Comment of the Day: When Houston Buildings Weren’t So Shy of the Street

COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHEN HOUSTON BUILDINGS WEREN’T SO SHY OF THE STREET “The main reason these old buildings are so charming is their zero-foot setback from the front property line, which results in a much more pedestrian-friendly streetscape. Ever since the City created the Chapter 42 development requirements, with 25-ft setbacks along major thoroughfares (of which Washington is one) and minimum parking requirements, retail development shifted from pedestrian-friendly zero building line (e.g. 19th St or Rice Village) to strip centers with two rows of parking in front. After all, if you can’t build within 25 feet of the building line, you might as well put cars there.” [Angostura, commenting on A Restaurant Renovation in the Old Sixth Ward] Illustration: Lulu

35 Comment

  • At least there are setbacks. Some buildings,old & new are way too close to the street. Old: too many to list. New:the Sovereign high rise on W.Dallas@ Rochow,77019. It’s less than 30 feet from W.Dallas.Pity the renters who’ll live in the lower level units facing W.Dallas & Rochow.

  • Last time I was in Rice Village, it was mostly strip centers with parking lots between the storefronts and the street. Not sure that’s a good example.

  • Thank you for bringing this comment to light. I recently walked with Peter Park (the former planning director of Milwaukee and Denver) along a part of Washington Avenue that exemplifies what Angostura is talking about – the building is fronted by two rows of parking discouraging any walkability in the area. In the videos, Mr. Park makes some great suggestions for how to accommodate both the car AND the customer, creating a more livable city for all. See for yourself at

  • Not sure which Rice Village you visited. The older buildings are all right up to the street. The newer buildings all have the setback.

  • Nice work, Pedestrian Pete.

  • Uhmm, people need to realize that cars do exist, now. In the year 1900, things changed. Cars are private, your own space, and get around more than walking ever could. Things were set up more dense and close together before(ex. NY, Chicago, east coast and just places before the car) so you could get to everything walking so I don’t want the denser, closer getting overdone for today when that kind of past is gone. You don’t have to look like the world use to look. Make something for today’s world.

  • C,

    If ugly modern development was a natural response to cars, it wouldn’t need to be enforced with excessive setbacks and parking minimums.

  • @ awp: Setbacks exist in order to ensure that developers do not construct things that would impair visibility at corners and to diminish the cost of right-of-way acquisition if a road needs to be expanded. Setbacks address legitimate externalities.

    There are many corridors where the city will grant a variance on setback restrictions, but when they do they still want to have the power to make reasonable demands. There are also some corridors where there is absolutely no flexibility.

    Parking standards, likewise, exist to protect neighborhoods from excessive overflowing on-street parking. I personally think that that’s just one of those things that people living in a dense city need to get past their fear of, but as long as we have a hodge-podge of low-density neighborhoods running up against commercial strips inside of what we think of as the urban core (and that doesn’t seem to be going away) there will be a strong voice wanting to “protect” those streetscapes from being parked on by non-residents.

  • Setbacks, as this artifice is called, are terrible. They make for a barrier between the sidewalks and the storefronts which people want to access. In lieu, parked cars now have perfect access to storefronts. I’m sorry, but to me this makes no sense at all.

    Look at examples in older european cities and see how good the quality of life is made by the absence of setbacks. Look at modern examples such as Singapore where you can see that modernity doesn’t imply a compromise by which the automobile is placed closer to storefronts than people.

    Thanks Angostura, now I know to call this terrible practice: setbacks.

  • I was told by a land use attorney who works for the City that setback standards in Chapter 42 were put in place to ensure “air and light” – NOT to preserve space for future street widenings. Apparently in the late 1970s – early 1980s the good citizens of Houston were aghast and horrified of the intolerable cityscape created along Woodway west of Buffalo Bayou (the “Woodway Canyon”) and decided that this should not be allowed to happen again.

  • @ Local Planner: It wouldn’t surprise me if that were true back then. However in practice now, it seems to be more about visibility triangles and future ROW takings. I found out that there are some places in the city that are simply off-limits to a variance on that basis. Its not codified anywhere that they should be, but in practice they are.

    @ Quantum: Old European cities are a bad analog for Houston because American post-war sunbelt cities are path-dependent in a manner that requires that a vast majority of its citizens can travel long distances to de-centralized activity clusters. You don’t have to like it, but that’s what they are and you do have to understand that there’s no turning back. That means that we have to provide for cars. The other important factor is that sunbelt cities are not economically or demographically stagnant like old European cities. So we have to provide for cars and we have to provide for growth. We could eliminate those things, cars and growth, but that’s a 50-year project and it would hurt real bad…and in the sorts of sociological ways that even Europeans have no tolerance for.

  • Niche,

    Have you ever traveled outside the libertarian bubble that is Houston and visited other major metro areas? Just driving about 170 miles west to Austin you can see a night and day difference between our retail and the newer residential multifamily. Not to mention infrastructure such as streets and sidewalks. Austin certainly has problems where Houston has strengths and vice versa, but it’s quite apparent what good ordinances and zoning can produce.

  • Ironically, I think that the Woodway Canyon is a visually interesting stretch of street with the juxtaposition of the buildings to the curving street.

  • According to Burdette Keeland, who was responsible for their introduction when he was on the Planning Commission, the setbacks were initially put in place because some of the high rises built in the Woodway Corridor would impede the city from widening the street. At the time, he thought it was a great victory for planning.
    As for the visibility triangle, it doesn’t seem to have become an issue until the reduced setbacks were enabled in later versions of Chapter 42.

  • I’ve spoken against zoning – it won’t necessarily protect neighborhoods from unwanted development, and things like traffic planning, can be done without zoning. But setbacks are one thing where zoning really would help. Low density residential zones could keep their setbacks. Industrial zones might get even bigger setbacks and landscape buffer requirements for environmental reasons. High density commercial zones could have no setbacks. You can’t do this until you’ve defined what low density residential, industrial, and high density commercial zones are.
    The only other way to approach it, which is what Chapter 42 allows for if I’m not mistaken, is to let developers who want zero lot line development, apply for variances to the setbacks. If the development getting the variance is on a large enough scale, it can become a city-like environment(look at Midway’s City Centre). But this approach doesn’t allow a district like Uptown or the Energy Corridor to lose its setbacks, build to lot-lines, and look like a traditional city.

  • @dom

    Austin and Houston are not terribly comparable cities. Comparisons only go so far, but to the extent they have good ideas that are workable, I’m glad they pay for the experiment before all the bad ideas are forced on Houstonians.

    All that said, with some fraction of the population of Houston, Austin area folks often deal with traffic as bad as we have, without the gigantic economy to show for it.

    Plus they have all the hipsters that you can’t stir with a stick. No one wants that kind of pollution.

  • Oh please don’t summize that our need for cars is what drives Houston’s economic engine.

  • I was in Austin yesterday. I visit often but I almost never go to downtown, but last night we were in the area near Cesar Chavez west of Congress Ave. When I was living there, it was a pretty dead area of downtown. Now it has been utterly transformed. It really is like an entirely new city; people live in the highrises and it’s very pedestrian-oriented, with no setbacks at all. I’m a bit flummoxed as to why folks would be critical of this approach. We found parking for five bucks in a state-owned garage without any problem at all. Traffic was not light but hardly unmanageable. I’m guessing it’s heavier on the weekends, but I still can’t see how drivers are disadvantaged there.

    This debate is more about lifestyle differences than what works and what doesn’t work. What I find interesting about Austin is that not only is their downtown heavily trafficked, but if you don’t want to go there, you don’t really need to unless work requires it, and in that case you probably have parking available to you. But the south side of the city is growing, the east side is no longer the ghetto it once was; there are even great places to live and visit as far out as Ben White Blvd. So you get the best of both worlds, really: well-developed and popular suburban areas that serve the many homeowners who want affordable single-family homes, and a downtown that is alive. We Houstonians seem to think that it’s an either/or proposition. We seem to think if we lift ordinances like these setbacks, we’re going to make life miserable for commuters. That’s not the case. There can be something there for everybody but it’s probably harder to achieve without some kind of zoning.

  • @ Mies: I’m just reporting what I was told by a legal insider. That person may have been simply trying to repeat a reasoning that has an easier legal justification, even if the real, more widely accepted reason was to preserve street widening possibilities.

    Planned street widening is supposed to be the province of the Major Thoroughfare Plan. But perhaps some folks thought that all major thoroughfares should have space preserved so they could be widened, regardless whether the MTFP showed them planned for widening or not. Because you know, wider streets are always better. (?)

  • Anse is correct that Austin somehow has managed to have a mixed use downtown core with pedestrian traffic from morning into the evening, even on hot summer days, yet retain plenty of suburban-type home construction. Austin (and Dallas) developers are also somehow able to include ground floor retail in mid rise apartments and not go into financial ruin. The setback and parking rules in Houston ruined the bulding of a pedestrian friendly Midtown by encouraging suburban type contruction of , for example, CVS and Walgreens.

  • While the setback requirements on Major Thoroughfares, at 25 feet from r.o.w., do encourage front parking lots, much of what was done in Midtown and elsewhere (like the CVS) is driven as much or more by developers (and even more so, retail tenants and lenders) who want a standard suburban format built, even in the middle of town. They do this because they believe any departure from exclusively automobile-oriented site design in Houston constitutes extra “risk” and cost.

  • I find it ironic that people who are opposed to zoning would be in favor of a citywide ordinance requiring consistent setbacks. It’s like we say we favor unregulated development, but then we say we have to have minimum parking requirements and setbacks etc and so forth. It kind of shows this no-zoning policy to be kind of a lie, doesn’t it?

  • Parking is an amenity not a human right to be subsidized by the society at large. In a perfect world, developers would be able build what’s necessary; not what gov’t mandates. Not enough parking, lose profitability. Too much parking, lose money on costs. The same holds true for residential properties. Setbacks are for safe traffic flow at higher rates of speed. To argue for future ROW acquisition implies higher rates of speed in the future. One could argue that any location on either end of Washington could be reached via Memorial Pkwy. and therefore a variance could be argued for all Washington Ave. properties. If we’re supposed to get super-efficient, self-driving cars in the future why do we need all the extra capacity in the future again?

  • Niche #8,

    note I said excessive.

    Why 25ft? I quite sure most drivers seats of cars trying to turn onto other streets are well within 8ft of the front bumper. If you want to protect future ROW set that 8ft from the edge of the future ROW.

    Parking minimums are an example of bad govt. policy in response to previous questionable govt. policy. Govt. produces a resource in on-street parking, then refuses price it properly once it becomes valuable, instead forcing people to oversupply parking until the marginal parking spot is not only no longer valuable but value destroying.

  • Anse,
    I find it ironic that people who favor zoning aren’t in favor of totalitarian communism. It’s like we say we favor letting our betters decide what goes best where, but then we say we should be able to decide how best to build it ourselves. It kind of shows this support for zoning policy to be lie, doesn’t it.

    It is called a spectrum. I don’t think anyone on this blog is a radical anarchist or radical totalitarian when it comes to urban policy.

  • Awp,

    Post number 23 is what I’m after, and though your creative reading skills are evident, I still can’t find where I even implied that anybody around here is an anarchist, or a communist, though it’s plain that at least some of us are rhetorical onanists.

  • the only good thing about Austin is that it is 165 miles away.

  • Anse,

    How could post 23 be what you are after in your post number 22.

    You claimed that to believe that certain regulations are bad while others are okay is inconsistent(ironic). So to be consistent in response to your post we must believe either all regulations are good(totalitarian) or all regulations are bad(anarchist). Assuming that you are responding to the posts of your fellow commenters, you seem to be criticizing someone for not being a consistent anarchist.

  • @ Anse – YOU may not have implied that anyone around here is an anarchist/commie…but we all know that there have to be a couple under the bed somewhere.

    (“rhetorical onanist” – I’m gonna have to steal that one)

  • Local Planner,

    That’s BS. We have suburban format because that is what is required. Houston has a pathetically slightly greater % of the population who doesn’t drive alone to work…. Yet somehow Austin and DFW can do it….

  • Awp,

    You must be another person who needs to travel outside their libertarian bubble…. There’s a whole big world out there…..

  • It’s not BS. Local independent businesses may be relatively willing to provide their parking on the side / back / top / below or wherever. But I’ve heard from several retail developers that convincing a “credit tenant” to lease in a structure that doesn’t have off-street front-door parking can be a major challenge, even if there’s an oversupply of parking elsewhere on site.

    The developer of BLVD place wanted to put the development right up along the Post Oak Boulevard sidewalk – and at the time there was the expectation there would be a light rail station right there. This was going to be done, I believe, without seeking a setback variance (and the Transit Corridor Ordinance in 2009 obviated the need for one anyway). But the tenants that were sought refused to come unless a parking lot was put in front – the internal parking structure wasn’t enough for them. And so, the plan was redesigned with off-street parking in front, and the tenants came.

    I don’t mean to imply support for the setback requirement – I think in most cases it hurts way more than it helps and should be eliminated, or at least modified to not require a variance for more sidewalk-friendly development. Did you know that Kirby from Westheimer to US 59 is a Major Thoroughfare, therefore requiring a 25 foot setback from the right of way for new development? Same with Montrose from W. Dallas to US 59. Is this what we want for the primary streets of some of Houston’s most “urban” neighborhoods, the very center of our city? In my opinion, this is ridiculous.

  • @ dom: In post #8, I acknowledged that setbacks serve to ameliorate externalities (off-street parking and ROW acquisition). Libertarians tend not to acknowledge the right of government to address externalities, that is, if they even acknowledge the validity of the concept of “externality”.

    My perspective, which I did not state, is that one-size-fits-all policy yields sub-optimal outcomes, and also that policy should be codified so that everybody (communities, voters, developers, outside capital) understands in advance what can and cannot be done. In short, I appreciate thoughtful and transparent policy, and just because that perspective does not fit with the two mainstream political parties does not mean that it fits with any other political party.

    I have experience developing and obtaining variances in Austin, too, and to be honest, I feel sorry for their taxpayers. Not only did their zoning not matter, but they made it really really easy to raid the city coffers. My experiences in Austin (and Dallas, too) lend credence to my theory that zoning only enables cronyism. In San Antonio or the RGV, it’s nepotism.

  • time to return the windows and street front buildings to the urban frontier…….parking lots in front? I know ever retailer would rather face the street to allow traffic to see their store instead of fighting for anyone to notice their stores set so far back a football field of concrete parking blocks most views of what they have to sell or their signage……..just saying, been in retail, we begged for street front with windows……also windows bring back jobs for those companies that dress commercial displays or just clean windows……just add a plexi glass coating to the glass so they are impossible to break when “protests” are staged so criminals can loot and scare the public…….really tired of that crap and have one question…….how did that kid die from one shot when Gabby had her head half blown off? just saying, glad we have The Texas Medical Center, maybe real doctors could have saved him instead of declaring that kid dead on site……?????

  • Does this apply to residential as well? i just bought a house and we’re expanding a bit and my permit was denied because of the 25 foot rule. What constitutes a major thoroughfare? Does it apply to residential? 25 ft from what? I can’t believe this! I’m losing half my property and I literally just bought this home but can’t remodel or add a room. So i will have all this wasted property?

    Any suggestions? I’m freaking out. Again this is not a commercial area in Houston, it is residential and I just bought a single family home.

    Thanks for any help!