Does land-use planning/zoning inhibit a great restaurant scene?One of my posts last week inspired quite a debate in the comments on whether land-use planning or zoning has any impact on the restaurant scene in a city - interesting enough I thought the topic deserves its own post. The post noted that Houston was ranked as the sixth-best city in the country for restaurants by Forbes Traveler.
The debate started when I responded to a commentor that noted that Dallas doesn't seem to have nearly as interesting a restaurant scene as Houston - they are really much more chain-focused vs. our "home-grown" scene of great independents. That fits my limited experiences in Dallas, and I have heard it from a number of people over the years, especially those that moved to Dallas from Houston. But if you look at my eight reasons for why Houston has such a great restaurant scene, you'll see the Dallas shares pretty much all of them except for zoning and maybe a bit of diversity.
I think zoning/permitting regs play a part in a bland restaurant scene. I've heard that cities are reluctant to permit/approve independent restaurants (or developments that will have them) because they have such a high failure rate, and they fear the image of empty retail. They feel chains are much safer and more stable.Others pointed out that chains have more money to work through the permitting process, and some requirements for stand-alone restaurants driving up costs vs. strip centers, which also favors deep-pocketed chains. That led me to some additional thoughts:
In Houston, anybody who thinks they've got a better idea can find a hole-in-the-wall to start, and if they're successful, it's easy to expand from there, and if they're not, somebody else comes along to replace them pretty quickly. Really quite the Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest ecosystem that leads to some great winners over time.
I'm going to propose another potential cause: in my experience, cities tend under-zone commercial relative to demand (exception: places like CA with a local tax system heavily tilted towards commercial because of property tax caps). Sometimes it's from residential objections, but, more commonly it's from simple economic growth: people have more discretionary income over time (and want to buy more and eat out more), but planners zoned the "appropriate" amount of commercial space many years in the past. Given limited commercial space relative to demand, chains have more financial clout vs. independents, and win the competition.There are other ways to develop a great restaurant scene, as shown by some of the other cities on the list. One is lots of tourism, like Las Vegas or New Orleans (which also has a unique cultural stew to help). But another way is in older cities like NYC, Chicago, SF, and Boston that may have plenty of regulation, but they also have high incomes and a lot of old, existing street-level retail that has to fill with something, and restaurants are a very common use.
Finally, to tilt the playing field even more against independents, property owners also prefer the stability of chains as leaseholders. This happens in Houston too, but because our commercial space can expand to meet demand, there's still plenty of affordable space willing to take independents.
But when it comes to the everyday, modern, car-based city, it looks like Houston's approach of no-zoning and light regulation creates the richest diversity of great independent restaurants (and affordable too!). Now, whether or not that's good for our waistlines - and health - is a whole 'nother story...