Urban Notebook

The Perils and Promises of a Popular Yet Controversial Financing Method

Tax increment financing (TIF) is one of the most popular financing techniques in a locality’s toolbox. It’s also one of the most unpopular methods among some policy wonks. Intended to eliminate blight in the poorest neighborhoods, TIF projects are often criticized for funneling money away from core services and to neighborhoods that are neither blighted nor poor. But the problem with TIF isn’t the policy itself. When applied properly, TIF can bring the notions of value capture and financial accountability to public works. 

TIF policies vary by structure. But generally TIF works like this: A municipality approves and floats bonds for a new amenity. Then the municipality draws a boundary around the area, estimating which properties will benefit from the amenity. To pay the debt, the municipality uses the added property or sales tax revenue -- called the “increment” -- that results from within the boundary.  READ MORE

In Defense of the Urban Freeway

I live in Midtown Houston just off the end of the “527 Spur,” a freeway stub that feeds traffic in and out of downtown. My neighborhood, once known as Little Saigon, is booming with new apartment buildings, bars and restaurants. It’s a quick car or transit ride to either of the city’s two biggest job centers: downtown or the Texas Medical Center. It’s also just a 10-minute commute via freeway to a third giant job center, the Galleria area.

I lived in a similar neighborhood in San Diego. Little Italy, located downtown, was within walking distance of my job at city hall. But most people in my neighborhood commuted to work by driving north on Interstate 5, out of downtown, toward the job centers in La Jolla and Mira Mesa. Every morning when I looked out my window at I-5, I saw the evidence. Traffic was backed up going out of the city. READ MORE

In the Birthplace of Jazz, Noise Complaints Get Louder

New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz. It’s also where the blues and so many other genres have been refined. It still swarms with buskers -- street performers -- random parades and live music bars. But recently tension has grown between those who make the music and those living near it. Although the city’s initial response was to tamp down on the noise, it has since launched an educational campaign called Sound Check to reduce complaints while letting the music play on.  

Noise complaints, says Scott Hutcheson, adviser for cultural economy to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, have been a constant in New Orleans, dating back to the 1800s. But they have grown worse since Hurricane Katrina, as historically musical neighborhoods like the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny and Treme have welcomed new residents, many of them unaccustomed to local culture. READ MORE

Why We Shouldn't Let the Sharing Economy Kill Zoning

We used to work in offices. We used to stay in hotels. We used to eat at restaurants. But now many of us work at coffee shops, we stay in other people’s homes via Airbnb and we eat dinner in a chef’s home dining room thanks to emerging websites like Feastly.

The sharing economy is changing the way we do a lot of things. It’s also disrupting a lot of things, not least of which is how we zone. You can complain all you want about zoning being a tool of exclusion and a remarkable micromanager of the economy -- I’ve done so on many occasions -- but at its core zoning exists to protect people’s health and quality of life from, say, noxious industrial activities or excessive traffic. A complicated regulatory apparatus built up over a century, zoning was ruled constitutional 89 years ago by an extremely conservative Supreme Court. They concluded that modern urban life had become so complicated that restrictions on private property rights were warranted. READ MORE

Be Nice, It May Help Your City’s Economy

Houston’s “personality” became evident to me the first hour I spent there in November. It was around midnight, and I had just checked into my downtown hotel. I was looking for a bodega to pick up some beer. I couldn’t find one, and stopped a man to ask. Nothing was open, he said. But sensing my dilemma, he reached into his grocery bag and produced a can. Before I could pay, he had handed it over, waved me off and said, “Welcome to Houston.”

This encounter has played out again and again in different ways throughout my monthlong stay. Rather than fast-paced and impersonal, Houston has a friendly, small-town feel that is surprising for America’s fourth largest city. People hold doors, provide in-depth directions and smile at you on the street. Even in denser interior neighborhoods, it is common to greet passersby. READ MORE