Sunday, February 14, 2010

Kiechel: The Nonprofit that Saved Central Park

In the recent issue of City Journal Conrad Kiechel has an interesting article titled The Nonprofit That Saved Central Park: Thirty years after its founding, the Conservancy inspires other cities.  From the article:

I remember a very different Central Park when I was a college student in Manhattan in the 1970s. I even recall passing through the Ramble. Countless creatures called it home then, too—most of whom you wouldn’t want to run into, day or night. The park’s lawns were dust bowls; its trees’ limbs were broken, their roots exposed; graffiti and inoperative lights marred the once-manicured landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. “It was so awful,” recalls Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, an urban planner from Texas who became the park’s administrator in 1979. “Central Park was under a unionized, civil-service workforce. They were demoralized. It would take three men to prune a tree because of the job titles.”

The change began when Rogers formed an alliance with Parks Commissioner Gordon Davis. Davis started cutting deadwood in his department, a traditional dumping ground for patronage jobs. He also decentralized his department’s operations—first down to the borough level, then to the park level. And Rogers championed the idea that private money and workers would play a key role in the park’s restoration. The Central Park Conservancy was born in 1980—what current park administrator Douglas Blonsky calls a “revolutionary public/private partnership that would bring private monies and expertise, in partnership with the City of New York, to manage and restore Central Park.” . . .

From around the world, visitors flock to Blonsky’s office to learn how the Conservancy’s public/private partnership model can help them restore their own parks.

The article has clear anti-union and pro-privatization implications.  It certainly does present the recent success of Central Park--an important historical and symbolic land use--within the compelling narrative of the restoration of New York City as the signal American metropolis. 

Matt Festa

February 14, 2010 in Environmental Law, History, Local Government, New York, Texas | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Are HOV lanes a good idea?  They are controversial, to be sure.  Some think that they are essential to disincentivizing traffic and rewarding carpooling.  Others think that they are inefficient or infringe too much on liberty.  But for those commuters who live in areas with HOV lanes, the practical question is how to adapt. reports on the emergence of one response to HOV lanes: Slugging.

HOUSTON – Would you jump into the car of a stranger? Hundreds of Houstonians do it every morning on the way to work to save time and money.

The phenomenon called "slugging" developed in the northeast and has caught on in Houston over the last few years.

The "sluggers" park at a Metro Park and Ride lot and form a line to get into cars with drivers who are looking for a passenger so they can legally take the HOV.

Slugging seems to have originated, or has been most successful in, the DC area.  I think it would be creepy to rely on a commute in a stranger's car (plus, the story doesn't say how they get home).  But on the other hand, I kind of like the free market ordering response to regulatory restrictions--when the government creates an HOV lane, the commuters establish a new informal but effective institution, the slugging line. 

Matt Festa

December 19, 2009 in Houston, Sprawl, Suburbs, Texas, Transportation | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Forbes: America's Fastest-Recovering Cities has an article about the areas that are doing the best at weathering or recovering from the recession.  Omaha comes out on top, and Texas cities do quite well too.

Though Omaha, Neb., seems second-rate to some, Warren Buffett may have been on to something when he chose it for the headquarters of his massive holding company, Berkshire Hathaway. According to our research, the city has hit upon a formula to weather the economic downturn better than any other in the country.

While no region has escaped the recession, in Omaha, three Texas metros, a handful of Northeastern manufacturing bases and select southern cities, diversified industry and relatively stable housing fundamentals have provided local residents with comparatively secure standards of living.

View the complete list here.  Top 10: (1) Omaha; (2) San Antonio; (3) Austin; (4) Pittsburgh; (5) Harrisburg; (6) Dallas; (7) Rochester; (8) Houston; (9) Raleigh; and (10) Baton Rouge.

I'm not surprised to see Omaha and the Texas cities on the list.  Two things are worth noting, though.  First, the presence of a number of northeastern cities on both the top 10 and the full list: Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Rochester, etc.  These older northern industrial cities have been considered to be in decline for a while.  Could it be that they are doing relatively OK because they may have already hit their low points--having been left behind during the last two bubbles, they might be stable? 

Secondly, you don't see many "sun belt" cities--which have dominated the growth charts in the last two decades--near the top, outside the Texas triangle (and Raleigh in the Research Triangle).  We all know that Arizona, Nevada, and Florida are among the places hardest hit by the mortgage crisis.  Does this support the nascent idea that the sun belt is giving way as a geographic identifier to the Zone of Sanity?  According to Joel Kotkin, the Zone of Sanity encompasses the vast middle of the country, from Minnesota to Texas, that was largely ignored by the bubble and is doing relatively well in the aftermath. 

Matt Festa

November 24, 2009 in Mortgage Crisis, Real Estate Transactions, Texas | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Energy Inspections in Austin?

A proposal to require energy inspection for all new housing starts will be sent to the city council in Texas's weird state captial.  The Austin Business Journal headlines it as Proposal ruffles builders:

A new ordinance requiring new housing starts to undergo energy inspections cleared its last hurdle Nov. 17 and will be sent to the City Council amid ardent opposition from the local home builders association.

The proposed law, which adopts the 2009 International Energy Conservation Code, will supplant an old rule that only required a sampling of similar new housing by the same builder to be tested. The new rule will instead mandate testing for every single- or two-family unit by outside contractors.

Not everyone is happy:

At the Nov. 17 hearing, Home Builders Association of Greater Austin Executive Vice President Harry Savio said the new codes will add 88 cents per square foot to the cost of new houses in Austin and further slow sluggish permitting offices that are understaffed.

The inspections would be for heating, ventilation, and cooling of all new residential units.  Austin has contemplated a policy goal to have all new homes be zero-energy by 2015.  Whether adding new requirements during a recession is a wise move remains to be seen.

Matt Festa

November 24, 2009 in Clean Energy, Environmental Law, Green Building, Housing, Local Government, Texas | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Well-Being Index for the 50 States

The website LiveScience just posted an article entitled "The Well-Being of 50 U.S. States."  It's actually a survey called "the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index," which purports to show which states are the happiest.  Some of the factors that contribute to happiness include personal behaviors, but a related article says part of the reason is that some states' populations are happier is because the states are wealthier and can provide better infrastructure to meet residents' needs.

So how do these rankings shake out?  Utah, Hawaii, Wyoming and Colorado are the top 4.  I'm a Colorado native and just returned from a trip there, so that ranking warms my heart.  However, I think the view of the Rockies way outstrips the infrastructure in contributing to happiness.  Maybe when I can ride the light rail all the way to the Denver airport (scheduled for 2014) I'll feel differently.  As for my current home and the home states of my co-bloggers - Texas is 21st, Georgia is 23rd, South Carolina ranks 26,  Alabama is 33rd, and Nevada is 38th. (I expected Nevada to have a higher ranking, given the rankings of other western states.  Maybe Ngai Pindell has some ideas about why Nevada is relatively low?)

I'll be blogging more about current land use issues in Colorado in the coming weeks.  I'm also planning to post some guest blogs by my students about their projects this semester.

Jamie Baker Roskie

November 11, 2009 in Georgia, Planning, Texas | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Veterans Day & Land Use

A very happy Veterans Day to all, with thanks to those who have served.  In honor of the day, here are a few desultory land use issues involving military veterans.

The idea of rewarding veterans for their service with grants of land is an ancient one.  I suspect it goes back at least to ancient Rome, and probably before.  Cincinnatus and all that.  It makes a lot of sense, historically, where cash-poor governments asking for or requiring military service have traditionally had one major asset to distribute: sovereign domain over land.  Part of this historical generosity is certainly due to gratitude for service, and part of it must also be the social concern over standing armies in peacetime.

After the Revolutionary War, the thirteen states and the Continental Congress had two major issues: (1) crippling debt from financing the war; and (2) a whole lot of land that was largely unsettled (by Anglo-Americans, that is) and unregulated--the territory from the Appalachian Proclamation of 1763 line to the Mississippi.  The solution?  First, get the states to cede their western claims to the national government.  After the Virginia Cession in 1784, Congress set about making a plan for the western lands.  The 1785 Land Ordinance and the 1787 Northwest Ordinance did not mention veterans  specifically, but they were part of the larger federal program designed to distribute and regulate the western territories with the notion of state land grants to Revolutionary War veterans in mind.  [I have a work in progress on the Northwest Ordinance and property rights].  For you property law fans, the ensuing government survey of the lands was part of what originated the political/geographic establishment of counties and townships across the western states.

So government policy has long favored helping veterans obtain land.  Harold Hyman wrote a really interesting book tracing the effects of this policy preference in the wake of major wars in American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill

The Department of Veterans Affairs has a home loan guaranty program that allows qualified veterans to secure mortgage loans at favorable rates.  This has been around for a while.  Along with FHA loans, the VA loan program was instrumental in moving millions of veterans into single-family houses. 

The entire story of post-WWII suburban development is in large part a story about how to give veterans--who survived both the War and the Depression--a piece of the American Dream (and also about what to do with and where to put the 8+ million men and women suddenly out of uniform and getting to work on the Baby Boom).  The designers of Levittown(s) were mass-producing single-family suburban homes in large part because of the market imperative of housing returning veterans. 

At the state level, many states have additional programs that supplement the VA's federal benefits to veterans with respect to land- or home-ownership.  Texas, for example, has the Veterans Land Board, which is under the Texas General Land Office.  The Veterans Land Board has a number of loan programs with favorable terms for qualified veterans.  On November 3, 2009, Texas voters approved Proposition 6, a state constitutional amendment to allow the Veterans Land Board to issue general obligation bonds to finance these programs. 

It's a credit to state and federal governments that we have these policies to reward those who have served.  The legitimate critical questions we should ask are whether these are the right policies to express that gratitude to veterans.  Like other government land use policies--such as Euclidean zoning, highway construction, tax breaks on mortgages--land programs for veterans have favored the single-family suburban lifestyle and have subsidized sprawl.  As Chad Emerson has blogged here, these policies seem to be continued in the federal government's responses to the economic crisis.  Can policy that favors veterans for their service be modified to mitigate today's land use problems?

Thanks again to all who have served.

Matt Festa

November 11, 2009 in Affordable Housing, Books, Development, Housing, Mortgage Crisis, Scholarship, Sprawl, Suburbs, Texas, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Election Day: land use issues!

Most of the national attention for Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 3d, is focused on the horse races in New Jersey, Virginia, and NY-23.  But here in Houston and across Texas we have some land use issues both on the ballot and behind the politics.

First, the mayoral race.  The generally popular Bill White is term-limited (and has his sights set on the 2010 Senate race).  Vying to replace him as chief executive of the nation's fourth-most-populous city are four candidates: Peter Brown, Gene Locke, Roy Morales, and Annise Parker.  Morales is a Republican, and the other three are Democrats, but Houston's charter prescribes nonpartisan elections.  The three Democrats are leading in the polls, and there will probably be a runoff between the top two. 

Land use regulation is a very big issue looming behind the scenes in this election.  Houstonians are very much aware that we are the leading Unzoned City in America, and many are calling for stricter development rules, particularly because of a high-profile controversy over the proposed Ashby High Rise (more about Ashby later).  The Houston Chronicle editorialized that Guiding Growth will be a Key Issue in the mayoral election, and it also reported recent poll results that Houston Voters want Tough Land Use Laws.  

I have read and parsed various statements by the leaders Brown, Locke, and Parker, and this Houston Chronicle story analyzes their stances on land use, and I can't really tell much difference between the three candidates.  None of the three is in favor of the "z-word," that is, (Euclidean) zoning, but all three seem to be vaguely in favor of more regulation (while maintaining that they are pro-development), and talk about good-sounding things like "protecting neighborhoods."  Candidate Peter Brown is, as I noted the other day, an architect and planner, and is on record advocating form-based codes.  But for the most part it's hard to see major differences between the leading candidates; I think they each can fairly be characterized as having a mild "more regulation" stance without a lot of specifics yet.  The interesting part will be to watch what the new mayor actually does, or tries to do, to change land use law in the Unzoned City.

The second set of land use issues on the Nov. 3d ballot is in referenda on eleven proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution.  Among them are Proposition 9, which will constitutionalize the Texas Open Beaches Act, and Proposition 11, which is an anti-Kelo prohibition on economic development takings.  I'll have more on these after they pass; I don't think I'm going out on a limb in predicting that all eleven will pass by large margins.

Are there any land use issues in your state or local elections this year?  We'd love to hear in the comments.  As they say, vote early and vote often!

UPDATE: Results--Annise Parker 31%, Gene Locke 26%, Peter Brown 23%, and Roy Morales 20%.  There will be a runoff between Parker and Locke on Dec. 12.  Although it would have been interesting to have architect/planner/form-based code advocate Brown in the runoff, we will still have to see what Parker and Locke say about the hot issues of development and regulation in the Unzoned City

Matt Festa

November 2, 2009 in Development, Form-Based Codes, Houston, Local Government, Planning, Takings, Texas, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Austin's Transit-Oriented Development

Molly Scarborough, Senior Planner with the Austin Planning Department, gave a presentation today on Austin's transit-oriented planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, as part of Houston Tomorrow's "Livable Houston Initiative."  Interestingly, the promo blurb indicated that she would be talking about "efforts that the City of Austin has made to encourage and allow transit-oriented development that have already resulted in substantial development even though their first rail line is not yet operational."  That's pretty much the opposite of Houston, which has had an operational light rail line for about five years, but has little TOD to show for it. 

150 miles apart, Houston and Austin differ in lots of ways, actually.  Houston is the quintessential Texas big metropolis, the Unzoned City, and headquarters of the global energy industry.  With the state government, the major research University of Texas, the music scene, and a tech sector, denizens of the state capital prefer to Keep Austin Weird

Whether Austinites want to be weird or not, Ms. Scarborough reports that they do want mixed-use, walkable urban neighborhoods and TOD (at least to some extent).  The city government has done extensive planning for over a decade to try to set the conditions for both urban transit and pedestrian-oriented TOD.  Scarborough points to a 2002 regional planning effort through Envision Central Texas as a key event in articulating a vision for transit and urban design.  The city has responded with a number of initiatives, including the downtown "Great Streets" program; Station Area Planning for TOD districts; specific neighborhood- and project-oriented programs; and a TOD Ordinance

Another thing I found interesting from Scarborough's talk was her discussion of the city-wide Design Standards and Mixed Use Ordinance, adopted in 2006.  The intent of the ordinance was to encourage citywide the kind of higher-density, mixed-use development envisioned for the TOD districts.  It included an opt-in/out provision for neighborhoods.  Scarborough indicated that many people think of it as a form-based code, but that she prefers to think of it as a "design code." 

Scarborough indicated that the city's "density bonuses" are just beginning to be implemented.  These "bonuses" include waivers for single-use zoning requirements; floor-area ratios; density (dwelling units per acre); setbacks; and other land use regulations.  In return, the developer receiving the "bonus" is expected to comply with design guidelines and to make certain contributions to sidewalks, landscaping, wastewater management, and other public-area considerations.  Affordable housing incentives also seem to be in the mix (although this may be mostly in the TOD ordinance).  Scarborough reports that there are concerns from both ends: some citizens complain that the community benefits exacted are too low; while others worry that the scheme itself amounts to a development "tax" that could undermine the goal of the program, which is to promote higher-density vertical mixed use.  Writing from the Unzoned City, I wonder if the latter critique has merit-- if the goal is to incentivize mixed use and density, wouldn't the easier solution be to simply remove the traditional zoning regulations that mandate low density and single use?  But Scarborough indicated that the "bonuses" were necessary to get the neighborhoods on board . . . which is understandable.

All in all, a very interesting presentation.  Austin's TOD and urban design efforts are worth watching.

Matt Festa

October 28, 2009 in Affordable Housing, Density, Form-Based Codes, Housing, Planning, Texas, Transportation, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Truth About Smart Growth?

On Wednesday in Houston there was an interesting conference called "The Truth About Smart Growth: Setting the Stage for the Housing Collapse--National Conference on What Works and What Hurts."  It was organized by Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a local developers' PAC that advocates generally on the pro-property rights side of various issues.  The conference was co-sponsored by Heritage, Reason, Cato, and several other groups.  It had a lineup of speakers that included some of the nation's leading land use scholars from the libertarian perspective. 

Tory Gattis was recruited to give the introduction and to moderate.  Gattis is a social systems architect in Houston whose insightful commentary on his Houston Strategies and Opportunity Urbanist blogs has made him one of the leading voices on land use issues in Houston.  Among the highlights from the speakers:

Sam Staley of the Reason Foundation spoke about Houston's land use system compared to the dominant mode of planning and zoning in other American cities.  Staley says that Houston's system is superior because it is dynamic, flexible, and responsive to the market.  These factors actually enable Houston to offer some of the types of development that proponents of smart growth want--such as higher density and mixed use--without the increased costs caused by overregulation.  He correctly observed that Houston is not "unplanned," but rather that it has mostly private planning, through covenants and site development platting.  Staley warned Houston against adopting zoning or more stringent land use regulations.

Wendell Cox of Demographia then presented "How Texas Averted the Great Recession."  There are many Texans who have been hurt by the recession, but Cox is generally correct that it hasn't been as bad in Texas as in many other parts of the country.  One of the reasons is the nature of Texas's economy, and another is that there wasn't really a housing bubble to begin with here.  Cox argued that the more permissive land use regulatory environment allowed development to more accurately track the market demand in Texas, and that adopting smart growth policies would drive up the median multiple (ratio of average home price to income) to an unacceptable level.

Luis Vera of LULAC spoke in support of Proposition 11, which will essentially constitutionalize Texas's anti-Kelo prohibition of economic development takings.  I'll post more on Prop 11 soon.  Vera gave an interesting speech talking about land use and housing policy as possibly the next great civil rights issue, in part because of the disproportionate impact that eminent domain sometimes has on minority neighborhoods; he said (I paraphrase) something like: we (i.e. LULAC and property rights groups) may not agree on things like immigration, but we agree on keeping the American Dream alive.

Randal O'Toole, from the Cato Institute and the Antiplanner (and who has suggested that urban planning caused the housing bubble), spoke about the possibility of an "alternative vision" to achieve the goals of smart growth through less restrictive means.  Turns out that this alternative vision is pretty much Houston.  O'Toole has extensive command of housing statistics and regulatory policies from across the nation, and makes a good case that the non-zoning approach is at least partly responsible for the areas in which Houston has outperformed other cities.  There were a few other interesting speakers as well, about which I might post later. 

So is Smart Growth (or perhaps more accurately, government regulatory policies intended to achieve Smart Growth) really that bad?  The speakers at this conference are among the land use experts who make the best case against it.  At the end of the conference I spoke with Joshua Sanders, the Executive Director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, and he indicated that the audio/video links might be put online; if they do, I will post them. 

UPDATE: Tory Gattis has a post up on Houston Strategies with some thoughts on the speakers' presentations and the text of his introductory remarks. 

Matt Festa

October 22, 2009 in Conferences, Development, Housing, Houston, Planning, Property Rights, Smart Growth, Texas | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Trans-Texas Corridor is Dead

Ding, dong.  Last week the Texas legislature killed (or "stuck a fork in") the Trans-Texas Corridor.  The Corridor was supported by Governor Rick Perry as a visionary network of high-volume superhighways to crisscross the state and link it to transportation networks in the surrounding states and Mexico.  It was conceived as being mostly for trucks and for long-distance car traffic across the state; the roads would mostly bypass the major cities.  It was to be a 4,000+ mile network (Texas is big, but that's still a lot of road) of toll roads and freight and passenger rail, built and operated through public-private partnerships.  An article about the final nail, er, fork, is here

Perry had championed the Trans-Texas Corridor, an ambitious highway network proposal that included public-private partnerships and tollways.

An outcry from landowners and others, however, prompted the transportation agency this year to say it would scale back the network concept and drop the name.

The Corridor met widespread opposition when it was announced.  Some of this opposition was irrational--that it was a secret "NAFTA Superhighway" that would lead to the new world order, etc.  But the project was enormous in scope: an opposition group estimated that the total cost would be as much as $31 million per mile, and $125 billion overall.  [Update: the Houston Chronicle states the number for the propsal as $175 billion].  What was even more disturbing to some people was the massive amount of land it would consume, particularly in the rural areas where the Corridor was to be built (the Texas Farm Bureau has even endorsed Gov. Perry's primary challenger, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, largely because of its opposition to Perry's proposed Corridor).

This map shows the original master concept of superhighways crisscrossing all of the state.  The corridors were projected to be on the scale of 1,200 feet wide--that is a lot of land.  But what alarmed and energized opponents even more was the fact that the state in its initial plans (understandably) didn't know precisely where the actual roads and rails would be built, but they released maps such as this one (on by the state Department of Transportation) which show big, fat, snakes of land perhaps 5 or more miles wide as "recommended preferred corridors."  Everyone within those potential corridors complained, with some justification, that the proposed corridor and fear of eminent domain over a wide area was a Sword of Damocles that may have lowered their market values and made it more difficult to sell, regardless of where within that band the potential corridor might actually have been ultimately built. 

In the end the Trans-Texas Corridor was opposed from both flanks, by those concerned with property right and by those who oppose massive highway construction and favor alternatives like high-speed rail within "megaregions."

Thanks to Travis Crawford for the pointers.

- Matt Festa 

October 14, 2009 in Eminent Domain, Property Rights, Texas, Transportation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)