To Zone or Not to Zone?
By Peter H. Brown (Pedestrian Pete)
To plan or not to plan? Yes, say most!
To zone or not to zone? No, Yes, Maybe, say many!
Irked by traffic congestion, air pollution, flooding, and neighborhood blight, Houstonians support planning big time – the more the better. When it comes to zoning, most neighborhood and civic clubs are in favor, yet some private interests are vehemently against, others fear the unknown. Anti-zoning folks talk about corruption, “government” controls, violations of individual property rights, added layers of bureaucracy and skyrocketing costs of building permits. Politically connected real estate developers freak out at any mention of zoning, and threaten retribution. They say it will “kill” the Houston economy.
The civic groups who favor stronger development controls (zoning and planning) await relief from the disjointed, hodge-podge helter-skelter development patterns which have dismantled neighborhoods. They lament an unplanned city plagued by ugliness, blight, land use clashes, deflated property values, traffic congestion, and flooding? Free-for-all development is like an urban cancer, they say.
Pete says, “Planning without development controls (some form of zoning) is like a car running on empty – it won’t get you very far!”
Yet if you are originally from somewhere else, say Dallas, Beaumont or even Jersey Village, your hometown has been zoned (happily) for decades. So what’s the big deal here, where any candidate for elective office who utters the “Z-word” is DOA!
Why Zoning, Pedestrian Pete?
The answer here is simple: Because we need smart urban planning to achieve of a more livable and walkable city. Without the use of zoning powers, urban planning, which facilitates walkable places and districts, just won’t happen in any meaningful way.
Pete says, “failing to plan is planning to fail!”
If Zoning Works in Other Cities, Why Not in Houston?
Pete is sorry to say that the likely answer is: local insider politics. Even though many residents appear to favor zoning, this is a real estate developers’ territory. Unlike Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, in Houston, anti-planning insiders, connected to City Hall via generous campaign contributions, hold sway. Houston is a developers’ town! Neighborhoods, overwhelmed by real estate interests, are paid lip service, but behind closed doors, “developers rule.” This is an unspoken Houston way, and Pedestrian Pete knows, he was an insider once (Houston City Council, 2024-2010).
Who Has Raised the Zoning Question in Houston Now?
It stems from several recently publicized events:
- Warehouse explosion in Spring Branch: After the drastic chemical warehouse explosion, adjacent to a stable residential neighborhood, distressed neighbors asked, “How could the city allow toxic explosive chemicals in our residential neighborhood? Why don’t we have some kind of zoning to prevent this?”
- Mayor Turner’s public concern about human trafficking: Without zoning, it is impossible to control all sorts of unregulated and crime-breeding enterprises scattered around the city. It’s sex shops, modeling studios, and cantinas where “human trafficking” thrives; it’s crooked gaming parlors, dope dens and hot sheet motels. Policing these scattered high-crime activities is very costly and they destroy property values and our tax base.
- Torrential flooding: Chaotic development patterns, paving in the wrong places, has made effective flood control impossible!
Pete says, “we need to crack down on incompatible land uses and urban blight that depreciates property values and makes our streets unsafe and unwalkable.”
Is It Too Late For Some Form of Zoning in the City of Houston?
Many say “yes,” but probably not, given the positive experiences of other metro region zoned cities, including Spring Branch, West University, Stafford, Missouri City, Pearland, Sugar Land, League City, Jersey Village, the Memorial “villages,” Baytown and many others.
In 1993, Baytown — struggling for decades with unattractive development and pollution from petro-chemical plants, as well as a lack of planning — adopted a city-wide zoning and comprehensive development plan, both proven successful and popular. Recently, the city adopted an innovative Unified Land Development Code and master plan update, which promotes compatible mixed uses and walkable urbanism.
The most recent of the three zoning referendums held in Houston was in 1993. It was a bloody battle, which failed by a small margin as fearful real estate developers raised millions to insure its defeat. Billboards in African-American neighborhoods claimed zoning will cause segregation and close down Black businesses. Neighborhood and civic organizations fought hard for planning and zoning to clean up the city’s land use mess and to protect their home values, neighborhood integrity, and a threatened quality of life. The large Black vote was largely responsible for the referendum’s defeat.
Today, all U.S. cities with populations over 100,000 people have zoning and land development plans in place, except Houston, Texas. The goal here evolved into a more harmonious blend of uses, first to protect property values, and equally important how to best manage traffic circulation, drainage, utility systems, and growth in general.
Zoning is an “American institution,” originally devised in the 1930’s to protect residents and businesses from detrimental and blighting land uses, particularly noxious industrial operations, with their spewing smells, pollution, and noise. Old-fashioned, conventional zoning, has now fallen into disfavor because it “segregated” different uses, such as residential, apartments, commercial, making travel by private car about the only way to get there, and leads to character-less “suburban sprawl.”
In the 21st century, the trend in American urbanism — especially in more in-town areas — is “mixed use,” where say residential/commercial/office are contained within the same district or development plan. An important outcome here is “pedestrian zones,” where because of the proximity of home, work, shopping and leisure, there is an upshot of street life, walkability and overall livability, especially for the Millennial crowd.
More and more cities, like Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso, are adopting modern “form-based zoning codes” which shape and blend attractive urban form, rather than rigidly controlling distinct land uses. This approach clearly stimulates economic development and a growing tax base.
What are the advantages/disadvantages of a planned/zoned city?
- Adoption of a comprehensive land development plan, to protect neighborhoods and commercial centers, to stimulate and to guide future growth.
- A means to control blight, land use clashes, flooding and traffic congestion.
- Relates development impacts to the capacity of streets, transit, utility systems, and drainage.
- Promotes and protects stable property values and neighborhood integrity, including historic areas.
- Promotes walkable urbanism, and exciting urban street life.
- Provides the basis for a more efficient and sustainable city.
- Interferes with the city’s “free-market” approach to economic development.
- Could lead to expansion of an unwieldy bureaucracy.
- Could lead to municipal corruption and cronyism.
- Could lead to infringement of individual property rights.
Note: The claim that zoning will “kill the Houston economy” is completely fictitious. Just look at Austin and San Antonio!
Pedestrian Pete believes that the arguments against effective planning/zoning reflect the fears of some influential real estate developers, intent on squeezing every ounce of profit out of the land, regardless of the impact on our quality of life. This is no way to build a city. We must find a better way!
“Let’s look at adopting a modern smart code,” says Pedestrian Pete, “it will lead to a more walkable and livable city.”
by Guest Author