Houston at a Crossroads

Houston at a Crossroads

Almond Butterscotch / Flickr

In September, Houston Mayor Annise Parker ordered the city’s planning department to create its first General Plan, an effort that represents more than a decade of advocacy, research, and community outreach on the part of non-profit Houston Blueprint. If city council adopts the plan, which it will consider doing in late summer/early fall 2015, it will challenge Houston’s reputation among planning circles as a developer’s wild west where automobile enabled sprawl reigns supreme, and position the city to grow in closer accord with 21st century national trends. While the outcome of the plan may be guidelines for more transit options and more urban modes of development, it is not likely to result in zoning per se, though zoning it may be by a different name. Whatever it’s called, Houstonians will get their first comprehensive vision statement, a plan that will presumably represent the sum of their stated wants and needs. But without spirited leadership to see its provisions through, and a little watchdogging, it will just be a piece of paper, or web page rather, a declaration of aspirations.

On that note, Houston is set to get a new mayor in 2016. Parker is about to reach the three-term limit set on the office. Her successor will inherit the General Plan, should it be adopted. No clear frontrunners have yet emerged in the race. There are currently about a dozen men who have announced their desire to run. While, to my knowledge, none of them have detailed their position on the General Plan, it should be a key issue in the election. The Houston Mayor’s Office is one of the most powerful in the country—there is no city manager—and whomever the people elect to take the reigns of the city will have direct influence on how the plan is implemented.

Meanwhile, the price of oil has dropped below $50 per barrel, from a height in July 2014 of $120 per barrel. Houston, it has been said many times, is the only city in the U.S. where cheap gas at the pump is greeted with ambivalence. And no wonder. While falling oil prices haven’t turned the recent boom to a bust everywhere, yet, most of the big oil companies headquartered in Houston have been slashing thousands of jobs, shutting down domestic rigs, and delaying well completions until such a time as the price-per-barrel crawls back to where it needs to be for the boom to roll on. That could be as little as a year. Or it could be longer. Who’s to say? But the big companies, for the most part, have done what they needed to do to protect their shareholders. The oilfield workers will get by as they always have, on a wing and a prayer, feasting then tightening their belts. The Big Rich themselves, well, as you might expect many of them are just getting richer. Forbes reported that Richard Kinder, CEO of pipeline conglomerate Kinder Morgan, increased his worth by about $2.5 billion to $12 billion since September. Great. Hopefully he’ll funnel more money to his philanthropic organization, the Kinder Foundation, which has made significant donations to many public projects in the greater Houston area, including Buffalo Bayou Park, Bayou Greenways 2020, Discovery Green, Hermann Park, the expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and more.

Oil boom or oil bust, Houston is poised to leap ahead in its quest for world-class status. With the General Plan it will have a roadmap for smart growth. With good leadership in place and an engaged citizenry, its chances of following that roadmap to the end goal are good. Now if Houston would only put an end to its status as the largest city in America without an architecture critic at its paper of record, then we might really start to get somewhere.