Thursday, January 31, 2008

I'm Not the Only One Blogging My Way Through Houston

It would be bizarre if I were. As far as I know, I am the only one with the quixotic goal of touring every single street in Houston, and unlike most of the other travelers, I am devoted almost completely to the idea of serendipitous discovery. In other words, I don't know what I'm going to find when I set out. I don't think my approach is inherently superior, though. Just different.

One traveler of this sort is Tim Lomax, who is a feature writer for the Houston Press. He's written about epic walks along the entire length of Westheimer, Bissonnet , Navigation, Shepherd, and Telephone Road, and recently did Long Point/Washington Avenue. These treks are filled with photos and smart-ass, funny writing.

But primarily Long Point is a binary street combining Mexico and Korea. In contrast to the multi-ethnic riot that is Bissonnet, or the Pan-Asian explosion that is Bellaire, Long Point is binary. Some businesses fuse into MexiKorea. The Koryo Bakery, right next door to the only Korean bookstore in Houston, touts its pan dulce y pastels, for example, and it seems that many of the Korean-owned businesses aim at Spanish-speakers more than Anglos. (Someone should open a restaurant out here called Jose Cho’s TaKorea.)
Or further down the road...

Somewhere around Wirt we came upon Polly Pawn shop. There was a gaudy primary-colored parrot on the sign, which also informed the public “Se habla español.”

“Man, is that really necessary?” Beebe asked. “If you put a parrot on your sign, there’s no need to tell people you speak Spanish.”

I told him that I once considered getting a tattoo of the Fiesta grocery parrot on my arm.

“What, you mean Pepe?” Beebe asked.

He also digs up a little history, which is interesting to me.

Actually, Spring Branch was settled by German farmers whose names live on in streets like Conrad Sauer, Hillendahl, Wirt, and Moritz. Their legacy also lives on in the astonishingly still-existent, white clapboard 160-year-old St Peter’s Church and the graveyard behind it. (This was the hub of Spring Branch’s official history – you can read the whole thing here.)
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

(Obviously Hedwig Village is a part of that tradition as well.)

They link to another blog tour of this neighborhood on Metroblogging Houston. The blogger, Jen, even provided a hand-drawn map in the same fashion as yours truly:

As a Korean-American Houstonian, she had a somewhat deeper understanding of the neighborhood than Tim Lomax (she knew, for example, that Thinga Thinga Noraebang was a karaoke place, noraebang being karaoke in Korean, apparently).


Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Many Faces of Eustace Tilley

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
If you are a reader of the New Yorker, you need to see this!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.The invaluable Swamplot linked to a Houston architecture site I had never seen before, HoustonMod. The style of site is itself sleek modern 60s-style design, and even its tone is slightly archaic. Unlike chatty, irony-filled sites like Swamplot (or this here blog you're reading), HoustonMod is minimal and matter-of-fact. They are clearly passionate about Houston's modernist architectural legacy, but they refuse to wear that passion on their sleeves. Like the buildings they love, they favor a cool, poker-faced exterior.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Yet the best part of the site is the moving triptych grouped under the heading of Houston's Modern Legacy. The three links are Moderns Still With Us, Mod-No-More, and Most Endangered Moderns. Under each heading are series of postage-stamp photos linking to info about each building.

As far as I can see, they take no political stance on preservation. But they encourage it by showing real estate listings for modern houses. Many of these modern houses that get sold are torn down and replaced by heinous McMansions. So making sure that folks interested in this architectural legacy know when one of these houses is on the market at least marginally increases the chances that it will be bought not by a McMansion developer, but by someone who would actually like to live in it.

HoustonMod has also published several exhibit catalogs dedicated to Houston modern architects.


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Persepolis is not Sin City

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
I started reading "All Your Movie Are Belong to Us" in this month's Texas Monthly nodding in agreement. Fort Worth Star Telegram film critic Christopher Kelly asks:

How is it that fanboys—a pimply-faced, pasty-skinned set that in previous generations would have been kicked into the dirt by the bullies on the playground—emerged as the arbiters of twenty-first-century film culture?

His Texas-centric answer (always required in any Texas Monthly culture article) is that guys from Austin like Robert Rodriguez and Harry Knowles and the founders of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema decided to get involved with filmmaking and criticism, but that their tastes never evolved from their teenage fanboy comic-book loves. He rails against the soulessness of all CGI, comic-booky movies like Sin City and 300.
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

But then he also writes this:

It suddenly seemed as if just about every story—be it a political thriller like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), a literary adaptation like Beowulf (2007), or even a coming-of-age memoir like Perseopolis [sic] (2007)—had to first be filtered through a graphic novelist’s sensibility before it could hit a movie screen.

Huh? Persepolis comes from a graphic novel, true, but what does "graphic novel sensibility" mean? In other words, how is Persepolis similar to Sin City or Hellboy or Spider-Man? It's simply not at all similar to those movies or their source materials. This is frankly a case of a lazy critic making a casually bigoted comment to unnecessarily bolster his case. To see how stupid what he said is, imagine it rewritten like this:

It suddenly seemed as if just about every story—be it a political thriller like The Bourne Ultimatum (2006), a literary adaptation like Atonement (2007), or even a historical drama like There Might Be Blood (2007)—had to first be filtered through a prose novelist’s sensibility before it could hit a movie screen.

The fact that these movies were adapted from novels wouldn't cause any thinking person to lump them together, because 1) the novels were all very, very different, and 2) the films made from the novels were very different as well. The casual lumping together of all graphic novels as having a similar "sensibility" (which then has a malign effect on cinema) is simply lazy and wrong.

Labels: ,

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bank Failures

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
This is a graph (click here to see a larger version) of the number of bank and thrift failures per year since the FDIC was formed. There has already been one bank failure this year. Calculated Risk thinks we won't see a S&L crisis level of failures because banks don't do house mortgages that much anymore--their loans are more for commercial real estate now. Still, I doubt 2008 will be another 1958 as far as bank failures go...

Labels: ,

Houston Streets 12 -- More Spring Valley

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Today's exploration was short but strenuous. I continued to explore Spring Valley, vainly hoping to finish it off today. I didn't even come close, mainly because of the construction on Voss, which made the ride a lost more difficult (and muddy) than I anticipated. Voss north of I-10 doesn't connect with Voss south of I-10. Just south of the freeway, Voss veers east about a block so that it can be connected seemlessly with Bingle, a major north-south arterial. Now the Katy Freeway was built in 1955-56, so I am going to speculate that before that when the road was a 4-lane east-west highway called SH 73, the two Vosses were continuous.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Anyway, as you can see, Voss is a mess. And this mess goes the entire length of Voss from the freeway to Westview, and continues north of Westview (at which point the street name becomes Bracher). This was a royal muddy pain to ride on, and I can only imagine how difficult it is for people who live on the streets off of Voss.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Voss crosses a creek (which I am pretty sure is Hunter's Creek) a couple of blocks north of the freeway. Right now, that bridge is closed, but it's supposed to open on January 31. Fortunately bikes are a lot more flexible than cars in these situations, so I just rode across it at will.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
This attractive house is at the corner of Green Valley and Voss, on a weird triangular lot. Its garage opens onto Voss, but from it looks like they must have had a period where the garage was totally inaccessible. So they parked their car in a carport on the Green Valley side of the triangle.
And this is one of the coolest carports I have ever seen. I love the slanted roof and the rectangular framing arch in front of it. But I have a question: is this carport new? It doesn't look new, but if it's not new, it seems pretty weird that they'd have a garage on one side of the hosue and a carport on the other. Plus, the driveway leading into the carport looks decidedly new and temporary.
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Indeed, they didn't even bother taking out the curb (which is pretty small and probably poses no barrier to most cars). Even if the carport is temporary, it looks great.
This old-fashioned house on Burkhart off of Voss, with its expansive front porch and flag, looks like something from the turn of the century. The 19th century. But wait...
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
This is the flag! Wow, this is not something you see in Memorial that often, right in congressional district 7, which regularly re-elects the very conservative, very pro-war Congressman John Culberson. Of course there are going to be people against the war here--it's gotten steadily less popular, even in solidly Republican areas. But you just don't see people wearing their anti-war feelings on their sleeves much in Memorial. But maybe Spring Valley is a haven for peaceniks, because right around the corner on Voss, I saw this car:

That bumpersticker says "Peace is Patriotic." The other one says "Not All Who Wander Are Lost," a good slogan for an itinerant biker like me. (Also note how mud-spattered the car is--this is from the construction on Voss.)

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Now it turns out that if you go to the end of Burkhart, you can walk to Bingle through two connected driveways. Apparently at one time, you could drive through (there is now a gate on the Bingle side), which made this aging sign necessary. I guess people were using this as a cut through for their cars. Frankly, I would be skittish about even walking through after seeing this sign, unless I knew all the property owners and whether they were shoot-first-ask-questions-later types. The sign is old and weathered, and covered with little colorful decorations like hearts and flowers, as well as little messages, including the cryptic, "I rapped ur mouse!" Indeed!
This beautiful house is down at the end of Cedarspur off of Voss. I love the three redwood projecting structures on its side.
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Here's what it looks like from the front. It has an unusual but far from unique design that I call "two opaque wings connected by a transparent part in the middle." You may recall a similar design on Farnham Park. This house was built in 2006--one of the rare examples of a new modern house in this neighborhood.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Here's another interesting house on Cedarspur, but on the part that connects with Bingle.
This neighborhood is rapidly filling up with McMansions, as we can see here on Lufton. I picked up a few real estate flyers as I rode, and one non-McMansion was being offered for $400K (1865 sq. ft) while a McMansion a few blocks away was being offered for $765K (4442 sq. ft.). I wonder which one will sell first?

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
This is the most amazing house of all. It sits at the corner of Bingle and I-10, right next to the Grace Church. It amazingly avoided being destroyed by the freeway widening. It looks a little shabby and run-down, and stylistically, it seems unrelated to any other house in Spring Valley. So why is it amazing? It was built in 1939. The owners don't actually live in the house, but it does appear to be occupied. I'd love to know its story.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
This is not the only "pocket park" I saw on my ride. Steve Radack seems to like using these little odd pieces of county-owned property this way. This one is on Bracher, just north of Spring Branch. I certainly approve--the relative lack of walkable neighborhood parks in Houston is unfortunate, and as nice as big parks like Memorial and Herman Park are, they are no substitute.

One last mystery photo. What do you think this is?
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
I'm not sure, but I think it was where a bunch of houses and Bunningham street used to be. The wall on the right is the freeway noise wall. I suspect that these properties were condemned when the freeway widening started.

Spring Valley is not a big place. It must have lost a significant portion of its tax base when its properties were condemned. This strikes me as one of the key problems with freeway widenings. Who benefits from freeway widening projects? Aside from the obvious winners (construction companies, cement makers), the biggest winners for the I-10 widening are people who live way far out from the city. People in Katy, for example. Also winning big are developers who are turning greenfields way out west into suburbs. The people who buy those houses can commute into Houston in a reasonable amount of time, which helps make those developments viable projects. Now people in Spring Valley and in other areas along the freeway closer into town benefit some--their drive-times into downtown or the Galleria/Post Oak will be shortened somewhat. But their benefit is less than those who live much further out. Plus, Houston, Spring Valley, and Hilshire Village lose a lot of property tax payers to condemnation. So from where I sit, I wonder if Houston really gets a net benefit from these massive freeway widening projects. Of course, John Culberson and Randal O'Toole love them--who cares if a bunch of people lose their homes in the process and the inner city and villages lose some of their tax base?

Now maybe this could be solved by thinking outside the box. That's what Houston Strategies does, imagining a stacked, partially underground freeway--build down, instead of out. It sounds like science fiction, but if I were a Houston politician, I would demand this option be considered before the next land-grabbing freeway project is OKed.

Labels: , ,

Some People Blog

And some people recreate fantasy battles using candy. Who's to say which activity is more quixotic?

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

This blogger did both. This is a recreation of the Battle of Helm's Deep, made from gummi bears and sour-patch kids. Pretty amazing, huh?

I have two criticisms though--first, they recreated the movie battle rather than the book battle. One thing that always bugged me about the movie battle was the addition of elves from Lothlorien to the forces of good; they weren't in the book (unless I'm badly misremembering things). Second, the battlements here are made of cardboard--it would have been even better if the whole thing were edible. If the mountains and fortress had been made of cake, for example. (I feel a bit peevish even making this complaint. Forget I said anything.)

Helm's Deep was last year. This year, they did The Battle of Pelennor Fields.
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Holy Cow.

I can only hope this leads to many more candy battle recreations. Perhaps the Battle of Five Armies? I'd be really interested in seeing what candy they use to create the eagles.

Hat-tip to She Eats.


Friday, January 25, 2008

Just an Enormous Beard image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
(MICHAEL KAPPELER/AFP/Getty Images, hat-tip to FP Passport.)

No explanation, sorry. Sometimes, you just have to post a picture of a giant beard.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Little More Randal O'Toole Math

At the risk of beating the subject of Randal O'Toole to death, I want to clarify something I wrote in an earlier post. O'Toole wrote, "The national real estate firm Coldwell Banker reports that, in 2007, a Houston family could buy a four-bedroom, two-and-one-half bath, 2,200-square foot home for $170,000. The same house would cost more than twice that much in Portland." I responded by noting that the median family income in Portland is $57,952 and the median family income in Houston is $42,925.

Now one might look at those figures and think, if the houses are more than twice as expensive in Portland than in Houston, but salaries are only 35% greater then Randal O'Toole must really onto something. The thing to remember is that the house prices are not fixed in time because, unless you are rich, you generally pay these prices over many, many years.

So let's do a thought experiment. Let's say there are two twins, Larry and Jerry Median. Jerry gets a job in Houston at the median salary and buys a $170,000 house, as described above. Larry gets a job in Portland at the median salary and buys a $400,000 house (significantly higher than twice the Houston cost). Larry and Jerry each get 30 year mortgages at a fixed rate of 6.5%. They each get one raise a year of 2.78%, which is the average inflation rate from 2000 to 2007.

So who comes out better, the guy who got the inexpensive house or the guy who got the expensive house? Well, if we look at at what they both earned over the next 30 years as they were paying off their houses, we find that Jerry in Houston had $1,588,664 left over after paying his mortgage and Larry in Portland had $1,756,882 left over. So despite the fact that Larry paid well over twice as much for his house than Jerry, he ends up $168,218 wealthier than his twin in Houston.

This is why a comparison of house prices alone is fundamentally dishonest.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Responses to Randal O'Toole

The Chronicle's letters-to-the-editor section was full of responses to the Randall O'Toole editorial in the Sunday paper. They were all critical. Obviously letters to the editor are not the same thing as a poll, and represent a self-selected sample that is further filtered by the editors themselves, but I was still shocked not to see one letter in favor of O'Toole's article. The letters were generally of the "calling a dude on his bullshit" variety. I was heartened to see another Portlander (not an ex-Portlander like me) write in:

As an individual who lives most of the year in Portland, Ore., but who also lives several months each year in the Houston area, I've come to learn that Houston isn't as bad as the rest of the country (and, indeed, even Texas) considers it to be.


I challenge O'Toole to find a single Portlander, businessman or other-wise, to agree with his gloomy depiction of Portland's progressive land use and development vision. Indeed, these decisions have been made and supported by citizens through the elections of officials that fulfill this vision.

The other letters are more-or-less the same: "I love Houston, but Randal O'Toole is nuts." Great Houston political blogger (and fellow Rice grad--I'm biased towards bloggers who went to Rice) Charles Kuffner also cries BS on O'Toole:

[Kuffner speculates that] O'Toole is playing a little fast and loose with his terminology here. I haven't seen the Coldwell Banker report that he references, so perhaps I'm about to make a fool of myself, but I'd bet that the $170,000 average price for a four-bedroom, two-and-one-half bath, 2,200-square foot home isn't for the city of Houston only. I'd bet it takes in a good chunk, if not all, of the eight-county greater Houston area, which needless to say is quite a different animal than the city of Houston. If so, this is not even close to an apples-to-apples comparison.

As such, if I'm right then O'Toole's argument pretty much falls apart. If we're not just talking about Houston here, but also Sugar Land and Pasadena and Spring and the Woodlands and Dickinson and Pearland and the vast stretches of unincorporated county lands, then we have to take into account the laws and regulations that those places have. Which, as David Crossley and Christof note, may be as strict or stricter than what Houston has, and may include both "planning" and "zoning". And yet the region continues to grow like gangbusters.

Now of course, Houston is the focus of the debate here, because Mayor White has, however gingerly, suggested that maybe we ought to give some thought to what we're doing in certain places, which has some fat cat developers' panties in a wad. The point we're making here is that this issue is a whole lot more complex and multi-faceted than just "planning" versus "not-planning", and I think it's a disservice for folks like O'Toole to characterize it that way.


Labels: ,

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Non-Houstonian for Houstonians for Responsible Growth

There has been a lot of commenting on Houstonians for Responsible Growth recently. First of all, an editorial in the Sunday Chronicle by Randal O'Toole favored the status quo. O'Toole is a Cato Institute Senior Fellow whose basic theme is that any planning is in cities is bad bad bad! Here's a bit of what he wrote:

Houston is the freest major city in America, with no zoning and only moderate government intrusions into how property owners use their land. This freedom has made Houston the most affordable major city in America, with housing costs that are less than half of most other major urban areas. This freedom has also created an innovative and growth-friendly environment that is creating tens of thousands of new jobs each year.
Silly me. I thought it was $100 a barrel oil that was creating all those jobs.

Despite these benefits, the recent controversy over the Bissonnet/Ashby high rise has inspired local planning advocates to call for an increased amount of government planning of land in Houston.

Proposals have ranged from a "general plan" for the entire city "based on citizen vision, values and goals" to a variety of ordinances that appear to be aimed at limiting dense developments.

Though planners may have the best of intentions, such planning is likely to lead to higher living costs, more traffic congestion and dramatically reduced job growth.

We can see this by looking at other cities with zoning and planning.

In a sense, American cities have engaged in a controlled experiment with planning, with Houston and a few other cities doing very little, many other cities doing some planning and some cities doing highly restrictive planning.

Advocates of planning say that it will make cities more livable, but the results of many experiments across the country show just the opposite.

Cities with strong planning authority, such as Portland, Ore., and San Jose, Calif., almost invariably have the least affordable housing, the fastest growing traffic congestion and growing taxes and/or declining urban services. In the long run, these problems tend to suppress urban growth and job creation.

I certainly don't claim to be an expert here, but I will tell you people should not take what O'Toole is saying at face value. I don't know much about San Jose (I visited it once and found it fairly nice, if a tad bland). But I lived in Portland. He makes Portland sound like St. Louis. I can speak from my personal experience--of all the cities I've lived in, Portland was quite simply the best. Beautiful, livable, a city you could walk through easily, bike around safely, drive through easily (it had daily traffic jams--but so does Houston), with a great bus and rail system that I used frequently, with real neighborhoods that had neighborhood centers that people would walk to and shop in and hang out in. I don't want to oversell it, nor can I really lay down stats on it--but I can give you my personal take as a former resident that anyone who tries to tell you that Portland is some kind of bad place is lying to you--or else has a very perverse definition of "bad."

The national real estate firm Coldwell Banker reports that, in 2007, a Houston family could buy a four-bedroom, two-and-one-half bath, 2,200-square foot home for $170,000. The same house would cost more than twice that much in Portland and more than eight times as much in San Jose.
The median family income in Portland is $57,952 and the median family income in Houston is $42,925 (despite $100 a barrel oil). If you are going to compare costs, you have to also compare incomes. Unless you are just a propagandist.
The result is that growth once attracted to places like California and Massachusetts is now attracted to less heavily planned states like Georgia and Texas. Between 2000 and 2006, California's population grew by 7 percent — mostly foreign immigration — while Georgia and Texas populations grew by 12 to 14 percent.
Different places grow for different reasons, and I'm not qualified to say why Georgia grew so fast. But I can say that in 2000, the price of oil in 2006 dollars was $33.93/barrel and in 2006 it was $65.14/barrel (BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2007). I'm no expert, but I'm going to suggest that possibly, just maybe, that Houston's growth was fueled more by a doubling of the price of oil than by its zoning laws.
Prescriptive planning attempts to control how private landowners use their land. Long-term planning attempts to look decades into the future. No one can really predict the future, so such plans do far more harm than good.
And yet, Houston (with TXDoT) has always engaged in such planning, by virtue of planning freeways decades before their actual construction (and by planning, I also mean buying right of ways). I guess this doesn't count as planning in O'Toole's book.
Houston's lack of zoning and heavy regulation have led to an evolving system of private covenants and deed restrictions that respond to changes in tastes and demand for housing. The Harris County Toll Road Authority builds roads in response to transportation needs as expressed by people's willingness to pay tolls.
This is hilarious. O'Toole is acting like deed restrictions aren't zoning--and that they are somehow more flexible than zoning by the city. Try to tell that to someone who chooses to paint their house the wrong color in a deed restricted neighborhood. And please, does he think the Sam Houston Parkway was built when it became obvious that there was a need for it? It was built in anticipation of a need--indeed, to help facilitate the need (by helping make development in some remoter parts of the metro area feasible). The land for it was purchased decades ago--decades before it was actually built! It was planned.

On the other side of the issue, local bloggers have weighed in (as they will do). Bay Area Houston is a blog covering local politics from a Clear Lake point of view.

Recently a new political action committee, Houstonians for Responsible Growth, was formed to lobby Houston City Council to continue it’s “favorable regulatory environment” for new development within the city including building a 23-story complex in a residential neighborhood. Given the history of the individuals associated with this organization, City Council should take their advise with a grain of salt, the size of a basketball.

Organizations like Houstonians for Responsible Growth claim to be reacting to the needs of the citizens of the community, when in fact it is advocating an extremely focused agenda benefiting only their members.
This is harsh, but it is true that the members of this group that have been publicized so far are people who directly benefit financially from Houston's relatively lax regulatory environment. Bay Area Houston goes on to talk about similar initiatives, with a message that says, in effect, that when you hear deregulators, libertarians, and privatizers telling you how much money you'll save, hold onto your wallet. To wit:
The Texas Residential Construction Commission TRCC (trick) was created in 2003 to “regulate” the homebuilding industry. It was designed and created by the homebuilders of Texas, including some of the members of Houstonians for Responsible Growth. Instead of providing consumer protection, as promised, it established extremely limited new home warranty standards, a complicated, costly, and worthless complaint process, and protects the industry from lawsuits for defective homes. As with the Houstonians for Responsible Growth, the supporters of the TRCC claimed it would promote affordable housing for the middle class.

In the end, homes are no more affordable than they were prior to the TRCC.

Few, if any, in Houston can forget the promises of deregulation of insurance, electricity, and college tuition rates. After all the promises by all the front groups of the industries of providing affordable and competitive rates, Texas has the highest rates of home insurance in the country, electricity rates have skyrocketed, and a college education is out of reach for many middle class families. And once again, many of the same individuals supporting Houstonians for Responsible Growth were involved with the same promises of affordability and competition of deregulation.
A little more on-topic was this post from the best local transit blog, the wonkish and technocratic Intermodality.
There are more than two sides to this debate. In fact, I count four. Bob Lanier is pro-growth and anti-planning. The people fighting the Ashby highrise are anti-growth and pro-planning; they want new regulations to prevent new development in their neighborhoods. But many of the people talking about planning are actually pro-growth and pro-planning; they see Houston is growing and they want that growth to happen intelligently. And if you look hard enough you’ll find people who are anti-growth and anti-planning; they probably think that the problem is illegal immigration or maybe public subsidies for sports stadiums.
(I have to say I cringe at subsidies for public sports stadiums, because it always feels like a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to a small number of really wealthy team owners.)

It’s the anti-growth/ pro-planning people who are setting the agenda right now; a backlash against unplanned growth in established neighborhoods is leading many to want to stop growth altogether. That worries the pro-growth, anti-planning developers. But it also worries the pro-growth, pro-planning crowd. The thing to watch is who allies with whom.

Houston already has building regulations. Houston’s development regulations regulate how far buildings have to be from the street, how much parking has to be provided, how much green space there needs to be around buildings, and much more. The net effect is to limit density, increase the cost of urban development, and encourage suburban-style development.

This is one of the big complaints in the New Urbanist manifesto, Suburban Nation.

And while the city doesn’t implement use-based zoning, deed restrictions in most Houston neighborhoods do. Deed restrictions are actually more draconian than government zoning since they are so hard to change.

The Houston region has some of the strictest zoning in the country. Planned communities are called that for a reason. Every large suburban development in Houston has an extensive set of restrictions that govern the shape, appearance, and use of buildings. These are as strict as anything a government agency ever dreamed of.

This point cannot be repeated often enough. I sometimes hear people try to distinguish zoning from deed restrictions by saying that deed restrictions are private, therefore somehow better. But if you want to put up a fence and someone tells you you can't, what does it matter where their authority comes from? Developers are well-aware of where they have the freedom to build what they want, and where they don't. They understandably don't want those non-deed-restricted areas to get any kind of zoning, since they are already restricted from doing much in deed-restricted areas.

Planning doesn’t imply zoning. Government agencies spend a lot of money on building things: roads, sewers, drainage, water lines, parks, transit, fire stations, libraries. These things are the infrastructure of growth, so where and how they are built helps determine where growth will happen. Harris County, the City of Houston, and the Texas Department of Transportation are routinely predicting and encouraging development by building new roads and new highways. They’re also trying to keep up with growth. But the agencies that build these things often don’t talk to each other. Simply coordinating the efforts of multiple agencies to avoid costly duplication and to cost-effectively support growth could go a long way.


There is an intriguing possibility here. Conventional zoning is clearly imperfect, and so is Houston’s current regulatory system. Could we come up with something that’s better than either? Or will we simply re-fight old fights based on incorrect assumptions?

As usual, Intermodality has given me a lot to think about. I recommend anyone interested in this issue to click through and read the whole post.

Labels: ,

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Cost of Free Enterprise

One can hardly imagine a more conservative, Republican, pro-free-enterprise, anti-tax town than Sugar Land, right? They don't even have a bus system, for pete's sake! So what are we to make of this?

The City of Sugar Land has approved a $2.4 million direct incentive to Minute Maid for its planned move to town from Houston.

"It's the largest direct incentive we have provided to date to any company," said Joe Esch, executive director of business and intergovernmental relations for the City of Sugar Land.

Boy, if I owned a business in Sugar Land that wasn't getting a subsidy from the city government, I'd be pissed! I guess free enterprise isn't really all that free.


All-Purpose Business Plan Template

I am taking Management 629, aka "Business Plan Development and the New Enterprise." Coincidentally, I am reading a book called Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. My team project in MGMT 629 will be to make a business plan. How very fortunate for me that Cryptonomicon has a generic all-purpose business plan as part of its story! It starts like this:

MISSION: At [name of company] it is our conviction that [to do the stuff we want to do] and to increase shareholder value are not merely complimentary activities--they are inextricably linked.
PURPOSE: To increase shareholder value by [doing stuff]

Phase 1: After taking vows of celibacy and abstinence and foregoing all of our material possessions for homespun robes, we (viz. appended resumes) will move into our modest complex of scavenged refirgerator boxes in the central Gobi Desert, where real estate is so cheap that we are actually being paid to occupy it, thereby increasing shareholder value even before we have actually done anything. On a daily ration consisting of a handful of uncooked rice and a ladleful of water, we will [begin to do stuff].


SPREADSHEETS: [Pages and pages of numbers in tiny print, conveniently summarized by graphs that all seem to be exponential curves screaming heavenward, albeit with enough pseudo-random noise in them to lend plausibility].
RESUMES: Just recall the opening reel of The Magnificent Seven and you won't have to bother with this part; you should crawl to us on hands and knees and beg us for the privilege of paying our salaries.

I wonder how my professor, who is in the VC business, would like seeing a business plan like that? The MISSION and the PURPOSE seem highly realistic.

Labels: ,

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Houston Crime Maps

Visitors to this site may have noticed an ad for "Houston Crime Map" from CrimeHouston, which produces interactive crime maps of Houston. I was curious, and even though I'm not supposed to click through on these ads, I decided to check them out. (I have nothing to do with choosing the ads on this blog; they are chosen--presumably using some complex statistical software--by Google AdSense.)

Well, this firm is actually pretty interesting, if you are into maps and city information. Basically, you can give them a start date and a finish date, and you will get a map of Houston (on which you can zoom in and zoom out) showing the locations and numbers of a variety of different crimes.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
The red dots represent a murder or manslaughter, and the green dots represent a rape. The ones with numbers indicate that there was more than one of a particular type of crime at that location. This map shows rapes and murders between November 30, 2006 and November 30, 2007.

Like many commercial websites, they give a little away for free and make you pay for the complete package. This is conveyed to site visitors with this hilarious notice: "Access is restricted to rape and murder for non-members."

That actually makes a lot of sense. It's titillating to see all the murder locations, but for the average user (say, someone moving to Houston), the most practical use for the site would be seeing where property crimes happen.



It was common custom at that time, in the more romantic females, to see their soldier husbands and sweethearts as Greek heroes, instead of the whore-mongering, drunken clowns most of them were. However, the Greek heroes were probably no better, so it was not far off the mark.

From Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser.
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
I finally got around to reading this hilarious classic. It sometimes takes the death of an author to goad me into reading his works, for some reason.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Houston Streets 11 -- Hilshire Village and the eastern end of Spring Valley

Today I explored the two final Memorial Villages, completely exploring the minuscule Hilshire Village and riding the east end of Spring Valley. Both these Villages are north of I-10, which for Memorialites is sort of the wrong side of the tracks. Indeed, if you look at the household income of 77055 in the year 2000, the zip code that encompasses Hilshire Village and Spring Valley, it is $36.7 thousand. The average household income in 77024, which consists mainly of the southern Villages, is $82.6 thousand. The two northern Villages, however, are probably far closer to the southern Villages in terms of wealth. (Update: This is confirmed here; indeed, Hilshire is listed as having a higher income than Hedwig Village. I don't completely trust these figures--they claim to be per capita, but look a lot more like household income to me. Hat-tip to G-Man.) It's simply that as you go north and east from Spring Valley and Hilshire Village, you enter more working class neighborhoods, with lots of Hispanic and Korean immigrants. They may not be rich, but they are strivers, and the area North of I-10 on the Westside is, I think, getting wealthier and more middle class.

I tried something new today. Instead of loading my bike into my car and driving out to my destination, I took the bus. All Metro buses are now equipped to carry bicycles.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
This is what the bike rack looks like, and I have to tell you it is a bit unnerving. All you have are the two slots for your tires and this bracket that kind of reaches over and grasps the top of your front tire. I could see my bike out the front window, and it wobbled slightly whenever the bus started or stopped. But this kind of bike technology is pretty commonplace, so it must work OK. It did for me, this time. But I kept having a vision of my bike tumbling forward and then being run over by the bus.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
This is the bus I rode (homeward bound in this photo). I rarely ride Metro buses, but as usual, I was impressed by its cleanliness and reliability. As I rode from Gessner out to Chimney Rock on the Memorial line, the bus gradually filled up with Hispanic women. Many seemed to know each other, not surprisingly, and each stop would bring smiles and cries of "Hola!" as the women boarded. I assume these women were housekeepers working in the Villages; I have no idea if any of them were illegal aliens or not. I assume at least some of them were. They may have been committing criminal acts by living and working here illegally, but who in their right mind could call them criminal? Criminals are not people who work hard for a living in low-paying jobs. As I watched them smiling and chatting together, I wondered what their employers in the Villages thought about the illegal immigrant issue?
This is where I rode today. As you can see, Hilshire Village is tiny--just a few streets. It makes you wonder why it even exists. I mean, why is it separate from Spring Valley? They are admittedly separated geographically by a big creek (Hunter's Creek, I think). (Correction: that creek is Spring Branch. Hat tip to G-Man.) A history of Hilshire Village doesn't shed any light on why it is separate from Spring Valley and the other Villages. But like the other Villages, and unlike Houston, it has strict zoning regulations, and consequently consists almost solely of residences and some churches along Wirt.

The "main drag" is Ridgeley Dr., which more-or-less parallels the creek.
This house on Ridgeley Dr. is kind of typical of what you'll find in Hilshire Village. I would say that it has the highest proportion of modern houses of any of the Villages, and perhaps more than in any neighborhood in Houston.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
This ivy-covered modern bunker is across the street, at the corner of Ridgeley and Glourie Dr. (Update: I am informed that this house belongs to Houston architect Edward Davis, and was designed by him in 1968. Hat tip to Willowisp at the Houston Architecture Info Forum.) I was quite taken by the severe trimming of the ivy, which mirrors the severity of the design of the house. Or maybe Edward Davis is just a big Brice Marden fan.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
(Lethykos (for Tonto), Brice Marden, 1976)
Another striking Ridgeley Dr. house. I'm not sure what I'd call this style--postmodern maybe? Whatever, I like it.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
This bizarre brown house on Ridgeley Circle is notable for the tattered, faded flag hanging from its eaves. Is this a case of neglect? Or does this particular flag have some special meaning for the owners? Or are they making some kind of political statement? Hell if I know, but they got my attention.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Across the street from it is this sprawling modern house. Its multiple peaks give it a mountain-range like profile.

At least two little creeks pour into Spring Branch on the border of Hilshire Village, and homeowners take advantage of them.
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
This little barbeque area is set in the gully of a tiny creek, and is connected to the house by a small bridge.
Even though the houses in this neighborhood are already plenty big, there are still occasional McMansions. This one on Archley is better than most. I like the parallel vertical windows, the multiple peaks on the roof, and the combination of light creamy colors.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
This house at the end of Burkhart is just beautiful. (Update: The designer of this house just commented. It is the same designer of the green Victorian mentioned below--SCDesign.)

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
This house on Hilshire Green Drive is the most bizarre house in Hilshire Village. They went to a lot of trouble to make it look like adobe. Even the garage doors are painted in such a way that they look like they have the texture of adobe. The edges are round, and the upper level is smaller than the ground floor, so the top of the ground floor becomes an outdoor room. I guess you'd call this style pueblo revival. Not a house I'd want, but pretty cool, nonetheless.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
This is on Westview just across the boundary line of Hilshire Village. This decaying strip center is really too declasse for the Villages, but as I said, there are plenty of working class neighborhoods nearby. I'm charmed by the home-made naive design of the A.A. sign.
Even the city hall has a modern design.
Literally every house on Pine Creek Lane is in a modern style. The houses are all pushed right up to the street as well, which is pretty unusual in Houston. The lots they sit on are long and narrow and back into Hunter's Creek, so I suspect they have some pretty interesting back yards.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Here's another mod on Pine Creek Ln.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
These figures are stylized tae kwon do fighters. They sit in front of the only commercial structure I saw in Hilshire Village, a little building that houses Jr.'s Club and All Star Sports Center. As I was photographing these little fellas, I met the owner of All Star Sports, Anthony Scott.
He showed me around his Tae Kwon Do studio, where a huge class of pre-teens was warming up. He and his wife run the place, and if this class was any indication, it's a popular with local children. They even have a small school bus to pick up the kids after school. Their location is ideal--across the street from Valley Oaks Elementary.

Apparently, the tae kwon do figures were created by a local craftsman who had a kid in one of Scott's classes. Scott also showed me a scrap-metal clipper ship this artist had created. As far as I can determine, All Star Sports Center doesn't have a website. But you can call them at (713) 973-7883 if you're interested in doing some tae kwon do.
This footbridge over Spring Branch appears designed to shorten the walk to school for kids living in Spring Valley.

The neighborhood just east of Bingle in Spring Valley is not as interesting architecturally as Hilshire Village is. But it has some interesting street names. Specifically, five really short cul de sacs with the equally short names Tam, Tal, Pom, Gens, and Cam. Historic Houston Streets offers no insights into the origins or meanings of these street names, and Google wasn't helpful either. Any ideas?

When you get down to Burkhart in Spring Valley (which doesn't connect with the Burkhart in Hilshire Village), you find some new development.
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Now it looks like there used to be houses here (at least two), and the developer is redoing the lots. If you go to the Harris County Appraisal District maps, it still shows the old lot configurations.
Now for something completely amazing. This is a new house on Burkhart which clearly occupies a lot where an old house once sat. The amazing part? This new house is not a McMansion! It's plenty large, but compared to the lot size and the other houses in the neighborhood, it is surprisingly modest. It is unostentatious, but handsome. A homey house for contented, secure people.

When I put together the map at the top of this post, I had to splice together several pages from the Key Map. As a result, it looks like there is a street called "Niningham." It's actually Winningham, and for some reason, people on this street like acutely-angled, pointy modern roofs, like this one:

One final house, just outside Hilshire Village at the corner of Bellewood and Wirt (on the right-hand edge of the map above).
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
This beautiful house was built in 1945 (according to the Harris County Appraisal District), and it looks like the owners have put a lot of effort into keeping it looking great. (Correction: This house looks so new because it is new. It was built in 2001. I got the address wrong when I looked it up--the house across the street from it was built in 1945. Hat tip to missjanel at the Houston Architecture Info Forum. Commenter Bill informs me that this house was designed by SCDesign LLC, and if you go to their site, you can see a lot more pictures of the house, both interiors and exteriors.) It's an amazing house for this part of town--it looks like it was helicoptered in from the Heights. You know, if the makers of McMansions would try to build an occasional neo-Victorian house like this from time to time, I wouldn't be so down on them.

Labels: , ,