Condo Project Upsets Affluent Houstonians

In Houston, the only major U.S. city with no zoning laws, plans to construct a high-rise condo complex in an affluent neighborhood have residents outraged.

"Plans to build a 23-story condominium tower among the million-dollar homes of two stately neighborhoods here has appalled affluent residents and put local politicians in the hot seat."

"Angry residents have hired a lawyer to fight their cause. Houston Mayor Bill White has pledged to use "any appropriate power under law" to scale back or cancel the development. The problem is, without zoning laws to regulate land use, the city can do little to thwart the project other than apply traffic restrictions and write sternly worded letters."

"The project's developers, two Houston natives who grew up just blocks from the site, vow to push forward. They've already received many of the approvals required under the city's current guidelines."

"In most cities, zoning laws would prohibit an intensive commercial use, such as a fast-food restaurant, from setting up shop on a residential street. Houston, however, regulates land use mostly through deed restrictions, which are typically crafted by the developer of a subdivision and apply only to that area, dictating issues such as lot size and construction design. Deed restrictions are usually enforced by civil lawsuits, whereas zoning is a matter of city law."

"Even so, only 30% of Houston's neighborhoods have viable deed restrictions in place, according to City Councilman Peter Brown. The other 70% are mostly low- to moderate-income neighborhoods now 'at risk' of seeing developments move in that residents might oppose, Mr. Brown says."

Full Story: Houston's Twilight Zone: Projects Rise in Odd Spots

Comments

Comments

This serves as a prime

This serves as a prime example of the importance of Planning as a discipline and government function. I cannot help but wonder how many of these upset persons once sang the praises of Houston's "free-market" based land use system.

Disagree

I think this shows that the market would integrate a "mix of densities with a range of product types" in one neighborhood. Isn't that an outcome that planning would attempt to regulate? Per the comment above, what this demonstrates to me is that NIMBYs aren't free market or socialistic - they defend the status quo for their neighborhood. Houston has many of the same land use controls other cities have, but they just don't regulate land use. Ironically, this is one of the primary crtitiques smart growth has of traditional zoning. I guess the question I have is: why is this example in the article a bad thing? The market is working and you're getting a social planning good with higher density and a mix of housing types. It's only bad for the NIMBYs who nobody seems to have any sympathy for (me included), until we become one.

Markets and Mixed Densities.

I think this shows that the market would integrate a "mix of densities with a range of product types" in one neighborhood. Isn't that an outcome that planning would attempt to regulate

Only in an area with Euclidean zoning. In Smart Growth neighborhoods, this sort of thing likely would be allowed; what likely would be restricted is height, as that's way out of context. Otherwise I agree that the market would indeed integrate mixed densities, which is what SG code tries to do - get out of the way of these things.

Also, I think the comments above seek to convey the notion that good land use planning seeks to prevent market failures such as this project may be. Just a thought.

Best,

D

Understood

but isn't building height the primary way to achieve higher density? It's either that or coverage, right?

Density

FAR (Floor-area-ratio) is the best measure of density; it is a function of total height, coverage, and floor-height.

Oftentimes the relationships between height and density are surprising. Some of the densest places in the world, such as carfree Venice, have no buildings above four or five stories. Many American downtowns with towering skyscrapers have a very low average density when the setbacks, plazas, parking lots and streets are factored in.

Density regulations were essentially born with the skyscraper, when tall buildings started sprouting out of the medieval streets of Lower Manhattan. Thus we have setbacks, wide streets, and FAR regulations to push tall buildings away from each other. Because of the way tall buildings tend to repel each other, overall FAR's above around 3.0 are almost never achieved. Since this FAR can easily be built with 4-6 story buildings close to each other on narrow streets, livable city advocates have generally advocated this approach and the quaint, pleasant community atmosphere it creates, rather than going for extremely tall buildings with plenty of dead space between them.

Clarification

Dano: I think that when CP says: "Isn't that an outcome that planning would attempt to regulate," he means "Isn't that an outcome that planning would attempt to achieve by means of regulatation."

CP, is that right?

Charles Siegel

Correct

that is what I meant. Thanks Charles. In terms of the FAR post below, I've often wondered what dropping the max FAR regs in cities would do? I think the first tall building in any lower density area seems out of place, but then possibly 20-40 years later, it doesn't seem so out of place. Height and bulk regulations seem to attempt to maintain places as they are now as opposed to respecting their possible and/or likely evolution.

Density Limits

Agreed. I've made an observation in regards to your question.

Limiting density (FAR or dwelling units per acre) in a greenfield is one thing. Doing the same in a developed area can prevent infill/redevelopment/"highest and best use."

The acquisition cost for developed parcel(s) must buy out the ongoing value of a property under its current use--the (lost) opportunity cost. Increased density covers much of this cost (as does a higher performing use). [Sidebar: One of the massive errors of urban renewal was the zeroing out of this opportunity cost.]

There are plenty of other things that limit feasible density (i.e. market absorption rates, parking, elevator technologies). It's not something we must always regulate. Regulating its impacts (performance), as Houston is considering, has merits.

Rather than get sidetracked into a discussion of the "physics" of urban redevelopment, I'll make this my final note: Please refer to Jane Jacobs' chapter on "The need for aged buildings" in The Death and Life of Great American Cities for her observations on why this ongoing urban evolution is necessary.

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

Debunking a lie

Defenders of the sprawl status quo are always telling us that anyone who favors change favors "cramming people into high-rises."
(In fact,

This story proves otherwise. It is the market that gives people the opportunity to live in high-rises. It is the NIMBY defenders of the status quo that won't allow people to do so.

Once upon on a time, I saw a bumper sticker saying "If you don't like abortions, don't have one." Similarly, I would say: If you don't like high-rises [or apartments, or whatever other land use is the NIMBY cause of the week], don't live in one. But don't prevent the rest of us from living in them.

Both of you make great points

Both of you make great points. You hit the nail right on the head

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