Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Gentrification in Houston: The Energy Behind It

Gentrification is a word that is being tossed around quite liberally when talking about major cities. It is a term that normally describes the pattern of people desiring to live in cities and their dense neighborhoods. The surrounding dialogue is almost always negative. Complaints against it are usually connected to race and income, and those who move into an area are portrayed as villeins and insensitive to existing culture. Gentrification was the topic of a selection of Atlantic Cities articles within the past few weeks, and has been working its way into popular culture at large. One author diagnosed gentrification as being caused by neo-liberalism. A rebuttal from another author blames gentrification on over-bearing governmental regulations such as restrictive zoning ordinances. These articles didn't take a side, but attempted to diagnose what spurs gentrification.

Last week Spike Lee went off on gentrification and those who have gentrified his childhood Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn. (Lee no longer lives in the neighborhood, and now lives on the Upper East Side in a $32 million home.) His response to a question about gentrification at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute was profanity-laden, and Lee spoke of gentrification with great contempt. (A day or so after his comments, vandals took to the block where Lee's parents once lived, breaking a resident's door and spray-painting "Do The Right Thing" on the front of homes. This was obviously NOT the right thing to do in response to gentrification.) I suppose Spike should also blame Jay-Z and the Brooklyn Nets for moving into the new Barclays Center, and aiding in the gentrification in Brooklyn as well. Maybe this is why he continues to sit court side at Knicks games, and does not regularly attend Nets games. This argument is nothing new in New York, and continues to spread across the country, and even has other actors, like Anthony Mackie, discussing the topic. Some suspect that Beyonce is even making passing remarks at Houston's Third Ward gentrification through her songs, and she has even adopted the nickname Third Ward Trill. Gentrification is being talked about by all because we are all influenced by out built environment. We all have topophilia, a love of place, no matter whether we are celebrities or simply residents.

Gentrification in Houston: More is On The Way

"Houston Rules" - An alley on Capitol Street in Downtown Houston
When we speak about gentrification, we speak about people desiring to live and invest in urban areas that are usually served by transit and are closer to downtowns. In Houston this seems to be the larger trend. People want to be near culinary and cultural amenities. As people move closer to the city's center people raise frustration when their neighborhood in the Heights, the Third Ward, or Montrose "just ain't how it used to be."

In terms of gentrification, it is not lost on me that the same thing that built Houston to its sprawling stature is perhaps the cause of what people may argue is Houston's current gentrification pattern: Oil. And, in a broader sense, the globalizing ingenuity and business that accompany the energy industry.

The energy that built Houston is the very thing that is fueling the decline of the traditional "Houston" people claim. (As a matter of clarification, I do not think we should be striving to preserve the traditional view of Houston's sprawling development. A great deal of infill development is needed here!) It's not that energy companies set out to influence Houston's development, but when there are a host of companies that continue to grow and have relocated to Houston to capture the talents and specializations of Houstonians, there reaches a critical mass of industry, and this mass in turn affects its surroundings.

To be clear, energy is not solely to blame, not at all. But as with any market concentration, there are multipliers for each energy-related job created here in Houston. Energy companies need pipelines, distributors and accountants, who all need engineering, legal and technological assistance. All of those people must shop for groceries and clothes, eat, have their kids educated, and services performed. So, to satisfy the need for all of the these supporting employees companies must hire from around the country and around the world. Companies need staff able to communicate where their interests are located, including on other continents, with other languages and lifestyles. This process has helped create a cultural melting pot in Houston, as we can now boast that we are the most diverse city in the United States as well as "The Next Great American City". This is a great strength of our city and its people, and we must remember that most of the people who are moving to Houston's inner loop neighborhoods are not from Katy or Tomball or Cypress. People are moving here from America's other major cities, as well as major international cities.

This is the current case for the Exxon campus development in the Woodlands. In this case Exxon will move nearly 2,100 employees from Northern Virginia to Houston. I would imagine that many of the employees may not be happy to move to the sweltering swamp of Houston, only to find themselves sitting in traffic for an hour to and from work when their current location offers a connection to a robust mass transit system.

Exxon employees who are moving from the Washington DC area have been able to commute to the company's Fairfax office by using the Metro Orange Line, getting off at Dunn Loring-Merrifield Station, then taking a short bus ride on the 1C route to Exxon's campus approximately 2 miles to the south (map). From Metro Center in downtown Washington DC, a worker can travel to Exxon's site in about an hour. There simply is not a transit choice that would compare to the Metro in Washington DC and Northern Virginia. Yes, Exxon employees in the Woodlands will inevitably have a commuter bus shuttle in place, but regular transit service to the Woodlands from downtown is not available at this time. The Brazos Transit District does operate park and ride buses into downtown Houston, but not the reverse. (There may finally be enough of a mass in the Woodlands to warrant regional commuter rail service!)

To travel to Exxon's new campus near the Woodlands, it may take just as long given the congestion along the I-45 corridor. Exxon envisions that many of their employees will live near their campus or near the Woodlands. But, I can suspect that many Employees will choose not to uproot their families to move closer to their workplace, and many of the employees that move from outside the region will desire to live within a closer proximity of Houston's cultural amenities. Northern Virginia, southern Maryland and Washington DC are much more densely developed than most of Houston, and residents of those areas are accustomed to the provision of fairly efficient public transportation and the concentration of cultural and entertainment options. So, as a partial satiation for their urban affinity, families will look to relocate to the urban center of Houston, instead of the exurbs, with someone making sacrifices in driving time.

Now, back to the topic of gentrification in general. When people oppose gentrification, there typically seems to be a desire for justice. It doesn't seem just that those with more means are allowed to displace those who do not have the means to stay in one place. I agree with this sentiment. It is disheartening when elderly and generational owners of homes are being priced out of neighborhoods. But to oppose gentrification simply on the grounds of differences in culture or desiring to maintain current conditions out of the claim of justice are not helpful to the development of a community and city. For those demanding justice, we should concentrate on housing options for a variety of income levels, as well as accompanying public transit.

Yes, some things can be done to curb the displacement of those who may be having a hard time paying the property taxes on homes they have lived in for their entire lives. Harris County already has Residential Homestead Exceptions, and other big cities are doing the same thing to assist owners who may have some trouble keeping up with increased taxes due to development in their neighborhood.

Entrance of the former Grants store between Fannin and Main
Those in big cities, and especially in Houston, cannot have it both ways. If we simply see investment and improvement in a neighborhood as gentrification, our cities and the districts within them are in grave danger. Houston's tax base has continued to decline as people move to the suburbs and as properties are left in disrepair. Houston's neighborhoods may not be as stable as we think they are when we cry foul of gentrification, and the rebuilding process likely began many years before we pin an area "gentrified". Houston's creativity has fed off of what people see as "gentrification". I would go as far to agree that a city that isn't gentrifying is standing still.

Houston, like other cities, continues to grow and gentrify. People from other cities and countries are flocking here. Cities that continue to grow will change over time, and Houston has an opportunity to embrace change and investment, but also educate along the way. We can be sure that when a building is eventually demolished and the land beneath it is redeveloped, the memories and lessons learned from it in the past will scarcely be demolished or forgotten.