Three reasons for opposition to a proposed Dallas-Houston private high-speed rail project

Eric Jaffe categorizes opposition to a proposed high-speed rail project between Houston and Dallas. First, a brief description of the project:

A quick recap: Texas Central Railway, a private firm, is pushing a very promising proposal to link Dallas and Houston with a Japanese-style high-speed train capable of doing the trip at 200 mph. By relying on investors rather than taxpayers, the plan seemed poised to avoid a lot of the fiscal (slash ideological) squabbles that have plagued its federally-funded counterparts in California, Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

And a little bit about each ideological camp:

Metcalf isn’t alone in this sentiment. Another elected official, Ben Lehman of Grimes County, has questioned whether the train will attract enough riders. He’s also been quoted as saying that the 18 million people who drive between Houston and Dallas each year have “gone through this decision-making process” and concluded “it’s more feasible to drive.”…

Other local officials are pushing a bill that “would strip firms developing high-speed rail projects from eminent domain authority,” reports the Texas Tribune. Fears of misused eminent domain are both valid and welcomed in any democratic setting. But what’s strange here is that the bill targets high-speed rail despite the fact that lots of private firms in Texas can wield eminent domain for the greater public good…

Which leads to the final major criticism of the privately funded Texas Central plan: that it won’t actually be privately funded. Or, rather, that it will start out privately funded but fail to meet its ridership goals and call on the public for a subsidy.

Three separate issues: is there enough demand? How much can a project like this exercise eminent domain? Would taxpayers ever be on the hook for such a project? My thoughts on each one:

1. On ridership. This may be a valid question but perhaps it matters less if this is a private project. If a company wants to spend the money, isn’t this their responsibility? Perhaps the real concern here is what happens if the project fails – what would happen to the infrastructure or the land that was taken?

2. On eminent domain. This gets at a classic American question of property rights versus the common good. Not easy to solve, particularly in a place like Texas.

3. On taxpayers left on the hook. This fear would seem to have some basis with large corporations or development projects (think sports stadiums) often using or having to use public money to close the gaps.

I would also be interested to see how these arguments are made together; a cluster of arguments could be more convincing than a single concern. Throwing up lots of negativity about the project can go a long ways in today’s media (traditional and otherwise) driven world.

Building for and selling real estate to more diverse suburbs

Builders and real estate agents are trying new approaches to match Houston’s diversifying suburbs:

Houston homebuilders, developers and Realtors are now trying to cater to this changing suburban demographic.

Realtors are taking classes in feng shui to appeal to Asian homebuyers. Local homebuilders are adding “mother-in-law” suites and casitas to their floor plans to attract Latin American buyers accustomed to multigenerational living.

Last month, Partners in Building, a Houston-based builder, announced plans to construct Mediterranean-style homes with domed roofs, Arabic-style arches and optional prayer rooms in a Sugar Land community.

“The suburbs are going to have to adapt,” Klineberg said. “These big McMansions are going to be less attractive. We need to provide more choices for people.”

Some interesting changes are likely underfoot in suburban real estate. Yet, the proposed changes may not be that large. For example, the sociologist cited at the end suggests McMansions won’t be such hot items. Maybe. McMansions could continue to thrive if they can incorporate some new styles (Mediterranean architecture) as well as new home features (prayer rooms, in-law suites). I’m guessing Klineberg means housing that is more flexible and cheaper to better suit working-class to middle-class residents who can’t afford the big suburban home yet need to be somewhat close to their suburban jobs. Again, that could go different directions: does that automatically mean more apartments and rental units or does it mean more affordable small houses, condos, and townhomes in denser neighborhoods? All together, will such changes be spread evenly throughout suburbs or will they be centered by class and race? I would guess a strong yes given the residential and class segregation present across suburban communities.

How do you preserve the first sports dome that voters rejected?

The fate of the Astrodome in Houston is unclear though the National Trust for Historic Preservation still holds out hope:

Prior to Election Day, it was widely speculated that demolition would begin almost immediately if Harris County did not pass Proposition 2, a bond measure to turn the Dome into the world’s largest special events space.

Fast forward to today, and we have a failed ballot initiative, but only the building’s non-historic features have come down. The intense “should it stay or should it go” chatter has quieted, and the Dome was noticeably absent from the agenda of the county’s last meeting…

Because the Astrodome is Harris County property, all eyes are on the judge and the county commissioners — the five elected officials who, sooner rather than later, will have to make the call. Since Election Day, this group has taken great care to consider the three most likely options: private development, a public-private partnership, or demolition.

In that time, they have not only expressed disappointment over low voter turnout, but that they still want to hear from people who want to save the Dome. Still.

I have to wonder if this kind of preservation effort is similar to efforts regarding Brutalist structures or modernist single-family homes. Is the Astrodome aesthetically pleasing? Is it worth trying to make something out of a building that was primarily for sports? The Astrodome might be significant because it was the first but that isn’t necessarily a good reason for having it around even longer. One has to appeal to a bigger cause – like the idea that midcentury architecture is worth preserving:

The Astrodome’s exterior is wrapped in a steady, repeating rhythm of slender columns, the space between them filled with concrete screens in a delicate diamond-shaped pattern. Seen from the parking lot outside, the dome resembles more than a few lightly ornamented postwar buildings around the country, including William Pereira’s Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which opened the same year…

Even if its attitude toward the environment now strikes us as deeply naive, the Astrodome deserves to be protected simply as a singular monument to the American confidence and Texas swagger of the 1960s. The stadium doesn’t so much symbolize as perfectly enclose a moment in time.

I would think the biggest reason for saving the Astrodome would be that it is a big piece of Houston history, a city that has come a long way in recent decades. It could serve a function similar to the Water Tower building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago: a reminder of an earlier era amidst bigger buildings.

We’ll see if the Astrodome is preserved and then what is done with the building.

Texas is America’s future?

A libertarian economist argues Texas is a bright spot for America’s future:

Since 2000, 1 million more people have moved to Texas from other states than have left.

As an economist and a libertarian, I have become convinced that whether they know it or not, these migrants are being pushed (and pulled) by the major economic forces that are reshaping the American economy as a whole: the hollowing out of the middle class, the increased costs of living in the U.S.’s established population centers and the resulting search by many Americans for a radically cheaper way to live and do business.

To a lot of Americans, Texas feels like the future. And I would argue that more than any other state, Texas looks like the future as well — offering us a glimpse of what’s to come for the country at large in the decades ahead. America is experiencing ever greater economic inequality and the thinning of its middle class; Texas is already one of our most unequal states. America’s safety net is fraying under the weight of ballooning Social Security and Medicare costs; Texas’ safety net was built frayed. Americans are seeking out a cheaper cost of living and a less regulated climate in which to do business; Texas has that in spades. And did we mention there’s no state income tax?

There’s a bumper sticker sometimes seen around the state that proclaims, I WASN’T BORN IN TEXAS, BUT I GOT HERE AS FAST AS I COULD. As the U.S. heads toward Texas, literally and metaphorically, it’s worth understanding why we’re headed there — both to see the pitfalls ahead and to catch a glimpse of the opportunities that await us if we make the journey in an intelligent fashion.

Joel Kotkin would likely agree. A few thoughts after reading the full story:

1. There are several examples of people moving to Texas from California or the Northeast and finding that they really like Texas. But, the examples tend to emphasize Austin, a city known for plenty of cultural amenities. With its culture, UT-Austin campus, and tech companies, Austin looks like a cool place for the creative class. What about the other major areas in Texas? Why not stories about moving to Houston and Dallas, bigger cities and metropolitan areas with their own industries (oil, etc.)? How representative of Texas is Austin?

2. There is little discussion in the story about Latino residents. The primary focus in on Americans who have moved to Texas from other states but what about the influx of immigrants from Mexico? How are they doing? Are there some differences in their experiences as a whole versus those who are held up as successes in the article?

3. This is another article in a long line of opinions about which American state best represents the country or provides a glimpse into the future. What about California, a more progressive melting pot? What about the Washington D.C. metropolitan area, home to a number of the wealthiest counties in the United States? How about Illinois, held up in a more negative light in recent years for pension woes, too many governments/taxing bodies, bullish politicians, foreclosures, and violent crime? Perhaps we should look to Florida, specifically at the diversity in the Miami area or the aging population throughout the state? I realize people are interested in spotting trends but it is hard to select ideal types from 50 states and hundreds of big cities.

4. The story plays out Texas’ connections to the American pioneer and frontier story. This works but there is also a different culture and set of social norms in Texas. Even if business is thriving and people are moving in, does this necessarily mean many Americans would want to act or live like Texans? Is it all simply about a decent job and affordable housing? Yes, everyone may be American but outsiders and Texans themselves will tell you that the state is a land onto itself.

Houston a relatively unknown city despite being the 4th biggest in the US

An interesting profile of Houston as the “next great American city” includes this bit about how the city is viewed:

If nothing else, the Kinder Institute’s reports underscore how little the country really knows about Houston. Is it, as most New Yorkers and Californians assume, a cultural wasteland? “The only time this city hits the news is when we get a hurricane!” complains James Harithas, director of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art. “People have no idea.” Its image in the outside world is stuck in the 1970s, of a Darwinian frontier city where business interests rule, taxation and regulation are minimal, public services are thin and the automobile is worshiped. “This was boomtown America,” says Klineberg of the giddy oil years. “While the rest of the country was in recession, we were seen as wealthy, arrogant rednecks, with bumper stickers that read, ‘Drive 70 and freeze a Yankee.’” Today, he adds, “Houston has become integrated into the U.S. and global economies, but we still like to think we’re an independent country. We contribute to the image!”

Several thoughts about Houston’s profile:

1. Part of the issue may be that Houston is trying to join the group of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles that has been set for decades. Houston is the newcomer and perhaps besides oil, doesn’t yet have the broad appeal these other three have. Plus, these top three are world-class cities, top ten global cities, and that comparison can be harsh.

2. It sounds like Houston could benefit from a strengthened booster campaign. Cities often have to sell themselves and their assets. This requires business, civic, and political leaders (the growth machine) to band together behind some common appeals. What might draw people to Houston? What would attract businesses and tourists?

3. I wonder if there is some conflict between being part of Texas and being from Houston. From the outside, perhaps particularly from the coasts, it is easier to lump all of Texas together, even though it has a variety of communities (some big differences between Dallas, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio). Additionally, Texans tend to like to play up the uniqueness of their state. Compare this to cities like Chicago where there is a very sharp divide between the metropolitan region and “downstate.” Perhaps Houston needs more of a city-state mentality to separate it from Texas.

Seeing Houston as the quintessential American city of today

A sociologist who has spent decades studying Houston argues that it illustrates the big changes in American society:

The essential thing to know is that Houston is at the forefront of America’s demographic revolution. Through most of its history, Houston was a biracial Southern city dominated by white men, who were riding the oil boom to continued prosperity until 1982.

After that year’s economic collapse, Harris County’s Anglo population stopped growing and then declined. All the growth over the last 30 years has been due to the influx of Latinos, Asians and African-Americans.

Houston has now become America’s most ethnically diverse metropolitan region. It is even more diverse than New York, coming closer than any large metropolitan area to having an equal division among Anglos, blacks, Latinos and Asians…

The first lesson is all of the United States will look like Houston and Texas in about 25 years.

So this is where the American future will be worked out. How we navigate that transition will be important not only for the future of Houston and Texas but for the American future.

Even as the shift in American population has been to Sunbelt metropolitan regions in recent decades, cities like Houston don’t seem to get attention proportionate to their size. On one hand, they don’t have the history of global influence as New York, LA, and Chicago. They are not viewed as cultural or media centers. On the other hand, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Austin, Miami, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and others may better represent where America is headed. There are a lot of opportunities for sociologists to study such cities as they continue to grow, attract immigrants, and face new challenges.

The financial reasons The Woodlands, Texas does not want to incorporate

Many communities want to incorporate so they can control land use as well as fund and provide local services. But The Woodlands, Texas has resisted incorporation for financial reasons:

For one, The Woodlands is one of the nation’s best case studies when it comes to weighing the costs and benefits of incorporation. According to Bruce Tough, Chairman of the township’s seven-member Board of Directors, his community boasts an unprecedented level of success when it comes to governance, public services, and environmental excellence. Just 20 years after it was founded, the township had won a Special Award for Excellence from the Urban Land Institute and a LivCom Nations in Bloom Gold Award. Residents enjoy more than 190 miles of hiking and biking paths. A little over 20 percent of the township’s acreage is set aside for green space, greenbelts, and golf courses…

Unlike similarly successful (and now former) townships including Irvine, California, The Woodlands has reliably refused to incorporate as either a standalone city or part of Houston, even as the issue is raised every few years by developers, residents, or the city of Houston, which provides municipal services such as waste removal, water, and local law enforcement from the sheriff’s department. Tough points to the township’s one-of-a-kind public service provider agreement with Houston and the fact that the township is run more like a business than a municipal government as the primary reasons why The Woodlands doesn’t need to incorporate. Houston agrees not to annex The Woodlands during the next 50 years. In exchange, The Woodlands continues to make service payments to Houston.

Among residents, the question of incorporating is primarily a financial concern. Research indicates that becoming a standalone city could raise property taxes in The Woodlands from 32.5 cents up to anywhere from 58.14 cents to a staggering 81.5 cents per $100 valuation. (By comparison, the property tax rate in Houston hovers around 63 cents.) The costs would include road maintenance, setting up new sewage and water provisions, and establishing a separate police department. Estimates for just those few basic services reach into the hundreds of millions, costs residents fear would be added to their annual tax bills…

For now, The Woodlands residents can relax. For its population, the township has one of the lowest tax rates in the United States but more and better services than similar counterparts. There is no local income tax charged in The Woodlands, and Texas is one of seven states without state income tax. The bulk of their tax money comes from sales tax levied against visitors who flock to the downtown promenade and amphitheater.

This is an interesting case but it sounds like the primary reason The Woodlands has not incorporated is because it can afford not to. In other words, it can afford to contract with Houston for municipal services and it can rely on visitors to provide a lot of revenue rather than having to tax its residents at a higher rate. The community of over 93,000 residents has a median household income of $103,229, is 88.4% white, a poverty rate of 5.1%, and 59% of residents have a college degree. Many communities do not have this luxury.

Interior designer chooses 1963 modernist home over (all?) McMansions

I’ve written about this theme recently but here is another version: an interior designer in Houston chooses to buy and redecorate a 1963 modernist home.

Architect Preston Bolton designed this stunning Tanglewood residence in 1963, a look that appears fresh and modern today. In the spring of this year, Kristen and Lee Nix moved in, but not before she transformed the sleek abode into a comfortable home for the couple and their 2-year-old son.

“I knew right when I walked in what I wanted to do,” Kristen said. “Grass rugs, grass cloth on the walls, not a lot of color but lots of texture.”…

“I felt like the house had such good bones in it . . .  it was different with its high ceilings and clean lines.”

The mid-century modern structure provided an ideal palette for Kristen’s interior design skills, honed at the knee of her mother, designer Sheridan Williams, and via a degree in interior design from Houston Community College.

1. The dichotomy presented in the headline is strange as it sounds like this interior designer and others only really have two choices: either a McMansion or a modernist home. Both of these types of homes are a small subset of all homes constructed. I think this is probably an example of McMansion being used as shorthand for all sorts of suburban homes and a modernist home clearly stands out from this crowd.

2. I’ve argued before I don’t think most Americans would choose a modernist home over a McMansion. Does this article prove my point by suggesting it takes an interior designer, someone trained in decor, style, and design, to choose the modernist home over the average and/or bland McMansions?

3. Why no exterior shot of the entire home??

More Houston residents want to move from suburbs to city than vice versa

Data from the most recent Houston Area Survey suggests that more Houston area residents would prefer to move from the suburbs to the city than vice versa:

Thirteen years ago, the Houston Area Survey started asking people who lived in urban areas if they’d prefer to live in the suburbs.  It also asked people in the suburbs if they’d like to move into the city one day. Survey founder Stephen Klineberg, a Rice University sociology professor, says the survey has revealed a clear shift in opinion.

“In 1999, twice as many people in the city said ‘I want to move to the suburbs,’ than people in the suburbs saying ‘I want to move to the city.’ Those lines have crossed now. And in this year’s survey, significantly more people in the suburbs said ‘I would be interested in, someday, moving to the city,’ than people in the city saying, ‘I want to move to the suburbs.'”

The most obvious reason is the rise in gasoline prices. But Klineberg says shifting demographics are also at play...

And that change in the makeup of households is also reflected in the type of houses people in Houston aspire to own.  The percentage of people who say they’d like a traditional house with a yard in the suburbs has dropped from 59% four years ago, to 47% today. While the proportion who would like a smaller home in a more walkable neighborhood has risen dramatically over the same period of time — from about a third, to more than half.

These findings mirror larger rumblings about where Americans would prefer to live: more people appear to be interested in moving to walkable, denser communities. Are these sentiments primarily coming from those of middle age and above plus young adults?

Two methodological questions:

1. Should we expect that the findings from Houston would be similar to what would be found in other metropolitan regions? Would the sentiments be the same for non-Sunbelt (i.e. Rust Belt) cities?

2. Additionally, how many of those who express an interest in moving from the suburbs to the city will actually follow through on this? Of course, these perceptions matter and could help shape future policy decisions such as building denser developments within the suburbs so that there are pockets of walkability. At the same time, does this indicate long-term behaviorial changes or simply attitudinal shifts at this point of time?


In review of Triumph of the City, summary of how city dwellers view the suburbs

As he reviews the new book Triumph of the City, a reviewer summarizes how city dwellers view the suburbs:

But look past the rhetorical flourishes, and you see an ambivalent verdict on post-1960s urban policy: It is often the actors most philosophically “urbanist” in intent that are the most deleteriously anti-city in effect. Mr. Glaeser brings us, in striking detail, a gated subdivision in the Houston outskirts called “The Woodlands.” The city dweller’s inborn cultural revulsion to the place is the stuff of any number of Sundance dramas: the sterility of the McMansions, the moral vacuity of the micropolitics, the ecological nihilism of the SUVs. But the appeal of such prefab townlets—one million people have moved to the Houston area since 2000—has little to do with culture; the Sun Belt beckons because urban California and the Northeast have radically distorted the market for any city’s most crucial commodity: property.

These complaints about suburbia do seem to be commonly found in Sundance-type dramas, books, and music. This is practically its own genre: the “average person” (often middle to upper class whites) finds emptiness in sparkling (but shallow) suburbia yet comes alive when encountering something different than white, crass, depressing suburbia. But as the reviewer notes, there are reasons that people move to places like Houston.

(A condensed version of this book’s argument, particularly about how skyscrapers will help the city thrive,  can be found here.)