A city with no limits? The paradox of Houston

Submitted by: Nancy Hales
Director, First Stop Portland

CEO Angela Baker welcomed us to Houston’s celebrated Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center. “Big is the only standard we have,” she told our Portland delegation. “Houston is a city with no limits.”

 Neighborhood Center CEO Angela Baker tours Marc Jolin, Multnomah County (center) and Dave Nielsen, Home Builders Association (right) through their 'wrap-around services' facility
No limits?  That’s an understatement, I thought, smugly.  No UGB, no zoning, no urban density commitments, no design review standards.  Sacrilege to everything a Portland urbanist holds dear.

But after three days of Randy Miller’s recent “best practices” trip to Houston, I had to privately eat a little crow.  No limits? Well, in Houston I also learned, it means some positives – like no limits to the size of philanthropic gifts annually contributed to hospitals, art museums and universities.  And, according to one Houston expert, it means no limits on vision or bold ideas. “We experiment a lot more here than you (Portlanders) do.” Ouch!  Did he just call Portland parochial?

James Koski (left) Deputy Chief of Staff to Mayor Annise Parker opens morning  plenary alongside Randy Miller (right)

Houston, Texas sprawls (they call it ‘outward urban expansion’) over 656 square miles. Houston Mayor Annise Parker qualified the development pattern by acknowledging, “We have very liberal annexation laws,” she told us. And when questioned by Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt if there were conflicts with neighboring cities she answered, “No, we just bring them into the city.”

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt (standing), PDC's Kimberly Branam (left),  AAA's Sarah Lazzaro (center), and Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen (right)

Is there an up-side to this un-zoned approach?  Actually yes.  Here’s another paradox:  “Housing is affordable, here,” Mayor Parker told us. “Property values are pretty close to market, so it’s affordable for our workforce sector, and our young creatives.”

Houston Mayor Annise Parker shares Houston's 'multi-nodal' approach to development
 So you see the conundrum I wrestled with for three days: is Houston truly livable? 

"Houston is business-friendly," we heard multiple times from multiple speakers. Houstonites don’t speak in terms of livability.  Houston home builder Will Holder bristled at the comparisons between the two cities, labeling Portland’s dense neighborhoods as “urban concentration camps.” That comment brought audible gasps from several Portlanders in the room, including green experts like Mark Edlen and Nolan Lienhart. “In Houston we build exactly what the customer wants; the worse thing we can do as a city is try to influence the market,” affirmed Houston City Councilor Steve Costello.

We all wanted to clone Houston's Angela Baker and bring her to Portland. We had to settle for a photo op.  From left, GPI's Janet LaBar, Nancy Hales, Angela Baker, Gerding Edlen's Mark Edlen, and Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle
The result of this thinking manifests throughout the city. The heart of Houston’s downtown folds up at night: I couldn't find the street life, the cool restaurants, the night scene. Walking home to our hotel after dinner one night, Portland developer Brad Malsin and Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle commented that the emptiness in the urban center outside banking hours was downright creepy.

Rice University Kinder Institute's Bill Fulton opened his comments with this question
Rice University’s Bill Fulton characterized Houston as "The Anti-Portland." The irony, however is that when you peel away the biases, we can actually learn a lot from each other.  For example, Houston has arguably solved homelessness and could teach Portland the way; I was glad to see Marc Jolin, Portland’s housing wunderkind taking copious notes. And Portland could teach Houston how to incentivize more sustainable business practices; I was glad Alando Simpson, owner of a thriving Portland B-corp had the chance to share his ideas with some of the folks from Houston.

Feedback from City of Roses Disposal and Recycling's Alando Simpson
Randy Miller took Portland to Houston to throw a monkey wrench into our conventional wisdom about how cities work. “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong,” said H.L. Mencken in 1880.  Maybe the first learning for us is that pat answers and simplistic dichotomies aren’t sufficient. Cities, the most complex thing of all, need the range of complexities in its answers, too.

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