Mayor's Dilemma: Can Houston Grow And Be Green?

Houston Mayor Bill White gestures during a visit to a construction site. i i

Houston Mayor Bill White gestures during a visit to a construction site in the city. Nicole Beemsterboer, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Nicole Beemsterboer, NPR
Houston Mayor Bill White gestures during a visit to a construction site.

Houston Mayor Bill White gestures during a visit to a construction site in the city.

Nicole Beemsterboer, NPR

Mapping A City's Growth

Click on the map to see Steve Inskeep's reports from Houston and where they took place.

As a city in motion, Houston constantly evolves. And it is also a city that uses enormous amounts of energy. Its mayor, Bill White, has made it his goal to help Houston evolve again — into a more energy-efficient place.

White is a soft-spoken man without a lot of hair, and with a steady gaze. A former deputy secretary of energy, White has been mayor for almost six years. And here in America's energy capital, he's made energy one of his signature issues.

All those long commutes, and all those big air-conditioned houses, use enormous amounts of energy.

"We need a dramatic reduction in the energy consumed in structures," White said, "if we are going to continue to grow, and reduce emissions including carbon emissions."

The city tried to do just that — by subsidizing an affordable house. It's near the freight railroad tracks, but with excellent insulation and a solar panel.

It required tens of thousands of dollars in subsidies to build — but sometimes the house generates more electricity than it consumes.

White hopes the example will inspire developers to build affordable and efficient homes on their own. But there are limits to what he can do, or wants to do, to force changes in the city's growth.

Building A Train System

You can see those limits if you board the light-rail line that runs through central Houston. The trains are a few years old, and more lines are planned.

"In 2013, it will be possible to live all over town — and live a full life — via light rail," said Jay Crossley, of the advocacy group Houston Tomorrow.

That means that people in America's oil capital could have the option to use less oil, by leaving the car at home.

On the train, Crossley can look out the window and see one major problem: There is a lot of vacant land along the rail line. For a variety of reasons, developers have not yet rushed to build homes and stores within walking distance.

Crossley thinks part of the problem is that Mayor White, like all Houston officials before him, has done relatively little urban planning. The city government limits its power to shape growth; instead of zoning, Houston relies on private restrictions on property deeds, which vary widely. In general, developers have more freedom to build where — and how — they see fit.

Plan For Mixed Use Sparks Protests

And yet, as the city becomes more densely populated, one recent incident has prompted some Houston officials to ask if they need at least a little more control.

Two developers proposed to build a tower in the middle of a low-rise residential neighborhood. It would rise 23 stories — right across the street from private homes.

Developer Matthew Morgan said he wanted the tower to include a store, a restaurant and office space as well as apartments.

His objective, Morgan said, was "to reduce the dependence on the automobile."

Asked if he expected any resistance, Morgan said, "Well, we did; we anticipated, I guess what I call some pushback."

Neighbors were outraged — about the size of the building, and the possible growth in traffic. Today, the neighborhood is full of yellow signs proclaiming, "Stop the Ashby" — the name of the building.

Mayor White took the residents' side, and the developers finally had to take the stores and offices out of their building to get a building permit.

"By forcing us to remove these uses, this has become another residential high-rise project," Morgan said.

Opponents of the project say it was just in the wrong place, even if it might have been a nice idea.

Long-Term Goals For Houston, And Its Mayor

Taking a seat in one of Houston's new parks, White talked about the city's environmental challenges. Nearby, kids played soccer on a brilliant green lawn.

White is preparing to leave the mayor's office after six years. He's term-limited, and he's running for the U.S. Senate as a Democrat.

He gestured toward an energy-efficient skyscraper under construction nearby.

"As the national productivity goes up by 1 percent, the power consumption goes up by 1 percent," White said.

"Generally, as a standard of living has gone up, then our power consumption has gone up. Our goal was to break the link between economic growth and growth in power consumption."

This growing city will strain to keep to that goal after its current mayor moves on.

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