January 13, 2008
Pity the poor developers

This article, about the new developers' PAC in Houston, is fascinating on many levels.

Over lunch with Mayor Bill White on Monday, former Mayor Bob Lanier laid out his concerns that new regulations on real estate development threaten the city's favorable business climate and low housing prices. White insisted his administration is simply taking modest steps in response to changing local development patterns.

As the two men chatted over their meals, real estate interests backed by Lanier were working behind the scenes to push back against perceived threats to Houston's unconstrained growth model -- by persuading local officials or electing new ones.

"Occasionally, we need to remind ourselves that our favorable regulatory environment is worth keeping," said Kendall Miller, a shopping-center owner and one of the organizers of Houstonians for Responsible Growth.

Last week, the organization registered its political action committee with the Texas Ethics Commission, empowering it to spend money on local or state campaigns.

It previously had raised about $800,000 for organizational costs but hasn't started serious political fundraising yet, said Ken Hoagland, a consultant working with the group.

With the support of Lanier, construction executive Leo Linbeck Jr. and other influential business leaders, the group is distributing literature and bringing in speakers to spread its message that government land-use planning is an exercise in folly.

Its leaders are horrified by visions of a Houston where a bloated planning bureaucracy raises development costs so much that middle-class families can't afford to buy a house.

But neighborhood groups and others pushing for more regulation are similarly horrified by their vision of a city where unfettered development strangles quiet neighborhoods with traffic congestion, obliterates historic properties and green space and aggravates flooding.

Both sides need to calm down a bit, White said last week.

As central Houston grows denser, the mayor said, it's not surprising to see increased tension between neighborhood and development interests.

"We try to strike a fair balance in this administration," White said.

"We need to strive for the right mix of continuity and change."


"I think they're worried about what happens when White's gone," said Jon Taylor, a political science professor at the University of St. Thomas. "Who is the establishment candidate for '09?"

Taylor and Richard Murray, a University of Houston political scientist, noted that two officials considering running for mayor in 2009 are Councilman Peter Brown and City Controller Annise Parker. Both are strong neighborhood advocates who might go further than White in limiting the impact of new development on established communities.


Murray, the UH political scientist, said he believes a referendum on zoning -- the last such election failed in 1993 -- would pass in Houston today.

The emergence of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, Murray said, may indicate developers realize they can no longer assume, as they did during Lanier's era, that their views will prevail at City Hall.

"The middle-class reaction against unfettered development is pretty strong," Murray said. "These guys (developers) aren't going to have the playing field to themselves any more."

Rick Casey echoed that theme of the good ol' days being over for these guys in his column. A more comprehensive summary of the neighborhood associations' viewpoint is in this op-ed by Sheila Sorvari and Mark Sterling. From where I sit, the main source of the conflict here is that a fair number of us folks who live in the urban core - broadly speaking, inside Loop 610, but that's expanding outwards these days - want an urban core that looks and feels urban. We don't want the suburbs imported into the city, especially as an opportunistic response to increasing property values.

What do I mean by that? I see three aspects to it.

1. We want development that's appropriate for its area. That means density with density, which is why the Midtown CVS caused a fuss when it was built with a suburban-style parking lot. That means proper scale, which is not only the issue with the Ashby Tower, but also with a lot of three-story townhomes being plopped down next to 1200-square-foot bungalows. Developers don't care about this kind of thing, but neighborhoods do. Moreover, the neighborhoods that are fighting back are now largely populated with middle class and up folks who own their homes and intend to stay where they are. Twenty years ago, there was a lot more rental housing, and a lot of these same neighborhoods were on a downward slope. It really shouldn't be a surprise that the good old days are gone for the developers.

2. We value our uniqueness, and we aim to preserve it. What is it that an old neighborhood has that a new development cannot replicate? In a word, history. We like our older buildings. We like our little local retail outlets and eateries. We like pointing them out to visitors and saying that's why we live where we do. Put simply, if we'd wanted to live in a master planned development of same-style houses and franchise-and-chain strip centers, we'd have bought our houses in one of those places instead. We didn't, and we get a little touchy about that kind of thing coming to where we did choose to live.

This doesn't mean that we reject national chains or franchised food. Most of us are still happy to have and to patronize those places. We're even happy to have them in our neighborhoods, as long as they're not being built on the ashes of someplace unique and irreplaceable. We want them as additional options to what we have, not as replacements for them. Again, I don't think this is too hard to understand, but again, it's something developers just don't care about.

3. We don't want to be adversely affected by new development. We don't want to wake up one day to find out that we can't park in front of our own homes any more. We worry that the construction of 20 townhomes on what used to be 10 lots will be too great a burden for the storm drains. We care about green space, especially those of us with kids who need something cheap to do with them on weekends. Need I mention again that developers, at least those who are building in the urban core, don't care about any of this? They're more than happy to have the government build roads for them out in undeveloped areas where they can speculate, but they squeal like stuck pigs when it's suggested that maybe they need to contribute to infrastructure upkeep in established areas.

Does this make sense? It's not just that there's more people living in the inner core, it's that there's more people there who have a real stake in it, both financial and personal. These developers and their astroturf group have a bigger fight on their hands than they may think.

One more thing:

Even without the development controversy, Murray said, most leaders of Houstonians for Responsible Growth are conservative Republicans unlikely to support White, a former state Democratic Party chairman, in a partisan campaign for governor or the Senate. City elections are officially nonpartisan.

But White could pay a political price for a continued public disagreement with Lanier, Taylor said.

"Bill White has got to be careful, going up against a guy who's just as popular as he is," Taylor said.

At the risk of disrespecting our former Mayor, I don't think the name Bob Lanier carries quite the weight Murray is assigning it. Lanier hasn't been Mayor for over a decade now. I'd venture to guess there's an awful lot of people here now who have little to no memory of his time in office, either because they were too young or because they weren't here for it. (Going by Census data, there's something like a half-million more people here now than were here when Lanier was elected Mayor in 1991.) And even for those of us who do remember him, the reason he was broadly popular is that he pursued policies that were broadly popular. If he starts speaking out for things that people don't like, I don't think his 1997-vintage approval ratings will help him much. I say Mayor White has nothing to fear as long as he's on the right side of this issue.

To wrap up, and to illustrate my points here, I note that the letters to the editor today contained five missives regarding the "Houstonians for Responsible Growth" story. Not a single one favored the developers. Perhaps the Chron is just running a delayed point/counterpoint (we'll know tomorrow), but I'd bet that's more in line with actual public opinion than not. And if so, these developers better start thinking about Plan B.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 13, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston

These sorts of sentiments about development are not limited to Inner Loopers. We suburbanites want the places where we live to be more live Small Town America, rather than Kandahar airport. We like having our houses and yards as they are, but we don't want to feel like we live surrounded by Big Box Retail. The much-hated CVS is hated out here, too.

Posted by: Peter Wang on January 13, 2008 9:02 PM

As far as Ashby goes, I think the city should be consistent in their NIMBY policy. Seemed like they didn't pay any attention until it happened in Southampton. FYI, I live in the area.

Concerning the developer rules, it's no surprise Lanier came out on their side. I'm all for what White is doing. Unfortunately, it's too little, too late.

I'm still for anything that inconveniences the leeches.

Posted by: Vernon Guy on January 13, 2008 10:33 PM

I don't think Lanier cares either way and the developer PAC is just proping him up in a wheelchair and wheeling him around so to speak.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on January 13, 2008 11:16 PM

Zoning by ordinance is still zoning. And the City Charter doesn't allow it.

Pitting two powerful sides against the other probably will result only in a court battle if the developers of 1717 Bisonnet decide to fight what obviously is still focused on them alone.

No zoning means no zoning. It has nothing to do with who is mayor or was mayor or might be mayor. It has to do with the City Charter.

The "big boys" who convinced Bill White to back them to try to block 1717 Bissonet may have put Bill White and themselves into the proverbial corner.

Bob Lanier is not someone to mess with. And obviously he is going to back developers. But he is also respectful of the will of the voters. Which Bill White is not.

Zoning needs to be put back to the voters. Richard Murray may be proven right. Or he may be proven wrong.

Posted by: Baby Snooks on January 14, 2008 3:09 AM

Plan B, of course, will be development that respects existing neighborhoods and is in line with whatever regulations might be put in place. That means Houston developers will be stuck in the same boat as developers who've made tons of money in New York, Washingon, Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle...

For all the warnings of Houston becoming the Soviet Union is you're not allowed to bulldoze a neighborhood, it's worth remembering that whatever Houston comes up with is likely to be far less burdensome than the rules in other American cities. When I read these dramatic analogies, I wonder if they realize that we have other models to compare against.

Posted by: John on January 14, 2008 6:18 AM

Let's vote on zoning again! I am open to various proposals - but it's been 15 years now since the last vote - it's about time to get something on the ballot that can move us past one-off regulations.

Posted by: Mike on January 14, 2008 9:48 AM

Interesting discussion. Reminds me the 2007 Houston Transportation and Mobility Conference where we had speakers from Sugar Land and The Woodlands speaking on urban development. After attending their presentation Peter Brown expressed that 'this type of development is what we are trying to do in Houston' or something similar. Easy to define the us vs. them but harder to define is what "us" want. We want to live in a nice historic neighborhood, we don't want a three story town home next to us. But that is until it is time to sell our property and make some nice "revenue" eventhought the person buying it might just be the one building the three story town home.
The discussion changes depending on the point of view, and there are many of them.
Personally there are many regulations/ordinances that the city is passing that makes Houston less friendly and more expensive. And some of them with the idea that we want to look like the European dense cities. The good thing is that in a global economy people have choices on where to live, some prefere living in The Woodlands and Sugar Land and commute to Houston. It does not mean the quality of life in those communities is lower than Houston, just that people are free to make choices.
Currently I am trying to get some sense in the city's new ordinance chapter 19-43 that has decreased the value of thousands of homes located in/by the 100-year flood plain by 90%, less I am wrong (I hope I am).

Posted by: Gonzalo Camacho on January 14, 2008 10:20 AM