I have three things to say about this.
The go-ahead for the Ashby high rise has left me feeling really depressed. If affluent residents with all their political and social connections can’t keep a 21-story skyscraper out of their bucolic neighborhood, what hope is there for the rest of us?
When Mayor “I’m against the project, but I can’t do anything about it” Parker touts lopping two stories off and instituting a shuttle service that few people will likely use as some sort of neighborhood victory, you know it’s time to talk about the “Z” word.
The fact of the matter is that Houstonians have virtually no tools to stop developments that promise to irrevocably alter the character of a neighborhood. As my CultureMap colleague Katie Oxford has written, why do developers build such projects in the face of overwhelming neighborhood opposition?
Because they can.
[...many examples of development projects that neighborhoods don't like...]
I realize that critics will carp that those opposing such projects are elitists with a “Not in My Backyard” mentality. However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fighting to preserve the character and integrity of Houston neighborhoods and asking for an orderly process of notification and neighborhood input before construction commences.
One thing seems clear: This messy patchwork of limited protections doesn’t seem to be working well. That’s why I think it’s time to talk about land use and — yes —zoning.
Otherwise it will only get worse.
1. I don’t know how you can discuss having a conversation about the Z word without at least mentioning the C word – “charter”. Zoning is forbidden by the city’s charter, so unless you’re also talking about organizing an effort to repeal that charter amendment, the discussion you want to have is strictly academic.
2. More basically, if you want to have a conversation about zoning, the first thing you really need to do is define exactly what zoning is. I say this because “zoning” is a shibboleth, used primarily as a code word for “horrible government overreach that destroys cities”. Just look at the comments in this article to see what I mean. On the flip side, since author Pugh never talks about what zoning is or what a zoning ordinance might do to deal with the problems he identifies, it’s also code for “magic government powers that can prevent whatever awful development I don’t like from being approved”. It’s kind of hard to have a productive discussion starting with those premises.
3. Beyond all that, there are plenty of options that aren’t zoning to give neighborhoods the ability to push back on development they object to, including things like minimum lot sizes, setback requirements, and form-based codes. The city is still working on its revamp of Chapter 42, which governs a lot of these things. Perhaps a better use of one’s time would be to catch oneself up on these things, and get involved in that process. At least it won’t require a charter amendment to get it done.