Tuesday, September 29, 2009

#17 Houston 29, Texas Tech 28

Nobody knows what the future will hold, of course. But years from now, if the Cougars are a member of a BCS conference, are playing in a 40-thousand seat on-campus stadium that they regularly fill, and are enjoying season after season of bowl victories and top 25 rankings, perhaps people will look back to last Saturday's 29-28 victory over Texas Tech as the program's turning point: the day when, after so many years of wandering in the wilderness, it all came together for University of Houston football.

First, there was the pre-game tailgate. Since moving out of the Astrodome over a decade ago, the University of Houston has progressively developed an excellent pregame tailgating culture. Last Saturday, however, it reached a completely new level as people arrived earlier than they ever had before in greater numbers than they ever had before. That incredible atmosphere alone doubtlessly made many first-time visitors to Robertson Stadium UH fans. It certainly impressed the folks from my office that I invited to my group's tailgate, and they plan to come back for more games.

Then there was the crowd: a boisterous, over-capacity gathering of 32,114 - the largest crowd UH has attracted since moving games on campus over a decade ago - was on hand to see the game. While that number might not sound impressive in relation to the crowds that some big-name schools attract, it's a huge step forward for a University of Houston program that has always seemed to struggle with poor attendance. Yes, there were lots of Texas Tech fans there. But the crowd was overwhelmingly comprised of Cougar fans, and they were loud and spirited the entire game. Many of them were there for the first time. And many of them will be coming back. At the very least, the standing-room-only crowd provides a real incentive for the UH administration to push forward with long-discussed plans to refurbish or replace Robertson Stadium.

And then, there was the game.

I've always said that the two best and most exciting UH football games I had ever attended in person were 1990's 36-31 victory over Texas A&M in the Astrodome and the 1996 56-49 victory over Southern Miss at Robertson in 1996. Last Saturday's thriller tops them both.

Make no mistake: the Red Raiders are a very good team. They showed it last Saturday, as they gained 484 yards on offense and limited the prolific Cougar offense to just three touchdowns on defense. Texas Tech led the game 21-13 at halftime and 28-20 late in the third quarter. The Cougars played well, too, amassing 579 offensive yards of their own and limiting the high-flying Red Raider offense to only seven points in the entire second half.

Texas Tech, however, led for most of the game, and had several chances to put the game away. Unfortunately for them, the Cougars would simply not back down. Early in the 4th quarter and up by five points, Texas Tech drove to the UH one yard line and attempted to score a touchdown on fourth-and-goal that surely would have put the game out of reach. The Cougar defense stopped them. On the following drive, Houston drove into Texas Tech territory and looked to take the lead, only to be intercepted. But the Cougar defense once again stood tall, forcing the Red Raiders to punt the ball away.

What happened then, with under six minutes to play and the ball at the UH 5 yard line, was something that will forever live in University of Houston lore: the "Two-Day Drive" (so named because it started before midnight and ended shortly afterward). 16 plays. 95 yards. 4 minutes 58 seconds. Touchdown. If you haven't seen it yet, here's part one, courtesy of ESPN:

And here's part two:

The video does not do justice to the absolute bedlam that engulfed Robertson Stadium when UH quarterback Case Keenum (38 of 58 for 435 yards and one touchdown) scampered into the endzone to score what would prove to be the winning touchdown. With 49 seconds left and only needing a field goal to win, Texas Tech desperately tried to march back down the field. But thanks to the UH defense (as well as the Red Raiders' lack of timeouts), the Cougars held on for the nail-biting 29-28 win.

The win is remarkable considering that Houston did not play their best football of the season. The Cougars were penalized 8 times for 74 yards, including one penalty that negated an interception. The UH defense allowed 163 rushing yards to a team that had managed a total of only 86 rushing yards in their first three games combined. Special teams missed two field goals. Keenum's 65.5 percent pass completion rate, while decent, was lower than usual. He also was sacked twice and intercepted once. The Coogs also got some help from Texas Tech mistakes: aside from the Red Raiders' two turnovers and 8 penalties, there was also head coach Mike Leach's decision to go for it on 4th-and-1 when a field goal probably would have put the game out of reach, as well as Tech's decision to use their three time outs early in the second half.

Still, a win is a win and their second-consecutive victory over a Big XII opponent was a huge one for the Cougars, one that proved that the stunning upset at Oklahoma State two weeks ago was no fluke and that the Cougars are indeed a team to be respected. The nation has noticed. The Cougars are now ranked #12 in the AP poll and are being mentioned as possible "BCS Busters" by national media outlets such as The Washington Post and The New York Times. Case Keenum is also getting some serious attention as a Heisman candidate.

In my opinion, it's too early to think of the Cougars as a "BCS Buster." They'd have to go undefeated in order to do so and that's still a tall order. The team now needs to go on a grueling three-game road trip; Saturday's game against Texas El-Paso has "letdown" and "trap" written all over it and the showdown against SEC team Mississippi State two weeks from now looms large. Nevertheless, if you had told me before the season started that the Cougars would be 3-0 and ranked right outside the top ten right now, I wouldn't have believed you. This has been an incredible start to the 2009 football season and I am thoroughly enjoying it.

It will be months, if not years, before the true significance of last Saturday's game and its Two-Day Drive will be known. But, from where I stood that night at a packed Robertson Stadium, watching the Cougars drive 95 yards in five minutes to win a game over a Big XII opponent, you'd have a hard time convincing me that University of Houston had not finally reached its turning point. After suffering for so long through so many seasons of mediocrity and apathy, this is a much-needed and well-deserved time for the University of Houston, its athletes, its coaches, its students and its alumni. May it only continue.

Go Coogs!

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Dubai Metro

It's been abut a week and a half since the Dubai Metro opened for regular service. During its first week of operation, the new rail system was besieged by curious residents and suffered some technical malfunctions. This is to be expected. However, as the technical glitches are worked out and the novelty fades, the question remains: will people in a city as automobile-dependent as Dubai actually use the system?

Yes, they will. At least some of them. Eventually. Depending on various factors. In this regard, Dubai is no different than any city in the United States.

Obviously, there is a certain segment of the population that will be using the Dubai Metro on a pretty frequent basis, simply because they will have no choice. These are the laborers who do not own automobiles and who currently depend on the RTA's bus network to get around town, and these are the people who are going to be required to ride the Metro for at least part of their journey as the RTA restructures the bus network to feed into the rail lines.

And just as obviously, there is a certain segment of the population that will not use public transportation, even in the form of a sleek, fully-automated train system, under any circumstances.

For everyone else, the answer will depend on how convenient the Dubai Metro is for the trips they need to make. Right now, the system's utility is probably limited to a rather small percentage of Dubai's population of "choice" riders; that is, people who have their own automobiles. The Red Line is the only alignment that is currently in operation, and only 10 of the 29 total planned stations are open. Unless you both live and work near one of these stations, you're probably not going to choose to use the train.

However, once the remaining Red Line stations are opened, and once the Green Line is complete and operational sometime next year, then the system will be more useful to more people simply because its service footprint will be larger. Once again, however, this footprint will be limited to a relatively small area around the stations. "Choice" riders will generally not want to use feeder buses to get to the stations, nor will they want to walk to stations in Dubai's 110-degree summertime heat. The Dubai Metro does feature park and ride facilities that people can drive to, but these are located at the ends of the Emirate. Residents who live towards the center of Dubai are probably not going to drive to one end or the other simply in order to ride the train. Taxi queues will be provided at all Metro stations, however, and that along with Dubai's relatively cheap taxi fares might make that a viable manner of accessing the trains.

One weapon the RTA does have in its arsenal to encourage Metro ridership is the SALIK toll system. The RTA could put more toll checkpoints along major throughfares like Sheikh Zayed Road in order to discourage private automobile use. And, although the severe slump Dubai is experiencing because of the economic crisis has lessened traffic on the roads somewhat, if and when Dubai's economy recovers, the horrendous traffic congestion will inevitably return, thereby creating another natural disencentive to driving.

And finally, don't forget the business travelers and the tourists. Dubai has a lot of them and, for getting around it's either the taxi or the Dubai Metro. Dpending on how close their hotels are to stations and how comfortable they are with rail transit in their native countries, a significant number of them could choose to ride the train, which would generate a real boost to ridership.

The bottom line: it's going to be interesting to see just how well the Dubai Metro actually does. I'm cautiously optimistic.

On a completely personal note, it's great to see a project that I helped design, even if only in a very minor role, come to fruition.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Houston 45, #5 Oklahoma State 35

How big was last Saturday's 45-35 upset of 5th-ranked Oklahoma State in Stillwater last Saturday? Consider this:
  • The last time the Cougars beat a top ten team was November 12, 1988, when they beat #10 Wyoming 34-10 at the Astrodome. I was a sophomore in high school at the time, and I remember watching that game with my family and my friend Gwen.
  • The last time the Cougars beat a top ten team on the road was November 10, 1984, when the Coogs traveled to Austin and beat #3 Texas, 29-15.
  • The last time the Cougars beat a top ten team out of conference was Cotton Bowl against Nebraska on January 1, 1980, when they won 17-14. The Cougars ended the season with an 11-1 record and ranked #5.
  • And the last time the Cougars beat a top ten team, out of conference, on the road, outside of a bowl game: you'd have to go back to September 23, 1967, when the Cougars traveled to East Lansing, Michigan and manhandled the #3-ranked Michigan State Spartans, 37-7.
That is, until last Saturday.

Sure, you can argue that Oklahoma State was overrated at #5, and that might speak to the inanity of ranking teams so early in the season, before they've had a chance to really prove themselves on the field.

And sure, you can say that the Coogs got lucky when Case Keenum's pass into the endzone on fourth-and-goal was tipped by Oklahoma State defender and miraculously fell into the arms of Cougar running back Bryce Beall for a touchodwn. Take that amazing play away and the outcome of the game could have been very different. But hey, that's the way the ball (literally) bounces sometimes.

What cannot be argued or attributed to luck, however, is this: Oklahoma State had no real answer for the Cougar offense, which gained 512 total yards and found the endzone five times. Cougar quarterback Case Keenum was electric, completing 32 of 46 pass attempts for 366 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed for another touchdown, was only intercepted once and was never sacked. The Cougars were also able to move the ball well on the ground, racking up 146 rushing yards on 36 carries.

Thanks to their explosive offense, the Coogs rushed out to a 24-7 halftime lead. Oklahoma State made a comeback in the 3rd quarter, however. I'll admit that, as a longtime (and, given the last couple of decades or so, fairly jaded) UH fan, I had pretty much given up hope late in the third after Oklahoma State star receiver Dez Bryant ran back a punt return 82 yards for a touchdown, cutting the Cougars' lead to three, and OSU running back Beau Johnson, with the help of some pretty pathetic tackling on the UH defense's part, followed with a score on a 37-yard touchdown run to give the Cowboys the lead. I thought that a repeat of last year's game, wherein the Coogs led at halftime in Stillwater but were manhandled by OSU in the second half and ended up losing 37-56, was in the works.

But the Cougars never accepted such a fate. They maintained their composure and fought back in the fourth, regaining the lead on Beall's 1-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-goal and, after Oklahoma State scored again, answering with Beall's highlight-reel catch of Keenum's tipped pass in the endzone. When UH defender Jamal Robinson tipped a Zac Robinson pass into his own hands and ran it back into the endzone to put the Coogs up by 10 with 3:14 remaining, the Coogs knew that the upset was theirs for the taking. All they had to do was keep OSU from staging a last-minute comeback. They did.

As a fellow Cougar fan wrote on his Facebook page right after the game ended: That. Just. Happened.

For long-time Coog fans such as myself who have suffered through so many years of why-am-I-even-watching-this-crap disappointment, and who have had to watch as the grossly unfair BCS system has continually widened the gap between "have" schools like OSU and "have-not" schools like Houston, Saturday's game was sweet vindication. At long last, the Coogs are back on the national stage, as their #21 ranking in this week's AP poll - their first appearance in the polls since 1991- will attest.

Now it's up to the Cougars to prove that last Saturday's upset wasn't a fluke. They'll get that chance in two weeks, when another Big XII team, Texas Tech, travels to Robertson Stadium for a nationally-televised showdown that will doubtlessly feature a lot of offense. In that regard, it's good that Houston has two weeks to refocus, to heal and to prepare for this crucial game.

As for me, I'll continue to bask in the warm afterglow of the Coogs' biggest win in a quarter-century for a few more days.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Time to gloat

According to the scale in the bathroom, I have managed to lose 22 pounds since April.

I'm still not where I want to be in terms of my weight; if I can shed another ten or fifteen pounds between now and the end of the year, then I'll be close to what I think my ideal weight should be. Of course, it's going to be hard to keep the fat off, much less lose even more, as the holidays approach. However, I'm proud of the fact that I've made so much progress over the past few months, and the success I've had certainly provides incentive and motivation for me to continue in my quest to become at least somewhat healthier.

Because you're never too old, Part I

The greatest thing about being a father is that it gives you an excuse to buy all the cool toys that didn't exist when you were a kid.

I first started collecting GeoTrax (sound warning) back in 2005, when Kirby was still an infant. I liked the rugged, versatile, expandable and colorful nature of the toy, and I figured that one day Kirby would enjoy it, too. Four years and some $1,500 (give or take) later, I've amassed quite a collection. This layout current occupies a good 2/3rds of the back patio: At first I felt a bit guilty about my obsessive desire to collect GeoTrax products and build massive layouts with them, but then I discovered an entire website devoted to like-minded individuals and now I don't feel quite as bad.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

2009 Preview: University of Houston Cougars

I realize kickoff is only hours away at this point, so I guess I'm better late than never in getting this season's preview up.

Last season was a pretty good one for the University of Houston Cougars. The team adjusted to a new coaching staff and fought through the adversity caused by Hurricane Ike to win eight games, including victories over two ranked teams for first time since 1984 and their first bowl victory since 1980. The team hopes to build on last year's success to have an even better season in 2009. At the top of the to-do list for the team is to win Conference USA's Western Division, contend for the C-USA Championship, and maybe, just maybe, be under consideration as a so-called "BCS buster."Are the pieces in place for any of those goals to be reached?

When it comes to the offensive side of the ball, the answer is most likely "yes." The Cougars return eight starters, including almost all of the skill position players from an offense that finished second in the nation last season in total offense with almost 563 yards per game. That's a pretty impressive feat, considering that going into the 2008 season the conventional wisdom was that the adjustment to a new coaching philosophy and the lack of experience at wide receiver would cause the offense to take a step backward.

The Cougars will be led by junior quarterback Case Keenum, who led the nation in total offense last season with 403.2 all-purpose yards per game and was named Conference USA offensive player of the year. Most of his weapons return, including running back Bryce Beall, who ran for 1,247 yards, caught for another 500 yards, and had 17 touchdowns in a surprising freshman debut, and a bevy of highly capable wide receivers, such as Tyron Carrier (80 receptions for 1,026 yards and 9 touchdowns last year), Patrick Edwards (back in action after a devastating leg injury against Marshall last season) Chaz Rodriguez and Kierrie Johnson. And if that weren't enough, it's likely that the offensive lineup will be joined by highly-rated freshmen such as running back Charles Sims and wide receiver A.J. Dugat, who was just cleared to play earlier this week.

There are concerns about the abilities of the offensive line, which lost three starters from last year's team. The line will be anchored by senior center Carl Barnett and, while there is depth and experience at all five positions, the big question is how quickly this fall's new lineup can come together as a cohesive unit in order to open lanes for runners and protect Keenum (last year's line gave up 27 sacks, which was an improvement over the 34 sacks given up in 2007 but was still too many). Needless to say, an injury to Case Keenum would be a devastating blow to the offense. While backup quarterback Cotton Turner isn't exactly horrible - I've watched him in practice - he simply can't move the offense like Keenum.

So that's the 2009 University of Houston offense, a.k.a. the "good news." Now it's time for the "not-so-good" news, i.e. the defense.

Let's face it: the 2008 University of Houston defense wasn't what could really be considered "good." They gave up over 413 yards per game, enough to be ranked 100th (out of 119 FBS teams) in total defense and, in surrendering almost 31 points per game, almost as bad (91st) in scoring defense. The defense's complete meltdown against Rice last November, in particular, still sticks in the collective craw of the UH faithful. And that was with a defensive line that featured experienced players All-Conference standout Philip Hunt (18.5 tackles for loss, 14 sacks) and Tate Stewart and a secondary that featured several veterans such as Kenneth Fontennette and Earnest Miller. With those players gone, and with many of the holes they left behind being plugged by transfers and true freshman, I simply cannot expect this defense to be any better in 2009. In fact, I fully expect it to be worse.

The only returning starter on the defensive line is junior tackle Isaiah Thompson. He'll be joined by returning lettermen Tyrell Graham and David Hunter and a plethora of true (as in, straight-out-of-high-school) freshmen, including Radermon Scypion, Zeke Riser, Tyrone Campbell, Kelvin King, DeAnthony Sims and walk-on Ameen Behbahani. While the story on some of these incoming freshmen is that they are talented and were highly-recruited, the fact remains that they are probably undersized and definitely inexperienced at this level. The defensive line is going to be the weakest link in the defense this fall.

Things look a little better at linebacker, which returns senior experience in C.J. Cavness and Matt Nicholson as well as sophomore Marcus McGraw, who had an excellent debut last season (he led the team in tackles). Speed and depth are issues at this position, however. The secondary will be led by senior cornerback Brandon Brinkley, who had 74 tackles and four interceptions last year. Opposing quarterbacks will likely avoid throwing his way and instead try to pick on safeties Carson Blackmon and Nick Saenz. There's experience in the secondary, but they'll need help from the defensive line in the form of a pass rush if they're going to have a better overall season than they did last year.

One positive aspect of last year's team is that head coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff did a decent job exorcising away the "Unholy Trinity" of turnovers, penalties and bad special teams play that had plagued the Cougars under the Briles regime. Special teams were markedly improved last season - punter Chase Turner would have been one of the nation's higher-rated punters had the offense given him more opportunities to show his talents last season - and the Cougars were no longer among the top ten most penalized teams in the nation last season. The Coogs still need to work on ball control, however; last year the team gave the ball away 28 times but recovered fumbles and interceptions only 22 times for a -6 turnover margin.

Unfortunately, last season the team showed a tendency to start out slowly and quickly find themselves trailing by several scores in the first half of games. Sometimes they were able to mount furious second-half comebacks in order to win games, as they did against Alabama-Birmingham and UTEP. On other occasions, such as against Colorado State and Marshall, those rallies fell short. I'm willing to attribute last year's slow starts to the adjustments required of a new coaching staff and philosophy or the mental disruption caused by Hurricane Ike. But this pattern simply cannot manifest itself again this season; the coaching staff needs to prepare this team to play for every game and they need to come out of the tunnel swinging.

The Cougars' schedule starts out rather tough. After a season-opening tune-up game against FCS opponent Northwestern State, the Cougars have to travel to Stillwater, Oklahoma, to play an Oklahoma State team that is ranked 9th in the preseason AP poll. After a well-placed bye week, the Coogs return to Houston to play Texas Tech in what should be a sold-out Robertson Stadium. The Cougars then go on a formidable three-game road trip to El Paso to play the revenge-minded UTEP Miners, then to Starkville, Mississippi to play an improving Mississippi State team, and finally to New Orleans to play Tulane. The schedule then lightens up a bit, as the Coogs play four of their final six games in Houston. The Cougars have back-to-back home games against SMU and Southern Miss, then hit the road to play Tulsa and Central Florida, and then return to Robertson Stadium to close out their season against Memphis and Rice. However, none of these games will be gimmes: Southern Miss has historically given the Cougars fits, Tulsa will be seeking to avenge last season's 70-30 thumping at the hands of the Coogs, and anybody who thinks Rice is an easy win for the Coogs wasn't paying attention last year, or the year before, or the year before that.

What does the national sports media expect from the Cougars this fall? Overall, previews for Houston have generally been positive, which a consensus emerging that, due to its prolific offense, the Cougars are in for a pretty good season. Of the college football preseason magazines, Dave Campbell's Texas Football predicts that Coogs will finish 10-2 and win Conference USA. Athlon, Lindy's and The Sporting News all expect the Cougars to, at the very least, win their division. NBC Sports and CBS Sports are also in agreement that the Cougars will win Conference USA West.

Several college football websites are also big on the Coogs. CollegeFootballNews.com envisions a 10-win regular season for Houston, with an undefeated record in conference. SouthernCollegeSports.com concurs with that assessment, as does a columnist for bleacherreport.com who also foresees the Coogs defeating East Carolina in the Conference USA Championship game. The Congrove Computer Ranking system at CollegeFootballPoll.com (which has accurately predicted Houston's record within two games 9 out of the last 15 seasons) is only slightly less optimistic, predicting a 9-3 record for Houston with a loss to Tulsa that would leave the Coogs 2nd in their division. The Quad blog at The New York Times, which provides a thorough write-up for the Coogs, says that Houston is the 30th-best team in FBS, also foresees a 9-3 regular season campaign, and believes a conference championship is in the cards as well.

Sports Illustrated ranks the Coogs #57 to start the season and envisions an 8-4 overall record, with a 6-2 conference record and a second-place finish behind UTEP in C-USA's Western Division. Jeff Sagarin's preseason rankings, meanwhile, have the Coogs slotted 66th with a starting rating of 70.69. When other team's ratings as well as home field advantage are taken into account, this implies that a 8-4 record (with losses to Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Mississippi State and Tulsa) is predicted for Houston.

So what do I expect? Overall, I think the Cougars are definitely a team on the rise, and there are few teams in the country, even among the BCS elite, that will be able to stop its offense. But while the offense can score points on just about anybody, the defense, likewise, can give up points to almost anybody. The squad simply has too many weaknesses, especially on the defensive line, for me to expect that they'll be able to effectively stop the run or mount a pass rush, and, unless this defense finds a way to play well beyond its abilities, opposing teams with any offensive confidence whatsoever are probably going to be able to score at will. The Cougars are going to be involved in several 56-49 -type games this fall, and whether the Cougars come out ahead or behind will depend on things like turnovers and special teams performance.

I'm going to go on record as predicting an eight-win regular season for the Coogs. I think they will lose their matchups against Big XII teams Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, and I also think that road losses to two of Mississippi State, UTEP and Tulsa will occur as well. Southern Miss will also be very tough, but I think the home-field advantage will give the Coogs the edge. This final regular season record of 8-4 (6-2 in conference) will likely earn the Coogs second place in their division as well as a fifth-consecutive bowl appearance.

If the defense shows improvement over the course of the season, then 2010 could be the season that UH fans are waiting for. But right now, the team is still a year away.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to head over to Robertson Stadium. It's tailgating time!

UPDATE: The Coogs took care of business this evening, cruising to a 55-7 victory over Northwestern State.

Name that Kroger!

In Houston, there seems to be a popular practice of assigning names to inside-the-loop Kroger stores based on characteristics such as the store's appearance, location, or the demographics of its clientele. I don't know how long ago this tradition came about or why it only involves Kroger-brand stores and not Randalls or HEB stores.

Anyway, Jeff Balke runs down the names for four inside-the-loop Kroger stores, starting with the best-known of the "named" Krogers:

Disco Kroger
Montrose at Hawthorne (near Westheimer)

The original. I don’t know when people started calling it Disco Kroger. I first started going there when I worked across the street. I also had my truck towed from there when I stupidly parked in its parking lot during a show at Tower Theater (you know it now as Hollywood Video – sigh). But, if you’ve ever been in there later at night, particularly on the weekends, you understand just how it got its name.

Ghetto Kroger
Shepherd at 11th

As far as I know, I’m the one that handed this Signature store with the name dating back to this post about how crappy that store can be. I first started going to Ghetto Kroger when it was decidedly less ghetto many MANY years ago. It was also significantly smaller. I’m told this will be the largest Kroger store in the US when re-modeling is complete. To understand its ghetto nature, all you have to do is go in there, see the construction and note ZERO signs saying “Please excuse our mess” or anything like that. I guess in a few months, we’ll have more ghetto to love.

Zombie Kroger
Shepherd at 20th

As outlined here, Zombie Kroger is so named because it is marked both by really sweet, exceedingly slow elderly people and a dearth of checkers most of the time. Plus, it seems to be in some sort of vortex that swallows normal time and has soda that looks like Windex.

Posh Kroger
West Gray at Dunlavy

Only recently this River Oaks store (pictured) got its name for both its clientele and the fact that you feel as if you are walking on diamond-encrusted floors and breathing caviar-infused air as you mill about in this hoity toity market. I see a blog post in my future.

Somebody in the comments also suggested that this last Kroger be named "Deco Kroger" due to the architectural style of the shopping center where it is located. My brother-in-law Danny has referred to this particular store as "Hot Chick" Kroger due to the number of attractive women who shop there.

Continuing Jeff's theme, here are names for four more inside-the-loop Kroger stores:

Combat Kroger
Cullen at Polk

If you attended school at the University of Houston, you probably shopped here. And you probably understood exactly why it was called Combat Kroger. Anyway, it might be an aging, grimy, understaffed, poorly-managed, run-down store in a sketchy part of town, but at least it usually has most of the things I'm looking for when I shop there. An added bonus is that I've never been mugged while shopping there. At least, not yet.

Buffalo Kroger
Westpark at Buffalo Speedway

One of Jeff's commenters suggests that this upscale Kroger Signature store nestled between Greenway Plaza and West University Place be called "Spanish Kroger" due to the Mediterrenean-style architecture of the shopping center in which it is located. Local Kroger management took the recent arrival of HEB's new Buffalo Merket across the street seriously enough to remodel and upgrade the entire store; clearly, they do not want this new competition to one day cause the store to be known as "HEB's Bitch."

Medical Kroger
Old Spanish Trail at Cambridge

Another one of Jeff's commenters believes that this particular store is a "ghetto Kroger" as well, but I've never gotten that impression shopping there (when your home store is Combat Kroger, after all, you're pretty forgiving). I've always called this store "Medical Kroger" simply due to its location near the Texas Medical Center. I'm curious if there are other names for this particular store.

Does-Anybody-Really-Shop-Here Kroger
South Main Street at Kirby Drive

This one isn't too far from Medical Kroger; I guess it could also be called "Reliant Kroger" due to its location close to Reliant Stadium. Visit this store sometime and the name will make sense; every time I've been there, the place has been practically deserted. My understanding is that this store used to be located at the now-moribund shopping center at the corner of Kirby and Braeswood, where it faced the residential neighborhoods it served. Then it was "upograded" into a characterless building down the street with its back turned towards the neighborhoods it used supposed to serve. Therefore nobody shops there anymore, at least in part due to the fact that cheaper groceries are available at both the Super Target and the Fiesta nearby.

Any others?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

North Texas 20, Ball State 10

It might not have been the prettiest win in the world, but the Mean Green started the season off right with tonight's victory over Ball State in Muncie, Indiana.

Going into the game, all eyes were on Riley Dodge, the son of UNT head coach Todd Dodge, in his first collegiate start as quarterback. He performed admirably, completing 23 of 33 passes for 216 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He scrambled for another 73 yards as well. His lone mistake was an ill-advised pass in the endzone that was picked off: a freshman error that he will learn not to repeat.

Dodge and the passing game aside, and as I suspected in my season preview, the Mean Green relied on the ground game, amassing 296 yards and chewing up the clock in the process (North Texas held the ball for over 37 minutes). In addition to Dodge's scrambles, running backs Cam Montgomery (17 carries for 149 yards) and Lance Dunbar (16 carries for 63 yards and a touchdown) were both as good as advertised in this effort.

The much-maligned Mean Green defense also had a great evening, allowing Ball State a total of only 309 yards and a single touchdown (which occurred following a UNT fumble will inside their own territory). UNT's defense was especially effective in third-down situations, holding the Cardinals to only two conversions on 15 attempts.

To be sure, there were still some problems. Mean Green special teams struggled, as kicker Jeremy Knott missed two field goals (although, to be fair, both were from 47 yards out). North Texas also committed 9 penalties for 81 yards, including an unnecessary hold by linebacker Tobe Nwigwe on Ball State quarterback Kelly Page that negated a Royce Hill interception return for a touchdown. But these are all problems that can be rectified over the course of the season. The main thing is that the Mean Green put together a solid game on both sides of the ball and, in the first game of the season, equaled their entire win total of last year.

It could be argued that Ball State, which has lost a lot of last year's talent especially on the offensive side of the ball, is going to be in for a rough season. But that shouldn't take away from the fact that a team that finished 1-11 last season went on the road to upset a team that finished 12-2 last season. This is an encouraging start to UNT's 2009 campaign, and after last year's disaster it is a performance that Mean Green coaches, players and fans alike can be happy about.

Houston doesn't need zoning, but it does need better development regulations

Early last week, Andrew at neoHouston had an interesting article about the ongoing controversy regarding the Ashby High Rise, a residential tower proposed to be built amidst a neighborhood of single-family homes near Rice University. Andrew explains that, in other cities, this controversy would be handled by a set of land-use regulations known as zoning. He provides some history of zoning and explains why this form of land-use regulation is not right for Houston, but also laments some of the drawbacks to Houston's current approach towards land development regulation:
Houston has avoided the worst of these policies by staying away from conventional zoning. Ironically, however, Houston has adopted many of the same ordinances and policies of other cities. As an example: when platting land for development, if the developer does not explicitly denote another land use, the city REQUIRES the land be restricted to single-family residential uses. Because these regulations are hard-coded into the legal description of the land they are extraordinarily difficult to change in the future. Houston also has parking and setback requirements taken straight out of the conventional zoning world.

The result of the regulations we have are the same as the results of the regulations in other cities: low density, pedestrian-hostile development disproportionately dominates the city – not because this is all the market demands, but because it’s all that is legal to build. Doing anything different exposes a developer to a regulatory situation that’s a headache at best and a nightmare at worst.

So while we like to think that we’re scarcely regulated, the facts are quite different. Houston has a pretty average amount of land use regulation, but where it is different is the scattered and unpredictable way in which the City enforces its regulations. The Ashby development is the poster-child for the problems with Houston’s approach.

As somebody who served as a development review planner for three years in a Texas city with zoning (Denton), I completely agree that Houston has done well by avoiding this form of regulation. Ideological arguments against zoning aside - I'm no enemy of the free markets myself, although I don't agree with the idea that "markets always know best" and believe that at least some regulations are necessary - I have a pragmatic objection to conventional ("Euclidean") zoning being implemented in Houston. Simply put, trying to implement zoning in a city as developed as Houston is today would be a messy exercise in futility. I liken it to closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, because it would do about as much good.

For Texas cities, the zoning amendment process is regulated by Section 211 of the Texas Local Government Code. It requires, among other things, public hearings for proposed zoning changes, notification of adjacent property owners, a recommendation on the proposed zoning by a municipality's appointed planning commission, and final approval by the city's elected governing body (i.e. city council; because amendments to the zoning map are essentially amendments to municipal law, they must be ultimately approved by the city's law-making body). This process is a lengthy as it is cumbersome. Generally, a simple majority of council votes is needed to approve zoning amendments. However, in cases where property owners representing 20 percent or more of the land area surrounding the property proposed to be rezoned are in opposition to the amendment, or if the planning commission recommends against the proposed change, then a supermajority (75 percent) of council votes are required to approve the change. In this way, surrounding property owners, for better or for worse, have a great deal of influence in how adjacent properties are used.

Instituting a conventional zoning ordinance in Houston would mean several things: the local planning bureaucracy would need to be enormously expanded in order to handle the tremendous caseload that zoning enforcement and amendment actions in the nation's fourth-largest city would entail. Much of this expanded bureaucracy would be funded through developer application fees, increasing the "cost of doing business" for developers, and there would still probably be at least some supplementary funding required of this larger bureaucracy through the city's general, taxpayer-funded account. Because Houston has been unzoned for so long, there would invariably be kaleidoscopic array of nonconforming uses and structures that would have to be dealt with, and a multitude of variance requests and rezoning applications (following the process I outlined above) would result. Planning Commission and City Council meetings are long enough as it is today; adding a bunch of zoning cases to every meeting's agenda would make these meetings even longer. It also would create a very divisive political process, pitting existing property owners screaming "NIMBY" against developers looking to profitably development property they own. Land use disputes here in Houston are generally rare because people recognize that the city has limited powers to regulate them; indeed, the the controversy surrounding the Ashby High Rise is unique due to its rarity. In Denton, which at the time I worked there had five percent of Houston's population, such controversies occurred with regularity.

As an alternative to Euclidean land-use controls, Andrew suggests a form-based approach to development regulation:

Fortunately, there’s a straightforward solution for the issues Houston is facing. The Congress for the New Urbanism is an organization that has been dedicated to the development and advancement of new municipal policies to make urbanism in cities legal again. One of the tools the CNU has advocated is called “SmartCode.”

SmartCode is an effort to combine the many facets of development regulation (subdivision and platting regulations, building regulations, traffic and parking regulations, etc) into a single, streamlined, compact document. Its entire goal is to stay away from land-use controls (which unreasonably inhibit the market and create constant conflict at City Hall), and focus on simple, predictable, results-oriented standards.

In essence, SmartCode divides different scales of buildings into different “transect-zones”, defines how the street should be designed to accommodate the needs of different scales of development, and leaves the rest to the market. Contrary to popular belief, SmartCode is not about “style;” the standard code does not contain any.

A form-based approach Andrew is suggesting could regulate aspects of development such as building height and setbacks. I don't think any such code should regulate aspects of development such as minimum lot size or dimension or, outside of certain special districts in neighborhoods, historic areas or around transit stations, building design. In not even sure such a code should regulate standards such as lot coverage or landscaping, although, given Houston's historic flooding problems, there might be some restrictions on the maximum amount of permeable area allowed on a lot in order to retain and absorb rainwater runoff. I agree with Andrew that minimum parking standards should be scrapped. Let individual developers decide how much or how little parking they need for the development they are proposing, and encourage creative collaboration between neighboring property owners on shared or community parking facilities. Obviously, land uses and densities (in the form of floor-to-area ratios for commercial development and units per acre for residential development) would not be regulated.

However, because it would divide the city into zones that regulate development, and also because form-based regulations would, at least indirectly, affect the type of use and density of a given property, it is certain that such SmartCode would still be considered a type of zoning and therefore subject to Section 211 of Texas Local Government Code. That suggests that the same drawbacks that a standard zoning ordinance would entail - a larger municipal bureaucracy, a multitude of nonconforming structures that need to be regulated, the slow, expensive and cumbersome zoning amendment process, the power of adjacent property owners to limit development based on supermajority requirements, longer Planning Commission and City Council meetings, owner-versus-developer controversies and a polarized political environment - would also result from a form-based code.

With that said, I don't think these problems would manifest themselves to the same degree as would occur under a traditional, use-based zoning code. As Andrew explains, the relative simplicity of the regulatory framework involved in such a code could keep these issues to a minimum:
Because of how few requirements there would be, the most common request for variances would almost certainly be for added height as areas originally categorized as T3 or T4 develop more intensely. The city policy should be for a simple “upgrade” from one category to the next highest so long as the developer builds infrastructure – most importantly street connectivity – appropriate to the intensity of development.
Based on my experience in Denton, the greatest controversy surrounding zoning amendments was generated by the proposed land use change itself; the size and placement of what would be permitted under a zoning change oftentimes wasn't an issue or was a secondary issue to the change in land use itself. By eliminating regulations relating to land use or density from a Houston-specific form-based code and limiting the variance and amendment process to building height and placement, the bureaucratic caseload generated relative to a traditional zoning code would likely be reduced, as would the potential for controversy. This is not to say that no proposed changes - upgrading a property from one transect type to another - would generate controversy; there would likely be less of it, and it would be narrowly focused, but it would still be there.

Given that outcome, as of right now I am not fully convinced that a form-based code is the type of development control that Houston needs, although I do think Andrew makes a compelling case for it and I'm certain it's a better alternative than traditional land-use-based zoning. What I am convinced of is this: as Houston's urban core continues to densify, conflicts like the one surrounding the Ashby High Rise that are still relatively rare today are without a doubt going to become more and more common in the future. My fear is that some point, more and more citizens are going to become affected by these controversies and are going to become disillusioned with the City's current approach to land development regulations such that they are going to demand a mechanism to deal with these disputes, including traditional use-based zoning (and in that regard its worth noting that Houston's last attempt at zoning in 1993 barely failed in a referendum). The conversation regarding development regulations that Andrew is putting forward is something that the City of Houston needs to have sooner rather than later.