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HOUSTON-What do synchronized traffic lights have to do with commercial real estate growth? They’re a small contributor to a larger picture, a tiny piece of the quality of life that separates a city’s success from its failure. That was the message more than 100 reporters heard here recently at the National Association of Real Estate Editors convention.

The vehicles of that message were Houston Mayor Bill White and a subsequent panel of experts who addressed the city’s rebirth. White, for his part, told the crowd that the city over which he presides has enjoyed a record-breaking 700% growth in population since the 1930s. Clearly, he noted, “people are voting with their feet.” He added that, of the population’s current 60% immigration rate, three-quarters of those are foreign immigrants.

Houston has had its problems, including a weighty 20% office vacancy rate, but answers are still coming from both the private and the public sides, speakers stated. In addition, both the mayor and the subsequent panel enumerated the woes of the early ’90s recession. But Houston has rebounded with a vigor based on key areas of focus, White said. These included economic development, quality of life and efficiency of government operation.

In terms of economic development–and an answer to the vacancy question–White confessed that the city fathers have aggressively sought CEOs searching for a new home, and their efforts have paid off in recent months with the additions of Chevron Texaco and Citgo as tenants here. In fact, White characterized the two deals as the largest in the city’s history. Furthermore, one of those deals turned a negative–the collapse of Enron and the subsequent loss of jobs–into a positive. Chevron bought the built-but-never-occupied building here that Enron was to fill.

In terms of the quality of life, White mentioned such initiatives as the traffic-light synchronization, the creation of more park space and the raising of funds to develop neighborhood drainage programs. The efficiency of city operations came in the town’s vigorous attempts to reform the municipal pension system.

In the following seminar session: “Downtown Building Blocks: Reviving a Dead Downtown,” Robert M. Eury, president of Central Houston Inc., charted the 10-year growth of the city, noting that some 3.2 million sf of office space has been added in that time, and more than $1 billion in sports and entertainment venues.

Of course, places to work and places to play create the need for places to live. He estimated that the current demand for housing could produce some 16,400 units.

Paul Frazier, VP of leasing for Trizec Properties, gave much credit for the city’s growth to the emphasis on public/private partnerships and to controlled development that has added a mere 8% to the city’s inventory. And while the 20% vacancy still hangs over the city, Frazier expressed his confidence that Houston is lifting off the bottom. “There is a sense of urgency that signifies that we are headed up,” he concluded.

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