Monday, December 17, 2012

Houtopia Delayed

It's been a rough couple of months for Houston's New Urbanist crew. (also referred to as "Houtopians" in a derogatory manner.)  First you have the overwhelming voter acceptance of the Metro mobility fund referendum which has slowed (although not killed as Crossley whines) the future growth of the toy train that is MetroRail, then you had the sudden announcement that porn surfing CEO George Grenias is submitting his resignation effective immediately (on a side note, is anyone else uncomfortable that Tom "What part of safety do you not understand?" Lambert is in charge of things now?) presumably to free up more time to peruse the net for potential "boy" related porn sites* though it's a good bet that his resignation has something to do with the Houtopian faction of the "new" Metro board's (headed by Christoph Spieler) anger over the compromise agreement that ended up on the recent ballot. Now we hear that the City is looking to expand it's urban-density supporting land-use regulations to the entire city of Houston and not just inside the inner Loop. ($$ Reg. req'd)

I would imagine that this is a sign the developers have run out of new areas in and around the Heights on which to tear down bungalows and build 3 to 4 townhouses in their place.

Which leads us back to Houtopia.

Apparently David Crossley's dream of shoe-horn every well-off Caucasian inside the Loop and forcing those less fortunate to scrape out an existence in the hinterlands has hit a snag. While it's not been released what the snag is for certain assumptions can be made that the efforts of Rep. Garnet Coleman to stop the gentrification of the 3rd ward and ongoing battles over plans to redevelop the East End have left the developers looking for other, target-rich environments.  When viewed from that perspective, the very affluent West side neighborhoods surrounding Memorial Drive seem to follow the urban development blueprint.  Not only are single-family homes in that area built on very large lots, that can be easily sub-divided, but they carry hefty price tags ($1MM easily) that allow for a multiple townhouse lot to be priced at a high profit margin.

This would be a departure from the previous business model, where a home owner would purchase a mid-century modern and then tear it down in favor of, as Houtopians term them, a McMansion.  As a fan of the classic mid-century modern house I have to admit that I am not a fan of this development.  That said, I also believe in something called property rights so I recognize an owners right to do pursue this path provided they follow local deed restrictions.  If passed, I expect the new normal to continue tearing down houses built in the 50's and 60's but in favor or 3 or 4 townhouses instead.  This serves two purposes, it increases the profit margin for the developer (why sell one home at $1.5MM when you can sell 3 or 4 townhouses at $900M each?) while increasing that mystical product known as "density" to levels acceptable to the Houtopian true-believers.

Acceptable in theory however, as those density targets are really meant to be applied to blighted areas where gentrification provides some mythical benefit that allows DINK (Dual-income, no kids) households to immerse themselves into a walkable, urban environment of the type approved by Pedestrian Pete (I'll pause a minute, while you look at that site and laugh.)

Which brings us to the real problem the Houtopians are going to have implementing their dream:  There's little money in it for those who can make it be, and the general public cannot afford "affordable" townhouses that run north of $500K.  Despite all of the rhetoric however moves of this type are never about "affordable" homes.  True affordability, say a 3 bedroom, 2 bath home for around $100M, isn't going to be found inside the Loop, for that type of deal, a deal that most can afford, is really the sole franchise of the dreaded suburbs.  Because of this you're seeing an increased diversification of neighborhoods outside the Beltway and increased gentrification within.  In the inner-loop areas where diversity could occur, powerful political forces are aligned against it.

All of this doesn't mean that the Houtopians are going to stop trying.  In actuality, I expect we will see a redoubling of their efforts.  Already David Crossley has accused Houston voters of being too stupid to understand his vision, and Peter Brown has as well. Despite overwhelming support for plans that continue to fund road maintenance and construction Metro continues to promise that MetroRail will continue to be built.  In short, nothing has changed for those who want to take everything that makes Houston rank so high on "good city" lists and get rid of it in an effort to make us more like something we're not hard-wired to be. It's just going to take them a little longer now as they try to figure out a way to pay for it.  My guess for the next Metro CEO is Spieler, which would make the Houtopians very, very happy.

*It should be noted that, at the time, Grenias and Co. took the line that the sites in question were not related to "boy" porn although research by local bloggers indicated that the sites in question contained graphic images of very young people in graphically sexual situations.  The links are there, come to your own conclusions.

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