NoZone: good questions, no easy answers


Last week, the candidates for Mayor of Houston talked about land use at an unusual forum at the CAM. There were five candidiates, one moderator who posed quite length questions (the first was no less than 600 words), and seven “respondents” who were able to comment on the candidates’ answers.

If you want to hear the candidates’ answers, check out this .wav file (82 mb.) But none of the answers were really all that interesting. These are hard issues, and addressing hard issues head-on is rarely the best tactic for getting elected.

Bu these are important questions, so I figured I’d try my own answers. I’m not running for anything, so I have no problem proposing unpopular answers. And I encourage you to propose your own in the forums.

First Question: Land Use Policy
Question proposed by Hugh Rice Kelly, attorney

A novel approach to zoning within defined boundaries for the otherwise ‘no zoned’ City of Houston, was proposed in House Bill 4648 in this spring’s 2009 Texas legislative session. Please respond if you were able to participate and had to vote on such a bill, would you have voted YES or NO. In addition, please provide an explanation for your decision.

Sponsored by Representative Garnet Coleman, this bill would apply the area zoning concept with the zoning district governed by state law. The statute would define a process under which residents of area having no less than 90 percent single-family homes could petition the City to create a Residential Management District. This District would have zoning power as well as any other power defined in its charter.

The justification for the creation of such districts is that deed restrictions legally cannot be created or reinstated to protect some single family residential areas in Houston, mostly in older neighborhoods developed before 1950:

• There are certain single-family areas of the city where deed restrictions lapsed so long ago that they cannot be revived. This is true for some of the neighborhoods in the Riverside area of Third Ward.

• There are certain single-family areas of the city in which there are numerous but scattered individual properties whose deed restrictions have long since lapsed, or which never were subject to deed restrictions. This is true for Boulevard Oaks, for example, but not Southampton, which adjoins the south side of Boulevard Oaks.

• Deed restrictions cannot protect these single-family residential areas from a development such as the Ashby High Rise.

• The strong and extensive deed restrictions used in postwar master planned communities cannot as a practical matter be imposed on existing neighborhoods. Most of these modern deed restrictions impose land use controls as strict or stricter than a zoning ordinance.

Mixing single-family residential with commercial and multi-family residential is a good thing. Mixed uses mean people have to travel less (reducing traffic, travel time, and transportation costs) and make it less likely that people will be displaced by increasing property values (since they can move from a house to a condo or apartment rather that leave the neighborhood.)

Zoning by uses is an old-fashioned system, developed based on assumptions on urban economy and health and that have proven flawed. Mixed uses (with the exception of industrial) create wonderful places.

Protecting neighborhoods really means something else: it means protecting against impacts, like noise, all-day shadows, lack of parking, flooding, and sunbaked sidewalks. We can start with enforcing existing ordinances. And then we can look at good form-based codes that regulate not what happens in a building but how it relates to the streets and buildings around it. But the key is to regulate only what matters, not what doesn’t, and to make the regulations clear and predictable.

Second Question: Transportation
Two part question proposed by the Citizens’ Transportation Coalition

Mobility is multi-modal. Transportation and land use are increasingly acknowledged as major factors affecting neighborhood quality of life. Roadways are used by cars, buses, and bicycles. and sidewalks can provide access to pedestrians, wheelchairs, scooters, and transit users. Better planning will benefit Houston neighborhoods; however, within the City of Houston, transportation-related planning functions are divided between the Planning & Development department and the Public Works & Engineering department.

First, would you support a policy to make sure every transportation-infrastructure project within the City of Houston—regardless of the implementing agency or department—preserves or enhances the full spectrum of mobility uses, including auto, pedestrian, bicycle, and transit access and how would you encourage developers in their proposed projects to provide easy access to these systems?

Secondly, should the City have a single department with responsibility for transportation planning? Please provide a YES or NO response. In addition,
please provide an explanation for your decision.

Yes. Yes. Obviously.

But coordinating the city’s transportation efforts is not enough. County, state, METRO, port, and freight rail district projects affect the city too, and need to coordinate with the city’s own projects. And the mayor’s prominence puts her or him in the position to influence all of those projects. How well the mayor can work with their fellow elected officials and explain issues to the public will determine how good a transportation system we will build.

Third Question: Education
Question proposed by Gerald Frug, the Louis D. Brandeis Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and author of the
CITY BOUND, How States Stifle Urban Innovation and City Making: Building Communities without Building Walls

Unlike most major cities in the country, Houston has several different schools districts rather than one city-wide district. Do you think that this system segregates education within the city and, if so, would you pledge to do something about correcting the problem and what would that be? Please provide a YES or NO response. In addition, please provide an explanation for your decision.

55 years after Brown v. Board of Education, educational segregation is directly related to the economic and racial segregation of neighborhoods. The size of school districts has little to do with it: HISD’s schools are each more segregated than the district as a whole.

We don’t enforce the racial segregation of neighborhoods. But we do enforce economic segregation: minimum lot sizes, prohibitions against apartment complexes, duplexes, and garage apartments, and minimum house sizes all effectively set minimum income levels in neighborhoods.

If you really want to desegregate the schools, look to deed restrictions, not school district boundaries. Or maybe we should focus on something that’s a little more politically tenable: improve the quality of education at every school, regardless of what neighborhood it’s in.

Fourth Question: Growth and Incentives
Question proposed by Samuel Jacobson, undergraduate at the School of Architecture, Rice University

Houston has grown with the proven formula of private investment following public investment in infrastructure. The City has been able to use its authority over Municipal Utility Districts within its extraterritorial jurisdiction to guide greenfield development on the city’s edge— ensuring a good business climate for developers , economic growth, and the continued expansion of the property-tax base. Another potentially similar form of control over infrastructure is the city’s control over mass transit and its investment in the light rail system. This has not been very effective at guiding development in the city’s urban core, where developers seem to be more responsive to taxbased programs (for example, Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones or TIRZs) than direct investment in infrastructure.

Given the controversy over Buckhead Investment Partners’ proposal for a highrise at 1717 Bissonnet (the “Ashby Highrise”), might the city have been able to take a more proactive approach and incentivize the developers and the community to transfer the project to a site along the Main Street Corridor and Metro’s light rail line, in exchange for limiting the size of the proposed development on the Bissonet site. This type of planning would encourage innovative thinking and development for the future of the City of Houston. How might infrastructure be used to proactively shape or reshape Houston’s already existing urban fabric?

That “proven formula” has a significant problem: it’s increased the cost of providing infrastructure. We pay for roads, storm sewers, wastewater lines, and utilities by the mile; the lower the density of development, and the longer people must travel to go to reach jobs, stores, and entertainment, the more was pay to build and maintain infrastructure.

So it would make sense for the city to incentivize development where the infrastructure is most efficient. For example, Midtown, where there’s a lot of street capacity, good utilities, and excellent transit access, should be less expensive to development in than elsewhere.

The problem is that we actually do the reverse by using property taxes to fund infrastructure. The places that have the highest infrastructure costs — the outer suburbs — have low property values. The places that have the lowest infrastructure costs — the urban core — have high property values. So we’re incentivizing development that will cost the public more in the long run.

On the other hand, the Bissonnet site actually has good infrastructure: it’s on a major arterial and a busy bus route, close to employment centers, and on a site that’s already developed. So infrastructure has nothing to do with that issue — it’s about scale, and it can be addressed honestly only with form-based code.

Fifth Question: The Future
Question proposed by members of the Sharpstown Civic Association

Mayor Bill White has had some of the highest approval ratings of any elected mayor and was recently named one of seven “eco-mayors” for his commitment to improving the sustainable practices in the city of Houston. By this time next year, the stimulus funds allocated for proposed and ‘shovel ready’ projects will be underway and one of you will be the new elected mayor of the city of Houston. The city has been referred to as many things, but in terms of industry, ‘energy capital of the world’ is the historical moniker that the city rightfully cultivated and owns. Today, it would be hard-pressed to retain this classification without qualification.

This spring the same state legislature session that killed the ‘zoning’ bill for Houston also voted against a bill for solar rebates, as well as a bill that would make it harder for homeowner’s associations to ban solar panels. The city itself is making every effort to incorporate these technologies into its own buildings, practices and policies. This is evidenced by the creation of the Public Works & Engineering Green Building Department; the creation of the park and application of solar arrays at Discovery Green; and the proposed weatherization and retrofit programs for aging subdivisions that will begin later this summer. It seems nearly impossible, however for private businesses and homeowners to afford these renewable technologies.

If renewable energy is not accessible or affordable and it only exists as a municipal showcase; if the utility companies do not facilitate the buy and tie back into the grid; what incentives do the solar manufacturers, energy companies and other renewable energy technologies have to set up manufacturing, marketing and servicing facilities as well as job training programs in the Houston area? What if a location like the Sharpstown Mall (that suffers from an ill-gotten perception problem that bleeds into an affordable, stable, and diverse, middle-class community) was to be redeveloped into an area for the incubation and application of these renewable technologies? If elected mayor, what would you propose as an expansive proposition for the future of the city of Houston that would eliminate the necessity of this qualification to truly make it the ‘energy capital of the world’. (Please provide in your response a specific program or incentive for homeowners, businesses or industry and how this would be done, where it would be done, or idea for the response.)

Cities rarely become “the ____ capitol of the world” because they create a program to that end. Cities attract industries like we attracted oil: by bringing together smart people, good ideas, investment capital, and infrastructure. That means education, research institutions, good connections to the rest of the world, a culture that celebrates innovation (and regulations that don’t stifle it), and places that people want to live in. The government has a role to play in all of these.

The best thing we can do to encourage renewable energy is to price energy appropriately. If something’s cheap, it will be wasted. Cheap oil is stupid policy. So is cheap electricity. But there’s little the city can do to help on that count.

So, yes, provide incentives. Make it easier for people to weatherize, upgrade to efficient systems, and put solar panels on their roofs. Build green public buildings. But that’s not going to make us the energy capital.

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