Monday, February 16, 2009

The top four urban stories of late '08 (and my response on Houston's freedom)

So I've been backlogged on my Planetizen emails since October. That's over 35+ emails with links to 700+ stories related to cities and urban planning. But I caught up last week and have selected what I think are the four most interesting stories I came across:

"'The areas we now admire,' explains Toronto architect and co-author John van Nostrand, 'are pre-planning areas. But older areas didn't always offer access to parks and open space. Then, when planning hit in the 1960s, we rejected the unplanned city for the fully planned community. I think now we're way overregulated. There are so many rules. What we need is an approach that allows for changes.'

In other words, planning may be the problem, but it's also the solution.

Or is it? Van Nostrand argues that when it comes to planning, less is more. The trick, he insists, is not to be overly proscriptive, but to allow for maximum flexibility.

'Real life is always right,' he says. 'It's planning that's wrong.'"

The final story is Urbanism Legend: Is Houston really unplanned? (and response by Brian, a local property rights defender) Really he's asking if we're truly a free market city. My thoughts on his main points:
  • We don't allow our townhomes to be small enough or dense enough. He's referring to the compromise inside-vs.-outside the loop density regulations of 1998. I agree I'd like to see this restriction gone. But clearly we are addressing the lower end of the market (he says we don't), because there are plenty of very affordable townhomes north and east of downtown. I also question whether there's any real demand for smaller townhomes here, even if they were allowed. And, finally, I've heard a lot about the new density overloading our infrastructure in the core - especially sewers - so there may be practical density limits in any case.
  • We have minimum parking requirements. Again, I would like to see this restriction gone and let the market sort it out, but I suspect it would make little difference. Developers in Houston know the market demands parking, and they'd be committing suicide without it. What I'd really like to see, if someone has it, is data on approved apartment projects of the last few years, and how their built parking compares to the legally required minimums. If many of them are right at the minimum, then relaxing the regs could have an impact. But if most projects have more than them minimum required, as I suspect they do, then relaxing the minimums may have little practical impact. It's also worth noting that the Urban Corridors plan is expected to relax parking requirements near rail stops.
  • Minimum setbacks force parking in front of buildings. True, and they will fix this in the urban corridors. Outside of them, I suspect the free market would still choose to put parking in front, for convenience, even without the required setbacks.
  • The city enforces deed restrictions. I don't really understand the problem here. Clearly deed restrictions would be a lot less reliable if they required homeowners to pay attorney's fees every time there was a violation. The real benefit of deed restrictions is their voluntary nature, and that they have mechanisms for local neighborhood control. Also, unlike zoning, they have to be market-oriented and realistic. Developers and homeowners lose out if their deed restrictions reduce their value, so they're naturally careful about what they do. Zoning - or any other land use restrictions - created by government bureaucrats have no such restraint. Value can be destroyed arbitrarily with no impact on those officials.
As Brian points out in his response, Houston may not be a perfect unregulated free market in land-use, but it is far more so - and therefore more flexible and affordable - than the average city.

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At 11:52 PM, February 17, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had already seen that market urbanism post. I really liked it cause it actually mirrored a debate we often have here. When Tory and the other freemarketers talk about Houston as a freemarket city, someone always goes but,but,but, Houston has minimum parking requirments(or one of the other things mentioned there). So i guess we are a little wrong in that we should be saying that Houston is the most freemarketish of any large city.

I wish we would get rid of all four of these issues, although if I have any qualms about that it would actually be the min. parking requirments. Most of the places I like to go out on the weekends don't have enough parking, and I usually have to park in the surrounding neighborhood. The lack of onsite parking causes a neg. externality on these neighborhoods. Not an issue in Midtown/Downtown, but a big issue along Richmond/Alabama/Westheimer.

Tory, the freemarket argument against the city enforcing deed restrictions is the same as the general freemarket for any good. If the neighborhood doesnt value their deed restrictions enough to pay to go through the courts to enforce them, why should the rest of the city subsidize them. So unless you are going to argue that a certain neighborhood having enforced deed restrictions creates a positive externality for the rest of the city, I don't see how you can think the city should enforce them. Having said all this I do agree that voluntary deed restrictions are preferable to government dictate.

At 9:04 AM, February 18, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

In prinicple, I agree that the private market should handle deed restrictions. But in practical reality, I think it makes more sense for the city to do it. A rebellious or wealthy homeowner/landowner might try to wear down a private attorney or drive the neighborhood to give up because of the expense. City attorneys have a better intimidation factor to get people in line, and they're not going anywhere.

There's also an issue of scale. What if a very tiny development wants to enforce deed restrictions? The burden could be quite high on individual homeowners.

It's sort of like insurance: better to spread the risks and costs over a larger population. And it still costs the city far less than running a traditional zoning bureaucracy.

At 12:58 PM, February 19, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Regarding minimal levels of parking, we visited this issue a while back. A better way of looking of what the effects of mandated minimum levels of parking provision would be to look to see whether developers are building any more parking above and beyond the minimum stated requirements. In other words, if City regulations state that (wave hands in the air here) Tory Gattis's Open Teams company building will require that Tory will provide 20 parking spots, ergo Tory provides exactly 20 parking spots - and not one more, then what does that say about Tory's belief about how many spots he will actually need for his business? Also, what does that say about parking regulations?

Recently, the owners of a flat, level parking lot across from my workplace erected a 12 story parking garage on the lot, capable of handling 1,200 vehicles. That is a classic example of a more physically intensive use of land, but few people think of a multi-story parking lot as being a more intensive use of land.

I don't blame the City planners of decades gone by in trying to write the traffic and parking rules they did. They were trying to adapt to the rapidly changing world of the early and mid 20th century. Now that matters have settled down some, we can pause and revisit them.



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