Everything is Bigger in Texas, Including Urban Growth Challenges

Lyle Klyne could be a poster boy for Austin, Texas, one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. Klyne, 27, is a part of the wave of millennials — and there are tens of thousands of them — who have moved to this city in the past few years, drawn by what many call its “vibe” and its vibrant economy. In 2013, Austin gained more people — almost 21,000 — than any other city in the country with less than one million residents. But that wasn’t so unusual for the Lone Star State, officials say. Seven of the fastest growing cities were in Texas, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. The state is also creating jobs at a rapid rate, with roughly 400,000 new positions over the past year.

“I’d read a lot about Austin, its music scene and how it was always ranked high on those ‘best of’ lists,” said Klyne, a University of Washington graduate who lived in Seattle for several years before making the move to the Texas capital in 2011. “I had friends who’d already relocated here and they really liked it. So I made the move.”

Lloyd Potter, the Texas State Demographer, said many of the state’s cities are growing, while some rural areas are losing young people who have left to go to school or find work. Where the population is expanding, half of the growth has come from what he called “natural increase,” which means births have outpaced deaths.

Potter credits business-friendly incentives, no state income tax, low levels of regulation, moderate housing costs and tax incentives for attracting businesses to Texas, including the U.S. headquarters of Toyota, which recently announced it would move from California to Plano, a suburb north of Dallas.

“The slogan here is that we’re ‘open for business,’ and with all the incentives, a lot of companies are coming here, not just Toyota,” he said. “We also have a large and skilled workforce.”

Jana McCann, former urban design officer with the city of Austin, said her hometown is struggling to keep up with its rapid growth. “Austin is finally trying to get ahead of its curve, though that is next to impossible given the speed at which things are happening here,” said McCann, a partner in the McCann Adams Studio, an urban design consulting firm.

“In terms of land-use planning, the city just finished their big comprehensive plan 2012. I’m now involved with helping rewrite the land development code to bring it into alignment with the city’s overall vision for growth in the future.

“That vision can be summed up in two words — ‘compact and connected,’” she said. “We want to be more sustainable, growing by infill rather than sprawl. The ‘connected’ part is an allusion to have better, multimodal transit.”

And rather than delaying smart growth efforts, she said the rapid population expansion has “actually reinforced the notion of the need for it. There are a lot more higher-density housing developments being developed here, as well as other cities like Houston. In early November, Austin residents are voting on a proposition to fund light rail.”

She said the city has suffered for the past 25 years in the transportation arena, but not for lack of planning.

“We’ve actually done a lot of planning, but just haven’t implemented it in a serious transit system,” she said. “Because we are such an environmentally forward community, there has been a lot of delay in funding road projects. So we are hurting, both in terms of transit and vehicular capacity and connection.”

She said Austin is a sprawling city with the same population as San Francisco (roughly 850,000) spread out over 10 times the land area, with much of its growth spread out in a suburban pattern.

“Over the past 15 years, there have been efforts to curb that and become more compact,” she said. “Still, a lot of the growth is going in the extra-territorial jurisdictions, outside the city, and it’s not necessarily transit connected.”

But she said urban, walkable, mixed-use and higher density projects are being built. She cited the Triangle and Mueller municipal airport redevelopments as success stories in central Austin. Both were public-private partnerships, she noted.

McCann, who lives in the 700-acre Mueller area, said the planned community is a national model of walk-able urbanism that includes the “missing middle” types of housing that fills the gap for singles, couples and older folks who want to age in place. While the Triangle is now built out, the Mueller redevelopment is about 40 percent complete.

She said she does not believe the city will build a highway loop around it because the road would most likely be built in the so-called “Drinking Water Protection Zone” where the city wants to limit growth. In addition, many residents view loops as a mechanism to increase sprawl, she said.

“But we are going to continue to grow because people and employers recognize our high quality of life and the talent that’s here,” she said. “Traffic is a problem, but we don’t want to do things that diminish the city’s attractiveness and identity. That’s why growing in a compact and connected way is so important. Fortunately, I think most of the millennials moving here recognize that. They aren’t as wedded to their cars. Some of them don’t own them and use bikes or car shares to get around.”

Some 200 miles to the north, Duane Dankesreiter, vice president of information and research at the Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce, said his city and the region are growing fast because corporations want to locate there in part for the excellent airport service and the location in the middle of the country. Nor do the tax breaks hurt, he acknowledged.

He said the city’s population has surged to 1.3 million, while the metropolitan area now has 6.8 million residents who also live in Fort Worth (population 793,000) and a dozen other cities with populations of more than 100,000.

“Toyota is moving here to improve efficiencies,” he said. “It’s relocating its U.S. headquarters from the West Coast and other offices from Kentucky and New York City, too. They are getting their operations all under one roof. It will mean about 4,000 jobs. And a lot of other companies, like suppliers, will follow.”

Dankesreiter touted Dallas’s quality of live and moderate cost of living as attractions. “Our home prices are relatively low compared to other areas,” he said. “We always pitch that and we have everything from condos to big suburban homes.”

And while Houston boasts energy related jobs, he said Dallas has a much more diverse economy with financial companies, law firms and equipment makers locating there. Some of them serve the oil and gas industry, but the economy is broad-based, he said.

Patrick Kennedy, a Dallas resident who is president of the North Texas chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism, said how governments in the Dallas region are responding to growth is a “mixed bag, often dependent on how old the individual municipality is.

“Growth isn’t occurring everywhere. It’s mostly sprawl, mostly to the north of the city leaving behind the southern sector of the city of Dallas and Dallas County behind. From 2001 through 2011, Dallas County lost 266,000 jobs. In terms of job growth/loss and wage growth/loss, only Wayne County (Detroit) is performing worse. This at a time when the Dallas-Ft. Worth region gained 1.2 million people.

“Then there are the old suburbs now approaching their second generation of infrastructure. Most are unprepared to pay for an infrastructure that is largely over-built for the tax base it created. Thus, they are struggling to afford it and the lifestyle these areas grew accustomed to when 90 percent of original cost was covered by the federal government.”

He said other cities such as Plano have been “very smart about realizing the inherent ephemeral nature to 1) growth that has largely passed them by now; and 2) the imbalance between tax burden (infrastructure) and tax base. So they have been focusing smartly on reorganizing themselves around walkable regional and neighborhood centers and revitalizing their downtown.”

Though much of the growth has been on greenfields, Kennedy added there is “clear evidence that the market realizes the value in walkable development patterns even if regional transportation decisions have not reflected it. The major corporate relocations have all been focused on walkable commercial centers even in greenfields, like State Farm in Richardson or Toyota going into Legacy West in Plano. In infill locations like uptown Dallas, there is a huge premium for any semblance of walkable urbanism, often pricing out the majority of the market simply because there isn’t enough supply.

“The challenge is that developers are scrambling to meet this pent-up demand but they are running out of sites where a critical mass of density and development is already

in place and the infrastructure is already walkable. For the most part the infrastructure isn’t, the roads are too big and fast and too disconnected and we don’t have the public capital to retrofit it. At the same time the developers and investors simply can’t be the pioneers because either the incomes in areas needing investment aren’t there for the lenders or the comparable developments aren’t already on the ground to make the pro forma work.”

Kennedy said the demand for walkable neighborhoods is strong, though only 4.5 percent of Dallasites live in walkable neighborhoods and only about 1.5 percent of the entire metro lives in walkable neighborhoods.

“Meanwhile, according to a city of Dallas survey as part of their complete streets plan, 68 percent responded that they wanted their neighborhood to be more walkable. As that plays out in the market place, the huge gap between supply and demand means prices skyrocket and then become unaffordable in places where we need the most affordability, near jobs and transit.

“The odd paradox most people don’t get is that we actually need higher land values to deliver more affordable living. Because the higher land values drive density which means there is more housing near jobs and transit and more ability to deliver affordable or workforce housing in those locations. As we’ve seen with recent studies, cities with very expensive housing are actually cheaper to live in when factoring both housing and transportation in relation to median income.”

He said some local governments are adopting codes or policies to foster smarter urbanism.

“But they are fairly hamstrung by inertia of old-minded regional transportation policies,” he said. “When any broader effort (occurs) to create a unified vision and decision-making process towards smarter growth, it is usually toothless and doesn’t address the larger problem of “congestion fighting” and the vast amount of public spending and debt that goes towards ever widening highways.”

Down on the Gulf Coast, Patrick Jankowski, vice president for research at the Greater Houston Partnership, said his city’s energy expertise has fueled its boom. In addition, he noted, Houston is a major center for international trade, shipping out more than $250 billion worth of trade in 2013 — up from $41.7 billion in 2005. The result is the creation of a “bucket load of jobs,” swelling the city’s population to more than 2.2 million,” he added.

“In the past 12 months, this region created 9,300 engineering jobs alone. And those folks can easily earn $100,000 a year,” he said. “Technicians with two-year degrees can earn $70,000. Heck, outside my window I can see a whole bunch of cranes.”

Because of the rapid growth, he said Houston has struggled to bring in talent — in part because millennials want to live in “cool” cities like Austin.

“I’ll be frank,” he said. “We are trying to reach out to millennials. One program is called ‘City With No Limits,’ aimed at letting them know that Houston has a lot of great stuff going on. Unfortunately, many of them make decisions based not on where the jobs are, but where the lifestyle is.”

David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, said the city and region’s rapid growth has “created a lot of issues, mostly dealing with mobility and changing of neighborhoods. If you think you have 50 percent more people and 50 percent more cars coming, and it’s already crowded, you’ve got massive problems.”

Crossley praised Houston Mayor Annise Parker for paying attention to walkability and bicycle safety with her Complete Streets executive order that says “every street that is rebuilt has to be done with bike lanes and as a complete street that is safe for all users.”

He said she also launched an effort this past spring to produce a general plan, the first in the city’s history, to guide the city’s future. “There has also been a lot of discussion about developing neighborhoods that are walkable and healthy, in part because health and obesity are big issues in Houston. That is all moving in a good direction.”

Though Houston doesn’t have zoning, he said it has extensive development regulations and is moving toward something called “form-base code, which some new urbanists are pushing as a replacement for zoning that often separates uses and makes it hard to build a real city.”

While Houston itself is becoming more dense because of the population increase, he said much of the growth outside the city is unregulated.

“We have 134 towns and cities here in our region and a grand parkway that manages to weave around and only touch one of them. It is designed to pull growth out of the municipal areas into the unincorporated areas of the counties where there are no development rules at all.

However, inside the city’s boundaries, he said the demand for walkable neighborhoods is growing. The most recent Houston Area Survey, produced by a Rice University professor, showed that 62 percent of Houston residents would prefer to live in a walkable residential area.

“They said they’d rather have a small house and not have to drive so much vs. living in a bigger house on their own lot where they do have to drive a lot. It’s a high number, and it grows every time the survey is done. We have cranes all over downtown Houston, with six big employment centers, each of which has more jobs than downtown San Diego or Miami.

“All those places are developing with smart growth plans that are all about walkability, though it will take a long time to convert some of them because they were so poorly designed in the first place. But hardly any single-family dwellings are being built in Houston. It’s all dense now. Smart growth is how the city is developing.”

Brian E. Clark is a Wisconsin-based journalist and a former staff writer on the business desk of The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dallas Morning News and other publications. 

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