Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The end of the Midtown Fiesta

Can't say I'm surprised:
Houstonians will say farewell to a Midtown supermarket favorite, Fiesta Mart, after its parent company announced it will be closing the doors this Friday.
Considered an iconic neighborhood fixture in Midtown, Fiesta gave shoppers a vast selection of fresh produce and international foods. The store is located at the intersection of Wheeler and San Jacinto.
Like the also-shuttered Sears next to it, that Fiesta was easily visible from I-69 and was, for decades, a landmark in the corner of Midtown. It was there well before townhomes and luxury apartment complexes began springing up around it. I've shopped there on a few occasions, and while it was very no-frills, it had everything you'd expect from a Fiesta, including lots of fresh produce, a variety of international foods, aromas from the in-store tortilleria, and a beer selection that put many other stores to shame.

Fiesta's parent company explained the reason for the closure:
"It is with difficulty that we announce that the Fiesta Mart store located at 4200 San Jacinto will be closing at the end of business on Friday July 10th," Rodriguez wrote in a statement sent to "The decision to close this store was not taken lightly, but due to the expiration of our lease and a number of newer grocery stores in the area we had to make this difficult decision. Despite tremendous efforts by our dedicated store employees and our operations, buying, merchandising and other support teams, sales performance of the store has continued to decline over the past few years."
By "a number of newer grocery stores in the area," they're obviously referring to the two H-E-Bs that have opened within a couple of miles of that Fiesta within the last decade: the Montrose H-E-B on West Alabama that opened several years ago, and, more significantly, the MacGregor H-E-B at North MacGregor and 288 that just opened last fall.

The MacGregor H-E-B was certainly the nail in the coffin, as it siphoned off shoppers from both the Museum District and Third Ward that would have otherwise gone to that Fiesta. Whatever Fiesta's charms may be, it simply can't compete with what is now considered the nation's best supermarket chain.

Unfortunately, due to its location, that Fiesta also had a homeless problem. A fence had to be built around the parking lot to discourage loiterers and panhandlers.

Rice University owns the property on which the store sits. It will be interesting to see what takes its place.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The conservative case against single-family zoning

Charles Marohn argues that "there is no greater distortion of the market than local zoning codes" and calls for the elimination of single-family zoning on "small government" principles:
The first of many ironies, of course, is that single-family zoning became the standard for American suburbs during the New Deal when the Roosevelt administration, through various programs such as the Home Owners Loan Corporation, required it for home refinancing assistance. 
These onerous regulations were further mandated for new construction by the Federal Housing Administration as well as the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. 
So if you want federal support for your housing, build a single-family home. If you want to live in that downtown shop with the house on the second floor, convert your house to a two- or three-unit building and rent it out—or do any number of normal and reasonable things that humans had been doing with their property for centuries to build their own wealth and prosperity—don’t expect assistance from the government. 
Yet now that we’ve lived with this artificial distortion for a couple of generations, and piled on others like the mortgage-interest tax deduction, some strange conservative instinct kicks in to defend this bankrupt institution. In reality, the Pilgrims built a traditional town surrounded by farmland. Our government paid us to move to the suburbs. Invoking the memory of the former to defend the latter is an historical absurdity.
Marohn's knockdown against single-family zoning was apparently triggered by an article by Stanley Kurtz in the National Review which claimed that Joe Biden and the Democrats want to "abolish the suburbs."  This claim, which has also been made by Donald Trump and is centered around the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing provision of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, is dubious. Marohn argues that, if conservatives were intellectually honest, they would be demanding an end to single-family suburban development on the grounds of economic efficiency: 
The suburbs run on federal subsidies. Without them, America’s suburbs would have to become more financially productive. They would need to get greater returns per foot on public infrastructure investment. That would mean repealing repressive zoning regulations, allowing the market to respond to supply and demand signals for housing. It would also mean allowing the “little downtowns” Kurtz fears to form where demand for them exists. Isn’t that what is supposed to happen with self-government and local control? 
All this would have to happen or the suburbs would go away because they can’t exist without excessive and ongoing federal subsidy. 
The progressive left has discovered that single-family zoning has racist underpinnings. That’s great, because we should now have no problem finding common cause for repealing this most distorting of regulations, one that the federal government never should have forced cities to adopt to begin with. 
In fact, the conservative thing for suburban leaders to do here is to not wait for the federal government to tempt us with more handouts, but to go ahead and show those progressives running the big cities that we live by our principles, that we embrace vibrant markets and free people, by preemptively repealing single-family zoning.
While I'm not sure I agree with Marohn's implication that single-family zoning is largely the result of "big government" (as opposed to a largely locally-driven effort fueled by NIMBYism), I do agree with him that single-family zoning is, like minimum parking regulations, a relic of late-20th-century land use control that needs to be phased out. Zoning started out in the early 20th century as a way to protect residences from nuisance uses such as factories or slaughterhouses, but it has evolved into a tool to enforce socioeconomic exclusion. 

Anybody who has read this blog knows that I, a former zoning officer for the city of Denton, am not a fan of traditional land-use zoning, and am thankful that Houston is the largest city in the nation without it.

It's looking like no college football this fall

This would normally be the time of year where I begin to think about the coming football season: I begin looking for the preview magazines in the stores, I spend more time reading discussions on University of Houston athletics message boards, and I even begin thinking about tailgating menus. However, I'm not doing any of that right now. Absent a miracle between now and the scheduled beginning of the season seven weeks from now, I'm not expecting there to be any college football in 2020.

Yahoo! Sports columnist Pete Thamel is a hack who is rarely correct, but I have a suspicion that this may be one of the few times he's right:
Take a deep breath, and begin to get comfortable with the idea there’s virtually no chance of playing college football in any recognizable form this fall. Start digesting the notion that the next time we see a college football game could be in more than 13 months, as the sport remains the most unlikely of all the major sports to execute a successful return. Consider any semblance of college football prior to Week Zero of 2021 as a bonus, an improbable gift from the football gods. 
With the MLS struggling in a supposed bubble, MLB officials botching the testing portion of its return and an increasing amount of pessimism about the prospect of an NFL season, only a medical miracle can save college football this fall. 
“Right now, I don’t see a path in the current environment to how we play,” said a Power Five athletic director. “I’m confident we’ll get back to what we all think of as normal, but it may be a year before that happens.” 
Here’s the cruel truth about how college football leaders approached football this fall: The entirety of their plan to return was based on hope. Hope that the COVID-19 would go away. Hope that college campuses wouldn’t be a petri dish for the virus. Hope that they could figure out a way to play a contact sport in a time of mandatory social distancing. Hope for a vaccine to keep players healthy and seats full. 
A strategy of hope isn’t much of a strategy, and a half-dozen coaches and officials told Yahoo Sports this weekend that hope is being vanquished. It’s all over in the minds of many coaches and athletic directors, as the sport will keep pushing back to buy time until the inevitable happens. 
“Ultimately, no one is playing football in the fall,” said a high-ranking college official. “It’s just a matter of how it unfolds. As soon one of the ‘autonomy five’ or Power Five conferences makes a decision, that’s going to end it.”
In order for college football to happen, we would need to be moving past the coronavirus pandemic right now. But that's not happening: the current wave of infections is easily surpassing what we witnessed in the spring, and that's not a trend that is going to improve anytime soon. States are going back into quarantines and movement restrictions, and it's unclear if universities will even risk holding in-person classes this fall. No students on campus, no sports.

Even if the games could be held this fall, they would likely have to be done so with few, if any, spectators in the stands. That might be feasible for a handful of schools who get a large amount of revenue from television contracts. It would, however, be a financial disaster for most others, especially "Group of Five" institutions such as Houston. And even the schools in the best financial position don't want to assume the legal and medical liability they could incur should a student-athlete become gravely ill:
The worry among coaches remains the same: Are we really going to keep pushing forward with the season and wait until there’s a player hooked up to a ventilator in an ICU and have that become the sport’s Rudy Gobert shutdown moment? Luckily so far – from Clemson to Texas to North Carolina, among those we know about – there have been no known hospitalizations among the college football players who’ve tested positive. But coaches remain concerned that players with pre-existing conditions like sickle cell trait could be at increased risk. 
With at least two Power Five conferences - the Big Ten and the PAC-12, announcing a switch to conference-only schedules, the snowball is already rolling downhill. The next step, I predict, will be for conferences to delay the start of the season until mid-October. Then they'll delay until the spring
of 2021. Then, they'll cancel the season altogether.

It's going to suck for everyone: the fans, the students, the coaches, and especially the players. In American culture, fall and football are synonymous. It's going to feel very empty to have one without the other.

But until we get a handle on the Coronavirus, this is where we are.