Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Houston's Own Equitable Building: The Political Perils of Building Tall

If you were a developer operating in a city without zoning or height limits and, for whatever reason, wanted to devise a project sure to turn the local population in favor of development restrictions, what might you do?

Historically, a winning strategy has been to build structures of unusual height in lower-rise areas: New York's Equitable Building, completed in 1915, stirred public controversy with its bulky 38 stories and contributed to the adoption of the setback provisions in the city zoning ordinance adopted only a year later.  A similar story could be told in Paris, where the completion of the notorious Tour Montparnasse led the city to ban the construction of skyscrapers in the city center. Washington D.C.'s Cairo apartment, at a modest 12 stories, stoked a wave of 19th century NIMBY sentiment that culminated in the still-extant Height of Buildings Act.  Mexico City has recently witnessed a similar controversy.

With those examples in mind, I've been reading about the multi-year efforts of a Houston developer to construct a 21-story residential tower adjacent to a well-to-do and politically active neighborhood of owner-occupied single family detached homes some distance from the city's central business district.  Unless the developers were exceptionally naive, they might have foreseen the result: a grassroots neighborhood campaign to oppose the project, accompanied with a cartoon drawing of a high-rise tower with fangs and an evil stare menacing neighborhood homes.

Faced with a city reluctant to accept its plans for the tower in the face of public opposition, the developers, rather than altering their plans, sued the city, further angering neighborhood residents.  The developer ultimately prevailed in a settlement reached in February, but while the battle was won, the war may have already been lost.  In late December, the Houston city council adopted an ordinance specifying that buildings over 75 feet must be buffered from surrounding properties with large setbacks, and that a "10-foot landscape, trees and an eight-foot-tall fence" are necessary where surrounding properties are residential homes.

Even so, many residents were apparently dissatisfied with the law, raising the question of whether there may be additional political fallout.  As one commenter on the Houston blog Swamplot put it:
"The short term result is that the developers get to build their highrise. The long term result is that several hundred of Houston's wealthiest and best connected residents are now more likely to support zoning and candidates who are for zoning."
Considering that the entire city of Houston appears, according the Council on Tall Buildings, to have only around 20-30 residential buildings of over 20 stories, the story of the Ashby high rise really wasn't that long in coming. 

In this drama, the developer and the neighborhood are merely reenacting a play that has been staged many times since the late 1800s, and almost always with the same ending.  It is the rare lax regulatory environment that has survived the construction of high-rise apartments in "detached house sections," to borrow a phrase from Euclid v. Ambler author Justice George Sutherland. The economic attraction of high-rise apartment builders to affluent, low-density residential areas has often been politically fatal, with developers proving themselves to be their own worst enemies.

The greater danger for a city is that the construction of a single tower drives a furious political backlash against development that eliminates the possibility of even moderate density and mid-rise residential construction, even where that more modest development might have been unobjectionable on its own. Although Houston doesn't appear to be in immediate peril of this outcome, the precedent of height-based restrictions has been set in a city which formerly had none.

The politics of tall buildings also complicate the suggestions of some, like Ed Glaeser, who advocate building up in low and mid-rise urban areas.  Height restrictions in Paris are in force precisely because of prior attempts to build tall, rather than ignorance about the economic principles of supply and demand.

The emergence of form-based codes offers one potential solution through providing the advantage of reliable expectations for both developers and neighborhoods, but for cities looking to densify there may be no easy answer to what seems to be an intractable political challenge.