Regarding the proposed High Density Ordinance

Today the Houston City Council will make its final decision on the proposed “High Density Ordinance,” which adds a new requirement that high-rises built in residential neighborhoods have at least a 30 foot gap between them and the nearest house.

A thoughtful response to this issue was released last week, and I agree with that response.

Today I want to take a moment just to consider the larger picture of what’s going on in the City politically, and point out a different way of looking at the problem at hand.

The City’s current rulebook is built on the assumption that every property in the city is exactly like every other property. Famously, we do not have zoning that distinguishes what owners can do based on the surrounding context.

The obvious reality, however, is that every property in the City of Houston is not the same. In the past the city was pressured to allow higher-density development inside the loop, which led to the creation of Houston’s two zones: the ‘urban zone’ and ‘suburban zone’. Issues like Ashby High-Rise and Heights Walmart have pushed the city to put token restrictions on towers in residential areas, while also creating a third zoning category, the ‘Major Activity Center’, where said restrictions do not apply. Major Activity Centers are supposed to be an opportunity for places that have a lot of development to get major rule changes that they’ve been clamoring for without changing things around the rest of the city.

So the rulebook now stands on the following premise: “Everything outside the loop is the same, and everything inside the loop is the same, except for the places that are completely different.”*

Any observant person can see where this is going: because every property is, in fact, not the same as every other, the city is under political pressure to create more and more zones on the map that have different rules from each other. If you think that sounds a lot like zoning, you’re right.

There are two political ideas that have historically kept zoning out of Houston:

  1. Developers like it better when there are fewer rules to learn, so having a single set of rules for the whole city is good for business.
  2. The City does not know what the best use of a piece of land is, the market does, so the City should not be in the business of regulating land use.

These two ideas are basically correct. Simpler and more consistent rules generally are better for business, and land-use based regulation offers very few benefits at a great cost of economic and bureaucratic inefficiency.

However, the assumption that every piece of property in the city is and should be treated exactly the same is both wrong *and* unpopular. So that’s slowly but surely going away. The problem is, the City’s attempts to adhere to Principle #1 while trying to adapt the ordinances to reality and to political pressure mean we’re headed toward an increasingly balkanized set of “exception” zones that have totally separate and unrelated rules.

The reason the City is taking this approach is that the City believes that the only alternative to the balkanized exceptions approach is land-use zoning, which violates Principle #2. This is the great fallacy of Houston.

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. Incidentally, this is how the City’s rulebook already works: Chapter 42 prescribes that all development in the City of Houston must be built in the conventional suburban form, with large setbacks between buildings and streets, and buildings oriented toward surface parking.

The great opportunity for Houston would be to take a more rational and orderly approach to the political pressure and physical reality that not every property is the same. We could do this while continuing to adhere to Principles 1 and 2.

What if we simply tied development standards and street standards together? If your property fronts on a small street, you need to build a smaller scale building. If your property fronts on a larger-scale street you can build a larger-scale building.

Consider the following food-for-thought example. What if the High Density Ordinance looked like this:

If your property fronts on this kind of street… You can build this high:
1 directional lane 3 stories
1 directional lane + turn lane 4 stories
2 directional lanes 4 stories
2 directional lanes + turn lane 6 stories
3 directional lanes 8 stories
3 directional lanes + turn lane 10 stories
4 or more directional lanes Unlimited

* Note that “Directional Lane” means either one-way or each way. Ie: most of downtown has 4-5 lane one-way streets, which would qualify for unlimited height.

If you apply the logic above you’ll find that it already fits 98% of the development in Houston. Only a handful of high-rises around town fall outside of these parameters, and arguably those are the very high-rises the surrounding community believes are detrimental.

The best part of this formula is that it leaves the developer totally in control of density for any new greenfield project, but requires that they build streets that will offer appropriate capacity to the scale of proposed construction.

These rules are simple, they don’t require any special exception zones, they don’t allow high-rises in single-family neighborhoods, and they could be applied city-wide without an issue.

In fact, with a few minor additions (like sidewalk, utility, and platting standards) a simple set of rules like this could easily replace the City’s existing Chapter 42 and result in better development outcomes. That would be a win-win for everyone, and that is the kind of outcome we should be looking for. Instead we continue to see token efforts that slowly but surely make our development rules more complex and unpredictable without actually achieving the outcomes that the neighborhoods mobilized about in the first place.

* As an aside, they’re also about to change the definition of “urban” from “inside the loop” to “inside the Beltway”.

Posted: Wednesday, December 21st, 2011 at 10:55 am
Categories: think
Tags: , ,
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  1. I absolutely hate the rule that makes “urban” building design illegal in Houston. Why must all buildings be set back? Is there any progress on having this law changed and could you do a post on how that ordinance even started? It seems to be the driving force behind why the entire city is covered in strip malls.

    • Quick history of setbacks: they exist in Houston for the same reason thy exist basically everywhere in the US, they were initially a way to make sure that buildings were set back from a street far enough that the city could later come back and widen the street without hitting any buildings. This meant cities could accept a 50′ ROW today (popular with developers who want to leave as little public land as possible), while preserving the ability to widen to a historically normative 100′ ROW in the future. Over time the original intent was kind of lost, and it became “the way things had always been.”

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