Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An image overhaul for Houston?

Lisa Gray's Chronicle column last week on an image overhaul for Houston re-sparked my interest in a topic I've explored many times on this blog: our identity. First, some excerpts from her column:
Houston's brand

Martin is at her best talking not about history and sociology, but about the stuff she really knows: marketing. Right now, she says, Houston's brand is in trouble.

The world thinks of us (and with reason) as a city built on oil, the headquarters of the world's petroleum industry. In this era of global warming and disappearing fossil fuels, Martin says, that's not the image you want. It's an "anxiety brand."

Anxiety brands play to consumers' uncertainty or fear. Hillary Clinton made herself into an anxiety brand, portraying herself as the seasoned, known candidate, less frightening than her (then) unknown competitor. The result was about what Martin would have predicted: effective at first but not long-term. People don't like anxiety brands.

Martin suggests that Houston could instead become a "compassion brand," known for its friendliness and big heart. When Hurricane Katrina showcased that side of our civic personality, people in other cities were surprised — just as they're surprised, once they get here, to discover Houston's openness to newcomers and its easy racial diversity. We could be known for our niceness — a city akin to Minneapolis, a brand like Kleenex or Dove soap.

Alternately, and more powerfully, we could be an "idea brand," a brand that seems magically new and transformative. The iPhone is an idea brand, says Martin, and so is Barack Obama.

But if Houston became an idea brand, what would its idea be?

All kinds of energy

Stop being the Oil City, Martin urges. Instead, be the Energy City.

Trumpet Houston's pioneering work in new technologies, such as solar and wind power. At the same time, talk about the other kinds of energy that animate the city. Let the world know about the Art Car Parade, about the Menil, about the opera and ballet and Discovery Green. Encourage the city's art scene to grow. Show the world that, while other cities see their economies are drooping, we remain vital — a place where new ideas can fly, new companies can thrive. Make Houston a place where energetic people want to spend their lives.

"Houston has a story to tell," Martin says. "And that makes it powerful as a brand."
While she's right about many of our traits, I'm not a fan of "Energy City." Yes, in theory it can be stretched to encompass the things she talks about, but I think the vast majority will hear it and go no further than, yeah, Houston has the energy industry. Reviewing my old posts on different identity options, I keep coming back to "Open City of Opportunity" as my favorite, or, in an extended version, "Texas' Open City of Global Opportunity." It definitely qualifies as an "idea brand" that reinforces our true identity, with encouraged collective behaviors (nice, friendly, open, entrepreneurial, etc.), rather than a simple brand image.

As an aside: at the conference I just returned from, one of my dinner table conversations focused on Houston. The first vibe I was getting from people was, "Is that really where you want to live?" But after I talked about the lack of zoning and the vibrancy and diversity that creates (I even threw out that Houston might, in spirit, be "the Hong Kong of America"), I could see their opinions shift in a much more favorable direction. I think people are starting to recognize how much new energy gets sucked out of their cities with heavy land use controls.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on Houston's identity/image/brand in the comments...

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43 Comments:

At 11:50 AM, November 12, 2008, Blogger Joe said...

Nothing wrong with "The Energy City". They used it in the movie Rollerball (the original, good one).

"Texas' Open City of Global Opportunity" sounds like it was put together by committee.

 
At 2:42 PM, November 12, 2008, Blogger kennethjulikiera said...

You only worry about branding when you stop having a good product to sell. Houston has jobs, recreation, low cost of living, great climate, friendly people and jobs, and jobs. Did I say jobs? Pittsburgh needs to worry about a brand, Philly needs to worry about a brand. They have nothing else to sell.

 
At 3:09 PM, November 12, 2008, Anonymous kjb434 said...

I agree with kenneth. Focusing on image means we're insecure about our standing.

Houston is positioned good even in the coming tough times.

 
At 5:17 PM, November 12, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree we're well positioned with good strengths. The question is how to sum that all up into a strong brand identity that works for both local and non-local talent as well as businesses. There's no reason our image shouldn't be as compelling as Silicon Valley or Austin.

 
At 9:54 PM, November 12, 2008, Blogger Clarence said...

Drop the "City of Global Opportunity" and you might have a better, less brand-by-committee sounding name. Also, like any good brand, it's somewhat ambiguous. It can mean anything from an open (and low tax) environment for business to an open cultural atmosphere.

It's also a nice way to try to combat the general stereotype most outsiders have of Texas in general and Houston in particular -- a lot of Yankees and West Coasters think of Texas as predominantly white, homophobic place. We all know that Houston's a much better place than that.

(If you've got a problem with a one word brand, I've got one case study for you -- Barack Obama and "Change.")

 
At 12:34 AM, November 13, 2008, Anonymous common_sense said...

Not sure what type of people you have dinner parties with but I have never heard anyone rave about the lack of zoning. If anything, it scares most people to death. The first thing that comes to mind is that someone will build an oil refinery right next to your neighborhood.

The job market is good here; that is enough to get many people to come to Houston. Honestly, that is why I am here.

Good job market, nice people, decent social scene...the city has some advantages. The two biggest flaws, the sprawl and general unattractive nature of the city, is not going to change overnight and certainly is not going to change just because someone throw a new "brand" on it.

But I did hear that the city government is planning on banning those giant blowup gorillas and whatnot...that is a start!

 
At 5:52 PM, November 13, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

While I agree that it's a bit wordy, it could be used as the central theme for a broader image campaign. I think presenting Houston as a door to the American dream is the ideal image. For millions of frustrated dreamers who can't afford to start their own business (think LA) or they live in a city with a static economy (think Buffalo) Houston is the place. It's cheap, it's growing, and it's more accessible.

Think of ads with Fanfare for the Common Man playing in the background. Ads showing average people building companies people can relate to, not just cliche's like a swanky bistro or an ad agency. Give them a window that lets them believe that their dreams are possible, in Houston of course.

 
At 6:47 PM, November 13, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

In my opinion the "BRAND YOUR CITY!" movement should be the province of second- and third-rate locales who have no actual means with which to differentiate themselves.

Houston speaks for itself. And if some people don't hear, well, who cares? Houston is not in want for newcomers right now...

 
At 6:54 PM, November 13, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

common_sense:

As you correctly point out, virtually all the arguments for zoning are based on fear; in practice, the only way you're going to end up with an oil refinery next door is if you bought land in an already mixed industrial-residential area like Harrisburg or Texas City.

When people like O'Toole talk about the benefits of unzoned Houston, they'll often point to places like the Woodlands Waterway as evidence of what developers can do when unbound by regulation. But in my experience, people in those deed-restricted suburban communities tend to support zoning.

If you want to find the biggest cluster of people who truly appreciate Houston's unzoned aesthetic, you need to go inside the loop, where deed restrictions are expired and urban scale is truly a block-by-block phenomenon. Talk to people in the 'trose or thre Third or the TMC area. Even the Heights people are down, although the extreme shrillness of the "ban townhomes from the Heights" crowd can sometimes cloud this.

From a public policy perspective, then, if we want to encourage Houston to stay unzoned, we want to create more places like the Montrose and less places like Cinco Ranch.

 
At 9:55 PM, November 13, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>If you want to find the biggest cluster of people who truly appreciate Houston's unzoned aesthetic, you need to go inside the loop, where deed restrictions are expired and urban scale is truly a block-by-block phenomenon. Talk to people in the 'trose or thre Third or the TMC area. Even the Heights people are down, although the extreme shrillness of the "ban townhomes from the Heights" crowd can sometimes cloud this.

I respectfully disagree with this sentiment. As density increases, the reasons to have zoning also increase. Yes, people may like the fact that they can live in a brand new 2 story townhome in Montrose. When they want to build a 25 story condo tower next door, these same people will get pissed off that nothing prevented that. All you are observing right now is that Montrose or Midtown are not quite dense enough to be experiencing these problems on a grand scale.

>>As you correctly point out, virtually all the arguments for zoning are based on fear

The arguments for zoning are that every other major city in the country has it, and virtually all of them look much nicer than Houston from an aesthetic perspective. Also if people are going to shell out for property, they want to see that the community is helping to protect that investment. If you want to call that "fear" and I want to call that "investing" - so be it - I think we're on the same page.

I'll echo common sense - I don't know who you guys talk to that are impressed by Houston's lack of zoning - presumably Ayn Rand aficionados and Reason-readers - but the last friend of mine that visited me asked me - unprompted - "How can you buy property here? There is no telling what they are going to build next to you." Another unprompted quip of his: "Well, it's cheap, but you get what you pay for." (Not intended as a compliment)

 
At 10:23 PM, November 13, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> There is no telling what they are going to build next to you

Actually, if you buy in a voluntary deed restricted area, you know *exactly* what can be built next to you - as opposed to zoning, which can be changed at any time if the zoning board gets bought off.

 
At 10:35 PM, November 13, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>Actually, if you buy in a voluntary deed restricted area, you know *exactly* what can be built next to you - as opposed to zoning, which can be changed at any time if the zoning board gets bought off.

Hmm, I thought we were talking about voluntary deed restrictions - keyword "voluntary". Abram mentions "expired deed restrictions". Seems like they can change too.

I know nothing is permanent. The government could decide to build the Texas Trans Corridor through your backyard and you might end up just having to deal with that. But some form of zoning - and I mean zoning FOR density / transportation / walkability in many cases - seems to me like a better framework than anything else I've seen.

 
At 7:30 AM, November 14, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The problem in other cities is that attempts to zone density get screamed down by neighborhood NIMBYs - and zoning boards usually cave to that kind of political pressure. That can't happen in Houston, and density gets built when the demand warrants it.

If you want locked-in protections, buy deed restricted (and, of course, watch your expirations and renewals). But a lot of land owners have realized they make out a whole lot better if a developer has the flexibility to buy them out and put a lot more density on the lot. It makes their land a whole lot more valuable. But it's certainly your choice what you buy, restricted or unrestricted.

 
At 10:39 AM, November 14, 2008, Blogger Unofficial Texas said...

Houston is not ego-driven and we don't need a new "image" to placate the hyper-creative types that burden so many other cities. What we are speaks for itself. Go "brand" somewhere else!

 
At 7:04 PM, November 14, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

michael: deed restrictions can't "change," but they do expire.

A lot of the deed restrictions in newer areas of Houston run for 50 years or greater, so if you buy fresh out of college, you'll probably be in an assisted-living facility by the time anything untoward gets built next door.

When places like the Heights and the Montrose were platted, deed restrictions typically only ran for 25 years. That's actually one of the great safeguards against phantom refinery encroachment. Deed restrictions set the tone for a neighborhood, so that when they *do* expire change occurs gradually. Have you noticed the biggest fight over land-use (Ashby high-rise) is about putting residential condominiums in a residential neighborhood? Not really an "incompatible use," when you think about it.

Fact is, some of us (actually a lot of us) LIKE "Houston ugly." Check out the HIWI site at houstonitsworthit.com for some examples. I don't think the opinions of your judgemental friends-from-out-town really matter too much; a city should be shaped by the people who live there, not for the people who swing by every now and then. And the people of Houston have routinely voted AGAINST zoning (to your chagrin), just like they voted FOR light rail (to Tory's).

When I leave Houston and go to a place like suburban Dallas, it all feels fake to me. Six-lane arterials without a single commercial service, rows of homes set back the same distance from the street, vast fields of tilt-up industrial buildings unbroken by the occasional bungalow or tex-mex joint.

Houston is real.

 
At 10:16 AM, November 15, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>Fact is, some of us (actually a lot of us) LIKE "Houston ugly." Check out the HIWI site at houstonitsworthit.com for some examples. I don't think the opinions of your judgemental friends-from-out-town really matter too much; a city should be shaped by the people who live there, not for the people who swing by every now and then. And the people of Houston have routinely voted AGAINST zoning (to your chagrin), just like they voted FOR light rail (to Tory's).

My bad, I thought we were talking about the image of the city and how to improve it. In which case it would be important to ascertain what outsiders think of us. Also, the last zoning vote was in the mid 90's or so?? I believe within the next 10-20 years, Houston will also have zoning. New York did not have zoning until 1920. (In fact, we will already have zoning around IAH and Hobby because the Feds are requiring it)

For the record, I do live in Houston, as do many of my friends - but most of us are not from Houston originally - and most of us do not care for the lack of zoning. It is an anomaly most often used for entertainment purposes - "hey look at that adult book store right next to these mansions. Or strip club... or lumber mill".

I also like the efforts of the Houston It's Worth It crowd, but I suspect for different reasons. I like Houston's incredible diversity and opportunity - however to me the very slogan "Houston It's Worth It" means that it is worth beautifying Houston and making it more livable, not "keeping it ugly". And I don't happen to think that said diversity and opportunity will go away just because we initiate some forms based zoning inside various parts of the city a la what Crossley has proposed - which will help us plan a better transit grid for the future, among other goals.

As for your comments about the "fake" feel of suburban Dallas as compared to central Houston, I encourage you to get out to Cinco Ranch, the Woodlands, or Pearland. If you think those areas are more "real" than suburban Dallas, please do let me know. These areas are about as fake as you can get in my book - complete with fake lakes and fountains, and a church in every subdivision. It doesn't get much more Stepford Wives than this.

Perhaps you should compare central Houston to central Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas? Otherwise I will compare Cinco Ranch to 6th Street and claim that "Austin is Real".

 
At 8:37 PM, November 15, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

Fact is, a lot of non-Houstonians are ignorant about Houston. Case in point: I've read articles that refer to "older houses which lack even a proper foundation," a reference to raised-floor construction on reinforced masonry piers. Out-of-towners see concrete blocks and think "improper," not realizing that such construction was common in the prewar south and is well-suited to clayey soils and flood plains (both of which we have in spades).

The areas of Dallas I was thinking of in my previous post are the inner ring suburbs (think Mockingbird, Loop 12) which are directly comparable to, say, Westheimer between 610 and BW8, or Long Point, or South Houston. I submit to you that each of those locales is more "real" than its Dallas equivalent, although this is a silly argument.

If we're going to compare central areas, I should mention that I find the inner Austin neighborhoods cloying; it's all too perfectly-preserved, every house restored with period wallcoverings and updated appliances. And inner Dallas is an enigma; you're either on the uppity side, where everything is clean and sterile, or you're on the ghetto side, which lacks the vitality of Houston's poorer areas.

Returning to your first argument, you say that "The arguments for zoning are that every other major city ... look much nicer than Houston from an aesthetic perspective ... the community is helping to protect that investment."

First, property values. Houston is blessed with a city planning department that doesn't obsess over property values, which is why Houston has one of the highest rates of poor and minority homeownership in the country. The ghettos of Tacoma, Washington have higher rates of theft and breakins then the Fifth and the Third, but a basic bungalow in T-town will run you $120k where in Houston you can grab one for 40. That's a good thing.

Second, aesthetics. Houstonians have a propensity for eating out that eclipses most other cities. And the reason we eat out so much is because of the abundant selection of restaurants, a byproduct of the lack of zoning and commercial signage regulations. I'm guessing that the giant ARANDAS sign that greets northbound Shepherd motorists probably flunks your aesthetics test, but for those in search of Chili con Queso it is a wonderful thing.

In a planned city, the planners say "oh, there should be a restaurant or two here!" And they zone a few parcels to allow restaurants, and the artificially-limited supply gets taken by large national chains. You get an Outback, a Red Lobster, a Chile's, and a Ruby Tuesday all with harmonious architecture and tasteful monument signs.

In an unplanned city, people just open restaurants wherever. And so you get restaurants in residential areas, restaurants on every major arterial, restaurants on the freeway, an epic clutter of commercial signage. You get Chile's, Outback, five different Landry's formats and 200 other hole-in-the-wall places.

I can understand why people prefer the former - it's predictable, it's placid - but I'm quite satisfied with the latter. I'm quite satisfied with Houston, actually.

 
At 7:33 AM, November 16, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

A couple more things to add (I should really get my own blog).

If you look at cities with truly progressive zoning codes, like Vancouver, they actually look more like Houston than many American cities. Vancouver allows high-rise development in suburban areas like Surrey, Richmond, and Coquitlam as part of a plan for dense "sub centres" ringing the city. This is in contrast to most U.S. cities, which are still largely oriented towards protecting morally-superior single family residential from all encroachment. It's the same with shopping; Rice Village feels a lot more like White Rock (BC) then suburban Chicago or Philly or Seattle.

Also, as much as I like to get down and argue the merits of "Houston ugly," the truth is that only certain parts of the city fit that description - mostly heavily-trafficed arterials - and you really get to choose your experience. When I leave the Montrose for points west, I always go up Waugh to Memorial, whereas most of my friends go up Studemont to I-10. Now Studemont is a pretty ugly strip - chain-link fences and metal buildings - so you're going to have a different experience than if you go Memorial/Allen, which compares favorably to many of the country's most scenic urban drives.

Fact is, every strip of "Houston ugly" has an aesthetically pleasing counterpart. San Felipe instead of Westheimer; Braeswood instead of 59; Red Bluff to 146 instead of I-45. You get to choose your own adventure, which is much nicer than having one notion of "aesthetics" forced on you by administrative fiat.

 
At 9:39 AM, November 16, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>If you look at cities with truly progressive zoning codes, like Vancouver, they actually look more like Houston than many American cities. Vancouver allows high-rise development in suburban areas like Surrey, Richmond, and Coquitlam as part of a plan for dense "sub centres" ringing the city. This is in contrast to most U.S. cities, which are still largely oriented towards protecting morally-superior single family residential from all encroachment.

And this is probably the type of zoning that I would like to see Houston embrace. I didn't mean to imply in my previous posts that I do not like Houston - I defend Houston to my friends as well, and I have bought property here. Still, it would be nice to have some recourse if someone decided to build a 30 story skycraper next to me (since I am not protected AFAIK), and it would be great to see that the city has a plan of how it would like to develop rather than having the next business center pop up in Tomball.

In the end, I still feel that "having a plan" is better than "letting the invisible hand decide". And of course we already have a plan - witness 20 lane I-10 and parking lots at every strip center - this subsidizes a suburban and ecologically damaging lifestyle that probably 75-80% of Houstonians lead. A better model involves shared parking, no set-back requirements, and heavy use of grade-separated transit serving dense areas in the core with commuter lines out to the suburbs, and encouragement of several core business centers in the CBD and surrounding.

 
At 6:11 PM, November 16, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

You and I completely agree on the issue of parking and setbacks, but (and I'm going to sound like an annoying libertarian here) those are government regulations promulgated by administrative fiat. If we simply dropped the parking restrictions, I'm confident the private sector would figure out shared-parking arrangements pretty quickly. It's common in other cities and we even have it here with the Edwards Greenway Palace theaters.

I'm glad that you defend Houston to your friends. It makes my arguments easier. Believe me, I fully understand the urge to "protect" what we already have from encroachment. But I'm also interested to see what the future holds, and it's useful to ask what would have happened if we had zoning in 1990, or 1960, or 1930.

What if the Menil had been held up by a rezoning application? ("residents are concerned about the traffic the new museum would bring"). What if Goode's Armadillo Palace required a conditional use permit? What if the Transco/Williams Tower had been subject to a 350-foot height limit?

I'll hit on the last one further: find me ANY American "edge city" without height limits. Find me one. Because while many cities allow unlimited height in the central core, NONE allow it in suburban areas. I think it's reasonable to conclude that if we had zoning 30 years ago, the Transco Tower in its present form would simply not exist.

 
At 8:45 PM, November 16, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>If we simply dropped the parking restrictions, I'm confident the private sector would figure out shared-parking arrangements pretty quickly. It's common in other cities and we even have it here with the Edwards Greenway Palace theaters.

I agree that the private sector could figure out shared parking arrangements. I'm less confident they would do things like preserve green space or figure out how to provide effective mass transit to these areas.

>>But I'm also interested to see what the future holds, and it's useful to ask what would have happened if we had zoning in 1990, or 1960, or 1930.

If we had started with something like the "form based" codes as advocated by Crossley on his blog here , I believe Houston would make much more sense now, probably with better park space, mass transit, more walkable and bikeable places, etc. And I don't think we would have lost anything that makes Houston great - or if we had - we still would have benefited far more from gains we had achieved through such a plan. Indeed I think Houston would be doing even better vis a vis Austin and Dallas in attracting the so-called "creative class" types and service sector jobs.

>>I'll hit on the last one further: find me ANY American "edge city" without height limits. Find me one.

I would not call Uptown an "edge city", first of all. It is 6 miles from downtown by my count. If you do a surface area calculation, the entire area of the TMC, Greenway, CBD, and Galleria all fit into about 40 square miles, or roughly 2x the size of Manhattan. The Transco tower is no further from downtown than many skyscrapers in Manhattan, Chicago, or other CBDs are from each other. I would argue that this entire southwest quadrant of our city is in fact one big CBD. Many areas within this space as well as others should either be zoned or form-based to allow for unlimited building heights. However, other areas particularly on small streets that are already predominantly residential should have a designation as predominantly residential. If we are running out of office space, residential space, or otherwise we can always make strategic decisions to rezone areas over time.

 
At 1:32 AM, November 17, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

The idea that Uptown, Greenway and Downtown all form one contiguous CBD is intriguing; I've never heard it before. I can't say I'm inclined to disagree, although it must be noted that Uptown was certainly an "edge city" at the time of the Transco's construction in '83. Living in modern times we have the benefit of hindsight, but I don't think the 1983 Houstonian would have thought of the Galleria as part of the CBD.

With respect to mass transit and green space, we're in agreement. Those are the province of government (assisted by generous private donations), and things like public parks and light rail make this a nicer city to live in. But they don't require zoning.

And as for "starting" with form-based codes leading to a better transit/bike/ped experience, it needs to be noted that the first trickle of federal support for urban rail didn't happen until the late 50's (with BART and WMATA), and transit as a planning imperative didn't really take root until the 70's and 80's. Any master plan from before those eras would have simply served to make Houston even more auto-centric than it already is, and it's likely that lingering elements of that earlier auto-centric planning would continue to hinder Houston's push to densify, as they do in many other cities.

I actually find it humorous that the current crop of architecture students looks at Houston and says "wow, a perfectly-preserved slate upon which to try out our new form-based codes without the legacy effects of traditional land-use zoning!" Yes, it's a blank slate - and we should keep it that way.

You pretty much illustrate my point in your last paragraph when you say that "we can always make strategic decisions to rezone areas over time." I have no doubt that a planning department with the right aims can allow for an adequate stock of R, C, and I; it works in other cities. But what makes Houston special is everyone contributing to their own idea of what the city should be, with interesting and quirky results. It's simply less predictable than Dallas, or Chicago, or even "weird" Austin. Lack of aesthetics on major streets is a small price to pay.

To return to the issue of parks and transit, you are correct, we do need more of both. But this can be done without any new restrictions, and I'd argue that the failure of previous administrations to provide any kind of rail transit blows a mile-wide hole through the theory that if we had just had zoning in the beginning, this would be a better place. No, it wouldn't. With all likelihood the process would have been hijacked by the same well-to-do single family homeowners who run things in other cities, and who even here have succeeded in killing rail projects and postponing high-rises. And without that increased density in formerly low-rise neighborhoods, Houston would sprawl EVEN MORE.

 
At 9:47 AM, November 17, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>To return to the issue of parks and transit, you are correct, we do need more of both. But this can be done without any new restrictions, and I'd argue that the failure of previous administrations to provide any kind of rail transit blows a mile-wide hole through the theory that if we had just had zoning in the beginning, this would be a better place. No, it wouldn't. With all likelihood the process would have been hijacked by the same well-to-do single family homeowners who run things in other cities, and who even here have succeeded in killing rail projects and postponing high-rises. And without that increased density in formerly low-rise neighborhoods, Houston would sprawl EVEN MORE.

Talking about "what could have happened" had Houston initiated zoning in the 1950's is a moot and academic exercise. In the end - we have achieved largely what most other American cities have achieved with zoning - a huge sprawling mess.

However, I am arguing that zoning can be applied to create density just as it has been used in the past to create sprawl. Central Houston is becoming more like Chicago, NYC, Philadelphia, etc. These are all places where I see zoning as a basic prerequisite - it is not a luxury. I think you'll see the adoption of zoning in Houston over the next decade or so - more Ashby and other controversies will ensure it. "Anything goes" simply does not work when you have 5,000+ people per square mile - you are going to have controversies over building heights, access to sunlight, noise, traffic, mass transit, sidewalks, signage, building uses, parking, etc. I really don't see any way around this new reality, and the libertarian arguments do not effectively answer these challenges - instead they "wish them away". I would be happy to hear alternatives to zoning or form-based code that are more open or libertarian-friendly, but simply saying that "there are no problems with the lack of zoning" or "we do not need any additional government tools to deal with these sort of issues" is an argument that I find increasingly untenable.

 
At 12:51 PM, November 17, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

Talking about "what could have happened" is anything but a moot exercise. For if we can agree that (i) the goals and preferences of the urban planning community have changed several times in the past 85 years, and (ii) earlier forms of zoning would have stymied the development of the Houston we now know and love, then it's eminently reasonable to extrapolate the curve out and say that (iii) current forms of zoning will stymie the development of a future Houston which would be just as dynamic, interesting, and quirky as what we enjoy today.

And as for your "new reality" of "more controversies," tell me, which of these are *actual* issues? Houston, as you correctly point out, is a vast sprawling mess, so I don't think "access to sunlight" is really going to be a problem here like it is in NYC. Thus far the developers of high-rises have kept them a decent distance apart. As for Ashby, the only real issue there is people don't want to see a condo from their backyards. All the other stuff (traffic, etc) is a red herring. There is already a similar high-rise in River Oaks, on San Felipe, and it doesn't hurt the livability or property values of the surrounding houses.

Ashby is only "controversial" because the surrounding homeowners are connected politically. Richmond Rail was "controversial" for the same reason, but in both cases I think if you straw-polled random people inside the loop you'd find that public opinion runs against the noisy homeowners.

The highest density in Houston occurs in the Sharpstown/Gulfton area, vast fields of garden apartments that are about as close to "zoned" multifamily as you can find in Houston. Any future on-street parking issues can be knocked out by issuing area-specific parking permits and restricting daytime use by non permit-holders.

What else did you raise? Signage? We've already discussed that. Building heights? I sure hope they *don't* legislate those. Mass transit? Yes please. And building uses? I realize that everyone wants to live next to an organic fair-trade coffee shop and no one wants to live next to "Bizarre Video and News 420," but the fact is they both provide legit commercial services and I'd rather live in a city where one group's tastes aren't legislated over another's.

It's not about libertarian ideology;(catch me on other forums arguing for a much-more-regulated healthcare system), it's about making sure Houston continues to become an even cooler place than it is today, a place that's much more interesting than anything Ebenezer Howard could have envisioned.

 
At 1:26 PM, November 17, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>Talking about "what could have happened" is anything but a moot exercise. For if we can agree that (i) the goals and preferences of the urban planning community have changed several times in the past 85 years, and (ii) earlier forms of zoning would have stymied the development of the Houston we now know and love, then it's eminently reasonable to extrapolate the curve out and say that (iii) current forms of zoning will stymie the development of a future Houston which would be just as dynamic, interesting, and quirky as what we enjoy today.

We can agree to disagree. I don't agree with any of your 1 - 3 points above - yes Houston would have been different with zoning but as I have argued before, it would be better, not worse. My theory is more like 1) Land is a limited commodity 2) As population increases, conflict over developments will also increase, and 3) Thinking about problems and using expertise to solve them is generally better than assuming that some invisible economic force is going to magically solve said problems for us.

You also fail to see how zoning can actually encourage mass transit - hint - groups in transit and development sectors working together will yield greater ridership than haphazard developments flung all over the place. "Yes please" is not a mass transit strategy.

>>And as for your "new reality" of "more controversies," tell me, which of these are *actual* issues?

All of the issues I raised are actual issues, and you raised the typical libertarian response, which is to wish that it weren't so. You are correct that Ashby is only a controversy because the homeowners are connected politically. If it was the common plebeians, they would already be living next to a sewage processing facility. Read message boards on HAIF, Chron, CTC, or over at Gulf Coast Institute - people *ARE* complaining about other issues from noise to signage to traffic to lack of parks all across the city - from the Med Center to the Heights. Your deaf ear is not helping.

>>And building uses? I realize that everyone wants to live next to an organic fair-trade coffee shop and no one wants to live next to "Bizarre Video and News 420," but the fact is they both provide legit commercial services and I'd rather live in a city where one group's tastes aren't legislated over another's.

What about living next to a lumber mill? I looked at a house in the Heights which was right next to one. I do not mean building uses in the sense of "coffee shop" or "adult video store". I mean when you build a Transco Tower in the middle of River Oaks that has enormous implications. If you build an industrial plant in west Houston that also has enormous implications. Currently the cancer rates in East Houston near the ship channel are several times higher than the national average - perhaps with better planning we could have encouraged more separation of our residential and industrial facilities.

>>It's not about libertarian ideology;(catch me on other forums arguing for a much-more-regulated healthcare system), it's about making sure Houston continues to become an even cooler place than it is today

I applaud you for arguing for a better health care system (although I would really have to see your arguments / reasoning), but I think you could put your voice to better use for Houston by encouraging sensible development restrictions. Just like health care, or more progressive policy in general - urban planning and mass transit is an area we are going to see a lot more regulation and encouragement of in our lifetimes. Best to get on the right side of history.

 
At 5:40 PM, November 17, 2008, Anonymous Neil said...

The truest one is the way that I choose to make Space City mean - space for people, space for interaction not determined with a straight-rule like in the classic urban northeast. But most people will never twist away from the NASA space city origins, so it's a nonstarter. Open City is fine, but more memorable would be a single Super Bowl ad spot showing nothing but the shape of the state on a live oak and computer chip background and then the words: "Texas. We're hiring."

Still, the reason that political PR issues campaigns take place on a largely imaginary plateau of symbolism is because campaigns know that their persuasion is only targeted to those who are up for persuasion. Obama did various things to try to get his brand to snowball, including noble pledges to win the favor and attention of the press when he needed it (abandoned once things were avalanching enough that he didn't need to honor it), and perhaps McCain's anxiety brand did some similar deplorable gestures. Yet aside from constant preaching to make apostles of the converted, they were really just trying to discuss such values as would win the part of the spectrum that was winnable instead of in the opponent's bag from the start: The harsh reality for us is that my reflex-migration LA and Brooklyn friends are going to find any place creepy until it pledges obeisance to "the right side of history", and only then will they reconsider it as a possibly noncreepy place. Appeals to such people are not viable. At best they say from the flaps of their Democratic tents, "the future may be there, but the present may be here." Houston is a place you need to marinate, not hit a checklist of attractions. They're not about to experience life in the way that it engenders.

But consider the opposition we're talking about. In this case the actual tactile comparison, I only mean... When you ride through countryside, you're not going to be the most impressed unless you get some ways off of the highway. When you ride through the metropolis, you're not going to be the most impressed unless you stick to the main drags.* The basic fact is that what appears to be great places' virtue is their curse, and that what appears to be Houston's curse is its most profound blessing. Life needs low stakes or it calcifies.


* In like manner those places get critical mass at untold opportunity cost. Even though the story of cities is basically agglomeration /bonus/ through specialization and access, the classic peak model that Houston is being told to emulate frustrates an enormous proportion of what could happen there. Houston is one of the few places where a truly alternative peak urban life could be invented... but not around the concentrating infrastructure nodes currently planned.

 
At 9:21 PM, November 17, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

Michael, it does not appear as though you can be swayed or otherwise influenced by arguments from historical or current trends. Statements like "Best to get on the right side of history" display an ideological predisposition toward zoning; you've already decided that planning is the "right" path regardless of its actual outcomes.

I fail to see how zoning that "allows" density near transit will encourage more development than an unzoned city which, by nature, allows everything. In every other major city, zoning has artificially restricted the housing supply for so long that simply zoning for TOD results in its creation. In smaller cities, like Portland, the city must actively incentivize TOD through things like property tax abatements, which shift the tax burden away from the upper classes and onto the lower and middle classes.

Houston has a unique urban fabric unreplicated in any major American city, which is a result of its unique culture, history, and lack of regulation. Attempting to seperate these factors produces an intriguing set of chicken-and-egg questions, and I believe it to be self-evident that "fixing" Houston's boisterous, unrestrained development pattern would produce gigantic externalities that are, in the view of myself, my friends and acquaintances, negative.

There are a great many cities in the US and abroad which provide adequate amounts of parks, rail transit, and aesthetically pleasing commercial strips. There is only one Houston.

 
At 1:38 PM, November 18, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>Michael, it does not appear as though you can be swayed or otherwise influenced by arguments from historical or current trends. Statements like "Best to get on the right side of history" display an ideological predisposition toward zoning; you've already decided that planning is the "right" path regardless of its actual outcomes.

Not true - I am very persuadable - problem is you have to convince me with something stronger than your own personal assertions that Houston is great because of its lack of zoning. I think Houston is flawed because of its lack of zoning. I think Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, and many other cities have dealt with their development and growth more effectively than Houston - indeed these cities are growing as fast or faster than Houston yet they are still more visually appealing than Houston. And they are all zoned.

I see that "right side of history" irks some people here, but I honestly don't say it just to provoke. For Waco or Del Rio, I think "no zoning" is probably in the future for the next 200+ years - and I would never presume that zoning is the right answer for communities of such a size. For Houston, I think "no zoning" has a maximum lifespan of maybe 2-3 more decades - but arguably we could see citywide zoning within the next few years. In the 1994 vote, zoning was defeated 53-47 - a close margin - and as Houston grows I think the burden of proof continues to be on the side of "why should Houston continue to be the only major city without zoning?" If your arguments are so compelling, why did 47% of your fellow Houstonians disagree with you in the last vote (a percentage which I would bet money is greater than the percentage that voted for zoning here in the 1960's and 1930's)? Anyway, that's what I mean by "right side of history" - as Houston continues to densify and infill I really see no way around it.

>>In smaller cities, like Portland, the city must actively incentivize TOD through things like property tax abatements, which shift the tax burden away from the upper classes and onto the lower and middle classes.

Yet I'll bet you support a flat tax, right? That's besides the point I suppose, but I'm in favor of progressive taxation. However I find it amusing when libertarians argue that they are actually friends to the common folk - and then argue for providing a dingy bus fleet (if that) and not spending any money to truly help the community.

>>There are a great many cities in the US and abroad which provide adequate amounts of parks, rail transit, and aesthetically pleasing commercial strips. There is only one Houston.

Gee, and I thought parks and effective transit were something all human beings appreciate. Not Houstonians, huh? Give me a break.

 
At 9:07 AM, November 24, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael said...
Hmm, I thought we were talking about voluntary deed restrictions - keyword "voluntary". Abram mentions "expired deed restrictions". Seems like they can change too.

Deed restrictions, if written correctly, can be made perpetual. One problem many neighborhoods contend with is the City's legal department which is sized too small to assist poorer neighborhoods in enforcing their restrictions. This has worsed under Mayor White's administration.

 
At 10:08 PM, December 01, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

Tory has linked to this debate from the front of his blog, so I'll return to hit one point that I didn't make in the original discussion.

The houses next to lumber mills that Michael mentions encountering in the Heights are a product of historical transportation trends, when cars weren't prevalent as now. Locating houses near industrial areas *made sense* then, because it allowed the homeowners to walk to work. Recall that in those days, industrial jobs were typically a lifetime affair - we didn't see the same sort of constant migration as today - so it was a smart enough decision to buy a house close to the plant.

In fact, you'll find much the same pattern if you look at Soviet planned towns of the Lenin-era. The same is true of contemporary German industrial towns, which were also heavily planned and zoned. In the Soviet towns, there are small greenbelts - say 100 yards or so - between the housing blocks and industry, but in the German towns they abut each other just as in the U.S.

Returning to the Heights, there's a finger of industrial development which grew up around Nicholson street, which was a freight rail spur, and has migrated to the west, encouraged by the truck-friendly nature of the Shepherd/Durham corridor.

In fact, the industrial uses were a part of the original design, which can be clearly seen by looking at the differing sizes of the Heights' historic residential dwellings. Walk westward from Heights Blvd (which had the streetcar to serve white-collar jobs downtown) to Nicholson (which had the freight trains to serve blue-collar jobs), the houses shrink from two-story Victorian, to expansive large-lot bungalow, to modest bungalow, to simple shotgun. A very clear gradient, albeit one not nearly as vulgar as the forced separation of modern suburbia ("Lakes of Quail Ridge," "Oaks of Quail Ridge", "Trails of Quail Ridge," etc.)

Walking onto the scene in the 21st century to dismiss this intentional, purposely-encouraged outcome as a "flaw" caused by a "lack of zoning" is just ignorant.

 
At 12:08 AM, December 02, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>The houses next to lumber mills that Michael mentions encountering in the Heights are a product of historical transportation trends, when cars weren't prevalent as now.

That may be the case, and maybe not. The particular house that I looked at was built around 2000 - and the lumber facility looked much older. Perhaps the house was simply replacing an older house - perhaps it had been undeveloped land (which would have made more sense) - I really don't know. We were also discouraged from buying elsewhere in the Heights because of things like bars and barber-shops right across the street or as the next door neighbor.

Otherwise, thanks for the history of the Heights. It is informative and interesting, if not particularly relevant in showing that the best course of action in solving problems associated with density, pollution, transit, traffic, walkways, noise, etc. is to "let the market decide".

>>Walking onto the scene in the 21st century to dismiss this intentional, purposely-encouraged outcome as a "flaw" caused by a "lack of zoning" is just ignorant.

I've never said that Houston needed zoning in the mid 20th century, so I guess we are in agreement. I also agree that much of the car-based US of the 21st century could probably learn a lot from some of the development and transportation systems used in the 1930's - 1950's industrial cities and other areas such as perhaps some elements of the Houston Heights.

Also, I agree - purposely-encouraged outcomes are good! But money and paper gains for private parties are not the only purposes (witness the current evaporation of paper wealth and huge fluctuations in market values for all sorts of assets). Zoning and planning attempt to provide a decent quality of life for more people at higher density levels than can otherwise be accommodated through entirely market-based approaches. You have continued to scoff at such aims throughout this thread - but the fact remains - the citizens of Houston are concerned about noise, pollution, traffic, transit, parking, signage, parks, building heights, walkways, etc. etc. etc. You seem intent on offering no real solutions to these issues, and indeed the only point you raise is to question whether these issues actually exist. All I need to do is point to denser cities (which is where inner-loop Houston is heading) who have dealt with say one of the more trivial of these issues like "access to sunlight" - and say - "Yes, these issues do exist". The problems won't be getting any easier from here on out on the density curve, our history lessons notwithstanding.

 
At 1:55 PM, December 04, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

Michael, you say that you were "discouraged from buying elsewhere in the Heights because of things like bars and barber-shops right across the street or as the next door neighbor." But that sort of mixed use is often the reason many people move into the Heights.

That's certainly the reason I chose to live in the Montrose. Now, the beauty of Houston is that you can choose your own environment; you live next door to a bar, or you can choose a deed-restricted community where monolithic residential pervades as far as the eye can see.

This "live and let live" policy works fine, but persons such as yourself violate that covenant when you push for zoning to "prevent" such incompatible uses as houses next to bars. Because that does two things. First, it infringes on my right (and the rights of people like me) to purchase a house next to a bar, or a warehouse, or a lumber mill.

Second, it displays an extraordinary sense of entitlement, the belief that the rest of the city should be forced to conform to your desires. And I get that. There's a lot of people who'd like to live in an established, treed neighborhood like the Heights, if only it didn't have those pesky mixed-uses that reduce auto dependency and foster fine-grained urbanity and accomplish all these other Jacobsian goods.

That sense of entitlement leads to all sorts of negative outcomes, like attempts at ex post facto regulation (Ashby high-rise) or pushes for land-use zoning.

 
At 3:46 PM, December 04, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>Now, the beauty of Houston is that you can choose your own environment; you live next door to a bar, or you can choose a deed-restricted community where monolithic residential pervades as far as the eye can see.

No, you can't, because you don't know what is going to be built 5 years from now if you choose to live in an unzoned area. You could be living next to a bar today, and it could be the Petronas Towers tomorrow, or a strip club. You sure you'd be cool with that? I want to live in a community with mixed use, public transport, parks, restaurants, etc. I also want basic ground rules to protect my investment, my health, and my community. That does not automatically put me in the "I want to live in the Woodlands" or the "Stepford Wives" crowd. I'm an urbanist - same as you - apparently. I live only a few miles from downtown and enjoy it very much. I just think we have a different means of making central Houston an even better place for greater numbers of people and businesses. I believe that greater regulation would help, not hinder, these goals. Markets like certainty - and zoning, transit, and other plans - provided they are not too onerous and meddlesome - can help provide certainty to the residential, industrial, and business communities with very little downside.

>>This "live and let live" policy works fine

Just fine? Why not "wonderfully", while you're at it? Again, you've shown failure to grasp that any problems exist. Simply amazing! Kind of like Phil Gramm calling us a "nation of whiners" and failing to see the reality of the economic situation. I guess all the complaints I've seen about signage, transport, building heights, drainage, lack of sidewalks, parks, insufficient traffic capacity, parking, etc are just a mirage! Just too many people with big egos who didn't plan on living on the Las Vegas Strip when it moved in next door!

>>That sense of entitlement leads to all sorts of negative outcomes, like attempts at ex post facto regulation (Ashby high-rise) or pushes for land-use zoning.

The push for zoning is a negative outcome? LOL! I thought breathing polluted air was a negative outcome, or living 50 miles from downtown because nobody had thought of planning for denser development and transit in our urban areas. But in order to plan and build a better community, I'd have to take away your God-given right to turn your home into a booze joint, an oil refinery, or a strip club, right? Nevermind the equally important rights of your neighbors to breathe clean air, get some sleep at night, or take clean, efficient public transport regardless of disability or age to go to work and put food on their table.

This will be settled with a vote or with federal policies (like the new zoning laws around IAH and Hobby) at some point in the relatively near future. The trends are all stacked against you. I've had my say here - I'm afraid we simply don't see eye to eye.

 
At 6:00 PM, December 04, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

Michael, I've attempted to address most of the "problems" you state, and you either dodge the issue or respond with labels and categorizations. The point isn't that unzoned living is perfect, but better than all the alternatives. So let's review the complaints you've heard, one more time:

signage
---an externality of our awesome restaurant scene and low cost of living in general. also solved in deed-restricted communities, if that's your thing.

transport
---situation looks pretty good, we've got better roadways than most u.s. cities and we're on track to have more miles of LRT than "transit-friendly" cities like portland and san diego.

building heights
---for many, a unique and positive aspect *of* houston, a city where skyscrapers spring up like trees instead of being concentrated to a few clusters. see: transco tower, 2727 kirby, river oaks condos, mosaic, etc.

drainage
---a consequence of living in a giant, flat city in hurricane alley and the subject of continuing measures and improvements.

lack of sidewalks
---can be addressed by changing a few street standards. no other action needed

parks
---inner loop has plentiful parkland. subdivisions outside beltway 8 tend to have ample HOA-provided park facilities. there is a need for more acquisition and development in the ring between 610 and bw8.


insufficient traffic capacity
---the katy freeway is now 24+ lanes in places, if you count the feeders. what more do you want?

parking
---houston's parking issues stem from *overprovision*, a consequence of well-meaning gov't regulation. the solution in this case is *deregulation*.



You trot out these grocery lists of "issues" as justification for a previously-arrived-at ideal of a neat, regulated urban environment that better hews to your own aesthetic preferences, but the fact is that it's really about imposing your aesthetic preferences on others.

I don't believe this will be "settled" with a vote; we'll no doubt vote on zoning again, and it will likely lose, again, but people who possess a strong idealogical commitment toward regulation will no doubt continue to push for it, just as they have for the last eighty years.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

 
At 6:12 PM, December 04, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

On another note, you bring up "my neighbors" as a phantom construction which need to be "protected" from my decision to "turn my home into ... an oil refinery." (it's always oil refineries.) But really, you would do well to meet my neighbors.

I live in a multifamily building in the Montrose, and while my neighbors have a diverse variety of reasons for living there, most of them moved for proximity. Proximity to downtown, proximity to bars and clubs, proximity to major bus lines, proximity to others of a similar sexual orientation, or some combination of these.

And while I'm sure you could find one or two in the building who support zoning, most if not all would be opposed to the kind of "healthy seperation" which you promote, where the industrial uses are all off over here and the clubs and bars are all off over there and the residential areas are pure and quiet and uninfringed by all those morally-questionable commercial uses. Those uses are, after all, why they moved to the 'trose in the first place.

 
At 8:16 PM, December 04, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>insufficient traffic capacity
---the katy freeway is now 24+ lanes in places, if you count the feeders. what more do you want?

Ugh - I really don't want to go through all the issues with you, but let's take just this one example. I am not talking about Katy Freeway alone - although it should have been built with commuter rail. I am saying that you cannot build dense residential high rise areas without adequate transit and local roadways. I do not support skyscrapers, for instance, on 2 lane roads. I also do not think we can achieve New York or Chicago style densities without planning for it.

Your little Montrose multi-family building is simply not scalable. What happens when Montrose attempts to turn into Wrigleyville, which is also mixed-use, but where each building can have hundreds or thousands of people - right next to each other? You think most of the roadways around Montrose could absorb that? I don't. You think everyone will just "get along"? I don't - not without planning for that type of density.

And furthermore, I believe that a density like Chicago or NYC is what is to be desired. Instead of that, we have a bunch of David Weekly townhomes going up around the inner loop for $700k. Sorry, but I just envision a completely different city than you - one where we can all live in close proximity to each other. One where we have excellent transit. And a *major* point - one where *low income* people also have housing options in the dense communities of the inner city instead of being relegated to the exurbs and areas like Acres Homes. Let's not forget that Montrose and the Heights are WAY too expensive for the ordinary person. Creating a better community that is also more equitable doesn't just happen by magic.

>>And while I'm sure you could find one or two in the building who support zoning, most if not all would be opposed to the kind of "healthy seperation" which you promote, where the industrial uses are all off over here and the clubs and bars are all off over there and the residential areas are pure and quiet and uninfringed by all those morally-questionable commercial uses. Those uses are, after all, why they moved to the 'trose in the first place.

Like I said, I support mixed use. But there is mixed use done right, and mixed use done wrong. Again, 47% of your "neighbors" voted for zoning in 1993. Probably an additional 50% of the metro area lives in de-facto zoned areas or suburban communities. Taken together, I'll bet roughly 70+% of Houstonians prefer some form of zoning - as indicated by their living preferences. But you and your 25% have successfully "kept Houston ugly", inefficient, unhealthy, and inequitable, for now...

 
At 12:45 AM, December 05, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

But what does that have to do with zoning?

This is what makes no sense. You bring up current problems (drainage). Those need solutions. You also bring up potential future problems (what happens to the 'trose if densities increase fourfold). Those also may need solutions.

What I'm still scratching my head on is what any of that has to do with *regulating*, with making rules about what the neighborhood can and can't look like based on the twelve people who come to every single community subdistrict stakeholder plan meeting.

And what is this about unaffordability? There are apartments in the Montrose that lease for $400 per month. Find THAT in Wrigleyville.

 
At 9:50 AM, December 05, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>But what does that have to do with zoning?

Zoning and additional regulations can help solve or provide clarity around all of the issues I've mentioned. For instance, for drainage and permeability - should homes and buildings take up all of the land area that they occupy? Or should some greenspace be preserved? Should roads be required to have sidewalks and bikeways depending on their classification? Should building heights be regulated based on the traffic capacity of roads or the zoning designation of the area? Should signage regulations govern different types of zones?

I think all of these things could potentially help make Houston better and more intelligible for developers, businesses, and residents. And while a fourfold increase in density is not going to happen overnight, a doubling of density inside the loop over the next 25 years does not seem unlikely.

Of course, you can solve these problems without zoning as well - as has been mentioned - Houston already has plenty of codes and parking regulations which are a sort of quasi-zoning code. I don't think many people like it as is - and I say update that code to make it more applicable to the problems of today.

>>And what is this about unaffordability? There are apartments in the Montrose that lease for $400 per month. Find THAT in Wrigleyville.

The point is that Houston and other cities should encourage affordable housing in its core, and TOD for a greater share of its population - and this requires planning and incentives. The free market will not make it so. The free market will build $700k David Weekly townhomes, which is not the optimal use of our inner city.

 
At 12:13 PM, December 05, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

> The free market will build $700k David Weekly townhomes, which is not the optimal use of our inner city.

Well, first, the townhome prices reflect the value of the land the developer had to pay. It's a very competitive market, so prices = land + construction + a pretty modest profit. Much more affordable ones exist north and east of downtown.

Second, the vast bulk of affordable housing in the core will always be the older housing stock. The economics just don't work for "new + affordable" housing in the core. In fact, it's the natural cycle of inner cities: something old and cheap gets torn down and replaced with something new and upscale, then the new owner of that leaves behind something slightly less desirable that allows someone else to "move up", and so on down the chain until even the poorest get to "move up" a bit (assuming density increased, so the total number of units in the core increased). Everybody does better over time, even though most new construction is targeted at upscale demographics.

 
At 1:16 PM, December 05, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>Everybody does better over time, even though most new construction is targeted at upscale demographics.

This is basically trickle-down real-estate then? I don't believe trickle-down economics has worked - and I don't believe in trickle-down real-estate either. I believe in tackling problems head on - Occam's razor says the simplest, most direct answer is the correct one - in this case that means directly building new, affordable housing in the core. (In the case of helping middle class and poor, it means things like job training, health care, and work programs - not tax cuts on capital gains).

>>The economics just don't work for "new + affordable" housing in the core.

Ah, but this is where government has a role to play. If we are concerned with things like land use, carbon emissions, social equity, etc - government could nudge us in this direction. Businesses are on the look out for (relatively) short term profit *only* - this is what gives us $700k townhomes with 1-2 inhabitants - they are easy to build and its a quick buck - whether or not it is really a long-term wise use of this land. (We also then systematically under-tax the wealthiest homeowners on their property taxes by under-assessing their properties - this is another problem which creates more demand for expensive single family housing and reduces the need for these homeowners to in turn sell out to larger, more profitable developments when unable to pay their property taxes - this is probably a good argument for sales price disclosure in Texas) Governments have to be concerned with the long term welfare of the people, the community, and the country. The economics of building new + affordable in the core can work if the externalities of building sprawl or not building for enough density were accounted for by government incentives and regulations.

 
At 3:09 PM, December 05, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

I regularly promote "updat[ing] that code to make it more applicable to the problems of today." What I don't promote is restricting growth.

You ask "should building heights be regulated based on the traffic capacity of roads"? I think the question is, "should road systems adapt based on increasing building heights?" When you take the physical infrastructure as a constant, you end up with a slow/no-growth mentality. But Houston doesn't look at the infrastructure constraints and regulate development, we improve the infrastructure to allow development. And that is a truly beautiful thing.

Michael, did you go to METRO's corridor workshops? Because we actually *are* encouraging TOD; we hired some planners (from Toronto IIRC) and they held a bunch of public workshops full of citizens sitting at tables with maps and markers.

You know what the citizens said? Things like "allow shared parking" but also "don't try zoning." It was there, when people raised their hand at every meeting. The people who want urbanism in Houston, the people who'd live near LRT, are against zoning. Maybe not 80-20, but definitely against. I certainly didn't see anyone at those meetings call FOR zoning.

A few posts ago you pointed out the huge quantity of people who live in "de-facto zoned communities" outside the city limits as indicative of public support for zoning. But that's been my point all along. The people who have chosen a neat, regulated environment have no problem attempting to force their preferences on the rest of us.

It's the people inside the loop, and in other truly unzoned swaths like the Westheimer/Richmond corridor, who keep zoning at bay. Which is why the libertarians would do well to stop promoting the Woodlands Waterway and start promoting the Heights and the Third Ward.

 
At 3:20 PM, December 05, 2008, Anonymous Abram said...

We are blessed with a city charter that stipulates specific preconditions for land-use zoning. The plan has to be drawn, the map shaded in, and the public gets to look at it before they vote.

This simple rule has resulted in a "no" vote on zoning in decade after decade. Michael says this will be "settled with a vote," but I don't think it will be. Perhaps we will indeed vote on zoning in the "relatively near future." And perhaps it might pass. But it is far more likely that it won't. And when zoning fails, again, it won't be "settled." It'll just be dormant for awhile before a new group gives it another go.

Such uneasy equilibrium is the consequence of being the odd man out, the United States' only major city without a zoning code. But it's the same uneasy equilibrium that keeps Houston surprisingly livable, despite the doomsayers and fears of phantom refineries.

It's an interesting place.

 
At 4:27 PM, December 05, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

>>You ask "should building heights be regulated based on the traffic capacity of roads"? I think the question is, "should road systems adapt based on increasing building heights?"

Ah, so in order to build the Ashby high-rise, we should make Bissonnet 6 lanes and raise the speed limit to 45? OK, I am cool with that, and that will solve the traffic congestion issue of building high-rises on Bissonnet, but I have a feeling that you will see massive opposition to that sort of effort - and I don't think that's very practical or cost-effective. Why not just build on Kirby or Montrose which are already more suited for such development?

>>The people who have chosen a neat, regulated environment have no problem attempting to force their preferences on the rest of us.

We all have to share the city which we *all* live in, unfortunately. You don't seem to understand that people want *both* the location of the urban core as well as some stability and rules by which everyone plays. Just because they aren't your personal buds in the "'trose" doesn't make their opinions any less valid. I'm sorry that you fail to grasp this.

>>The people who want urbanism in Houston, the people who'd live near LRT, are against zoning. Maybe not 80-20, but definitely against. I certainly didn't see anyone at those meetings call FOR zoning.

And for proof of this, you offer the people in your building in Montrose that you know, and some people that showed up to the Metro meeting? Nice - very scientific. I prefer the good old secret ballot or scientific polling methods myself.

I say let's keep voting until your side loses ;).

-Mike

 

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