Of the developers, for the developers?

urbcor

Days after the City of Houston’s draft corridor urban corridors ordinance was released, Houstonians For Responsible Growth – a developer group that generally opposes any new building regulations – endorsed the new ordinance.

Why would developers be so enthusiastic about a new piece of regulation? Because they wrote it.

Here’s the makeup of the committee that drafted the ordinance, sorted by their day jobs:

Governmental Agencies (1)

  • Theola Petteway, representing OST/Almeda Redevelopment Authority

(see also Todd Mason, below)

Non-profits (1)

  • David Crossley, representing Houston Tomorrow

Consulting architects, engineers, and planners (4)

  • Doug Childers (Morris Architects), representing AIA (also co-chair, richmondrail.org)
  • Sheila Condon (Clark Condon and Associates)
  • Stella Gustavson (HDR)
  • Jennifer Peek (Walter P. Moore), representing Houston Council of Engineering Companies

Developers and brokers (6)

  • Bill Huntsinger (Metro National), representing Houston Real Estate Council (also a member of Houstonians for Responsible Growth)
  • Mark Kilkenny (Mischer Investments), representing the Planning Commission
  • Todd Mason (McDade, Smith, Gould, Johnston, Mason + Company), representing METRO
  • Alex Sutton (Woodlands Development Company)
  • Zane Segal (Zane Segal Projects), representing Urban Land Institute
  • Ed Taravella (Taracorp), representing Greater Houston Builders Association

With developers and brokers making up half of the committee, and people who make their living as part of the building industry making up another third, it’s no wonder the developers like the rules that it drafted.

Developers aren’t evil. Obviously, they and others involved in the building industry have a useful perspective here, and they may in fact have other relevant qualifications – for example, there are at least two people on this list who live or work within a block of Richmond along the proposed light rail line. People are also capable of looking beyond their own economic interests. But everyone’s judgment is unavoidably colored by their background and their experiences, and there are a lot of perspectives and experiences not represented on this committee.

The committee’s makeup would matter less if the public was extensively consulted. That did, in fact, happen in the first part of this process, which was lead by The Planning Partnership, a Toronto-based consulting firm with extensive experience in transit corridor planning. There were well-attended public meetings (see above), including meetings in every corridor, and a large group of stakeholders, including many neighborhood leaders, were consulted. That lead to a series of reports that actually recommended far more extensive regulations than were finally adopted. But the consultant’s work ended with that report – they were not brought in to speak to the committee. Every committee member had access to those reports, but they were not the starting point of the discussion, just an incidental reference.

Committee meetings were held in a conference room, upstairs in the public works building, on Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m. These were officially public meetings, and notices were posted. But there was no serious attempt to inform the public. And who can make it to a public meeting on a weekday afternoon? People whose firms will pay them for attending because those firms have a stake in the outcome. So the audience, like the committee, was made up largely of people in the industry, people whose livelihoods are entwined with building regulation.

This ordinance may well have been stronger if neighborhood groups were better represented on the committee and the public had had more input. It may well have been better, too: people who see an issue from a different perspective bring different information, and that makes for a more better informed final product. That product would also have more legitimacy: a development ordinance written by developers will never have the credibility of an ordinance written by a broad spectrum of Houstonians, no matter what the actual merit of that ordinance.

This regulation does not limit anyone’s ability to build on their property. It does make good urban buildings – buildings that could already be built through the variance process – easier to build. And it does make builders lay two more feet of (inexpensive) concrete. If you like minimal restrictions – as the builders who build in Houston do – that’s a good thing. But it’s no accident.

So here’s a simple suggestion for the next mayor: when it comes to writing regulations that will shape our city, include the public. You’re included in our forums, which meet any time of day.

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