Finding Answers To Houston’s Flooding Problems: Q&A with Patrick Phillips, Urban Land Institute Global CEO
Patrick L. Phillips
HOUSTON – (Realty News Report) – Houstonians are looking for answers. More than 100,000 homes and hundreds of commercial properties, schools and public performance halls were inundated when Hurricane Harvey dumped 50 inches of rain on the city in late August. Where has Houston failed in managing its drainage system? Should residential development be allowed near flood-control reservoirs? Why is flooding now occurring in 1950s-era homes that stood for high-and-dry for decades? New regulations must be drafted for home builders and master planned communities and from now on most houses should be built with elevated pier-and-beam foundations, some Houstonians say.
For answers to Houston’s tough questions, Realty News Report sat down with Patrick L. Phillips, global chief executive officer of the Urban Land Institute. Established in 1936, ULI is a global nonprofit research and education organization with more than 40,000 members representing all aspects of land use and development disciplines – developers, architects, investors and financiers. ULI’s mission is to provide leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide.
Realty News Report: Many people believe Houston is in the crosshairs of climate change and a new era with stronger storms will threaten coastal regions. What’s your opinion?
Patrick Phillips: There is no question that Houston is on the front line of this – climate change, more frequent storms, more powerful storms. In some ways, the rest of the country is going to be watching closely to see what they can learn. Other coastal areas are concerned based on what’s happened down here.
Realty News Report: What should Houston do next?
Patrick Phillips: One thing Houston can do is to learn from other places, not just in the U.S., but around the world, that dealt with similar challenges.
Realty News Report: What needs to be done about changing Houston’s land-use guidelines, creating more flood controls?
Patrick Phillips: I don’t think there is any silver bullet. After Hurricane Sandy, ULI came in. Our role was to sort through all of the recommendations. The federal government stepped in with a big design competition to figure out how the coast line could be more resilient in New York.
Realty News Report: Do you think Houston leaders will have the tenacity to enact change? Or will this be tied up in bureaucracy forever?
Patrick Phillips: A lot is going to depend on the frequency of the storms, the intensity of the storms, and how that drives the political decision-making process. I discovered over a long career that memories are short sometimes and we have a tendency to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Realty News Report: I understand you were involved in the early planning of Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park years ago, before you became CEO at ULI. The park took a significant hit in Hurricane Harvey and there are massive silt deposits and a lot of damage to trees and trails.
Patrick Phillips: Overall, the park has been portrayed in the press I’ve seen outside of Houston as a success story. It took the hit and survived. It was designed in some ways to absorb that kind of an impact. It’s a little bit of symbol of resilience in the city, which is a good thing.
Realty News Report: It’s almost blasphemous to ask this. But Buffalo Bayou Park suffered during Houston’s Memorial Day Flood in 2015 and the Tax Day Flood in 2016. Hurricane Harvey was worse. With Buffalo Bayou Park, did we build a Taj Mahal on barrier island that’s going to be whacked all the time?
Patrick Phillips: It will be interesting to see how it plays out. You’re right about the coincidence of these three events close together. I am sure some have concluded that this is the new normal. Some point to the fact that these are anomalous events and should be very infrequent.
Realty News Report: Houston is known as a municipality with no zoning. Is that still working?
Patrick Phillips: Houston’s lighter regulatory touch has probably had some real benefits It’s clear to everybody that there have been some substantial benefits in terms of housing costs and affordability, which a lot of cities are wrestling with right now. But markets fail sometimes. That’s why we have development regulations. Finding that balance point is key. Houston has been viewed as an easy place to build, but we now see some of the risks associated with it.
Realty News Report: What do we have to do to get a better reputation?
Patrick Phillips: I think Houston’s reputation is actually not so bad. What I’ve always admired about Houston – and I think the community has gotten behind this – is that it’s very diverse. Houston has turned into an interesting showcase for diversity.
Realty News Report: Anything else?
Patrick Phillips: Houston is a good “food town,” for example. It’s got interesting neighborhoods. It’s got great educational institutions and obviously, a world-class medical center. There are some really important assets here in Houston.
Realty News Report: What about tourism and conventions?
Patrick Phillips: For the visitor economy, you’ve got the Gulf Coast, Galveston and the water front areas. The Space Center is a great asset. I’m not sure it’s going to become a major tourist mecca. But the community has gotten better at selling Houston and making its asset more visible to the rest of the country.
Realty News Report: Can sports make a difference in the image of the city?
Patrick Phillips: The Super Bowl and things like this can help. Obviously, Houston has been front-and-center in the last couple of months with the playoffs and the World Series.
Realty News Report: The Astrodome was the subject of a recent ULI Advisory Panel study. The ULI panel recommended transforming the below-grade levels of the Dome into1,500 covered parking spaces and redeveloping the stadium, which has been designated as a historic place. Your thoughts?
Patrick Phillips: I agree with the panel’s findings that the Astrodome is a resource worth saving and a creative re-use for it should be developed. It’s obviously a very capital-intensive solution. The city is going to have to be creative on an ongoing basis to pull it off. It’s worth it. Houston is a resourceful place.