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.