We must MODERNIZE THE CITY’S DEVELOPMENT CODE. It’s confusing, obsolete, re-active; it discourages development, and taxpayers deserve a major overhaul.
“Back in the twenties we built some great neighborhoods, like The Heights and Montrose,” explains prolific inner-city builder Frank Liu, “when the development code was less than a dozen pages. As the code has gotten thicker over the years (now up to 216 pages) , the quality of development in much of the City has declined.”
A close look at the growth of the City versus the suburbs confirms that “Chapter 42,” as our code is called, and related ordinances, are not working. Over the past decade, of 1.8 million new metro-area residents, 92% opted for the suburbs, while the city hardly grew at all. Whether they realize it or not, taxpayers are paying the price for a development code that impedes urban growth. Where are the big, walkable mixed-use projects, the $200-$500 million “town centers” we admire in The Woodlands and Sugar Land? Investors want predictability and flexibility, exactly what the code lacks, leaving the city tax base, hence the taxpayers, at risk. There is a strong message here. A major overhaul is in order.
Zoning is NOT an issue here – the City is in effect over-regulation, impacting just about every aspect of real estate development – from setbacks and lot sizes, to parking, green space, height, detention, and density. We just do a poor job of it. To make matters worse, the rules go well beyond Chapter 42; to include Chapters 9 and 19 (drainage), Chapter 26 (parking), the much criticized Public Works Department’s outdated infrastructure Design Manual. With too many cooks, our codes are poorly organized, difficult to interpret and to administer. There is an eerie contrast between deed-restricted subdivisions frozen in time, and random land uses stigmatizing many unrestrictive parts of the city. Compared to codes in other cities, ours is quite frankly an embarrassment, inappropriate for fourth largest city in the nation.
Mayor Parker recognizes these deficiencies and is supporting important amendments – but the question remains, is this just a temporary fix, or should we be tackling a major overhaul, like El Paso did in 2008, adopting a completely new “smart code,” which has stimulated amazing inner-city growth, even during an economic downturn.
Over the past 20 years, amendments have been mostly re-active; Band-Aids to fix the many complaints stemming from a one-size-fits-all approach, often pitting neighbors against developers in an either/or zero sum contest. Neighborhoods where deed restrictions have lapsed receive little protection. The process for fixing the code is also flawed. Current draft amendments first appeared on my Council Office desk in 2008, four years ago, and not much has changed since. Too often we wade into the “default mode” of regulation - by neighborhood protest or by developer influence. Professional code experts are missing from the discussion, so meetings often end up stalled, sinking to the lowest common denominator. This is no way to manage a growing city.
Our code should be driving smart investments in transit corridors, in emerging urban districts, and in the vast areas of vacant land and industrial brown fields throughout the City. It should be protecting stable neighborhoods (think Ashby Hi-rise!). It should be stimulating revitalization of declining neighborhoods like the Fifth Ward. None of this is happening. Instead, we end up with scattered, disconnected projects and an overburdened infrastructure. This essential wealth-building tool of city government should support a more attractive cityscape, where growth improves, rather than diminishes our quality of life. Yet what most of us see is an increasingly car-dependent city, with a landscape of tree-barren parking lots, unsightly strip malls, billboard and utility pole blight, and conflicting land uses, leaving few attractive places for walking and enjoying urban life. This is far from the walkable, mixed-use urban districts favored by almost half of Harris County residents in Dr. Stephen Klineberg’s most recent “Houston Area Survey.”
This can change if civic leaders would implement a long-overdue, coordinated, comprehensive development code, where all regulations related to the physical development of land, infrastructure and utilities, are re-organized into a user-friendly, illustrated document. It shouldn’t be more than 100 pages, with illustrations. Our new code should:
· Streamline the approval process with clear rules and procedures;
· Protect and stabilize neighborhoods;
· Stimulate revitalization of neighborhoods in decline;
· Promote higher-density development where it makes sense – along transit corridors, on larger vacant tracts like the KBR in the East End.
· Provide for “Special Districts” with customized regulations for unique areas of the city, like downtown core and close-in mixed-use districts, or the old Astroworld , a future Galleria. Special Districts in a city without zoning are essential to counteracting the monotony of one-size-fits-all regulations.
To grow and change successfully, the City needs smart outcomes-driven regulations that will stimulate the urban marketplace, energize the city economy, and expand the city tax base. It can be a powerful tool to build a great modern city – of great neighborhoods, streets and vibrant, walkable mixed-use urban districts. Let’s not let an outdated code hold the city back! It’s time for a new code.
Full Story: Code consternation
Source: Working Towards a Better Houston, August 29, 2012