Friday, October 9, 2009

An APA Top 10 Neighborhood in the Unzoned City

The American Planning Association has come out with its list of great neighborhoods for 2009 (it has also listed great streets and great public spaces).  Among the top ten great neighborhoods is Houston's Montrose neighborhood.  Eclectic, diverse, historic, and (somewhat) walkable, Montrose is a very interesting and enjoyable neighborhood within Houston's generally sprawling and automobile-dependent layout.  It has arts, including the famous Menil Collection, a Catholic university, shopping, dining and entertainment, is home to the GLBT community, and has diverse array of housing options.  But on this blog I have previously asked the question of whether good land use can happen in a city without traditional zoning, and the Houston Chronicle's article on the APA list offers some points worth pondering:

Montrose, the central Houston community known for its diverse lifestyles, vibrant street life and stately historic homes, is being honored by the American Planning Association today as one of the country's 10 great neighborhoods.

Houston's sprawl, absence of zoning and reputation for haphazard development might make its recognition by the national planning establishment something of a surprise. Yet the qualities cited in the award for Montrose — its walkable street grid, carefully preserved historic districts and eclectic mix of homes and businesses — reflect Houston's preference for private rather than government-imposed planning, experts said.

In the early 20th century, long before it became the focus of slum-clearing urban renewal projects or the heart of Houston's gay and lesbian community, Montrose was an elite master-planned suburb, said Stephen Fox, a Rice University architectural historian.

“Its planning has really come from the developers of the individual subdivisions rather than representing any public policy,” Fox said.


A walkable area
Robinson, an architect who serves on Houston's City Planning Commission, said the award shows that effective planning need not be imposed through heavy-handed government policy.

“It doesn't have to always be a prescribed method of growth,” Robinson said. “It's organic. The street grid, the sidewalks have meant that without zoning and for the most part without restrictive covenants, the area has been able to grow and adapt.”

The street grid — a web of straight streets with short blocks and none of the cul-de-sacs favored in suburban neighborhoods — has helped keep Montrose walkable since the days when people stepped off streetcars and walked to homes or shops, Robinson said.


Marlene Gafrick, Houston's director of planning and development, said the award should help to dispel Houston's undeserved reputation as an unplanned city.  

“I believe planning occurs at many levels, and one of the differences between Houston and a lot of cities is that a lot of our planning comes from the ground up rather than the top down,” she said.

Read the story here and check out the APA's list and descriptions. 

Traditional, organic, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood development with diversity, mixed uses, and an eye toward historic preservation-- all in the Unzoned City?  The truth is that there is a more complex array of forces at work that have shaped the neighborhood, both regulatory and private, and that there are tradeoffs even in a "top ten" neighborhood.  But the baseline for Montrose's development has been private neighborhood planning and the absence of comprehensive zoning, and that might mean something. 

Thanks to Tory Gattis's excellent Houston Strategies blog for the pointer. 

- Matt Festa

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