Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Houston's war on all things interesting continues.

Swamplot, which is the "go-to" blog for all things Houston real-estate, ran a post on Monday regarding what appeared to be a Mini Cooper suspended on a local business wall for which the City had issued the business-owner a red-card violation of....well, we're not exactly sure which City ordinance was violated but we're sure it was one of them because a "second notice" was on the door and that can't be good.  The guess is that the issues is that the replica car hangs over the sidewalk, which could, presumably, pose a danger to the tens of pedestrians walking on the sidewalk below.

All of this led the Houston Chronicle, which used to be Houston's newspaper of record but has abdicated that throne in place of becoming Houston's leading society rag, to counter with their own story which provided further detail, without crediting the original Swamplot post one should add, explaining that the City viewed the car as a "sign" for which the company, Internum, a furniture store, had failed to receive the proper permits thus sending into a frenzy Houston's do-nothing-outside-the-box internal machinery leading to the violation notices and a whole lot of talk about proper procedures and protocols.

So far public reaction tends to be on the side of the Mini, with the overwhelming majority of respondents buzzing over the car's "cool" factor while chiding the City for doing it's level best to ensure that nothing fun or quirky happens in today's modern, world class mind you, metropolis that is Houston.  I think this cuts into a vein that runs much deeper beneath Houston's skin however and it's something that should disturb even those of a New Urbanist humor.  In short: The City is declaring a fatwa on anything that might make Houston unique.

Hear me out. 

One of the Houtopian's largest complaints about the suburbs is that they're "cookie cutter" and bland.  Fair enough, but is their anything more cookie cutter than a downtown Houston that counts as one of it's anchor tenants the House of Blues?  Forever Twenty-One?  Even on Kirby, which is a thriving, bustling "walkable-urban" (mostly) area you're more likely to be enthralled by rows and rows of corporate, strip-mall same-ness than you are cute boutiques that remind Pedestrian Pete of his 7-8 months spent in the South of France.  In fact, other than some local and chain restaurants there's very little in the Upper Kirby district that can't be found somewhere else, even other places in Houston.

Ask yourself this:  Would the beer can house or Orange Show be granted permits today?  We currently live in a city where amateur car-decorators can attach a blow-torch to a golf cart and call it an "art car", parade it through the city releasing flames that could, potentially, burn the eyebrows off of every spectator in the first three rows and the City does nothing.  Yet one company has professionals hang a mock car on a wall and everyone goes bonkers.  Can you imagine if the powers that be in Houston were in charge of Camden Lock in London? Over half of the bars would be red-carded before 6 AM on the first day.

This is not to say that all signage and creative building add-ons should be willy-nilly.  Far from it. If you don't have some regulation then people would be installing cowboy apparel and modern art everywhere and nobody wants that.  But, if a licensed sign installer does their job and installs a sign then so be it.  Of course, the City would lose money then and I think that is really the issue in the first place.  It's hard to subsidize failing downtown retail, build downtown hotels despite low occupancy rates and market for downtown residential space that few want if those businesses not in the preferred zone refuse to put money into the coffers.

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