Comment of the Day: Houston’s Master Planners

COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOUSTON’S MASTER PLANNERS “. . . I’ve talked a lot about the bad way some developers approach growth in Houston. But neighborhoods are addressing it wrong, too. They’re too reactionary. They sit around doing nothing until a developer proposes something they don’t like, then they mobilize to try to kill it. They need to ask themselves ‘what do we really want in and around our neighborhood,’ and then create master plans to communicate it. (The master plans wouldn’t be enforced — that would be zoning — but they could be used by developers to get a sense of what the neighbors would oppose.) The Super Neighborhoods were supposed to be a venue where this could happen — they were originally under the auspices of the Houston Planning Department. But I’ve found that it’s actually the Management Districts that are doing master plans. It’s great that they’re happening, but Management Districts are paid for by and primarily serve businesses; and single family neighborhoods aren’t even trying to get in on the efforts.” [ZAW, commenting on Dogging the Morrison Heights Midrise with Doggerel] Illustration: Lulu

32 Comment

  • Brilliant. But which body is best suited to pursue it? I’d love to hear ZAW’s opinion.

  • Realistically, how does the average
    Super Neighborhood come up with the money to create a respectable master plan. I can see how the more affluent neighborhoods could have the resources, but otherwise, I don’t see that happening. On the other hand, and like you said, Management Districts do have the influx of money, they can hire consultants, sometimes consultants themselves form part of the board, so they just have a lot more tools. Either way, if a developer wants to do something and has the resources, they more than likely will.

  • LRS – That’s the root of the problem. It costs several thousand dollars just to do the graphics for a master plan document – and that’s to say nothing of the research, design, and discussions that have to go into it. The cost is what pushed it into the domain of the Management Districts. They can afford to do master plans because they get money through assessments.
    If your neighborhood is within the borders of a Management District, I would encourage you and the leadership of your HOA or Civic Club (Or better, the leadership of your Super Neighborhood)to approach the Management District and try to get involved in planning via that route. Everyone is welcome to attend Management District Board Meetings, (they have to be open to the public by law). If you are not within the boarders of a Management District, it’s a bit more difficult. You could work with your Super Neighborhood and City Councilman to see if you could get a special planning district or something, like the parking district they did on the Washington Avenue Corridor. Or you might try Houston Tomorrow, but they have their own preconceived ideas of what Houston should be, and it might not be what your neighborhood had in mind.

  • Could you form a TIRZ that was just driven by residential development? So every time that $120k old bungalow is torn down and replaced with 3 $400k townhomes, you just created over a million dollars in taxable revenue for the TIRZ to do things like repair streets, cover over open draininage etc?

  • @ Drew J – good idea in theory, but existing law doesn’t allow for TRIZs to be created if they are greater than 30% residential.

  • Why aren’t these neighborhoods creating deed restrictions? Seems a lot easier than drafting master plans or creating TRIZs. Then they can regulate lot sizes, setbacks, and usage to their hearts content.

  • I wonder why that is – what is the reason TIRZs cannot be residential over 30% ?

  • The implementation of deed restrictions is really the answer, but neighborhoods aren’t willing to put in the time, effort, and $. They’d rather the city impose development regulations.

  • @alex, because a lot of these neighborhoods already have deed restrictions, but back in the 1970s, things were lax, and individual property owners were allowed to opt themselves out of the deed restrictions, so you’ve now got a patchwork of some properties within a neighborhood that fall under the deed restrictions and some that don’t. And then there are the neighborhoods that are technically (in legal description) only about 100 houses or less, and they border a “neighborhood” or neighborhoods consisting of a few small quiet garden apartment complexes that get bought up, torn down, and turned into highrises.

  • Hence the SuperNeighborhood.

  • Why should residents have to pay fees to a management district to keep developers from wrecking the neighborhood? Why not organize a campaign to get zoning back on the ballot for another try? Developers are busting into neighborhoods because the property is cheaper than buying out land on the retail corridors. That land isn’t cost prohibitive. But the bigger profits are with dropping a high rise in someone’s back yard than taking out a strip mall on the corner of Westheimer and Kirby.

  • Sounds like a load of pass-the-buck-do-nothing-busy-body-shit.

    Who’s gonna fix all these f’d up Montrose streets?

  • Deed Restrictions are a huge help, Planner. but they do have drawbacks, as Googlemaster pointed out. In many cases the offending development occurs outside the area covered by the deed restrictions, but can directly affect the neighborhood’s quality of life. This is why neighborhoods need to go beyond their own borders and take an interest in the planning of commercial corridors and multifamily areas that are not covered by their Deed Restrictions.
    Old school – Single family homes are not subjected to Management District assessments. It’s actually a really good deal for the neighborhoods. They benefit from the crime reduction and beautification efforts done by the Management District, but they don’t have to pay for it. The master planning efforts are one of those things that will benefit neighborhoods in the long run, and would benefit them even more if they took an interest in helping with the process.

  • @ZAW: So if a property is adjacent to a single family area, but not actually part of the residential subdivision, the subdivision’s residents should get to have some official process for them to direct was what goes on that other property? I can see how people in the single family areas next to Upper Kirby, Uptown, and Memorial City might have kept those districts – unequivocally beneficial for Houston – from ever happening. So tell me why your idea would be a good thing?

  • You could host an open competition or present the problem to the local schools of architecture. I’m sure a lot of people would be interested in creating a proposal. It would also be a great architecture masters thesis.

  • Neighbors are a lot more reasonable than you think, Local Planner. Nice retail shops and mid-rises in an area that already has those (such as Upper Kirby) would generally be OK, provided they don’t involve the demolition of any historic structures. There could be some small issues with curb cuts and access from parking lots back into the residential streets, but that’s exactly the sort of thing that neighbors should be involved in early on.
    Even high rises are often OK by the neighbors – look at all the new buildings going up in Uptown and the Energy Corridor. So it’s really not right to assume that letting single family neighborhoods in on the planning process, would cause the whole thing to grind to a halt.

  • Reading your posts, ZAW, makes me cringe.

    You seem to prefer that the political process should be driven not only by property owners, but those select few that can afford a single-family home and the land that underlies it.

    Your vision of an urban nobility capable of nullifying property rights at their whim is abhorrent and un-democratic.

  • …not to mention naive.

  • Funny, what ZAW describes sounds very like participatory democracy at the neighborhood level.
    Even a lesser thinker among the Founders admitted, of pure democracy: “I doubt if it would be practicable beyond the extent of a New England township.”
    A small sample does, however, skew the results in a way that may be unacceptable to some, who are used to the much easier task of reliably manipulating the masses.

  • Are multiple SuperNeighborhoods (or even TIRZs) allowed to overlap?

    If they were allowed to do so, it could force multiple competing groups to negotiate with each other and maybe the results would be better than if they each operated in a vacuum.

  • A democracy solely of nobility is no democracy at all. Perhaps ZAW would be willing to entertain, at least, a three fifths compromise toward persons that either rent or own residences other than single-family homes?

  • Remember that Brady Bunch episode where Cindy accidentally gets rid of Marcia’s diary with some old books and Marcia is desperate to find it because she’s afraid someone will read it and find out about her crush on Desi Arnaz, Jr., and also that among other single-family homeowner nobility musings she wrote “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property…” and asked “Has it been found that bodies of men act with more rectitude or greater disinterestedness than individuals?,” which could hurt her campaign for class president? And when she goes down, she learns a lesson about the importance of speaking of “the people” with great reverence at all times.

  • This conversation, or rather the mention of Upper Kirby residents vs. Upper Kirby retail developments, brought the Ale House to mind. For those who weren’t around, it was a 100-year-old house-turned-haunted-pub that was torn down and replaced by a parking lot in front of a Norton Ditton men’s clothing store.

    Look at the lovely shade and weep:

  • @Niche: Of course I would invite renters and people who own condos and other kinds of residences to the planning table! The more the merrier! I’ve concentrated on the owners of single family houses only because they’re the ones who are often at the center of land use battles. (And the battles that get the most press do see to be the ones in rich neighborhoods)
    Anon – that’s where things get interesting. Management Districts and TIRZs already span multiple Super Neighborhoods. But there’s still the question of borders between Mnagement Districts and TIRZs. At some point these master plans need to be coordinated around their edges, and stitched together. I’m still not certain where or how that can take place.
    I’m actually been trying to get development on one of those border regions: Bissonnet near Sharpstown High School. North of Bissonnet is the Sharpstown Management District, Sharpstown Super Neighborhood, and Sharpstown Civic Club. South of Bissonnet is the Brays Oaks Management District, the Braeburn Super Neighborhood, and several smaller civic clubs and HOAs. It’s a doozy to try to negotiate such a divide.

  • Well TIRZs themselves, at the very least, should be allowed to overlap. I’m way too unfamiliar with the other structures but I think they might as well be able to overlap with other similar type of structures as well.

    Anyway, where they overlap could be a “downtown” type of experience for multiple neighborhoods. Tall buildings, for example, could be placed there via incentives from multiple neighborhoods instead of simply plotting to push them out and into the next neighborhood.

  • And to clarify, I mean that super neighborhoods should be able to overlap with other super neighborhoods as well, and mgmt districts with the same, etc.

  • I see what you’re getting at, Anon. Honestly that’s a legal/ public policy question that’s beyond me. I’m not sure how the finances would work if you had two TIRZs claiming the same taxable property.

  • I really don’t see how TIRZs could overlap without being a major financial / administrative headache; it could only really work if the zones had completely different participating jurisdictions (say the county in one and the city in the other).

    I still agree that the opinions of the residents of an area should have a direct bearing on the property rights of the owner of another site, beyond impacts of provable physical harm. What residents should have a say in is the design and operation of the public infrastructure, amenities, and services that serve their area. Part of being a Houstonian is realizing that since we don’t have zoning most anything can happen on nearby unrestricted sites. All buyers (and renters I suppose too) need to factor this into their decisionmaking.

    Example – the neighborhood where I live (Energy Corridor) is subject to increasing traffic congestion and cut-through traffic because of adjacent large-scale office development. The residents and the management district have worked with the city to implement speed humps (the new plastic kind) and improve transit, pedestrian and bicycle access. There are still more public improvements that could be done, in my opinion. But this represents an appropriate approach, not trying to keep more office development or other density from happening.

  • #28: Wow, the plastic kind? Is that what they have in Paris?
    I modestly propose a 5/3 Compromise (is that inoffensive-sounding enough?): a 5/3 vote in local elections for homeowners and business owners. Perhaps, thus empowered, they might not, ZAW, be so damned “reactionary,” which term – please note – was invented by those who would, in the fullness of time, begin lopping off the heads of property owners.

  • I threw in the parenthetical about the plastic speed humps because they’re not yet common and really surprised me the first time I encountered them. It’s not meant to “impress” other than show that the homeowners were willing to look at new-ish measures. Another one that they’re trying are “imitation roundabouts” (at least that’s what I’m calling them). Basically putting some plastic or rubber fixtures in the middle of an intersection and placing approach signs to convince drivers they should treat it as a rotary. I’m rather less impressed by that one.

    Regardless, are you implying that these homeowners should have had some power to prevent additional office development?

  • Yeah, claiming the same taxable property does seem pretty weird.

    I see it as the land use planning/policy equivalent of fractional reserve banking.

    In other words it works fine as long as nobody tries to, say, repo the overlapped part.

  • #30: Local Planner, I’d be lying if I pretended to care much about what lines the interstate within Houston city limits. But as to the overall question of the appropriateness of neighborhood input into development, am I implying I support that? No. Implying understates it a good bit. I apologize for being unnecessarily cryptic:
    The idea that a neighborhood’s concerns about the preservation of their environs would center on, be limited to, and satisfied by, such things as the material used in traffic-calming devices is ludicrous.
    Which is not to say I always concur with my own neighbors, where I live. A “greenbelt” consisting largely of invasive species follows the dry creek behind my house and cleaned up would make a nice trail (she said shyly – she’s much bolder on the internet). But the people hereabouts hear the word trail and think transients, even after I tried to push their dog-loving buttons with “dog park,” so I gave up on that notion a long time ago.
    My neighborhood abuts a mall. A group wanted to put a “luxury hotel” on the mall’s anvil-like parking lot with its wasted city view. Terrific, I thought, a hedge against the inevitable decline of the mall. At a meeting of a couple hundred people: I was the only one in support. Neighbors won that one, or rather, the bottom shortly dropped out of the “mall parking lot luxury hotel” business.
    Then too there’s a defunct movie theater, returning to a state of nature these ten years, at the edge of the neighborhood. The re-developer – retail, townhomes, offices – is dropping several hundred thousand dollars into a mitigation pot to conserve land elsewhere in the watershed, even though this land is already ruined.
    I don’t see this enormous abandoned cineplex as an asset, but the others around here do, apparently, and had lined up to derail its transformation into … whatever. I confess that this time my exasperation was such that I contrived some ad hoc “neighborhood support” (i.e. all my friends) to inundate Council and give them some cover for the vote.
    I have no “rights,” you say? I figure I have a right to whatever I can take from you, and I assume you’ll do the same.