Friday, July 29, 2011

Crowdsourced Zoning - A Uniquely Houstonian Alternative to a Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance

Houston is the biggest city in the US to be without a comprehensive zoning ordinance. For the most part, it has been to our benefit. Other cities have to change their zoning ordinances to allow for mixed-use development. We’ve developed that way naturally. Other cities struggle with a lack of affordable housing. Not Houston. In fact, we were ranked the eleventh most successful city in the world by Atlantic Monthly Magazine, thanks in part to our low cost of living.

Of course there is a down-side to Houston’s lack of zoning. Ugly land-use battles. Developers run rough-shod over the concerns of neighbors. Neighbors rush to oppose unwanted development. City government denies building permits. Developers take the City to court.

Houstonians look at these fights and say “if we had zoning this wouldn’t happen," but we don’t need a comprehensive zoning ordinance to solve Houston’s ugly land-use battles. We could use “crowdsourced zoning.” Instead of putting land use controls in the hands of City government, we could create a system for development that encourages “crowdsourced placemaking” and “crowdsourcing planning”. The system would give average Houstonians a bigger say in what gets built in their neighborhoods, while making things more predictable for developers.

Houston already has elements of crowdsourced zoning in how it enforces deed restrictions. Nonetheless, crowdsourced zoning will require some adjustments on the part of developers, Houstonians, and City Government.

Developers must conquer their fear of NIMBYs, and Reach Out to Neighbors

“NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) protests are constantly in the back of developers’ minds in Houston. Will a bunch of irate neighbors come out at the last minute to derail a project? Will the City listen to the irate neighbors? Is this going to be another Ashby High Rise?

To protect themselves, developers often play their cards close to the vest. But for crowdsourced zoning to work, they need to take the opposite approach. A dialogue should be opened with the neighbors. And for best results, the dialogue should start at the point where developers would normally conduct a zoning study.

Neighbors must go from NIMBY to BTIMBY

My biggest complaint about neighborhood groups in Houston (including my own), is that we aren’t more proactive about development. We sit around and do nothing, until a developer proposes something we don’t like. Then we mobilize and try to kill the project. It’s classic NIMBYism, and even though it’s not always our fault, it needs to be reversed.

Instead of “Not In My Back Yard,” we should say “Build This In My Back Yard.” We need to decide how we want our neighborhoods developed, and we need to express those ideas in a consistent way. We need to do our own, grass roots urban planning. [i] Our plans will help developers understand our concerns. Their decisions can then be informed by what’s best for the neighborhood. We can help attract the right kind of development to our area, while preventing unwanted development.

City Government has to play a different Role

Even though they won’t have the job of enforcing a comprehensive zoning ordinance, City government plays a huge role in this. They’ll create templates for neighborhood planning efforts, meet with civic leaders, and hold workshops to help neighborhoods create their urban plans. They’ll keep a rolodex of neighborhood contacts, and provide it to developers. They ‘ll also provide developers with clear, concise lists of the many rules that Houston already has to regulate development. For the more contentious types of development – high rises, hazardous occupancies, and large residential developments – City government may conduct public hearings. In short, City government will act as go-between for neighborhoods and developers.

The pitfalls are actually benefits

Some claim that crowdsourced zoning will make it impossible for developers to build in Houston. They assume that if you give neighbors the chance to fight development, they will. But Houstonians already have the chance to oppose many types of development – and usually they don’t. In fact, crowdsourced zoning will make it easier to predict which projects will face protests. If developers follow neighborhood urban plans, they should be able to avoid NIMBY protests.

Developers may have difficulty finding neighborhoods that will accept the most undesirable forms of development – landfills and halfway houses, for example. But Houston needs an open, honest discussion of where to put these things – and average Houstonians need to be involved. There are appropriate sites in our City for unwanted, but necessary development.

Such a discussion might be included in a comprehensive zoning ordinance. But a comprehensive zoning ordinance also includes a lot of other bureaucracy. New York’s zoning ordinance is 3,000 pages long. Crowdsourced zoning could solve Houston’s ugly land-use battles, without going to such lengths. And besides, we’d have something uniquely Houstonian.

[i] The size of the urban plans might vary. They should be larger than a single subdivision, because individual subdivisions already usually have urban plans. They could be the size of a Super Neighborhood, or a Management District, or even a City Council District.

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