Monday, January 01, 2007

Planning: Panacea, Poison Pill, or just Purgatory?

OK, after a crazy-busy holiday week of extended-family and over-eating, I finally have a break to start blogging again. Sorry for the extended absence. I was looking forward to upgrading to the new-and-improved Blogger for the new year, but this recent post about migration problems has caused me to reconsider. I think I'll wait a few more weeks and let the kinks get worked out.

Most of you probably saw the planning op-ed by Len Gilroy and I in yesterday's Sunday Outlook paired up with a David Crossley piece (alternate link). I've had trouble in the past with Chronicle links being less than permanent, so I'll be including the full text below if you didn't get a chance to see it. That piece is also why I didn't blog earlier on the Garcia/Brown planning op-ed (alternate link) from the previous Sunday. We had already written and submitted it the previous week, and expected the Chronicle might consider running it later to continue the dialogue. I thought I'd hold off blogging on it until everything was out.

I have to say the Garcia/Brown op-ed seemed to oversell comprehensive planning just a tad, in the same way that beer commercials slightly exaggerate the number of beautiful women that will immediately surround you if you drink their beer. Comprehensive planning can solve our education, poverty, inequality, and crime problems? I'm sure Abe Saavedra at HISD and Chief Hurtt at HPD will be relieved that their troubles are so easily resolved.

I understand the allure of "here's utopia, here's us - all we need are a few plans and regulations, and we'll get there." But if utopia came from planning, and almost all cities are doing it, wouldn't we see one by now? I think part of the problem is that the real world involves tradeoffs, and "shared visions" don't value tradeoffs and differing individual preferences, markets do (i.e. I'm willing to give up a little A, but not B, to get C). "Shared visions" describe an ideal world, but we have limited resources, and some issues have to take priority over others. In other cases, two priorities can directly conflict. For instance, the Garcia/Brown op-ed is clearly calling for huge investments (infrastructure, mobility, transit, open space, etc.), yet is also calling for a AAA city bond rating and a lower property tax burden. Everything they list is a good thing, but the question is, at what cost? (in direct dollars and indirect regulations)

I guess I'm just more a fan of the Toyota approach of continuous improvement rather than the mega-master-plan. How can we keep moving towards more of the things we want without compromising the strengths we have? If we want something, what are willing to give up to get it? (including higher taxes) I also kind of like the idea of different agencies and departments focused on their own specific issue (like Metro on transit), and if they need cooperation from other agencies or departments, they should ask for it (and use the political process if necessary - that's what it's there for: to resolve these kinds of conflicts). Sort of a "balance of powers," with politicians sensing the priorities of the voters to resolve tradeoffs (go ahead, call me naive). When planning leads to a single all-powerful bureaucratic empire (like Portland's Metro), it's a scary thing. And, of course, valuable citizen input like Blueprint Houston should absolutely help guide individual agencies, including the city council.

All right, I've rambled on enough. On to the op-ed itself. Looking forward to the comments.

A city without a plan
Before process heads in different directions, here's a path to avoid

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry, as the saying goes. Though Robert Burns may have had the vagaries of life in mind when he penned this line over two centuries ago, he probably didn't anticipate that this sentiment would hold equally true for cities and urban economies. However, modern urban planners have yet to realize this, and Houstonians could learn this lesson the hard way.

Houston has recently begun to take significant steps down the road of urban planning by embarking on two major projects. In the first, a committee has recently released a "plan to plan" for the Planning Commission and City Council. The plan outlines a process for creating a general plan for Houston's future development. So far, the process seems wisely focused on Houston's top two critical planning-related issues: mobility and drainage (education and crime falling outside of planner's expertise). But additional committees on other issues may steer the effort in new directions in 2007.

Simultaneously, the city has embarked on an effort to reshape neighborhoods and commercial areas along Houston's urban transit corridors, primarily those served by the expanding light rail system. This planning process will spur changes to city ordinances and regulations to promote "transit-oriented development" — high-density, pedestrian-friendly development around transit stops that blends commercial and residential uses. Think of Brooklyn, New York, and you have a good idea of what they want for the future.

According to local leaders and planning advocates, these efforts are not a backdoor attempt to introduce zoning, nor are they a smokescreen for the imposition of draconian government regulations. Rather, they explain, these efforts are simply aimed at setting priorities for the use of public resources to implement a shared vision of our city's future. (Please see "Houstonians, we need a plan" by Councilmen Adrian Garcia and Peter Brown, Outlook, Dec. 24.)

It's hard to fault proponents for these noble intentions. After all, they share the same civic spirit that infuses the entirety of the urban planning profession. However, it is important to dig beneath the rhetorical surface to understand the motivations behind these projects and place them in the broader national planning context.

First, it is an accepted mantra among planners that a plan without the tools to implement its vision is a document destined for the bookshelf of history. And all planners know that the major implementation tool is zoning.

In fact, legions of planning students in leading universities are introduced to Houston as the biggest American city without zoning, a fact that leads to no small amount of consternation, bewilderment and derision. Put simply, planners are taught that unzoned Houston is the antithesis of rational design and the triumph of excess, an urban free-for-all of boundless sprawl. They would likely be dumbfounded to find out that most Houstonians actually cherish this eclectic city, the economic opportunities it provides, and the quality of life it affords.

Planners also face a sort of cognitive dissonance when they discover that the types of urban characteristics the profession now promotes — such as the density of Manhattan or the compact, Southern charm of neighborhoods in New Orleans, Charleston, or Savannah — were largely the product of free-market forces in the days before municipal planning and zoning were introduced. Houston is a modern-day example that demonstrates that planning and zoning are not essential to the viability or the livability of a city.

Houstonians have wisely rejected zoning several times over the last century. In the process, it has established itself as one the most vibrant and dynamic cities of the 21st century. Research has shown that development patterns in Houston are not dissimilar to those in other more regulated cities like Dallas and Atlanta, but the lack of strong regulatory barriers to new development has kept housing costs low and allowed the real estate market to keep apace with the demands of a growing and diverse population.

Not surprisingly, Houston ranks among the most affordable major metros in the country. That, in turn, enables the American Dream of home ownership for hundreds of thousands of middle- and working-class families. It also gives all of us increased discretionary income that can be pumped back into the local economy to support other jobs, small businesses, charities, restaurants, culture, amenities, higher education and all-around vibrancy.

Contrast Houston with its polar opposite — Portland, Ore., held by planners as the Mecca of highly prescriptive and restrictive urban planning.

While Portland has succeeded in creating a handful of attractive neighborhoods for young, childless professionals, some of the side effects have been disturbing. Given broad latitude in shaping the city through policy and regulation, its planners have worked for decades to force people to adapt to the plan.

For example, the Portland region has intentionally disinvested in highways to make driving more difficult (i.e., forced congestion) in order to encourage transit usage. Yet this plan has backfired. Portland's heavily subsidized light-rail system only accounts for a paltry 1 percent of the city's total travel, and the city has seen one of the country's largest increases in traffic congestion, a slowly tightening noose around the regional economy.

Even worse, planners have used zoning to reduce the range of consumer housing options by effectively outlawing new suburban and exurban development, forcing families into higher density living environments (i.e., smaller, tightly packed homes on smaller lots). By simultaneously preventing development on surrounding farm and forest land, the city's 30 years of "smart growth" policies have created an artificial land shortage, constricting the supply of new housing, inflating home prices and reducing economic opportunities for working families. By the turn of the century, Portland had become one of the least affordable housing markets in the nation, and its homeownership rate lagged behind the national average. According to Coldwell Banker, a 2,200 square foot, four-bedroom home that costs $155,000 today in the Houston area would cost $357,000 in Portland.

None of this is to say that Houston's current planning efforts are inherently misguided or that planning will take us down the Portland path. To the extent that the process could lead to a loosening of outdated and counterproductive city development regulations — such as minimum lot size requirements, building setback specifications and formulaic rules dictating the amount of parking spaces — the process could introduce more flexibility into urban design and allow the market to provide a wider range of development options to meet the increasingly varied housing preferences of consumers.

For example, some of us want to live in a medium-density Inner Loop townhouse development, while others may prefer a lower-density suburban setting with a larger house and yard. Planning should remain agnostic on urban form and instead create the conditions in which developers can respond to the changing demands for both types of product. In other words, planning should facilitate urban dynamism, not stifle it through stringent rules and the micromanagement of land use.

However, if the end result is the imposition of a decision-making and regulatory bureaucracy on top of something that currently works well, it could create imbalances and inefficiencies that would try to force the wrong things in the wrong places at the wrong time. Current planning tools tend to be too inflexible, static and resistant to economic changes. Houston needs flexibility and adaptability to allow dynamic growth and urban evolution.

For city leaders, the challenge will be to move from the abstract to the concrete. What exactly are the problems that planning is trying to fix, and would the ultimate policy prescriptions create unintended negative side effects or even exacerbate the symptoms? Can we fix them with narrowly targeted ordinances that cause minimal distortion to real estate markets? Would planning in Houston result in a process that facilitates and accommodates changes in the market, or would it stifle the dynamism that makes this such a great city? Is any step forward possibly a step backward, given the limitations in the current tools available in planning? Almost every policy "solution" will be more prescriptive than what's available in Houston now. How exactly will the "planning vision" be enforced in a city without zoning? Or is this a slippery slope to zoning (or to the regulatory equivalent of zoning without actually using the provocative z-word), what Dr. Edward Glaeser of Harvard refers to as "a highly regressive form of taxation"?

No doubt there are things Houston could do better when it comes to infrastructure and development. The key is addressing those issues while being aware of the risks and without making the same mistakes made by other cities. And, in the end, when it comes to "establishing a shared vision for the city," we hope that Houston moves forward as an Enabler rather than a Dictator.

Leonard Gilroy is a Houston-based certified planner and senior policy analyst with the Reason Foundation. Tory Gattis is editor of the Houston Strategies Web log.


At 1:31 PM, January 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

3 quick questions...

First, your editorial says that planning students at leading universities learn about Houston in school and respond with derision. That seems like a comment that was pulled out of the air based on maybe an anecdote or two. Do you have something with substance that backs this claim?

Second, you say that planning students face a cognitive dissonance when they learn that places like Savannah, Charleston, Manhattan, and New Orleans came to be before zoning. What did you intend by this, because what zoning and federal policy created is the now the classic sprawl pattern (which some curiously and incorrectly refer to as the free market)? That is the surprise, I would think.

Third, why did you refer to Portland as one of the least affordable housing markets in the nation when that is not true? From a regional perspective it's one of the most affordable cities on the west coast. And why did you get pricing data for a 4-bedroom house? Odd choice, when a 3-bedroom dwelling is more of the standard.

At 3:13 PM, January 02, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

1) That line came from Len, who did get a degree in planning. I have heard similar anecdotes about the "notorious Houston case study" in planner schools.

2) The intention was to say that free markets can create interesting places - they don't have to be master planned in advance.

3) Again, Len chose the specific example. I imagine the 3 bedroom is comparable - probably double whatever it is in Houston. It *is* one of the least affordable on a national basis, and has seen affordability drop particularly rapidly in the last decade as the growth restrictions really took hold.

At 4:27 PM, January 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


no argument on point 2, and that would have been a good way to phrase it.

On point 1, you may have lept to an untrue conclusion based on 2-3 anecdotes.

On point 3, there are studies such as by economist Eban Goodstein that have shown that Portland's growth boundary does not have much impact on housing prices. Also, in the late 1990s, the Oregon Building Industry Association, the state's association of realtors, and others funded a study to identify the causes of increases in housing costs in Oregon in the 90s. The effects of growth boundaries in Oregon cities was again relatively small. The biggest increases were due to increases in home building costs in general (such as materials), and of installing utilities, and etc. So the point about growth restrictions making Portland "unaffordable" is just not true. It is similar in affordability to places like Denver and Milwaukee, and certainly more affordable than other west coast cities.

At 4:50 PM, January 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

People get carried away when comparing the affordability of Houston with the other major cities. While I think the lack of redtape in Houston is a contributing factor, we also have unlimited flat land, we are able to build in 360 degrees around the core so that there is more land close to the core, we can build all year round. There are no other cities in the country that have all these attributes, and they are very effective in increasing the affordability of a region.

I dont want zoning, as I think it is just politicians asking for bribes so they will let you build what you want on your land, but I always see all these stories and such comparing Houston to another big city that is mountainous, right up against the ocean, and with shorter building seasons and saying or implying that all the price difference is due to Houston not Zoning.

I think this lack of honesty by the people who agree with me often hurts our cause.

At 7:58 PM, January 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Counter examples to the hemned in theory to home prices:
1) San Bernadino - Riverside California (390,000) - thousands of square miles of open desert.
2) Las Vegas - (314,000) sure there are mountains near, but lots of open desert.
3) Phoenix - (265,000) tens of thousands of square miles of open desert.
4) DC - (416,000) No mountains, Chesapeake bay is quite a ways away.
5) Philadelphia - (223,000)Delaware river makes up only a small portion of the area around the city.
6) Hartford, Connecticut - (256,000) not on the water, no mountains.
7) Orlando, Fl - (264,000)

Houston - 149,000

Some examples. Obviously not proof.

At 9:05 PM, January 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another counter example:

El Pase - Mountains, military base, international border - Median Price 124,000.

At 10:09 PM, January 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really was just trying to point out there are other factors in determining affordability than zoning or red tape. I believe we are on the same side. We can't talk about the differences in affordability only being because of Houston's lack of redtape. That is too easily shot down.

I will use your examples that I know anything about to try to point out more reasons.

2) Las Vegas - Hemmed in by federal government ownership of much of the American west as well as the mountains.
3) Phoenix -
Las Vegas and Pheonix are two of the fastest growing cities in the country. Which might argue that high costs dont mean that much.

4) DC - (416,000) DC is an extremely special situation, don't you agree.

7) Orlando, Fl - (264,000)
Built in Florida! on a swamp! Also google map shows it to be surrounded by and surrounding many lakes.

8)El Paso, TX - 124,000
El paso
median household income 32,205
per capita income 15,248
household income 36,894
per capita income 22,534

I am just trying to argue that there can be many other things affecting affordability and when we argue about no zoning we shouldnt rest our whole case on affordability.

We should also be clear when we talk about the lack of affordability in some places that we make it clear we do not neccessarily think the whole price increase is because of zoning and red tape, unless we really think it is.

At 10:26 PM, January 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just got done reading all three posts - Crossley's, the Garcia / Planner Brown's, and yours. Tory, most of yours and Mr. Gilroy's writings are pretty sensible, particularly your stuff on taking small incremental steps towards improvement.


1) This is not the first time Crossley has tossed out as fact that we will grow by, get this, 3,538,000 people over the next 30 years. Wow! The experts have figured out our population growth down to the last 1,000 people.

More seriously, I wrote a blog entry some time back about such a projection, located here:

Essentially, to reach such a number, the Harris County population would have to double, or a wider suburban area that encompasses perhaps Galveston, Fort Bend County, Montgomery County, Pearland, would still have to grow by perhaps 75+ percent in order to reach those kinds of numbers.

Here is a link to a site which has U.S. Census data from 1990-2005 on the 50 largest U.S. cities. Portland, like most U.S. cities fared well in the 1990's, but has only grown by an estimated 1% from 2000 - 2005. This is a possible indicator that the city of Portland (though not necessarily the wider area) might be losing attractiveness as a place to live. Note that these numbers do not include the overall urban area, but only the cities themselves.

Many in the planning / Smart Growth crowd blame federal government policies and single use zoning for surbanized decentralization of cities and urban areas in America. However I have traveled to 5 continents now and have seen dozens of cities all over the world. I can definitely say that surbanization is occurring all over the world regardless of what kinds of policies are enacted or attempted to in order to curb or stop it. This guy makes the same observation:

See the paragraph immediately below the section entitled "Moving Out: The Trend to Deconcentration".

Here is the National Association of Homebuilders excel sheet which compares 212 regions across the country for median family incomes, affordability, sales price in 3rd Q of 2006, etc.

here is another NAHB page which has more charts and tables:

Houston ranked 91st, while Portland was at 141. Portlanders have high incomes, but their housing is rising fast. These people claim that land prices (not necessarily housing prices) have gone up by an average of 12.6% per year from 1990-2005.

This newspaper article notes the significant drop in Portland public school enrollments and partially blames rises in local housing prices:

This Portland tenant /affordable housing group says that housing prices in Portland have gone up 300% over the past 15 years:

More later. It's time for me to deal with other matters.

At 9:10 AM, January 03, 2007, Blogger Dano said...

It sounds like the WSJ arty is advocating form-based zoning as is found in many places. Good for you.

Form-based zoning is more flexible and obviates dangers inherent with market failure.



At 12:14 PM, January 03, 2007, Blogger Megan and Gavin said...

Commenting on actual op-ed...

Concerning the housing prices and growth management connection in Portland, OR, there is still plenty of debate on whether the zoning or planning in Portland is attributable to planning efforts. Actual academic studies, controlling for socio-economic, economic and geographical factors find that
Portland's growth in housing prices is more attributed to increased housing demand, increased employment, and rising incomes
than its urban growth boundary. Also, after an initial spike in housing prices between
1990 and 1994, attributed by economists to rapid increases in jobs and wages, Portland’s
housing prices since then have risen at about the national average. The reason may be that despite limiting the amount of land, Portland's growth management policies actually increase housing supply relative to demand. (Nelson et al 2002; Downs 2000; Phillips and Goodstein 2000; Nelson and Knapp 1992)

At 12:18 AM, January 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My problem with the editorials is that they are so vague on the subject of planning. The Brown/Garcia editorial describes the city we want to be (at least some of us), and then champions planning as what will bring us there. The Crossley editorial argues for planning in general, with no concrete details of what this planning will involve. Tory and Len's editorial assumes that planning means zoning, and then argues against zoning.

I guess I can't really expect specifics before the plan has even been made, but I would like for somebody to get past the verbiage about "setting priorities" and tell me how this proposed plan will differ from (a) how things have been done in the past, and (b) zoning.

At 12:23 AM, January 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I concur

I always immediately think zoning when i hear planning, and I am against that.

If they are just talking about trying to decide

1 how many parks we should have and where they should be.

2 where and what form our infrastructure improvements should be

3 other similar things

then I am all for it.

At 12:26 AM, January 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

brian - Hartford and Philadelphia are not surrounded by cheap, unregulated land the way Houston is. Try building something in rural Connecticut or rural Southeast PA and you will see. I suspect the same is true for the deserts near San Bernardino/Riverside, most of which are govt. owned.

At 10:57 AM, January 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am personally indifferent about zoning, but I think that on its face it just won't work in Houston. IMO, Houston is too far gone in one direction to try to "zone". However, I do think that there have to be some considerations to some sort of "regulation", even though that's a bad word in this town when it comes from government. Ironically, deed restrictions in many neighborhoods here are far more restrictive than most zoning ordinances could ever dream to be.

I think that the notion of zoning here eventually taking away from our attractiveness is a farce. Many of our most popular suburban communities that are attracting Houston and Harris County residents are HEAVILY regulated (Sugar Land and The Woodlands, for example). This has not taken away from their attractiveness--actually the fruits of their regulations have actually been what attracts people to these places--the looks (one color brick in Sugar Land, trees in The Woodlands), the feels of those areas. Also, as a former resident of a city that zones, a place that's in demand is in demand. If a developer comes in and wants a development that falls outside of a local zoning ordinance, and the city is growing and has a great economy (like Houston), that developer won't run to another place to get the development done--instead, they will retool and bring it back, several times if need be because they want to be in that particular place. Even the Chron's recent article about St. George Place shows this. Developer was turned down, developer will resubmit.

With all of that in mind, I personally feel that the only way Houston can use "tools" to "plan" anything is through issues of form (setbacks, parking requirements, traffic impacts, etc.). If need be, let it only apply in un-deed restricted areas (which I think is the majority of the city). After all, how fair is it for a development to built in a neighborhood along 610 East that wouldn't be allowed in 610 West because of a deed restriction situation (or lack thereof). Those areas should have something to fall back on at least. I've heard it said before that neighborhoods can band together and fight the development, but if I'm a developer of a business that people don't want in their neighborhood, but my advisors continue to provide me with the info that that neighborhood is the best, most cost-effective place for ME (not the neighborhood or anyone else), and there is nothing they can use against me legally to stop me, I'm gonna most likely put it there--complaints and all.

Also, how will the Upper Kirby area deal with all the traffic being brought by the new 2727 Kirby development, the Kirby@Westheimer development, and the new apartments being built on Richmond, near Kirby. Will the developers pay for signal improvements at those intersections? Will they help pay for synchronization with the rest of the local signal systems?

Truth be told, we already plan here. We just do it indirectly by laying out streets and utilities, fostering "economic development".

At 11:45 AM, January 04, 2007, Blogger Justin said...

It's a shame that this article is so intellectually dishonest as opposed to so many of your posts and thoughts on Houston. First of all, the argument that "Portland's heavily subsidized light-rail system only accounts for a paltry 1 percent of the city's total travel" is ridiculous - I bet the Katy Freeway carries less that 1 percent of the city's total travel, and no one's advocating that the $5 billion expansion is a waste of money, though the Katy Freeway is also "heavily subsidized."

Second, with regards to affordability, why aren't you discussing the total affordability of travel and housing costs, which puts Houston much lower than heavily advertised nationally? Also, while upper-middle class housing in Houston might be affordable on a national level, there is a not-insignificant portion of the population in Houston that can't afford a house here - probably due at least in part to the idea that all housing should cater to the upper middle class.

Third, planning is not, as you insinuate, about creating the most efficient real estate market available. For that matter, neither is government about creating the most efficient decision-making process. The point of government and planning is to balance competing needs, such as the need to preserve some semblance of natural environment in Katy or to ensure equitable opportunities for economic growth.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you forget some of the importance of physical planning to economic development. College grads in my generation pick a city to live in and then find a job, not the other way around. If Houston's physical planning continues to get in the way of its economic growth, the cost of housing won't matter so much because there won't be any economic base of innovation to support housing growth.

At 12:44 PM, January 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon said

"Developer was turned down, developer will resubmit."

this need to jump through all the hoops is exactly what increases the cost, and slows down construction.

"Ironically, deed restrictions in many neighborhoods here are far more restrictive than most zoning ordinances could ever dream to be."

Deed restrictions can only be placed on land owned by the person/people/develeper/corporation who own the land. Thus you will not find much argument against them in this forum. Although they are enforced for the neighborhoods by the city of Houston, which I dont think should happen.

Justin said,

"though the Katy Freeway is also "heavily subsidized.""

It is my understanding that freeways are built using gas tax proceeds which means it is paid for by user fees, and not "heavily subsidized". We can argue though as to wether the gas tax is high enough to cover the construction cost, and all the externalities associated with burning gasoline.

"The point of government and planning is to balance competing needs, such as the need to preserve some SEMBLANCE OF NATURAL ENVIRONMENT in Katy"

I don't think anybody here would argue against the local governments planning where to buy land as nature reserves or parkland.

"or to ensure equitable opportunities for economic growth."

It is arguable that planning, control, and/or regulation only ensures the opposite of equitable oppurtunities for economic growth. With the extra layers of red tape only the already well off can afford to do anything to increase there own wealth.

"College grads in my generation pick a city to live in and then find a job, not the other way around."

I have read a lot of articles using only personal anecdotes, and in my personal experience having just graduated two years ago your statement is completely untrue. I went to san antonio for work because that was the only job I could find. Most of my friends stayed here in Houston, even the ones who don't like this city, because it is where the jobs are. Some of my friends moved all over the country for a job not the quality of life. The biggest city slicker I ever knew moved to Magnolia, Arkansas for his job. That was definitely not a quality of life move for him.

Show me the article where they actually have a survey or something a little more scientific than anecdotes to support the idea that college kids in my generation are selecting locations first.

Then you can start thinking about actually using "intellectually dishonest" when talking about other people.

I am the anon who has been arguing that the anti-zoners are a little "intellectually dishonest"
because when we write these articles like Tory's we make it sound like the only thing we think might be causing these price differences is government control. We know this is not true and i think we should make it more apparent. Otherwise we are setting ourselves up to be easily discredited.

At 1:46 PM, January 04, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

last anon: I agree zoning is not the only variable in real estate costs. Far from it. But it's the variable we focused on in the op-ed, which was already way beyond the Chronicle's preferences at 1400 words. Teasing apart the variables you mention requires a full-blown academic paper.

"Second, with regards to affordability, why aren't you discussing the total affordability of travel and housing costs, which puts Houston much lower than heavily advertised nationally?"

Travel costs are high here because people have the discretionary income to drive expensive SUVs and trucks. It is a *choice*, and people could just as easily choose to drive used Honda Civics. See this post for details:

"Also, while upper-middle class housing in Houston might be affordable on a national level, there is a not-insignificant portion of the population in Houston that can't afford a house here - probably due at least in part to the idea that all housing should cater to the upper middle class."

It's *other cities* that only allow housing for the upper middle class. Houston actually provides tons of extremely affordable housing - the most affordable in the nation. What other major metro has houses below $100K? Saying we have an affordability problem is like saying California has a weather problem because it rains from time to time or occasionally gets outside of the 60-80 degree zone.

At 1:51 PM, January 04, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Continuing on the travel costs argument: the ACCRA cost of living index has Houston at 99.8 for transporation, just below the national average of 100, and well below NYC, Philly, Portland, DC, Chicago, or Boston.

At 2:28 PM, January 04, 2007, Blogger Justin said...


I will leave your claim about discretionary choices of transportation alone; I don't think I have enough data to refute it.

Also, Houston is affordable, really compared to any other city. My point is that while Houstonians think that their city is incredibly affordable, the city has a lower home ownership ratio than cities with much more expensive housing stock. So while housing in Houston is affordable compared to San Fran. or even Austin, that doesn't matter as much because people already living in Houston can't necessarily afford to buy a house in Houston.

What are your thoughts on the "1% of total travel" claim in your article? Most of your blog posts led me to believe that you realize that this is a specious argument at best. Houston's light rail line carries far less than "1% of total travel miles in the MSA," yet it has the second most riders per mile, and by most any account has been fairly successful. Transit's purpose is not to accommodate all transportation in a region, but to reduce congestion on freeways and provide choices to riders in congested corridors.


With regards to roads paying for themselves, see Tory's post from last year: http://houstonstrategies.blogspot.

In addition, I am not advocating for zoning. I agree in general with the assertion that zoning does not help to create a better urban environment. However, as mentioned in the article re: Portland, an urban growth boundary is NOT zoning. Planning ahead is NOT zoning. Public transportation is NOT zoning. I don't want planning and zoning confused, because they are not the same.

College kids:
From the CEOs for Cities report, as mentioned in the Chronicle:

I'm not saying no one comes to Houston because that's where he/she can find a jobs there - my point is that moving to Houston for a job is in fact the primary way that college grads end up in Houston, and that people who choose where to live first, who are the majority of college students these days, do not choose Houston b/c of quality of life.

At any rate, I don't want this discussion to get into a name-calling contest. I do, however, want to point out that land use planning and transportation have a) many tools other than zoning at their disposal, and that b) without some sort of comprehensive planning efforts (again, without zoning, a distortionary practice), Houston will lose out on economic development opportunities due to shortchanging its own citizens and attracting the citizens who can most effectively build its economy in the future.

At 5:20 PM, January 04, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Justin: it is true that we do have a lot of very poor immigrants that can't afford a home, even with our affordability. But they or their children will be able to afford a home that much easier and sooner.

1% of travel: the point is to put transit in context. It can be a good/nice-at-the-margins thing when designed wisely, but it is unrealistic to expect it to ever truly displace the personal vehicle in any meaningful way, even in a city like Portland that has focused explicitly on that goal for 30+ years. I agree that the Main St. line has been successful, but we never fantasized that it was going to substantially reduce car use or congestion - it's just a nice amenity for the city that happens to connect up some very common destinations in a relatively short corridor - something that will rapidly get much harder to do as the network expands.

I don't have a problem with planning infrastructure to accomodate growth (including buying park land). I do have a problem with government thinking it knows better their citizens how they should live (including housing and transportation choices) - or letting some small group of activist elites shape the city to their tastes while kissing off the priorities and needs of the other 80+% of the population (esp. the poorest and most disadvantaged).

At 7:53 PM, January 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have read the whole report and nothing in the actual report just jumps out and says to me

"College grads ... pick a city to live in and then find a job, not the other way around."

give me a survey that says yes I moved to _________ because I heard about the quality of life here and then started looking for a job.

I did see this in the report though

"Employment oppurtunities, family factors and housing are the most frequently cited reasons for moving"

They do say in their analysis that cities need to focus on attracting young preferably educated adults. I am still of the opinion that the abundance of jobs, and the quality of life that we have here in Houston will serve to attract them.

At 12:16 AM, January 05, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I do have a problem with government thinking it knows better than its citizens how they should live."

Tory, if an urban neighborhood that has long enjoyed a pleasing and aesthetically cohesive living environment is faced with insidious developments by outside developers and corporations that are done with nothing but the developer's/corporation's own financial interests in mind, and are a positive detriment to the charm and livability of the neighborhood, does giving this neighborhood some tools by which to prevent or at least regulate such developments, in your mind, fall into the category of "government thinking it knows better than its citizens how they should live"?

At 2:32 AM, January 05, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

yay for the common law nuisance doctrine.

If this new "INSIDIOUS DEVELOPEMENT" doesnt provide more value than the currently "pleasing and aesthetically cohesive living environment" it will not be built.

If it does then it will be built and every one who suffers will be paid for their loss.

At 7:36 AM, January 05, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks awp. Mike, voluntary deed restrictions are the answer. I discussed this issue extensively in this post:

At 6:24 PM, January 05, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I was really referring more to the national scene than Houston or Blueprint. I think Blueprint has pointed out some very valuable and critical issues that the city should address (and I think, is, in most cases).

That said, I do have two concerns with Blueprint:

1) No matter what the demographics of the people who attended the event, no statistician would say they're a fairly representative sample, since, by definition, it had to be people passionate enough about some issue to go to a big meeting on a Saturday morning. It takes random phone polling to get a statistically representative sample, and even that has major problems these days.

2) But my bigger concern is that, while Blueprint prioritized some isses, it essentially asked for utopia without any measure of acceptable tradeoffs. How much sales tax increase would you support to increase transit? How many ship channel jobs can we give up for air pollution? Or tax increases to buy and scrap polluting cars? Or for that matter to purchase linear bayou parks? If we're going to protect neighborhoods from townhome developers, are we ok with the loss of desirable home affordability that provides? (long-term, I think it would lead to most of the inner loop looking like West U or Bellaire, because that's the only kind of single-home those land prices can support, and I just don't think that's the kind of city we want to be).

It's easy to vote for paradise, but where the true "citizen values" hit the road are the tradeoffs to get there. And I'm not very comfortable handing a description of utopia to a planning bureaucracy and trusting the tradeoffs they choose behind the scenes to get there.

At 12:40 PM, January 06, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

More value to whom, awp? The people who live in the neighborhood, or the ones just passing through? Or people who don't live anywhere near it, but find it a good spot to put their warehouse or sheet metal cutting business?

Tory, I understood deed restrictions to only involve the house lots. What about the commercial districts in the neighborhoods? Why can't residents control how those will look?

At 12:50 PM, January 06, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm getting a little tired of this "paradise" and "utopia" rhetoric being imputed to the planners. All the planners seem to want are the same sort of citizen controls over the urban landscape that, you know, every other city in America possesses.

I'm also getting tired of all these dire Orwellian warnings of the threat of government control and "dictating" how people live. It reminds me of zoning debates here in the 1930's where demagogues told citizens "That's what Joe Stalin wants" to scare them from exercising their power against developers (described in David McComb's history of Houston). You'd think that in 2006 we'd be a bit more rational and honest.

At 12:51 PM, January 06, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 5:16 PM, January 06, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Mike: deed restrictions can cover anything, including commercial areas. There's nothing stopping a set of commercial and residential land owners getting together and saying, "hey, if we all agree to these covenants, our land values and business will go up".

On Orwell and scare tactics: funny, I've thought the exact same thing when hearing dire civil liberties warnings in the war on terror. Interesting how the right and left switch sides vs. the govt between those two issues.

I've seen and read what government planners ("here to help") have done to other communities, and I almost always come out thinking "boy, I'm glad we don't do that in Houston." Inevitably, a certain type of group takes over the planning commissions and organization and shapes the city to their preferences. In many cases that group is a minority, but in some cases, it does represent the 51+% majority, but I also believe in the "tyranny of the majority" (generally leading to a universal blandness - consensus around beige and vanilla are not too hard). I prefer a little messiness because of the other benefits (affordability, adaptability, vibrancy, dynamism, flexibility, eclecticism, upward mobility, etc.) Obviously, that's my subjective opinion, but I think a lot of average Houstonians share that opinion and those values deep down, and I try to promote the benefits here.

At 5:26 PM, January 06, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

A fun little thought experiment on democracy and planning. Sound like motherhood and apple pie values, no? But what if I proposed this?: you know, a lot of kids go to the wrong college, drop out, don't graduate - all sorts of problems. Why don't we just come up with a national plan (run by a democratically elected commission, of course) that will allocate all of the high school seniors to the "right" school for them, based on a well thought-out system. We'll collect a lot of data on demographics, strengths and weaknesses of the schools and students, preferences, school sizes - tons of data to crunch. And then each senior will get designated to their one optimal college. No muss, no fuss - really simplifies things, doesn't it? You know, some kids end up picking the wrong major too...

I hope that scenario is as distasteful to you as it is me. That's why we prefer *free* *markets* to work out these things, as messy as they are.

At 6:04 PM, January 06, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am headed to London tomorrow for a period of 4 weeks on behalf of my employer. This just brought up some memories of my first visit to the city 4 1/2 years ago.

I was on holiday on that visit and I stayed in a small hotel in Paddington on the West End. The hotel was called the Kingsway, was in a building six stories tall and had perhaps 35 or 40 rooms. The area was called Norfolk Square where all the buildings were made of stone and had all white facades. In fact they all looked so much alike that more than once I walked right by my hotel without realizing it. I was particularly prone to doing this at night after I had perhaps had tipped back a few at a pub and when it was hard to make out which building was which.

I mentioned this curious fact to the daughter of the hotel owner one day. She told me two horror stories about zoning which delve right into this discussion. She said to me that her father much desired to put out a sign that was distinctive and differentiated the hotel from all the other buildings in the square. Well, guess what? The zoning board would not allow that on the grounds that all the buildings along the street had to have matching white facades. The only signs that were permitted were ones which had black letters on them. After all, this helped "define and preserve the character" of the neighborhood and deviating from these prescribed rules would ruin the distinctiveness of the buildings along the square. Now how the placing of a sign or two would result in the destruction of the character of the neighborhood was beyond me, but that was how things were.

The second story was far more ominous. To reiterate, I was staying on the 4th floor of this six floor hotel. The hotel had stairwells and a very small, very slow elevator. This girl had noticed that I walked the stairs when I went up to my room, to which I said it was because the elevator was too slow for my tastes.

This girl then proceeded to tell me the story behind the elevator. It turns out that they had only been able to put the elevator in a few years before. They had wanted to put in a better elevator as many guests had asked for one to be put in on the grounds that it is rather tough to slog up 4-5 flights of stairs, but guess what had happened? You guessed it - they couldn't because of the zoning ordainance. You see, the zoning rules prohibited certain buildings along the square from having elevators! This girl went on to say that her father went to court to get permission to install an elevator in his own building!It ended up costing him 50,000 pounds and taking more than 4 years in court before he was granted permission to install that elevator, which of course zapped funds from installing a better elevator.

That second story made me wonder about such issues as how old the buildings were, why were such stupid rules in place, were these buildings in that square formerly used for another purpose and perhaps still had zoning rules which effectively prohibited reusing the property for another purpose (such as for a hotel), and so on. But most importantly, if you are genuine believer in freedom, then what these stories illustrate is that zoning is a tool of political control which allows others coercive control over property which does not belong to them and that control can go far beyond supposedly prescriptive measures to control nuisance issues like pollution, noise, and so forth.


At 1:38 AM, January 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I keep seeing references to a bureaucracy "making decisions on their own using data, etc. and then coming with their own goals". This shows that many people here haven't lived in too many places with zoning ordinances or comprehensive plans--especially when it was time to update those plans. These plans are NOT enacted or updated or implemented without public citizen input and involvement along each step of the way. No one even changes a zoning category without posting notices of a application to change a category or notice of a possible change in the newspaper AND on signs in the neighborhood. Go to a city that has a hearing for a zoning change that could hurt a neighborhood and see how packed the hearing is.

But again, as I said before, zoning will not work in Houston--in its most traditional sense. I don't think that what someone uses their property for will impact my property values as much as how they make changes to their property. I am personally more interested in form.

Regarding the story about the elevator, etc. in London--the elevator issue sounds more like a building code problem in the U.S. Regarding the sign change issue--that sounds a lot like what a deed restriction can say as well (how many signs are on poles in the Woodlands??).

I reiterate, zoning in its most traditional, outdated sense WILL NOT WORK in Houston. However, continued as-loose-as-possible development regulations won't work either.

awp also made a remark that the St. George place example is what causes delays to construction and increases cost...Why is this any different than delays that already take place for developments? How late is the groundbreaking for Houston Pavilions? What zoning ordinance is holding that up? Last time I checked, there were no cranes in place for the Bank of the Southwest Tower--and zoning didn't kill that one either.

Give developers some credit. Many of them here also develop properties in cities with strict zoning laws in state, out-of-state, and maybe even internationally...and they do just fine pulling off projects. If Houston were to ever have some sort of general plan or some sort of form-based code, it will be nothing new for them. They'll address those issues as a part of their market research on a project's feasibility and timeline.

At 8:36 AM, January 07, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Every additional hurdle and months of delay eliminate the feasibility of marginal projects that would add value to the city. Yes, high margin projects will always make it through, but you don't see the lost projects that couldn't afford or risk the hurdles - it's the part of the iceberg below the water you don't see.

Parallel case: Economists have noted that one of the biggest impediments to economic development overseas is that many countries require months - if not years - of paperwork and high fees to create a corporation. Yes, the really high value ones backed by big money will make it through, but it chokes off at-the-margin, smaller, or riskier ventures. Absolutely the same dynamic with land use controls. The best answer is like US corporate formation laws: put in minimal regs to prevent major abuses, and let the free market work.

At 12:09 AM, January 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Strange how this has mushroomed into a right-wing vs. left-wing thing. I am actually on the right, so your point about how the left has waged the battle over civil liberties fell a bit flat. This must be the only city where arguing for planning will get you branded a lefty.

Your analogy to higher education doesn't work - I don't know of any city where people are told where to live, which would be parallel to telling people where to go to college. On the other hand, I think a lot of planning goes into how universities are set up and funded, based closely on population demographics, etc.

You argue for market freedom, with minimal regs to prevent "major abuses." If you've lived in this city all your life and haven't seen any "major abuses" regarding what developers have done to neighborhoods, I rest my case.

At 3:00 PM, January 10, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Mike: if there are developers doing bad things to neighborhoods, I would imagine there would be no problem getting 75% of residents to support deed restrictions that would prevent those things.

David: more regs - that would be surprising. I can't really speak to it. Maybe it's because we make them explicit rather than a generic "get approval of this board"? I'd be curious to see that study.

Agree on trying to save the 11% where reasonable, like planning ahead for infrastructure. Nobody supports waste. But we're also the least expensive major metro in the country, so maybe that 11% cost is compensated for by other benefits elsewhere, possibly from fewer controls/planning? Again, it would be interesting to see the details of the study/calculations.

At 11:03 PM, January 10, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but you still seem to be missing the boat on the real benefits of planning vs. its "costs". The main goal of planning is to allow CITIZENS, not bureaucrats, but CITIZENS to determine the direction of their community. Again, planning does not happen without community input and buy-in. Ironically, Houstonians seem to be keenly interested in weighing in on every little "planning" effort that METRO may be doing--and that's a plan with a goal in mind.

I can't understand the apprehension to planning in this town. And, I can't understand the entrenched notion that planning happens in a vacuum and that only a select few elites decide where everything goes. That's just not the way it works.

People here deceive themselves if they think that this city functions so much on the market and the market alone. The market doesn't work here without first some public investment. Otherwise there would have been no opposition to the initial plans of the Grand Parkway to have no feeders, instead landowners complain that they were (whether they admit it or not) counting on a feeder along GP to increase the value of their property--which in a free-market person's mind should not be the government's job or business.

It seems interesting to me that with all the complaints about planning in the city of Houston, strongly planned and regulated cities such as Sugar Land seem to be doing just fine. Planning hasn't slowed anything down in that city--and Sugar Land is one of the last places in this region that one would think of as having a hevily left-leaning population as has been accused here.

At 7:46 AM, January 11, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, citizens run the city through their elected representatives, that are allowed to pass ordinances they believe would be good for the city. When it comes to real-world planning input, all my experience says that it's not a broad cross section of citizens that offer feedback, but activists and NIMBYs.

No opposition here to planning for basic infrastructure (public investment): roads, utilities, flood control, etc. That makes perfect sense for govt.

Planned areas like Sugar Land and The Woodlands do fine because they offer a nice, controlled, upper middle class living option in a very healthy metro dominated by vibrant, unplanned Houston. But does it make sense to try to impose that regime on all of Houston? I don't think so. That's like saying "Tony's and Morton's Steakhouse have great meals - all restaurants should be like them."

At 9:11 AM, January 11, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

that restaurant analogy makes no sense... I think you're still missing the boat.

At 10:16 PM, January 11, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

OK, to clarify: don't you think Houston would be just a tad boring if all of it were as tightly controlled as The Woodlands? Metros thrive on diversity. Just because one restaurant is good, does that mean you want to replace all other restaurants with it?

Overall, I think Houston has the right formula: dozens (if not hundreds) of controlled communities (whether zoned cities or deed restricted communities) to provide the predictable stability many people crave, but embedded in an overall sea of unzoned market forces (Houston and ETJ), to provide for adaptability and affordability.


Post a Comment

<< Home