Tower of bad policy?


The signs in just about every front yard make it clear: the neighborhood around the corner of Ashby and Bissonnet does not want a highrise built on the site of the Maryland Manor apartments. I don’t blame them: if I owned a nice house with a secluded backyard in a quiet neighborhood I’d be alarmed at the idea of a 23-story tower looming over it.

But this neighborhood fight may end up having unintended, city-wide consequences. In February, Houston City Council will vote on a new ordinance (pdf) specifically designed to address this project but general in scope: if adopted it would change the rules for the entire city for the indefinite future. The ordinance would require that the developer of any residential highrise on a two-lane street containing 100 or more units submit a traffic impact study, and it would allow the Director of Public Works to block any such project that has a “significant adverse traffic impact.”

That sounds innocuous enough. But it’s actually quite arbitrary.

To start with, the residential part of this project isn’t actually a traffic issue. Bissonnet is a major arterial; it carries 17,720 cars a day. The proposed 230-unit tower would increase the number of units on the site by 163 (there are 67 apartments there today). Assuming that each unit would create 4 trips a day, and half of those trips would head in each direction, that would increase the number of cars on the street by 2% — a trivial number. A purely commercial project could have worse traffic impacts — but the ordinance wouldn’t apply to it, nor even to a high-rise office building.

And what does lane count have to do with anything? Greenbriar is this neighborhood is 3 lanes, but it’s congested, too, and presumably the people living in nice houses with secluded backyards there don’t want a highrise next door, either (they just fought a two-story dental clinic). Conversely, there are two lane streets where a big highrise would be appropriate.

The real issue here isn’t traffic; it’s scale. There’s an important discussion to be had about how big or tall a building is appropriate in a residential neighborhood. There are good ways to write ordinances addressing these issues — so-called form-based codes. But because the neighborhood is talking about traffic, and because City Council feels politically comfortable addressing traffic, we’re debating a traffic ordinance based on faulty assumptions.

So we might ask whether the ends justify the means: is it OK to block a bad project by equally bad arguments?

But skip that: let’s ask if the ends justify the ends. This ordinance is not just about blocking one bad project: it would also block other projects, some good, some bad. And it would do so based arbitrary criteria. Worse, consider the ordinance’s bottom line: it gives the city’s Director of Public Works the power to block or allow a project, and it does not give any quantifiable criteria for doing so. So even if a bad project falls under the ordinance, the neighborhood will need to make sure the city does block it. And if a good project falls under the ordinance and has any traffic impacts whatsoever (which almost any project will) it can be blocked.

And there’s the real problem: this ordinance makes Houston’s development regulations even more complicated and arbitrary. Make no mistake: we may not have use-based zoning, but we have lots of regulations. And those regulations are such that building a large project almost invariably involves asking the city’s Planning Commission for a variance — that is, permission to not meet a regulation. Those variance are granted routinely: this week’s agenda has seven on it. This has two implications: first of all, granting variances has become so ordinary that developers have an easier time getting variances they shouldn’t. Secondly, any project that requires a variance has an added element of risk.

Development policy ought to have two goals: it should automatically block projects that have unacceptable impacts, and it should make it easy to build projects that don’t. As long as we depend on neighborhoods to organize to stop a project, some neighborhoods will be unable to organize in time. And as long as we make it more difficult and risky to build, we make projects more expensive and chase even good development out of the city.

But the only way we’ll get a better set of ordinances is if we have the right conversations. If we’re concerned about buildings being out of scale, let’s talk about that. If we’re concerned about traffic, let’s talk about traffic. But let’s not talk traffic when the issue is scale.

Keep the forums congested with your (appropriately scaled) thoughts.


Update: David Crossley has a in-depth post on his Process blog on form-based codes, and the Gulf Coast institute is hosting a lunch this week on the topic:

Meeting: Wednesday, November 28, Noon, H-GAC (3555 Timmons Lane)

Form-based code for Houston
Is this the answer to the City’s development problems?

David Crossley, Gulf Coast Institute
Reid Wilson, Wilson, Cribbs & Goren P.C.
Steve Spillette, CDS/Spillete and City of Houston
Stella Gustavson, Chief of Staff, Councilmember Peter Brown

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