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:
Here are my reactions to several of the issues he raises:
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).
- 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.
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?