Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Zoning to catalyze growth potential. Wait, what?

I have tried several times to follow the twisted logic in this Chronicle op-ed calling for the new ordinance to limit tower development to designated areas - or at least have a large buffer between them and residential areas (a result of the Ashby high-rise controversy).  I don't know enough about the ordinance to have a strong opinion on it one way or the other.  I even proposed my own compromise solution once.  But I do have a problem with the argument this op-ed is making.
  • He lists a whole bunch of rights, but carefully neglects to mention one of the core ones: property rights.  Does my right to nature, a patch of grass, and daylight override your right to build a house on that plot of land you bought?
  • He likes dynamic, unpredictable cities (as do I), but then calls for pushing tower development into designated areas, which of course makes the city more predictable, not less.
  • He calls it a zoning of potential rather than limits, but it's clearly a law focused on limiting development.
But the biggest flaw seems to be a belief that limiting development will catalyze growth and potential in the designated zones.  Yes, if you ban towers from most of the city, the handful that do still get built will have to be built in those zones.  But no matter how you slice it you've reduced the overall amount of development inside the city because you've banned otherwise viable projects from getting built, which encourages more of the outward expansion/sprawl he says will be reduced.  You've helped a few favored zones at a steep cost to the city as a whole.

The bottom line is the market doesn't support a lot of what architects and planners would like to see.  Since they can't force developers to build things, they try to get what they want by banning everything else.  Of course that limits development and drives up costs, as well as creating a fantastic corruption mechanism for politicians wanting to extract money from developers, who of course pass those costs on to you, the buyer.  Ultimately, as we've seen in much of the country, tight zoning is a path to stagnation, high costs of living, and housing bubbles, not growth.

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12 Comments:

At 10:52 AM, August 17, 2011, Blogger Kevin Whited said...

This post would be the basis for a GREAT rebuttal op-ed. I hope you'll submit one!

 
At 10:58 AM, August 17, 2011, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

What many don't realize is that, in the City of Houston, the potential of a building site is already determined by myriad factors such as deed restrictions, off-street parking ordinances and especially the most mundane issue of sewerage. Many sites have a max density built in because of sewerage alone. It is impossible to build above a certain density throughout most of the city of Houston for want of sewer capacity and permist.

A high density zoning ordinance would be useless in areas where the sewerage does not exist and redundant where it does.

 
At 4:00 PM, August 17, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

>>Does my right to nature, a patch of grass, and daylight override your right to build a house on that plot of land you bought?

I don't think any of the controversies we've seen over the past few years has to do with someone proposing to build a house in areas of Houston that are not zoned / deed-restricted. The controversies are about building skyscrapers or otherwise disproportionate buildings next to other people's houses, or on streets that cannot accommodate the expected level of traffic, etc.

And like it or not, when you have dense cities, you are going to at least have confrontations and controversy wherever your property rights infringe on my own property rights.

This ordinance appears to help lessen those disputes and direct development into areas we all know to be best suited for high-density commercial and residential anyway. But like you, I haven't studied it enough to know all the pros and cons.

In the meantime, maybe Ashby developers should scale back their plans in order to build a house, as you've suggested. I don't think anyone would have a problem with it, as long as it is not 20 stories tall.

 
At 9:46 AM, August 18, 2011, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

High rise condos don't generate very much auto traffic. A new quiki-mart at the same location as the Ashby high rise would generate more auto traffic than the high rise. An entire strip of retail where the highrise is located would generate traffic several orders of magnitude greater than the high rise.

I think the neighbors in the vicinity of the Ashby highrise are a bunch of selfish hypocrites. When I moved to Houston in the eighties, the area around the Ashby highrise was a bunch of quaint little bungalows. Now it's a mass of hideous two and three story townhomes and mini-mansions. Today, those selfsame persons who destroyed the character of a really cute neighborhood are bitching about the next step in real estate development. Just shut up, I say.

 
At 3:31 PM, August 19, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Micheal,

Wouldn't those areas "that we all know are best suited for high density" be those areas where high density is going anyways?

If we all were in agreement this wouldn't be an issue.

 
At 5:59 PM, August 19, 2011, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, if you look at the skyline of Houston, many of the residential towers are set apart from the big downtown-uptown-TMC clusters, which enhances their views as well as access to areas people want to live (like River Oaks or Washington Ave. or Montrose or the Museum District).

 
At 11:02 PM, August 20, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

>>Wouldn't those areas "that we all know are best suited for high density" be those areas where high density is going anyways?

Pretty much. I'd say 90+% of the time, that seems to be the case. People are building either on major 4-lane+ streets / highways with separate turn lanes or in our major activity centers inside the loop - or our major business centers outside the loop - which also generally have good access to freeways and / or huge roads that are built to accommodate such density.

But cases like Ashby piss me off, even though I have no ax to grind in that particular case. I just think it is a stupid choice of location for something that would be a welcome addition in many other places - it's not as if we are lacking for areas that could use and welcome such density. A law such as this might help make that clear from the outset, rather than having to fight legal battles for years and at great cost to both developers and the communities of Houston.

>>If we all were in agreement this wouldn't be an issue.

Exactly. And hopefully with a law like this in place, there would be less disagreement in the future.

 
At 11:16 AM, August 22, 2011, Anonymous awp said...

Micheal,

You missed my point. If we need a law to dictate where development goes, then there is not an agreement about where development should go.

I would have thought that a highrise development would be perfect for a site on the outskirt of the densest residential/retail area in inner Houston within two miles of the med center, five miles of downtown, half a mile from a major university and a mile and a half from a rail stop. That turns out to perfectly describe the location of the proposed Ashby High Rise.

Tory has lately been espousing the theory that most people want high rise living to take advantage of good views. You get good views if you are in an otherwise less dense area.

So no, there is apparently not agreement on where development should go. And I really have no idea about where it should go. Except that if someone is willing to put up there own money to build something then that is probably pretty close to the best use of that land. Or, at least a lot closer than some bureaucrat, or a law that enforces the status quo from when it was it was written, will get.

former anon

 
At 1:43 PM, August 22, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

>>You missed my point. If we need a law to dictate where development goes, then there is not an agreement about where development should go.

No - I totally got your point. You apparently did not understand my response. In the absence of *total agreement* - even though I'd guess we have close to 90% agreement, there should be rules to help prevent disagreements in the remaining cases. Lack of universal agreement seems to be a prominent reason why you have laws in the first place.

>>I would have thought that a highrise development would be perfect for a site on the outskirt of the densest residential/retail area in inner Houston within two miles of the med center, five miles of downtown, half a mile from a major university and a mile and a half from a rail stop. That turns out to perfectly describe the location of the proposed Ashby High Rise.

That's an OK way to describe to someone that is totally foreign to Houston - although I think your light rail estimates are a little off, and this hardly seems to be the densest area of inner Houston - that would be Gulfton, or closer to West U it would be near condo-land. Anyone that knows the Houston market and is familiar with that neighborhood knows that it is not the best location for such a development. What if we actually incentivized development along Richmond and Main St instead, where such a development would truly make sense?

>>Except that if someone is willing to put up there own money to build something then that is probably pretty close to the best use of that land.

In my view, it is probably pretty close to "the best way to make the most money for a developer in a short amount of time", which is hardly the same as the best long-term use for a parcel of land. I find the Adam Smith world-view to be a bit naive. Witness all the damage that has been done in the name of short-term profits, in nearly every enterprise.

Not saying that regulation that enforces the status quo is better, but the proposed ordinance seems far from attempting to impose rigid requirements that would prevent dynamic development from continuing to be built all over Houston. It seems closer to libertarian "suggestion / rewards" type of legislation which would encourage a more efficient use of our resources in infrastructure, sewer, transit, etc. For instance, I don't think the current ordinance would prevent something like Ashby - it would just clearly not be encouraged.

 
At 6:47 PM, August 22, 2011, Anonymous awp said...

"even though I'd guess we have close to 90% agreement"

I would have to disagree. Both in general,

and

do we have 90% agreement on each and every parcel?

"I think your light rail estimates are a little off"

I have to admit, I eyeballed it on google maps.

Montrose is by far the densest neighborhood inside the loop and it is right across the freeway. I am familar with Houston's population patterns.

"Houston market and is familiar with that neighborhood knows that it is not the best location for such a development."

How do you know this? Seems like there are quite a few people who disagree with you. Do you have some objective measure about which neighborhoods ought to be protected from redevelopment that can be justly applied, without making the status quo permanent? Or, is it all going to rest on which neighborhoods are sufficiently politically connected?


"What if we actually incentivized development along Richmond and Main St instead, where such a development would truly make sense?"

If this type of development makes sense there (i agree, but unfortunately have nothing to make that bet with), why would it need to be incentivized?

"the best way to make the most money for a developer in a short amount of time"

I'll accept that characterization as to how they decide to build something.

"^(is not)
the best long-term use for a parcel of land."

Do you have a better objective metric than mine to take a stab at getting as close as possible to best use?


"Witness all the damage that has been done in the name of short-term profits, in nearly every enterprise."

I assume you must have an extensive list of private development projects that have destroyed the neighborhoods they were placed in.
Govt. intervention in development projects don't have a great record, i.e. Kelo vs City of New London.

"would encourage a more efficient use of our resources in infrastructure, sewer, transit, etc."

Any development that increases the density of use on an already built up property in the city is almost by definition increasing the efficiency of the use of our infrastructure. Placing more arbitrary restrictions on development within the inner city will drive up costs there and force development to go farther out.

 
At 10:53 PM, August 22, 2011, Blogger Michael said...

>>I would have to disagree. Both in general, and do we have 90% agreement on each and every parcel?

Lack of agreement amid increasing density levels only heightens the need for regulations that protect neighbors from each other. Look at Klineberg's surveys and Houston Tomorrow's research to see the level of Houstonians who at least feel that Houston needs some sort of general "plan". Others have suggested that existing areas of density and high roadway capacity should be those in which we encourage our densest growth patterns. This is not a new idea.

>>Do you have a better objective metric than mine to take a stab at getting as close as possible to best use?

Best use is not a possible outcome - since we already have low-density enclaves like West U / Bellaire and deed restrictions throughout central Houston - and legally these are not going to go away. Given that best use is not possible, community input suggests that a plan such as the proposed ordinance is better than the status quo of haphazard development and ongoing lawsuits which you defend.

>>Montrose is by far the densest neighborhood inside the loop and it is right across the freeway.

Why not build where density and transit plans already exist instead of in a residential neighborhood that is ~1 mile away from future transit and separated by a super-highway? Not to mention that the immediate neighborhood is decidedly not dense.

>>Do you have some objective measure about which neighborhoods ought to be protected from redevelopment that can be justly applied, without making the status quo permanent

I don't think it would be making the status quo permanent to continue to encourage densification of certain corridors and areas such as downtown / TMC / Galleria, Westheimer / Richmond etc - and those are just a handful of areas of which there are hundreds and thousands more on which we should be encouraging dense development.

>>If this type of development makes sense there (i agree, but unfortunately have nothing to make that bet with), why would it need to be incentivized?

I believe it should be incentived to help maximize the return on our transit investment as quickly as possible. I don't think it is needed in the long run, but it may help speed up the development of these corridors, increase the tax base and shift land use patterns, and is a better use of our money than other agreements our local government has used.

>>Govt. intervention in development projects don't have a great record, i.e. Kelo vs City of New London.

What this proposed regulation intends is to make our government intervention less capricious and more predictable, of which developers should be in favor.

>>Any development that increases the density of use on an already built up property in the city is almost by definition increasing the efficiency of the use of our infrastructure

Again, I think this is a very naive way of thinking. Maybe in some philosophical sense, increasing the density of Bissonnet has some value. But in reality there are thousands of other more important corridors and areas which will be better served by our transit, roadway, and other infrastructure investments.

Furthermore, densifying an arbitrary area without the requisite infrastructure to support it can only lead to more devastation from hurricanes, tropical storms, drought, and other man-made problems of pollution / traffic / and low livability - these costs quickly add into the billions of dollars. Also, our infrastructure resources are very finite - we should focus on providing good density where we can rather than haphazard development all over the place.

 
At 6:06 PM, August 26, 2011, Anonymous Matt Festa said...

Regardless of the merits, in my opinion, the proposed ordinance is illegal. The Houston City Charter requires a zoning ordinance to be voted on by the public, and while this draft ordinance carefully avoids the z-word, it's really a stealth zoning ordinance (as the op-ed author himself acknowledges).

 

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