Wednesday, October 28, 2015

How Osama bin Laden (kind of) transformed my hometown

It would be easier to blame Osama bin Laden.

The Houston Gulf Airport opened in League City in 1967. Ten years later, a new buyer emerged named Salem bin Laden. Salem bin Laden was the half-brother of Osama bin Laden. Salem died in 1988, and the airport lingered on the market in limbo for a decade and a half thereafter. But after 15 years, the property was suddenly scooped up by a housing developer within months of 9/11.

It's not hard to put the pieces together. The bin Laden family divested its American holdings after 9/11, facing a PR nightmare caused by their estranged relative. Houston Gulf Airport was a tiny and inconsequential piece of those holdings, but one that impacted my life at the time.

I grew up caring for horses on a pasture next door to the airfield. By the time I frequented the area, Houston Gulf Airport was overgrown. The nearby fields looked a vast expanse to me, although now I recognize it was a mowed-over field grown wild. But still, those were my fields. I rode horses in them, drove four-wheelers on them, and spent years exploring them. And after 9/11, they were taken away from me.

Today, I live on that same pasture. Now I have to look out from my front porch and stare at row after row of cookie-cutter luxury apartments instead of open fields.

Thanks Osama.

I know it isn't really Osama bin Laden's fault. Developers are champing at the bit to build developments with corny names like Marbella, Whispering Lakes Ranch, and Brittany Bay in League City. 9/11 only accelerated that process by opening up that particular airfield to new construction. But still, I remain interested in why exactly that process is happening; why are towns like League City growing so rapidly?

League City? Who cares?

Despite my nostalgia for the once small town, League City only became important fairly recently. The story is told through the US Census, which illustrates the city's explosive growth. In 1950, the census recorded barely 1,300 residents. However, the population rapidly spiked, doubling to over 2,600 in 1960, then rising to over 10,000 in 1970, and finally reaching over 30,000 by 1990.

The town's growth only accelerated in recent years. Between 2000 and 2010, the city grew by almost 40,000 people to 83,460 residents. Over 10,000 newcomers have moved to League City since the 2010 census, and the population is expected to top 100,000 by 2017. Rather than a small town, League City now lives up to its name.

Galveston's Fall

In contrast, county seat Galveston has faced a long stagnation and decline. The once bustling port never fully recovered from the infamous Great Storm of 1900, and years of domination by local organized crime elements through the 1950s did not help build sustainable industries. Instead, the city largely serves as the home of UTMB and a local tourist attraction.

As League City's population booms, Galveston slowly declines. Chart created by Danny Surman.
The city peaked in population in 1960, weighing in at just over 67,000 residents, and has slowly lost population since that time.

The precipitous drop between 2000 and 2008 came from a perennial problem: hurricanes. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison barraged the local coastline for two weeks. In 2005, Hurricane Rita flushed hundreds of thousands from their homes, leaving residents stranded on I-45 and I-10 (my family among them). And in 2008, the deepest blow of all struck the area, with Hurricane Ike leveling communities and causing widespread damage on Galveston Island.

The last hurricane accelerated migration patterns in the area. Galveston's population had already been declining for years, due in part to rising housing costs. Ike only gave residents, now facing dramatic repair costs and litigious processes to access the money from insurance companies, more reason to move to other cities on the mainland. Today, the city is only the third most populous community in its namesake county. The top of the list? League City, located at the northernmost tip of Galveston County and one of the recipients of Galveston's expatriates.

Sprawling Suburbs

Meanwhile, the ongoing explosive growth of Houston (soon to surpass even Chicago in population) created a growing housing demand in the sprawling metropolis' suburbs. Communities like Clear Lake ran out out of housing or priced out prospective home buyers, families and young professionals moving to work in Houston. These commuters began looking to communities that were previously seen as too distant, places like Pearland and League City.

The growth patterns of League City and Pearland seem unusually similar. Chart created by Danny Surman.
The similarities between Pearland and League City's growth are remarkable. Both pursued aggressive annexations of other local communities, flexing their muscle in all directions. Each city adopted a council-manager form of government (which, ironically, began in Galveston) and adopted zoning ordinances as their cities grew in size. Finally, both municipalities face spiking housing prices as their populations skyrocket and developments increase in quality.

Pearland: Beds and Businesses

But there are differences. Pearland has more room to expand, ultimately less hemmed in by the Gulf Coast and other incorporated communities than League City. Pearland also boasts the corporate headquarters of health care provider Kelsey Seybold, with Texas commuter gas station giant Buc-ees on the way.

A screenshot from Google Maps that includes Pearland, League City, and Galveston.
It's that last fact which preoccupies city planners in League City. In some ways, Pearland is years ahead of League City in development. Where League City struggles to attract major retail and corporate development, Pearland is scouting new businesses to relocate to the area.

When League City's City Council voted in January on its priorities, the body unanimously supported the goal of attracting a corporate headquarters to the city within three years.

Sales Tax War

Also unlike League City, Pearland took advantage of a Texas statute that allows municipalities to enact a 1/4 of $.01 sales tax to create a "municipal development district," a broad quasi-governmental entity that is generally supposed to provide economic development for local communities.

That's a lot of jargon to break down. Say you go to Starbucks and buy yourself a hot Venti Mocha (and that you are not wise enough to buy cheaper coffee elsewhere). In League City, that costs $5.02. In Pearland, it costs $5.03.

I will not go much deeper into that sales tax issue, but the League City City Council did vote to put that issue before voters in November. The fact that they voted to put such a measure on the ballot, while seeking out a new corporate headquarters to relocate to League City, illustrates the priorities of City Council in the once small town.

A comprehensive plan from 2011 illuminates their thinking. It identifies several "community characteristics" a town can have, detailed here.

Right now, with the population pressure from Houston in the north and Galveston in the south, League City has transitioned from a natural (undeveloped) and rural/estate (agricultural and scattered residential) character to a suburban and auto-dominant (mixed subdivisions and strip mall developments) one. That process happened gradually and largely independent of anything League City's government did (although zoning regulations probably facilitated some developments and inhibited others). Cities adopt zoning ordinances and city management systems to at least (try to) manage this growth, hoping to guide future development. It's not clear to me that such management works, but the goal is there.

Homes but no businesses?

One other term that recently entered the council debate: bedroom community. The council senses that League City is a community with lots of homeowners but few businesses. Pearland no longer fits that bill, and neither do some other comparable communities like Webster.

City Council wants to change that. They are looking at future revenue and growth, seeking bigger businesses to ensure League City's tax base is large enough to provide the services of a city its size. Otherwise, they say, the city will lose revenue to the likes of Webster and Pearland, menaces in their mind that threaten to stymie League City's potential.

People come to League City because it has good schools and affordable housing prices. But those housing prices are spiking now that people are flooding the area. What will happen when the market inevitably shifts, and residents are priced out of our community? They will leave, just like they left Galveston. If League City remains a place where people mostly live (rather than spend money), then the city could be left in a dire position when people start leaving.

The impending revenue crunch explains why City Council desperately desires the new sales tax. They are not sure what they plan to do with the money, but the city remains in debt with a tax base reliant on property taxes. Meanwhile, residents continue to pour into League City, driving housing prices unsustainably higher.

Either way, the open fields of my youth are gone. Now I wonder what will take their place.

Thanks Osama.

No comments:

Post a Comment