Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Zoning, and the Houston Preservation Ordinance

Chronicle blogger Tori Gattis had an excellent article today – about zoning, and the proposed revisions to Houston’s preservation ordinance. I had originally written this as a response to his blog, but it took on a life of its own.

Whenever there's a fight over development, someone always chimes in with "if we had zoning, this wouldn’t happen.” They’re wrong, but it’s easy to see why they pine for zoning. Houston has relatively few controls on building. Developers can pretty much build whatever they want, wherever they want, with no consideration of their surroundings or the future. Neighbors who don't like it, are told to leave. It contributes to urban sprawl, it creates urban blight, it's the opposite of green, and it leads to land-use battles that frustrate both developers and neighborhoods.

When you're talking about zoning, you're not really talking about the rights of the community versus the rights of an individual. You're talking about the power of Government over the rights of both the individual and the community. A handful of planners writes a zoning ordinance, and everyone else has to live by it. Neighborhoods (communities) don't really get to decide what's right for them, any more than individuals are allowed freedom over their own property.

As an architect and a Super Neighborhood President, I’ve suggested an alternative legal approach to zoning that would affect high-rises, large residential developments, and hazardous occupancy buildings. But what we really need is cooperation on all types of development. Developers can cooperate by using common sense, studying their surroundings, thinking long term, and talking to neighborhood groups. Neighborhood groups can cooperate with their own planning, and working out their own needs and concerns. They can communicate these concerns in a consistent way - instead of blindsiding developers with last minute protests. This would really be a community based way of developing - zoning would only get in the way of it.

Where does Historic Preservation fall into it? In an ideal world we wouldn’t need an ordinance to enforce . Again, cooperation could take the place of an ordinance. When a historically significant property goes on the market, preservationists could research the property and give that research to the realtor. The realtors could use that research to get buyers who are interested in preserving the property. The City’s preservation ordinance I think respects this – at least, it wouldn’t get in the way of it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Learning from our Mistakes - the Fifth Anniversary of "The Big Heart"

Whenever we hear about mistakes and Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans take the spotlight. Poorly built levies that failed. Buses that could have been used to evacuate, but weren’t. ‘Refuges of last resort’ that were never equipped to serve as such. Hospitals that were left to fend for themselves.

Houston comes through in a positive light. We got the nickname “The Big Heart,” for our compassion after the storm. It’s true that we Houstonians opened our arms to New Orleanians when other cities wouldn’t. But there were some very serious mistakes here, too:

- There was a lack of long-term services for evacuees. They got counseling at the Astrodome – along with other services . But they were soon rushed to far-flung apartments, and the services went elsewhere. It would have been better if the evacuees had gotten help like job placement and grief counseling on-site in the apartments.

- There was inadequate policing to handle the evacuees in the long term. HPD should have hired officers from New Orleans to come and join the force. Those officers could have given valuable insight into the gangs and crime patterns that were prevalent in New Orleans before the storm; not to mention adding to HPD’s manpower. To their credit, HPD wanted more officers after the storm; but they didn’t have the money to do it.

- Housing was poorly administered. The goal was to put as many people into apartments as quickly as possible, and for the most part that goal was met. But in the rush, important things were missed:

o There were no guidelines for habitability, safety, or security in apartments that welcomed evacuees. Evacuees moved into some pretty squalid complexes.

o They didn’t screen evacuees. It was too easy for criminals to move in and wreak havoc. Some apartments faced mounting crime, and it was (sometimes rightly) blamed on the evacuees.

o FEMA checks didn’t always come on time. The program kept changing. It led to uncertainty on the part of landlords and evacuee tenants – and fueled tensions.

These mistakes were amplified by the scale of what happened. 250,000 people came to our City over a matter of days. Our City grew by 10% within a week. Neighborhoods changed – many for the worse. People talk about the mistakes in New Orleans after Katrina. But we should also learn from the mistakes that were made here in Houston.