Monday, August 31, 2009

Is a 'SmartCode' the answer to Ashby?

Andrew over at neoHouston has a really thought-provoking and detailed post (including a chart and map) on how a 'SmartCode' could be applied in Houston to prevent problems like the Ashby high-rise. It also includes a wonderful defense of Houston:

On the other hand, many in Houston, including myself, believe that Houston’s free-market culture is a key component of its success as a city. While it may be messy, there’s no denying Houston’s role as the Opportunity City. Providing opportunity means staying clear of heavy-handed regulation.

For three generations other cities have regulated land use with conventional zoning. The principle of conventional zoning is this: by separating all the major kinds of land use, the “most sensitive” land uses are protected from the offenses of the “cruder” land uses.

Historically the purpose of these ordinances was to prevent new factories from dumping heavy pollution on previously non-industrial communities – thus wrecking their property values, and often their health and safety. The goal was to push smokestacks out to specific “zones,” and by defining these zones to allow people who didn’t want soot falling on their head to plan their construction activity accordingly.

However, as time went by this concept has morphed and grown into a very heavy set of regulations. In most cities today, the government essentially draws a map dictating what is allowed to be built, where it is allowed to be built, and what it has to look like. The state is therefore trying to predict the market, which never works well. This results in constant conflict between property owners and developers (who want to build what will sell) and the city (who “knows better” what should go where).

Here are my reactions to several of the issues he raises:
  • Developers can't predict if the city will choose to 'attack' their development with obscure and arbitrary regulatory enforcement: absolutely a problem that must be addressed. Kudos to Houstonians for Responsible Growth, which is pushing this issue hard.
  • Land speculation is preventing dense transit-oriented development near the rail lines: the market will eventually work this out, although I support the idea of higher property taxes for vacant and underutilized land in the urban corridors to incentivize development.
  • Our 'one-size fits all' parking and setback regulations that tend to create the same type of low-density, car-oriented development everywhere: Although I do think that is what the market mostly wants in hot-and-humid Houston, I agree they need to be relaxed, and the new urban corridor regs are definite step in the right direction.
  • The need to improve street connectivity to disperse traffic as density increases: Yes! And that is one benefit I see coming from the city's revival of the traffic impact analyses on new developments - it just needs to be less arbitrary and encourage reasonable mitigation without being onerous. And the city needs to step up and do its part to plan the street connectivity improvements as the growth warrants it.
On the surface, his SmartCode proposal seems pretty reasonable, but I have some serious concerns (beyond just the linkage with 'smart growth', which has been very problematic). Overall, this seems like extreme overkill relative to the problem - the proverbial "elephant gun to kill a mosquito." As I've pointed out before, are 'out of scale' buildings really that big of a disaster? Look at the towers scattered around River Oaks, Montrose, the Museum District, Greenway, and Uptown. As far as I can tell, they have had no substantial negative effect on property values or quality of life in those areas - and I suspect we will eventually see the same result after the Ashby tower is built.

He believes the necessary 'upcoding' would happen easily over time to accommodate growth, but would it really happen or would the NIMBYs block it? I suspect if we had had the SmartCode in place 50 years ago, Uptown, Greenway, and the TMC would have never developed (not to mention the Energy Corridor, Westchase, or Greenspoint) - much to Houston's detriment (yes, some of that would have gone downtown, but I suspect more of it would have gone further out).

There is a huge risk to taking a relatively successful system and going for a radical overhaul - whether that change is a SmartCode or the previous call for 'comprehensive planning'. It could be hijacked by all sorts of interests (especially NIMBYs, since it would be required to go through a zoning vote). It could create regulations that 'solve' all sorts of problems we don't have and result in unintended consequences. Yes, our process of handling deed restrictions need streamling and refinements, as do TIRZs, but do SmartCode special districts really add anything new? The T1 and T2 designations are barely discussed, but would generate huge controversy in this town, as witnessed by the problems created the last time Council tried to shut down development in the floodways and flood plains. Now take that circus times a hundred for something of this scale. What a nightmare.

The answer, in my mind, is taking our existing, successful system and incrementally tweaking it to fix the specific problems we want fixed, several of which are discussed in his post.

Kudos to Andrew for putting a bold proposal out there for discussion (many parts of it I agree with), not to mention a great defense of Houston's current approach, but, to abuse a cliche, why (over) fix what ain't (that) broke?

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20 Comments:

At 9:30 PM, August 31, 2009, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

I once lived in Montrose(Avondale) for ten years and am familiar with the problem of conflicting land use. I have dealt head-on with living adjacent to bars, nightclubs and auto repair businesses(all with no parking). Having lived through that I can state that the problem with the Ashby Highrise is that it's really not a problem. Except, for a few property owners adjacent to the subject property, the development has no impact on anybody. I am in doubt as to whether it has any real impact on those adjacent property owners. The irony is that many of those same owners doing the complaining are living in townhouses and McMansions whose construction supplanted the original bungalows and completely destroyed the original character of the neighborhood.

 
At 10:20 PM, August 31, 2009, Anonymous awp said...

The central conceit of those who would be economic planners is that they think that they can know enough to be able to say what should go where. The conceit of those who call for planning is that they think they are so obviously right that the planner would definitely agree with them.

If I told everyone here that someone was planning a highrise multi use development next to rice and approx a mile from the light rail line, I think most of us (from lasseiz faire to new urbanists) would have been excited for it. Who is to say the planner wouldnt have agreed with us.

 
At 9:45 AM, September 01, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>As I've pointed out before, are 'out of scale' buildings really that big of a disaster? Look at the towers scattered around River Oaks, Montrose, the Museum District, Greenway, and Uptown.

How many of these buildings are on one-lane residential and low-rise (one story or two story) commercial streets? Yes, there are residences on San Felipe and major commercial towers - but San Felipe is an 8 lane thoroughfare - so is Kirby, Main, Montrose, Buffalo Speedway, Richmond, etc. Some of the towers around Hermann Park face a park, and I don't think the trees mind having residential towers nearby - and the roads to the North side and light rail and 288 provide pretty good infrastructure around there. What other examples of out of place development are there, because to me it seems almost all of them already are located right on major thoroughfares or feeders / highways.

I think there is a legitimate concern that you start building towers without building the infrastructure - you are begging for problems. Ashby alone is not the problem. The problem is building density without infrastructure to support it. And being able to say, as a city "You know - you really should build that massive tower over here where we are planning or already have the infrastructure to support that sort of development well into the future."

 
At 11:31 AM, September 01, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is traffic really the concern here? Has anyone compared the number of units the CURRENT apartments have to what the new tower will?

Even if it's more, the traffic was already there, adding a few more units will NOT be a big deal.

-lock

 
At 1:06 PM, September 01, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>Is traffic really the concern here?

I think the concern is more about form - but traffic, infrastructure, and precedent for future land use do play a role. Is everyone allowed to contribute an additional 25-50% of traffic from their lot along Bissonnet since Ashby is allowed to do so? Could BP build their 70 story North American HQ on Bissonnet? No? Why not?

To me, building Ashby on Bissonnet is about as ridiculous as building the Sears Tower next to the Menil museum. It clearly does not belong there. I think some of these developments should be either forced or coerced to take place on our main thoroughfares - which is not far off from what Crossley or Andrew are suggesting. Why build the Sears Tower on Sul Ross when you can build it on I-10? The developer is clearly not concerned with the long-term impact of the building or the precedent they are setting, so we the citizens have to be concerned with such things.

 
At 1:57 PM, September 01, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

While most of the towers do front a major arterial, they also have 3 other sides that tend to face residential streets - not really all that different from Ashby. I'll agree Bissonet is a little smaller than the ideal arterial, but the traffic count says it will be a <1% impact. I just don't see that much differentiation vs. the other towers.

 
At 2:25 PM, September 01, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

San Felipe and Westheimer both have towers where they are only a 4 lane road with no turn lane or traffic mitigation measures with about the same number of units as Ashby. By the traffic standard that was tried to stop Ashby, it would have killed these projects.

Also, do you think traffic on Westheimer and Kirby will be much worse after West Ave is fully functional? To me it has much more impact than Ashby will potentially have on Bissonet.

Also, the complaint about form is purely subjective and makes no sense. I've made the case before that downtown Houston would not exist today if the silly concept of form was in place. Much of the current downtown was adjacent to single family residential homes. How is that different than now?

What omniscient board or group is there to determine the "right" form? Do really want to give some bureaucrat that kind of power?

Zoning and formed based codes is to protect existing developers who have a foothold in the community and the wealthy. These regulation run over poor and un-politically connected communities. Our current regulation doesn't discriminate in this way.

Poor, rich, connected and unconnected get the same treatment in our rules.

 
At 2:38 PM, September 01, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>Also, do you think traffic on Westheimer and Kirby will be much worse after West Ave is fully functional? To me it has much more impact than Ashby will potentially have on Bissonet.

Kirby and Westheimer is about as major an intersection as you can get in Houston. One day I'm guessing a subway or elevated rail line will run by it. So I'm totally cool with putting almost anything there. The same cannot be said for Bissonnet - it is not a major urban corridor and likely never will be.

>What omniscient board or group is there to determine the "right" form? Do really want to give some bureaucrat that kind of power?

Yes, I would rather give an elected "bureaucrat" power - because ultimately they are responsible to me as a voter. A developer has no such responsibility. Yes, I understand that elected officials are still influenced by money and no system is pristine or perfect. But if I have to pick my poison, I'd be much happier with a form-based code or something along the lines of what Andrew proposes than what we have today.

 
At 11:11 AM, September 02, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"but San Felipe is an 8 lane thoroughfare - so is Kirby, Main, Montrose, Buffalo Speedway, Richmond"

At no spot are Kirby, Montrose, or Buffalo Speedway 8-lane roads.

Main is >= 8 lanes south of OST, and Richmond is 8 lanes for about a few hundred just outside the loop.

None of them are that large in this area, and most are generally 4 lanes.

While there is not a good 4-lane arterial in the vicinity of Bissonet, they do have a decent grid system in the area. The traffic projections they're talking about are not calamitous. I suspect that other East-West routes will be able to pick up a share of this traffic without anyone even noticing.

 
At 11:48 AM, September 02, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>At no spot are Kirby, Montrose, or Buffalo Speedway 8-lane roads.

You are seriously arguing with me over whether the roads are 6 lanes with 2 turns or 8 lanes? Wow. I think it's safe to say my point still stands - if you are building ~30 story buildings, best to put them on an at least somewhat major road - for reasons of both form and infrastructure (including traffic).

>>I suspect that other East-West routes will be able to pick up a share of this traffic without anyone even noticing.

I totally agree with you - I do not think one lot adding an additional 25-50% over its existing traffic contribution is a big deal. I do think saying that anyone can build 30 story towers on Bissonnet and do the same thing, presumably, is a big deal - because it's not going to work - it is "stupid growth".

You know, one thing I really don't get about this board, is presumably, if the owners in the area had deed restrictions in place, you all would say "Bravo! Nothing taller can be built!" The writer of this blog lives in such a neighborhood, where nobody can put a 30 story tower next to his home (I presume). But for whatever reason, no deed restrictions exist in this neighborhood, but the neighbors vociferously complain as loud as any neighborhood would with deed restrictions or zoning, but in this case the reaction is "Screw you - you should have had deed restrictions in place". Something seems not quite right - did this neighborhood pass on an opportunity to get deed restrictions or are they just too hard to put in place in Houston? And why are deed restrictions better than zoning or different development zones if they fail to accomplish what the overwhelming majority of the neighboring community wants?

In any case, I strongly oppose the Ashby concept while still being a big fan of dense urban development. I just think there is a right way and a wrong way to do it, and building tall buildings in otherwise residential neighborhoods is the wrong way to me.

 
At 12:22 PM, September 02, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

Michael,

The neighborhoods that are complaining do have deed restrictions. The thing they seem to miss is that Ashby isn't in their neighborhood. It's next to it.

Also, zoning and planning boards are rarely ever elected bodies in the U.S. They are generally appointed. They are not accountable to the public, but only to those that appoint them. So go ahead and put trust into someone you can't vote out.

If you find a zoning board in neighboring towns to Houston that are elected, please let me know.

 
At 12:47 PM, September 02, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>The thing they seem to miss is that Ashby isn't in their neighborhood. It's next to it.

In other words, deed restrictions don't really solve cases where neighbors border each other - and you really need city-wide application of regulations.

>>Also, zoning and planning boards are rarely ever elected bodies in the U.S. They are generally appointed.

Either way, the yellow-brick road ultimately leads to me the voter - and probably if they were elected 99% of the time people would not know anything about the candidates. Still - I think my odds of being heard that way are better than going trying to be heard by the likes of Weingarten.

 
At 1:31 PM, September 02, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And why are deed restrictions better than zoning or different development zones if they fail to accomplish what the overwhelming majority of the neighboring community wants?"
-------

>>The thing they seem to miss is that Ashby isn't in their neighborhood. It's next to it.

"In other words, deed restrictions don't really solve cases where neighbors border each other - and you really need city-wide application of regulations."

--------
To the extent possible, local control is better. If you don't like it, you only have to move maybe half a mile away.

If the state makes a law regarding what kind of building you can construct, you might be able to move to another state, but that is really onerous unless you are a developer.

If your country starts getting involved in zoning, then you're basically screwed.

The 'border problem' can come up in many cases - that doesn't mean that a larger entity should come in with a sledgehammer when a scalpel is needed.

And where is the responsibility of the people in the neighborhood - to know what exists around them? Why must this duty be subbed out to the city government?

 
At 3:24 PM, September 02, 2009, Blogger Michael said...

>>To the extent possible, local control is better.

I disagree - I would say "to the extent possible, the best outcomes are better" - whether that is locally imposed in some cases or federally in others.

>>And where is the responsibility of the people in the neighborhood - to know what exists around them? Why must this duty be subbed out to the city government?

I agree with you in theory. However, in practice I think your expectation of the neighbors is completely unrealistic - almost as unrealistic as not labeling Raisin Bran and expecting me to divine its nutritional content for you. I am a homeowner in Houston and nobody ever provided me with *any information whatsoever* on this sort of matter. Granted, I think I did my homework pretty well, but to say that the rules on development in Houston are crystal clear is being a bit dishonest I think.

 
At 4:09 PM, September 03, 2009, Anonymous Abram VanElswyk said...

I once lived in Montrose (Avondale) for a couple years, and I thought it was AWESOME how packed together all the different uses were. A two-block walk and you could find dinner, a nightclub, fast food...

Such neighborhoods aren't for everyone, but there's really nothing objectively wrong with most "incompatible uses."

 
At 12:48 AM, September 04, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

I thought zoning laws were passed by the city council - at least, in New York they are. I believe the same is true for Houston's parking minimums and setbacks.

I still don't get why Houston can't live up to its no-regulation promise and just repeal the zoning laws, or however it chooses to call the land use rules that in all other cities fall under zoning codes.

Just because something is uniform doesn't mean it's equal. It's similar to historic district designations, which are typically proposed by people who live in the districts to be designated; on the neighborhood level the rules are uniform, but the impact is to boost the property values of existing homeowners and lock out everyone else.

 
At 8:32 AM, September 04, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Houston passed a city charter amendment that requires any sort of zoning system to go directly to the voters.

 
At 8:52 PM, September 04, 2009, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Does that include changing existing parking restrictions and setbacks, or only traditional zoning issues like floor area ratios and separation of uses?

 
At 9:37 PM, September 04, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Traditional zoning, like separation of uses. It is a grey area though. There is talk of "backdoor zoning" - like what might have happened with urban corridors. The city lawyers keep an eye on it. If they get too close to zoning without a vote, they could be taken to court.

 
At 11:21 AM, September 08, 2009, Anonymous kjb434 said...

"The city lawyers keep an eye on it. If they get too close to zoning without a vote, they could be taken to court."

And there is a small army of political watchers and lawyers that would be happy to take the city to courts if they slip any form of zoning. This one of the reason the Urban Corridors will set general guidelines, but not be able to force development style. Anything in the urban corridor initiative the requires density and prevents certain types of property use will be challenged legally.

 

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