September 30, 2007
High rises and the Z word

Apparently the recent uproar over the Bissonnet high rise has led to some talk involving a certain forbidden word in Houston.

"We're not going to have zoning," City Controller Annise Parker said flatly. "But we need to realistically look at what we owe the neighborhoods."

Arguments about development are hardly unusual in Houston, but the issue took on a new dimension last week when Mayor Bill White intervened in a dispute over a planned 23-story mixed-use project on Bissonnet at Ashby, adjoining the affluent Southampton and Boulevard Oaks neighborhoods.

The mayor, in a letter to civic club leaders displayed prominently on the city's Web site, promised to use "any appropriate power under law to alter the proposed project as currently planned."

State Sen. Rodney Ellis and state Rep. Ellen Cohen, both Houston Democrats who represent the affected neighborhoods, joined the chorus against the project Friday, calling on White and the City Council to "do everything in their power to stop this development." They said the high-rise would aggravate traffic problems and imperil drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.

City officials, however, have not identified any city regulations that the project would violate. Andy Icken, a deputy public works director, said the city would try to negotiate with the developers, but he didn't rule out taking other steps such as invoking a rarely-used state law to impose a temporary moratorium on development of the site.


City Councilman Peter Brown, an architect and planner, has argued that Houston should adopt a form-based development code that doesn't regulate uses but ensures that the mass and scale of new development is appropriate to its surroundings.

The Bissonnet high-rise, Brown said, is a glaring example of out-of-scale development.

The project "would literally dwarf the surrounding homes in Southampton," said Brown, who lives in the neighborhood. "The city simply lacks the basic development standards to protect our neighborhoods and property values."

Increasingly, urban leaders are seeing the benefits of a form-based planning approach as they find that conventional zoning -- which separates cities into discrete sections for residential, commercial and industrial land uses -- is unduly restrictive, said John Maximuk, chairman of the American Planning Association's urban design and preservation committee.

I'm not sure what "form-based planning" means in practical terms, nor do I know if it has any more political viability than zoning did in 1993 or would have now. I'm not even convinced yet that something is likely to happen beyond more talk. But I do think that the talk isn't going anywhere, and that there seems to be a much broader consensus now that neighborhoods need some real tools to maintain some control over their destinies. I don't think we're anywhere close to an agreement about what should be done, assuming something does eventually get done. We haven't really heard from the ideologically anti-planning forces yet, nor has the developer community weighed in. Until we do, it's hard to say how this plays out.

In the meantime, here's the neighborhood argument for taking action.

Their proposed high-rise begs these questions: While it may be legal for a developer to ruin neighborhoods to make a buck, should it be? Or, should there at least be a thoughtful review of such proposed activities?

Smoking is legal, but as a community, we have chosen to exert some control over where a person is free to smoke. Isn't it time Houstonians care about our city's quality of life as much as we care about the quality of the air we breathe in public places?

Unless we as a community -- and I do not mean just those of us homeowners currently affected -- act to establish some order and planning to such unbridled growth, our city will become better known for its monuments of greed than its social responsibility and sense of caring.

This is the tip of an iceberg that will continue to impact all of us within the city of Houston.

It's hard to identify a neighborhood within Houston that is not dealing with issues similar to the one faced by the Museum District neighborhoods of Southampton, Boulevard Oaks and Broadacres.

In this mix of unregulated development and a proliferation of developers without concerns about the impact of their actions, we are witnessing the destruction of our neighborhoods and the diminution of our quality of life.

I figure we'll see a counterpoint in the next few days, perhaps from the high rise developers, perhaps from someone with a broader perspective. Stay tuned.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 30, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston

As far as I'm concerned, the first thing a development plan or zoning or whatever has to demonstrate to me is simple:

How will this system prevent rich, politically-connected developers from getting changes made in their favor, when a smaller, less-connected homeowner or developer could not get similar changes made?

It does no good to prohibit development if a developer can just apply some campaign funds and call in some favors and get his way. And that's what happens around the country.

I'd rather have a system where anybody can do anything they want than a system where only the rich and cloutful can do anything they want.

Posted by: Greg Morrow on October 1, 2007 12:14 PM

Form-based code is what we already have in the City of Houston. It's just lousy code. The trick is to fix it to do the jobs we need done. No voting necessary. It's already legal and in use. I've written a blog about it today at
Thanks for doing this blog to help get people talking.

Posted by: David Crossley on October 1, 2007 1:00 PM