Thursday, April 24, 2008

The renewed zoning debate

I feel compelled to respond to Sunday's Chronicle story on public support for zoning and the debate it has sparked in the paper (Kendall Miller/HRG response, former Mayor Bob Lanier response calling for a formal zoning vote (vs. the "backdoor zoning" sometimes being implemented piecemeal now), and pro-planning response to his response, Chronicle editorial board), but I'm not sure what to say that isn't going to be a repeat of everything I've been saying on this blog for three years.

"Zoning" and "planning" are both words that poll very well, because most people associate them in their mind as some vague cure-all for everything they don't like about Houston - the "grass is always greener on the other side" fallacy. I understand Dr. Klineberg's need to keep questions consistent over time to watch trends, but this one has very unfortunate wording:
"Need better land-use planning to guide development, or leave people free to build wherever they want?"
Clearly biased. Gentle guiding vs. anarchy. If I was writing a mirror-image of the question for the other side, it would go something like this:
"Need more government control of land-use, or leave people free to control their own property?"
There's also an inherent conflict here, as people support both "neighborhood protection" and "redeveloping older urban areas was the best way to absorb population growth" i.e. increasing density. The fact is, we're doing absolutely great on the latter- better than most cities - and that means less sprawl, less driving, lower air pollution, and a more vibrant core. And the best approach to neighborhood protection is debatable. Certainly it seems voluntary deed restrictions can do just about everything for neighborhood protection that zoning can, although maybe that process needs to be streamlined to be less cumbersome. And I agree with City Controller Annise Parker that limiting high-rises to major thoroughfares is a reasonable requirement, although my understanding is that the approach working through the system right now is traffic-based rather than focusing on height.

Let's analyze one of Councilmember Peter Brown's quotes:
Without sound development standards, he said, "we're losing our share of the middle class. We're getting flooding, air pollution, neighborhood blight and decline."
We're getting a massive number of affordable townhomes built in the core with our light regulatory touch. Those townhomes are built on expensive land that either would become a McMansion instead (so much for the middle class), or not redeveloped at all if there weren't enough buyers for high-priced McMansions, in which case the original blight sticks around. Those townhomes accommodate several households that otherwise would live on an even bigger footprint in the suburbs, increasing sprawl, flooding, driving and air pollution. They also increase the tax base here, improving the city's ability to address exactly the problems he describes. So, essentially, the exact opposite of his argument is true.

The Chronicle editorial board states:
As reported by the Chronicle's Mike Snyder, Councilman Peter Brown, Controller Annise Parker and former Kemah Mayor Bill King all speak favorably of development regulations that fall short of conventional zoning. The incumbent, Bill White, supports more flexible ways to control urban density such as regulations concerning drainage, traffic congestion and public safety. He called zoning "an old and somewhat clumsy tool."
Mostly good and agreeable, except for the statement that Peter Brown's desire for a form-based code "falls short of conventional zoning." Conventional zoning simply specifies land-use, i.e. single-family residential, commercial, industrial, etc. His code would allow mixing of commercial and residential (a slight loosening), while specifying in great detail exactly how buildings would be built (min and max height, parking amount and location, required sidewalk retail, zero setbacks, etc.). If anything, that seems to go beyond conventional zoning in terms of restrictions and controls.

I'll end with a great excerpt from Kendall's letter:

City after American city has answered friction between redevelopment of inner-city areas and neighborhood concerns with such restrictions over the past 40 years, only to find that well-intentioned land use controls have caused economic woes, greater congestion and even urban decay. Further, these restrictions have done little or nothing to relieve such friction. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas recently noted that because local government polices here don't artificially distort consumer-driven growth, Houston tops major cities in resisting the economic problems now affecting most large cities. Other national experts cite Houston as an example of a city that "got it right."

There are responsible paths to balance legitimate neighborhood concerns with a healthy trend to greater population density within Houston. Improvement of the cumbersome process for renewing and updating neighborhood deed restrictions is part of the solution, and other market-sensitive answers would serve us all far better than the heavy-handed land use controls that some advocate.

Update: Peter Brown's response letter in the Chronicle (scroll down)

Update 2: Mike Snyder (Chronicle) on Patricia Knudson Joiner's opinion (you're welcome, Mike), and here's my comment response:
Certainly infrastructure needs to be planned (with adaptations when circumstances change), but cities need to be thought of more like the market economy or a natural ecosystem than an architect'ed building: they're not planned - they evolve.

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At 6:22 AM, April 25, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Conventional zoning in Houston would be a distaster. Look at the Memorial Villages. They are bascially a residential zone on the West side of Houston. There is no room for middle class there. I live in the villages and it is a nice neighborhood but the fact that it is "zoned" to residential means I have to drive a long distance to get to restaurants and businesses. Isn't this the opposite of what we want to encourage?

At 8:17 AM, April 25, 2008, Blogger Rob Mitchell said...

Zoning is really just another form of hidden taxation on the residents of a city. Who, in the end, pays all the costs that planning causes by making developers jump through planners artificial hoops.If you look at the rest of the country, it is not a great oasis because of zoning. It is a mass of mediocrity planning and design used by consultants to get through the hoops with the least money and time possible.

At 8:55 AM, April 25, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jgriff and Mr. Mitchell,

Both of your observations are quite to the mark. Bernard Siegan, wrote in Land Use without Zoning, his landmark case study of Houston's land use patterns, noted that zoning often hurts the poor in very subtle ways. The biggest way in which the poor are hurt through zoning ordinances is via segregation of employment, amenities, and housing which makes their life even more difficult and inconvenient than it is already.

Amongst a fair element of the planning profession, zoning has gotten to be an ever greater pain. Zoning ordinances have to be overhauled again and again because of changing economic conditions. Also, many have come to realize that how you parcel out property on a zoning map - even down to a few feet either way - can make an immense difference in the value of property and how it can be put to use. This gets many people very upset.

For all the gripes about our lightly regulated, piecemeal approach to development, I cannot see where comprehensive zoning or planning will make a lot of difference towards alleviating our ills other than to employ lots of people in zoning and planning departments who get to implement their own plans for what they want Houston to look like. For all the talk of "neighborhood protection" to be offered, in reality some neighborhoods would get "protected" (i.e. not redeveloped) through regulatory designations while others would get dedeveloped.

At 10:01 AM, April 25, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

You say of Peter Brown's quote:

>>His code would allow mixing of commercial and residential (a slight loosening), while specifying in great detail exactly how buildings would be built (min and max height, parking amount and location, required sidewalk retail, zero setbacks, etc.).

Hmm - don't we already regulate setbacks, sidewalks, and parking? So he might call for regulating building height as well, based on perhaps whether the location is on a major thoroughfare (like Kirby - which is a major 8 lane road in most locations) versus not (like Ashby high-rise location - which is what - 4 lanes with no median?), which you and others also seem to support. Doesn't sound like you and Peter Brown (or David Crossley) are that far off to me.


At 11:58 AM, April 25, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What does height have to do with anything? A tall building does not indicate density. It is possible to have a mid-rise building with twice as many cars and people than a high-rise.

It depends on the kind of living units provided and cost.

The 2727 Kirby High-rise is very low density compared to say the Post Lofts at Webster/Gray and Bagby.

The current setbacks, sidewalks, and parking regulation within our Chapter 42 code are more like recommendations. Our current planning commission is more than capable to relax these regulations in one step through a variance request.

The developer asks for the variance and the planning commission (along with neighborhood input) can support or not support the variance. In the end a decision is made. How do you think the Post development on West Gray and Webster was developed?

Countless other projects are going or have gone through this same process with lots of success.

Just look at Washington near Heights Blvd. The sidewalks are being transformed from the current 2.5 to 3 feet wide strip of concrete to a 10-foot wide walking width with trees being added between the sidewalk and road. This is developer and neighborhood input driven.

It just ridiculous to see that people want to toss out what is working so well to move towards a situation where property rights are endangered at every step.

One stroke of the pen by a small zoning board group can destroy or elevate your property value by changing what you can do with it.

Our current system gives neighborhoods more power than a zoning system. A zoning system concentrates power into one board that can be bought off by developers. Our current planning commission has to submit conflicts of interest before every public meeting to prevent developer influence. Just watch or attend one of the meetings. You'll often see one or two members recuse themselves before a hearing because they may be linked to the project. Zoning boards rarely ever have to do this. All the developer influence on the local politicians won't truly affect the final decisions of the planning commission. Also, our planning commission is more sympathetic to local residents and neighborhood concerns. TIRZ #5 is great example of where a variance request was challenged. The result is the neighborhood won and also has obtain a position on the TIRZ #5 board. Now redevelopment in this TIRZ has more local input. This TIRZ is current going to dramatically increase it's density while now incorporating many things the neighborhood wants such as bike trails and greater pedestrian access. Some of this was there in the developer plan, but now more has been added through local input. This all took a small amount of time and the projects are moving forward. Also, these projects will get setback and sidewalk changes through the variance process.

Look at Dallas, many projects that were pushed forward occurred because of the close relationship of the developer and zoning board member or members. The Victory project and others near it is a great example. Some neighborhoods can be targeted by the zoning board and developer together to be redeveloped while others saved. This often trends towards poor neighborhoods being hit and rich ones being avoided.

At 4:56 PM, April 25, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

We have min setbacks, but allow variances. Form-based codes (FBCs) typically *require* zero setbacks whether you like it or not. FBCs often *require* street level retail (without front-side parking because of the zero setback, often making it uncompetitive), even if there's no local demand for it. FBCs can have *max* parking (not just min like ours), which can also make a project uncompetitive if it can't have enough parking. FBCs often *require* min heights, even if the developer can't find enough takers for the higher floors or parking to support them.

(as an aside, I'll mention I've supported an FBC as a *voluntary alternative* near rail transit stops)

Margins are not that high for most developments. It doesn't take too many of these "dings" to make them uncompetitive. And you never see what doesn't get built because of excessive regulations. It's an invisible economic killer.

At 9:37 AM, April 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Zoning might encourage some of the not so nice neighborhoods between 610 and beltway 8 to re-develop. Right now, Houston has a ring around it. Inside 610 has done well, and outside of Beltway looks nice, but that ring continues to move out.

Zoning could allow the center to become ubber expesive, while forcing the dead zone to be revitalized.

At 10:09 AM, April 28, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you consider not so nice?

Poor neighborhoods? So zoning is a way to push out the poor to make the quality of life go up? I'm sure areas east and west of the North Freeway and EastTex in this zone would glad to here this....

The reality is, the areas between 610 and the Beltway are seeing a revival. Many neighborhoods are undergoing changes. Also, there is lots of undeveloped land within this ring that are targets for new development. Just look from Southwest Freeway to the South Freeway. 1000s of new homes have sprung up in this ring between 610 and the Beltway.

At 6:53 PM, December 01, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All of these arguments are fine and dandy until someone builds a bar or music venue right next to you.

68 decibel limits are ridiculous and never enforced. Drunk patrons leaving at two in the morning, slamming doors and screaming, not to mention urinating and defecating in drive ways.
So consider lack of zoning another form of taxation. Your tax dollars protecting business in Houston, while your home value declines by 25% and your sleep and privacy and totally ignored by city government.


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