Houston, We Have A Plan

Houston, We Have A Plan

Long notorious for its lack of zoning and sprawling, developer-driven, leapfrog growth patterns, America’s fourth largest city is on the cusp of adopting its first General Plan. Florence Tang speaks with the advocates, planners, and politicians who are seeking to make Houston a sustainable metropolis where anyone can prosper and feel at home.

Houston is famously, or notoriously, known as the largest city in America without zoning. It covers roughly 630 square miles. To put that in perspective, Houston could accommodate within its limits Washington, DC, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Boston, Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, Miami, and San Francisco combined. As of the 2010 census, the city had a population of about 2.1 million with a metro area totaling 5.95 million. In the next 20 years, a million more residents are expected to call the Bayou City home. 

In the past, Houston has managed such projected growth by expanding its hub-and-spoke freeway system and sprawling out across the vast coastal plain on which it sits. Now, however, a convergence of political forces, an urban planner from Harvard, a newly installed city planning director, the united voices of citizens, leaders, and groups across jurisdictional lines, and a tenacious campaign lasting more than a decade from one non-profit board is producing a road map for sustainable growth and development.

In September 2014, Mayor Annise Parker directed the planning commission to create Houston’s first General Plan. “Houston is constantly changing and growing. We have to have a better way to plan for that growth,” said Parker in a statement. “A general plan will allow us to better coordinate our resources, create opportunities for innovative partnerships, and provide a path to achieving our goals.”

Blueprint Houston and the General Plan

Mayor Parker’s announcement marked a major milestone in the decade-long journey that Blueprint Houston, a nonprofit organization formed in 2002, has spent advocating for a plan. “We have tried to be the squeaky wheel in the face of mayors,” said Joe Webb, an architect and chairman of Blueprint since 2010.

Among other efforts, Blueprint raised $120,000 to hire an experienced planner to advise the city in how to develop the plan, scopes, budgets, and timelines. “The city, having never done this before, had no concept of resources,” said Webb. The City of Houston pitched in $10,000 to hire the consultant.

Blueprint hired Peter Park—the urban planner, professor, former Loeb Fellow, and visiting critic at Harvard’s GSD, former planning director of Milwaukee and Denver, and director of his own planning practice—to work as a consultant to the City of Houston’s Mayor’s Office and the Planning Department.

Park’s track record includes innovative planning in urban land use and regeneration, transit-oriented development, and zoning code reform. His research and work focuses on the link between leading innovation for quality design and practical implementation strategies for communities.

Blueprint also held three citizens’ congresses over the years to collect visions of what citizens wanted their city to be. “We compiled all that and gave it to Peter Park,” said Martha Murphree, Blueprint’s executive director.

The Urban Planner

Park initiated the exploratory steps for the plan to spur the discussion about viable strategies critical to the growth of a major metropolitan area. He worked with city staff to define the scope of the plan and what it should accomplish.

“It’s a big change from what Houston has been in the past, and while Houston does not have zoning, there are a lot of regulations. They have regulations that cities with zoning are getting rid of,” said Park. “Houston has been going along without a plan, and people ask, ‘Why do you need a plan?’ but the past approaches of building highways and annexing is not a growth pattern and won’t serve the city in the long run.”

This historic approach of meeting challenges as they come has created a reactive state and Park believes it is not a viable approach. “How can you have a broader conversation of coordinating growth and policy and vision so that you can optimize the development of the city over time? There are a lot of project plans, and services, and MUDs, and mechanisms, but no overall vision about what’s the big idea,” continued Park.

Park explained that there are myriad reasons to have plans and, for Houston, the relationship between development and transportation needs to be addressed—not just cars and future traffic, but also the relationships between development and various types of transportation beyond the automobile.

“Too much development, too much traffic—that comes with growth and change,” said Park. “There are changing patterns of Americans moving back into the city and wanting a walkable urban city. It hasn’t been a priority. [Walkable areas are] not going to be everywhere, but it ought to be easier to do in Houston and the next generation of people who inherit the city are interested in these urban walkable places. Where people go and want to be there is a high priority on the human scale and activities for people. American cities prioritize the automobile at the expense of other things: freeways cut through underrepresented neighborhoods or high parking requirements result in objects in a big surface parking lot. High parking requirements and wider roads have not made it easy to create walkable urban areas but I think that is changing.”

Park cited Houston’s Complete Streets policy (a plan to make streets safer and more accessible, that Mayor Parker issued an executive order for in 2013) as one of the major initiatives that would fall under this broader umbrella vision for the city to grow, protect established neighborhoods, and find ways to direct growth and investment where it is most beneficial.

He also spoke about Houston’s light rail system, MetroRail. The system opened its first line in 2004 and has five new lines in different stages of planning and construction. “I have heard people criticize the light rail and it’s ridiculous,” said Park. “The corridors are going to become enormously successful and will be able to demonstrate to other cities what capitalized transit investment looks like.”

Park also addressed the city’s tradition of freewheeling, speculative development. With good planning in place, he said, the risks associated with this type of unrestrained urban growth can be mitigated. “More clarity can be broadcast from the city as a signal to the investment community,” he said. “[Planning can] coordinate major tax breaks, increase jobs, and distribute density in a smart way to concentrate it on the transit corridors.” He added that smart planning is also about adding density, more affordability, and greater mobility without more and more cars on the road.

“It’s the nature of success that brings people together,” said Park. “If you aspire to make great places, people will want to experience them.”

The Planning Director

In March 2014, Mayor Parker and City Council installed Pat Walsh as Houston’s top planning and development official. Walsh is a trained civil engineer from Carnegie Mellon and the University of Texas, Austin, and former director of transportation and long-range planning for the City of Sugar Land. “We have made great progress in developing the plan,” said Walsh. “We are wrapping up the vision and goal statement and then we will add more meat to the bone.”

He also pointed to a planning and coordination tool, an interactive map available online, with layers of project information on it from various groups such as Buffalo Bayou Partnership, METRO, TxDOT, management districts, TIRZ (a Texas version of tax-increment financing), and the parks department. The city has been asking for voluntary participation from these organizations. The map will be on the city website and powered by its geographic information system.

The plan, as Walsh described it, is being created in a compressed timeline of 10 months. It will be at a higher level as a planning document and is an opportunity to assess whether or not the city has the right tools and if it is using them in an efficient and right way. “We have to do a better job of coordinating with the amazing numbers of entities who do planning in the city, and we have got to work in a more strategic way to work with our development community to utilize our land in the most effective way possible,” said Walsh. “We want our development community to be successful and we want to support them. And we know there are ways we can work together to mutually benefit. Houston is very successful in many ways without zoning. But we regulate development with subdivisions, landscape ordinances, dedication of right of way, drainage, and parking. We do have a lot of deed restriction–like zoning protections. We do not expect zoning to be an outcome of this. This is about making sure we are effective as possible at creating and enhancing the city.”

One of the ordinances to be examined relates to parking. Walsh said the city would revisit its parking policies to encourage vibrant walkable areas where people can visit their local restaurants and shops by foot, on a bike, or using transit. “Or it could be thinking more systematically about parking,” he said. “There are opposing interests with parking, there is a balance to be struck.” One of Walsh’s goals is to gain a maximum degree of community support for the plan by being transparent and soliciting community input so that any future mayor will also have interest in supporting the needs of the people. “I am cautiously optimistic that this plan is going to offer valuable insight into how Houston can achieve good governance,” said Walsh.

That is a sentiment echoed by Park. “If a plan reflects what people wanted then it’s more likely to be adopted and taken,” he said.

Implementing the Plan

On January 8, Jennifer Ostlind, division manager of Houston’s planning commission presented the draft vision statement for the General Plan. “Houston offers opportunity for all. We celebrate our diversity of people, ideas, economy, culture, and place. We promote healthy and resilient communities through smart civic investments, dynamic partnerships, education, and innovation. Houston is the place where anyone can prosper and feel at home.”

The plan is uniting major stakeholders from METRO, the Texas Medical Center, Greater Houston Partnership, Greater Houston Builders Association, Urban Land Institute, Houston Independent School District, The Kinder Foundation, TxDOT, and Harris County to churches, neighborhoods, management groups, and professional groups to coordinate, collaborate, and focus their efforts on strategies to deal with a host of future growth and investment issues: infrastructure maintenance, growing the tax base, efficient spending of tax dollars by City Council decisions, and streamlining the planning and permitting procedures.

“It’s a business plan,” said Webb, “A set of guiding principles and strategies based on what the citizens said about goals and priorities.”

The city will inform and engage the public in the coming months by conducting a series of outreach strategies before the framework plan is presented publicly to City Council for adoption in late summer/early fall 2015. If successful, the General Plan could transform Houston from a model of automobile-enabled urban sprawl into a paradigm for how post-war American cities might reinvent themselves in the 21st century.