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."
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.
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