings are coming into view as the county nears a Nov. 3 vote on whether to invest in new and improved roadways. The $280 million bond measure is a slimmed-down version of one that failed four months ago amid heavy opposition in The Woodlands.

After urging county leaders to try again on the coming ballot, the township’s governing board has come out against the revised bond measure, saying that the package is tainted because it was put together in negotiations outside public view.

A special prosecutor is investigating whether the county’s dealings broke the state’s open meetings law. Even then, some local officials and residents are upset by The Woodlands’ hasty turnaround.

“You can’t overcome the fact that we still need the roads,” said Alan Sadler, who recently retired after 24 years as Montgomery County’s judge. “It’s dire. If we wait another year, we won’t have the roads built until 2020, 2021 or 2022. We can’t wait that long.”

The Woodlands board’s opposition to the measure before the investigation is complete has widened a divide between township and county leaders. Sadler, among others, was irked by the township’s sudden decision last year to pull out of a deal to help pay for a new customs facility at Montgomery County’s airport. Township leaders complained about a lack of responsiveness from county leaders.

And in May, voters in The Woodlands rallied to defeat the initial road bond because it included a controversial extension of Woodlands Parkway west of the master-planned community, a project that critics said would worsen traffic woes. Forty percent of the voters in the countywide election came from its largest community, and they opposed it by a 9-1 margin.

Penny Benbow, who resides in southeast Montgomery County, said voters outside The Woodlands listened to its concerns, and many rejected the bond measure, too. But the parkway extension isn’t part of the new bond package, and it’s time for the town to support it, she said.

“We can’t do it without you,” Benbow told the township’s governing board last week. “Your neighbors stood by you in May. Now it’s time for you to stand by your neighbors.”

See here and here for the background. I know I’m a horrible person for saying this, but I find this whole saga to be hilarious. This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in the suburbs! You guys should be setting a good example for those benighted city residents! Stop fighting before you make Joel Kotkin cry!

Bruce Tough, the board’s chairman, bristles at the suggestion that The Woodlands isn’t a good neighbor. He noted that the township has supported the Conroe Independent School District’s bond measures and pays “the lion’s share” of taxes in the county.

Of course The Woodlands pays the lion’s share of the property taxes in the county. That would be because the Woodlands has the lion’s share of the property value in the county. If the Woodlands would like for its share of the property taxes to be lower, they’ll need for the rest of the county to be built up more. I don’t know what share of Harris County’s property taxes Houston pays, but I’ll bet it used to be more back when more of Harris County was uninhabited or undeveloped.

The highest priority is Rayford Road, an artery that has become a backed-up pool of frustration for the unincorporated neighborhoods east of The Woodlands. Plans call for widening the road to as many as six lanes and building an overpass over railroad tracks.

“The Woodlands has a good road grid,” said Thomas Gray, a planner for the area council. “The east side doesn’t, so that’s why they’re experiencing the problems they have right now.”

I predict that regardless of what happens with this particular bond issue, the problems won’t go away. In fact, I’d bet the projects that the bond would provide for give little more than temporary relief. This is partly because of the fast growth in Montgomery County – there’s only so much you can do when that many people are moving in – but it’s also partly by design. You pretty much have to drive everywhere in Montgomery County, and that’s not going to change. There are plenty of places you can live in Houston and do a minimal amount of driving. Until that becomes the case in Montgomery County, they’re going to have to keep paving to try to keep up. Good luck with that.

One way to lower speed limits

Purple City makes an interesting observation.

One of the quieter actions of the late Parker administration has been to slowly alter speed limits from 35 or 40mph to 30mph. These reductions aren’t based on an engineering study or field measurements, but on a creative interpretation of state law. Texas sets the default urban speed limit at 30mph in lieu of a study justifying higher speeds. The City is interpreting that to post 30 on roadways which were formerly determined to be safe at 35 or 40.

I first began to notice this about a year ago, and had it confirmed by sources within PWE last summer. Thus far, it seems to be restricted to thoroughfares inside the Loop. The existing signage is allowed to disappear (through collisions, failure, theft, etc). When most of the old 35/40 is gone, the road is re-signed at 30. This provides a more gradual transition period than simply changing the signs out overnight.

Recently, I noticed that all of the 35mph signage is missing between Allen Parkway and IH-10.

He’s got a Google Maps image with the various sections of Studemont/Montrose highlighted to show what the speed limit is on each. It’s signed for 35 between Allen Parkway and Westheimer, but either signed for 30 or not signed elsewhere. Unless the next Mayor changes direction, my guess is that at some point in the not too distant future, this road will have a 30 MPH speed limit all the way.

And you know what? That’s just fine. Twenty-five years ago, when there was little retail or residential development north of Westheimer, a 35 MPH speed limit was reasonable. Nowadays, with pedestrians and bikes and cars slowing down to turn into driveways and side streets, a slower speed makes a lot more sense. Slower speeds save lives, and the streets in Houston’s dense urban areas aren’t just for cars any more. We should be updating the speed limits on these streets to reflect that.

2015 Mayoral manifesto: Quality of life and other issues

Preliminaries
Transportation
Public safety

A few quick hits on topics that didn’t fit elsewhere.

Making Houston affordable again

Remember when Houston was an inexpensive place to live? If you haven’t been here at least a decade – more like two decades, for some neighborhoods – you probably don’t. The transformation of so many parts of Houston, especially the Inner Loop, has been a big positive in many ways, but it’s come with a big price tag. Many longtime residents of many established and historic areas have been forced out, and the vast majority of housing construction today is high end. Houston’s longstanding reputation as an affordable place to live is no longer valid, and it’s having an effect. If nothing else, you have to wonder what will happen to some of these luxury apartment/condo complexes if the price of oil stays down around $50 a barrel. Mayors of course are limited in what they can do about this sort of thing, but there are some good policy ideas to encourage affordable housing development out there. I’d at least like to know that the Mayoral candidates consider this to be something worth thinking and talking about.

Historic preservation

In 2010, City Council passed a historic preservation ordinance, after a lot of work, debate, and contentiousness. Four years later, that ordinance is still a work in progress, with tweaks being made to help developers and homeowners better understand what it means and how to follow it. What sorts of “tweaks” would the Mayoral candidates like to see made to this ordinance? More broadly, and as a tangent to the point about how many established neighborhoods have been transformed by the recent real estate boom, what can – or should – be done to protect the interests of longtime residents in these neighborhoods and the houses that gave them their character in the first place? How do you balance their interests with those of developers?

One Bin For All

I trust everyone is familiar with the One Bin For All proposal. Last year, the city received numerous RFPs to build the kind of all-in-one plant that would revolutionize solid waste management and forever put to rest Houston’s abysmally low recycling rate. At this point, we don’t know where that stands, and while Mayor Parker and Sustainability Director Laura Spanjian have steadfastly advocated for this idea, they have also said that if it isn’t feasible then the city won’t pursue it. Many environmental groups – though not all – have been critical of the One Bin plan, preferring that the city do more to expand single-stream recycling. This is a big decision that Mayor Parker and City Council will eventually make. What direction do the Mayoral candidates want them to go? Who likes the One Bin idea, and who is skeptical of it? For those in the latter group, what would they do to increase recycling in Houston? If One Bin isn’t the answer, what steps can the city take beyond encouraging recycling – such as reducing the amount of food waste being sent to landfills – to do better and spend less on garbage?

State versus city

I discussed the threat of so-called “sanctuary cities” legislation in the Public Safety entry, but that is far from the only bill that seeks to limit or dictate what cities like Houston would be allowed to do by the Legislature. From payday lending to equal rights ordinances to plastic bags to who knows what else, the Lege – egged on by Governor Abbott – has declared war on local control. Are any of the Mayoral candidates – other than Rep. Sylvester Turner, who can safely be assumed to be dealing directly with these issues – even thinking about this stuff? Because if they wait until the voters are presumed to be tuning in, it will be too late. We need to be hearing from these guys now. If they don’t like some of the items on the Legislature’s to do list, they need to say so now. If they do like these things, then we need to hear them say that, too. Either way, now is not the time to be silent. If any of these bills pass, it will have a profound effect on Houston. The next Mayor of Houston might want to get out in front of that.

I could go on, but I think that will do for now. I realize this is a long campaign, and I realize the average voter is assumed to have the attention span of a gnat. I also realize that some of these candidates don’t have fully fleshed-out positions on everything yet, though let’s be honest here – most of the declared candidates – three of whom so far are repeat customers – have been running for Mayor for many years now. They’ve just made it official now that they can raise money. They’ve all got advisers and consultants and political directors and what have you out the wazoo. Let’s put some of that brainpower to the test. Anyone can be against potholes. I want to know what these guys are for, and it’s neither unfair nor too early to start asking where they stand, at least in general, on these issues. I hope you’ll join me on that, and will do the same for the issues that are important to you.

From industrial to residential

More changes coming to my neck of the woods.

Some of the old warehouses lining a stretch of Sawyer Street across Interstate 10 from the Heights are being primed for new development, as this First Ward area continues to morph from industrial hub to an upscale artsy neighborhood.

Houston-based Lovett Commercial is transforming a 1950s warehouse at Sawyer and Edwards into Sawyer Yards, which will have about 40,000 square feet of space for restaurants, retail or offices.

The company is looking to fill another 5-acre parcel at 2000 Taylor just south of I-10 at Spring Street. The property is across from the Sawyer Heights Target.

H-E-B quashed rumors that it was considering opening a store there, though the grocery chain has been looking around.

“That’s not a piece of land we’re looking at,” said spokeswoman Cyndy Garza-Roberts. “We’ve had an interest of moving into the Heights area for several years now. We just have not been able to identify a location.”

Jon Deal, who has developed artist studios in the area, is planning another project at the old Riviana rice facility at Sawyer and Summer.

The project is called the Silos on Sawyer, and it will include artist studios, creative workspaces and some retail.

The main building contains more than 50,000 square feet.

Deal said he, Steve Gibson and Frank Liu of Lovett Commercial own – separately or in partnerships – at least 35 contiguous acres in the area.

They hope to master-plan the acreage.

“Ideally we’re going to be a campus-type creative community,” Deal said. “It’ll look and feel like a master-planned development in the end, although it’ll keep its raw edge.”

The area is part of a cultural district recognized by the state, Deal said. The program is not currently being funded, he said, but when it is, it will allow artists to seek grant money.

There’s an awful lot of activity going on in this general area, which stretches from Studemont to Houston Avenue between I-10 and Washington Avenue. I consider it a positive for the most part – the existing industrial area didn’t exactly add much to the quality of life in the larger area, and a lot of it is not actively used now anyway – but there are concerns. Mostly, traffic on the north-south streets – Studemont, Sawyer, and Houston – is already a problem, and there are limited options to ameliorate it. Sawyer, for example, is a narrow one-lane-each-way street south of the Target retail center, and as you can see from the embedded image or this Google Map link, there aren’t any other options thanks to the active freight train tracks, which by the way regularly block traffic on Sawyer and Heights. (This is part of the corridor that would be used for some variation of commuter/high speed/light rail, if and when it ever happens.) There is at least the off-road Heights bike trail along Spring Street that connects the area to the Heights (passing under I-10) and downtown (passing under I-45), and there is a sidewalk along Sawyer; it definitely needs an upgrade, and there’s a lot of potential to make it much nicer when the properties west of Sawyer get sold for development, but at least it’s there. The potential exists to turn this part of town into a compelling modern urban residential/mixed-use area. In the absence of any unified vision for the myriad developers to draw inspiration, I hope at least no one does anything to permanently derail such a thing.

Heights-Northside mobility study

Mostly of interest for folks in my area, here’s the city’s report on mobility for neighborhoods in the upper left quadrant of the Inner Loop.

HeightsNorthside

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study

The Planning and Development Department, in partnership with the Department of Public Works and Engineering and Houston-Galveston Area Council, is pleased to announce that the Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility study has been finalized and can be downloaded (see links below).

After an extensive public comment period, the City received 125 comments regarding study recommendations, and letters from area organizations. Over the last several months, the project team has worked with City staff to evaluate all comments and provide responses to questions that were raised. Where appropriate, recommendations were modified to ensure that all final recommendations resulting from this study best serve the needs of the City and community, alike.

Final Report: Heights-Northside Sub-regional Mobility Study
Download Full Version (31 MB)

Download by Chapter:
I. Introduction
II. Existing Conditions
III. Community Involvement
IV. Defining Future Mobility Conditions
V. Changing Mobility Considerations
VI. A Balanced Approach: Corridor Sheets
VII. Outcomes
VIII. Next Steps

Appendix A: Data Collection
Appendix B: Thoroughfare Types
Appendix C: Transit Analysis
Appendix D: Hardy-Elysian Option Considerations
Appendix E: Travel Demand Results

Here’s the project website, which has archives of past community meetings and won’t be around much longer. I was alerted to this by Bill Shirley, who highlighted the following bit from the Corridor Streets section that was of interest to me.

“Pedestrian facilities along Studewood Street are in great condition north of White Oak Drive, but virtually nonexistent along the 4-lane segment of the roadway south of White Oak Drive which includes a 4-lane bridge. However, the use of this segment by pedestrians is evident by foot paths flanking both sides of the corridor. The contra-flow lane confuses drivers who are not familiar with its function, and additional signage could help mitigate this issue. The contra-flow lane also causes problems at major intersection due to the lack of protected lefts. At its northern boundary, the corridor terminates into a 6-legged intersection with E 20th/N Main Street/W Cavalcade Street. The current intersection configuration creates confusion, particularly for the pedestrians and bicyclists to navigate.”

I wrote about this awhile back, in the context of the new housing development that will be coming in across the street from the Kroger at Studemont and I-10, and how that area could be a lot more desirable, and a lot less of a burden to vehicular traffic, if that sidewalk were finished and bike options were added. The latter is known to be coming as part of the Bayou Greenways initiative, and it’s exciting to see that the sidewalk is at least on the drawing board as well. I don’t know how long term some of these projects are, but I’m looking forward to them.

Is this the end of the two-car household?

From Streetsblog:

While predicting continued global growth in car sales as countries like India and China become more affluent, KPMG’s recent white paper about trends affecting the car industry [PDF] sees different forces at work in the United States.

In the U.S., says KPMG, car sharing companies like Zipcar, on-demand car services like Uber, and even bike-share will eat away at the percentage of households owning multiple vehicles, especially in major cities. Today, 57 percent of American households have two or more vehicles. KPMG’s Gary Silberg told CNBC that the share of two-car households could decrease to 43 percent by 2040.

In this scenario, KPMG predicts that the rise of “mobility services” will displace car ownership by providing similar mobility but without the fixed costs. The typical new car now costs $31,000 but sits idle 95 percent of the time. Given other options, Silberg told CNBC, many Americans will be happy to avoid that burden.

Other contributing factors flagged by KPMG include increasing urbanization, telecommuting, changing travel preferences among younger generations, and growing traffic congestion in big metro areas.

I’m a little surprised that driverless cars aren’t mentioned here, since that observation about vehicle idle time and its implications for vehicle and ride sharing is a common feature of stories about driverless cars. Make of that what you will.

The Highwayman, who shared that Streetsblog link, looks at this from the local angle.

Some of the services mentioned are already up and running in Houston, and expanding their footprint rapidly. ZipCar is downtown and spreading to other areas, and Uber has stuck around as Houston enacted new laws governing paid rides. In fact, after sort of anchoring its operations within Loop 610, Uber has expanded its footprint (the Uberprint? Ubersphere?) to suburban communities. Wednesday morning, Uber vehicles were available in Katy, Cypress and Tomball (I would have looked at more suburbs, but I got scared they were tracking me and closed the app and considered burning my smartphone).

Still, a lot of Houston isn’t exactly built for just walking down the block and grabbing a ZipCar or hoping an Uber is nearby. Huge swaths of the region are residential, and workers can commute for miles. Many two-income families might hang onto cars. It’s more likely that those living closer in will be less inclined to maintain a two-car household. In the suburbs, not exactly ripe for ridesharing, the change might be in households going from four vehicles to two rather than from two to one.

One possible implication of this KPMG report is that it may lead to greater demand for housing that is closer to employment, retail, and entertainment centers, which today would mean more urban-centric housing, though going forward this may include a good chunk of the more mature suburban areas, as many of them are trying to create urban-like centers within them. I’ve made this point myself in talking about the possible benefits of services like Uber. One reason why far-flung suburban development has been popular is because the cheaper housing more than offsets the larger expenditures needed on transportation. The greater the potential savings on transportation costs, the more attractive closer-in living will be. There are a ton of variables here, so making anything but the vaguest of predictions is dicey business, but this is something to keep in mind. Cities like Houston that are concerned about losing population (and with it political power) to their surrounding suburbs ought to see about doing what they can to facilitate transportation alternatives that allow people to get away from the one-car-per-adult model for living.

The rent is too damn high

The Houston area isn’t such a cheap place to live any more.

BagOfMoney

A job boom bringing highly paid energy workers to Houston and a pronounced decline in the percentage of people buying houses have combined to drive up the cost of living all across the region. Rents here rose nearly 9 percent in the last year, triple the traditional growth rate, driven by occupancy rates that average more than 90 percent and the construction of pricier apartments in such outlying areas as Tomball and Fort Bend County.

Rents for lower-end apartments inside the Loop and in places like Alief are increasing at the fastest rate.

[…]

Analysts say that as the middle and working classes are pushed farther out, their pocketbooks take a second hit from higher transportation costs to get to their jobs. At the same time, developers are working to build a stock of high-end luxury apartments close in to attract the oil and gas workers moving to Houston.

Many of these newcomers turn to real estate agent Matt Vargas, who says his clients often receive housing allowances of $3,000 a month. Some companies give their workers as much $8,000 a month, reducing the incentive to scrimp.

“You would be amazed at what some of these newer properties have to offer, and even more amazed at the pricetag,” Vargas said. “No one in their right mind will spend that much unless they have a housing allowance.”

Developers building the high-end luxury options in Midtown, near Memorial Park and the Galleria are likely targeting these type of renters, he said.

Bruce McClenny, president of Houston-based Apartment Data Services, said a steady or average rate of rent increases in a market should be roughly 3 percent. Locally, that average hit 3.8 percent in 2011 and began to spike rapidly, from 5.5 percent in 2012 to 6.2 percent last year and now to 8.8 percent.

The apartments being built around the region are mostly high-end, driving up rents in those areas, McClenny said. But even Class C apartments, those roughly 30 to 40 years old and offering fewer amenities, have gotten about 8 percent more expensive as occupancy levels have grown to 94 percent.

“As the market prices itself higher, people have been readjusting what they can afford,” McClenny said. “We may just have to adjust the rental reality.”

You have to figure there will be a “correction” in the market at some point, and when there is it won’t be pretty. You also have to figure this is going to start to have an effect on the area’s job growth. Normally, the Houston area is exactly the kind of place where housing prices stay reasonable because there’s still plenty of open space for new construction and you can build highrises as easily as you can single family homes. It’s just that now all the apartment and condo complexes that are being built are top of the market luxury places. No one is building affordable places any more. I don’t think this is a stable situation, but I don’t see what can be done about it. At some point, one way or another, something is going to have to change.

Stephen and Jessica Seagraves say the rent hikes drove them out of state.

The couple – he’s a Sugar Land native and she’s from the Austin area – lived in Houston for six years. During that time, their rent increased time and again. The monthly bill for their most recent place, a two-bedroom apartment in the Heights, was set to soar to $2,100 per month, up from $1,400 two years earlier. It was double what they’d been paying for a two-bedroom house in the same area in 2008.

In July, they moved to Portland, Ore., and into a spacious downtown apartment that leases for $1,600 a month.

Could someone make sure Rick Perry and Ted Cruz see that? Thanks.

More lot protections

Good luck.

A stretch of Riverside Terrace, a rebound neighborhood known for its “large lots, mature trees and a view of the downtown skyline,” will be the first residential pocket in Houston where homeowners can use a new city code provision to fend off unwanted townhome, condo or residential tower developments.

The City Council [recently] voted to grant residents in the 68-lot swath the right to establish a “special minimum lot size area,” a tool created by recent changes in the Houston development code to counter some of the tearing down, paving over and skyward building across the region.

The measure allows qualifying residential zones of up to 500 contiguous homes to curtail densely packed projects by setting a minimum lot size for each structure. A townhome developer, for example, could not build multiple units in place of a single-family home.

Previously, neighborhoods could apply for similar protections on a block-by-block basis.

Councilman Brad Bradford, who represents Riverside Terrace, has been watching a slow gentrification of the neighborhood near South MacGregor Way and Texas 288, about 3 miles from downtown, for about a decade. He called protecting lot sizes “very important.”

The neighborhood group granted approval on Wednesday, he said, “worked very hard to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood. Riverside Terrace is one of the last neighborhoods inside Houston proper with large lots, mature trees and a view of the downtown skyline. It’s all there.”

It’s a little odd to speak of an At Large Council member “representing” a specific neighborhood, but never mind that for now. I think the densification of Houston is a positive thing in general, but that doesn’t mean it’s a positive thing everywhere. It’s vital to let neighborhoods that have character preserve it, because once it’s gone you’ll never get it back. Good for the residents of Riverside Terrace for working to achieve this bit of history protection for themselves. Go read this Houston Press article from 2009 and click through the accompanying slideshow to learn a bit more about Riverside Terrace and what they’re fighting to maintain.

An outsider’s view of the Ashby Highrise

From Governing.com. It contains the Z word, so you might want to shield the eyes of innocent children and Joel Kotkin.

Sue me!

Whatever views one may hold about a city without zoning, it’s hard to deny that Houston has done pretty well for itself over the past generation or so. Its population has grown faster than that of almost any other American city. Its unemployment rate is among the lowest. It continues to attract new businesses no matter what slogan it chooses to adopt for itself. And a growing number of scholars, notably the urbanologist Edward Glaeser, have argued that Houston has done well precisely because it imposes so few restrictions on development.

But will a developmental free-for-all bring Houston the same heady results in the coming decades that it brought in the preceding ones? Or is it, at long last, time to impose a little more order on the unwieldy metropolis? Those are questions that Houston’s development community has spent the past couple of years trying to puzzle out, as it has negotiated the twists and turns of a legal event known to just about everybody as the Ashby case.

[…]

At a minimum, a comprehensive zoning code would dramatically revalue properties all over the city, amounting to a substantial redistribution of private wealth. No elected city leader, not even an outspokenly progressive one like [Mayor Annise] Parker, is going to advocate that.

But neither would it be correct to suggest that free-for-all development will proceed in the future as it did in pre-Ashby times. A precedent for awarding nuisance damages has been set, assuming it is not reversed on appeal. The concessions offered by the Ashby developers over the past seven years seem certain to place pressure on others building where there is significant local opposition. The city government, while backing away from zoning, will be asked to impose new regulations on future projects. One such rule, allowing neighborhood groups to apply for minimum lot size restrictions, has already become law.

But the most interesting question emerging from the case may be whether it will lead to more large infill projects in the central areas of the city. On the one hand, the court and the city government have made it clear that Houston’s build-it-anywhere legal structure will remain more or less intact. On the other hand, the sheer amount of time and effort required of the developers on the Ashby project may send a signal that it remains easier and cheaper to build in the exurbs where they do not have to deal with entrenched community feeling.

Or, still another possibility — developers might draw the lesson that there is plenty of useful work to do in creating urban density, but they have to go about it in a more sensitive and appropriate way than they did on Ashby. That might be the best outcome of all.

One must always be careful to distinguish between the city of Houston, which has grown modestly over the past decade or so, and the greater Houston area, which has grown like gangbusters. Much of that growth in places that aren’t Houston proper has been in empty, generally unincorporated areas. Those places don’t have zoning either, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that the widespread availability of undeveloped land in close proximity to a major urban center is at least as big a factor in the Houston area’s growth as the presence or absence of any municipal codes. San Francisco may be a Kotkinesque nightmare, but I’m pretty sure that if a few hundred square miles of empty turf within commuting distance of the Bay Area were to suddenly materialize, developers would trip over each other rushing out there to buy it up for whatever pieces of cul-de-sac heaven they could build. Anyway, I posted this mostly to provide a recap for anyone who needs to be caught up on the topic, and also because I like the author’s vision of an ideal outcome. These things never happen, of course, but it’s nice to think about once in awhile.

Finally, as an aside and because I don’t feel like writing a separate post for this, the plaintiffs in the Ashby lawsuit – you know, the guys who won the judgment against the developers – have now filed an appeal as well; the developers filed their motion to appeal a couple of weeks ago. They weren’t satisfied with just the money, they don’t want it to be built, which the judge refused to forbid. So we’ll get to litigate this all over again soon enough.

More on San Felipe Highrise Lawsuit II

Here’s the Chron story on the latest adventure in urban planning via the courtroom. The basics are covered here so I’m going to cut to the speculation about effect.

Observers have said the Ashby case could have an effect on development moving forward. Now, local land-use experts say the San Felipe project and the neighbors’ fight against it may be the first evidence of that.

“They could be taking from the Ashby logic,” said Matthew Festa, a South Texas College of Law professor who specializes in land use issues, who testified for the developers in the November trial. “It could be a death by a thousand cuts: everyone who lives nearby suddenly feels empowered to sue for damages.”

[…]

Barry Klein, president of the Houston Property Rights Association, said not many homeowners could afford the costly litigation involved in the Ashby and San Felipe cases.

“Maybe this is a case where people have so much money, it’s a way to cause pain to the developer, even though they recognize they can’t stop the tower,” Klein said. “It could simply be spite on their part to cause the developer more trials and tribulations. … Most neighborhoods don’t have people that can take the legal gamble like this. I don’t expect this will happen in many parts of Houston.”

Bill Kroger, a partner with Baker Botts, which is defending Hines, said the Ashby case is far from resolved and the arguments of the River Oaks neighbors in the latest lawsuit are very different.

Kroger said there has not been a flood of litigation against high-rise office buildings, despite the boom in construction.

Yet John Mixon, a retired University of Houston law professor who specializes in property law, said the lawsuit against Hines signals an “open season” on development and highlights the needs for zoning.

“Developers are now paying the price for not having a system for rational regulation to settle these issues,” he said. “I think we are going to see some fireworks over the next few years.”

I’m more inclined to agree with Klein and Kroger here than with Festa and Mixon. The Ashby decision is going to be appealed – in fact, the defense has just filed a motion to appeal – and it’s possible the plaintiffs could follow suit since the judge gave it the go-ahead to be built despite the damages awarded. In both of these cases you have people with the wherewithal to pursue legal action doing so. Not every neighborhood can meet that. The fact that as yet I’ve heard of no legal action planned by any of my Heights neighbors over the multiple projects going on that they scorn suggests to me this kind of litigation will be the exception rather than the rule. Plus, who knows, the San Felipe plaintiffs may lose. I for one think that the Ashby location was a lot less sensible than this one is for a highrise, and the fact that it was so much of an outlier may be the difference. Of course, I thought the Ashby plaintiffs were going to lose as well, so what do I know. It’ll be a long time before we know for sure what the outcomes will be.

How are those new Chapter 42 regs working?

A little too soon to tell.

Planning and Development Director Patrick Walsh said the changes were designed to make the city competitive with its suburbs by creating more housing options, holding down prices and spurring redevelopment outside the Loop.

“It’s going to be hard to quantify the degree to which these rules are supporting the objective of affordability, but I do think we’re starting to see these rules used to accomplish the goal of reinvestment,” Walsh said. “In even just a couple of months after the rules are in place, we’re seeing some applications for these shared-driveway type developments with some smaller lots. That is a sign of some degree of modest success, and we’re hoping for more.”

[…]

Civic club leaders, concerned about waves of tightly packed two- or three-story patio homes invading established neighborhoods, negotiated for the rules to be phased in over two years. The first phase took effect in late May, with tracts larger than an acre and smaller tracts that are not residential and are not adjacent to residential areas becoming available for development under the new density rules. The rules will apply citywide starting next May.

The Planning Commission has considered or soon will consider three applications that would not have been possible previously.

In east Spring Branch, at Silber and Purswell, Soleil Livin’ Homes plans to build 27 units on a 1.2-acre vacant industrial site. In southwest Houston’s Willowbend neighborhood, a developer seeks to build six lots on half an acre.

And at the northwest edge of the Loop in Garden Oaks, homebuilder Miguel Facundo is building 14 units on the half-acre site of a former roofing business at Alba and Judiway.

Facundo said he plans to build at least 50 more townhomes in the area. He said he has heard chatter about industrial and commercial sites nearby selling to other developers for more such projects. In pushing for the rule changes last year, representatives of Spring Branch-based David Weekley Homes discussed numerous projects they would be able to build in their area once the higher density was allowed.

Facundo acknowledged that the prices he will offer, while perhaps $100,000 cheaper than the homes built under the old rules, will be aimed far above middle-income buyers, in the high $500,000s. Examples from Weekley representatives’ rarely listed price points below $300,000.

“My product’s a little bit different than most of the patio and townhome builders,” Facundo said. “I’m trying to do more of an upscale, a quality build. Then the neighborhood continues to go in the right direction.”

See here for the last update. It’s good that projects like these are being built, though there’s clearly still some work to be done on affordability. Another recent story adds to the anecdotal evidence with the news that over the last 12 months, residential permits within Beltway 8 were up 22.8 percent over the same period last year, which is more than twice the rate as the rest of the city. Beyond that, who knows? I liked the changes made, and I definitely agree with the idea behind them that it’s important to attract development inside city lines – it matters politically and economically. There’s plenty of empty and underused land that’s begging to be put to better use. I hope these new rules will facilitate that, but we need to carefully watch the effects and be prepared to make further changes if needed.

Astrodome Park: The population isn’t the problem

Greg Wythe addresses one of the central questions about the proposed Astrodome Park in this comment that I thought was worth highlighting on the front page.

As it turns out, there are a number of apartments situated to the east and north of the Dome. Checking Census data, the counts on the area “un-highlighted” in this map view comes to 13,360 for the immediate Dome walking area.

If we look at just downtown, we have only 4,690 total people there to seed Discovery Green with foot traffic. So, on the surface, the Dome area is significantly better situated. If we factor in Midtown and a generous interpretation of EaDo, we get 13,243 people in the “un-highlighted” version of the downtown map. Still less than would be accessible to the Dome park.

Both maps are from roughly the same elevation, so the expanse of territory of those maps should give a good interpretation. Obviously, not all parts of downtown (let alone Midtown or EaDo) are considered “walkable” to Discovery Green and not all parts of the Med Center apartments are going to be “walkable” to a Dome park.

But even if the downtown area were more populated, I don’t think it would make a case in and of itself – highways and a rail line to the Dome generally mean easier access. If there’s a problem with the proposal, proximate population and access aren’t going to be among them.

Greg’s input – and his maps! – are always appreciated around here, so I’m glad he was inspired to do this bit of research. I have three takeaways from it.

1. It seems clear that the residential population around the Astrodome is not an impediment to it becoming a successful park like Discovery Green. Honestly, when you think about it, Houston’s best parks – here we include Hermann and Memorial, for starters – are destinations. People get there by whatever means is most practical to enjoy their amenities. If Astrodome Park is worth going to, people will go to it.

2. That said, I wouldn’t completely dismiss the walkability question, nor the point that Astrodome Park would be a small oasis of green surrounded by a sprawling desert of asphalt, which may have a dampening effect on attendance. Walkability is about more than just distance to travel, it’s about the experience and utility of walking as a mode of transportation. People associate walking with downtown, if only because wherever you’re going downtown, you’re likely going to park a couple of blocks away from it, and once you do park it’s often expensive and inconvenient to move and re-park. That asphalt desert that would encircle Astrodome Park feels like it might be a psychological barrier to the park. I don’t know how to test that hypothesis without actually building the park, and even I will admit that the total effect of what I’d describing here is likely to be minimal in reality, but I do think one reason why people are skeptical of the idea is because of this. It just doesn’t fit with our perception of the place. Of course, there were people saying the same thing about Discovery Green not too long ago, so take this all with an appropriate amount of salt.

3. Really, what Greg highlights here just enhances what Lisa Gray wrote about and I commented on: It’s the programming. The people that conceived, built, and now run Discovery Green have put a ton of work and a few million bucks into making it a place that people want to go. The evidence that we have so far is that other than invoking Discovery Green as an optimistic analogy, the proponents of Astrodome Park haven’t done any of that thinking or planning or fund-seeking. If and when they show their work on this, we can evaluate their plans and compare them to Discovery Green and see how we feel. Until then, it’s just some pictures on a set of PowerPoint slides.

White return flight

Some interesting demographic trends going on.

Between 2000 and 2010, [Harris] county, like much of the U.S., saw a sharp decline of its white population, losing about 12 percent of Anglos or about 83,000 people.

The drop mirrors demographic shifts across the nation as white birthrates have slowed. But in the past three years, Harris County added about 25,000 white residents, about 11 percent of its approximately 227,800 new residents, according to U.S. Census data released Thursday.

While the greatest drivers of the county’s growth are still Hispanics, it’s the reversal of the decadelong white decline that grabs demographers.

“It’s a surprising pattern given what we saw in the last decade, and indicative of the overall pervasiveness of population growth in Texas and especially in Houston,” said Steve Murdock, a onetime state demographer and former Census Bureau director who now leads the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University.

“The amount of growth, percentage-wise, is almost the same as the decline … that’s a fairly substantial change,” Murdock said.

Though Anglos remain the nation’s largest racial group, it’s the only demographic group which is shrinking rather than growing. Last year, it was the sole group to count more deaths than births.

Texas, on the other hand, saw the largest numeric increase of white residents in the U.S. between 2012 and 2013, gaining about 51,000 Anglos

Within Harris County, where Anglos make up about 32 percent of the population or about 1.3 million, some 9,000 white residents were added last year.

“There’s a significant amount of Anglos moving into the region from outside of Houston,” said Patrick Jankowski, vice president of research for the Greater Houston Partnership, an economic development organization.

“They’re coming here because of the jobs. … If you look at all the growth in the Energy Corridor and the Medical Center, and the new Exxon campus in The Woodlands, we’re attracting workers who are more skilled, and many of them are white.”

But he suggested there might be a more subtle shift as well. Because Houston is attracting more single or young workers seeking to cash in on the energy and medical booms, an increasing number, like Carey and Bowen, are choosing to live in Houston rather than more suburban, neighboring counties.

“There’s no white flight anymore,” Jankowski said. “People are more and more accepting of different races and different ethnicities. They don’t care about their next-door neighbor as long as the lawn is mowed.”

As we know, some parts of town were getting whiter long before this. There are lots of questions one could ask about this, but for me I always come to the political implications. While it’s true that the increase in Harris County’s Anglo population is a reversal of earlier trends, the overall trend of Harris County getting less white hasn’t changed, it’s just decelerated a bit. I doubt there will be much change at a macro level, but there could be some effects here and there, especially in lower-turnout environments. It would be nice to know more about where these folks are coming from and what their existing proclivities are, but without that information we’ll just have to hypothesize.

One related tidbit from a different story.

Demand for high-density living grew across the state, according to the report. San Antonio saw the biggest increase in sales at 18 percent, followed by Austin at 14 percent. In Dallas, sales were up 4 percent.

“There is little available land for housing development in Texas’ major metro areas, particularly in its urban centers where housing demand is strongest,” [Jim Gaines, an economist with the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University] said in the report. “Developers are now looking upward for opportunities to build and invest in multifamily developments both in these centers and even in some suburban areas. Condo sales will likely be a strong driver in the Texas housing market for the rest of the year.”

Developer Randall Davis said rising single-family housing prices are driving expansion in the condominium market. Builders can put multiple units on one site, he said, and “deliver a product that’s almost equivalent but at a lesser price.”

More of Houston’s big builders, too, are interested in developing in the central city, said Gary Latz of Bohlke Consulting Group, a consulting firm for the housing industry.

Over the last 12 months, residential permits within Beltway 8 were up 22.8 percent over the same period last year. That’s compared with the overall Houston area, which was up 9.3 percent.

“People love the idea of living in closer and being close to all the amenities Houston has to offer,” Latz said.

Again, that’s a trend that’s been happening for some time now. Maybe if it keeps up we can get some more infrastructure spending inside the Beltway, too? Because that would be nice.

The story from Dallas is similar but not quite the same.

“Let’s look at Dallas County,” said Steve Murdock, director of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University. “There was growth in the Asian population, no doubt about it. But we also see a turnaround in growth in the non-Hispanic white population.”

While Dallas County showed a loss of 1,436 non-Hispanic whites from the 2010 census through July 1, 2013, that’s minuscule compared with losses in the previous decade, Murdock said.

“If you had the same pattern going on as you had in the last decade, you would have lost a good number more,” he said. “At this rate, you might lose 5,000 over this decade, compared with the loss of 198,000 over the last decade. We’re seeing the same thing in Harris County, where it changed from a negative to a positive.”

While non-Hispanic whites continue to move to suburbs, it could be that some younger folks and empty-nesters are finding urban centers more attractive for lifestyle reasons. And, demographers say, those leaving are being replaced by others looking for jobs, either from other parts of Texas or out of state.

“When you look at the state level,” said Lloyd Potter, the Texas state demographer, “we’re seeing positive immigration of non-Hispanic whites.”

The splashy numbers, though, came from growth rates in the Asian population — up 20 percent in Denton County, 18.5 percent in Rockwall, 18.1 percent in Collin, 14.9 percent in Dallas and 10.8 percent in Tarrant — over the last three years. In many ways that’s a continuation of the trends from 2000 to 2010, when Asians and Hispanics were the two fastest-growing groups in the state.

Hispanic growth rates were still double-digit in Collin, Denton and Rockwall counties at 11.2, 13.7 and 14 percent, respectively, for the three-year period, “but the rate of growth is down in Collin” compared with the previous decade, Murdock said.

[…]

The non-Hispanic black population is growing rapidly as well — up 19.6 percent in Denton, 18.1 percent in Collin, 12.5 percent in Rockwall, 10 percent in Tarrant and 5.8 percent in Dallas.

Much of the growth across the region and the state comes from migration, Potter and Murdock agreed, and that migration is driven largely by jobs.

“Overall, I think we’re seeing that Hispanic growth rates are down, but the non-Hispanic white losses have been significantly reversed,” said Murdock, a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau.

He used Travis County as an example.

“From 2000 to 2010, Travis County added about 59,000 non-Hispanic whites,” Murdock said. “This time, it has added 41,000 non-Hispanic whites in the first three years,” an annual rate that roughly doubles that of the previous decade.

I don’t really have anything to add to that, I just find stories like these to be fascinating. Whatever else you can say about Texas, it’s not static.

It’s not so cheap to live in Houston any more

It’s the downside of a hot job market and an improving national reputation for being a cool place to live.

BagOfMoney

Business and city leaders often tout the Houston region as one of the most affordable markets in the country. But first-time homebuyers like the Schaefers are finding that image increasingly outdated.

“We are in a hot market, and it does pose some challenges,” said Patrick Jankowski, executive vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership. “There’s a cliché in Houston that you just drive until you find something you can afford. People are finding that’s becoming a farther stretch.”

The housing market has seen sales soar, prices rise and inventory shrink. Many households now could spend up to half their paychecks on housing and commuting.

Jankowski said Houston’s job growth led to an influx of new people seeking housing options in the last few years. He said affordability could be a concern going forward, especially as longer commutes tack on more cost.

[…]

Real estate experts and economists say that, although Houston is still affordable compared to other large markets, double-digit price increases could chip away at that reputation. The pattern could alienate first-time homebuyers, leave the middle class with fewer options and drive low-income residents into rundown apartments.

“It can be a challenge to understand why home price increases can be a bad thing coming out of the recession,” said Janet Viveiros, with the Washington, D.C.-based National Housing Center, who authored a report about affordable housing this year. “House prices are surging, and rents are surging. It puts buyers in a situation where they have to make difficult decisions.”

In Houston, the fact that about 80 percent of housing activity is outside Beltway 8 contributes to its reputation as an inexpensive market.

Home sales and prices from 2013 show strong growth everywhere: Overall, home prices rose 9.4 percent, the Houston Association of Realtors reports in an analysis of sales, prices and inventory for the Houston Chronicle. Inside Loop 610, prices rose 12 percent, and they were up almost 20 percent from the Loop to Beltway 8 and 9 percent outside the Beltway.

[…]

“Is it losing some of its competitively priced housing? A little bit, but it’s not a major concern yet,” Jim Gaines, research economist at the Texas A&M Real Estate Center, said of the area. “The middle class, or working class, can still find affordable housing. It’s just not as abundant as it was.”

Still, he said, recent price increases threaten to hurt.

“If prices go up 12 percent, I guarantee incomes didn’t go up 12 percent,” he said. “If you continue double-digit price growth for several years and don’t get corresponding income, then you get out of whack.”

The median household income for Houston, The Woodlands and Sugar Land is $55,910, according to the 2012 U.S. Census American Community Survey.

The low housing stock is driving up values on all types of properties, according to Sheri Smith, an associate professor in the school of public affairs at Texas Southern University. Working Houstonians who can afford $125,000 to $150,000 houses are being priced out of the market or forced into rentals or housing in the suburban fringes.

“Middle-income individuals are not finding affordable housing,” Smith said.

A recent Rice University study found Houstonians typically pay 30 percent of their income on housing, including mortgages and rents. Compare that to those in New York City who spend 25 percent of their income on housing, 25 percent for Chicago and 31 percent in Los Angeles, based on 2011 data.

Once transportation costs are factored in, almost half of the typical Houstonian’s income – 46 percent – is gone.

I’ll bet those figures are a surprise to a lot of folks. New York especially has a reputation for being an expensive place to live, but if you’re earning enough money, it’s not a problem. Of course, you have to earn a heck of a lot of money in Manhattan or you’re screwed. So Houston still has that going for it.

As for what should be done about the problem, clearly more supply is needed. I’ve talked before about how we really have to do something with the many empty spaces in Houston. The reason so much construction occurs in the far out reaches of Harris County is because that’s where the empty land is. Empty and underutilized spaces exist in Houston, too. We need to figure out ways to encourage construction in these places. That’s going to require an investment in infrastructure in a lot of these places – fixing roads, adding drainage, etc – but the alternative is letting all the growth occur in the hinterlands and dealing with the effects of that.

Another solution is going to be more highrises. It’s the only way to increase the available housing on limited land. Houston does have some limits on where highrises can be built, but the bigger constraint these days is neighborhood resistance. Lots of places are not appropriate for highrises, and you can’t do much about aesthetic objections to them, but traffic concerns can and should be addressed. As I’ve said before, more density needs more transit. As with infrastructure, that’s going to cost some money, but it’s a vital investment. The alternative is to curse traffic for all eternity, as the folks down in Pearland are fixing to learn.

I guess what I’m saying is we can keep doing what we’ve always done and hope it works out for the best, or we can try to figure out some policies that might help alleviate the housing shortage and make the best use of the land we have available, then figure out a way to pay for it. The former is easy, of course, and it’s more or less worked fairly well for the greater Houston area, though arguably not so well for every part of it, and arguably not so well for the city as opposed to the metro area. Doing the latter is a lot harder and there’s no guarantee we can even pull it off, but it has the upside of maybe solving some of these vexing problems that the market tends not to care about. I really don’t expect anything but Door #1, but it can’t hurt to point out that we do in fact have a choice.

Medical Center mobility

The problems they face today pale in comparison to the problems they will face in the future.

TMCMobility2035

Already the world’s largest medical complex, the Texas Medical Center is poised to get much bigger, prompting a raft of ideas ranging from routine to grandiose for expanding traffic and parking capacity.

Medical Center officials predict another 28 million square feet of offices and health care facilities will be developed on the campus over the next two decades. More development means more visitors and workers, which planners estimate will require an additional 50,400 parking spaces, along with wider roads and more transit capacity.

City officials, Medical Center administrators and consultants developed a long list of options to unclog roads and add transit and bike choices in the Medical Center area as part of a months-long study prepared by a team of consultants.

[…]

The problem is that freeway-like traffic volumes come into the Medical Center daily. Planners expect the deluge of vehicles will only grow as more doctors’ offices and hospital rooms are built.

Even if just more than half of the projected Medical Center development occurs, and the number of parking spaces per square foot remains constant, about 26,000 new spots – roughly the same number now available at Reliant Park – would be needed.

Getting people to those spots will require bigger roads to handle greater demand.

Based on traffic predictions, OST between Kirby and Fannin will carry 56,000 cars daily in 2035, more than double its 2013 volume. Though traffic on other roads will not grow nearly as much, all major thoroughfares in and out of the area will carry more traffic.

The cure, according to the study, is a combination of bigger roads and more transit choices, though the list tilts toward road-building for long-term needs. OST and Holcombe Boulevard would each expand from six lanes to 10 in some scenarios, including express lanes that funnel traffic out of the area toward Texas 288, where the Texas Department of Transportation has plans for toll lanes.

The alternative to some road widening is parking garages and improved transit within the Medical Center, said Ramesh Gunda, president of Gunda Corp., the engineering firm that conducted some of the traffic modeling.

“If you take the traffic coming into the Texas Medical Center, and hold it at what I call the gateways, and there are lots at (Texas) 288 and Loop 610, look at how we improve these intersections by reducing cars,” Gunda noted.

You can see the presentation, from which I got that embedded image, here. As someone who worked near the Medical Center for almost 20 years and saw traffic in the area get steadily worse, I’m sure there are things they can do, mostly at intersections, to help a little. I don’t think bypasses and extra lanes can do much. This isn’t like adding capacity to I-10, where much of the traffic is passing through the trouble zone on its way to other destinations. Nobody drives through the Medical Center on their way to somewhere else if they can possibly help it. If you’re driving in the Medical Center, you’re going to or coming from somewhere in the Medical Center. As such, you can increase the size of the hose, but the bucket can only hold so much water at a time. You can improve the flow on OST or Holcombe or wherever, but things will still back up at stoplights, at turns, and at parking lot entrances. There’s very little you can do about that.

What you can do is try to limit the growth of vehicles coming into the Med Center over time. That means giving people more non-car options for getting there, and improving the existing options. That was touched on in the presentation, but I wouldn’t say it was emphasized, and I don’t think they’re really considering all possible options. Here are three things I’d aim for if it were my job to think about how to manage future demand.

1. Empower bicycles. There is a slide on bikes and pedestrians in the presentation, but I can’t tell what exactly they’re proposing. I know there’s a bike trail along Braes Bayou, and it does run along the southern border of the Medical Center. It’s not the best trail in the world, but it does mostly keep you off the street, which is important. I don’t know what bike access inside the Med Center is like, and I don’t know what bike parking – in particular, covered bike parking – is available. Addressing this is probably the simplest and cheapest thing they can do, and the quickest to implement.

2. Push for the US90 rail extension. This is a single bullet item on the Transit slide, but it needs to be much more than that. An awful lot of people commute from Fort Bend into the Medical Center, and that number is also set to grow a lot in the next 20 years. There’s already an Environmental Impact Study in progress for this. There’s political support for the rail extension. They need Fort Bend to get its act together to allow Metro to operate there – this extension will be much more useful if it goes to Sugar Land – and that may take an act of the Legislature. After that it’s a matter of running the FTA gamut and getting funding, which is always dicey but should be doable. This could be ready to begin construction in six to eight years, but it will need a push to get anywhere.

3. How about some more places for people to live that don’t require driving to work in the Medical Center. Let’s really think outside the box here, because the biggest driver of change here (no pun intended) will be changing where people live in relation to where they work. There’s been a lot of development near the Main Street line, but there’s still a lot of empty spaces. There’s been an empty lot at Greenbriar and Braeswood, across the street from apartments and the Smithlands Med Center extension parking lot, for as long as I can remember, and the former Stables location remains undeveloped. Both of those could provide a lot of housing for Med Center employees who wouldn’t need to drive in. But why stop there? There’s going to be a whole bunch of inner city lots coming to the market in the next few years, some of which will be near transit that goes to the Medical Center. Maybe the Medical Center interests should look at them and see if any of them might be a wise investment. But why stop there? Here’s a Google map link for Hiram Clark at US90. If you switch to Google Earth mode, you can see just how empty the land on the west side of Hiram Clark is. This is a major thoroughfare, and there’s nothing there. Why not build a bunch of apartments and have them connect to the Medical Center via dedicated shuttles? I’ll bet a bunch of future Med Center employees might find that enticing.

None of these are complete solutions, of course, because there is no one Big Answer to this question. There are a bunch of little answers, each of which can contribute in a small way to managing the problem. The one thing I know to be true is that the problem won’t be solved by fixing intersections and adding lanes. One way or another – really, one way and another, and another and another – they have to try to manage demand as well as supply. As long as demand is growing the way it is now, there are no good answers. The Highwayman has more.

Everybody wants to help the judge rule on the Ashby lawsuit

I really don’t envy Judge Randy Wilson the task he has.

Sue me!

Lawyers aren’t the only ones peppering the judge in the Ashby high-rise case with last-minute paperwork. A former city councilman, a pro-developer interest group and residents who live near the planned tower have all submitted pleas in hope of influencing his decision. One arrived in an email addressing the judge in the case by his first name and closing with, “Sent from my iPad.”

In addition to formal correspondence from the lawyers who participated in the monthlong trial that resulted in a jury verdict that favored opponents, four other letters and a friend-of-the-court brief from a Houston attorney also have been entered into the official court record since state District Judge Randy Wilson heard their final arguments to a week ago.

[…]

Peter Brown, director of Better Houston, a nonprofit urban planning group, sent a letter to the court also. In the letter, Brown, who was on City Council from 2006 to 2010, also sided with the residents.

“A ruling in favor of the developers in this case would perpetuate the unplanned, hap-hazard, inefficient development patterns which negatively impact city life,” Brown wrote in part. “A ruling in favor of the developers would unnecessarily limit the authority of the City to enact reasonable rules, standards and incentives to promote important initiatives now underway.”

He recommended downsizing the tower to seven stories or 90 feet and to require a public space. He also suggested the judge mandate a basic overhaul of city development regulations to ensure more security for developers for future projects.

The Houston Real Estate Council took the side of Buckhead in its statement to the court. The group noted that an earlier friend-of-the-court brief submitted by Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit that represents developers, which argued against a permanent injunction for a project that otherwise complied with city regulations and state law.

See here, here, and here for the background. I truly have no idea what Judge Wilson should do, or what he might do. The only thing I feel confident about is that someone will appeal his ruling, whatever it is.

The downtown lifestyle

Demand for residences in downtown Houston is up.

For Krishnan Iyer, moving downtown meant a lot of things: Not having to use his car in auto-dependent Houston, being able to walk to work, to restaurants, to the movies.

The 34-year-old consultant left The Woodlands two years ago for a one-bedroom apartment in the Post Rice Lofts at Main and Texas and hasn’t looked back. Iyer expects many others to follow him in the coming years.

“I think for sure the rising oil prices will have an effect on people moving inward to a place near where they work, and there is a trend of renting among younger people rather than buying,” Iyer said. “There’s going to be demand to live here. It’s not going down.”

With people like Iyer in mind, developers are proposing six residential projects for downtown Houston that could add more than 2,200 new apartments to the urban core, fueled by a $15,000-per-unit city subsidy program that officials now want to expand.

Most of this story is about whether Council should expand an incentive program for developers that build downtown. I’ve no strong opinions about that, I’m more interested in the attitude expressed above. As we know, there are many job centers in the greater Houston area, but it seems to me that downtown is one of only a couple where you could reasonably live and walk to your job. You could probably do that if you lived and worked in the Rice/Medical Center area, and maybe in Greenway Plaza or the Galleria. I can’t imagine doing it in the Energy Corridor or Greenspoint, or in a suburban location like The Woodlands. That’s a niche market, but one that downtown is very well positioned to serve.

More broadly, if one really wants to avoid traffic, one has to be in a position to stay off the roads. That means walking, bicycling (on trails and side roads if possible), and taking the light rail, with buses as the next best thing and carpools or vanpools another step down. You can reduce your exposure to traffic by having a shorter commute or by taking HOV lanes, but you can’t avoid it. Something I keep coming back to in this space is that while we’ve done a lot to make it easier to travel by highway, with more of that to come once TxDOT reveals its master plan for I-45 inside the Beltway, we’ve not done nearly as much for those who aren’t on the highway, which includes all those extra highway drivers once they reach their destinations. This is why I remain skeptical of the grandiose plans to transform I-45 in and around downtown or to build dedicated connectors to the Medical Center from 288. You can increase the capacity all you want on the highways, but the streets and especially the parking lots where all these people will be going aren’t getting any bigger or faster.

The inescapable truth is that we can’t solve traffic problems by adding highway capacity. All that extra capacity winds up generating bigger problems elsewhere. Widening I-10 west of the Loop has caused traffic on I-10 inside the Loop to become a mess, and that mess extends to the surface roads that access I-10, as anyone who remembers what Studemont and Yale and Shepherd were like pre-widening can attest. Ultimately, we are going to have to put more effort and resources into options that get people out of their cars, at least some of the time. That means more transit, more walking and biking, and more affordable housing close to or right in employment centers. That brings us back to the more transit and walking and biking options, because density without those things is just more cars on streets whose capacity can’t be – and shouldn’t be – increased. Downtown has all of that already, which is why it’s so attractive for people who don’t care about having their own plot of land. Near downtown – Midtown, EaDo, Heights, Montrose, and eventually Fifth Ward – has these things in varying amounts, but is struggling to keep up with demand for housing and the strain on infrastructure. Neighborhoods farther out also have these things to varying degrees, at least until you start getting into master-planned-with-cul-de-sacs territory. I don’t think I’m stretching to suggest that the less walkable a place is, the less amenable it will be to transit as well. Places like that are going to have a lot more trouble with traffic going forward because they just don’t have as many alternatives.

And that brings us back where we started. Council did approve the tax break to encourage more downtown residential construction, and I expect that it won’t be long before we start seeing more projects on the drawing board. In the meantime, more and more people will just have to learn to cope with traffic.

No stopping the San Felipe Skyscraper

Not at this time, anyway.

A Harris County district court judge has denied an opposition group’s request to immediately halt construction on a 17-story office tower in a River Oaks area neighborhood.

The group, which filed suit in February against the project at 2229 San Felipe being developed by Houston-based Hines, has said it will continue to fight the tower.

Its lawsuit argues the project would be “abnormal and out of place” in the neighborhood. Last week, five more residents joined the six who sued, and attorneys targeted the contractor, Gilbane Building Co., in addition to the developer.

In its request for a temporary restraining order, the group claimed that since the work on the site began in December cracks have appeared in residents’ patios, noise and exhaust from construction equipment have invaded properties and property values have dropped by the day.

The group also claims that the developers and contractors hope to progress far enough into construction to reach a “point of no return.”

Both sides presented arguments to State District Judge Elaine Palmer Thursday. She denied the request for a temporary restraining order, which would have immediately stopped construction for a short time. The resident group plans next to request a temporary injunction, which would halt construction, but for longer.

In a response to the restraining order request, the Hines attorneys argued the residents cite no legal reason supporting a drastic action like stopping construction and said the residents offered no substantial proof to back claims for such an “extraordinary” action.

They also said that the project is fully permitted by the city and argued that the city, which has been monitoring construction, has not issued any traffic or noise citations and that there have been no accidents or injuries.

See here for the background. The lawsuit sounds a lot like the Ashby Highrise lawsuit, but I suppose there are enough differences between that project, and that lawsuit, and this one to allow this one to go forward. For now, anyway. We entered uncharted waters with the outcome of the Ashby lawsuit, so who knows what comes next.

Ashby II: Highrise Boogaloo

The Ashby Highrise lawsuit may be over, but its legacy lives on.

A lawsuit seeking to stop a 17-story office tower under development in a River Oaks-area neighborhood blasts the project as “abnormal and out of place” in a grass-roots effort that observers suggest was emboldened by the recent success of the high-profile fight against the Ashby high-rise.

Cranes are already at work at 2229 San Felipe, despite the abundance of “Stop the San Felipe Skyscraper” yard signs in the neighborhood between Shepherd and Kirby. Opposition to the project, under development by Houston-based Hines, has included an online petition with more than 1,000 signatures, a website to fight the development and personal pleas to City Council.

The residents’ lawsuit filed last week in a Harris County civil court argues, among several factors, that the height of the building would interfere with privacy and that it would cause unreasonable traffic delays, devalue surrounding properties and erode the character of the neighborhood.

[…]

Hines spokesman George Lancaster on Friday called the 2229 San Felipe project “an important and appropriate development for an area mixed with residential, commercial and multifamily properties.”

He said it is fully permitted by the city, meets all building codes and legal requirements, and will add landscaping and sidewalks.

He also said it will meet demand for new office space in that part of town.

[…]

Matthew Festa, a South Texas College of Law professor who specializes in land-use regulations, said the new lawsuit suggests last year’s Ashby verdict set a precedent.

“It shows that in a city that is famous for having less restrictive land use, one of the dangers is that particular projects can be opposed on a case-by-case basis by neighborhood groups,” Festa said. “The other thing it shows is that when one group can be successful in fighting a development project, other people are going to follow that model.”

Festa testified for the developers in the trial over the Ashby high-rise, presenting a history of land-use regulations in Houston.

I’ve noted this fight before; as that was before the surprising-to-me victory by the Ashby plaintiffs, I was rather skeptical of their efforts. Given that verdict, however, it would seem the game has changed in more or less the manner described by Prof. Festa. Given how our famous lack of zoning is seen as making Houston a libertarian paradise for developers and a key component to our economic growth, the irony is pretty thick. The two sides are currently in mediation and there have not been any hearings on this yet, so things may change. I don’t have much to add to this other than to say I’ll be keeping an eye on it. The anti-highrise group’s webpage is here and their change.org petition is here; that and their news page has links to a lot of previous coverage of this, if you want to catch up on it. Prime Property, which has a copy of the lawsuit, has more.

Lyft gets set to lift off in Houston

Another option for getting a ride.

Prepare to see see pink-mustachioed cars roaming around the city as San Francisco-based car sharing company Lyft launches in Houston on Friday.

Lyft is an app-based service that allows anyone to register as a driver and use their own car to make money by giving other people a ride. People needing a ride log in to choose the nearest car from an online database, then they can call the driver directly to request a pick up.

[…]

Lyft is launching at Hughes Hanger on Washington Feb. 21 and is already accepting applications from potential drivers. The company claims drivers can make $800 every weekend.

That’s the short version of the story. The longer version makes it clear this is an incomplete beginning.

An app-based ridesharing service is charging into the Houston market without waiting for the city to revise rules that could subject the company and its drivers to fines if customers paid for their rides.

But the company, Lyft, is avoiding any immediate confrontation with city officials by temporarily refraining from charging or accepting donations. The city, meanwhile, will continue work on changes in its taxi and limousine ordinance that could enable Lyft and similar services to operate and accept payments.

The company, which connects riders with drivers who use their own vehicles, has evaluated the city’s ordinance and believes existing law allows it to operate, Lyft spokeswoman Erin Simpson said.

The service doesn’t charge a prescribed fee – payments are made via mobile phone and are technically donations – and it conducts its own background checks of drivers.

“Lyft is not a taxi or limo service,” Simpson said. Houston officials disagree, however, saying the city ordinance covers all sorts of fees and tips.

“There are some working girls that work the streets of Houston who say, ‘We’re legal because it is just a donation,’ ” Mayor Annise Parker said Wednesday. “I’m sorry, we will enforce our ordinances.”

After more detailed conversations on Wednesday, the company indicated it would – for an unspecified time – forgo any exchange of money between drivers and riders, said Christopher Newport, chief of staff for the city’s regulatory affairs department.

Anyone who accepts payment for a ride would be operating an illegal taxi service, Newport said. And Lyft could be cited for operating an unregulated dispatch service by connecting drivers and riders, he said.

This free start gets them off the hook for now, with the forthcoming changes to city code the finishing piece of the puzzle. Here’s some background info on Lyft sent to me by a company representative. It’s different than Uber, which is more like a traditional livery service, but similar in general to UberX. Speaking of UberX, last night I received an email from an Uber representative, with the following news:

Starting tonight at 7pm, uberX will be hitting the roads in Houston, for a limited time, delivering the Uber magic Houstonians have been demanding for months. The service will be free for users during this limited period.

Game on, then. Uber is the better known name, and they have the two different services to offer. Lyft stresses its custom insurance policy, background check and safety inspection of the cars, and its casual, friendly vibe – you sit in the front seat and pay what you want via the smartphone app, with no money changing hands – as its selling points. Drivers work their own hours, though I wonder how much capacity they’ll have during this no-fee opening period; same for UberX. The Houston Business Journal suggests we’re looking at a six to eight week timeline for Council action, and I don’t know if either of them can maintain that policy for that long.

In any event, as I said in that previous post, I see services like Uber and Lyft as another viable transportation option that allows people to be a little less dependent on owning their own car. Having options like these, in conjunction with better transit and complete streets, will do much to make the dense development we’re seeing in the urban core that much more attractive and livable. The Chron editorialized for Lyft in December, calling on Council to make the changes necessary to Chapter 46 to allow services like Lyft and Uber. That process will begin soon, and I am looking forward to the discussion. The Highwayman and Texpatriate have more.

How to make the warehouse transition something to look forward to

I have four things to say about this.

Houston developers plan to build a mixed-use project, including upscale apartments and retail, on a 15-acre tract close to downtown, replacing a large produce warehouse that’s occupied the space for decades.

Capcor Partners and Kaplan Management bought the land this week from Grocers Supply, which has been at the corner of Studemont and Interstate 10 for 42 years.

[…]

Josh Aruh of Capcor, which specializes in retail developments, said it’s rare to find such a large piece of land in the Inner Loop and added that the project will make a “big footprint.”

“There is tremendous, continuous demand in this sub-market,” Aruh said. “We believe the scarcity of such a large, contiguous tract so close to downtown Houston, the Heights and entertainment districts is primed for a strong multifamily component. And with frontage near I-10, this property is ideally suited for retail. The size of the tract invites many possible other uses and users that we are currently exploring.”

Aruh said he has already discussed possibilities for the property with grocers, cinemas, restaurants and several big box retailers.

The developers are also working with the city to expand a street to split the property and reduce traffic, he said.

Michael Kaplan of Kaplan Management, which specializes in multifamily developments, said he hopes to build up to 400 high-end apartments, to go with the retail and commercial uses, to meet the demand for housing in the area.

“It’s just in the heart of this terrific growth corridor,” Kaplan said. “It is such a strong area.”

1. I admire their desire to have as small an impact on traffic as possible, because traffic on the stretch of Studemont between Washington and I-10 sucks thanks to the Kroger, the long light cycle at I-10, and the huge number of cars turning left to get onto I-10 and to get into the Kroger. Let me suggest that the first order of business would be to rebuild that piece of road, because it’s axle-breaking awful right now. Yeah, that’ll make traffic even worse for the duration, but the gain will be worth the pain. As for expanding a street – not sure which one they have in mind – let me suggest that what they really ought to consider is adding a street. I presume the entrance to this new development would be opposite the entrance to the Kroger where the traffic light is and where there’s already a left turn lane on northbound Studemont, which currently turns into a wall. Having that entrance street connect to Wichman on the west so that vehicles can access Hicks Street, which passes over Studemont and which connects to Heights via Harvard, will help.

2. If you really want to lessen the impact on traffic in the area, then it’s vital to ensure non-vehicular mobility into and out of this development and to the surrounding areas, by which I specifically mean Washington and White Oak. First and foremost, put in a sidewalk on the west side of Studemont, along the front of the development. There’s already a decent sidewalk on the east side of Studemont, but it terminates immediately north of I-10, where a well-worn path in the dirt connects you up with the bridge over the bayou and the continuation of the sidewalk at Stude Street. That new sidewalk could split at the underpass to give pedestrians the option of continuing on Studemont to Washington or ascending to Hicks and the overpass for better access to Arne’s and Kroger, and on to Sawyer Street if one is adventurous. I took the #50 bus home from work on Friday when this story was run, and I got off at Studemont to walk home from there. It took me 15 minutes to get from Washington to White Oak – I timed it – so having good pedestrian paths between these two streets will make the new development a lot more accessible. Given the traffic and the parking situation on either end, you’d be better off walking from whatever residence they build to Fitzgerald’s or BB’s or wherever you want to go.

3. At least as important as facilitating pedestrians is connecting this development to the existing bike paths and bike lanes nearby. You could take Hicks to Heights and from there get on the Heights Bike Trail, but that’s a mighty big detour if you’re heading towards downtown. And Lord knows, no one in their right mind would want to bike on Studemont to get anywhere. Look at a map of the area. Isn’t the solution to all this obvious?

GrocerSupplyMap1

This just screams for a new trail along the bayou to get past I-10 and eventually hook up with the existing trails. This picture shows how that would be possible:

GrocerSupplyMap2

Pass under Studemont, and pave that truck path to get to the Heights trail. You’d need to build a bridge over the bayou to connect to the new trail adjacent to Stude Park, which you can’t see in this old Google satellite image, but that shouldn’t be a big deal. I have no idea how much this all might cost, but for something like this that enhances mobility there may be federal grant money available. Or, you know, maybe the developers can kick in on this, since it would greatly enhance the value of their property. This might in fact be an excellent candidate for 380 agreement, one that would offer a clear benefit to all involved. I’m sure there’s a way to make this work.

Ed Wulfe, chairman and CEO of retail development and brokerage firm Wulfe & Co., said as Houston becomes more dense and urban, more warehouses will be converted into residential and commercial properties.

“We are changing land-use patterns,” Wulfe said. “Now the need is greater and the market is stronger. Warehouses can only command so much economic benefit.”

4. Density with transit >>> density without transit. The good people of Super Neighborhood 22 have that comprehensive transportation plan for their area that includes various rail and streetcar options for the Washington Avenue corridor. Moving forward on that would be a huge boon to mobility in the area, and to projects like this one and the ones that will inevitably follow. Look, I know people get skeptical whenever non-car modes of transportation are discussed. Most people don’t want to give up their cars, even a little bit. I get that, but in a city this size that still leaves a whole lot of folks who do want alternatives, and these are the people who will be seeking out dense development. We can do it right and make the whole experience a hell of a lot better, which includes the drivers since they’ll have fewer competitors for road space, or we can do it wrong and make a huge mess of it all. You tell me what the right answer is. Swamplot has more.