Comment of the Day: Houston Is Usually Better Where It Isn’t Planned To Be

COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOUSTON IS USUALLY BETTER WHERE IT ISN’T PLANNED TO BE “I’m going to go ahead and disagree on the value of planning. The best parts of the city (19th St, parts of Washington, parts of Midtown) were developed before the city passed Chapter 42, and would be illegal to replicate today. What has planning gotten our fair city over the past half-century? Here’s a partial list: 1.) Density caps inside the loop (since repealed), driving multifamily development to areas farther away from downtown, increasing sprawl. 2.) 70+ ft. right-of-ways, which, along with our 25-ft setbacks, result in an absurd 120 feet between facades. Compare that to unplanned, human-scaled environments in pre-19th century cities and the result is 25% of land completely wasted, or given over to automobiles instead of people. 3.) Parking minimums, requiring up to 75% of land be given over to car storage. 4.) 25-ft. retail setbacks, which, combined with parking minimums, essentially mandate strip-mall development. What Houston does well is where it doesn’t ‘plan.’ We don’t segregate residential, commercial and retail. We don’t limit residential density (much) (inside the loop), we don’t cap multi-family density (any more). All those great, walkable places we travel to on vacation have one thing in common: the almost complete lack of planning. And where they did do ‘planning’ it did more harm than good. The gothic quarter in Barcelona is way more charming than the Eixample, and don’t get me started on how Haussmann screwed up Paris. Lump me in with the anti-planners on this one.” [Angostura, commenting on Comment of the Day: What Parking Requirements for Bars Really Encourage] Illustration: Lulu

17 Comment

  • I agree that people, left to themselves, make awesome, workable neighborhoods. Growth happens organically, over a LONG time, with steps forward and backward along the way – ie, old towns in old countries.
    But when burgeoning population drives developers and developers build in their own best interest,
    growth benefits only the biggest consumer-group not the population at large.
    Variety disappears, price points constrict, the rich flee, the poor are displaced, and everyone feels they’re betting on a hedge market instead of investing in long-term stability.

  • Memo: No one cares. I need space to beep beep beep my SUV into that parking space.

  • Here’s a one problem without some sort of regulations on multi-family, high-density housing…. what happens when your landlocked, oversubscribed, neighborhood public school is suddenly expected to accommodate the three new high rises built within its boundaries within the past year? The process for passing bonds and building new schools with public funding takes YEARS, whereas these highrises seem to pop up overnight. Not a rhetorical question. How is a city to manage this very real scenario?

    The developers assure the school boards that their developments don’t draw families with children, yet the demographics of the city are highly associated with transient workers in both the energy and medical care businesses, many of whom are only here for a few years at a time, with children, and are perfect candidates for such.

    West U has nearly 1300 students, has already outgrown additions made to double the school a decade ago and houses the entire 5th grade in outbuildings. Mark Twain is fairly large too as I understand. Although these are the only two I’m personally aware of, I am sure there are other examples.

  • Here’s a one problem without some sort of regulations on multi-family, high-density housing…. what happens when your landlocked, over[crowded], neighborhood [grocery store] is suddenly expected to accommodate the three new high rises built [nearby] within the past year? The process for [getting loans] and building new [grocery stores] takes YEARS, whereas these highrises seem to pop up overnight.

  • Nice Neighbor, in theory, the money for additional classrooms should come from the increased taxes paid by the assessments on the new highrises in your example. Prior to building the new highrises, what was on the land was probably smaller, older homes that might have been assessed at $150k a piece. Now, you have commercial property assessed in the millions. The extra taxes collected by the local school district should be used for more teachers, books, and classrooms. If it’s not, then you need to point the finger at your school board and ask where all that new money is going.
    The same goes for building a 6 pack of new townhomes on what was a single family lot. Now, instead of an appraisal at $500k, you have 6 townhomes individually appraised at $400k, so the same lot is pulling in taxes on a valuation of $2.4 million. Where’s all that extra tax money going?

  • Nice Neighbor,

    So your argument for government planning is that the government can’t plan????? Also, in your scenario, rural undeveloped areas have better planners than the city????

    Your whole argument just boils down to “I’ve got mine and everyone else needs to go to undeveloped wharton county”. How is that being a nice neighbor?

  • How did Haussmann screw up Paris? Genuinely curious. I know the most charming area is the small streets of the Latin Quarter, but would the city be as grand if it were nothing but small streets?

  • Density caps had nothing to do with multifamily. It was a fight over how many town homes a developer could squish into an acre. And it was a fight over whether you could put 24 units in an acre versus 30 units. Mayor Parker and other inner loopers did not want to see inner loop neighborhoods junked up with Baltimore-esque cheap row house developments. Developers could put multifamily building wherever they wanted, so long as they did not piss of really rich people. Multifamily development near downtown lagged because developers had no vision and did not believe that Houston would see urban renewal. So, they built garden style low rise apartments and strip malls in Midtown and turned the redevelopment of industrial sites along I-10 in the Heights into Katyville. With no land use restriction, there was no urgency to build up. Developers could always write some checks and buyout a neighborhood inside the loop if they needed land. That was how Greenway Plaza was built.
    The set back requirements are favorable to strip malls because they were put in place by strip mall developers who had control over City council when chap 42 was drafted. But the fact that there are bad planning regulations does not mean that there are no good planning regulations. In fact, it is just case in point that Houston needs good planning regulations to replace the bad ones.
    The Gothic Quarter in Barcelona has been fooling tourists for decades. Most of the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona was reconstructed in the early 1900s to become a tourist destination for the 1929 World Exposition. Angel Baixeras designed the plan adopted by the Barcelona City Council to redevelop the old city in Barcelona by opening up several new avenues to help modernize the medieval street grid. Most of the Gothic Quarter was built after the turn of the 20th century. Redevelopment was very strictly controlled to give the impression that it was an intact original Gothic neighborhood, but it was all PLANNED.

  • @Nice Neighbor – The logical (to me) answer is in market forces. Specifically, the people who are concerned about the school their children go to are less likely to go to those high-rises.
    Obviously, this pre-supposes that the new construction is targeted at higher incomes, and isn’t subsidized housing or rent controlled. But we have, what, one rent controlled multi-family unit in the city (still under construction), and only a few mid-rise subsidized housing places? And none of those are being built in wealthy neighborhoods with good schools to begin with (see also: 2640 Fountain View).
    New development on the scale you’re talking about invariably targets mostly at wealthy single professionals and DINKs, just the sort of folk who want density, and who neither care about nor utilize the local schools.

  • @OldSchool,
    For much of the 2nd half of the 20th century, CoH imposed a moratorium on any building with more than 4 dwelling units inside the loop, as well as a 5000-sf minimum lot size. (This is why there were so many duplexes and 4-plexes in neighborhoods like Montrose.) Subsequent relaxation of these requirements has led to infill development of multifamily projects and other residential densification like townhouse 2-packs and 6-packs, but much of the damage was already done.
    The development of Katyville is also a direct result of development rules. When you have parking minimums and setbacks, large parcels of land are more valuable per square foot than small ones (since you can build on a higher proportion of the area). Absent these regulations, where landowners could build from property line to property line, it would make sense to plat these parcels into smaller plots, and allow “fine-grained” development, rather than the “coarse-grained” development that happens under current rules.
    Finally, if, as you claim, setbacks were imposed at the behest of strip mall developers (which I find hard to believe: “Please deprive me of the use of 25-ft of my property.”), it’s evidence of the ease with which regulators are captured by the special interests they’re supposed to regulate. You can’t assume that regulators will be universally wise and benign, since evidence has shown us that the opposite tends to be true.

  • @ Nice Neighbor: Contrary to popular belief, one does not and cannot buy into good public school zoning. There is absolutely nothing in your deed that guarantees you access to any particular school. There is, however, a mandate for all school districts to accommodate all school-aged children, regardless or race, gender, religion, disability, and so on. They are totally blind to your fictitious entitlements.
    @ Old School: Your history of the regentrification of the inner city is a truncated jumble that mostly leaves out Bob Lanier, the 90s, and Enron’s active involvement. But if it may be the case that Houston’s surly dissidents have short and terrible memories, yeah, it’s also true though that most individual developers don’t have much of a vision beyond about a five-year time horizon. And that’s fine, actually, as far as I’m concerned, because transitioning neighborhoods need development that can be priced at a level commensurate with demand. If you’d forced multifamily developers to build on podiums at 120 units per acre in the 90’s, that would’ve retarded the pace of development as well as the footprint of development, and much of the inner city would *still* be sitting as derelict buildings and vacant lots.

  • @nice neighbor

    Hisd has plenty of capacity. They used to be a district with 300k students. Now they are at around 200k. They just need to change the borders for the campuses to accommodate.

  • @Angostura: There is absolutely no connection between density caps and multifamily development in Houston. There are oodles of large multifamily garden style complexes inside the loop that were built in the 70s and 80s. The restrictions had no effect on large multifamily developments. They were only targeting building flop houses on small lots to try to keep residential neighborhoods from being torn apart by slumlords. Given the resurgence of areas like the Heights and Montrose, the restrictions may have saved the inner loop. More multifamily units were built up outside the loop because they were following the trend of white flight from the decaying inner city and land was cheaper. As for Katyville, show me one example of a development where a developer bought a 20+ acre tract and then replatted it into smaller lots for non-residential development. If Houston had solid zoning in place, large lots inside the loop would be worth much more because the option of buying up a few residential lots and converting to a high rise would not be there. Then, katyville development would not work economically.
    @Niche: Regentrification? I am pretty sure the inner loop has only had one bite at the gentrification apple. Your claim that the inner loop would not have redeveloped (or maybe re-redeveloped) is silly considering that long before Houston found its urban renewal in the mid 2000s, cities all over the US from Boston to Portland to Seattle to Chicago were rapidly repopulating their urban core under very strict zoning rules. Urban renewal in Houston was an inevitable force due to the intolerable commute times that the cities sprawl created. The lack of planning just meant that the process moved even slower as the short money gobbled up the prime spots and built horizontally so when the big boom hit there were to few opportunities to build vertically and rents for both residential and retail shot through the roof.

  • @OldSchool,
    The building restrictions were imposed in the early 70’s due to inadequate wastewater infrastructure, and remained in place until the 1990s. That these restrictions pushed development out of the core of the city and into far-flung areas (mostly those with MUDs) is not disputed. Unless your development was under a certain density (15k s.f./acre commercial, 7 dwelling units per acre multifamily, 5 DU/acre single family) you had to finagle sewer credits in a byzantine and slightly shady fashion, or provide your own wastewater treatment.
    W/r/t Kayville, my point is that, given rules on setbacks and parking minimums, fine-grain commercial development is not economically feasible. (Fine-grain development is when a blockface is comrpised of multiple parcels of land, each with a different owner; coarse grained development tends to have a single owner for the entire blockface, like an office high-rise or a wraparound mid rise apartment building). If you have, say, 3-ft lateral setbacks, breaking a blockface into many lots each with 25-ft frontage results in much less built area than a single reserve covering the whole block. Add in parking minimums and it becomes more or less impossible.
    There’s a useful visual representation of the problem here:

  • @ Old School: You asked to show you one example of where a developer got a big piece of dirt in ‘Katyville’ and subdivided it for commercial end users. Off the top of my head, Sawyer Heights comes to mind. The Tarkett site, the Grocers Supply site, and the Archstone apartments site are going the same way. This is actually more common than not, whether the project is the River Oaks District or Sugar Land Town Square or just a random suburban shopping center with outparcels. Individual developers are rarely so well capitalized that they can completely go it completely on their own on 20+ acres of urban land. Where value can be added as a result of scale has to do with master planning the project, and that principle holds whether you’re talking about an infill project or Bridgelands. However…you may still not see any considerable premium on a large site over a small site, and this is because it falls more completely upon the developer to arrange for development of a more extensive set of infrastructure. By contrast, if you’ve got a couple of acres of land fronting a major thoroughfare, all the infrastructure you need for just about anything that’d be feasible to build is probably already in place. I would ask that you stop over-simplifying a topic that about which you know very little in the first place…but that would effectively be a request for a vow of silence. It would be mean.
    No, the Inner Loop does not have “only one bite at the regentrification apple”. What the hell does that even mean? Let’s just presume that an analogy exists between regentrification and apples… If so… A bite is taken every day. Don’t you watch the daily demolition reports? It is continuous. Its character shifts over time based on a huge variety of variables. And when land prices increase, you know, it is usually possible to recycle new old stuff and make more land. (An exception exists with fee-simple townhome communities. Those are fairly well locked-in.) Gentrification can occur almost everywhere at once, as well, accommodating different price points in different neighborhoods, as they come along. This is wonderful. It is a blessing. If mixed-income neighborhoods are any sort of a civic goal, Houston does a really good job at achieving them compared to quite a few other big cities. And IIRC, the Inner Loop is about 95 square miles, which is about 60,400 acres. There’s a huge amount that’s still in play where this whole gentrification thing is involved, and probably quite a bit more than will ever get used up in our lifetimes…in particular because the Inner Loop is not really a very delineation of where and why urban land is desirable. That’s just a bunch of lazy rhetoric.
    Now on to facts. Houston did not “[find] its urban renewal in the mid 2000s”. It started in the late 1990s, primarily because that was when its economy had finally filled vacant inventories from the oil bust and witnessed some price recovery. Large-scale inner city multifamily development began at that point, coinciding with the pace of large-scale suburban multifamily development — and just as importantly, a skyline that wasn’t see-through anymore. Enron, in particular, was actively engaged in the rebranding and redevelopment of Midtown; and when it collapsed, all the brand new projects there took a particularly hard hit.
    More facts. Downtown’s employment levels contribute to a dwindling share of regional employment. Last I counted, it was about 5% of all jobs in the Houston MSA. Jobs in Houston are scattered throughout a polycentric region. When traffic is especially bad to get to some particular office submarket, that submarket deals with absorption and vacancy problems. When new infrastructure is completed, those submarkets bounce back stronger. The cost of contract parking is also a major factor which holds back inner-city employment growth. Urban renewal was not inevitable based on traffic. Urban renewal was inevitable based in no small part on infrastructure improvements, making both traffic and alternatives such as METRO’s incredibly successful park-and-ride service just tolerable enough. Another major factor is that people have decided to move in-town mostly for the sake of lifestyle and to fulfill a longing to construct what they perceive is a positive social identity, but that is subject to it being economical and the sorts of policies you suggest would have priced out the pioneers and created a chicken-and-the-egg problem.

  • Just to build on something Niche writes above: we need to stop assuming that everything we build is or should be the last thing ever built on that site. Healthy cities densify over time as population grows and land becomes more valuable. Houses becomes townhouses. Garden apartments become mid rises. Warehouses become high rises.
    Whether this cycle takes 20 years or 100 years is a function of the growth rate and the number of restrictions placed on densification.

  • @Nice neighbor if you look at the American Community Survey data from the Census Bureau you’d see that single family developments of comparable size acreage have about 3x the number of school children as apartments of all types do. This idea that apartments increase demands in excess of the taxes they pay is a myth.