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An outsider’s view of the Ashby Highrise

From Governing.com. It contains the Z word, so you might want to shield the eyes of innocent children and Joel Kotkin.

Sue me!

Whatever views one may hold about a city without zoning, it’s hard to deny that Houston has done pretty well for itself over the past generation or so. Its population has grown faster than that of almost any other American city. Its unemployment rate is among the lowest. It continues to attract new businesses no matter what slogan it chooses to adopt for itself. And a growing number of scholars, notably the urbanologist Edward Glaeser, have argued that Houston has done well precisely because it imposes so few restrictions on development.

But will a developmental free-for-all bring Houston the same heady results in the coming decades that it brought in the preceding ones? Or is it, at long last, time to impose a little more order on the unwieldy metropolis? Those are questions that Houston’s development community has spent the past couple of years trying to puzzle out, as it has negotiated the twists and turns of a legal event known to just about everybody as the Ashby case.

[...]

At a minimum, a comprehensive zoning code would dramatically revalue properties all over the city, amounting to a substantial redistribution of private wealth. No elected city leader, not even an outspokenly progressive one like [Mayor Annise] Parker, is going to advocate that.

But neither would it be correct to suggest that free-for-all development will proceed in the future as it did in pre-Ashby times. A precedent for awarding nuisance damages has been set, assuming it is not reversed on appeal. The concessions offered by the Ashby developers over the past seven years seem certain to place pressure on others building where there is significant local opposition. The city government, while backing away from zoning, will be asked to impose new regulations on future projects. One such rule, allowing neighborhood groups to apply for minimum lot size restrictions, has already become law.

But the most interesting question emerging from the case may be whether it will lead to more large infill projects in the central areas of the city. On the one hand, the court and the city government have made it clear that Houston’s build-it-anywhere legal structure will remain more or less intact. On the other hand, the sheer amount of time and effort required of the developers on the Ashby project may send a signal that it remains easier and cheaper to build in the exurbs where they do not have to deal with entrenched community feeling.

Or, still another possibility — developers might draw the lesson that there is plenty of useful work to do in creating urban density, but they have to go about it in a more sensitive and appropriate way than they did on Ashby. That might be the best outcome of all.

One must always be careful to distinguish between the city of Houston, which has grown modestly over the past decade or so, and the greater Houston area, which has grown like gangbusters. Much of that growth in places that aren’t Houston proper has been in empty, generally unincorporated areas. Those places don’t have zoning either, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that the widespread availability of undeveloped land in close proximity to a major urban center is at least as big a factor in the Houston area’s growth as the presence or absence of any municipal codes. San Francisco may be a Kotkinesque nightmare, but I’m pretty sure that if a few hundred square miles of empty turf within commuting distance of the Bay Area were to suddenly materialize, developers would trip over each other rushing out there to buy it up for whatever pieces of cul-de-sac heaven they could build. Anyway, I posted this mostly to provide a recap for anyone who needs to be caught up on the topic, and also because I like the author’s vision of an ideal outcome. These things never happen, of course, but it’s nice to think about once in awhile.

Finally, as an aside and because I don’t feel like writing a separate post for this, the plaintiffs in the Ashby lawsuit – you know, the guys who won the judgment against the developers – have now filed an appeal as well; the developers filed their motion to appeal a couple of weeks ago. They weren’t satisfied with just the money, they don’t want it to be built, which the judge refused to forbid. So we’ll get to litigate this all over again soon enough.

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