COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOW HOUSTON GOT ITS SPRAWL, AND OTHER TALES OF PSEUDOZONING “Blame our city’s efforts at ‘planning’ in lieu of zoning. In the early 70’s, due to insufficient wastewater infrastructure, the city enacted a ban on apartment buildings of more than 4 units inside the Loop (driving much of apartment development to Uptown and Meyerland) and enforced a 5000-sq.-ft. minimum lot size. This gave rise to the Montrose 4-plex (of which there are still some examples remaining), but put a cap on residential density inside the loop. Then in the 1980’s, we got 25-ft building setbacks, followed by mandatory minimum parking requirements. This added a cap on commercial density to go with the cap on residential density. The rest is history: for the next couple of decades, the car became the focal point of the built environment, and we became the low-density city we are today. With repeal of some of the more retrograde density caps we’re starting to get some residential density, but setbacks and parking minimums are still getting in the way of the necessary commercial density needed for real walkability.” [Angostura, commenting on Comment of the Day: No, Sprawl’s Not Just a Number After All] Illustration: Lulu
“I don’t think Friendswood needs to become East Pearland,” Eddie Carpenter told the Friendswood city council last week during a public comment session — responding to another speaker’s references to the chain-rich bustle of FM 518 and Pearland Pkwy. as an example of what Friendswood is lacking. What sparked the pair of assertions? A push to rezone the above corner lot at FM 518 and Leisure Ln., currently up for a potential switch from office use to commercial — with word being that Chik-Fil-A and Panera Breads are both interested in setting up shop on the corner. The space is just over a quarter mile down the road from Friendswood’s own relatively restaurant-franchise-dense hub on E. Parkwood Dr., near the town’s H-E-B. The lot in question has been cleared since the listing shot above was snapped, in conjunction with various acts of dirt-pushing.
Image of lot at FM 518 and Leisure Ln.: LoopNet
Lot To Think About
COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOW TO EASE HOUSTON INTO THE ZONING ZONE “Another example of the city’s zoning-style regulations that have been built up over the last 20 years or so. They couldn’t get people to vote for zoning, so they are building a zoning apparatus slowly and in small pieces.” [Anonymous, commenting on The Setback Setbacks at 1403 McGowen St.] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHEN NOT ZONING BECAME BOLD NEW HOUSTON TERRITORY “. . . 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 Redo] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY: BUILD UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE OTHERS BUILD UNTO YOU “For this city-wide Houston experiment of no zoning to work, it takes good judgment, responsible developers, people living by the golden rule, doing what’s right, loving thy neighbor, walking a mile in another man’s shoes (or zipcode!), however you get there. I mean that. And I love Houston because — shockingly — this mostly works. When it fails, laws do exist to establish a minimum standard we all live by; those minimum standards [get] called on because someone tried to circumvent the law and selfishly do whatever the hell they wanted anyway.” [G Rod, commenting on The Shakeup Around White Oak Music Hall’s Outdoor Stage] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY RUNNER-UP: ZONING WOULDN’T HAVE KEPT THE SPRAWL AWAY “It’s always frustrating when I hear Houston’s sprawl and prevalence of strip malls blamed on our lack of zoning. You can blame these on the setbacks and parking minimums that came along with Chapter 42, which made it illegal to build walkable neighborhoods.” [Angostura, commenting on Comment of the Day: The Kind of Zoning Houston Does Have] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE KIND OF ZONING HOUSTON DOES HAVE “. . . I always chuckle a bit when someone thinks that the free market governs Houston because the City doesn’t have zoning.
Aside from land-use restrictions, every regulation that is usually found in a zoning ordinance is in force in Houston. Tree and landscape requirements. Setbacks. Sign ordinance. Curb cut requirements. Buffering. Parking requirements. Traffic study requirements. Plan reviews for subdivisions. Regulations for building in flood plains and finish floor elevations. The list goes on. And like every other city, Houston enforces building, electrical, fire, residential, and plumbing codes (with amendments). So contrary to what a lot of a lot of people think, Houston is not a developer’s free for all. (Not that it wasn’t in the 1970s, but I digress)
If anything, it’s harder to build in Houston because the regulations are so damned hard to find sometimes. In most places, it’s all neatly packaged in a Zoning Ordinance. In Houston, it’s all over the Code of Ordinances, and you have to know where to look. As HouCynic noted, Houston enforces neighborhood deed restrictions, but the County Clerk actually records those Restrictions, so it’s not a one-stop-shop. . . .” [ZAW, commenting on Medistar’s Planned Webster Sprawl Plaza; The Most Congested Roads in Texas; Free Metro Rides] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE REAL DIFFERENCE NOT HAVING ZONING MAKES “For a city without zoning, development in Houston isn’t much different that it would be if we DID have zoning. Most retail development happens on major commercial thoroughfares, and most industrial sites are either along railway lines or otherwise clustered together. And development still has to comply with our (idiotic) setback requirements and parking minimums.
The main difference Houston has over other cities with stricter land use regulation, is the ability to increase residential density in a fairly timely manner. This has helped keep housing costs from rising higher than they otherwise would have. The kinds of land use regulation in cities like New York, Washington and San Francisco generally benefit wealthy landowners at the expense of younger, poorer new-comers. Even current middle-class homeowners don’t really benefit: you can’t bank the appreciation until you sell, at which point you still have to live somewhere, and in the meantime, your property tax bill is higher.” [Angostura, commenting on Medistar’s Planned Webster Sprawl Plaza; The Most Congested Roads in Texas; Free Metro Rides] Illustration: Lulu
SAVING HOUSTON’S UNZONED ARTISTIC SPIRIT Glasstire’s Bill Davenport has a suggestion: “Its famous lack of zoning is one of the few things Houston offers artists that other cities can’t. It’s been a defining feature of the city, and one of its main attractions for artists for decades. But this isn’t happening anymore. Prosperity has put teeth into Houston code enforcement, whose numerous inspectors now patrol the streets, ready to red-tag any unconventional building activity.
It’s vital that we preserve a loophole for artistic expression on an architectural scale. What once was an opportunity created naturally by low property prices and underfunded city government must now be maintained purposefully if Houston’s unique character as a city of artistic entrepreneurship is to continue. As part of the new cultural plan, Houston city council should create an ordinance making an exception to the building codes for artistic projects.
Of course, there will need to be safeguards against abuse. No one wants to see sleazy builders putting up unsafe, substandard structures. I propose that the city create an alternative path to compliance for creative projects in art and architecture, in which building officials will approve structures on a case-by-case basis, by assessing them on their merits, rather than on whether they conform to the rigid conventions of the International Building Code.
Imagine the effect! If you are an artist or architect in San Antonio or Sri Lanka with a great, crazy idea, and you heard that, in Houston, projects like yours were welcomed as part of the city’s freewheeling culture, where would you go?” [Glasstire] Photo of Inversion by Havel Ruck Projects: The Decay of Lying
Another section of the former Shell Tech Center on Bellaire Blvd. in Southside Place is hitting the dirt this week, this time for a townhome community proposed by builders Rohe & Wright, whose previous developments include 30 Sunset, Winfield Gate, and Cáceres. The company is planning to build a townhome development on the site at 3747 Bellaire Blvd. called Crain Square — for which, the company’s website declares (without much more detail), “the classic American townhouse featuring southern traditional architecture is the muse.” (E.L. Crain was the founder of Southside Place.) The Village News provides more info, reporting that the company plans to fit 62 townhomes on the 5.5-acre center section of the former research complex — which occupied 3 properties totaling 9.7 acres.
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COMMENT OF THE DAY: ZONE D’ EROTICA IS A SYMBOL OF HOUSTON FREEDOM “I’ve always thought the Zone D’Erotica placement was one of the most charming things about Houston.
Welcome to Houston: you own it, you use it, however you want. Other cities would be finding a way to declare the parcel blighted at Simon’s behest, but in Houston that would be rightly considered outrageous.” [Spoonman, commenting on Construction Set To Begin on the Luxury Jewel Box, the Galleria’s Chi-Chi Pad Site] Photo: Candace Garcia
COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOW TO SELECT A HOME, IN A CITY WITH NO ZONING “. . . I had specific criteria I tried to meet when I bought my house knowing that zoning is what it is in Houston. Made sure it was at least 3 blocks from any major street to avoid traffic and spillover parking from possible future commercial/residential development, within 1 block from a city park (less likelihood a park will turn into something I don’t like), within a block or two from a school (the city does restrict what can be built next to a school, so by default I am protecting myself from strip clubs and bars… and I guess landfills), I bought on a block that was a mix of new builds and old houses to minimize the risk of the whole block being torn down to build something new (which is a risk if you buy on a street of all old houses). I didn’t plan for crack houses being built because I don’t think those can be permitted with the city. I plan on staying in my house less than 10 years, so 20 years from now where I bought may be different. Was I able to meet all my criteria? No, but I came close enough that I was okay with it. Do I still run a risk of something being built, you bet, but I hopefully stacked the odds in my favor. . . .” [P-dawg, commenting on Jury Tells Ashby Highrise Developers To Pay Neighbors $1,661,993.62]
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
COMMENT OF THE DAY SECOND RUNNER-UP: NO ZONING MEANS WE’LL ALWAYS HAVE TRAFFIC SURPRISES “If there was only a way to plan for traffic and infrastructure by knowing the density that a site will have in the future . . . Oh yeah, its called Zoning. Then you know the worst case development scenario. And if you ever want to build bigger than you have to upgrade the infrastructure first. Nah, why do that, we can just let people build as big as they want and try and fix the problems later. Unless you are for zoning and rules than you can’t complain about traffic. They are the same. [DD, commenting on A Second Midrise Alexan Planned Right Beside the First One on Yale]
Shell Oil moved out the last of its things from the 3-building Bellaire Technology Center in 2012, consolidating R&D operations about 15 miles west of Southside Place in a spruced-up campus near Texas 6 and Richmond. Now, it appears that these 3.2 acres (shown in the map) of the 9.7 that the Center vacated are being eyed for residential development.
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