Monday, January 16, 2012

Is our lack of zoning a myth?

Slate has a blog post claiming that zoning-free Houston is a myth (hat tip to John).
"Whenever I talk about anti-density land use restrictions, someone inevitably brings up Houston, where people have heard there are no zoning rules. If overregulation causes low density, people ask, then how come Houston is so sprawling? There are a number of reasons this line of questioning is a mistake, but the most fundamental one is that people misunderstand what "no zoning" means in the Houston context. If land use in Houston were genuinely unregulated, then this Nancy Sarnoff article about possible revisions to Houston land use rules would make no sense. In fact, the city features extensive regulation of minimum lot size and maximum parking requirements just like every other major American city. The specific proposal here, meanwhile, is a mixed bag. 
On the one hand, you'd be allowed to build townhomes and other "urban-style housing" outside of Loop 610. That's good. But on the flipside they're also talking about "requiring additional parking in higher density developments." Parking requirements are pernicious in almost all contexts, but especially so when you have a major effort under way to encourage more residential density. The point isn't that Houston developers should build parking. It's a very auto-oriented city, and if I were building homes I expected to sell to people I'd want to include parking. But there's no reason to require more parking than the market demands."
Well, unless you're reacting to the free-rider/tragedy-of-the-commons problem of street parking.

He's basically arguing that, while we don't have zoning, we do have regulation, which is certainly true.  But that doesn't mean our lack of zoning is a myth.  I think he was looking for a provocative headline.  But what I most enjoyed were some of the comments, where quite a debate developed.  Some favorite excerpts:
Houston still does not have Zoning in the concept that other cities have zoning. While there many development regulations, there is no land use regulations. There are not regulations that restrict what can be built on a piece of land and what that land can be used for.

There is a caveat though, liquor stores and strip clubs can't be built by schools and platted neighborhoods can have their own internal land use controls.

The internal land use controls are in the form of Deed Restrictions. Active neighborhoods keep these restrictions in place and maintain their land use. Neighborhoods that neglect their Deed Restrictions see massive change. It's a very effective way to develop a city and it's more real and natural. Central planning destroys cities by forcing them to develop unnaturally.

The inner loop of the Houston is growing in density at a faster pace without some urban planning zoning it to be denser.
The most interesting thing about Houston is, outside deed restricted neighborhoods, there are few if any restrictions on the height of Residential or Commercial property.

As a result while we have a decently developed downtown, we have about half a dozen mini downtowns scattered across the city, not to mention the Texas Medical Center which is a small city in its own right.

This also allows condo developers and high rise apartment owners to offer buildings with great views.

It also allows neighborhoods with two story houses near downtown and other premium locations to be affordable and safe.

It is a huge headache for transit managers to deal with multiple job centers, but it is great for traffic because you have tons of rush hour traffic that is multi-directional meaning you do not see freeways as clogged as other cities.
Of course, these points are probably not exactly news to the readers of this blog, but I still thought they were good, concise articulations of how Houston works and the advantages this gives us.  One not mentioned: how it helps us be such an amazing restaurant town - something repeated to me today by a friend visiting from out-of-town for the marathon.

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At 9:30 AM, January 18, 2012, Anonymous Lee Ann O. said...

Thanks for aggregating these thoughts. As a relatively new Houston resident, I have come to marvel at the funky-ness of this town. What's interesting to me is that virtually every conceivable version of utopia --- gated homogeneity, walkable independent retail against historic backdrop, commerce that goes 70 stories up, an Asian superstore where the super-fresh pork goes for $1.50 a pound and, by the way, you are the only white man for miles --- is here. I have lived in other, much more "planned" communities that were far less interesting. Not saying it's causation, just an observation.

At 9:53 AM, January 18, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Oh, it's definitely a big part of the causation, or at least the enablement. Strong planning/controls generally lead to the lowest common denominator/least-offensive answer, which of course leads to low diversity, or "funky-ness" as you call it ;)

At 12:47 PM, January 19, 2012, Anonymous PA said...

Never have seen this as much of a problem. I always hear about the lack of zoning and how you can have a "blank" next to a "blank". Never have noticed it. I like having everything next to each other.

At 10:50 AM, January 25, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While the lack of zoning may promote "funky-ness" it may deter single family homeowners (with young children) from buying into a neighborhood where you may have a McMansion right next to a dilapidated ranch with cars on blocks, with next to some funky restaurant next to a tatto parlour - all within walking distance. Gives pause to long-term buyer uncertain to as to how this will affect property values long-term.

At 12:30 PM, January 25, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That's why every homeowner should be very aware of the deed restrictions on their property and those around them *before* they buy the house...


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