Comment of the Day: How Houston Got Its Sprawl, and Other Tales of Pseudozoning

COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOW HOUSTON GOT ITS SPRAWL, AND OTHER TALES OF PSEUDOZONING Illustration of Oversized Parking Lot“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 AllIllustration: Lulu

23 Comment

  • all of you “walkability” people should just move somewhere else.

  • Except “walkability” and no parking minimums in Houston means being surrounded and assaulted by constant property theft & burglaries, unsafe roadways & injured pedestrians and over-priced & mismanaged restaurants.
    This city neither deserves nor can afford walkability.

  • One neighborhood with great walkability is Memorial Bend. It has easy walking access to Town & Country Village, City Centre, several churches, and a city park. When you consider the number of venues within a 10 – 15 minute walk, Memorial Bend easily beats almost anything inside Loop 610.

  • Right…because all those other cities with zoning didn’t sprawl after WW2 and none of those other cities has ever had setbacks or minimum parking requirements. It’s only Houston. I mean hey, look at Dallas…Dallas is totally awesome, a panacea of walkability. Dallas is almost heaven. It attracts throngs of tourists that delightedly walk around its second- and third-ring suburbs, snapping photos of its glorious 1970s-era garden-style apartment complexes to share on social media. Houston should totally be like that, and all we’d have to do is invent a time machine so that we could buck the trends of the past seven decades and be totally cool like Dallas. But we’re just too gosh-darned stubborn for a solution like that. Right…

  • Dead-on. There’s no reason parking minimums and setback requirements should be so shockingly high anywhere inside the 610 Loop. Let the city be a city. Trying to force suburban restrictions on an inner city area is like trying to teach your cat to do your taxes–you just end up with a big mess and nothing gets done the way it should. There are plenty of suburban, ex-urban, and even rural areas people can live in the Houston metro if they want to avoid density.

  • I’m trying to decide if hyperbole joel, or hyperjoel is the better name.
    trying to figure out how the property theft and unsafe roadways would be any different than they are now. or do you just ignore that stuff at the moment?

  • yeah, I’m over this walkability schtick. We aren’t going to replat all of Houston so someone can feel butterflies that they can walk and buy hand sourced vegan pastrami and brag to everyone they know how they can walk places but then still drive their car most places. All we are doing currently is destroying Houston neighborhoods throwing up 3 townhomes on every one of those woeful 5k sq ft lots.

    Want to live on the east coast? Go there.

  • Chapter 42

  • @Niche,
    I’m not advocating for zoning, and in many (most?) parts of the city, even in the absence of setbacks and parking minimums, commercial development wouldn’t look much different than it does now. But there are definitely parts of the city where commercial development wants to be denser than current rules allow.
    It’s somewhat absurd that you can’t open a stand-alone restaurant without giving over 3/4 of the land area to parking. That’s why many restaurants in desirable areas are placed in strip centers, where you only have to dedicate 1/2 the land area to parking.

  • “all of you ‘walkability’ people should just move somewhere else.”
    But you have to walk there.

  • @ Angostura: Your original post included a rhetorical question, “Why did Houston become so lame?” You went on to answer it as such: “Blame our city’s efforts at ‘planning’ in lieu of zoning.” It seemed to infer that if the City had had zoning that it would not have been “lame”…but on a closer reading, I can see how it might’ve been intended differently. Yes, I agree that having minimum parking requirements and setbacks is generally absurd.
    I still don’t think that that would’ve prevented Houston from being “lame” in the terms that the commenter before you, Onepunchman, had laid out.

  • Addressing walkability in Houston cannot be achieved in one fell swoop ladies and gentlemen.

    Walkability is directly related to a buildings relationship to the land which it sits on. Addressing walkability in Houston will require structural alterations to existing development ordinances (42, 26 and IDM) in order to achieve more predictability when it comes to development. The vast majority of other major cities achieve this through regulations pertaining to building form, ground floor transparency, build to lines and the relationship of parking to proposed site. Houston can do this too, but only if it has the political will and the desire to change; the latter of which I believe is gaining momentum.

    Everyone, I repeat everyone, deserves a safe and comfortable walking environment. Why? Because every trip, be it in a car, bicycle, bus, train etc begins ON FOOT. Those of you who do not understand the need for walkability apparently have your heads too far up the tailpipe of your vehicle to see this. Sadly, this is what has happened in a city that has catered to the automobile, rather than all modes for too long. Those of you who disagree with these notions are sadly so condition to life behind the wheel that you cannot fathom an existence without it; likely do to the fact that your lives has been arranged around having to drive for every single trip.

    My question to you is, how will making Houston a better place for people negatively impact your current quality of life?

  • Angostura,

    Every other city has had the same ridiculous setbacks and parking minimums since the 50s/60s plus they all had even more restrictive euclidean zoning making it even worse. In as much as Houston is more lame than other large cities and it has to do with planning, it would be because Houston is such a young city. Or, in other words, a much smaller percentage of Houston was developed before these concepts came to be implemented by planners nationwide than L.A., San Francisco, New York, Chicago, etc……..

  • You can always tell who loves “Walkabality”, on 95 degree day with 1,200% humidity, you can smell their swampcrotch accross Starbucks.

  • An ode to Houston,

    Houston my dear Houston
    when will you shed your love for lame suburban developments.
    When will you fully embrace urbanism?
    I blame the teabaggers!

  • Most northern cities that have real density are older cities that were modeled after European cities. Planning for density was a necessity because there were no cars and many northern cities have scarce land due to natural barriers like the ocean, rivers, mountains etc. Cities in Texas were just remote outposts compared to northern cities back 100+ years ago. At the turn of the century (20th, that is), Boston had about 1/2 million people and Chicago was pushing 2 million. But Houston and Dallas had less than 50,000. Houston did not really start to grow into a major city until after WWII. By that time, cars were everywhere. So, in the 60s and 70s, Houston had virtually limitless land for development and was not yet so big that traffic and commute times were much of an issue. Houston had no reason to plan for any density absent the ability to travel into the future and see that the city would triple in size. So, we could have had the most progressive, ahead of its time, new urbanism planning back in the 60s and 70s and it would not have mattered because there was no need to have density. In the 90s, when the sprawl handwriting was on the wall, Houston blew it by failing to enact zoning. That has meant that the retrofitting of Houston for density has been a random and haphazard affair with highrises popping up in single family residential neighborhoods and garden style 2-3 floor apartment complexes and strip malls gobbling up prime real estate ripe for more significant redevelopment.

  • When Houston experienced the bulk of its physical growth from the 1960s – 1980s, walkability was simply not a cultural norm or expectation, certainly not at all like it’s a concern now. A modern city at that time was supposed to cater exclusively to the automobile; providing for pedestrians was antiquated and low-class. Our development regulations, dominant development style (retail set back behind parking lots etc.), and perhaps most importantly regulations over street design and layout date from this period and reflect cultural norms of the times. While in retrospect it comes off as short-sighted, few if any saw the ill fit that would result as the city densified and cultural expectations shifted. Now effort is being made to retrofit both the physical reality and policy environment for walkability, and we’re seeing that it’s harder than if we had started with this to begin with – but it’s not impossible, and indeed is no less necessary.

  • Old School,

    That whole thing is such a non-sequitur. Given the parking minimums, minimum lot size, ridiculous set-back, and apartment ban we are not talking about not needing to plan for density but instead enforcing the lack of density. If ” there was no need to have density” why outlaw it?

  • @Niche,
    Phrasing may have been inartful, but the point is that, the city couldn’t do zoning, so they enacted other restrictions to accomplish some of the same goals.
    Agree. Compare, say, pre-Chapter-42 sections of 19th St w/ post-Chapter-42 sections. One of Houston’s great assets is its ability to increase residential without much hassle.
    Couldn’t disagree more. The most dense and walkable cities arose with no planning whatsoever. There are tons of places in Europe that still retain medieval streets too narrow for a car to pass. And it didn’t take urban planning to make Kowloon the densest place on the planet. Most urban planning, starting in the mid 19th century, aimed at REDUCING density (e.g. Haussmann in Paris), and that tendency continues to this day. The notion that zoning would have increased density in Houston is laughable on its face, since pretty much everywhere it’s employed, zoning ends up limiting density.
    Every time someone announces a new multi-family project, the response from neighborhood pearl-clutchers is, “If only we had zoning, we could prevent projects like this.”

  • Onepunchman “I blame the teabaggers”
    By “teabaggers” I assume you mean tea party. And by tea party I assume you mean those that favor a limited size and scope of government. A government that doesn’t tell you how many parking spots your business must have but rather leaves that decision up to you.
    I’m a free market / libertarian type of guy. Someone that would agree with the overall mindset of most ‘tea party’ folks. And I think there should be ZERO parking requirements (at least enforced by government. Obviously the market will ‘demand’ that some places have ample parking)

  • Being car-focused is one of Houston’s biggest problems. If we were to have an adequate transit system, walkability would almost just be a by-product.

  • God I just wish that Houston had an adequate mass transit train system that webbed through the city major and minor areas where folks actually live, work, shop, and play. AND extended that system to surrounding cities like Pearland, Missouri City, Sugarland, Richmond, Friendswood, Pasadena, Cypress, Humble, Spring, I just want much more for the region.

  • All those complaining about transit in Houston understand that the other cities you mention grew up and developed around transit, right? Houston is car-centric because that’s how it grew, and cheap land is not going to change that in the foreseeable future.