Comment of the Day: Missing That High-Density High Density

COMMENT OF THE DAY: MISSING THAT HIGH-DENSITY HIGH DENSITY “Houston has a lot of high-density *potential*. Unfortunately it isn’t developing out that way. Instead, high-density developments [are] being put in low-density areas. Which makes them pockets of density without the benefits. West Ave., Regent Square, and the infamous Ashby Highrise are all examples. For urban density to work, it must reach a ‘critial mass’ of proximity, diversity of commerce, employment, and on-the-spot residences all within walking distance. Put the three developements above near each other, and near downtown, and you’d have a true move toward urbanism. Alone, none are big enough to be self-sustaining as a true urban lifestyle. Putting them in lower-density areas and residential neighborhoods dilutes the effect, greatly reduces the benefits of density, and causes a lot more strain on infrastructure this isn’t adequate for the density. If Houston want’s to become a true urban city, it won’t happen in the disjunctive manner we’re currently seeing. Our current path will only lead to those that want traditional neighborhoods upset with large-scale develpers and those that want true urbanism not getting it either.” [Dave McC, commenting on Boyd’s Wilshire Village Prayer, with Photos]

16 Comment

  • Dave, you hit the nail on the head with your description of Houston’s inner-city growth and the problems it is creating.
    However, it is easier and more profitable for developers to create a high-density development on a large tract of land in a low-density area than it is to assemble multiple small parcels in an area with a pre-existing higher density. Unless there are some type of zoning or land-use restrictions put into effect, Houston’s inner city redevelopment will likely continue to follow this pattern.

  • Three cheers to Dave McC for having the courage to call out Houston for its lack of density. That is a perspective that doesn’t get nearly enough play among the intelligentsia that frequent this site.

    Too bad his wisdom is likely to go unappreciated by the proles making their endless circuit between McMansion and strip mall.

  • Couldn’t agree more! Why is it that the people of Houston can see this but these developers can’t. Having grown up in Houston, I have felt my drive through any neighborhood was…good neighborhood—good neighborhoood–bad neighborhood–good neighborhood. You had these pocket “slums” in between pretty decent neighborhoods. Similarly you had urban–urban–suburban—urban. Heck even look at our “skyscraper” communities: downtown, galleria, med center, energy corridor—all separated. maybe that’s what makes us Houston.

  • Chris’s description of what you see when you drive is accurate and I like the city this way.

    The mixture of low income areas withing higher income areas create a diversity the urban planners wish they could create. Most large scale urban development in other cities try to provide a range of residential options so they can be mixed income communities. These are hard to pull off artificially and planned. Houston easily mixed and blurs the lines between communities with levels of income varying greatly. You don’t see this master planned or heavily zoned communities. If you do, it often doesn’t work out the way it was planned. The diversity of our older areas is a great testament to our natural/organic development pattern and made our city better for it.

    Just look at the other swamplot post about Wilshire Village now being completely gone and the discussion of the Fiesta that is across the street. This is a great example of our mixed income neighborhoods. It’s a good mixed of older apartments, remodeled homes, new apartment, new homes and commercial for all levels of income brackets.

    Slide over to the Montrose area and you see the same thing! Many other neighborhoods in the city have similar characteristics.

  • There is also the matter of land value which is beginning to take care of the problem of the townhome communities in many of the subdivisions that don’t have restrictions in place. But then that is why you are seeing things get taller. Two story townhomes are now four and five story townhomes. Things are getting taller “Inside the Loop” because it allows developers “more bang for the buck” which doesn’t stretch as far as it used to.

    All the plans put forth come down to one thing. Zoning. And the city charter doesn’t allow it. Anne Clutterwhatever made that clear in her rather tepid press release about 1717 Bissonnet. It would be nice if someone would come up with a “master plan” for these areas of unrestricted land and at least ask the developers to work within that plan. I suspect if some had been a little nicer the developers of 1717 Bissonnet might have been nicer as well. They did buy the land in good faith as they say. They were not legally obligated, nor are they, to get anyone’s permission to build whatever they wanted to build beyond meeting the requirements of city code. There was also no indication on the part of the city or anyone else what was “desired” for that area. As it stands, it’s a hodgepodge of multi-family and commercial. Neither of which fits the definition of “single-family” which seems attached to every argument made against 1717 Bissonnet.

    I’m not sure you can have a perfect plan but someone needs to at least attempt some sort of plan for future development in Midtown and the Museum District and Montrose and the Heights and of course Galleria which at this point is at critical mass in terms of traffic.

    I was told recently that there was a lot of outrage years ago in Los Angeles when they started building the hirises along Wilshire in what is known as the Wilshire Corridor. There were similar arguments as those made with regard to 1717 Bissonnet and they border what has always been some of the most expensive real estate in Los Angeles. But everyone who bought in Westwood and Little Holmby and the southern section of Holmby Hills knew the possibility that those nice garden apartments along Wilshire and in sections of Westwood might eventually become hirises towering over them. But that area was zoned for commmercial and multi-family. We don’t have zoning but we do have unrestricted land. Which is the same thing when you think about it. No one thought about possibly restricting the unrestricted land until the plan for 1717 Bissonnet was announced. There have been developers who don’t want to go south beyond Century City and west into Santa Monica. They want to build hirise apartments/condos in Westwood Village itself. Not going to happen. The city itself will not allow it. That is the advantage to zoning. They can build a 20 story retail center apparently but not a 20 story apartment/condo building. We could learn a lot about “land use regulation” from Los Angeles.

    The problem here should have been addressed a long time ago. As for urban planning, it should have happened yesterday. Hopefully tomorrow the next mayor will make some sort of “master plan” a priority for these unrestricted areas and we will have something developers and neighborhoods can work with. I don’t think there has been one development of late that neighborhoods have not objected to. The city, again, turned a deaf ear to them. With the exception of 1717 Bissonnet. The only thing infamous about 1717 Bissonnet is the manner in which the city and two HOAs conducted a vendetta against the developers. If I had been them, I would have filed a lawsuit a long time ago. Or donated the land to West U for a new sewage treatment plant.

    Traffic impact is a major concern. Unfortunately the city isn’t making it a concern in the areas where it is at critical mass.

    Maybe it’s time to put zoning back on the ballot. More than likely it will pass.

  • I don’t have much to add to this thread except to say that these few comments, starting with Dave’s, are some of the clearest and most content-rich comments on this whole situation. I don’t always (or even often) agree with Matt or KJB, but I’ve gotta give props for some excellent posts and information here. Matt’s info about LA in particular. Wish some of the hotheads in the HAIF thread could see this little group of posts.

  • I don’t see how zoning could have changed anything with Ashby.

    They were replacing multi-family with multi-family. The zoning rules would have to be so specific and onerous. On top of that, it would come down to which side had more money to make the zoning rules work for them them.

    On top of that, Zoning has a critical flaw that no one that supports zoning ever brings up: Zoning Boards.

    A zoning board is an un-elected board that becomes the central authority on the use of all property. You no longer have the right to do with your property as you please. A decision by the zoning board can quickly lower or raise the value of the your property (and you have no recourse). On top of that, a zoning board is susceptible to corruption through bribes (and doesn’t have to be held accountable for it since they aren’t elected). Developers will get more free reign in Houston under zoning than they do now.

    Go ahead and get zoning passed. You’ll see that some will get hurt. Most things will not change whatsoever. And a few will profit even more by directing the land-use through bribes of the zoning board.

  • I don’t see how zoning could have changed anything with Ashby.


    Zoning would have allowed better definiton of “use” which might have prevented anyone even considering building a hirise.

    In what’s known as West Side in Los Angeles, which covers the area north and south along Sunset from Beverly Hills to the ocean, everything is distinctly zoned for certain types of development. Commercial, retail, multi-family, hirise and midrise, hotels, you name it. There is some flexibility but for the most part you know what you can and cannot build where.

    Years ago when the Hotel Bel-Air had fallen into “disrepair” one potential buyer apparently wanted to preserve the main area of the hotel and then put in a hirise tower. Now you would think since there was already a hotel there anyone could do what they wanted as long as it remained a hotel. But they couldn’t because there are restrictions on the number of stories in Bel-Air and the hotel sits in the middle of Bel-Air. You are allowed two stories within the residential areas of Bel-Air. Now you could build two stories that were 50 feet total height. But only two stories. I believe that is still in effect. The only exception were “bell towers” as they’re called.

    One other interesting thing about West Side is the boundaries of subdivisions change. Part of Brentwood on the west side of the 405 as I recall was originally platted as part of Bel-Air and with the exception of another hotel on Sunset it was residential only. That changed at one point. Had it not changed, the Getty wouldn’t have been allowed to be built.

    The same thing is occuring in what’s known as Beverly Hills Post Office which is part of Los Angeles and actually platted as Beverly Crest. There is a move by some homeowners along Angelo Drive to become part of Beverly Hills. There are many reasons. But one is the restrictions in Beverly Hills. They don’t want any of the townhouse communities that have been developed along Beverly Glen.

    That apparently is allowed here. Which is what either Southampton or Boulevard Oaks should have done. They simply should have “incorporated” that section between Bissonnet and Rice and Ashby and Cherokee into their subdivision. I doubt it it easy but, again, it apparently is allowed.

    They have distinct business districts just as we do. They just planned everything around those districts better than we did.

  • Zoning is not the answer. Keep the government out of real estate development. Houston is the only major city without zoning. Houston also beats every other city hands down in terms of residential variety and, more importantly, affordability. I love Houston just the way it is.

    Houstonians have the luxury of bashing the $350,000 townhouses that have been popping up all over the inner loop over the past 15 years. Go to Chicago or NYC, or Boston, or San Francisco, or Seattle or Portland. The same place would cost you $1-2 million. You be forced into North Jersey, or San Jose or some other crappy berg where you’s still pay $500k for an undersized, obsolete home. Then you’d be on the outside looking in and you’d find something else to complain about like the fact that everywhere you really want to live is too expensive.

    I would much rather have Houston’s system where the free market is allowed to dictate land use rather than some politician and his cronies. No. The system is not perfect. Newsflash: neither is anyone else’s system.

  • One solution for Houston that isn’t zoning but that addresses some of the problems is form-based codes. David Crossley at Houston Tomorrow is, I believe, a proponent. Basically, the city would not restrict uses but would restrict the size of things. The aim would be to maintain the vibrant mix that characterizes much of Houston while insuring more stability and steering high-density buildings to areas where they would be welcome. There are problems with form-based codes, though. If they are written badly, they can crush development where it is needed. The transit corridors ordinance was akin to a form-based code in its earliest incarnations but the version that just passed isn’t.

  • Form-based codes is a popular re-branding of zoning often claimed to not be zoning.

    Problem when start regulating building size, you begin to indirectly regulate the use of the land.

    Proponents of zoning will use form-based codes to push forward full blown zoning.

    While the urban corridors initiative has some elements of form-based codes, I doesn’t dictate much of anything or force anybody to so something. I won’t stop a suburban style development from occurring along the corridors. It essentially allows developers to avoid some of the variance process they would typically have to go through to build in a more urban style.

  • Houstonians have the luxury of bashing the $350,000 townhouses that have been popping up all over the inner loop over the past 15 years. Go to Chicago or NYC, or Boston, or San Francisco, or Seattle or Portland. The same place would cost you $1-2 million.
    That’s the funny thing about the free market. Any devotee of the market is aware of another intepretation to those examples. The higher prices in cities with planning also indicate that people are willing to pay *more* to live in areas with zoning. over one that does not (Houston).

    Due to zoning or not? I donno. But certainly something attracts folks to a perceived quality-of-life to the locations you mentioned that Houston lacks.

  • DMc,

    But there is a flip side. The centralized planning forces middle class away from the central city because of the price increases (or premium) for those homes.

    Many large cities with heavy zoning regulation have extremely divergent income classes with middle class priced out. The lower income live is run portions of the city. The central planning is all too happy to prevent these people from ever coming across the affluent.

    Houston’s lack of zoning mixes our neighborhoods dramatically within the city.

    Just look at the location talked about at the Fiesta on Dunlavy at Alabama. Even with Wilshire gone, you have a mixed of lower priced apartments, duplexes, and quadplexes with many new and remodeled homes. Zoning wouldn’t allow that and when zoning tries to forces mixing of prices ranges, it often fails.

  • kjb,
    I understand all that. Saying that zoning is the force behind Houston’s lower property prices (or the example’s higher prices) is totally one-dimensional analysis. A poor one at that.

    Four of the cities cited are landlocked by geography -NYC, San Francisco, Boston, and to some degree Seattle. Of course land will be scarcer and therefore higher. Houston has no natural geographic boundaries. Of course land will be cheaper.

    Lack of zoning isn’t sole reason land is inexpensive in Houston. It’s not even the main one, in my opinion.

    And one could argue the relative merits of surpressing land values. It depends on how much land you own! ;-) Surpressed values also encourage sprawl, ineffecient use of land, and discourage density. As with all things a balance must be sought.

  • There is a big myth about cities you site as having limited land. On top of the perceived limited land preventing new homes and lower prices they have very strong regulation to prevent construction going upward.

    In NYC, your view from a residence is protected by city ordinances. So new high-rise building (of any type) have to carefully pick where to build to comply with the rules. Think of the shortage of apartments/condos this has created and on top of that limited supply on Manhattan Island. NYC encourages sprawl just as much as Houston if not worse. People live much further away from jobs than they do here. How many middle class workers on Manhattan have to take a 1 hour train ride to work. Plus the drive from home to the train station.

    San Francisco could be another high-rise metropolis like Manhattan Island which would allow for many more condos/apartments within the city, but their regulations strictly prevent new high-rise construction which kills any chance for new supply to come online within the city itself. Seattle and Boston are very similar.

    All four of these cities could have many more people live within their city limits and land has nothing to do with it. Local regulations prevent developers from building high-rises to accommodate demand. A lack of supply in each case creates a price surge.

    In these cities, suburban sprawl extends far from the city’s themselves so that people could afford a home. They sprawl much further than Houston. The lack of land is not a prominent player. It’s a good excuse for their heavy regulations.

  • All four of these cities could have many more people live within their city limits and land has nothing to do with it. Local regulations prevent developers from building high-rises to accommodate demand.
    This is where I may disagree with many. I’ve visited truly unlimited density places like Hong Kong and Taipei. Beautiful cities in their own manner. But miserable in some ways, too. It’s a quality-of-life issue – and most of all choice.

    Unlike HK, HOUTX has the luxury of having both high and lower densities all within reasonable distance of it’s core. Putting high rises in neighborhoods simply removes the choice. Why make it one-or-the-other when you can have both? I think some like taking choices away from those that can afford to have them. (Not accusing anyone specifically).
    In these cities, suburban sprawl extends far from the city’s themselves so that people could afford a home.
    You have the exact same situation in Houston. Katy doesn’t exist because inner-loop housing is cheap.