There’s been a lot of hubub this week about the Ashby hi-rise. The best recap of the situation came from Houston Tomorrow:
Followed quickly by a flurry of blog posts, newsstories and a reportedly renewed community protest effort, the City of Houston has finally issued permits to developer, Buckhead Investment Partners, to build the controversial Ashby High Rise project. Residents in the neighborhood have staged a massive campaign against the development project based on a variety of concerns that the project will diminish their quality of life.
The controversy triggered a planning department effort (ppt) including stakeholder meetings and various proposals to develop new ways for the City to be involved in guiding development. This effort led to the development of a new organization calledHoustonians for Responsible Growth, who recently pointed out to City Council that new provisions in the City Design Manual, a product of this planning process, might conflict with the Urban Corridors ordinance Urban Corridors ordinance.
While this process was taking place, the developer agreed to put the project on hold as the Mayor tried to forge a new regulatory scheme. The City eventually chose not to use a new regulatory structure, but to use existing statute to address the concerns, and then the developer subsequently submitted the project eleven times for the necessary permits. The plan was rejected by the City of Houston, then altered and resubmitted by the developer, and finally approved by the City this eleventh time. As a result of this process, the developer has reportedly cut the mixed-use aspects out of the plan and reduced the density of the project to ease City of Houston concerns about traffic on local streets. Blogger Tory Gattis voicesthe opinion that this end result is a “lose-lose” situation: “now the neighborhood loses the convenient, walkable retail part of the project (including a potential Whole Foods) but still ends up with the tower.”
The sad thing is that all this song and dance never confronted the real issue, summed up perfectly by commenter “Mike” on an earlier news brief:
So now it’s time to air the real objections – this thing is horribly out of scale for the neighborhood – and Houston needs new regulations to deal with such cases.
Even Torry Gattis, usually a vocal critic of regulation, seems to agree. He suggests the following:
…there seems to be a general clamoring for “neighborhood protection” from citizens, and for predictability from the developers. This situation needs to be defused before laws with some really bad side effects get passed. And it needs to be simplified and objectified too. Some of the language I’ve heard proposed for the ordinance is arcane in the extreme, involving detailed calculations and “traffic studies” with plenty of room for bias and subjectivity.
Most people seem to agree high-rise towers don’t belong on small streets in single-family neighborhoods. In Houston, we have an arterial grid (roughly) that tends to have commercial on the arterials with residential behind, in the interiors of the arterial blocks. It seems reasonable to restrict anything over 6 stories high (a typical apartment complex, 4 floors on top of 2 levels of parking) to fronting major arterials.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend the ULI Urban Marketplace, and in conversations with developers there I heard the same sentiment over and over. Situations like Ashby make developers wary of investment in Houston. They already deal with tremendous uncertainty as to what will happen on the parcels surrounding their development (which could enhance or degrade the value of their property). Now they’re worried about the unpredictability of the city’s response to their development. Will it be smooth sailing, or will the city suddenly fight back, digging out long forgotten ordinances in an attempt to stall and sink a project?
As one banker at the conference put it, “You’ve got to really know the lots around you – and the neighbors. It’s a dicey thing, building [in Houston.]”
There’s one last issue that’s particularly frustrating in Houston, land speculation. As has been widely discussed, redevelopment around transit stations has been less widespread in Houston than in other cities, and much of this is because of the work of speculators. While this issue is not unique to Houston, it is compounded by the lack of development regulations. Essentially, every speculator is pricing their land for the construction of a skyscraper, when the market may only be suited for low-rise. Redevelopment activity is significantly impaired when there is this disconnect between the realistic development potential of a property and the astronomical price expectations of speculators. Limits on development could be useful leverage for a developer in this case.
On the other hand, many in Houston, including myself, believe that Houston’s free-market culture is a key component of its success as a city. While it may be messy, there’s no denying Houston’s role as the Opportunity City. Providing opportunity means staying clear of heavy-handed regulation.
For three generations other cities have regulated land use with conventional zoning. The principle of conventional zoning is this: by separating all the major kinds of land use, the “most sensitive” land uses are protected from the offenses of the “cruder” land uses.
Historically the purpose of these ordinances was to prevent new factories from dumping heavy pollution on previously non-industrial communities – thus wrecking their property values, and often their health and safety. The goal was to push smokestacks out to specific “zones,” and by defining these zones to allow people who didn’t want soot falling on their head to plan their construction activity accordingly.
However, as time went by this concept has morphed and grown into a very heavy set of regulations. In most cities today, the government essentially draws a map dictacting what is allowed to be built, where it is allowed to be built, and what it has to look like. The state is therefore trying to predict the market, which never works well. This results in constant conflict between property owners and developers (who want to build what will sell) and the city (who “knows better” what should go where).
Houston has avoided the worst of these policies by staying away from conventional zoning. Ironically, however, Houston has adopted many of the same ordinances and policies of other cities. As an example: when platting land for development, if the developer does not explicitly denote another land use, the city REQUIRES the land be restricted to single-family residential uses. Because these regulations are hard-coded into the legal description of the land they are extraordinarily difficult to change in the future. Houston also has parking and setback requirements taken straight out of the conventional zoning world.
The result of the regulations we have are the same as the results of the regulations in other cities: low density, pedestrian-hostile development disproportionately dominates the city – not because this is all the market demands, but because it’s all that is legal to build. Doing anything different exposes a developer to a regulatory situation that’s a headache at best and a nightmare at worst.
So while we like to think that we’re scarcely regulated, the facts are quite different. Houston has a pretty average amount of land use regulation, but where it is different is the scattered and unpredictable way in which the City enforces its regulations. The Ashby development is the poster-child for the problems with Houston’s approach.
Fortunately, there’s a straightforward solution for the issues Houston is facing. The Congress for the New Urbanism is an organization that has been dedicated to the development and advancement of new municipal policies to make urbanism in cities legal again. One of the tools the CNU has advocated is called “SmartCode.”
SmartCode is an effort to combine the many facets of development regulation (subdivision and platting regulations, building regulations, traffic and parking regulations, etc) into a single, streamlined, compact document. Its entire goal is to stay away from land-use controls (which unreasonably inhibit the market and create constant conflict at City Hall), and focus on simple, predictable, results-oriented standards.
In essence, SmartCode divides differnent scales of buildings into different “transect-zones”, defines how the street should be designed to accomodate the needs of different scales of development, and leaves the rest to the market. Contrary to popular belief, SmartCode is not about “style;” the standard code does not contain any.
Now, SmartCode is a model code – it was deliberately designed as a broad, generic code with the intention of being calibrated to fit the demands of different places. In the case of Houston we could trim out some of the regional planning pieces as well as the parking requirements. What would we be left with?
Here’s a real basic look at what a well-calibrated SmartCode would offer Houston. Instead of the current unwieldy and unpredictable model, we would have a transect map defining nine categories of development. Categories T1 and T2 would be used to help with flood controls, simplyfing the process for land owners and developers. The DD, SD, and ED categories would encompass special areas like historic preservation districts, major institutions, or major economic districts (such as the Port of Houston and other major industrial areas). This would be reflective of the practice we already have in allowing Management Districts (like the Texas Medical Center) to voluntarily self-regulate.
That leaves the vast majority of the “ordinary city” with only 4 categories of development standards: T3, T4, T5, and T6.
Because of how few requirements there would be, the most common request for variances would almost certainly be for added height as areas originally categorized as T3 or T4 develop more intensely. The city policy should be for a simple “upgrade” from one category to the next heighest so long as the developer builds infrastructure – most importantly street connectivity – appropriate to the intensity of development.
In practice these kind of standards would mean that areas like the Galleria would have filled in with critical secondary streets as they redeveloped from strip retail to mid-rise and eventually hi-rise and skyscraper development.
So what would the urban network plan look like in the vicinity of the Ashby Hi-Rise? Here’s a guess:
Based on the amount of unity that we’ve seen from the Southhampton neighborhood, my guess is they’d create a design district for their neighborhood if given the chance. I’m not sure every block in the area would opt in, so the map reflects a totally arbitrary guess as to what the boundaries of the design district might be. In the vicinity you see a wide range of transect zones, from T1 in Hermann Park; to T6 at Wheeler Station, Museum Station, and Upper Kirby; and SD at Rice and University of Saint Thomas.
If we calibrate it correctly (being careful to remove anything inappropriate for Houston), a Houston-Style Smart Code could be a huge benefit to the community. First, we could create the kind of protection that neighborhoods are clamoring for, limits on the development that is radically out-of-scale to its established surroundings. Second, we could better link public and private infrastructure investments to target the best areas for redevelopment. Third, this system would provide a more coherent and orderly process for managing the type of voluntary participation districts that are becoming a hallmark of our city. Finally, we could dramatically streamline and simplify the existing regulatory system and make it much more predictable for property owners and developers.
This approach is a true win-win. Not only would it eliminate future Ashby-like problems, it would improve on Houston’s goal of having a flexible, market-driven development environment.
Have any thoughts on the matter? Start the conversation by leaving a comment and letting me know what you think. I’m looking forward to the discussion on this one!