Comment of the Day: Plans for Houston

COMMENT OF THE DAY: PLANS FOR HOUSTON “Houston didn’t develop organically. The original street grid was planned, the Heights was planned, Montrose and River Oaks and the Villages and Cinco Ranch, etc., all planned. At least 90% of the people who wax poetic about Houston’s ‘vibrancy’ and ‘free spirit’ probably live in a place that was very carefully planned. Our freeway system was the result of planning, and our organic twisty-turny roads were straightened out. Everything within 5 miles of Rice University was aggressively planned, and people love it. Property values in Houston are high in places that were planned, low in places that weren’t, which tells you what the market wants: Planning.” [Mike, commenting on ‘The Galleria Is My Idea of Hell’ and Other Houston Stories]

31 Comment

  • Individual neighborhoods may have been planned but the city as a whole was not. It’s like carefully disigned circuit boards dumped out of a box onto the floor.

  • But the fact that people tend to want to live in the planned areas (e.g. Memorial Drive) much more than the unplanned areas (e.g. Long Point Rd) tells you something about what the city as a whole seems to like.

  • Developers planned segments and city officials reacted to those plans, but by no means was the majority of Houston preplanned by a central group of eggheads in city hall.

  • Creating a street grid isn’t the only thing that goes into planning, yet it’s some of the only real planning that’s occurred in this town. Certainly high property values aren’t the only measure of areas of town that are worth living in. I’m much happier in the East End with my cheap old house and low property value than I would be in the Galleria with high rents and inflated maintenance fees.

    Some of the most exciting and vibrant parts of this city grew not through some benevolent planned commission, but through decades of slow, almost organic, growth.

  • @commonsense
    This is true of almost every large American city. (DC stands out as an interesting exception.) So what you are saying is that you like the kind of planning most cities in the US do?

  • Please don’t call Cinco Ranch “Houston”

  • Sometimes what we’re talking about is just a different way of looking at the same thing. Planning, whether it be by centralized decree or by private developers, is always going to require a degree of cooperation between the parties involved, including the local government. A tax incentive to nudge a developer in a certain direction may not be “planning” in the strictest sense but it isn’t a totally hands-off approach to growth, either. And at some point you gotta figure where to lay the sewer lines and the gas and electric and figure out the flood plain and all that jazz. So yes, Houston is a planned city, in its own way. It may not be exactly like other cities and with no zoning it’s less controlled than most, but I don’t particularly care to dwell on the distinction between private parties planning it out or the city weighing in on it. Either way, somebody’s calling the shots, and consumers will respond as they will.

  • There are plenty of shitty parts of Houston that were planned too. The post of the day makes no sense at all.

  • What an incredibly naive and misguided viewpoint. “Planning” by the planning commission and the mayors office is sure different from “planning” by a developer and home owners.

  • Bernard, instead of just tossing that out there, please give us some examples. When I think of undesirable areas of Houston, I think of Gulfton, Aldine, and Acres Homes. None of these had developer planning beyond platting the lots.
    JW, whether “planning” involves restrictions on development imposed by governmental zoning, or by deed restrictions imposed by the original developer, the end result is much the same. I think that is what the original poster was getting at.

  • What’s really unintentionally funny about this discussion is the assumption that other American cities have some kind of central planners who decree how everything in the city will be laid out and built. Do you people get out of town much? This is true in a handful of places but generally the planning is the result of organic development by private developers. Like in Houston. The difference is that some cities there’s some balance between broader public interest and more rules to keep those private developers from externalizing the costs of what they’re building. In Houston, not so much.

    But anybody who had a front row seat for the rapid development in northern Virginia (to pick an example I know well) knows that it was basically the same model as Houston. Except by all account, more successful.

  • If I still lived in Houston and illegally a chicken coop in my back yard, next to Mike’s house, then I had to have the forethought to hire Mexicans to build it and probably provide me with the chickens. I would have come together with them to effect a change in the built environment. Mike would probably never know that I had illegal chickens next door, so the laws wouldn’t matter and the coop would stand. “Planning.” Why not?

  • Great post. Everything great in high value areas of Houston is planned. It’s the same narrow minded view argument by folks who do not want rail b/c of their being used taxes for it but have no problem with their taxes being used for road building.

  • That is BS I live in Riverside Terrace which was more planned than the Heights and property values are much higher in the Heights than here.

  • Commonsense said it best. The real question is one of scale. Of course neighborhoods are planned. But Houston does not have a comprehensive, city-wide master plan for future growth. There’s no single document that everyone who wants to develop land has to comply with. And that’s why this is such a vibrant, dynamic place to live.

  • “Planning” a city is generally referred to as planning because one group sets the plan for the whole thing. The Houston difference is that the market has dictated what it wants planned. The best way to to describe Houston’s “planning” would be to call it “pocket planning”- meaning we plan what we feel like when the time is right, rather than planning from the beginning what goes where for the whole. Do other cities have this approach you bet they do, not denying that, I’m just referencing the fact that when the word planning is talked about it is generally thought of in bigger terms than the “pocket planning” developers do.

  • the writer needs to get out more. Most cities follow an organic growth and the central planners don’t have much more of an effect on the sprawl than in Houston. Look at the latest worst “traffic” locations and the planned ciites are often at the top of the list. Houston has a dynamic, amorphous process and many of our out-of-towners who have moved here are either threatened by it or need the security of the “man” to feel in countrol. Would Washington Ave. be happening with central planning? Upper Kirby? Would planners have thought CityCentre a good idea? These are unique-to-Houston areas, some of the best examples of Houston urbanism, and all being “planned” by private/public partnerships or persons with a stake in those areas. Planning by those involved; how novel.

  • I don’t think any of us are attempting to suggest that private sector investment isn’t the primary driver of development and growth. A city planning commission cannot create demand where it does not exist. Whether or not infrastructure follows private sector demand or vice versa seems to be the question.

  • Everyone is saying yes, there is localized planning, but the city as a whole isn’t planned. For the average person it does not matter what goes on in the city has a whole, but what happens in their neighborhood. If you live in Piney Point Village, you know there will never be a gas station on Memorial drive, and the house next to you will never get torn down for apartments. If you settled a few miles north or south of there, you did not have such guarantees – and no way to influence what would happen in your neighborhood.

    Most cities with planning do not have these scary “centralized” apparatchiks, they have a process whereby people can have input into the shaping of own neighborhoods. In Houston, we’re “free market” in the sense that if you want to have input, you have to be rich enough to live somewhere like Piney Point.

  • Mike,

    The issue doesn’t have to be based upon the “if you’re rich enough to live” because the localized planning initiates like deed restrictions, etc… are accessible to any neighborhood that wants to protect their neighborhood are area. Eastwood is not “rich” but the people there care enough; when we pursued deed restrictions in the Woodland Heights 25 years ago it was not near as affluent as today; the planning and protections happens becuse enough people care. In could happen in Acres Homes, the ward areas or any place where like-minded persons band together.

  • Is the difference we are talking about micro vs macro planning?

  • The street grid of Downtown proper was planned by (somebody) Borden, the inventor of evaporated milk.

  • Deed restrictions are pretty limited in terms of what they can do. Could Heights homeowners shape the way the commercial district along 19th and Yale takes form through deed restrictions? Not unless the commercial property owners themselves agree to the restrictions, which they’re not likely to. In West U, on the other hand, you have a flexible tool for shaping commercial government and altering it as time goes by and needs change.

  • Mike: most cities do, in fact, have a Planning and Zoning Commission that is a centralized group responsible for overseeing growth. And they don’t always respond to neighbors’ concerns in a meaningful way.
    Look at the Atlantic Dockyards project in New York City.

  • ZAW: I never said most cities don’t have Planning & Zoning commissions, I said the planning isn’t done by scary centralized apparatchiks as described here. Most of what is decided happens through neighborhood meetings, and the planners have a very good incentive to be responsive to citizen concerns, because otherwise they can be tossed in the next elecion.

  • Can someone please point out the master plan documents for New York? Los Angeles? Boston? Baltimore? Miami? Dallas? Chicago? Seattle? Denver? San Francisco? Bueller? Anyone?

    Is Houston a dynamic city? Yes. Are those other cities as dynamic? Yes. Is America’s most master-planned city (Washington, DC built according to the L’Enfant plan) one its most dynamic cities? Yes.

    It’s hard to argue that slapdash planning is a key differentiator between Houston and other big cities when those cities enjoy a lot the same – or greater – dynamism as we do.

    I’m certainly not suggesting that we should have a master city plan; there’s a good reason almost nobody does. I’m just suggesting that “Houston is uniquely unplanned!” is a myth and the idea that our success is dependent on that myth is an article of faith, not an evidence-based conclusion, among those advancing it.

  • This comment line “debate” is not very relevant of useful. To me, the issue is, does the City’s approach to management of development better optimize our capital and land resources, commercial properties and our housing stock – than an alternate approach used in many other cities, where power is focused in a Zoning commission that is largely unaccountable. Commenters here talk about “dynamism” of Washington DC, Los Angeles, New York. What is dynanmism? What in the world does that mean? Instead, let’s talk about the ability to change to meet changing economic and environmental challenges. Why does Houston have such an abundance of affordable housing? Why does Houston have increasing amounts of office and commercial spaces at rents that are actually affordable to the businesses that occupy them? I would argue that we have those benefits, because we DON’T have a Zoning commission that artificially depresses new starts and rebuilds (like now happening inside the Loop, such as in the Rice Military area). Zoning tends to favor conservatism that increase the value of existing property — by depressing new builds and by limiting re-use of locations that the market has passed by. Zoning imposes frivolous rules that don’t add much value, but delay projects a LOT and cost a LOT of money. Look at Pearland, for example. Read about how much trouble HEB had from the Zoning board (non-elected) due to the height of the parking lot lights (wow — really critical issue hunh?) when EVERYONE (other than the Zoning board) wanted to get that store erected and open as soon as possible. The issue was finally turned when the Pearland City Council essentially ordered the Zoning board to get out of the way — after 18 months. Gah. In my view, Zoning is a key part of the problem in California and the eastern seaboard cities, where lack of housing stock has caused prices to rise above affordability for most people who live there. Thanks be that we in Houston have not succumbed to the allure of a Zoning commission. Local folks who own property and people with capital can invest and reinvest to change our property stocks to match up with economic and market conditions, as those conditions change. Not so easy in other “dynamic” cities. It makes Houston a much more liveable place — where you can actually afford to live in a far nicer place than you can get elsewhere.

  • If it isn’t “really critical,” then the height – or wattage, or direction – of outdoor lighting is exactly the kind of issue on which a business should bend to community input.
    But to some of us outdoor lighting is just about the only significant design element at play in commercial architecture. It’s the very exemplar of a commons issue.
    I know that many of you love the klieg lighting, and the fact that you could read a miniature Bible in a car dealership parking lot at midnight. I miss the dark. The world, even Houston, wasn’t always this well-lit in the name of “security.”
    Incidentally, I saw somewhere that those who study such things have come to believe that bright lights only deter crime if there is someone there to watch; otherwise, the light simply aids the vandal or whomever in her mischief. For this reason San Antonio school district removed much of the outdoor lighting from its campuses.

  • My only point of contention about this “dynamism” in Houston lies in the fact that while our overall real estate market is very stable, it’s not very stable on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. There are areas that will probably always be affluent, like River Oaks and Memorial and West U., but then you’ve got areas like Sharpstown and Westbury that start out very strong, then spend a couple of decades in the ghetto wilderness, then maybe they come back, then maybe they don’t. For a homeowner, that kind of instability is nerve-racking. For those of us who cannot afford to buy in those affluent areas, you really are taking a risk. Do I buy in the Third Ward, hoping that it finally comes around like it appears to be doing? Or is it going to be like Westbury, where I’ve heard people say for a decade that it’s up-and-coming but it doesn’t quite get there? And even for people who just want a home and not an “investment” per se, how can you be sure a few blocks of apartments aren’t going to go up a few years down the road and send the area into the dump? This is where some level of controlled planning is a good thing; it can go too far, yes, but I don’t see any compelling argument for the idea that zoning is a major obstacle to growth and stability.

  • Why do so many people flock to Houston and then immediately want to change it?

  • I would go so far as to say there literally is not such thing as this utopian “organic development” that keeps getting bandied about. Anything more developed than a shantytown at some point involved coordinated planning by some party or another. Someone chose where to lay the freeways, someone chose where water service would be established, etc etc ect. No City is developed in a solely reactive way. Houston is no exception. Houston is not just some completely random place, nor is it just a haphazard collection of planned spheres. All the examples of “organic” development are a result of underlying plans, big and small. Neighborhoods grow or perish based on transportation corridors, for example. Highways are not the result of a bunch of people building separate sections, and then the highway is the result. This notion of organic planning is inherently flawed because it fails to account for the forces that shaped development. Zoning is far from the only tool, or even only potent tool, that affects private development. There is absolutely nothing organic about Houston’s development. That’s not a bad thing…that’s like saying, I have absolutely no unicorns in my horse herd. No one else does either.