Friday, February 29, 2008

More on the land-use forum

OK, I've finally got some time to pass along some of my notes and thoughts on the Tuesday night land-use forum. I already covered my introduction speech in the previous post. Unfortunately, the Powerpoint presentations do not seem to be posted yet, but should show up at some point here and/or here. The Houston Politics blog at the Chronicle had some coverage here and here.

Dr. Nelson
  • Titled his talk "Have our cake and eat it too," meaning we can have both new development and neighborhood protection.
  • Not for zoning, but for "stakeholder-based negotiated planning" and "sector and corridor form-based plans"
  • 2/3 of all the built environment in 2030 will be built between now and then (including replacements of existing structures). By 2040, 600K new housing units built inside the city of Houston (not metro), totaling around $500B.
  • Moving towards 75% of our adulthood without children. 88% of growth in households will be without children. This shifts the attractiveness from suburban to urban environments.
  • He thinks the solution is to redevelop arterial shopping centers with large parking lots into 4-5 story mixed-use developments - still with plenty of parking spread among streets, garages, and underground.
  • In Q&A, he noted that most of the suburban cities around Atlanta essentially ban attached structures (apts, condos, townhomes, etc.), which is very exclusionary. Good that we don't.
  • Also in the Q&A, he was asked if the free market was building density anyway, why was a form-based code necessary? Answer: to make it compatible with the neighborhood.
I understand the appeal of mixed-use to residents. It's first-floor retail that's the problem. They need to have convenient parking, or people will just drive down the street to a competitor that does. And the residents themselves are usually not enough to support most retail (except for very basic services, like convenience stores, dry cleaning, maybe a deli, etc.) - it must be able to draw driving customers. Joel tells me that in many places mandating mixed-use in LA, the residential fills right up, but block after block has empty retail space - which means those residents are still pretty much driving everywhere.

Wendell Cox
  • Basically devastated smart growth approaches, which predicted price decreases because of lower projected infrastructure costs, but have actually created spectacular price increases and unaffordability everywhere it's been applied.
  • Showed that the American Dream of suburban homeownership is actually a global aspiration, including all over Europe and Asia.
  • Showed a high correlation between high land-use regulation and low job growth.
  • A person can save $1 to $1.5 million moving from CA to Houston (house price plus financing costs). I've certainly seen many more CA license plates lately.
  • Transit is downtown-centric, which is now <10%>
  • Notes all the unsubsidized density being built by the market in Houston, vs. the large subsidies required to get density built in Portland.
  • Advocates responsive instead of prescriptive planning. Let the market choose how it wants to live, don't force it.
  • In Q&A, he said that planning/regs like DFW and Atlanta would have an unpredictable impact on the dynamic environment in Houston, including the potential of much more unaffordability than has been created in either of those metros (something I've also argued before on this blog).
David Crossley
  • Does not advocate zoning or growth boundaries, but believes we do need a plan.
  • Carbon and climate change argument for reducing driving. As I've said before, I think the personal vehicle is here to stay, regardless of what energy technology it runs on. And I think that technology will evolve much faster than we could ever rework our cities into dense, transit-focused ones. Plug-in hybrids that use almost no gas are already on their way.
  • He disputes that Houston was built around the car. He is technically correct about the very core of the city built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But the vast bulk of the city, built since WW2, was definitely built around the car.
  • Notes that we do have plenty of regulations already, especially Chapter 42 that divides the city into urban (inside the loop) and suburban (outside 610), and that many of these regs don't make much sense these days. We need to allow the choice of dense living without requiring variances. Agreed.
  • Showed a map with 55 transit-oriented neighborhoods around the light rail stops.
  • Pointed out that our strong mayor is essentially the "chief planner" for the city as it currently stands.
Mayor Bob Lanier
  • Pointed out that our infrastructure, including highways, is some of the most fully utilized in the state (i.e. operating closer to capacity).
  • Transit usage in Houston has been flat for decades, stuck at around 5% of commuter trips and 1% of all trips. He believes many people have unrealistic expectations of it growing much beyond that.
  • Warned against planning out too far, beyond our knowledge of how markets and preferences will shift. He said if you compare the old zoning plans that voters rejected way back with the city today, you'd laugh at how far off those plans were.
  • Equated "real quality-of-life" with the basics he worked on like police to reduce crime and basic infrastructure like sidewalks ("neighborhoods to standard" program).
  • Government can't effectively tell people what to develop. Government planners are not creative or innovative - a "no mistakes" mentality. Free market = affordability.
  • Believes Ashby is a negative outlier in the free market, but that there would be just as many - if not more - issues and problems under a centrally controlled system.
  • Believes people are pushing "backdoor zoning" right now, and he is opposed to the "horrible" traffic and curb cut ordinances.
  • "People like sprawl."
Overall, it was very cordial, with a lot more agreement than I expected. I like the idea of an alternative to Chapter 42 for areas around the rail stops (mixed-use up against the sidewalk, with less and hidden parking - but I don't think a full-blow form-based code is needed). But I'm not sure it should be required around those stops - certainly not at all 55 of them. Make it a developer option (no variance required), and see what they build that the market can support. Maybe it could be required at a handful of stops with the most potential, but then we have to monitor how they develop. If those required regs freeze the development market around those stops, then they'll need an overhaul. On the other had, if those stops thrive because of the "increased predictability" for developers and residents, then the requirement could be spread to others relatively quickly. The goal is to create attractive density that doesn't generate as many new car trips. I don't know if that's really possible, but it couldn't hurt to try in a few well-targeted places. Meanwhile, keep letting the rest of the city redevelop as it has been. For the most part, it's been very good, and let's hope it continues despite this national slump.

Update: David's post, including links to two of the presentations. He doesn't like my characterization. I'll admit I just took notes on the points that jumped out at me over 2 hours, so they're certainly not comprehensive - but I tried to be as fair and accurate as possible in my recollections.

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At 1:24 PM, March 01, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


I think changing the parking rules is essential and I haven't heard one credible person ever oppose them.

I think it's ridiculous that you can drive down Montrose and there's block after block of single story retail with large parking lots and right behind all of this are 3,4 & 5 story apartments and condos jammed together with tiny parking areas.

The three additions to retail property rights that I would suggest are:

1) Allow owners to cut the curb and use their own property to build parallel or diagonal parking.

2) Allow rear parking.

3) Allow them to show proof of lease or proof of adequate off site parking from nearby lots or garages.

4) Allow new construction up to the sidewalk.

Once we can all vet a proposal I would love to be a part of an op-ed with buy-in from diverse viewpoints like David Crossley. Not that my name has a lot of pull, but I could do legwork or writing if wanted.

This de-regulation is the most glaring of the areas that I think have near consensus support.

At 3:36 PM, March 01, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

These are good suggestions, Brian. My understanding right now is that large setbacks are required, so retailers fill those setbacks with front-side parking.

I think there is some consensus here, but neighborhoods get *very* upset when people continually park on the streets in their neighborhood because nearby commercial establishments lack adequate parking. I think that's why the minimum parking requirements were created in the first place, to prevent the "moocher" or "tragedy of the commons" problem with parking.

On the other side, I think the vast majority of retailers are very happy to have front-side parking. They really don't want to force their customers to the back or a garage (as minor as that really is). If they are going to be forced that way, they're going to want every nearby establishment to be forced that way too to level the playing field. But then you have the existing businesses problem: who will be the first to convert, and how will they compete with all the existing front-side parking competitors until the decade+ neighborhood transition occurs? Even if we make the allowances you mention, will any retailers actually take advantage of them? Or will they have to be forced?

Tough questions/issues.

At 7:47 PM, March 01, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


I'm not suggesting that we drop the minimum parking requirements, just the details of where that parking has to be.

I think that many places have already done this. Katz' deli on Westheimer has parking in the back and across the street.

I could easily see a restaurant using a parking garage for an office building to accomodate night time traffic.

I went to Oak Park, Ill. a couple years ago and in their downtown they just had a couple double decker parking garages and street parking. The stores were filled with nice places to eat and shop.

At 9:30 PM, March 01, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think developers, for the most part, could do what you're talking about pretty easily under today's regs, with some simple variance requests that would probably be approved. They're just not asking for them, because I think they greatly fear "inconvenient parking" as the kiss of death for most retail in Houston. That's not to say there shouldn't be an alternative that doesn't require the variances - the question is whether anyone would really take advantage of it or not.

At 7:32 PM, March 04, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somebody needs to look into Kerry R Gilbert & Associates. A inside source says they have been paying planning members off at the city of Houston, and surrounding counties. I thought that stuff wasn't aloud? Somebody needs to stop it!


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