The renewed zoning debateI feel compelled to respond to Sunday's Chronicle story on public support for zoning and the debate it has sparked in the paper (Kendall Miller/HRG response, former Mayor Bob Lanier response calling for a formal zoning vote (vs. the "backdoor zoning" sometimes being implemented piecemeal now), and pro-planning response to his response, Chronicle editorial board), but I'm not sure what to say that isn't going to be a repeat of everything I've been saying on this blog for three years.
"Zoning" and "planning" are both words that poll very well, because most people associate them in their mind as some vague cure-all for everything they don't like about Houston - the "grass is always greener on the other side" fallacy. I understand Dr. Klineberg's need to keep questions consistent over time to watch trends, but this one has very unfortunate wording:
"Need better land-use planning to guide development, or leave people free to build wherever they want?"Clearly biased. Gentle guiding vs. anarchy. If I was writing a mirror-image of the question for the other side, it would go something like this:
"Need more government control of land-use, or leave people free to control their own property?"There's also an inherent conflict here, as people support both "neighborhood protection" and "redeveloping older urban areas was the best way to absorb population growth" i.e. increasing density. The fact is, we're doing absolutely great on the latter- better than most cities - and that means less sprawl, less driving, lower air pollution, and a more vibrant core. And the best approach to neighborhood protection is debatable. Certainly it seems voluntary deed restrictions can do just about everything for neighborhood protection that zoning can, although maybe that process needs to be streamlined to be less cumbersome. And I agree with City Controller Annise Parker that limiting high-rises to major thoroughfares is a reasonable requirement, although my understanding is that the approach working through the system right now is traffic-based rather than focusing on height.
Let's analyze one of Councilmember Peter Brown's quotes:
Without sound development standards, he said, "we're losing our share of the middle class. We're getting flooding, air pollution, neighborhood blight and decline."We're getting a massive number of affordable townhomes built in the core with our light regulatory touch. Those townhomes are built on expensive land that either would become a McMansion instead (so much for the middle class), or not redeveloped at all if there weren't enough buyers for high-priced McMansions, in which case the original blight sticks around. Those townhomes accommodate several households that otherwise would live on an even bigger footprint in the suburbs, increasing sprawl, flooding, driving and air pollution. They also increase the tax base here, improving the city's ability to address exactly the problems he describes. So, essentially, the exact opposite of his argument is true.
The Chronicle editorial board states:
As reported by the Chronicle's Mike Snyder, Councilman Peter Brown, Controller Annise Parker and former Kemah Mayor Bill King all speak favorably of development regulations that fall short of conventional zoning. The incumbent, Bill White, supports more flexible ways to control urban density such as regulations concerning drainage, traffic congestion and public safety. He called zoning "an old and somewhat clumsy tool."Mostly good and agreeable, except for the statement that Peter Brown's desire for a form-based code "falls short of conventional zoning." Conventional zoning simply specifies land-use, i.e. single-family residential, commercial, industrial, etc. His code would allow mixing of commercial and residential (a slight loosening), while specifying in great detail exactly how buildings would be built (min and max height, parking amount and location, required sidewalk retail, zero setbacks, etc.). If anything, that seems to go beyond conventional zoning in terms of restrictions and controls.
I'll end with a great excerpt from Kendall's letter:
Update: Peter Brown's response letter in the Chronicle (scroll down)
City after American city has answered friction between redevelopment of inner-city areas and neighborhood concerns with such restrictions over the past 40 years, only to find that well-intentioned land use controls have caused economic woes, greater congestion and even urban decay. Further, these restrictions have done little or nothing to relieve such friction. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas recently noted that because local government polices here don't artificially distort consumer-driven growth, Houston tops major cities in resisting the economic problems now affecting most large cities. Other national experts cite Houston as an example of a city that "got it right."
There are responsible paths to balance legitimate neighborhood concerns with a healthy trend to greater population density within Houston. Improvement of the cumbersome process for renewing and updating neighborhood deed restrictions is part of the solution, and other market-sensitive answers would serve us all far better than the heavy-handed land use controls that some advocate.
Update 2: Mike Snyder (Chronicle) on Patricia Knudson Joiner's opinion (you're welcome, Mike), and here's my comment response:
Certainly infrastructure needs to be planned (with adaptations when circumstances change), but cities need to be thought of more like the market economy or a natural ecosystem than an architect'ed building: they're not planned - they evolve.