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.


  1. I've read the same things about the Equitable Bldg in NYC as you have, but I'm not entirely convinced that it was really all that big of a factor in the 1916 zoning code. Everyone seems to have a different opinion of why zoning came along in New York – some say it was the IRT subway and reformers' disappointment that developers were putting up 10-story bldgs around stations rather than single-family detached houses, some (well, Fischel) say it was the advent of trucks and buses.

    1. Stephen: They were adopted at the same time, but I think the setback regulations (form-based) and the zoning law (use-based) may have had very different origins. Height restrictions, after all, long predated zoning in New York and elsewhere, and the 1916 setback rules were really just a refinement and expansion (to commercial buildings) of earlier limits, whereas zoning was new concept. A concern with light and air seems to have been the driving force for the setbacks. Zoning, I'd always read, was supported by rent-seeking 5th Avenue merchants under pressure from encroaching manufacturers, but there were many other reasons also as you've mentioned. Hadn't heard the trucks and buses explanation, though -- is that from "The Economics of Zoning Laws"?

  2. ^
    I disagree. When you see Hugh Ferriss' famous zigguratic wedding cake diagrams for the new zoning code...
    ...you can see that the prospect of lightless, canyonlike streets hemmed in by monolithic slabs was a real concern at the time.

  3. On the other hand, Vancouver's suburbs have a number of weirdly out-of-place high rises towering above low-rise apartments and detached homes.

  4. PART ONE (of a two-part post)

    I suspect that at least part of the reason for multiple explanations of the adoption of 1916 New York City zoning code may be due to the fact the zoning code contains, of course, different types of "zoned" regulations (e.g., land use regulations, height and setback regulations, etc.) and different people may be focusing on different parts of the code.

    And even in terms of just height regulations, people who were focusing on development along outlying subway stations might have been different and had different concerns than those who were focusing on skyscraper office buildings (which in those days would not likely have been built along outlying subway stations, zoning or not, anyway).

    In terms of the Equitable Building as THE "poster child" for height and set back zoning, it seems to me that people used to cite it as only one of the "bad" buildings among many, but nowadays it seems to be the only one that people cite. If I'm not mistaken, two other buildings just across the street and up the block from the Equitable, for example, also used to be cited regularly -- the Trinity twins. Also some of the other buildings that used to be cited (like, if I'm not mistaken, the original Hudson Tubes building on the World Trade Center site) no longer exist, so I suppose that's part of the reason that the Equitable Building is now used so often.

    But I think if one walks in the Wall Street area, one can see why these tall buildings would have set off alarm bells! Personally speaking, I love these buildings and think of them as one of the wonders of the world. But I can see why people may have felt that one urban district like this is wonderful -- let's just not have more than one.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Wednesday, April 11, 2012, 8:10 p.m.

  5. PART TWO (of a THREE-part post -- part two was too long to post)

    What I really find fascinating, though, is this whole anti-skyscraper mentality -- especially among New Yorkers!!! Maybe I've been out of touch all along, but it seems to me that people in New York City used to LOVE skyscrapers and be so proud of them -- and not just skyscraper office buildings in commercial neighborhoods but residential skyscrapers in "low-rise" "residential" neighborhoods too.

    For example during the low days of the fiscal crisis, when New Yorkers were inclined to give themselves and fellow New Yorkers pep talks about New York City and why they "heart" NY, people used to point with great pride to the skyscrapers along Central Park West, the Carlyle Hotel (on the residential Upper East Side, River House (in mostly low-rise residential Midtown East), etc. And people in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx also used to be proud of their skyscraper "luxury" apartment houses in low-rise neighborhoods. (And even in low-rise neighborhoods across the Hudson, people seemed proud of their "luxury" residential towers.)

    Furthermore, it seems to me that New Yorkers used to even envy particularly "neat" skyscrapers (including skyscraper apartment houses) that were built elsewhere (especially two that were built in Chicago). It seemed to me that there existed a not uncommon sentiment along the lines of the following: "Why can't we have something as wonderful as Marina Towers or the residential apartments in the top floors of the Hancock Tower?"

    Benjamin Hemric
    Wednesday, April 11, 2012, 8:25 p.m.

  6. PART THREE (of a three-part post)

    When and why did even New Yorkers turn against the skyscraper?

    My tentative guess is that it has to do with four things:

    1) The "triumph" of anti-urban "modern" architecture (which I call "orthodox modernism"), with its plain boxy buildings, glassy / mirrored exteriors and tower-in-the-park massing (even when the building is not strictly speaking a tower-in-the-park building).

    2) The "triumph" of orthodox urban planning over Jane Jacobism.

    Despite the current conventional wisdom that Jane Jacobs has supposedly become the new conventional wisdom, it seems to me that the core Jacobs' ideas have never been -- and still are not -- accepted by most "urbanists." There are just a few -- very few -- of her ideas that have become popular. But, in fact, the core of her work was unpopular when it first came out and is still unpopular today. (Which is maybe part of the reason that people who write about her seem to ignore seven-eighths of her book and focus on only maybe the one-eighth, or less, where she talks about Greenwich Village and community protests in general.)

    In the core of "Death and Life . . . ," for instance, Jacobs suggests that many troubled urban districts could use i) HIGHER densities, ii) more STREETS (and fewer parks!), iii) more mixed uses (including INDUSTRIAL uses), and iv) less clearance of old buildings just because they are old. Leaving aside the last suggestion (which has indeed become adopted as a tool by NYMBISTS), when has anyone ever argued that the first three suggestions should be used, especialy in conjunction with the others, to help turn around a troubled urban district?

    3) The rise of NYMBISM.

    It seems to me that over the years our society has become more anti-urban (with so many of baby boomers having been raised in the suburbs and having been part of the back to the country hippie movement); more anti-progress (as an overreaction against Robert Moses style urban renewal, which was indeed sold as "progress" but wasn't); more anti-business (again a legacy of the hippie movement); and more self-centered "entitled" (again a legacy of the hippie movement and its 1970s offshoot, the "Me" generation).

    4) The genuine overdevelopment of already successful areas as a result, in part, of misguided NYMBISM forstalling development where it would actually be useful.

    My tentative thinking is this: people who used to love the mix of skyscrapers and low-rise buildings in their neighborhoods, became afraid that with more skyscrapers there would no longer be a true mix of low-rise and high-rise buildings. Plus the new skyscrapers would not be like the wonderful "modern traditional" ones that New York City used to build and love.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Wednesay, April 11, 2012, 8:35 p.m.

    1. Benjamin -- thanks for these great observations. The point about Modernist massing is an especially good one. Buildings which feel air-lifted in, without being respectful of context, are much more likely to be opposed by neighbors regardless of scale, I would guess. If a city is to be more than the sum of its parts, each part must somehow relate to the rest, and make the entire ensemble richer than it was before.

      The towers in Houston that I have seen generally present blank, four or five-story walls to surrounding properties (generally shielding parking garages). The new law, rather than encouraging builders to work with the context, actually requires the construction of additional barriers, which only covers up, rather than seriously addressing, the problem. It could be argued that it is actually an anti-planning law, as that portion of the law implicitly assumes that no new dense construction will occur around the tower -- thus normalizing the idea of gated, walled-off towers (vertical subdivisions) built in SF detached residential areas.

  7. For what it's worth, Ashby is not that far from downtown Houston. But it is a lovely little neighborhood - I used to live right where the new building is proposed in a retro apartment with a teal bathroom - teal tile, teal toilet, teal sink, and teal tub - and a fig tree right outside my back door. A high rise definitely wouldn't fit.

    1. Can you see the towers of the Medical Center district from Ashby? I've noticed here in Minneapolis that the same people who often brag about their skyline views furiously oppose buildings in their neighborhood greater than two stories.

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  9. Funny you should mention the Equitable Building versus Houston's Ashby High Rise. I wrote a similar post in my blog in 2009. http://www.citizenarchitect.blogspot.com/2010/01/learning-from-new-york.html
    To me the biggest peril (in Houston anyway) isn't so much in building tall - the BBVA Compass Building, under construction in Houston's Uptown district, is just as tall as the Ashby High Rise, and bulkier, but not controversial (http://www.citizenarchitect.blogspot.com/2011/10/what-if-you-built-high-rise-in-houston.html) - but rather in failing to recognize and address neighborhood concerns. Developers play their cards close to the vest, when in fact they should be wide open at the earliest stages of the project. At the same time, neighborhood groups sit around doing nothing until the very last second, and then pounce and try to kill an unwanted project. http://www.citizenarchitect.blogspot.com/2011/07/crowdsourced-zoning-uniquely-houstonian.html
    In any case, thanks again for the post. I certainly agree with you that high-rise development is a perilous business - though it seems to me that it could be much less perilous if everyone was more open early in the process.

    1. Thanks for that link to your post, Citizen Architect (and for the other interesting posts) -- I hadn't seen it before, but the parallels are so strong that I'm not surprised that I'm not the first one the make the analogy.

      As to your point about neighborhood concerns, I wonder if developers, anticipating citizen opposition, aim high initially while expecting to make concessions at a later stage? Perhaps they figure it is better to beg forgiveness than ask permission. With as-of-right zoning, too, there may be an expectation that they have no obligation to consult neighbors (which may be legally true, but might be a poor long-term political decision).

  10. I agree that getting into the high rise development business sometimes gets controversial because of the involvement of the neighborhood and the local government. People have conflicting perceptions in building skyscrapers in the area regarding its safety versus the demand of the people for residential or commercial areas. In my opinion, I think that the safety of the people should be considered first. There are more risks in building high rise establishments and I understand that the government would want to prevent it. However, I do agree that they should have done so earlier and not when it is already being built. I think that promptness in action is something the government should work on.

    Abigail Kirby