Thursday, December 22, 2011

City of Houston passes High Rise Ordinance, takes first bite of elephant...

Many of my three (or so) regular readers are undoubtedly familiar with the question: "How do you eat an elephant?" The answer of course being "One bite at a time."

Yesterday zoning and land-use advocates took their first bite into the zoning elephant and are already coming back for more.

(Houston City Council OKs high-rise limits, Zain Shauk,
After four years of arguments and delays, Houston City Council on Wednesday approved restrictions on residential towers, passing an ordinance inspired by the so-called Ashby high rise.

The decision came during the final council meeting of the year, giving Mayor Annise Parker a victory as she pushed for two controversial sets of regulations to pass before seven new city representatives are sworn into office in January.

The other proposed regulations stalled, however, with the council voting unanimously to delay a vote on new automobile shop rules until February and leave the issue to the new council in the upcoming term.

The restrictions on high rises, which will require those structures to be built at least 30 or 40 feet from surrounding homes, depending on the street sizes, faced opposition from five council members who wanted it delayed.
In reality, this is a fairly toothless ordinance. One that was undoubtedly crafted to provoke the following response:

(Buffering Ordinance Falls Short, The Apple Dumpling Gang,
Those who endorse incremental change may applaud the Residential Buffering Ordinance as a small step in the right direction. But if the city's goal is to protect neighborhoods against the kind of unwelcome surprises posed by projects like the Ashby high-rise, the Residential Buffering Ordinance falls tragically short. We believe that the city can do better.

By better, the Gang is undoubtedly referring to form based codes which, in reality, are zoning for those who don't like the mean-ol' Government telling them what they can or cannot do with their land. The problem with form-based codes is that the argument based for/against them is based on a false premise.

(Regarding the proposed High Density Ordinance, Andrew Burleson, NeoHouston
A far better and more effective approach to development regulation is form-based code. In a form-based code the scale of a building and the way it relates to its surroundings is regulated, and land-use is not regulated.
Got that? Land-use is NOT regulated, so we're dealing with the much more benign "codes" than a full on frontal zoning ordinance which would tell you at what time you could wake up in the morning to relieve yourself.

At first blush, form-based "codes" sounds much more benign, kind of like a soft summer afternoon at a beach bar on a Sunday evening, rather than the full on Saturday evening rave that zoning is sure to become. The problem with this analogy, is that you're still drunk at the end and wake up with a hangover the next day.

By limiting the form of buildings you also limit the possibilities for their use. While it's true that one can put a restaurant into a converted bungalow, one would have difficulty building a multi-unit residential property in one. You also would have difficulty doing office space of any meaningful size (obviously we're omitting law-offices from this discussion, which (like roaches) can take up residence pretty much anywhere) limits the possible uses for which new construction can be designed. Conveniently, this also ensures that very un-urban suburban plat neighborhoods are allowed to thrive (at now inflated real-estate prices) while low-rent areas are more likely to be re-developed to handle the desire for "urbanism". In short, the wealthy keep their yards while the DINK's get their lofts. Everyone is happy except the poor, who are increasingly driven out to the fringes of town to eek out a living on their own. If you can then eliminate the main arteries that allow the poor to enter urban enclaves to reach employment centers, all the better. By shoe-horning the poor into a few public transit options, you better control and monitor their movement. This is the urbanist' dream. Paris, but without the sense of history, classic beauty and Gypsy beggars.

All of this ignores the "slippery slope" argument, which states that, once form-based codes are in place, Urbanist proponents will then say they're "not enough" and begin the push for full scale zoning. Next is a congestion charge, forced evictions and then? Unfortunately I'm not a creative enough writer to imagine what would come next.

Whatever does come next will be, fortunately, at the behest of the voters. Because to make these changes the City will have to submit them to the public for a vote, which means that City residents will get exactly what they ask for. That's why I don't have a problem with amateur urban-planners making imaginary capital spending budgets with other's money. I might not agree with Andrew Burleson, and find him to be amazingly thin skinned, but I don't begrudge him the right to advocate for his future vision for Houston (a vision, undoubtedly, that would be different than what I described here but which, in my estimation, relies too much on the benign wisdom of the planners to be realistic) as a matter of fact I welcome it. I also welcome articles such as this:

(National Economist puts Houston on Cities to Watch List, Nancy Sarnoff,
Steady job growth and a construction revival make Austin and Houston two of my five cities to watch. Texas isn’t hung over from the housing boom like the other big states of the South and West, so there’s little to hold back growth. Honorable mention to Fort Worth and San Antonio.

Clearly what Houston is currently doing is working out just fine. I've yet to see a good argument as to why we should continue to try and fix what's clearly not broken, only to replace it with items that clearly are?

Until then, we watch with amusement as Houston continues taking bite after bite out of the zoning elephant, all while assuring its residents that it is doing no such thing.

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