Thursday, March 01, 2007

Peter Brown taking on Mayor White?

Yesterday I attended the Blueprint/Livable Houston lunchtime event at the Upper Kirby District Center. It was packed - I'd say well over a hundred people. I'd characterize it as a regroup-and-rally for the pro-planning forces after the disappointment last year. To summarize, last summer Councilmember Peter Brown got the City Council to approve a measure directing the Planning Commission to come up with a "plan to plan" - a timeline and budget to create a comprehensive general plan for Houston. They came back at the end of December, and instead decided to focus on the top priorities of mobility and drainage, to much disappointment by the pro-planning forces. My understanding is that the mayor influenced the Planning Commission in this more targeted direction, but I have no specific inside knowledge.

Peter Brown attended and was pretty feisty and fired-up. He guaranteed comprehensive urban planning in Houston before the end of his tenure, and noted that he just needs to corral eight votes on the council, with or without the support of the mayor. Pretty bold and gutsy statement. The new strategy seems to be incrementalism: get the council to approve comprehensive general planning in measured stages or phases, starting with approval of vision and values. This is always the easy part for getting consensus. Motherhood and apple pie all the way. Describe a utopian city, and you've pretty much got it. Of course, the hard part is phase 3: legislation, regulations, and ordinances that lead to utopia.

One problem is that the vision and values don't provide the best guidance, because they can easily conflict with one another. I can't think of any debate we've had in this city (or any other city for that matter), where you couldn't pick out the values that supported both sides of the argument. Economic development vs. historic preservation. Congestion relief vs. transit/transportation options. Parks and open space vs. low taxes. Well, really, just about everything vs. low taxes (and taxes directly affect discretionary income available for economic development and jobs). It's all about tradeoffs, and the vision and values aren't very explicit about which ones take priority. The goal here seems to be to take those tradeoffs mostly out of the hands of accountable elected officials and put them in a professional planning bureaucracy.

The group is rallying support with a "big tent" approach. Want more density? Less density? More development? Less development? More social equity? Better education? Lower taxes (via more efficient coordination)? Lower crime? More parks and open space? Better drainage? Less air pollution? Less gentrification? More affordable housing? More transit? Less traffic congestion? Planning is your silver bullet.

I had been inspired after my Leadership Houston debate with Peter Brown about a month ago. I finally thought we'd found some good common ground. More coordination between agencies. Less waste. No zoning or land-use regulation. I felt like we made some progress cutting through the abstract fog of this planning thing to what the real issues and problems were. But now I realize the perspectives are still far apart. Listening to some of the speakers, I wondered if we were living in the same city. They painted a tremendously negative picture of Houston as The New Detroit in need of a major turnaround and overhaul - a city careening towards wasteland status.

My perspective has been that Houston is one of the most successful and vibrant major cities in America today: an economy growing at twice the national average, a robust local housing market among a national slump, a redeveloping core, a wonderfully renewing downtown, an excellent transit system with well-thought-out future plans, the most affordable major metro in the country, an incredible variety of wonderful restaurants, global diversity living in relative harmony, and so compelling we're attracting waves of both domestic and international migrants, including plenty with high skills and education.

Perfect? Absolutely not. But those characteristics seem like a pretty strong argument for "tweak/adjust/improve", not "complete overhaul of how we run the city." What are the specific problems we want to fix? Can we do that with targeted ordinances and incentives? (like the mayor is doing with historic preservation) Easier variances or alternate development codes? (like the urban corridors initiative) Better coordination between agencies? Improved deed restrictions? Area plans? Local district authorities or TIRZs? These approaches are more flexible, targeted, and responsive to the specific neighborhoods and citizens involved, without jeopardizing our foundational urban development framework that has served us so well for so long.


At 10:43 PM, March 01, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


I'm sorry you had to find out the hard way. Peter Brown is a smart growth advocate. He may huff and haw, but at the end of the day he would prefer San Franciscan land use controls to those in place in Houston. He doesn't want to improve on the current model of Houston; he wants to adopt another model altogether.

Brown is probably the most dangerous person on the council today. He's one to watch.

At 12:55 PM, March 02, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why the choice of San Francisco? Is Brown suggesting anything more radical than what other cities in our region have done?

At 9:19 PM, March 02, 2007, Blogger Owen Courrèges said...


I think Brown has designs far greater than those employed in surrounding cities, but that's just my personal view. He seems to want medium-density with copious amounts of rail transit and community-approved planning. That's San Francisco in a nutshell.

At 9:45 AM, March 03, 2007, Blogger Justin said...

I would agree that Houston doesn't need land use planning. However, planning, as you've pointed out in the past, doesn't mean land-use planning. As a hypothetical, what would you think if Houston were to have some sort of form-based planning, where the City said you can build any use you want (office, retail, residential, etc) along commercial corridors as long as it's 5 stories tall, fronts the street, puts parking behind the building and doesn't contribute to the awful aesthetics of much of the commercial areas of Houston?

At 9:48 AM, March 04, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I'm skeptical of form-based codes too. Some problems articulated here:

Another big problem is that businesses with "high hassle" parking are at a sharp competitive disadvantage in Houston vs. existing commercial developments (park right in front of the store). Those projects can really struggle. People just drive a few blocks more to an easier competitor.

But I could see that making sense in very targeted areas near rail stops, which is what I think the urban corridors initiative is moving towards.

At 4:35 PM, March 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brown is responding to desires that have been voiced by many Houston residents, otherwise he wouldn't have gotten elected. Those desires include the option of getting around the city's major destinations by rail (which the majority of Houston wants), the ability for certain areas of town to densify without running into certain city restrictions geared towards sprawl, and reasonable opportunities for neighborhoods to protect themselves against insensitive developments.

He's not trying to give Houston what San Fransisco wants, he's trying to give Houston what Houston wants.

At 7:14 PM, March 04, 2007, Blogger Justin said...


I tend to disagree with you about form-based codes - you don't see people driving past Highland Village, Rice Village, or the Galleria to go to other places because of easier parking. People don't stop going to big box stores in Katy on Saturdays when the parking lots overflow with cars. I'm also not suggesting that Houston get rid of parking in retail areas, just that it's possible to make parking not such a prominent eyesore as it is in so much of the region's retail.

On the contrary, Rice Village, while not perfect, serves as an example of a relatively walkable area with a large amount of parking well-ensconced in the development, both in the form of pull-up parking and a parking garage. Why not move in that direction, toward the Rice Village and Post Midtown Properties model where parking garages provide adequate parking, but not at the expense of aesthetics?

From the abstract to the article you posted: "form-based code, in advocating for norms to re-create the city of the past, seeks to implement by design what was essentially a spontaneous and self-generated form of social organization driven largely by economic concerns rather than social or political concerns." I think this argument is stating that the physical form of today's city is also "essentially a spontaneous and self-generated form of social organization," which I think is not true. Parking requirements, setback standards, and the national focus on auto-oriented development (pushed by planners, to be sure) have created an artificial city form just as surely as a form-based code would. By using form-based coding, wouldn't we just be encoding an environmentally friendly, aesthetically pleasing city form instead of an alienating, environmentally awful form?

And as per usual, it's not going to be appropriate everywhere - I think the transit corridors are a great place to start, but shouldn't be the end to some sort of corridor initiatives for the remainder of the City.

By the by, your website is great. As a Houston-lover exiled in Austin, I may not always agree with your thoughts, but I enjoy your passion for the subject.

At 7:15 PM, March 04, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

All 3 of those have been or will be addressed. I'm trying to figure out what comprehensive planning will fix that is not already being addressed.

1) Metro moving forward on rail plan
2) urban corridors initiative
3) deed restrictions and now the mayor's new historic preservation plan

At 7:23 PM, March 04, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Justin: I agree the walkable thing works in certain districts like the ones you describe. I've actually talked about that in this blog before: in a car-based city, the mixed-use thing mostly works on top of what is essentially a mall or "lifestyle center", but a city can only support a limited number of those. Mandating that kind of commercial development for large areas is highly unlikely to work. But we should remove barriers that make them harder to do.

I think the auto-focused city is essentially the outgrowth of the needs and desires of 90+% of the population - not something artificial pushed by a few. I agree parking and setbacks could be loosened, but I really haven't heard of many developers lamenting them - they know they need parking to be viable, and they and their clients and customers like it in front.

Thanks for the kind words.

At 8:25 PM, March 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, is there any evidence that the planning idea that Brown is pushing entails San Francisco-style land use controls? On the contrary, haven't Brown and Crossley said repeatedly that it doesn't?

At 8:48 PM, March 04, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

They have said they do not support zoning. Peter has even said he doesn't support land-use controls, but then he has made other statements that imply he has may have a different definition of what "land use control" is. I agree they don't want to say "this is commercial, that is residential", but I think they do want to specify most other aspects of land use, including density, form, preservation, setbacks, and mandatory open space. I think it could end up even more restrictive than zoning in the traditional sense.

At 9:33 PM, March 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike said...
"the ability for certain areas of town to densify without running into certain city restrictions geared towards sprawl"

If there are restrictions geared toward sprawl why don't we get rid of them.

At 9:51 PM, March 04, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think that's what the urban corridors initiative is trying to do.

One that's tough is the parking requirement. If you don't have it, you get "free rider" problems where businesses rely on their customers using others' parking or street parking, which tends to annoy nearby residential areas. I personally like that I don't usually have to worry about finding parking in Houston. It would be nice to loosen this up, but it's tricky.

At 9:48 AM, March 05, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I'd rather see what they have in mind and decide one thing at a time than just dismiss everything outright because of fears of ending up like San Francisco.

At 12:48 PM, March 05, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

"Decide one thing at a time" I agree! This is why I request specific problems and specific proposed solutions. But what I hear is a push for a giant, amorphous, abstract, expensive planning process that will solve all problems.

At 3:04 PM, March 05, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well you and I can both agree on wanting more details of this planning process. The truth is that I probably fall somewhere between you and Brown as far as liquidity of development. But I don't understand the comparisons to San Francisco.


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