Friday, July 30, 2010

Texas Cities, the Shape of the Future

Joel Kotkin, an urban geographer and Forbes contributor, wrote an article back in March about the remarkable growth of Texas cities in the midst of the Great Recession.  He sees the Texas city as the urban landscape of the 21st Century.

Texas cities tend to sprawl out, have multi-modal business centers and aggressive annexation policies.  OK, so what does all this mean?  Well, I'm sure all of you have noticed that San Antonio covers a large area, so much so that it is hard to convey to children that even though you've traveled for 20 miles, you are still in San Antonio.  Multi-modal business centers are kind of like mini-downtowns, the Medical Center, the 281 corridor and the IH-35 corridors each have their own business culture, and many times people who work in these areas live near them as well.  

So what does aggressive annexation have to do with all this?  Annexation is the process cities use to extend their boundaries.  In Bexar County there is a lot of unincorporated (hasn't chartered as a town or city) land area.  The city government absorbs this land mass in two ways.  First it extends the city limits down a major thoroughfare or highway, such as IH-10 or FM 471.  This is called a finger, because it's long and skinny.  All of the land within a 5 mile radius is considered to be in the ETJ or Extra Territorial Jurisdiciton of the city.   All property within the ETJ is subject to City of San Antonio zoning and development ordinances, so the city controls how the land will be used.  Once the surrounding property meets a certain population density, the city annexes the area by extending the city limits around it.  Then the area is subject to San Antonio property taxes.  By extending the city boundaries the city expands its tax base and it's population.  This is why even though San Antonio's population is quite large compared to a city like Boston, it's surrounding area (all of the little towns around it) is actually quite a bit less populated.

Kotkin says that

To reshape a city in a sustainable way, you need to have a growing population, a solid and expanding job base and a relatively efficient city administration.
So, Texas cities increase their population not only through annexation but through job growth.  Of the four largest cities in Texas, San Antonio is the slowest job generator, but we still out perform places like Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

OK, I know a lot of you think our city is run inefficiently, but look at our government compared to say Chicago.
The New Yorker, for example, recently published a lavish tribute to the city and its mayor, Richard Daley. But as long-time Chicago observer Steve Bartin points out, the story missed--or simply ignored--many critical facts. Mistaking Daley's multi-term tenure as proof of effectiveness, it failed to recognize the region's continued loss of jobs, decaying infrastructure, rampant corruption and continued out-migration of the area's beleaguered middle class.
Not to mention the fact that Chicago is in financial distress. The pension funds for city employees is severely underfunded, and just 2 days ago their bond rating (the rate at which the city borrows money) was downgraded.  In an earlier post, I talked about San Antonio receiving the highest bond rating based on the savings cushion instituted by City Manager Sheryl Sculley.   Not only is the city of Chicago losing population, the towns surrounding it have declined as well. 

They're headin' south.

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