(Courtesy of Houston Parks Board)

(Courtesy of Houston Parks Board)

Last fall, William Fulton left Southern California to take a new position at the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University in Houston. Having earned a master of arts degree in urban planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, Fulton had previously served in Ventura, California, as city council member, deputy mayor, and mayor, then headed San Diego’s planning department for two years.

Leveraging Rice’s strengths in computer science, architecture, civil engineering, and other disciplines, Fulton hopes to establish the leading urban think tank in the Sun Belt, addressing issues faced by fast-growing cities like Atlanta and Phoenix, and California’s Inland Empire—issues that can vary dramatically from those faced in the Northeast and even the Midwest.

With ULI holding its Spring Meeting in Houston this May, Urban Land interviewed Fulton by phone to talk about his work.

You recently wrote in Governing about living car-free in Houston? Is that somewhat specific to the Rice area, or is it more doable then people realize?

It is definitely possible in central Houston. In other parts of the city, it can be harder than even in Los Angeles or San Diego. It is possible to do inside the central Loop, particularly near the light rail.

In addition, Metro’s about to reorganize the bus system, so we’ll have service seven day a week, with headways of 12 minutes. Certain bus routes are already very good. Westheimer Road, which goes through midtown, has less than ten-minute headways.

I do find I use Uber more than I did in San Diego, because a lot of things are just a $5 ride away. To run my personal errands, I usually rent a Zipcar. Unless it’s humid, it’s a good bicycling town because it’s flat.

The light-rail ridership is really high because it connects to the Texas Medical Center and downtown Houston.

For those who are not familiar, what is the Kinder Institute and how is it connected to Rice University?

For over 30 years, [Kinder Institute founding director] Stephen Klineberg has done a longitudinal survey of Houston [the Houston Area Survey]. The decision was made in 2010 to launch the Kinder Institute in support of that research and its findings. Shortly after that, Richard and Nancy Kinder donated $15 million to the institute. The Kinders are some of Houston’s greatest philanthropists. They were involved in making Discovery Green happen, [park development of] Buffalo Bayou happen. They are one of the key donors to the expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts.

About 18 months ago, tthe university and the donors decided they wanted to expand the institute. There was a national recruitment effort, as they wanted someone who could straddle academia and the practical application of research; they didn’t want a full-time academic.

Rice began as the Caltech-type school. It’s still very good at the hard sciences. In civil engineering, the hurricane modeling people are the best in the world. The computer science department is top-notch, which I believe we can leverage to do great work. Economics and political science are also quite strong. Then we have the Texas Medical Center across the street, and we are doing a partnership with them on the built environment and the impact on health.

So the idea was to make the Kinder Institute broader in scope, very action oriented, and campuswide.

My goal is to make it the leading urban think tank in the Sun Belt—except it’s in the context of these fast-growing economies and lighter regulatory environments.

How are gentrification and affordability issues playing out in Houston?

What’s happening in Houston now—you can see the Alan Ehrenhalt effect [called “the great inversion”].

Inside the Loop, prices are pretty high, but not quite California high or D.C. high. In the suburbs, prices are low. But the two rail lines to the east are about to open up, and it’s quite clear that area is going to take off. The artists are already getting pushed out of the Montrose and EaDo [East Downtown] areas.

There’s some other areas where prices are quite high, but I think they are going to hold through the falling oil prices.

A lot of the people of more modest income are getting pushed farther out to Harris County, and they don’t have the density to support the kind of transit and infrastructure we are starting to get.

How has the recent drop in oil prices changed the dynamics in Houston?

There’s still a ton of stuff under construction—several apartment buildings at every light-rail station along the line. There are a lot of projects that are just propelling forward.

But what happens when those are done? Everyone assumes there’ll be a slowdown. The betting is that the prices hold inside the Loop and drop outside.

There was the huge fight over the Ashby high-rise [a 21-story residential tower given the go-ahead last year after a seven-year court battle with neighborhood residents], but construction hasn’t started on that yet. If it’s already under construction, it’s going to get completed.

I lived in California for 30 years, so I’m no expert on this, but the subtlety is that the midstream oil industry [transportation, storage, and wholesale marketing of crude and refined products] is fine, and low oil prices actually benefit the petrochemical industry downstream.

[E]very conversation in Houston starts with oil prices, but the hope is that it won’t be as bad as it was in the 1980s.

The one exception may be that ExxonMobil in The Woodlands [30 miles (50 km) north of Houston], with many of its employees moving here from Virginia’s Fairfax County. But if you are an employee who previously lived in Reston, the Woodlands is about the same.

ULI Advisory Services has recently done some work on the future of the Astrodome. Is there anything to add to that debate?

The future of the Astrodome is a big issue. Some people think it should be torn down, but even tearing it down is really expensive. We are hosting the NCAA Men’s Final Four in 2016, then the Super Bowl in 2017, so there’s a lot of interest in improving how Houston presents itself before these major events.

What I think you’ll eventually see is like L.A. Live, where the sports venues have an urban, walkable, entertainment component to them.

The other thing is two years ago, [Houston] Mayor [Annise] Parker issued an executive order on “complete streets,” so that has had some impact on sidewalks and walkability. The infrastructure is still lacking in some of the urban neighborhoods.

Do you see mayors in the United States having more influence on the future of these cities?

Different mayors have different levels of power, based on various systems around them. Houston’s Mayor’s Office is one of the strongest I’ve ever seen. [Mayor Antonio] Villaraigosa in Los Angeles was also really good at this.

What mayors have is a bully pulpit that no other official has in the region. They can try to convene people. The private sector is playing a more and more important role because it’s “regulation light.” When you have the mayor pushing for these kinds of things and some really sophisticated developers, you can get things done.

Everything urban is hot, so there is an opportunity for mayors, but also urban developers. Public/private partnerships [PPPs] are also important. There’s also a half-billion-dollar expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts. There’s a PPP raising over $200 million to improve the public parks and bayous, which have not been treated well over the years, as many waterways have not.

Do you see any impact on online education or telemedicine in terms of how we think about anchor institutions like Rice or the Texas Medical Center?

One of Rice’s professors is Anthony Pinn. He’s an expert on religion, specifically African American churches and the music around them. He’s currently doing a MOOC [massive open online course] with a Houston-area hip-hop artist named Bernard “Bun B” Freeman, which has thousands of people signed up for it.

Rice has a very aggressive agenda to reach out beyond the hedges. But I think what this is indicative of is the power of higher education to reach out to communities in a different way. But the Kinder Institute can do that, too, through our applied research.

Universities have realized they can’t stay behind their fences. Penn is a great example of that, and Columbia. USC, where I used to teach, is another example—having to reach out into the neighborhoods. Both USC and Rice are now served by light rail that connects to the downtown.

I saw that the One Paseo project finally was approved in San Diego.

Yes, it passed 7–2. The thing that’s really surprising about San Diego: it’s the largest city that’s grappling with running out of land. What the city has been good at is stimulating downtown and master planning around the edge.

Now there’s 40,000 living downtown, and that’s just going to go up. How do you manage infill? San Diego’s got a pretty good light rail, and pretty good bus and BRT [bus rapid transit]. It’s transitioned from a suburban to an urban place.

Houston is like that, but still growing around the fringes. How do you become a more urban place in a thoughtful way? One Paseo [a proposed mixed-use neighborhood] is 1.4 million square feet [130,000 sq m], but it’s pretty dense, but it’s not near transit. We required that the developer fund and operate a private shuttle service until transit could be built. The only change I saw in what passed was that Kilroy [Realty, the developer] agreed to put more affordable housing on the site.

I wrote a thing for the U-T [San Diego Union-Tribune] about this.

What are some of the resources that you find useful in keeping abreast of all this change both in Houston and around the world?

Voice of San Diego [an all-digital nonprofit news organization] does an extraordinary job of covering land use issues. Houston has some of these guerrilla blogs, which can be very interesting, such as the Swamplot.

But internationally, it’s really extraordinary to see the emergence of CityLab and Next City, and Overhead Wire is now aggregating on transportation.