Everyone of us can identify with the notion of growing pains… going from the small frame of a child, to one’s body awkwardly adjusting into adulthood. You probably remember the weird fit of your clothes, interesting voice changes, and of course a flood unexplained (and often unreasoned) emotions.
The city of Houston is about to experience some serious growing pains as well. Mayor Annise Parker has set up the latest coucil battle over Chapter 42… the city’s main proposal for density of new development… to take place on April 10th. And a battle it is sure to be.
Currently, Houston is the largest city in the United States of America without any formal zoning code. When a developer comes to the city, they can basically build whatever they want, regardless of what it’s next to, or where it is located. The only way that a particular area can “zone” itself for a certain type of development is to have very clear deed restrictions. If the neighborhood doesn’t have iron clad deed restrictions, then they are left susceptible to situations like Ashby High Rise… where the developers are going to build a 21-story skyscraper in the middle of an area of very old, very WEALTHY old Houston mansions. No zoning means there’s no stopping the developers… no matter how much money or influence the surrounding residents have. Chapter 42 plans to set some guidelines that will regulate future land use.
But what has many residents mad is that Chapter 42 actually encourages more high-density development like Ashby High Rise, and makes it much more expensive to build a single family home. The ordinance amendment is already in effect inside the loop, and most can tell that there are very few single family homes being built in Central Houston… but a TON of new, high-density apartments and townhomes. Under the next phase of the ordinance, the high-density regulation area will be extended to all of Houston between the loop and the Beltway. And that’s what has got current residents up in arms. Many (whom live in detached, single family homes already) don’t want more dense development coming to their area. They want to keep their neighborhood just as it is.
The truth of the matter though? Nothing in Houston is going to stay “as is”… this is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. People will continue to move to Houston for the forseeable future, and when they get here, they will need affordable housing options. In Mayor Parker’s view, the purpose of Chapter 42 is to protect affordable housing within the Central city. But Chapter 42 isn’t doing that as it is… the Houston housing market is on fire right now, and property values have shot through the roof.
Another major problem with this ordinance? It definitely encourages more development, but it’s not encouraging smarter development. With so many of the new townhomes that have sprouted inside the loop, developers get to be too lax with how they meet the city’s “standards” that the current ones are practically useless. Many of the safety codes that Chapter 42 legislates are simply not being enforced. Everyday I pass by unsafe clusters of new townhomes… all built from wood… that couldn’t possibly have enough room for a fire truck if they were to catch fire. The cheap construction materials aren’t being measured against Hurricane force winds, or any sort of predictable fire prevention. The city was very lucky during Hurricane Ike, but what if we were to get some of the damage that happened on our coastal areas? And beyond that, Chapter 42 isn’t aesthetically pleasing either. Homes are littered with unsightly utility meeters, disjunct sidewalks, random utility poles and all of the other quirky issues that occur in Houston’s “Wild West” development culture.
Before Chapter 42 is expanded, it first needs to WORK properly. If the city of Houston cannot establish real zoning ordinances, we better be sure of what we’re getting before we expand half-zoning that doesn’t do as intended. The growing pains of this city are real, but if we really want to solve the issues, we have to take the right pain medicine. And my greatest concern is that Chapter 42 is more placebo than pain killer.