Comment of the Day: Why Density Doesn’t Work If You’re The Only One Doing It

COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHY DENSITY DOESN’T WORK IF YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE DOING IT Cartoon of Highrise Planned for 1717 Bissonnet“I used to think the whole ‘Tower of Traffic’ slogan was BS — that greater density will increase walkability and reduce the need for cars. However, the way many highrises are sited in Houston completely eliminates the benefits of a highrise. They basically become vertical culs-de-sac, still car-dependent, because each one is located in pockets of lowest land value either next to freeways or in the middle of single-family-home neighborhoods. If I recall correctly, city council or the planning department passed a rule that forces developers to stick to building heights that are close to those of neighboring structures. Is this really the case? I think it’s a great way to better cluster high-density developments and walkable areas.” [Derek, commenting on A Bird’s-Eye View of the ExxonMobil Campus; The Ashby Highrise Effect] Illustration: Stop Ashby Highrise

20 Comment

  • Commenter of Day formula: City planner type notes obvious point he is mistaken on and explains his epiphany and evolution from pie in the sky planner mentality to common sense real world approach.

  • This comment is kind of all over the place. The “Tower of Traffic” argument was about whether the existing neighborhood streets could absorb the increase in the number of cars accessing the neighborhood. No one ever really claimed that all those new residents were going to magically walk everywhere.

    As for “eliminating the benefit of a high-rise:” if you think that the only benefit of living in a high-rise is being able to walk everywhere, then you probably should not live in one. There are many other pros/cons.

    And since when are high rises built in “pockets of lowest land value?” I see them popping up in hot (i.e. expensive) areas all over town.

  • The statement that high rises are built on “pockets of lowest land value” is just false.

  • Very often in Houston, the highest value locations are adjacent to expensive single family homes. Thus there will be temptation to build tall buildings there. The City doesn’t have an actual height ordinance except around the airports (because the feds made them do it), but there is a “buffer” provision on single-family adjacent sites.
    There’s no good planning reason to deny tall buildings adjacent to single family, especially in Houston. All buyers have the responsibility to understand the lay of the regulatory land BEFORE they purchase. Oh, and that also includes condo buyers in a certain building on Post Oak Boulevard (or any other residential tower for that matter).
    Regarding traffic, commercial uses like retail generate a far higher rate of site-specific traffic than a high-rise residential building would (particularly one that replaces a former multifamily complex). So would the neighbors also try to fight a two-story retail / office structure?
    It’s indisputable that in both the Ashby and Cosmopolitan situations, the complainers have no valid basis for public action whatsoever. (Add also the unending complainers in the Heights and Montrose about commercial visitor parking.) If the government caved to their whining, Houston would be a worse place.

  • I imagine local planner lives in a high rise and looks out in god-mode over the city. The planners want to destroy existing neighborhoods so everyone can live in high density apartments and condos or have mansions with high property taxes built in the few deed restricted neighborhoods they can’t get their grubby hands on. The increase in taxes will allow funds to keep them in their high rises as they invariably sponge off the government in one way or another. They know best.

  • I’ve done high-rise living before and it’s not for me. Developers are hawking high-rises as the “next wave” lifestyle that the young and young-at-heart should aspire to, but of course they would do this…they’re running out of land for freestanding homes and highrises allow them to pat themselves on the back and justify the huge prices that they paid to get their foot in the door in popular neighborhoods.


    It’s ridiculous that a neighborhood could think that they have the right to encumber the construction of a project that follows all laws, codes and regulations just because they don’t “like” it and didn’t do their homework about permitted land uses before buying their property. Furthermore, a high-rise project whose residents will predominantly drive is not a “bad” thing. Odds are, they’ll be driving much shorter distances than if they were to buy in a less-central location. And over time, more density will make more mass transit easier to justify.

  • Hot as balls. Don’t forget: hot as balls. Houston gets hot as balls during the summer – 4 months out of the year. Sorry, this ain’t Paris, France.

  • Note the developers for the Asby live in West U, a highly restricted community. Ironic.

    It is time to take the Houston developer off the “holier-than-thou” list …

    I can’t create a noise nuisance for years. I can’t stop traffic. I can’t undermine my neighbors’ foundations. But a developer can?

    Part of the cost of building density should be the infrastructure and environmental impact.

  • Thom Thumb,

    “Part of the cost of building density should be the infrastructure and environmental impact.”

    The lower infrastructure and environmental costs are part of the benefit of higher density.

  • I wish I could go back and put peoples comments about gentrification and the east end and how people aren’t entitled to their neighborhoods just because they’ve been living their forever in this article; that they should be grateful for the “progress”. Are there nuances that make the two scenarios different? Yes of course, but when you distill the arguments down to their core, on one hand people are saying that the folks of West U are entitled to shape their community because it’s an “existing neighborhood” but people of the East End (or any other poor neighborhood with gentrification) aren’t entitled to shape their neighborhood because, well to put it frankly, they’re poor.

    I love the cognitive dissonance clearly drawn across stark socioeconomic boundaries.

  • I think the difference with east end is those people voluntarily sold their properties to developers. An involuntary taking should be opposed anywhere.

  • “I think the difference with east end is those people voluntarily sold their properties to developers. An involuntary taking should be opposed anywhere.”

    Are you saying the people in or adjacent to West U, River Oaks, Montrose, and other wealthy neighborhoods aren’t selling to developers?

  • @Taco
    Commenter7 has some beef with the East End. You can just put everything he says about it under the nonsense column.

  • @taco, Clearly the ashby high rise opponents are not selling to developers. Not site what your point is.

  • @OldPostCommenter: Maybe an East End boy stole his West End girl?

  • @oldpost, the only “beef” I have is with people who buy townhomes in a warehouse district and then start clammering for public spending so it will feel more like a neighborhood. I just mentioned east end bc it was mentioned again. It gets mentioned on swamplot disproportionately often to its small population. EAdo is a very special snowflake indeed

  • Interesting question: How do you increase density by not letting people build dense structures?
    I see people daily complain out of one side of the mouth that Houston is too sprawling, and why are people choosing to live out in Sealy and commute in to the energy corridor for work. Never mind the person absolutely has a nicer commute to work than someone that lives at highway 6 and commutes to downtown. And they have a bigger house on way more land for cheaper, and probably nicer schools.
    Then I see the same people complain that someone who chose to buy a house behind a high density apartment complex has to now deal with a high density high rise. Never mind that the person who chose to buy their house up against an apartment complex didn’t give enough thought to what else that land might become.
    Complain about one or the other, if you complain about both, you’re just complaining to hear yourself talk.

  • @Commenter7
    I think this was discussed ad nauseam on another post where your premise was pummeled to death.

  • OldPostCommenter: Commenter7 hasn’t realized that the term East End encompasses more than the area that is East Downtown, which is all he thinks of when someone says East End. His mind would explode I think if someone told him that the Houston Club was founded in the East End. Or that Idylwood is one of the most sought after places to own a home in Houston and is as old as The Heights.

  • Regarding the benefits in terms of positive externalities from density… Yeah, in some ways I agree that they’re hard to pin down. You can go looking for consumer surplus and find it (and I’ll come back to this point in a minute), but the benefits of density…in Houston. Not easy. Bear with me. This is gonna be a long post.
    Consider the following question: How many thousands of expensive midrise and highrise units now exist along the northern and eastern peripheries of Hermann Park? And these are balanced by how many medical and/or office buildings that are also located there? And how many museums, parks, and other public spaces? How many modes of transportation are viable? You might expect there to be a lot of follow-on in the form of retail and restaurants and bars, but the offerings are scant and mostly forgettable and there’s very little forward progress. How many of the residents of those fancy apartments are getting around in the city other than as solo drivers? I’m sure that the proportions are different from, say, the neighborhood of Southampton or Boulevard Oaks. But is the difference in any way transformative of the City? To the extent that there is a difference, does that reflect that the neighborhood itself has effected a change in the way that its residents get around…or did the neighborhood simply attract people that were predisposed to that lifestyle whom would have otherwise lived somewhere else in the city and done their thing? Certainly those people have quite a few choices and can be found in unlikely places…just in smaller proportions because better places for them exist and they concentrate there! So. If you’re looking for a causal relationship, proof that density improves the whole city, that is a tough thing to demonstrate consistently for every neighborhood…even where you’d really like to.
    Where DOES residential density obviously generate a positive externality, if anywhere? I’d argue that its where there are already existing very-high-density concentrations of facilities that generate peak-hour trips and that already have substantial shopping and entertainment draws and that already have traffic problems that tremendously aggravate the people who go there frequently. The answer screams UPTOWN HOUSTON, which not unsurprisingly, doesn’t need any sort of public investment in order for multifamily developers to come at it and around it. Its not that Uptown is necessarily going to be less car-dependent than the Museum District, but trips will tend to be shorter and that’s a win. Another contender is Downtown, where many of the same observations apply and where boosters have thrown gobs of money at developers to draw them in; their favorite rationalization appears to be that its good for tourism. They seem to be very concerned that non-residents of Houston are impressed by residents of Houston. Whatever…
    Okay, so imagine a policy that had the effect of displacing high-density development from other parts of the City of Houston into Uptown and Downtown. Lets say that you can’t build any more multifamily adjoining parks and museums and otherwise pleasant neighborhoods because the density being there would be less productive for the City as a whole than if such things were decentralized. The sort of people that were drawn to dense housing in order to achieve lifestyle optimization near amenities like parks, museums, pleasant neighborhoods, or other amenities…those people will probably find that their rent is going up and that its difficult for them to find housing that they feel is in a nice place. They will displace somewhere else, not necessarily Uptown or Downtown or even in the City of Houston. They are a subset of people that are less motivated by commute optimization and their response to a policy that makes them worse-off is going to reflect that. I don’t necessarily see that the City as a whole would win. Entrenched interests that already have residential property in amenity-rich neighborhoods or land in density-targeted neighborhoods would win big in financial terms. (Perhaps that elucidates why NIMBYism finds so much more traction than whining over petty little things like avoiding municipal bankruptcy through pension reform.) But certainly there is a cost. The cost is in terms of how different people enjoy the city in different ways.
    If there is a market for something, and you cut off a part of that market, you harm some and may benefit others. Yes, its possible that in doing so there is a greater good. (The concept in economics that you’re going for is Pareto Efficiency.) But you have to recognize the harm and offset it with good. And that’s really really difficult, not just technically in a methodological sense, but because you have to look objectively at your own ideals and rip into them, then turn to people that haven’t done so or to people that stand to gain from one position or the other and put yourself out there and get raked over the coals.
    It is also possible for a developer to make a malinvestment, to seriously misjudge the market to such a degree that their project simply does not appeal to anybody for any apparent reason until the price drops to a sane level, reflecting that housing is mostly a commodity. FWIW, I don’t think that that is the case with the Ashby highrise. The surrounding neighborhoods are very nice. The streetscapes provide a very pleasant park-like environment of a top-tier quality. It is very easy to understand the appeal of living in or near the neighborhood. It is not necessary that there should be very much retail right around it, although…little as there is, Bissonnet is still better-served in that regard than is the periphery of Hermann Park.