Ann Taylor is the executive director of the Urban Land Institute, Houston District Council. She had more than 20 years of experience in communications, consulting and public relations when she joined the ULI executive staff in 2008. Prior to that, she was a ULI member, serving on the Houston Executive Committee and as founding chair of the ULI Houston Development of Distinction Awards.
Taylor manages the local chapter of ULI, a nonprofit research and education organization tasked with taking the lead in the responsible use of land and how to create and sustain thriving communities worldwide.
Taylor recently spoke about Houston’s economy, growth and land-use perspectives during an interview with Dale King, a contributor to Realty News Report. The following are excerpts.
Realty News Report: Houston was ranked No. 1 in the 2015 ULI Emerging Trends PwC forecast, but it dropped to No. 30 in the 2016 outlook. What happened?
Taylor: In my opinion, it was nervousness about the price of oil and how it would impact the Houston market. I believe that Houston has diversified its employment base quite a bit since the last major downturn we had [in the 1980s]. Growth has been so robust lately. Now, we are having a pause, taking a moment to exhale. It is probably inevitable and not a terrible thing for the city. But it will be a great opportunity for Houston to show its resilience. There are, after all, lots of businesses that do not rise and fall on the basis of the price of oil.
Realty News Report: In general, how does the Houston real estate community feel about the local economy and the big drop in oil prices?
Taylor: We feel it when oil and gas prices are low, but some of the wealthiest billionaires in Houston have made their money with pipelines. Product moves on the pipelines whether the price is low or high. All of the petrochemical manufacturers around the Port of Houston benefit when the prices of feedstocks are lower, and all of the shipping and transportation companies benefit when fuel prices are lower. Right now, we have a tight residential real estate market, with three to four months’ worth of inventory. We have had a big influx of multifamily development. And Midtown is on an upswing.
Realty News Report: You just returned from the ULI national conference in San Francisco. What are commercial real estate people saying about Houston?
Taylor: Some who know Houston well were not scared off. They feel they may have buying opportunities. They are saying to themselves, ‘Maybe it’s time for me to make a smart move.’ Actually, there was more discussion of the city at the spring ULI meeting which was held here in Houston. We had 3,500 of the top investors here, the real crème de la crème. Many hadn’t seen Houston in 20 years, or not at all. They met downtown, where there are cranes all around. There is something of a building boomlet going on.
Realty News Report: Any fascinating ideas or new trends bubbling up from the ULI national conference?
Taylor: One I liked came from Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, a company with a mission to change the way the hospitality industry operates. Eight years ago, Brian was a struggling graphic designer. Today, he is CEO of a $25 billion company that offers lodging in 1.7 million private homes around the world. He talked about ‘adaptive reuse,’ how buildings can be adapted and changed, and it’s happening right here in Houston. As Airbnb continues to grow, Brian envisions the next phase of its evolution in which hosts offer additional services, from bike tours to home-cooked meals.
Realty News Report: You have described Houston as being several cities within a city. Can you explain that?
Taylor: You can think of Houston as one big widespread city or, depending on how you look at it, five or six cities inside the city. Downtown Houston, the Texas Medical Center, Uptown/Galleria and Westchase are examples of ‘cities within the city’ that are each roughly the size of downtown Denver. There are several other major employment centers, like Greenway Plaza, the Energy Corridor, the Johnson Space Center area and Port of Houston/Industrial Complex, all within the city. So, although people generally do identify a city by its central business district, Houston has several of these centers.
Realty News Report: What’s the most exciting thing happening in Houston right now?
Taylor: Inside the Texas Medical Center, the former Nabisco cookie factory has been transformed into a big job accelerator. One of the most interesting things is the way they think about how the city should be built going forward. The goal is to become a leader in turning academic research into a pharmaceutical, medical device and digital health engine. The accelerator shares space with the medical center’s corporate headquarters, with offices and meeting rooms, training programs and potential investors to help emerging health medical-focused companies.
Realty News Report: Is it true that the Houston branch of ULI is the fastest growing ULI branch in the world? Why is that? Didn’t you get an award from ULI because of the fast growth of the local ULI chapter?
Taylor: At the San Francisco meeting, we were recognized as the ULI’s No. 1 large district council. We got the most new members than any of the other big districts, but probably the fastest growing district, percentage wise, is in China. We are just starting up in China. There is a real hunger for knowledge there. And yes, ULI Houston won an award for gaining the most new members.
Realty News Report: From a growth and land-use standpoint, what’s the biggest issue facing Houston right now?
Taylor: Houston’s biggest challenge, I think, is to fill in the undeveloped land and increase density and walkability, so people have a real choice of whether they will drive everywhere or walk, take transit or bike. And, it will be doing this while it also undergoes a huge renovation/restoration of the bayous — what other cities call rivers — and green spaces throughout the greater metropolitan area. What will be most interesting is how all of this develops.
Realty News Report is a Texas-based publication edited by Ralph Bivins.