Peter Brown taking on Mayor White?Yesterday I attended the Blueprint/Livable Houston lunchtime event at the Upper Kirby District Center. It was packed - I'd say well over a hundred people. I'd characterize it as a regroup-and-rally for the pro-planning forces after the disappointment last year. To summarize, last summer Councilmember Peter Brown got the City Council to approve a measure directing the Planning Commission to come up with a "plan to plan" - a timeline and budget to create a comprehensive general plan for Houston. They came back at the end of December, and instead decided to focus on the top priorities of mobility and drainage, to much disappointment by the pro-planning forces. My understanding is that the mayor influenced the Planning Commission in this more targeted direction, but I have no specific inside knowledge.
Peter Brown attended and was pretty feisty and fired-up. He guaranteed comprehensive urban planning in Houston before the end of his tenure, and noted that he just needs to corral eight votes on the council, with or without the support of the mayor. Pretty bold and gutsy statement. The new strategy seems to be incrementalism: get the council to approve comprehensive general planning in measured stages or phases, starting with approval of vision and values. This is always the easy part for getting consensus. Motherhood and apple pie all the way. Describe a utopian city, and you've pretty much got it. Of course, the hard part is phase 3: legislation, regulations, and ordinances that lead to utopia.
One problem is that the vision and values don't provide the best guidance, because they can easily conflict with one another. I can't think of any debate we've had in this city (or any other city for that matter), where you couldn't pick out the values that supported both sides of the argument. Economic development vs. historic preservation. Congestion relief vs. transit/transportation options. Parks and open space vs. low taxes. Well, really, just about everything vs. low taxes (and taxes directly affect discretionary income available for economic development and jobs). It's all about tradeoffs, and the vision and values aren't very explicit about which ones take priority. The goal here seems to be to take those tradeoffs mostly out of the hands of accountable elected officials and put them in a professional planning bureaucracy.
The group is rallying support with a "big tent" approach. Want more density? Less density? More development? Less development? More social equity? Better education? Lower taxes (via more efficient coordination)? Lower crime? More parks and open space? Better drainage? Less air pollution? Less gentrification? More affordable housing? More transit? Less traffic congestion? Planning is your silver bullet.
I had been inspired after my Leadership Houston debate with Peter Brown about a month ago. I finally thought we'd found some good common ground. More coordination between agencies. Less waste. No zoning or land-use regulation. I felt like we made some progress cutting through the abstract fog of this planning thing to what the real issues and problems were. But now I realize the perspectives are still far apart. Listening to some of the speakers, I wondered if we were living in the same city. They painted a tremendously negative picture of Houston as The New Detroit in need of a major turnaround and overhaul - a city careening towards wasteland status.
My perspective has been that Houston is one of the most successful and vibrant major cities in America today: an economy growing at twice the national average, a robust local housing market among a national slump, a redeveloping core, a wonderfully renewing downtown, an excellent transit system with well-thought-out future plans, the most affordable major metro in the country, an incredible variety of wonderful restaurants, global diversity living in relative harmony, and so compelling we're attracting waves of both domestic and international migrants, including plenty with high skills and education.
Perfect? Absolutely not. But those characteristics seem like a pretty strong argument for "tweak/adjust/improve", not "complete overhaul of how we run the city." What are the specific problems we want to fix? Can we do that with targeted ordinances and incentives? (like the mayor is doing with historic preservation) Easier variances or alternate development codes? (like the urban corridors initiative) Better coordination between agencies? Improved deed restrictions? Area plans? Local district authorities or TIRZs? These approaches are more flexible, targeted, and responsive to the specific neighborhoods and citizens involved, without jeopardizing our foundational urban development framework that has served us so well for so long.