Comment of the Day: When Not Zoning Became Bold New Houston Territory

COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHEN NOT ZONING BECAME BOLD NEW HOUSTON TERRITORY Hand Drawing Houston“. . . Nobody can deny that Houston does things differently, but it does these things in part by not doing something that every other major city does — by bucking the trend despite repeated opportunities to go along with that trend. Houston is so notable in this regard that the Wikipedia page on ‘Zoning in the United States’ has 2 sections of text about the history of zoning: ‘Origins & History’, and ‘Houston’. . . . Houston is the one and only control case that exists by which the impacts of zoning can be tested. To my mind, this qualifies as innovation. Zoning may have been innovative when it was first tried in NYC in 1916, I’ll also grant that —  but it’s precisely 100 years later, and — now — Houston’s position is innovative.” [TheNiche, commenting on Houston’s Counterintuitive Optimism; San Jacinto Mall RedoIllustration: Lulu

9 Comment

  • Many people from elsewhere who dislike Houston blame it on our lack of zoning. However, what they really don’t like is our hot and humid weather, geologic flatness, sprawl, and general lack of pretty, old things. It’s just easier to blame all that on “no zoning,” since it’s hard to explain all of that detail while simultaneously turning up one’s nose.

    And deed restrictions and land covenants do exist all over Houston in many various forms and fashions, so we might not call it “zoning” because it’s not universal, but development here is not quite the free-for-all that everyone thinks it is.

  • Innovation is: 1) recognize a problem, 2) try an experiment to fix it, and 3) learn from the results. Houston’s approach is: 1) maybe recognize a problem, 2) do nothing, and 3) count the few extra dollars in your bank account from not having attempted to invest in the common good.
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    What’s more, Houston’s lack of planning is mainly rooted in a sort of religious dogma that states that any government policy inhibits society. It wrongly believes that we are all perfectly rational actors that ought to be operating in a completely free market.
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    What many older cities have learned over the years is that the low-regulation boom-and-bust mentality, while it delivers short-term wealth, results in burning rivers, plutocracy, a permanent uneducated underclass, smog, acid rain, ozone depletion, and global warming.

  • Good comment. I would only point out two things.
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    First, as has been noted numerous times, Houston does have a lot of the regulations that are usually found in zoning ordinance: setbacks, tree requirements, parking requirements….
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    Second, what’s really interesting is that a lot of cities are writing “planned development” zones into their zoning ordinances. These areas basically work like Houston. The zoning ordinance is set aside, and the developer writes an ordinance that the builders who buy from him will have to follow.

  • The oddest thing about Houston is that we don’t have any major New Urbanist developments on the periphery. Austin does (Mueller redevelopment), Dallas does (Addison Circle, Craig Ranch), and of course most other major cities do (Kentlands, Stapleton, Issaquah Highlands, etc). We have some infill “lifestyle center” type development, but no major greenfield sites.
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    What that says to me is that redevelopment within the Loop is soaking up all the demand for walkable, gridded living.

  • @ Carpetbagger: I actually looked up the dictionary definition of “innovation” before I started writing my treatise on the subject. And that is:
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    in·no·vate (ˈinəˌvāt) v.
    make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.
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    One hundred years ago, zoning was innovation. In the present, zoning is established, the process for deviating from zoning is established in the cities that have it, and not having zoning or a process to deviate from it is highly innovative. It would also qualify for the word “novel”, which is defined as, “new or unusual in an interesting way.”
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    That said, Superdave and ZAW are absolutely correct. The City of Houston is not a free market, not even close. That can’t even be said of unincorporated Harris County. Would you like to see a free market in action? I hear that some of the Andaman Islands are essentially state-less, that people can’t even get passports, and its not pretty; but in America about the closest thing you’re likely to come to that is Bacliff. I kind of like that Bacliff is within driving distance of Houston, just to offer a reminder that Houston is actually quite orderly by comparison. However…whether you think it fortunate or unfortunate, even Bacliff isn’t perfectly unregulated. Even ‘cliff-dwellers can obtain passports, subsidized flood insurance (for now), IRS liens, meth lab busts (although pre-explosion busts are in somewhat short supply), and so on.

    @ ZAW: The PD zones are negotiated though, the outcome is fairly prescriptive/generic, and most of them end up looking something like Midway’s CityCentre or The Woodlands Town Center. The establishment of a PD zone is usually followed up by a litany of variances. Every single negotiation is an opportunity for palms to get greased and for the urban form to remain predictable on the one hand and abide by market forces on the other. The net differences are superficial, but also you get these little islands of walkability within large cities where most people drive to work and change housing or jobs somewhat frequently and rarely match one to the other. Which is to say…the externalities still exist, there’s not really a public good being served.

    The Houston area gets those without PD zoning, and clearly there is demand. Maybe Houston doesn’t get as many… But. Well this is just my opinion: they’re contrived and boring. I would also argue that for reasons already stated, having a smattering of chaos along major and minor thoroughfares and mixed into neighborhoods makes much more of the city more walkable and enhances quality of life in a variety of ways. There’s a reason most people like Montrose and this is it! Meanwhile, the people that don’t like that lifestyle should consider living in a deed-restricted community (and then leaving everybody else alone). Houston has plenty of those too.

  • @ Purple City: I would beg to differ. They come in various forms (TOD/TND/Other and we could argue over purity standards endlessly) but here’s a list off the top of my head of what are ostensibly new urbanist greenfield development that have been developed or are planned in the surburbs (counterclockwise):

    The Woodlands Town Center
    Springwoods Village
    The Vintage
    Bridgeland (planned)
    City Centre
    Cane Island (planned)
    Katy Boardwalk (planned)
    LaCenterra at Cinco Ranch
    Imperial Sugar Redevelopment (planned)
    Telfair
    Sugar Land Town Square
    Pearland Town Center
    Nassau Bay Town Square

  • Another interpretation Purple, might be that Houston has avoided, with its no zoning but restrictions and covenants approach, the deadly planned disasters as the two airport sites in Denver and Austin and other “brownfield”, not greenfield, areas.

  • Carpet Bagger,

    “1) recognize a problem, 2) try an experiment to fix it, and 3) learn from the results.”

    1) Housing is ridiculously expensive in most major metropolitan areas in the United States

    2) Experiment by letting people actually build housing in one major metropolitan area, Houston

    3) Find out that actually letting people build housing in Houston leads to cheaper housing relative to expectations given size

    Purple City,

    “The oddest thing about Houston is that we don’t have any major New Urbanist developments on the periphery…..What that says to me is that redevelopment within the Loop is soaking up all the demand for walkable, gridded living.”

    People often talk about our sprawl (which is not any different that any other Metro and is controlled by suburbs which across the country almost unanimously welcome development of the sprawly type(only affordable to the right type of people)). What they often miss is what you point out here. Houston is the only city that allows densification as of right. We build a lot of suburbanism, but we are also where most of the urbanism is actually happening too.

  • Houston forgoes the local political layer of zoning in favor of the macro political layer of the monetary policy of the dollar. In the meantime it preserves part of the aesthetic downside of planning – the setback and parking ordinances – seemingly going out of its way to inhibit a walkability which, for all anyone knows, would otherwise be much more pervasive.