Sunday, January 30, 2011

Road running as a land use tour

IMG_0112 Today was the Houston Marathon, in which your humble blogger was joined by 26,000 others in self-inflicted pain and suffering.  It occurred to me--in between bouts of cursing my foolhardy decision to enter the race--that running is a great way to observe land use in a city or town.  It allows one to tour cities and neighborhoods more slowly than in a car, but faster than walking.  And a race as long as a marathon gives you the chance to visit several areas in a city and observe both the use patterns within each neighborhood and the differences between them.  The Houston Marathon course directs its runners through several of the more interesting neighborhoods in the city (albeit all in the "favored quarter").  The official race program describes several of the neighborhoods on the course:

Downtown. Downtown Houston is the seventh largest downtown business district in the United States and has the third most concentrated skyline after New York City and Chicago.  [I should also note that the race started and ended at Discovery Green, a new urban park generally thought to be a highly successful planning and local government accomplishment.] 

The Heights.  Founded in 1891, The Heights was one of Houston's first suburbs and is best known for its tree-lined streets, beautiful parks and assortment of new homes, Victorian-era houses, and Craftsman bungalows.  [One of the original "streetcar suburbs."  In the Unzoned City, HP is a big issue in The Heights as a way of controlling development.]

Montrose.  The Montrose area is considered one of Houston's most eccentric areas, and hosts a diverse community of young adults, business professionals, punk rockers and artists . . . . It is an area made for pedestrians where people can walk and cycle easily.  [The APA named Montrose one of America's Top 10 Neighborhoods].

Texas Medical Center/Rice University.  The Texas Medical Center is the largest medical district in the world, containing 42 medicine-related institutions.  [You may have seen in the news recently that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is now being treated here].

The Galleria.  The Galleria area, also known as Uptown, is Houston's best-known shopping district and second-largest business district.  [One unusual thing about Houston is that there are four or five disparate business districts that would each qualify as "downtown" or the CBD in most cities].

Memorial Park.  Opened in 1924 and covering 1,466 acres, Memorial Park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States.

Just from these introductory descriptions, you can see how a comparison of one city's neighborhoods invokes both local and national land use issues.  Running through the city was a great way to get a tour of the visual characteristics on the ground.  At least that's what I'll be telling myself as I hobble to land use class in the morning. 

Matt Festa

January 30, 2011 in Downtown, History, Houston, Local Government, New York, Planning, Texas, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Gypsy-Travellers & Land Use Direct Action

There was a fascinating piece on the radio in the UK this morning on the disputes between gypsy-travellers and settled communities (for a video see here) with direct action taken on both sides. This head-on collision over land use has arisen in the English village of Meriden where a group of gypsies attempted to construct a caravan site for 14 trailers on a field they own over a holiday weekend (giving them an additional day before local planning officers were open again). While these stealth tactics have previously been successful, this time gypsy-traveller ‘land activists’ were opposed by a human barricade of local residents who were determined not to let them build. Eight months later the gypsy-travellers continue to live on the site in their caravans (with sanitary facilities that were permitted to be constructed over the Summer) with both sides awaiting the outcome of an application for planning permission to construct hard standings and further infrastructure on the site. 

These are longstanding disputes (gypsies were regulated as early as the Egyptians Act of 1530), with the nomadism and communal living at the heart of many gypsy and travelers’ lifestyles challenging a planning system based on sedentarism and individualism. Rights to camp or pitch caravans on open spaces have long been restricted with public provision made for gypsy-travellers on authorised sites, although there has been a widely acknowledged lack of provision. This situation has been condemned as ‘deplorable’ by the European Court of Human Rights with approximately one in four Gypsies and Travellers living in caravans without a legal place on which to park their home.  

Disputes such as that at Meriden raise claims of unfairness, with arguments raging about whether ‘travelling’ or ‘settled’ communities are better treated by the planning system and why, if gypsies are traveling people, they need settled provision at all. The new Conservative-Liberal Democrat, responding to the concerns of their political supporters in the ‘Tory shires’, are about to introduce new rules on planning applications by gypsy-travellers to restrict their ability to apply for retrospective planning permission and to tackle the thorny issue of public provision of authorised sites. In the meantime, at today’s conference, no gypsy-travellers have apparently been invited to attend.

Antonia Layard

January 15, 2011 in Affordable Housing, Comprehensive Plans, Environmental Justice, Houston, Race | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, December 31, 2010

. . . Hello 2011!

Happy New Year to the land use community!

I've noticed a trend in the last few years of more cities putting on a New Year's or "first night" celebration downtwon.  That's an encouraging sign for the increasing health of urban communities.  This year, Houston is finally getting into the act with Gloworama in the new downtown park, Discovery Green

Another New Year tradition that some of you might not be familiar with is fireworks.  I have the window open (it's 70 degrees here) and can hear the bombs bursting in air.  Fireworks are illegal in the city of Houston, but are legal in most of the unincorporated parts of Harris County.  Fireworks law has actually been a fairly big issue, with state laws and local laws striking a balance that allows them to be used in some places at some times--with lots of exceptions for proximity to churches, schools, etc.  You may not think that the churches or schools are fully populated at midnight, but I suspect that these exceptions have something to do with the fact that these tend to be the established exceptions to generally-applicable land use regulations.  Also, fireworks can only be sold for only a few weeks before Independence Day and New Year's. 

Stay safe, and have a Happy New Year!

Matt Festa

December 31, 2010 in Houston, Local Government, State Government, Texas | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

WSJ says More Office Jobs going from Suburbs to Downtowns

For decades the trend in most American cities has been one of jobs moving from downtowns to the suburbs.  A recent Wall Street Journal piece suggests that this trend may be shifting: Downtowns Get a Fresh Lease: Suburbs Lose Office Workers to Business Districts, Reversing a Post-War Trend.  From the article by Anton Troianovski:

As the market for office space shows signs of recovery, the suburbs are getting left behind.

For decades, the suburbs benefited from companies seeking lower rent, less crime and a shorter commute for many workers. But now, office buildings in many city downtowns have stopped losing tenants or are filling up again even as the office space in the surrounding suburbs continues to empty, a challenge to the post-war trend in the American workplace and a sign of the economic recovery's uneven geography. . . .

Statistics show that suburban office markets were hit harder by the recession than their downtown counterparts and are recovering more slowly. The national office vacancy rate in downtowns was 14.9% at the end of the third quarter, the same level as in early 2005—while the suburban vacancy rate hit 19%, 2.3 percentage points higher than in 2005, according to data firm Reis Inc.

In the first three quarters of this year, businesses in the suburbs vacated a net 16 million square feet of occupied office space—nearly 280 football fields—while downtowns have stabilized, losing just 119,000 square feet.

You might argue that simply losing fewer square feet than the suburbs (where the harder-hit industries such as mortgage lending and home building tend to be located) doesn't necessarily presage the long-awaited Return to Downtown.  But real estate guru and urbanism advocate Christopher Leinberger detects something bigger going on:

[S]ome scholars, urban advocates, and developers believe a secular shift is under way in the American workplace.

"Young people don't want to be out on the fringe...and as people are beginning to figure that out, it's beginning to get factored into office relocations," said Christopher Leinberger, a real-estate developer and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It's a major structural trend that we in real estate are going to have to adjust to."

The WSJ article has lots of links to photos, data, and interactive maps.  Thanks to Houston Tomorrow for the pointer.

Matt Festa

December 14, 2010 in Downtown, Exurbs, Financial Crisis, Houston, Real Estate Transactions, Sprawl, Suburbs, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Mixon on Home Mortgage Documents Interpreted as Nonrecourse Debt

John Mixon (Houston) has posted Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac Home Mortgage Documents Interpreted as Nonrecourse Debt (with Poetic Comments Lifted from Carl Sandburg), from the California Western Law Revew.  The abstract:

Virtually no home mortgage borrower who has not had (1) extensive professional training, or (2) prior experience as a foreclosed borrower, understands that home mortgages include the potential of a hovering judgment lien for deficiency after foreclosure. This lack of understanding makes any pretense of consent to liability for deficiency after foreclosure pure rationalization. Law acts in complicity with lenders to commit virtual fraud when it imposes this consequence on home buyers without full disclosure and real, intelligent consent.

The language problem is not lack of formalistic disclosure of the terms of the home loan itself. Virtually all home mortgage transactions provide borrowers with disclosure statements that spell out the full terms of their loans. But the consequence of lingering liability after foreclosure, which can be far worse than a misstated interest rate, is not disclosed (and perhaps cannot be disclosed meaningfully) to lay borrowers. Even the standard FNMA/GNMA documents are ambiguous and subject to interpretation as non-recourse obligation. These documents dominate the field, and their uniform covenants apply throughout the United States' mortgage market. This article proposes that they be re-read and interpreted as not imposing recourse liability, thereby eliminating deficiencies after foreclosure for most homeowners.

Matt Festa

December 3, 2010 in Finance, Housing, Houston, Mortgage Crisis, Mortgages, Real Estate Transactions, Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Crude Justice screening at South Texas

South Texas College of Law will be hosting a screening and discussion of the documentary film Crude Justice, produced by the Alliance for Justice, on Wednesday, Oct. 27 at 4:00 (rm. 314, with refreshments!).  The film chronicles the plight of victims of the Deepwater Horizon spill, with particular focus on the legal justice aspects of the issue.  After the film is shown, Professors Olga Moya, Fran Ortiz, and I will comment. and hopefully start an interesting discussion.  The event is sponsored by the Islamic Legal Society, the Environmental Law Society, and the Public Interest Law Society.  Here's the blurb for the film:

Shot on location in Louisiana, this film explores the damage done by this unimaginable environmental calamity to the lives and livelihoods of the people who depend on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico for their income, their food, and the continuation of their culture. Titled Crude Justice, the 17-minute documentary looks at the difficulties ordinary people face in finding fair compensation and a secure future for their families in the face of corporate domination of the courts, statutes favoring big business, judges with ties to the oil and gas industries, and the uncertainties that accompany an incident where the long-term effects may not be known for years. Crude Justice tells the story of damaged lives, but also of the fighting spirit and resilience of people who understand that what's threatened is not just justice for the victims of the spill, but the integrity of the American judicial system itself. 

Go ahead and view the provocative short documentary Crude Justice, and if you are able, join us for the discussion in Houston.  

Matt Festa

October 26, 2010 in Beaches, Coastal Regulation, Conferences, Environmental Justice, Environmental Law, Houston, Judicial Review, Oil & Gas, Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mixon on Land Use Vignettes in (Unzoned?) Houston

I blogged recently on the publication of the Notre Dame Symposium on Urban Development.  John Mixon (U. of Houston) has just posted to SSRN his contribution, Four Land Use Vignettes from (Unzoned?) Houston.  The abstract:

Houston has been called "the hair shirt of city planners." The profession's discomfort stems from the city's repeated rejection of land use zoning – the essential tool of their craft. The unrepentant city touts itself as a model of enlightened differentness: a public-private combination that provides a better formula for managing growth in a modern city. But beneath that Chamber of Commerce gloss, Houston's land use is a far cry from free enterprise in action.

What this article calls "The Houston Way" combines: (1) An adamant refusal to use government power prospectively to guide growth and protect existing investment; with (2) A willingness to respond to specific developer-citizen conflicts with ad hoc solutions that assign the City Planning Commission a unique role in mediating the constant battle between homeowners and developers. Rejection of traditional land use solutions oftentimes places the city at the borderline between legal and not-so-legal regulation.

Of course, as an observer of land use in the Unzoned City, I find this fascinating.  Prof. Mixon is the leading academic authority on local government zoning in Texas (and on non-zoning in Houston).  Read the whole thing.

Matt Festa  

September 28, 2010 in Conferences, Development, Houston, Local Government, Planning, Politics, Property, Scholarship, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Notre Dame Symposium on Urban Development

The Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, & Public Policy has published a Symposium on Urban Development in the 21st Century: Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, Volume 24, Number 1, 2010. 

FOREWORD: A New Urban Vision for a New Urban Reality, Adolfo Carrión, Jr., p. 1
ARTICLES
On Public Plaintiffs and Private Harms: The Standing of Municipalities in Climate Change, Firearms, and Financial Crisis Litigation, Raymond H. Brescia, p.7
Can Urban Solar Become a "Disruptive" Technology?: The Case for Solar Utilities, Joel B. Eisen, p.53
ESSAYS
American Cities as Firms in the 21st Century—Or, Should Philadelphia Move to New Jersey? Richardson Dilworth, p.99
The Order-Maintenance Agenda as Land Use Policy, Nicole Stelle Garnett, p.131
Four Land Use Vignettes from Unzoned(?) Houston, John Mixon, p.159
An Urban Slice of Apple Pie: Rethinking Homeownership in U.S. Cities, Georgette Chapman Phillips, p.187
NOTES
Justice and the Just Compensation Clause: A New Approach to Economic Development Takings, John T. Goodwin, p.219
Old Shtetlism and New Urbanism: Uncovering the Implications of Suburban Zoning Laws for Community Life through the Jewish-American Experience, Amir Steinhart, p.255

It looks like a fascinating group of pieces.  Now if only they could beat Michigan.  

Matt Festa

September 13, 2010 in Community Economic Development, Development, Economic Development, Eminent Domain, Environmental Law, Housing, Houston, Local Government, Property, Scholarship, Takings, Urbanism, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Atlantic on How Texas is Dominating the Recession

I'm back in Houston from a visit to points far north.  I thought up some blog posts while traveling, but I'll mark my return to the Lone Star State with a link to this article from The Atlantic by Derek Thompson: How Texas is Dominating the Recession

SAN ANTONIO -- No state is thriving in the wake of the Great Recession. But compared to the rest of the country, Texas is experiencing something like an economic boom.

Thompson offers four reasons for Texas' relative success: (1) a late start; (2) stable real estate; (3) the right mix of industries and economic activities; and (4) "something about Texas," particularly its taxing and regulatory climate.  More on reason #2:

2. Stable Real Estate
Real estate executives and economists struggled to find one reason why the Texas economy largely avoided the real estate boom and bust, but a few theories emerged. First, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro suggested that a reliance on property taxes in Texas (compared to California) might have dulled real estate appreciation. Second, the banks that survived the Savings and Loan crisis in the 1980s have mostly held onto conservative and un-exotic lending practices. Third, land and utilities are generally cheaper throughout Texas, which holds down the cost of the living. Fourth, besides Dallas, Texas' major cities have diversified away from the kind of real estate and financial services addiction that plagued CaliFlAriVada (that's CA, FL, AZ, NV), where the recession has been the most severe.

Matt Festa

August 7, 2010 in Economic Development, Financial Crisis, Houston, Real Estate Transactions, State Government, Texas | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Enough with Jane Jacobs Already?

Check out this really interesting piece from the Wall Street Journal: Enough With Jane Jacobs Already, by Andrew Manshel.  Manshel is with the nonprofit Greater Jamaica Development Corp.  He argues that while Jane Jacobs was right about many things, the enshrinement of her views in planning circles should be reassessed.  He says that now is the time, due to Mayor Bloomberg's Charter Revision Commission process.  Lots of interesting thoughts in this opinion piece, so it's hard to know what parts to highlight.    

Jacobs's book is generally regarded as a jeremiad in opposition to the large-scale planning of the '50s and '60s. She is celebrated as the individual who did the most to end that era's Robert Moses and Le Corbusier-inspired, automobile-centric view of urban life. In Jacobs's opinion, the ideal of city living was the West Village of Manhattan, with its short blocks, narrow streets and little shops. She praised the human-scale aspects of city life; the "eyes on the street" of the shopkeeper and the social cohesion promoted by "street corner mayors." In her view, large-scale planning was prone to failure.

Are you with Jacobs, or are you with Bob Moses and Le Corbusier??

Her views have now been broadly adopted and it is conventional wisdom in planning circles that participatory neighborhood planning is best, that preservation of old buildings is essential, and that in cities the car is bad. But Jacobs had a tendency toward sweeping conclusions based on anecdotal information, and some of them were overblown and/or oblivious to the facts. Perhaps most graphically, Jacobs predicted that the grand arts center planned for the Upper West Side of Manhattan would fail. But Lincoln Center turned out to be a great success—igniting the revitalization of the entire neighborhood.

More revealingly, the Greenwich Village she held out as a model for city life has become some of the highest-priced real estate in New York City—it's no longer the diverse, yeasty enclave she treasured. Ultimately, many of the policies she advocated blocked real-estate development—causing prices of existing housing stock to rise and pricing out all but the wealthiest residents.

Manshel calls for more attention to the ideas of William H. Whyte, who inspired Bryant Park and Houston's Discovery Green, among other projects.  Manshel isn't the first to challenge Jacobs' legacy recently: see Benjamin Schwarz's recent Atlantic piece.  What do you think about Manshel's critique of the citizen-participation focus?  Again, it's a quick and thought-provoking read, so check it out.  

 

Matt Festa

July 7, 2010 in Density, Development, Historic Preservation, Houston, Local Government, New York, Pedestrian, Planning, Politics, Redevelopment, Transportation, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Congress for the New Urbanism 18: Atlanta

Last week Jamie posted about the "Sprawlanta" video, part of the project American Makeover: An Online Film Series about New Urbanism.  "Sprawlanta" won first prize at last year's Congress for the New Urbanism video competition.

This week, the Congress for the New Urbanism meets in SprawlAtlanta for CNU 18, its annual conference.  The description:

Is New Urbanism the prescription for healthier communities? Increasing scientific evidence suggests that community design -- land use, design character, transportation systems, sustainability, and density -- can promote physical activity and lifelong communities; lower the risk of traffic injuries, obesity, heart disease, and hypertension; improve air quality, affordability, social equity, connectivity, mental health and long-term value; increase social connection, sense of community and healthy food access; and reduce crime, violence and contributions to climate change. Organized with assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Congress for the New Urbanism 18, "New Urbanism: Rx for Healthy Places," will present new research and innovative techniques for assessing the health impact of land use, transportation planning, and community design decisions -- from fine grained to mega-regional scales. Share the opportunities and challenges of designing and retrofitting communities that make it easier for people to live healthy lives -- CNU's 18th annual Congress in Atlanta, May 19-22, 2010. Preceding the Congress will be certification training, the NextGen Congress and other partner events May 17-18, 2010. For further information, visit http://www.cnu.org/cnu18 .  

Looks like the program has a very interesting lineup of speakers and events, as usual.  If you can make it to CNU 18, send us a report!  

In other CNU news ("CNUse"? . . . sorry . . .), guess which city will be introducing the newest CNU Full Chapter this weekend?  Houston, we have a Chapter!  Board members Andrew Burleson and David Crossley will be also be speaking in Atlanta.  Congrats to CNU-Houston.  

Matt Festa

May 18, 2010 in Architecture, Conferences, DPZ, Food, Georgia, Houston, New Urbanism, Smart Growth, Transportation, Urbanism | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Keep Houston Ugly

So last night after yoga class I'm standing in the check out line at our local Earth Fare and I spot the latest issue of Good.  This issue's theme is "Here Comes the Neighborhood." Given all the work I've done with neighborhoods (including my own) over the years, I purchased this as a must-read.

I've just started digging in, but I came across something immediately blog-worthy - a quiz about local slogans.  It turns out that "Keep Houston Ugly" is one of the several "Keep America Beautiful" riffs around the country.  For whatever reason, Texas has several, including "Keep San Antonio Lame" (care to explain that one, Matt?), "Keep Austin Weird" (heard that one before), and "Keep Waco Wacko" (fair enough).

Athens needs a better slogan than "The Classic City" (besides "Keep Athens-Clarke County Beautiful" which is a great organization but not a great slogan).  Maybe I'll start a "Keep Athens..." contest .

Jamie Baker Roskie

April 14, 2010 in Georgia, Houston, Humorous | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Forum: Land Use in the Unzoned City (@ South Texas)

The South Texas College of Law is pleased to invite the public to what promises to be a very interesting forum called Land Use in the Unzoned City: Regulation, Property Rights, and Smart Growth in Houston's Future.  From the program:

Houston is the only major city in the U.S. without traditional zoning.  What should the government’s role be in regulating land use and development?  How should the law and the land intersect?  Should Houston stay as it is, adopt zoning, or consider Smart Growth principles to reduce sprawl and protect the environment?  Do regulations and policies to promote New Urbanism or transit-oriented development work, and are they right for Houston?  Our panelists will offer their perspectives on the future of land use in Houston and across the U.S.

Panelists:

David Crossley, President & Founder, Houston Tomorrow

Kendall Miller, CEO, Houstonians for Responsible Growth

Prof. Craig Anthony Arnold, University of Louisville & University of Houston (visiting)

Prof. Asmara Tekle, Texas Southern University

Moderator: Prof. Matthew Festa, South Texas College of Law

When:  Tuesday, April 13, 12:00 noon
Where: South Texas College of Law, 1303 San Jacinto, Downtown Houston, Garrett-Townes Auditorium

The event is being hosted by the student Real Estate Law Society, with co-sponsorship from Houston Tomorrow and Houstonians for Responsible Growth.  I'm very much looking forward to it.  If you can be in Houston next Tuesday, we'd love to have you attend (did I mention free lunch?).  Contact me if you have any questions. 

Matt Festa

April 8, 2010 in Community Design, Conferences, Density, Development, Form-Based Codes, Houston, Lectures, Local Government, New Urbanism, Planning, Smart Growth, Smartcode, Sprawl, Transportation, Urbanism, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Rule Change for Federal Funding of Local Transit?

Administrative law buffs will take note of the recent news that the Administration Loosens Purse Strings for Transit Projects (NYT). 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration will make it easier for cities and states to spend federal money on public transit projects, and particularly on the light-rail systems that have become popular in recent years, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday.

Administration officials said they were reversing guidelines put in place by the Bush administration that called for evaluating new transit projects largely by how much they cost and how much travel time they would save.

Transit advocates have long complained that such cost-effectiveness tests have kept many projects from being built — especially light-rail projects, since streetcars are not fast — and made it much harder for transit projects to win federal financing than highway projects.

Here's the DOT press release.  Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says

“Our new policy for selecting major transit projects will work to promote livability rather than hinder it,” said Secretary LaHood. “We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities and how it makes our communities better places to live.”

Sec. LaHood discusses it further on his Official Blog, Welcome to the Fast Lane.  He states that under the new rule the feds will evaluate local projects by six criteria:

  • Economic development
  • Mobility improvements
  • Environmental benefits
  • Operating efficiencies
  • Cost effectiveness
  • Land use

For an example of how this federal rule change might affect one local government's light rail plans, see this Houston Chronicle analysis.  The Federal Transit Administration will soon be initiating a rulemaking process, with notice and comment.  Stay tuned. 

Matt Festa

January 18, 2010 in Environmental Law, Houston, Local Government, Transportation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Slugging

Are HOV lanes a good idea?  They are controversial, to be sure.  Some think that they are essential to disincentivizing traffic and rewarding carpooling.  Others think that they are inefficient or infringe too much on liberty.  But for those commuters who live in areas with HOV lanes, the practical question is how to adapt.  KHOU.com reports on the emergence of one response to HOV lanes: Slugging.

HOUSTON – Would you jump into the car of a stranger? Hundreds of Houstonians do it every morning on the way to work to save time and money.

The phenomenon called "slugging" developed in the northeast and has caught on in Houston over the last few years.

The "sluggers" park at a Metro Park and Ride lot and form a line to get into cars with drivers who are looking for a passenger so they can legally take the HOV.

Slugging seems to have originated, or has been most successful in, the DC area.  I think it would be creepy to rely on a commute in a stranger's car (plus, the story doesn't say how they get home).  But on the other hand, I kind of like the free market ordering response to regulatory restrictions--when the government creates an HOV lane, the commuters establish a new informal but effective institution, the slugging line. 

Matt Festa

December 19, 2009 in Houston, Sprawl, Suburbs, Texas, Transportation | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sports stadiums: if you build it, will they come?

For you football fans out there, here is a Sunday post about the recurring issue in many cities about building a new sports stadium, either for the local team or to attract a new team to town.  There are a lot of land use issues bound up in these controversies.  Cities like to have sports teams, not just for the city's sports fans, but also very much for the broader but nebulous civic sense that the city is a "major-league" town or that it has "arrived."  Claims are made about the economic development that must surely result from the construction of fancy new digs for the team.  Transit and traffic issues are involved.  Location: should the stadium be in the suburbs, or downtown?  What will be the impact on neighborhoods?  On property values and taxes?  On the environment?  Of course, the gorilla in the room is the question of who pays--the team or the taxpayer?  People don't want to lose their team, but neither do they want to be held "hostage" by the wealthy owners' demands.  Then there is the problem of land assembly.  How much eminent domain will be needed?

My sense is that over the last few years the public has become much less receptive to the notion of public financing for sports stadium (stadia?).  Yet the issue comes back repeatedly when a team makes noises about "needing" an upgraded venue. 

The nation's second-largest city (and media market) remains without a professional football franchise, but that isn't stopping Los Angeles from trying to lure one back.  From a recent article about LA's latest new-stadium proposal:

LOS ANGELES — Nearly 15 years after the Los Angeles area’s two professional football teams left for other cities, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a bill to clear the way for a new stadium seen as pivotal to drawing a team to the region. . . .

But the latest effort, to build a 75,000-seat, $800 million “green” stadium in City of Industry, a warehouse and shopping district 15 miles east of downtown, is considered one of the more viable to come along in a long time.

No taxpayer money would be used to finance it, a condition that has helped squelch other plans; the developer, the Majestic Realty Company, said it would seek private investors.

Here is a website about the proposal: losangelesfootballstadium.com.  Lots of design info and pictures.  I think it's particularly interesting in that I don't recall any previous proposals for a "green" stadium.  It's good that the proposal purports to eschew direct public financing; the state is mired in fiscal crisis, and LA is still paying for Jacko's memorial at the Staples Center.  But what will the indirect public costs be?  Will they be outweighed by the always-promised economic development?

Relatedly, in the other kind of football, soccer ("metric football"?), Houston wants to build a soccer-specific stadium for the Major League Soccer franchise Houston Dynamo.  The stadium is proposed for an area on the edge of downtown and on a proposed light rail line.  There was a little bit of debate over the proposed use of tax increment financing for certain aspects of the project.  [We call Houston the Unzoned City but there are some significant uses of Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones or "TIRZ"].  As far as the public "sales pitch" for the soccer stadium, Houston already has the team, but it would like to play host to potential U.S. World Cup games, thereby proving that the city has "arrived." 

There are also the peripheral legal issues around stadiums, such as regulating the "pedicabs" that operate to bring people to and from the game from distant parking.  (Here's what they look like.)  UPDATE: here's a USA Today article on the growing use of and legal issues about pedicabs. 

And of course, don't forget the simmering controversy over the Brooklyn Atlantic Yards project, which combines a Kelo-style master redevelopment plan (and heartburn over eminent domain) with all of these issues about public involvement with bringing a new sports team (the NBA Nets franchise) to town, and the litigation in Goldstein v. New York State Urban Redevelopment Corporation

Brian Yates has an article on the subject called "Whether Building a New Sports Arena will Revitalize Downtown and Make the Team a Winner," Vol. 17 U. Miami Business Law Review p. 269 (2009).  So if you're headed out to the stadium today, enjoy the game, and think about all of the land use issues involved!  Thanks to Ryan Palmquist, Paul Farnum, Alan Saweris, and William Powell for links.

Matt Festa

November 15, 2009 in Architecture, Development, Downtown, Eminent Domain, Environmental Law, Green Building, Houston, Local Government, Real Estate Transactions, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

News from Seattle

Two recent land use legal items from Seattle.  First, on Election Day the voters approved Proposition 1, an affordable-housing levy.  From the Seattle Times:

At Capitol Hill’s Sole Repair, campaign workers were ecstatic over the success of Proposition 1, the city of Seattle affordable-housing levy that looked to be headed to easy victory with 63 percent of the vote. . . .

The seven-year, $145 million measure passed despite the ongoing economic crunch, making it the fifth affordable-housing levy in a row to be passed by Seattle voters.

Also, the City Council has passed an ordinance allowing backyard cottages in single-family residential zones.  From the Post-Intelligencer:

Backyard cottages will be allowed in single-family zones throughout Seattle under an ordinance approved unanimously by the City Council Monday.

The council had considered allowing detached cottages citywide in 2006, but ended up just allowing them in Southeast Seattle. Mayor Greg Nickels has backed the proposal to allow the units elsewhere.

Opponents fear the move will effectively rezone the entire city and threaten neighborhoods of single-family homes, but supporters say it provides needed housing options in the city.

The cottages have height and area limits and must be no more that 800 square feet.  This type of housing option can really add to the diversity and affordability of an otherwise exclusive neighborhood.  We have plenty of so-called "granny flats" in the Unzoned City and it works out quite well--for example, a lot of Rice University students live in garage apartments in the surrounding affluent neighborhood. 

Matt Festa

November 12, 2009 in Affordable Housing, Housing, Houston, Local Government, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Atlanta is America's Most Toxic City

My colleague Helen Kang, director of the Environmental Justice Clinic at Golden Gate University, just sent me a link to this article on Forbes.com proclaiming Atlanta the nation's most toxic city. But, look out Matt Festa, Houston's hot on Atlanta's heels at number three on the list. Take heart, though, Matt.  Houston's air is so polluted that it's become a world hot spot for air pollution research.  It's always good to be cutting edge! 

The article lauds New York as less toxic due to its excellent public transportation system (and related density) and Portland as a model of land use planning.  This lends even more support to the premise of Professor Nolon's article, which I blogged about earlier today.

Jamie Baker Roskie

November 5, 2009 in Environmental Justice, Environmental Law, Georgia, Houston, Industrial Regulation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Election Day: land use issues!

Most of the national attention for Election Day on Tuesday, Nov. 3d, is focused on the horse races in New Jersey, Virginia, and NY-23.  But here in Houston and across Texas we have some land use issues both on the ballot and behind the politics.

First, the mayoral race.  The generally popular Bill White is term-limited (and has his sights set on the 2010 Senate race).  Vying to replace him as chief executive of the nation's fourth-most-populous city are four candidates: Peter Brown, Gene Locke, Roy Morales, and Annise Parker.  Morales is a Republican, and the other three are Democrats, but Houston's charter prescribes nonpartisan elections.  The three Democrats are leading in the polls, and there will probably be a runoff between the top two. 

Land use regulation is a very big issue looming behind the scenes in this election.  Houstonians are very much aware that we are the leading Unzoned City in America, and many are calling for stricter development rules, particularly because of a high-profile controversy over the proposed Ashby High Rise (more about Ashby later).  The Houston Chronicle editorialized that Guiding Growth will be a Key Issue in the mayoral election, and it also reported recent poll results that Houston Voters want Tough Land Use Laws.  

I have read and parsed various statements by the leaders Brown, Locke, and Parker, and this Houston Chronicle story analyzes their stances on land use, and I can't really tell much difference between the three candidates.  None of the three is in favor of the "z-word," that is, (Euclidean) zoning, but all three seem to be vaguely in favor of more regulation (while maintaining that they are pro-development), and talk about good-sounding things like "protecting neighborhoods."  Candidate Peter Brown is, as I noted the other day, an architect and planner, and is on record advocating form-based codes.  But for the most part it's hard to see major differences between the leading candidates; I think they each can fairly be characterized as having a mild "more regulation" stance without a lot of specifics yet.  The interesting part will be to watch what the new mayor actually does, or tries to do, to change land use law in the Unzoned City.

The second set of land use issues on the Nov. 3d ballot is in referenda on eleven proposed amendments to the Texas Constitution.  Among them are Proposition 9, which will constitutionalize the Texas Open Beaches Act, and Proposition 11, which is an anti-Kelo prohibition on economic development takings.  I'll have more on these after they pass; I don't think I'm going out on a limb in predicting that all eleven will pass by large margins.

Are there any land use issues in your state or local elections this year?  We'd love to hear in the comments.  As they say, vote early and vote often!

UPDATE: Results--Annise Parker 31%, Gene Locke 26%, Peter Brown 23%, and Roy Morales 20%.  There will be a runoff between Parker and Locke on Dec. 12.  Although it would have been interesting to have architect/planner/form-based code advocate Brown in the runoff, we will still have to see what Parker and Locke say about the hot issues of development and regulation in the Unzoned City

Matt Festa

November 2, 2009 in Development, Form-Based Codes, Houston, Local Government, Planning, Takings, Texas, Zoning | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Duany on Agricultural Urbanism

Andres Duany, of DPZ and CNU fame and generally esteemed as the godfather of new urbansim (and who recently called Brad Pitt's New Orleans architecture "bullshit"), gave a speech to a packed hotel ballroom in Houston last night (sponsored by Houston Tomorrow) on "Agricultural Urbanism." 

For about the first half of the lecture Duany spoke "horizontally" about new urbanism, the transect, and smart growth generally, then he focused "vertically" on incorporating agriculture into urban planning.  The two most interesting points I took away from Duany's speech were (1) agricultural planning is an integral part of the transect; and (2) developers today are interested in hearing about agricultural urbanism in plans.

Duany argues that while much of the attention given to new urbanist developments focuses on the housing, to be faithful to the transect concept requires a spectrum of land uses, and agriculture is one of the uses that is appropriate in various forms and degrees over different places on that spectrum.  Chad has posted about the regulatory obstacles to urban farming.  To be honest, though, I had previously presumed that attempting to incorporate agriculture into urban design was for the most part a lifestyle thing, a consumer choice for people interested in doing a little eco-friendly organic gardening around the neighborhood.  But Duany makes a persuasive case that planning for agricultural uses "is not an add-on," as he says, but rather is a necessary part of transect-based planning.  While agriculture may not be necessary or practical in the urban core, it does not need to be relegated completely to the rural zone either; it can and should be incorporated in varying degrees across the suburban and urban zones of the transect.  He notes that the entire concept of the "village"--as distinguished from the town or the city--is historically based on a community's arrangements to grow its own food. 

[Relatedly, I found Duany's characterization of the differences between American and European environmentalism to be interesting.  American environmentalism, he says, grew out of the fight for national parks and holds the untrammeled wilderness to be the ideal, while European environmentalism has more typically incorporated environmental uses into the human domain.]

To take Jamie's "urban chickens" example, Duany laments that under most zoning laws in the US, you can either have zero chickens or 500,000 chickens (In his recent high profile appearance at the UN, Colonel Sanders presumably lobbied for the latter policy), but almost nowhere can you have two chickens in the yard (except maybe Cleveland).  That makes a lot of sense, although my argument would be that the larger problem is not zoning ordinances' failure to include chickens (or agriculture) per se, but rather the restrictive definitions and separations of "residential" use themselves. 

At any rate, the natural place of agriculture in different degrees across various points on the transect leads to the second point I described above: the emerging marketability of agricultural urbanism.  Duany is cautious about both overregulation generally and overprescription of specific ideas.  He believes that new urbanism can work in the marketplace.  "The new urbanist argument," he says, is that "we don't ask you to do what's right because it's ethical; we ask you because it works better," which he says can be rephrased as "it sells more real estate."  And as far as any uniform requirement for agricultural uses, "anyone who sets up one standard undermines urbanism" because it violates the differentiation of the transect. 

Americans will be willing to trade open space for the village ideal, Duany says.  He discussed and showed diagrams of several DPZ or affiliated projects that include agricultural urbanism, including Southlands, BC, and Sky, Florida.  It seems that one of the most effective tools in these developments is cluster building, which allows for smaller walkable village-like living areas.  But the open space preserved by these clusters is not just random farmland, but rather is agricultural space designed to mesh with the living arrangements--there are smaller plots for individual/family gardening, medium-sized tracts for greater local food production, and larger tracts for more typical farming, all designed and placed along the transect for the particular community.  Various incentives for growing food and options for trading or reallocating the agricultural space are incorporated.

If Duany is right that agricultural urbanism can work, this implicitly leads to the important question for land use planners and lawyers: if agricultural urbanism is good, what should we do to encourage it?  Amend the zoning ordinance to allow it?  Or to require it?  Or--if it is marketable--leave it to the private sector to design and implement?  Duany seemed to imply that plans could incorporate regulatory or development incentives for agrigultural uses.  Duany states that the agricultural urbanism as incorporated into the DPZ projects he describes as basically a "module" of the SmartCode that can be modified and applied to fit particular local circumstances. 

Peter Brown made an appearance as well.  Brown is a Houston city council member, an architect, planning advocate, and one of the leading candidates in this Tuesday's Houston mayoral election.  Land use is an important issue in the election, and it will be interesting to see what happens next in the Unzoned City.

It was a fascinating presentation and it was great to have Duany in Houston.  For now though, no chickens are allowed in my townhouse (but I guess I could try this). 

UPDATE: Duany's presentation is available for download at Houston Tomorrow's summary of the event.

Matt Festa

October 31, 2009 in Architecture, Development, Environmental Law, Houston, New Urbanism, Planning, Smart Growth, Smartcode | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)