Finding the center

A while back, I wrote about how planning divides Houston voters. But this year’s mayor’s race has been fought in the center. Read CTC’s candidate questionaires or the Houston Press’ last-minute primer and you’ll see the mayoral candidates more or less agreed on planning and transportation issues. I believe a broad consensus is building on some key issues. That doesn’t mean everyone agrees, but most people do, and nobody’s going to get kicked out of office in the City of Houston for supporting these ideas:

Houstonians want to protect neighborhoods. The devil here is in the details — noone agrees on how — but the massive amount of new development in existing neighborhoods has lead to real problems with parking, drainage, infrastructure, building scale and historic preservation qand a recognition that there have to be ways to mitigate.

Houstonians want to enable good urban development in the right places. The “right places” bit is the rub here — nobody minds a new residential highrise on Main Street, but Bissonnet is another issue.

Houstonians want predictability when it comes to development regulations. In the current system, most urban projects require a lot of variances. That means neighborhoods have to watch the planning commission agenda closely. It also means that developers don’t know what they can build on land they’ve bought.

Houstonians want better transit. There’s disagreement on what and where, but just about everyone’s in favor of better transit (The Houston Area Survey: 78.6% think improved transit is “very” or “somewhat” important). 18 years after Bob Lanier defeated Kathy Whitmire on a platform of spending less on transit, it was the conservative candidate in the mayor’s race — Roy Morales — who proposed building a monorail, and the Republican county judge is the most vocal proponent of commuter rail.

Houstonians want a plan. Zoning is as divisive an issue as ever (and many planning professionals now think the idea of use-based zoning is obsolete), but the idea that different government agencies should coordinate their projects to improve the quality of life is uncontroversial.

Houston today is not Houston in 1991. Policymakers see that the world has changed: development patterns are different, highway funding is limited, new right-of-way is harder to get. The old battles are over, but the new way of doing things isn’t figured out yet.

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