Sunday, January 24, 2010

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:

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