Sunday, January 24, 2010

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.

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