Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Third Option for the Dynamo - the Plaz Americas Mall

Bellaire Mayor Cindy Siegal is mad. She doesn’t like Midway Development’s alternate plan for a new Dynamo Soccer Stadium. Meanwhile, neighbors in Sharpstown are worried. They fear that the PlazAmericas makeover of the Sharpstown Mall could scare away a lot of non-Hispanic patrons.

I’m always interested in ways to kill two birds with one stone. And these two stories made me wonder – what if the new Dynamo Stadium were built at the PlazAmericas/ Sharpstown Mall?

Traffic would be less worrisome than at the Midway site, because the mall is already designed for it. The Sharpstown Mall always had excellent access to the Southwest Freeway. A few blocks to the south, Boxer Properties runs the Arena Theater, and the concerts do not cause traffic jams on adjacent neighborhood streets. Neighborhood streets are already configured to avoid this.

The costs would be less than either the Downtown and Midway site. The stadium could use much of the existing Sharpstown Mall infrastructure – most notably parking and site drainage. Most of PlazAmerica’s anchors are vacant, so the square footage is there. It would require a reconfiguration of the mall – but that’s still usually less expensive than building everything from the ground up.

Soccer is an international sport, and the Alief-Sharpstown-Gulfton area is Houston’s most international. From a demographic standpoint, it would make sense to put the Dynamo stadium in the middle of it all – at the PlazAmericas mall. And this is to say nothing of the benefits to PlazAmericas. The stadium could buttress the funding that’s already lined up for the makeover of the Sharpstown Mall. Not to mention all the people that will come through the mall on game days.

The PlazAmericas mall would be a better choice for The Dynamo than downtown or Midway’s site in Bellaire. Soccer could be an ace-in-the-hole for the mall. It could be a match made in heaven.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The case for Bikeability in Houston - Why it could be better for us than Walkability.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) recently published a study, “Cities for Cycling,” in which they review emerging best practices for the engineering of roads for bicycles. The goal is to make cities more bicycle friendly, so that people can use bicycles for transit; not just for recreation and exercise.

Urbanists spend a lot of time on walkability, but bikeability is often ignored. That’s a shame for Houston. Walkability is easiest to accomplish in dense urban cores, where travel distances are short. Houston has a handful of those, but most of the city was developed after World War II. Most of our neighborhoods are too spread out for walking. In many Houston neighborhoods, bikeability could be drastically improved with a few small changes – a new path here; a footbridge there; a crosswalk. Compare that to the upheaval of trying to turn suburbs into dense urban cores in order to get walkability.

Houston’s natural features lend themselves to cycling. The City is flat, which makes it easier to cycle. But more importantly, Houston is criss-crossed by bayous. Many of those bayous have become greenways – the longest of which goes for eleven miles. These are in addition to the greenways we’ve built on old railroad rights of way – something most cities have done. Greenways can be to cyclists what highways are to drivers; a fast, direct way from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’. They just need to be properly linked to on-street bikeways and transit centers, so that they are more than just recreational parks.

Houston’s handful of dense neighborhoods should keep working on walkability. It’s the right answer for places like Downtown, Montrose, and Midtown. But for the suburban neighborhoods where most Houstonians live – bikeability is a much more reachable goal.

Ex-Cons in Poor Neighborhoods

Earlier this month, KHOU reported about the proliferation of sex offenders living in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood.

Sunnyside residents are right to be worried. Many of these guys have long histories, and recidivism is a very serious concern. On New Years Day, sex offender Larry Allen Rickets allegedly kidnapped and murdered Becky Hamilton. And sex offenders aren’t the whole story. An Urban Institute Study from 2004 found that a quarter of Houston’s ex-convicts are released to the City’s poorest neighborhoods.

There are many reasons poor neighborhoods absorb ex-cons. Ex-convicts are likely to be poor. They can’t afford higher rents in upscale neighborhoods. Landlords in these places don’t always screen tenants, so there is no protection on that front. Meanwhile, Houston has no limits on where sex offenders and ex-convicts can live (something the residents of Sunnyside are asking for). The only protection is from a 1994 state law that creates 1,000 foot “child safety zones” around places where children congregate – and the situation in Sunnyside suggests it may be too weak.

Unfortunately, it may be an uphill battle for Houston to put its own limits on where ex-cons can live. Miami took this approach, with a 2005 ordinance that prevented sex offenders from living within 2500 feet of a school. But they didn’t follow up with a facility or halfway house to accommodate the offenders. Miami’s sex offenders wound up living under a bridge, with no sanitation or running water. The City was sued.

As Houston moves into the 21st century, this is an issue we must address. We’ve got to move past the “ex-cons have to live somewhere” mentality, and discuss what our options are. Just because a neighborhood is poor doesn’t mean it should be a “dumping field for anything that’s negative.” (as Sunnyside Civic Association President Travis McGee puts it). Surely there’s something we can do.

How to Teach Foreign Students

Normally I don’t write about HISD. I’m not a teacher, or an expert in education. I don’t have kids who go to school. But I lived in France as a seventh grader, and that incensed me to think about this Chronicle Article on Fondren Middle School.

Fondren Middle School is almost guaranteed to fail under the Texas education system. In Texas, a school’s success is measured by test scores. The tests are in English, and English is the second language for many Fondren Middle School students.

It behooves schools like Fondren Middle to do a better job teaching English as a Second Language. It should be a language immersion program. They could give foreign students a ‘free year’ when they first arrive. During their ‘free year’, foreign students take normal courses (in English), as well as intensive English as a Second Language courses. Their grade for this ‘free year’ is based on their grade in the ESL courses. Instead of a normal TAKS test, foreign students in their ‘free year’ are given an ESL test.

The next year, foreign students could repeat the normal courses from their ‘free year.’ In this year, they could be graded on all of their courses. The students could take the TAKS test with other students from this repeated year, and thereafter they could be mainstreamed.

This is, more or less, what the French school system did for me. Granted there was no TAKS test. But it worked marvelously. I went from speaking almost no French, to a comfortable level of fluency by the end of the year. If only there were room in Texas schools to do such a thing.

"Housing First" for the Homeless

Lawyer Harry C. Arthur is suing to shut down The Beacon homeless day center. His timing is unfortunate – people are painting him as a Grinch because the story was released around the Holidays – but Mr. Arthur has a point.

It’s not politically correct to say it, but soup kitchens are horrible for neighborhoods. When the centers are open, they do not accommodate everyone who needs their services; so the homeless congregate outside. When the centers are closed, the homeless disperse into surrounding streets, to “urinate, defecate and drop trash in the street, sidewalks, doorways and other private property,” (as Mr. Arthur put it).

There is an alternative. The New York Times talked about a homeless shelter in Bergen County New Jersey that “has more of the feel of a Courtyard by Marriott than of a homeless shelter.” It is designed to be a one-stop shop for the homeless; where they can get hot meals, medical care, job-placement, laundry, and all of that. But the priority is housing. Before anything else, Bergen County finds permanent homes for its clients. This is the “Housing First” model.

Finding a place to live is a logical starting point to rebuilding a life. It’s difficult to get healthy, or keep a job when you’re worried about where you’ll sleep every night. Without an address you may as well not exist in America. And how can you go to a job interview if you can’t shower and clean your clothes first?

“Housing First” also solves many of the neighborhood problems caused by day centers for the homeless. Because the clients live there, they don’t congregate outside or disperse into surrounding streets. There are beds, toilets, and trash cans that they can use, instead of sidewalks and doorways.

Houston needs the Beacon, but Harry Arthur has a point, too. Maybe the Beacon could use the “Housing First” model– find homes for its clients instead of taking them in for a few hours, and then putting them back on the streets.

NIMBYs and Hypocrites. Magnolia Glen and The Ashby High Rise.

Developers and architects have a word for irate neighbors: they’re called NIMBYs: “Not In My Back Yard”s. Anyone can be labeled a NIMBY. If you think your neighborhood already has too many homeless shelters, you’re a NIMBY. If you don’t want a high rise on your quiet street, you’re a NIMBY.

Hypocrisy is often behind the NIMBY cry. There are a million people who scream for property rights, but how many of them would build a skyscraper on their own street? Would they move their own families next door to a homeless shelter?

Hypocrisy certainly played a big role in the Magnolia Glen Homeless Shelter project. The President of the Houston Housing Corporation lives in Old Braeswood. The Houston Housing Corporation has its headquarters near Greenbriar and Highway 59. But they chose the Eastwood subdivision as a site for the Magnolia Glen.

The Ashby High Rise is not so different. The CEO of Buckhead Investment Partners lives in Southside Place, about a mile from the site of the Ashby High Rise. The President of Buckhead lives a little closer. But the Ashby High Rise will not cast shadows on either of their homes. It won’t add traffic to their streets. Buckhead Investment Partners will reap the profits of the Ashby High Rise, but won’t face the negatives.

Houston is a growing City. Development is inevitable, and if we’re not careful, there will be more fights like the Magnolia Glen and Ashby High Rise. A zoning ordinance is not the answer - there are alternative city ordinances that would be better. But ordinances won’t work without a change in attitude. Developers and architects need to stop crying “NIMBY” and start looking at the valid points raised by neighborhoods.

Apartment Ordinance 2.0

Houston is finally going to do periodic inspections of apartments! This is great news for everyone; not just tenants in apartments.

But as great as this is, it should be considered “Apartment Ordinance 1.0.” The biggest area for improvement is that the ordinance requires the inspection of ALL apartments every four years. Brand new apartments are on the same schedule as older complexes.

I hope the City comes back and writes “Apartment Ordinance 2.0,” so older apartments are inspected more frequently. It could be a graduated schedule, based on a “clock” that starts from the apartments’ original certificate of occupancy:

The first inspection could happen 10 years after the original C of O.

The second, after 15 years.

The third, after 18 years.

The fourth, after 21 years.

The fifth, after 24 years.

After the fifth inspection, the property is inspected every 2 years.

“Apartment Ordinance 2.0” could encourage apartment owners to do the right thing. Owners could reset the clock on a property if they temporarily close the property, and do a gut renovation. They could stop the clock by enrolling the property in HPD’s Blue Star program.

The new inspections are a great thing. Apartments have to meet basic standards of habitability and safety – and now those rules will be enforced! It’s also great that it’s not complaint driven. Apartment owners won’t blame neighbors when their properties are inspected. But as with anything new, there is room for a “Version 2.0”.

Houston Versus Curitiba

I think I’ve finally decided on who to vote for in the Mayoral race. As an architect I was always supposed to vote for Peter Brown – it’s just expected of us. The more I think about it, the more I think I’ll do my duty.

We architects are creative, and creativity can do great things for a City. Consider how architect-mayor Jamie Lerner revolutionized Curitiba Brazil. The first thing he did as mayor in 1972 was to close a downtown road to cars. Businesses fought him at first, until they saw how many new customers it brought in. Subways are all the rage in Brazil, but Curitiba built the world’s first Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT). The city also created green areas and recycling programs decades before they came into vogue. In the 1980s, Curitiba was the “ecological capital of Brazil.”

Houston can’t continue with business as usual. And we can’t just copy things like Smart Growth and New Urbanism. We need solutions that are creative, and uniquely Houstonian. Who better than an architect to come up with this kind of answer? It worked in Curitiba.

Oh yeah, and The New York Times picked up on Houston’s race for Mayor. An interesting read.

What to do with the Gillman Property in Sharpstown

Nancy Sarnoff had two articles yesterday about the Sharpstown Mall. RAIT Financial Trust wants to renovate the mall; and the J.C. Penney Building at the Sharpstown Mall has been sold. I’ve already given my thoughts on the Sharpstown Mall. A gut-renovation would be a great thing, and workable (if it’s done right). But refurbishing the Mall is just one step towards improving the area.

Here’s something else we could do: The City of Houston could buy the Gilman property in Sharpstown, and relocate the Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation to that site. The City could then sell the Center’s current campus, on Allen Parkway in River Oaks.

The City estimates the land on Allen Parkway is worth $26 million[i] - compared with HCAD’s assessment of $7.4 million for the Gillman property. They currently collect taxes on the Gillman property, but only get a $1 a year lease for the Allen Parkway site. If the City traded the two, they’d make $18.6 million from the sale and then increase their tax revenue forever.

The Carnival Night Club tried to build on the Gillman property in 2005, but the effort was derailed by neighborhood concerns. They still own the land, but they can’t do anything with it. If the City bought the property, the night club would be a dead issue. And surely what was good for River Oaks, will be good enough for Sharpstown.

Bill White tried to kick the Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation off Allen Parkway in 2007. He cited the City charter to terminate their lease. Bill White’s scheme didn’t give them an alternative location, and it would have meant the end of the Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation. In this scheme, The Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation could get a brand new campus – paid for by the City. It could be a huge improvement for them: a state of the art facility to replace their old buildings on Allen Parkway.

It would be great to renovate the Sharpstown Mall. But let’s not forget the big, vacant piece of land just down the road. Moving the Center Serving Persons with Mental Retardation to Sharpstown could free up an ideally located piece of land in River Oaks, and could make the City a ton of money - not to mention improving Sharpstown.

Rebuilding Galveston’s Public Housing

According to the Houston Chronicle, Galveston is up in arms over the reconstruction of 569 units of public housing. Of course Galveston should build back 569 low income housing units. But many of the issues surrounding low income housing are lost in the debate. In fact, some major issues are missing from the Redevelopment Plan published by the Housing Authority of Galveston.

Education. “More than 75 percent of the homes [on the Island] sustained damage. After the hurricane, 1,900 students were displaced and did not re-enroll at the Galveston Independent Schools.” (page 10). Surely Galveston’s schools were also damaged by Hurricane Ike, and it is imperative that Galveston rebuild its schools. Education is especially important to low income Islanders. It is key to ending the cycle of poverty. But the Housing Authority’s Plan offers little beyond GED preparation courses.

Transit. According to the Plan, about a third of the tenants of new public housing in Galveston will have incomes less than $19,150. (figure, page 54). Tenants in that income bracket may not have automobiles. They will rely on Island Transit to get around. But there are few provisions for transit in the Plan.

Crime. This is a huge concern in low income and public housing. It could have a whole chapter in the Plan. But the word “crime” appears only five times in 109 pages. The Plan calls for Community Policing, and various programs to mitigate crime. It appears to call for CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design,) but does not include security officers or police patrols.

To be fair, none of these things are directly under the control of the Housing Authority of Galveston. Police patrols are the domain of the Galveston Police Department. The Galveston Independent School District is in charge of rebuilding schools. Island Transit handles transit in Galveston. But partnerships should be included to address crime, education, and transit in Galveston’s low income housing.

Galveston should build back 569 units of safe, quality, low income housing. It should be a model for low income housing nationwide; not the old-fashioned, crime ridden public housing projects that we all know and fear. It looks like this is the goal of the Housing Authority of Galveston’s Redevelopment Plan. But they’re glossing over some key elements.

Learning from New York

History repeats itself.

New York City passed its first zoning ordinance in 1916, after a 30 year long debate. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Equitable Building in lower Manhattan. A 38 story hulk of a building, with 1.2 million square feet on less than an acre of land – the Equitable Building was a lightning rod for criticism. It was a symbol of greedy development: towering over its neighbors; blocking views; casting shadows; turning streets into dark mazes; lowering property values. [i]

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. Houston has debated zoning for years. It was voted down in 1948, again in 1962, and once again in 1993. [ii] The Ashby High Rise is garnering much of the same criticism as the Equitable Building. If we aren’t careful, the fourth try could be a charm for zoning in Houston.

Since 1916, New York City’s zoning ordinance has grown into a beast. At 3,000 pages, it’s larger than the International Building Code.[iii] It’s hard to see any benefits in an ordinance that big. You can’t really argue that zoning by itself made New York great. Much of New York was developed before zoning started in 1916; and the City is surrounded by water and old growth suburbs. And New York’s zoning ordinance doesn’t always prevent fights over development. October 19 saw another lawsuit over the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards Development.

We have the opportunity in Houston to write innovative laws that help maintain the character of neighborhoods, without being a burden to architects and developers. The Ashby High Rise is Houston’s Equitable Building, but that doesn’t mean we should have the same response.

[i] Willis, Carol, Form Follows Finance: Skyscrapers and Skylines in New York and Chicago, Princeton Architectural Press, 1995. Pp. 67-69

[ii] "Houston Says 'No' to Zoning" -

[iii] New York City Zoning Ordinance – Zoning Text:

Why we Shouldn't Fear Gentrification

The word “Gentrification” conjures up all sorts of negative images. Historic houses demolished for Mcmansions. Mom and pop stores replaced by Starbucks. Poor people forced out by rising rents. There’s also the misconception that if neighborhood ‘a’ is gentrified, all the poor people will move to neighborhood ‘b’ – in turn ruining it.

The last complaints have been proven wrong by urban planning professor Lance Freeman and economist Jacob Vigdor. Their research shows that few residents are actually forced from neighborhoods as a result of gentrification. People move away, but not in greater numbers than move from non-gentrifying neighborhoods. [i]

In fact, their research suggested that gentrification can actually make it more likely that people will stay. That’s because gentrification has benefits. Businesses move in – and with them jobs. The tax base increases. Crime decreases. The schools improve. The same forces that attract the rich to a gentrified neighborhood, also encourage the poor to stay.

This should come as no surprise. Look at a neighborhood that has gentrified. You can’t point to another neighborhood and say “that’s where all the poor people went.” But people want to leave bad neighborhoods – and when they can, they do.

Cities are dynamic things. Gentrifying one neighborhood doesn’t mean ruining another. Quite the contrary. Gentrification benefits people in their own neighborhoods. We shouldn’t be afraid of it.

It's not Racist to Care About your Neighborhood

An article in the New York Times made my blood boil. The headline reads “Housing Battle Reveals Post-Katrina Tensions[i] ,” and the article is little more than a two-page accusation of racism against the people of St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans.

Neighbors are often accused of racism when they fight unwanted development. It happened a few months ago here in Houston, when neighbors fought the Harris County Hospital District’s effort to buy Memorial Hermann Southwest. (Never mind that these neighbors have chosen to live in one of the most diverse, ethnic parts of the City).

The accusations are often raised by advocates who didn’t get their way. (In the case of St. Bernard Parish it was David Jarrell, a lawyer for one of the projects’ supporters.) They are a convenient way to ignore the real issues. Low income and public housing has a long and storied history – including such notable failures as the Cabrini Green and Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago. By accusing St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans of racism, Mr. Jarrell doesn’t have to answer to that history.

It was the same with Memorial Hermann Southwest. Neighbors were at first open-minded to the sale. They hoped for improvements in the hospital. But the Harris County Hospital District never promised improvements, and when the doctors threatened to leave, neighbors feared they would lose the hospital altogether. These concerns were brushed aside with accusations of racism.

The residents of Southwest Houston won their battle against a horrible idea. Time will tell in St. Bernard Parish. But please remember two things. First, we all want the same thing – safe, vibrant neighborhoods in which to live and work. It’s wrong to call that racist. Second, those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.


The Savoy Hotel - and Chapter 10 of Houston's Code of Ordinances

The Savoy Hotel is being demolished this weekend, after ten years of neglect. That building was high-profile, but there are many dangerous buildings in Houston. Not all of them are demolished before someone gets hurt. Two children died last summer, crushed by a collapsing staircase at the Westwood Fountains Apartment Complex.

Dangerous buildings are addressed in Chapter 10 of Houston’s Code of Ordinances . Chapter 10 is enforced by the Neighborhood Protection Corps. They bring their cases before the Building and Standards Commission. Unfortunately, $2,000 is the maximum fine for a violation under Chapter 10, and that’s too low to get the attention of big owners.

There were certainly countless fines levied on the Savoy Hotel, adding up to perhaps tens of thousands of dollars. But the owners didn’t react until they saw $1/2 million in demolition fees. Until that endgame, it was cheaper for them to pay the fines than to make their building safe. The owners of the Westwood Fountains Apartments had been fined for several code violations before the staircase collapse. They paid the fines, but never fixed the stairs. It’s the same story all over Houston.

Dangerous buildings should have no place in our City. The Savoy Hotel was demolished before anyone could get hurt. Two children died at the Westwood Fountains Apartment Complex. Let’s increase the maximum fines on dangerous buildings. Make owners take note. Make it cheaper to fix things than to pay the fines.

Don't Believe Everything You Read about Southwest Houston

The Chronicle ran the headline today, “Recent shootings in southwest Houston terrify residents .“

I live in Southwest Houston. I’m not terrified. Of course I live nowhere near the shootings, but you wouldn’t know it to read the Chronicle’s reporting.

Perhaps I should be happy that the Chronicle spelled out “Southwest” in their headline. Often they shorten it to ‘SW.’ Nobody really knows where ‘SW’ Houston starts and stops. At times it has included Uptown and even Montrose . Southwest Houston covers a huge area. A low estimate is that there are nearly 250,000 people living on 53 square miles here. [i]

The geographic size of Southwest Houston exaggerates the crime that does occur here. The temptation is to view Southwest Houston as a single, condensed, crimeridden neighborhood. That misconception could have a terrible effect on this part of the City. If government follows the reporting, then its resources will be spread too thin. Developers don’t want to build in places with bad reputations, so they’ll neglect the area. This is to say nothing of the frustration faced by civic leaders, whose efforts are flushed down the toilet with every ‘SW’ Houston headline.

If only reporters could identify neighborhoods in Southwest Houston. There are maps to use. It shouldn’t be very difficult, and the benefits will be tremendous.

[i]Ludem Document, Population Study: For population and area figures, Southwest Houston is considered the combination of study areas 8 and 9.

Heros for Houston

The New York Times carried an Op-Ed piece a few weeks ago aboutthe “Hero architects”: The New York Five - Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk andRichard Meier. The article came on theheels of the death of Charles Gwathmey, and was a testament to the death of NewYork as a center of avant-garde architecture.

There are lots of reasons for New York’s loss ofarchitectural prominence. Too manybureaucratic controls on building. Toohigh a cost of living for young architects. A hostile climate of criticism and historic preservation. Los Angeles was a much freer place to workand live, and so the next generation of prominent architects - FrankGehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Robert Mangurian, Craig Hodgetts - went there instead.

But that next generation is starting to get old. Frank Gehry, like Michael Graves, keepscranking out the same work. Thom Mayneand all the rest are still writing and their work is still evolving– butthey’re no longer the edgy young architects who grace the cover ofmagazines.

We can start to ask “who next?” We can also start to ask “where next?

Why not Houston? This is perhaps the most affordable of the large, American cities. In the late 1990s, students at Rice were ableto buy a warehouse and start a metal fabrication shop. Metalab has since morphed into anarchitectural studio, for better or worse. One has to ask: could studentsafford their own metal shop in New York, or even Los Angeles? Houston’s real estate prices allow for suchthings.

Houston’s schools of architecture compare favorably to thosein New York and Los Angeles. The RiceSchool of Architecture stands as a premier school of architecture theory. The Gerald D. Hines College of Architectureat the University of Houston offers a first rate education in architecturaldesign. The Texas A&M College ofArchitecture is at the forefront of construction sciences. The Rice Design Alliance and the Houston Mod, among others, are valuable resources for art and architecture.

Granted, there are hurdles facing Houston if it wants to behome to the next generation of “Hero architects.” We are a very free city for building. There is no zoning ordinance here. But architects don’t seem to take advantageof that the way developers do. Too oftenarchitects blindly do what the client wants - no matter how boring. Houstondoesn’t have the same zeitgeist as Seattle. People don’t think ‘Houston’ when they think avant-garde architecture.

But the possibility is still there. Houston is well placed to be a mecca of avantgarde architecture. We can take advantage of the freedoms that come with not having a zoning ordinance. We have top ranked architecture schools, and anaffordable, healthy market that should attract the best architects. Maybe the next generation of “Hero Architects”will be ours.

Why the Smart Code is no Panacea for Houston - And a Workable Alternative

The Smart Code has been proposed in response to the Ashby High Rise as a way to solve Houston’s development problems. Planners like it because it is based on Smart Growth. Developers like it because they assume it would make the City much more predictable in which projects it fights. But while the SmartCode would have helped in the Ashby High Rise case, it would not address the greater problem of development in Houston.

The SmartCode is a form-based code. It differs from traditional zoning because it does not concentrate on land use. Form is the fundamental problem with the Ashby High Rise, so it’s easy to see how the idea came up. But not all development is unwanted because of its form. The Magnolia Glen Homeless shelter would have been acceptable to the SmartCode – despite serious neighborhood concerns. In that case, neighborhood were not about the form of the building, but about its use.

Traditional zoning would be more effective than the SmartCode in situations like the Magnolia Glen, because it governs land use as well as form. But a zoning ordinance is a non-starter in Houston. The absence of zoning has helped make this an affordable place to live and do business, not to mention property rights lobbyists and political opposition to zoning.

Fortunately there is a simple alternative. We could require public hearings for certain types of projects, like high rises, hazardous occupancy buildings, and large residential developments. Non-binding hearings would allow neighbors to speak and be heard, and developers to gage public sentiment on their projects. The City should not decide to issue or deny permits based solely on these hearings, but developers could use them to help decide to go through with projects. If the hearings were held early enough, neighborhood concerns could be taken into consideration during the design process, and developers would face only minimal losses if they backed out.

There is precedent for this kind of hearing. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) holds hearings to help decide who gets tax grants for low income housing. The benefits are numerous. Neighbors feel satisfied that their concerns are heard. Developers are not blindsided by City opposition. If we brought hearings like these to more types of development, fights like the Ashby High Rise and Magnolia Glen could be a thing of the past.