What explosive growth looks like, Austin and New Braunfels edition

It is not a coincidence to see two recent articles about effects of growth in Texas communities as this part of the country – and the Sun Belt more broadly – is growing fast. One is the story of a big city where housing is in high demand while the second is a small town that is now a booming suburb.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

First, thousands of Austin properties are going for far above list price:

Nearly 2,700 homes in the Texas capital have sold this year for $100,000 or more above their initial listing price, according to an analysis by Redfin Corp. that examined sales through Aug. 11. While a few other U.S. cities have had more properties sell at that premium to the asking price, none have experienced as big a percent rise in homes transacting at that lofty an increase, Redfin said…

The number of homes sold year-over-year for at least $100,000 over asking price has grown nearly 10-fold in Seattle, and fivefold in Oakland, according to Redfin. In Austin, that figure grew by 57 times the number for last year at this time.

The jump in these sales at six figures above the listed price shows how Austin, which has attracted young professionals for years, has become an even more competitive place to buy in recent months.

Second, the community of New Braunfels between San Antonio and Austin is going through growing pains:

Today, the cattle are gone, replaced with clusters of sleek apartments, gated communities and big-box stores. And New Braunfels, the third-fastest-growing city in America, tucked in one of the fastest-growing regions, finds itself at a crossroads…

A once quaint town known for its German roots and the Schlitterbahn water park, New Braunfels grew a whopping 56 percent over the last decade, adding about 32,500 residents…

Newer residents to New Braunfels have been drawn to the region for its affordable cost of living and by larger employers who have settled there, including several distribution centers and technology companies. Over the past decade, the median salary has jumped to $90,000 from $65,000 in Comal County, which includes much of New Braunfels, one of the highest averages in the state…

The community has also grown more noticeably diverse, with the presence of Latinos particularly evident on the city’s West Side. Residents flock to eateries like El Norteño for typical Mexican dishes, such as menudo, a spicy stew known colloquially as a hangover remedy. This week, a server took orders wearing a red T-shirt that read “Menudo Para La Cruda” or “Menudo For the Hangover.”

The emphasis on growth is a long-term pattern. When Census data is released, many like to highlight the fastest growing areas of the country. This can shine a spotlight on places that are changing but it also reinforces a consistent American narrative: growth is good for communities. Indeed, discussion of the opposite trend – losing population (or somehow not losing residents) – reinforces the notion that growth is good.

At the same time, focusing on population numbers is worth considering alongside what is happening to the character of communities with population growth or loss. These two articles highlight both phenomena. In Austin, what happens to a local housing market when so much competition drives up prices? At the least, this means some are priced out of the adjusted values, existing community members may see their property values rise, and builders, developers, and local officials respond to the changes. And the rising prices are often interpreted as a sign that Austin is a desirable place to live.

In New Braunfels, this is both a common American story – small town outside big city turns into a sprawling community in a relatively short time – and a story with particular traits as the community has a particular character. The German roots of the community now sit among a more diverse population. A quaint town is now much bigger and there is a lot of building activity. The businesses there for a long time are now joined by new ventures.

Even as population growth is usually viewed as a good thing, it comes with costs and changes. Few communities would reject growth just to avoid change but there can tension over how to respond to growth. Many cities and suburbs have struggled to match their existing character to changes and what the community will end up being once a construction boom and/or sprawling subdivision growth subsides.

Rare McMansion mention on HGTV

For a network focused on single-family homes, the term McMansion is rarely uttered on HGTV. Here is one example I ran into a few weeks back on My Lottery Dream Home:

On the top left of the image, you can faintly see some of the narration over the image: “Willow Park Way that almost looked like a McMansion.”

Almost a McMansion. The exterior here has some interesting features that might place it in McMansion territory: multiple roof lines, interesting window placement, a large house, in a sprawling Texas community.

Even as the couple did not select this home at the end, it is interesting the term was applied to this home and not the others which also could have been viewed as McMansions. Present a large suburban home with a front meant to impress yet some questionable architectural choices and McMansions may just come to mind.

Why the term McMansion is not used much on HGTV is probably very straight forward: it is not a positive term and does not connote the kind of quality of home the network would like to depict. Whether the McMansion is too large, a teardown, aesthetically unappealing, or connected to sprawl or excessive consumption, few people would likely loudly say they like such a home or live in such a dwelling.

At the same time, this episode was set in suburban Texas where housing tastes are different than in more sophisticated markets. In my comparison of the use of the word McMansion in the New York and Dallas regions, there was more openness in Dallas to such homes and what they represent. Surely, some McMansion dwellers and afficionados watch HGTV and they might be in markets where McMansions are not so disliked.

I will keep checking for more mentions of McMansions on HGTV. As I do, I am much more likely to hear terms like mid-century modern or country farmhouse much more than the term McMansion.

When infrastructure does not work as expected, Texas grid edition

The bitter cold in Texas has created problems for the grid. I found a 2011 article helpful in understanding a bit more about how power works in Texas:

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

The separation of the Texas grid from the rest of the country has its origins in the evolution of electric utilities early last century. In the decades after Thomas Edison turned on the country’s first power plant in Manhattan in 1882, small generating plants sprouted across Texas, bringing electric light to cities. Later, particularly during the first world war, utilities began to link themselves together. These ties, and the accompanying transmission network, grew further during the second world war, when several Texas utilities joined together to form the Texas Interconnected System, which allowed them to link to the big dams along Texas rivers and also send extra electricity to support the ramped-up factories aiding the war effort.

The Texas Interconnected System — which for a long time was actually operated by two discrete entities, one for northern Texas and one for southern Texas — had another priority: staying out of the reach of federal regulators. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with overseeing interstate electricity sales. By not crossing state lines, Texas utilities avoided being subjected to federal rules. “Freedom from federal regulation was a cherished goal — more so because Texas had no regulation until the 1970s,” writes Richard D. Cudahy in a 1995 article, “The Second Battle of the Alamo: The Midnight Connection.” (Self-reliance was also made easier in Texas, especially in the early days, because the state has substantial coal, natural gas and oil resources of its own to fuel power plants.)

ERCOT was formed in 1970, in the wake of a major blackout in the Northeast in November 1965, and it was tasked with managing grid reliability in accordance with national standards. The agency assumed additional responsibilities following electric deregulation in Texas a decade ago. The ERCOT grid remains beyond the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which succeeded the Federal Power Commission and regulates interstate electric transmission.

Historically, the Texas grid’s independence has been violated a few times. Once was during World War II, when special provisions were made to link Texas to other grids, according to Cudahy. Another episode occurred in 1976 after a Texas utility, for reasons relating to its own regulatory needs, deliberately flipped a switch and sent power to Oklahoma for a few hours. This event, known as the “Midnight Connection,” set off a major legal battle that could have brought Texas under the jurisdiction of federal regulators, but it was ultimately resolved in favor of continued Texan independence.

I have contended before that few people pay much attention to infrastructure until something goes wrong. When electricity, natural gas, water, roads, mass transit, and more operate normally, we do not think about them much. They just work. Until they don’t.

A short event last summer reminded me of this. Our family was about to leave our house for a trip and right as we were closing everything up, the power went out. In such a situation, what do you do? Stay and make sure all essential systems are back on – refrigerator, sump pump, air conditioning – before leaving? Just go and hope for the best? We stuck around for a little bit, power was restored, and we were on our way. And this happened in a location where we rarely lose electricity and most of the power lines are underground.

Our situation was a drop in the bucket compared to a severe storm or change in weather like Texas is experiencing. It all works until it is knocked out and millions of people are affected. Then, everyone wants to know what is going wrong. What is taking so long? Is there a way to quickly reestablish service or are people at the mercy of the cold? Certainly, the return of power and services will be accompanied by serious conversations about what to do to ensure something similar does not happen again.

And then there are the peculiarities of local infrastructure. How was it built? How is it managed? Who makes the decisions and what are the priorities for the systems? Is it prepared for a crisis? Some places take great pride in the infrastructure. As an example, the Chicago story of reversing the Chicago River to help improve public health is told over and over as a notable achievement. The construction of Deep Tunnel is a sizable project.

But, these are the big projects. Power, gas, and water are just supposed to be there. While some property owners, often in more rural areas, might have to deal with this more on their own (wells, propane tanks, septic fields, etc.), this is part of the urban and suburban bargain: you live there and the services work (and might even be relatively cheap – see the example of water).

Perhaps this will lead to more consideration of infrastructure. Build a strong infrastructure and it will help keep different and important parts of society running. When it fails, everyone struggles.

Bringing the Texas U-turn to Chicago

An innovation is coming to a particularly difficult Chicago road construction site: a Texas U-turn will be in place for drivers hoping to get on the northbound Kennedy from the eastbound Eisenhower.

Google Maps image of Meachem Road and Illinois Route 390

Kennedy-bound traffic will be detoured onto the far-right Eisenhower lane and steered to the outbound Dan Ryan Expressway. From there, motorists will take a “Texas U-turn” at the Taylor Street interchange and go from there to the westbound Kennedy…

“The detour will be a dedicated lane separated by a barrier wall to restrict merging into the regular Dan Ryan lanes and requiring drivers to use the Taylor Street interchange,” IDOT engineers said.

What’s a Texas U-turn? It “refers to a roadway that allows vehicles to make a 180-degree maneuver to go in the opposite direction, usually without traffic signals,” IDOT spokeswoman Maria Castaneda said. “They were first widely used in Texas on one-way frontage roads that paralleled expressways.

“The free flow U-turn improves traffic flow and reduces congestion in certain situations because it keeps the U-turning traffic out of the cross road intersections. An example of this is at the Meacham Road interchange on Route 390.”

According to Wikipedia, the Texas U-turn is present in a number of states.

Two additional thoughts:

1. A precondition for the Texas U-turn seems to be having frontage roads along highways. There are some areas in the Chicago region where this is common – such as long the Dan Ryan Expressway – but many other areas where frontage roads are not present and properties back up to the highway. In Chicago, I wonder if the frontage roads are the result of fitting highways into the existing street grid (such as the Congress Street Expressway, later the Eisenhower).

2. It would be interesting to see how different road innovations spread across states. How do highway innovations diffuse across the United States? They may arise because of particular local conditions but then engineers and planners elsewhere see how they are applicable. At some point, there is federal intervention regarding safety and regulations. Having driven on highways across the United States, there is both familiarity with the system – similar signage, the roadways themselves look similar – as well as local peculiarities – exits on different sides, the size of on and off-ramps as well as the space between them, HOV lanes, etc.

Related post: the coming of the diamond interchange to the Chicago area.

HOAs, political signs, and elections

What would a national election cycle be without stories of how politics and homeowner’s associations do (or do not) mix? The latest in reactions to political lawn art from Katy, Texas:

Shannon Bennett and her husband painted the tribute to O’Rourke in an effort to keep people from stealing the their political lawn sign, the Star-Telegram reported Thursday.

Bennett said she and her husband were immediately confronted by the the president of the Chesterfield Community Association, who she said was “very hostile” over the sign.

This sounds, in many ways, like a typical HOA conflict. The homeowner does something that may not be explicitly prohibited or at least is more difficult to find in the association’s regulations and conflict ensues. Painting your lawn for a political candidate is an unusual step and it is not surprising that the HOA had concerns. Add a contentious political battle and this is a Grade A HOA dust-up.

But, more details in the story suggest this is more than just an election year battle:

Bennett told the paper that she felt like there is a double standard in the neighborhood, noting that she lives near a house with a sign that reads “I stand for the anthem, and kneel for the cross.” According to Bennett, the neighbor’s sign should not be allowed under the HOA rules because it is not a political sign.

Bennett said she was forced to remove a sign that reads “kindness is everything” due to the same guideline.

And from the HOA company:

“This is not a violation for them placing a political sign; it’s the type of signage that they’ve actually placed on their property being an extremely large painting on the actual grass of their front yard,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle. “It is a landscaping and signage violation. It has nothing to do with it being a political signage. Any type of signage of that nature would be in violation.”

Now this is not just about an election for a senate seat; now this is about which rules are enforced, which messages are deemed political, and what forms these messages can take. And in a state known for its conservatism, these disputes could fester. Neighbors are pitted against neighbors all in a quest to maintain property values.

Tomorrow: do political signs affect property values and if they do, isn’t the right to political expression worth it?

Singling out a Houston McMansion

McMansionhell is back with a “snarky takedown” of a particular home in Houston. See the diagrammed pictures and explanation here.

It is not surprising that this researcher went after a Texas McMansion. I found in my article regarding uses of the term McMansion in both the New York Times and Dallas Morning News that there are some significant differences between the two areas of the country. The tone from New York City was that McMansions were overwhelmingly bad, even with their construction in suburban areas of the metro region. On the other hand, there were supporters of McMansions in Dallas. As McMansionhell noted, things are indeed larger in Texas and my study of the newspaper coverage suggested some people don’t mind celebrating this. Additionally, while sprawl is present in both places, a city like New York with such a dense center (some might argue the center of the world) does not celebrate the suburban conditions that encourage McMansions while residents of Dallas didn’t mind as much.

A side note: I found that design (example: Mediterranean architecture doesn’t work everywhere) and features of McMansions could differ quite a bit across regions. If this Houston McMansion is so notable, could one do something similar for garish McMansions in Orange County or Lake County or Westchester County?

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.

Sociologists walking every block not just in New York City

A sociologist who walked every block of New York City drew attention but can you also learn from walking every block of Tyler, Texas? One sociologist explains:

Because of his interest in the community, Moody said, he has walked every street in Tyler twice. “It took 12 years to do it the first time; 11 years the second time,” Moody said…

“It (walking) is part of my research interests in society,” Moody, who taught sociology and other subjects at different times in six area colleges, said…

“I’m sure there are people who have lived here all their life and never been in parts of this town. If we understand and love one another, we will have a better community and I believe we will have more unity. We should never turn down an opportunity to learn from someone, whether it’s a homeless person, a wino or a wealthy billionaire,” Moody said…

n his walks around town, Moody said he has attended services or toured every church, synagogue and mosque, although he is a Southern Baptist.

Moody added that he has toured every hospital in Tyler, day care centers, nonprofit agencies, television and radio stations, the newspaper office and nursing homes as well as East Texas juvenile correctional facilities, state mental hospitals and prisons.

Two quick thoughts:

1. Tyler may not be New York City but it is still a sizable city of around 100,000 people. Sociology has a long history of community studies and the experiences of people in places like Tyler may hold a lot of interesting research potential. Yet, I’m not sure the field is really interested in the sorts of Middletown studies that once were more common.

2. People who really want to know their communities could use this method. This may be a sort of fad but not for those really invested in their community. I’m thinking of local politicians who claim this but this is typically based on their social connections. While these certainly matter, it is another thing to physically walk everything.

Texas McMansion burned down because it was teetering on a cliff

Have a McMansion that is going over a cliff? Burn it down:

Charred debris from a luxury cliff-side home fell 75 feet into a lake below on Friday after fire crews set the $700,000 retreat ablaze rather than wait for it to crumble into the water as the land faltered around it.

It took less than an hour for the fire to level the home above Lake Whitney, about 60 miles south of Fort Worth. Flames consumed exterior walls after crews spread bales of hay and fuel to ignite flames throughout the expansive home.

The ground around the home cracked and became unstable in recent months. Then a few days ago, part of the land gave way beneath the 4,000-square-foot home, leaving pieces of the house dangling off the side of a cliff. Authorities condemned the home and the owners, Robert and Denise Webb, consented to Friday’s burn.

Authorities said destroying the house was better than waiting for it to topple into Lake Whitney. The cost of removing mounds of debris from the lake could prove prohibitive.

Apparently, the event was live-streamed by a local ABC affiliate and the pictures from the scene show the odd situation:

 

 

 

 

TexasMcMansionBurns

This does seem like an interesting way to remove a McMansion, given the clean-up of the lake that would be necessary.

Iconic image of American McMansions from Plano, Texas

I’ve seen this picture of a Plano, Texas McMansion numerous times around the Internet:

DeanTerryPlanoTXMcMansionI’ve wondered at the origin of this photo and now I see: see this image and others from the same area as part of Dean Terry’s Flickr stream with the photos originating from his 2007 documentary Subdivided.

What makes this particular McMansion photo stand out? Some reasons:

1. The home has a “typical” McMansion design: brick exterior, multi-gabled roof, clearly a big home, lots of big windows in the front at various levels, a two-story foyer.

2. The surrounding area: the looming water tower, the big power lines out nearby, a neighborhood of similar sized houses with little evidence of anyone being around. (Some of the later photos in the Flickr set illustrate this further: the home backs up to a wide right-of-way for power lines and that water tower really is huge.) Setting the picture beneath a stop sign and lamppost seems to add to the ominousness of the photo.

3. This is Texas, a place where everything is big, including the homes, water towers, and sky. And not just any part of Texas: Plano is a booming suburb in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area that went from just 17,872 people in 1970 to 259,841 people in 2010. That is explosive, sprawling suburban growth.

Now, I may just have to get my hands on this documentary to see more of the home and its context…