Sunday, January 13, 2008

Houstonians against Houstonians for Responsible Growth

The announcement of the establishment of the Houstonians for Responsible Growth has sparked responses in the Houston Chronicle. First of all, this organization dominates the letters to the editor column today, with five letters opposed and none in favor. One of them is even from a realtor who points out that it's hard to sell someone a house if they feel that next month their neighbor's house could be torn down and replaced by an enormous, lot-eating, sun-blocking condo. The letters are quite scathing. I don't know how the Chronicle chooses letters, but usually they publish letters on both sides of an issue, so I suspect they didn't get many (if any) in favor of HRG.

Second was an editorial on the front page of the Outlook section by Mark Sterling and Sheila Sorvari, who is the founder of advocacy group Save the Bungalows. They swing 180 degrees from HRG, suggesting that the problem with the new regulations that have been recently introduced or that are being considered is that they are too narrow, too patchwork.

Why do we persist in adding more patches to the patches on this regulatory crazy quilt? Why can't Houston act like a grown-up city and do something comprehensive, decisive and future-oriented?
They suggest a single overarching planning law, which would govern permeability.

Permeability, as in the land's ability to absorb water. Water, where it goes and how it flows, is an issue that is at the core of Houston's future.

If the city could immediately help preserve neighborhoods, manage flooding, clean the air, protect the bayous, expand green space and enhance the quality of life (and do it all without spending more money) wouldn't you be an advocate?

Austin, a city with a vision and a plan, has already drawn flood maps for the future and enacted laws to address permeability. Regulation of this type says how much of a lot may be covered with a building or paving and how much must be left open to rain.

Contrast that to Houston, where builders have organized to ensure that the status quo remains, meaning that whoever has the most money builds what they want where they want. What the paving over of Houston will do to flooding, no one can say exactly, but everyone knows it isn't good, just as everyone knows that another Tropical Storm Allison-style storm is inevitable.

Controlling permeability has benefits beyond flood control. It would help the older and historic neighborhoods by encouraging creative ways to save and use existing buildings that have generous yards and smaller footprints.

This strikes me as a smart approach, because the main reason for such a law is public safety--the other benefits are subsidiary but in line with ideas of preservation, parks, etc.

The third piece in the Chron dealt specifically with Houstonians for Responsible Growth. This was Rick Casey's column, ironically headlined Great News: Developers form PAC.

Great news! Houston's major developers are organizing a political action committee to influence City Hall!

As my colleague Mike Snyder reports, it bears the typically generic, feel-good name "Houstonians for Responsible Growth," and it's backed by some of the city's biggest builders.

Why is this good news, you ask?

Because it's a historic development for developers and builders to have to lobby City Hall.

It means they no longer own it.

Houston was founded by real estate developers. The city has, with few exceptions, elected mayors who were either very pro-developer or who were developers.

This is quite an interesting observation. If Casey is right, Houston developers and builders are now just another interest group (albeit a very rich, powerful one).

So what has happened that makes the developers worry?

It isn't a crusading mayor. [. . .]

The major change is not the man at City Hall. It's the people in the neighborhoods.

Houston's political landscape is being transformed by adding a sophisticated urban core. Affluent people with urban sensibilities have been filling the neighborhoods inside Loop 610, an area that had been slowly emptying since 1960.

Many of these people, young professionals and baby-boom couples and families in between, came from other cities and have urban sensibilities that reach farther than their lawns. They are comfortable with laws and regulations that protect them from their neighbors — and their neighbors from them.

[. . .]

So groups in the Heights organize to fight condo builders.

Groups in the Third Ward organize to fight gentrification.

And the entire neighborhood near Rice University organizes to oppose the proposed 23-story Ashby apartment tower.

Others organize to fight billboards, or to block the demolition of historic buildings. TMO has organized to bolster both regulations and funding to fight flooding.

These groups have learned how to put pressure on their elected officials.

That the developers feel the need to organize against them is a sign of their growing power.

Now Casey comes back explaining how developers will override unfavorable local regulation by basically buying legislators from small towns and rural areas.

I'm not worried about the developers. They have too much savvy, power and money to be steamrolled at City Hall.

[. . .]

Austin and Houston have already shown what happens if Texas cities get tough with developers.

The developers get legislators from other cities to help them push through legislation overruling the offenders.

Still, if citizen groups maintain the energy to organize and good leadership at City Hall brings the various groups to the table, compromises can be hammered out to make Houston a better, more workable city.

So maybe my previous pessimistic post is too pessimistic. I hope so.

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