Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Evolution of Zoning in Houston

There was a discussion of zoning over at Matthew Yglesias's blog, and the discussion turned to Houston and the proposed Ashby at Bissonnet high rise. I was amazed that such a local issue would pop up in a national blog comment area, and responded at length. Here's what I wrote:

paperpusher is correct. In fact, this high rise, which will produce significant negative externalities on some of the wealthiest, most influential people in Houston, may end up being the tipping point into the adaptation of some kind of zoning in Houston.

But the deed restrictions have only become seriously important in Houston in recent years. For most of the last century, developers didn't have to think about deed restrictions because almost all development was greenfields development. Houston sprawled, and developers, aided by the city and state, could make up the rules (including deed restrictions, which used to be hair-raisingly racist) as they went along. Even if Houston had zoning, it wouldn't have affected a lot of development which was done outside the city limits in "municipal utility districts" with the tacit agreement that if the city ran out sewer lines, etc. and developers built subdivisions, Houston would annex them in time. Only interpretations of the voting rights act in the 80s stopped this willy-nilly annexation. (But developers keep building outside Houston in small satellite towns or unincoporated MUDs.)

This sprawl development was made possible by the continued and aggressive freeway building by TxDOT. The wheel and spoke freeways of Houston have been a massive government financed sprawl engine. To add to this institutionalized sprawl, in-town development was made difficult by de facto zoning rules having to do with the number of sewer hookups a property could have. It was next to impossible to build higher density housing in town because of these limitations until the 90s.

But now these rules have been liberalized, and the sheer size of Houston makes it much more attractive for people to live in the inner city, close to work centers. A good thing in general, but without zoning, we see more and more examples of the high-rise that paperpusher mentions above.

While I think every city's urban issues are heavily influenced by a nationwide policy in favor of freeways, each city's own issues are a result of its historical and present development, and the inertia of the past is usually hard to change, even when it is necessary to do so.

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