May 04, 2008
Form and zoning

David Crossley uses the recent Houston Area Survey results on attitudes towards city planning as a starting point for this op-ed about a favorite topic of his, form-based codes.

[T]he question that has stirred debate was "Are you in favor or opposed to zoning in Houston -- that is, citywide control over the uses of the land in different areas?" Fifty-four percent favored this idea, 29 percent did not. Almost twice as many favor zoning as oppose it.

In response to the story on the survey, former Mayor Bob Lanier, a co-founder of the anti-planning, anti-regulation Houstonians for Responsible Growth, sent a letter to the Chronicle worrying about "calls for prescriptive land-use restrictions on every piece of Houston property."

Guess what? We already have those, and have had them since 1982.

Land use is heavily controlled in the city's Code of Ordinances. In fact, scholarly papers suggest Houston has an unusually large number of rules governing development. The biggest is Chapter 42, entitled "Subdivisions, Developments, and Platting." Chapter 42 has the greatly redeeming value of having proved for more than a quarter of a century that it is perfectly legal in Houston, Texas, to use form-based code to control development throughout the city. Before going forward into a discussion of form-based code, just keep in mind that Houston already has it.


A 1999 rewrite of the ordinance divides the city into two zones: urban and suburban. This would be a very good start, except that it then defines "urban" as everything inside Loop 610 and "suburban" is everything outside the Loop. This means that the small suburban neighborhood of Afton Oaks is treated as urban and, just across the Loop, the enormous city of Uptown/Galleria is suburban, even though it has more jobs than downtown San Diego or Miami and 30,000 residents.

So our regulations differentiate between urban and suburban as different geographic areas rather than different forms. But Houston is growing very fast, residential neighborhoods are constantly under siege by residential density increases and commercial surprises, and it's time to fix that problem.

Regardless of those definitions, though, 42 greatly favors suburban-style development. Fabulous urban projects like Post Midtown on West Gray at Bagby required "variances" from the city Planning Commission because many elements of these projects are illegal everywhere in the city (except the central business district, which is an exceptional case of long-term civic wisdom at work).

Almost everyone's common sense said that the 23-story Ashby development is a wonderful project planned for an inappropriate location. Situated in, say, the Binz area at the Museum rail stop, it would be a real improvement to the area, a source of ridership for the substantial investment in transit, and a sustainable use of land. Decent form-based code would have made that obvious and prevented the controversy.

This is a ridiculous, but common, situation with a straightforward solution -- and it's not zoning. Klineberg's question suggests that zoning is the only option for "control over the uses of land." People are grasping at straws when they answer this question in the affirmative. What they want is some rational citywide control over the uses of land.

Instead of zoning, the solution lies in a fundamental redefinition of urban and suburban in Chapter 42 that is simple in concept, followed by a major overhaul of the regulations themselves.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, you've probably read Crossley's longer piece on form-based codes in Houston, which I've linked to a time or two. Obviously, I think there's a lot to recommend this approach, and I hope to see the revisions to Chapter 42 that Crossley references come about. At the very least, I'd like to see more discussion about the possibilities, rather than obsessing about what constitutes "zoning". Let's fix the problems we all agree that we have - I feel confident there's room for common ground here.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 04, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston