Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cities and Democracy vs. Freedom

Sometimes I have a half-formed idea for a post.  When that happens, I throw a few notes into a draft and save it to get back to it one day.  At this point, I must have 30+ of these post ideas saved up (some from years ago), but I almost never get around to finishing them because of the substantial time investment they usually need.  Since today is blogging day, and I've posted plenty lately on Metro and smaller misc items, I decided to force myself to pick one of them and finish it.  Thus the random subject and less than timely nature of this post.

Several years ago a Portland planner, Jeff Joslin, made a well-articulated opposition comment to one of my posts on Jane Jacobs.  This quote in particular about Portland planning jumped out at me:
"Our remarkable form of excessive democracy has generated a genuine partnership between neighborhoods, the development community, and government."
This comment touched a nerve with me, and I think brings up a core difference in people: collective community vs. individual thinking. Communities put democracy first; individuals put freedom first. I tend to fall in the latter camp. I agree democracy is the best way to make collective decisions, but democracy can go too far - thank God we don't a vote on where you live, go to college, take a job, who you marry, or how many kids you're allowed to have (extreme examples, yes, but you get the point on the limits of democracy).  In fact, a lot people don't realize that the U.S. is actually a constitutional democracy (well, technically, republic) where a strong constitution protects many individual rights from the democratic "tyranny of the majority."  We didn't really understand the subtle difference as we promoted democracy around the world over the last several decades, and then we're surprised when new democracies with weak constitutions slip towards socialism (see much of Latin America).  This is a very broad, simplistic generalization, but in a free, capitalist democracy with strong, constitutionally-protected individual rights (esp. property protections), if people want something, they generally have to earn it.  In a pure democracy, if people want something, they just have to vote for whoever promises it to them, even if that involves taxing or taking from the minority to satisfy the majority.

Some communities - like Portland or Austin - want to set and enforce a majority vision (or at least a majority vision among the politically active), and the minority can love it or leave it as far as they're concerned. Other cities - like Houston - don't impose a vision, and let the city develop bottom up from individual decisions. It's chaotic, but there's also a beauty in the chaos.  I'm not saying one is right and other is wrong, but they are distinctly different approaches, and I think Houston should be proud of its (relatively rare) freedom-centered approach (like being the largest city in the country without zoning).

This same opposition can be seen today in the debate over historic preservation here.  A community/neighborhood wants to "protect" itself, but to do that it has to substantially limit what the individual homeowners are allowed to do (which, in turn, can hurt the value of their property).  From the articles I've read, it sounds like the new historic preservation ordinance started pretty heavily on the collective side, but has been "Houstonized" (can I copyright that term?) through committees to be more balanced and homeowner-friendly.  It might not be the right answer for every city, but it feels like the right one for Houston.

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At 4:35 PM, September 21, 2010, Anonymous kjb434 said...

This blog post pretty much sums up why I love Houston so much. I moved here in 2002 and quickly learned as much as I can about the city. The history, the change over time, and fierce individualism that is running deep within it's veins.

Houston must resist all attempts at central planning or a board that determines land use. That will kill this city's spirit and just turn in into another boring predictable place common across the country.

The closest to central planning we should go to is the Urban Corridors initiative. The end result of that policy yielded a unique Houston way for the inner city to become more dense and (buzz word warning) "urban".

At 8:29 PM, September 21, 2010, Anonymous awp said...

"collective community vs. individual thinking"

I think this is the wrong way to phrase it. Everyone cares both about the community and the individual, so that it is a continuum and a question of where exactly do you draw the line. It is easy to come up with hyperbolic examples of the evils of extreme individualism too. I am pretty sure this is what you mean, and I am sure we both fall towards the individual's rights side. I just want to anticipate other's objections.

The curious thing to me about this debate is the relative similarity of Houston and less free cities' development patterns. Mostly Houston does not seem all that different except that is much cheaper. We don't have to deal with all the red tape and misallocated resources. The main difference I can see between Houston and other similar cities is the development along the frontage roads. And, while I agree that it is often ugly, it has benefits.

Isn't the urban corridors initiative just a relaxation of the normal rules for parcels in the urban corridors, as long as they conform to new rules.

At 9:21 PM, September 21, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

This is a very broad, simplistic generalization, but in a free, capitalist democracy with strong, constitutionally-protected individual rights (esp. property protections), if people want something, they generally have to earn it.

This isn't really true. Lobbying is part of any democracy, especially if it's in the American style. What counts and doesn't count as freedom varies, and is vulnerable to marketing and propaganda.

Houston's lack of separate-use zoning is precious, but in order to avoid looking too different from other cities, it has other planning restrictions (parking minimums, setbacks, subsidies for deed restrictions) that act in a similar way to zoning. The no-zoning thing is a political statement snubbing central planning, but is not a reality.

At 10:05 PM, September 21, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

awp: agreed on the balance. It's a spectrum. As far as similar development patterns, that's not totally true. Yes, they're all oriented around the car - that's just reality. But Houston has some clear differences, like allowing townhome densification in the core on what used to be single-family lots. We also tend to have commercial retail fronting all major arterials. I remember driving on major arterials not unlike Westheimer or Richmond in Kansas City that went through purely single-family residential areas, as that's what that area was zoned for. We have a little of that in Houston, but it's rarer.

Alon: I'll agree Houston has regs that can generate some similarities to what is found with zoning, but I have to disagree with this statement: "The no-zoning thing is a political statement snubbing central planning, but is not a reality." Zoning and central planning go together, but generalized regs across a city (like min parking) is not the same as central planning.

At 11:15 PM, September 21, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are always people who say "We need to be more like xx" (insert city of choice - Portland, Austin, etc.)

In general, it is a bad thing for all cities to be the same. Houston represents the best form of individual choice and thinking, and that's something to be proud of.

There's no need for Houston to try to be like other cities. Houston is among the most successful cities of the post WWII era.

At 1:15 AM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

No, generalized regulations applying citywide is exactly central planning. The central planners of Houston decided that the entire city must provide some amount of parking. Taking cues from federal zoning guidelines, the city decided that the entire city should be built one way and not any other. Just because the central planners decided something you agree with doesn't make it a free market.

At 9:31 AM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Well, then we have different definitions of central planning. Mine is telling people exactly what they can put where. We have fire and building code regs, but people don't call that central planning or a major inhibitor to the free market. We also allow variances. Min parking is a complex problem with a serious free rider and tragedy of the commons issues. I don't necessarily think it's the optimal answer, but it might be the most practical one.

At 11:52 AM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

Just curious, but what percentage of Houston do you think is not either zoned or significantly deed-restricted? You can say you prefer individualism, but for instance Tory lives in a heavily deed-restricted area, and I'm guessing many of us spend significant amounts of our time in Houston's more regulated areas without even knowing or thinking about it. For instance I imagine building in the Medical Center / Downtown is somehow regulated more stringently than in some other parts of the city, even if you don't want to call it zoning. River Oaks / Bellaire / West U / Meyerland / the Villages / Afton Oaks etc. etc - all deed restricted. The suburbs - mostly deed restricted. Some of our major thoroughfares and some areas close to town are not zoned - true - but then there is River Oaks / Hyde Park / historic districts - etc. And then things like parking regulations that apply everywhere. And some of the non-zoned areas that are having townhomes go up do not have the street infrastructure, drainage, or parking to handle this development in the long term.

For all practical purposes, I would have to agree with Alon that Houston is by and large not very different from other major cities. And in the ways in which we do vary, I think overall we have some deficiencies in planning for high-density development in areas where the market wants it to happen, but the infrastructure simply does not exist to support it.

At 12:38 PM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, most of the residential areas tend to be deed restricted (although many in the core are not). Those are voluntary agreements by immediate neighbors - not a zoning board on high that can change things on a whim. Those neighborhoods can also loosen up their deed restrictions if it would help their land values.

But everything else, including the land lining most of the major arterials and feeders, is not deed restricted, and that's where the real flexibility comes into play.

Other examples I forgot to mention differentiating us from zoned cities:

- most zoned cities try to minimize apartments - whose residents are often deemed not as desirable - but Houston builds apartments to meet demand, which is another factor in our best-in-the-country affordability.

- most zoned cities try to force all tall office buildings downtown (or into a couple of clusters). We don't, so we have clusters of job centers distributed throughout the metro.

- most zoned cities also try to force tall residential towers downtown or into one or two districts, which is unattractive because of impeded views. We allow ours just about anywhere, so we get more. If you're ever on an elevated vantage point, try counting all of them in the DT-TMC-Uptown triangle.

Agreed on infrastructure deficiencies. I have my issues with Prop 1, but it could help a lot.

At 1:15 PM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>Those are voluntary agreements by immediate neighbors - not a zoning board on high that can change things on a whim. Those neighborhoods can also loosen up their deed restrictions if it would help their land values.

I still think this is an example of "community" as opposed to individual. Where I live, if I wanted to change the deed restrictions I believe I'd have to have the support of hundreds of neighbors, which is no easier than changing the mind of a zoning board in my mind. I "volunteered" to go along by moving to this area, but then I suppose I would have done the same thing with a zoned area had I moved to West U. I believe most Houston neighborhoods have this same collective dynamic, and I'm not saying it's a bad thing, just that it's not much different than having a zoning board on the spectrum of individual versus collective action.

>>Most zoned cities...

I don't know about a lot of these generalizations. For instance Chicago has very tall buildings out into Evanston, LA seems to be spread out everywhere as well. Other zoned cities like St. Louis or Washington DC are so small that they border other zoned cities, so while it is true that St. Louis only has one downtown, it borders Clayton which is a separate zoned entity which has its own downtown with tall buildings, etc. Washington has Arlington, etc.

Plus, I fail to see how a concentrated downtown is necessarily a bad thing. Denver has one, and now they have commuter rail sprouting up all over the place to connect to it. The last mile problem? Doesn't exist so much there.

As for apartments, I do think perhaps certain communities like Portland may not build to encourage population growth, but I think they are the exception - and I don't think that has to do with zoning but rather growth boundaries, etc. If it means increasing the tax base, I think most metro areas have no problem build the apartment complex. In Houston it's not going to go in West U most likely, and in other communities it is not going to go in certain areas, but it will get built if the demand is there.

At 1:39 PM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I agree deed restrictions are still collective, but I think putting them on a smaller neighborhood scale minimizes abuses and is more favorable to the individual. Zoning boards, esp. in a big city like Houston, are too far removed from the neighborhood. In Chicago it's an open secret that developers bribe aldermen to get zoning board decisions to go their way.

I agree edge cities often have their own downtowns, but those are jobs and tax base that the core city might have held onto if they hadn't insisted on forcing tall buildings downtown. It's part of the hollowing-out problem for older core cities.

In many cities, an apartment developer proposes a development, residents fear their home values will drop, so they protest to the zoning board, and the permit gets denied. It's called exclusionary zoning, and it's a real problem.

At 1:50 PM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Oh, and Denver's rail plans are a pretty big mess:

At 2:48 PM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

>>I agree edge cities often have their own downtowns, but those are jobs and tax base that the core city might have held onto if they hadn't insisted on forcing tall buildings downtown. It's part of the hollowing-out problem for older core cities.

I fail to see why the core city taking the tax base of the surrounding areas is of net benefit to the greater metropolitan area. In fact you could easily argue that in other areas their edge communities are nicer than in Houston because they have local funding of their own police forces, parks, schools, etc, whereas in Houston the core city drains the edge communities of their resources and provides next to nothing in return. Perhaps Houston is more equitable overall but when you are attempting to attract the best and the brightest workers and companies from around the country, equitable is not necessarily a good selling point. It just means that in Houston, you have to go even further out - ie The Woodlands, to find what in other cities you can find much closer to the core.

>>Oh, and Denver's rail plans are a pretty big mess:

Give me a better source than the antiplanner and we'll talk. I was just in Denver and they are breaking ground on a number of lines and they are going to places that would be unthinkable in Houston - the equivalent of Katy, the International Airport, etc. They seem well ahead of us. Most of what I could dig up in a cursory search seems pretty positive.

At 2:58 PM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

Full article here. Yes, FasTracks has cost overruns and declining sales tax revenues, but I fail to see how that is unique to rail projects. I-10 was in the $ billions over-budget, the Grand Parkway extension you support is projected to recoup 16% of the investment that we would put into it.

I'm fine with losing money on transportation - it is a public good. But I'd like to serve the most people and serve the metro regions most efficiently, and FasTracks is a good example of doing this. And Grand Parkway Segment E, for instance, is a horrible example of doing this.

At 3:45 PM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Generally speaking, edge cities have a more affluent residential population than the core city, and therefore a higher residential tax base. They also tend to have newer infrastructure with lower maintenance costs, as well as lower crime. To stay healthy (i.e. not Detroit), the core city needs to balance that by having as much of the commercial/office/retail tax base as possible.

Do you have a link to the 16% stat? That seems nuts for a toll road authority that has to balance its overall budget purely off of toll revenues.

At 4:51 PM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Michael said...


Detroit is an outlier. Most metro areas are as "healthy" as any other without absorbing all of their suburbs. The result is they have closer suburbs with better schools, etc. Yes the core cities may not be as healthy as "Houston", but Houston is really a metro area since it has engulfed everything from Dairy Ashford out to Kingwood.

As for the 16% recovery figure for Grand Parkway segment E, it comes from Austin contrarian

"Applying this methodology, revealed that no road pays for itself in gas taxes and fees. For example, in Houston, the 15 miles of SH 99 from I-10 to US 290 will cost $1 billion to build and maintain over its lifetime, while only generating $162 million in gas taxes. That gives a tax gap ratio of .16, which means that the real gas tax rate people would need to pay on this segment of road to completely pay for it would be $2.22 per gallon.

This is just one example, but there is not one road in Texas that pays for itself based on the tax system of today. Some roads pay for about half their true cost, but most roads we have analyzed pay for considerably less."

Also see Houston Tomorrow.

At 4:55 PM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 5:22 PM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 5:45 PM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

OK, so the 16% is based on gas taxes, not the tolls that would be charged. I'm sure the tolls get it a lot closer to 100%, but it sounds like it doesn't quite make it, according to HT.

I now understand the disconnect between gas taxes and state roads that "don't pay for themselves", even though TXDoT is limited by those taxes for everything it builds. It is impossible for any road to meet that standard as long as people drive on non-state roads, i.e. almost all roads, because the vast bulk of the roads are built at the county and city level. And of course people burn gas, and gas tax, travelling on those roads. But the gas tax goes to the state to cover the *state* highway system. And since those revenues come from a VMT base that only partially drives on the state network, taking the portion driven on state roads and saying they don't pay for themselves doesn't make sense. Their tax base makes that impossible.

At 5:49 PM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Yes, Michael, I found some of your comments in Google's spam folder and have identified them as Not Spam. New feature I've never looked at before. Hopefully they will give you the benefit of the doubt from now on. I will delete the extra ones.

At 9:18 PM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

Tory, the Keep Texas Moving newsletter doesn't make it clear whether tolls are included or not. For what it's worth, the FHWA does.

The reason the Texas 16% stat doesn't seem out of place is that the Keep Texas Moving methodology includes depreciation, whereas the FHWA's doesn't. The FHWA only includes current spending; this includes road construction, but depreciation is much higher, as the US is not replacing its highway stock at the intended rate.

At 9:23 PM, September 22, 2010, Blogger Alon Levy said...

re: the definition of central planning:

The flip side of Houston's policy is banning cars. This is not central planning by your narrow definition: nobody is saying where you can drive and where you can't. And yet, this is clearly the most bureaucratic, centralized sort of regulation of transportation. Parking minimums may not be as extreme, but the difference is in degree, not kind.

At 4:11 PM, September 24, 2010, Anonymous paulbtucker said...

What a lively and productive comment thread! Tory, I recommend you dust off one of these "rainy day" post ideas more often.


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