Thursday, September 29, 2011

What About Houston?

In the comments to recent posts, Chris Bradford and Cambias have cited Houston as a counter-example of a city without zoning which has developed a highly centralized, high rise-dominated downtown in spite of the fact that no zoning boundaries nor any physical obstacles constrain the horizontal growth of the central business district.  So why then has a small forest of skyscrapers grown so closely together?

A few quick thoughts and observations:
  • First, Houston's downtown, contrary to appearances, isn't that dense.  The Floor Area Ratio of the 1.53 square mile downtown area, which contains numerous skyscrapers and over four million square meters of office, retail and residential space, is only about 1.07, much less than large areas of central Paris.  It seems improbable, but it's what I got with the numbers I could locate.
  • Second, what has been the effect of Houston's vast freeway network on land values in the CBD in the post-1950s era?  A map of the network resembles a giant dartboard centered on the downtown, with the inner loop drawn tightly around a very small area:
  • Consider also what the technological possibility of super-tall buildings has on land values within this targeted area.  As the blog NeoHouston observes in in a similar transit-oriented context:
"As has been widely discussed, redevelopment around transit stations has been less widespread in Houston than in other cities, and much of this is because of the work of speculators. While this issue is not unique to Houston, it is compounded by the lack of development regulations. Essentially, every speculator is pricing their land for the construction of a skyscraper, when the market may only be suited for low-rise. Redevelopment activity is significantly impaired when there is this disconnect between the realistic development potential of a property and the astronomical price expectations of speculators."
If every downtown Houston landowner prices his land for a 60-story office tower, development, one might think, would likewise be impaired.  Even if very high demand exists for office space, few developers have the resources in time or money to purchase the land and construct such a tower.  And history shows that building one can be a risky venture, as economic conditions may have changed greatly during the years from planning to completion.  In any event, whether or not this explanation has any validity, in spite of a roaring economy in the 1970s through the early 1980s, and again in the 1990s to today, much of Houston's downtown remains covered by surface parking lots.  Mid rise development, however, has flourished in the area just outside the loop (see last page).

In fact, building coverage today is far less than it was in 1912 when the below drawing was made (adapted from the excellent Big Map Blog), showing a mid-rise city punctuated by occasional tall buildings, a format which persisted for the most part into the 1950s:

So how much can Houston tell us about development patterns in the absence of zoning?  Even if it disproves the idea that a zoning-free city will tend to develop in a more horizontal pattern (not that I necessarily agree that it does), might Houston have  benefited overall from a modest height limit?  What other factors might have contributed to this pattern? 

***Note: Regarding Houston's zoning, please see Christof's comment below on Houston's downtown exemption from municipal parking requirements.  Here is a link to a map of Houston's downtown tunnel system.


  1. I would suggest looking at land-use covenants of various types (such as deed restrictions) as an ad hoc system that replicates the features of zoning in absence of zoning. Houston--and indeed, most Texas towns--are (in)famous for this approach. Though ostensibly "private", they are actually more restrictive than even the most restrictive Euclidean zoning.

  2. I looked through the Houston zoning code a number of years ago and found that it required even more parking for every use than the suburban norm. As usual, the largest volume impact of command-and-control central planning of American cities is the absolute priority on free storage of automobiles. The effect is much larger than the impact of Euclidian zoning and the impact of infrastructure for the free circulation of automobiles, though those two are also very large and very harmful.

    If the so-called CBD has a FAR of 1.07, it's no really a CBD at all. In a traditional or a market-oriented city, that would be closer to the density of a park or a plaza block than any kind of building development. Trying to draw any conclusions about a dense CBD and its natural growth in that situation can not lead to insight about the economics of CBD building height. You'll just get discussion of the perversity of density limits implicit in parking policy.

  3. Here's a bit on Houston's parking minimums. I agree with Brian – we can't learn anything at all about how the free market would organize by looking at Houston.

  4. Steve: I'm aware of the restrictive covenants, but right or wrong I considered them not particularly relevant for this inquiry since the downtown area and the immediate surrounding neighborhoods do not appear to be subject to such restrictions (if they ever were). The built-up area of the downtown in fact doesn't even manage to cover the original 1800s plat.

    Brian and Stephen: Thanks for the information about parking. Reading Stephen's excellent posts about land use regulations in Houston a while back was my introduction to this subject. However, I'm not sure that parking requirements are driving the development pattern here. It seems that much of the parking is stored in underground garages, which means it's not directly affecting the F.A.R. ratio. There are a number of above-ground parking garages, but some of these seem to be publicly owned. And the mid-rise development cropping up very close by has not been impeded by high parking requirements, suggesting that some other factor is governing height.

  5. Let's not overlook physical constraints. Houston's part of the marshy Gulf Coast plain. It doesn't have Manhattan's lovely granite for anchoring tall buildings.

  6. A few thoughts from a Downtown Houston resident and employee:

    -The Downtown office core is indeed dense, but it's limited to a particular part of Downtown, roughly an "L" shape along McKinney/Lamar and Smith/Louisiana. In that area, there are few surface parking lots, but there are areas just a few blocks away that are largely surface parking.

    -A great part of the appeal of Downtown is the availability of food and services in walking distance from office towers. The office buildings are linked by a system of pedestrian tunnels and skywalks that contain retail space; the only sites considered for new office development (including 6 new towers in the past decade) are those that can be connected to this system. Location matters a lot.

    -The other appeal of Downtown is easy access. Particularly worth noting: transit access. Roughly 35% of Downtown employees take transit. of those that live more than 30 miles away, 50% do. That's due to a very good commuter bus system developed starting in the 1980s, using park-and-ride lots and barrier separated HOV lanes, that links suburban areas to Downtown. Those buses serve the Downtown office core, and they offer service better than any new start commuter rail system. It's fair to say that Downtown Houston is TOD.

    -Parking ordinances play a huge role in shaping Houston's urban form, but they are not a factor Downtown. The Downtown area is exempted by ordinance from all parking requirements. The surface lots you see are not an expression of parking demand (which is largely accommodated in garages); they are a holding strategy for speculative real estate investors. Many of those lots fill up on on baseball game days.

  7. "Redevelopment activity is significantly impaired when there is this disconnect between the realistic development potential of a property and the astronomical price expectations of speculators." Downtown Miami has experienced the same problem. There are vast open spaces in downtown but high asking prices severely narrow the universe of redevelopment projects that pencil out. Every market peak a small percent get developed, but most do not, and land owners and residents must wait another 10 years for the remote possibility of someday having a continuous urban fabric.

  8. Sounds like a case for land value tax to me...

  9. Houston has a downtown worker density of about 100,000 people per square mile, which ranks it 8th in the nation in terms of downtown worker density.

    I would suggest that there is a correlation between downtown worker density and skyscraper distribution. Skyscrapers may be more of a function of worker density rather than population density.

  10. @Christof: Thanks very much for the information. I was not aware downtown Houston was exempted from parking requirements. As for density, I'm sure the area comprising only the high-rises would show a much higher FAR, but I did not zoom out very much -- only to the census tract level. A 1.53 square mile area is not very large for a city of Houston's size, and is a fair representation of the downtown area I think (it is used in the Demographia study James links as well).

    @George: a land value tax might be a solution here, but one problem is how to assess the land in the absence of height limits? Very high land value taxes might have other potentially undesirable effects, or be politically contentious.

    @James: Thanks for the comment and the link. I may be looking at a different page, but Houston appears to be ranked 13th for job density in the Demographia study, a bit behind Cincinnati. It is ranked 30th for share of urban area employment, at only 8.9%. Height-limited Washington (with a metro area pop. almost identical to Houston) is much denser over a much larger area and is ranked 3rd for urban area employment (18.7%).

  11. Charlie,

    I'll have to double check my link, I am typing from a moblie. Thanks.