They Built Their Own Highway…
and other tales of private land-use planning
A privately built four-lane divided highway in Houston? Things like that aren't supposed to happen. After all, who would fork over bucks for a road that anyone and everyone can motor along without paying a cent? Well, yes, but…things like that do happen in Houston.
Several years ago the West Houston Association—a group of businesses—saw that a whopping traffic problem on the booming west side of town could be cut down to size by the addition of a four-lane roadway. So they planned its route and they got it built—not by the city (a.k.a. the taxpayers), but by landowners with properties adjacent to the planned road.
Now the association has on the drawing board a 10,000-acre privately financed park called Cullen Park. The Cullen Foundation has pledged an initial $6 million for developing it, and the project is to benefit from another $50 million over the next several years from nearby developers—their beneficence coordinated by the West Houston Association.
These are the sorts of things I discovered when I ventured to Houston recently. My journalistic assignment: to find out why zoning was coming to Houston, the one major American village without it or very much else in the way of government land-use regulation. For there had appeared in the summer of '82 a spate of news reports saying that Houstonians were fed up with "unbridled growth" (the New York Times) and "untrammeled development" (Britain's Economist) and that "stringent" controls on developers were finally being considered—and passed—by a city council that was "turning over a new leaf" in order to bring some measure of planning sanity to Houston's helter and skelter of land-use anarchy.
But when I visited the Land of Chaos to dig beneath those reports from the international press corps, I found no articulate support for zoning there: not in the mayor's office, not on the city council, not in the planning and development community—not anywhere outside of the ritziest suburban neighborhoods. I did find that Houston developers, who are doing more planning and building than their counterparts in any other three American cities put together, consider themselves far ahead of the zoners in solving urban problems; that whatever Houston's current difficulties, they are uniformly byproducts of its success as the growth phenomenon of urban America; and that the people in Houston don't have any explanation for why outsiders keep writing nasty things about life without zoning in their sweet little town by Buffalo Bayou.
It was a setback ordinance passed by Houston's city council in June 1982 that sparked last year's articles trumpeting the victory over rapacious, unzoned development. Yet the assertion that Houston had never had anything of the sort is pure mendacity. The Houston Planning Department, in existence since 1940, has for four decades coordinated private development with public facilities such as roads, sewers, and schools. It was already enforcing a setback provision for subdivision development, which is the name of the game in at least 80 percent of the city's building area.
The radical reform enacted by the 1982 revolutionaries meekly imposed setback requirements for industrial and commercial property (10 feet on local roads, 25 feet on commercial thoroughfares) and provided for the connection of stub streets (streets whose continuity is impeded by undeveloped lots). And these provisions had been widely effective in practice, if not in policy, for several decades. No surprise, then, that setback-ordinance proponents could cite only one instance in this 3-million-person metropolis where a street widening to relieve traffic congestion had been thwarted by buildings that were too close to the roadway.
And the glory of a people's victory over "development interests"? Houston's assistant planning director, Kerry Gilbert, informs: "The development industry didn't oppose the ordinance—in fact, it endorsed it—because it was already aware of the problem and had already begun setting back buildings. The emphasis is now on large industrial or commercial parks with lots of open land space." In Houston, the private sector is always six strides ahead.
As for nonzoned Houston's failed experiment in free-market land-use allocation, we may turn to zoning "advocate" Eleanor Tinsley, the council member who sponsored the ordinance: "I don't see a referendum on zoning passing in the future," she told me. "Houston has done well without zoning, so I'm not a proponent of zoning."
In some quarters, Houstonians are thought to be so unsophisticated as to have avoided even discussing zoning—for if they had, wouldn't they have embraced its obvious merits? But as Roscoe Jones, Houston's planning director from 1964 to 1983, wrote in a recent monograph: "The subject of zoning was seriously considered in the 1920's and it was determined by the City officials at that time that this exercise of municipal police power was not necessary or desirable to impose upon the citizens. The subject of zoning was again given serious deliberation in 1938 by the Houston City Planning Commission, resulting from studies and recommendations by nationally recognized planning consultants.…
"Another zoning ordinance and map were prepared and presented to the citizens of Houston in the form of a 'straw-vote' election in 1948. The proposed zoning ordinance was soundly defeated at the polls. Again in 1962, as part of a comprehensive planning effort, another zoning ordinance and map were prepared, submitted to the citizens in another 'straw-vote' election and again zoning was decisively defeated at the polls."
For the record, Houston is the only major American city to hold a popular referendum on zoning—a tricky way to "avoid" the issue. In fact, in the municipal sprint to zone land use in the two decades following New York City's landmark adoption of controls in 1916, Houston was the one big city to resist the stampede and consider the issue.
If the truth be known, it is the zoning impulse that has proven a rush to judgment and made a botch of rational land usage. Jerry Wood, the mayor's assistant for such matters in Houston, used to work as an urban planner in (zoned) Tulsa, Oklahoma. He points out that the "vogue in city planning in the 1970s" in places like New York City was to push "urban plazas"—and to rid the city of the sleazy mumbo-jumbo of little shops and unrelated stores that dot the older, less-"planned" sections of the city.
"Today, those plazas are hotbeds of crime and a big zoning failure," Wood says of the modern planners' wizardry. Public officials failed to see the merits in the hustle and bustle of small, informal enterprise breeding an urban vitality from the clutter of little storefronts, and they failed to see also the devastating impact of marble-pillared sterility. Now the lone, after-dark activity in many of the architecturally superb urban plazas is the gentle sound of a drug deal—or dealer—going down.
It is Houston's "unplanned" flexibility that so impresses its patrons. "Our older areas tend to revitalize themselves," observes city planner Kerry Gilbert. "You get conflicting land uses, where you see residential uses alongside multiple-family [apartments and condos] or commercial development. Revitalization happens here quickly in the private sector, as opposed to waiting for the public sector to get the government involved." In fact, the city has cut itself out of all federal urban-renewal subsidies, because the Department of Housing and Urban Development insists on the citywide zoning ordinance that Houstonians keep trashing.
Unplanned flexibility or planned subsidies—they seem to have made the smart choice in Houston. About one house out of 15 built in the entire country last year was built in Texas's Harris County—that is, metropolitan Houston. The city abounds with billboards touting "Luxury Townhomes Starting in the Thirties"—the purchase price, not the required down. All through a recession, with interest rates stuck in the upper stratosphere, nonzoned Houston went right on constructing. It did so by "downsizing" its product.
Mike Marix, president of a large Texas construction firm, believes there is an important reason why Houston continued to hammer away: "We've shown in Houston that the market can respond to the financial needs of the consumers in the marketplace. When interest rates go to 15, 16, 17 percent, the payments run amok if you're dealing with a fixed-size house. You have to go to a smaller unit. You can't do that in Dallas, where the zoning authority sets 1,600-foot minimums."
Yet, if flexibility flows from freedom, freedom begets fear: the fear of nonzoning. "If you live in a city with zoning, you feel you're protected," cautioned Gilbert in his office in the city's planning agency. Confronted with the idea of living without such controls, people "fear that they'll be living next door to a gas station. But I've never seen a gas station at the end of a cul-de-sac. The economics of the situation just don't allow it." (And when one oil company mistakenly believed the economics justified a gas station in a nice Houston neighborhood, the hundreds of angry residents who mailed back their oil-company credit cards quickly convinced the company otherwise. The gas station was not built.)
"Even" without government-imposed land-use planning, Houstonians do not end up with anarchy. How they "control" development is an interesting testament to freedom and the human ingenuity that thrives under its wing.
"All the things I thought would be missing were done differently and called something else," concedes recent Minnesota transplant Patty Reeker. Reeker, who came to Houston from St. Cloud last year, believes "it's a good experience for a person to come from a place with zoning and experience a city like this." It's been a particularly good experience for her, because she was the city planning and zoning coordinator in St. Cloud and now works as a planner in Houston's Planning Department.
Reeker was well prepared by graduate-school planning courses to know precisely what to expect in Houston—screaming chaos and an urban-planning house of horrors. "I thought I would see rampant commercial development on every residential corner," she recounts. "In St. Cloud, everyone seemed to want commercialism everywhere but next door to them. I thought, without zoning, Houston would have a million commercial developments."
What she found, however, were 10,000 private deed restrictions governing land use via the private market. Often ridiculed by academic analysts as ghastly expensive, clumsy, and impossible to create or enforce, these agreements web the city of Houston into a complex labyrinth of private zoning "ordinances" covering some 10,000 residential and commercial developments.
Also called "restrictive covenants," private deed restrictions are legally binding agreements among property owners to restrict the uses of land in their development for a certain period of time (normally 25 to 30 years). Originally, deed restrictions were common only to residential subdivisions in the city, but more and more, developers of commercial properties too are putting restrictions into their deeds. (When modern covenants expire, their provisions continue to hold unless a large majority of deed holders—the requirement varies—votes to cancel or amend the covenants.)
The covenants, for example, for the Courtyard-Woodland Trails West Homeowners Association (filed in September 1980) run 32 single-spaced pages and flatly preclude individual property owners from, among other offenses: using their lot for anything other than "single family residential purposes"; erecting a "sign of any kind"; engaging in "any noxious or offensive activity"; wiring up "any outside lighting or loudspeakers or other sound producing devices" that "may be or become an unreasonable annoyance or nuisance to the other Owners"; or erecting "buildings or exterior additions or alterations to any building" without—for any of this stuff—explicit permission of the resident-elected board.
Such private zoning has given Houston some of the country's most luxurious ghettos of wealth: River Oaks and Sharpstown, for instance, are the anarchistic land-use analogues to the plushest publicly planned Grosse Pointe, Michigan, or Scarsdale, New York. "You'll see the same type of development in Houston as in zoned cities," says Reeker, "but it isn't done by a zoning map." (No matter how it's done, observed this investigator, you still cannot find a Union 76 station or a 7-11 store when you really need one.)
The theoretical dilemma that zoning purports to solve is the problem of "externalities." If you want to consume a good that has a clear owner—a cheeseburger, say—you pay the owner and wolf down the burger, and everybody involved is happy. Some resources, however, are less tangible than a burger and hence more difficult to analyze in terms of ownership. When you crank up your car tomorrow morning, you will neither calculate, nor compensate for, the airborne flotsam you churn into your neighbor's lung-space. While you pay for the double-cheese-with-onions, you use up the clean air for nothing, because nobody owns it and nobody's charging for it.
This "spillover," or externality, is therefore not taken into account when you rev up the V-8. When you consume for free, you fail to "internalize" the cost you inflict on others, whereas you unfailingly remember that you should not consume the burger unless it's worth to you at least $2.19—what Burger Heaven will sell it for, to cover costs.
When a proposed development does not fit its neighbors' conception of a pleasant neighborhood, zoning alleges to solve this third-party effect by allowing the adversely affected property owners redress before city authorities. Suppose, for instance, that a retirement community learns that the church next door is planning to construct a day school for boys and girls. The residents of the old-folks enclave will immediately rush to protest this assault on their neighborhood. And with all the clout the organized seniors are likely to have down at city hall, the church day school is just liable to find its land rezoned for a mortuary (something that keeps to itself while providing a neighborhood convenience).
Not only is this an example of what generally takes place in a zoned locale, it demonstrates how distant from the theory of externalities is the zoning solution. The retirement community could always have purchased the church's land or purchased the church's right to build the school (that is, have paid them off—or made a heartfelt donation, rather—to entice the church to place the school elsewhere). At minimum, it could have made an issue of any bona fide spillover: traffic, noise, or stray kids (soluble by additional off-street parking, thicker walls and higher fences, and adequate supervision, respectively).
But such solutions are rarely what the zoning process aims for. In St. Cloud, for example, Patty Reeker found zoning theory shipwrecked on the shoals of zoning-board reality: "My professors taught me how to lay out a city with compatible land uses; no one ever told me you'd become a politician yourself."
The nitty-gritty of public zoning is assigning and reassigning, carving up and dishing out, shuffling up and dealing out…property rights. The right to build, or to have your neighboring lot left empty, is valuable to the winner and costly to the loser. And so zoning is a game of pressure, of favors, of personalities, of arbitrary awards and personal friends and bureaucratic preference—in short, a game of politics. Everyone wants a piece of the cross-subsidy cake—the one who loses pays a "tax"; the one who wins lands a subsidy—and Reeker soon found that "politicians on different boards all tried to get in on the action by expanding their jurisdiction over zoning matters."
But where politicians have no jurisdiction over zoning matters—as in Houston—actual solutions to the externalities problem have blossomed and are innovatingly nursed by the profit sector. The key is the private developer, who in a town without the protection of government-imposed zoning, must cater to a wary consumer. Here, the buyer can shop for a private zoning compact, and competition among rival builders centers not on the simple task of throwing up slick stuccos and shingles but largely on the creation of nice neighborhoods. This is hardly ingenious and not the least little bit altruistic: banks won't even advance the working capital to a builder whose development lacks a set of deed restrictions. (And, as Dick Bjornseth reported in REASON in July, the unincorporated area of Harris County—the area outside of the city proper—has no government-mandated building code, but bankers are equally stingy with their loans to builders whose construction is not guided by private building standards.)
As eyewitness Houston planner Reeker finds, "In this town, there is a lot of pride, and every developer has a signature. People have a cooperative spirit, and the developers all have land-use planners working for them."
"If a developer does a poor job in Houston," notes city planner Gilbert, "his development is a flop." The fattest construction firms in Houston, in fact, are the ones that pave the way for the nicest neighborhoods, not the ones that grease the way for the slickest zoning variance.
The commercial sector of Houston is as vibrant, expansive, and progressive a testament to American brains and brawn as this forlorn Republic can currently boast. "No one can say what Houston would look like if the city had adopted zoning and strict building regulations in the beginning," surmised local television personality and Houstonologist Ray Miller in his 1982 book, Ray Miller's Houston. "But there is a good chance that Smith Street will soon be the best-looking thoroughfare in America. Smith will be lined with mostly new and good-looking buildings for 17 blocks."
And the industrial parks of tomorrow are on display today in this Texas-style Disney World: "The large energy corporations and other commercial tenants," reports Houston Living magazine, "are doing more than constructing skyscrapers in the recently vacant rice fields. Employing nationally recognized architects, the corporations are building campus-like, low-rise buildings that extend into park style acres of man-made lakes and landscaped lawns."
Yet 20th-century commercialism breeds something more when mated with 18th-century political economy: state-of-the-art social planning. At once one of the most progressive and most conservative experiments in the land, Houston is leading the world in private land-use planning. The laboratory for this societal test-tube baby is the tranquil suburban office of the West Houston Association.
Charles Savino directs the association, a sort of chamber of commerce bent on "keeping track of Houston from a planning standpoint." "Community planning" without the government? "Our members believe that planning makes sense for the long run because in the final analysis, they believe it's going to make more money for them," says Savino. "But zoning is too restrictive, too subject to whim. If you look at the professional planners who have worked in this city—I can't speak for all of them, but I was a director of the Houston chapter of the American Planning Association—I would guess the over-whelming majority would be against zoning."
The association oversees planning and development activities in an area exceeding 100,000 acres, an area whose population has soared from 50,000 in 1972 to 200,000 in 1982. Its list of members reads like a high-class club of movers and shakers. Of about 100 backers, 60 are developers, with the remaining firms mostly banks or planning/engineering firms. The banks are especially fond of Savino and his association—they are the boys who keep the banks' turf protected (and their 30-year mortgages solvent).
"Planning in Houston is different, because it's planning that makes business sense," says Savino. "Look at all the big developments here, such as West Chase, a 1,000-acre master-plan development, or Park Ten, a 550-acre master-plan development, or West Lake Park [all office-building complexes]. They will impose such stringent deed restrictions that typically will go far beyond what any kind of public planning agency would impose—sign control, setbacks, landscaping, height limitations, floor-area ratios—very, very severe restrictions."
When I talked to him, Savino was musing over a local bank that was fuming about not being able to erect a big, fat sign over the premises—the development's owners said no. The economics of restrictions are clear. "They want to make sure that their development is attractive," explained Savino. "They don't want adult-book stores and tacky architecture and no landscaping and so much density that the traffic is too bad." In the jargon of the theorists, they're internalizing the externalities.
But West Houston Association members go far beyond planning single, large developments. As a group, the association plans for an entire community. An example is Park Row, that privately planned and financed highway on Houston's west side. After the association had calculated that an additional four lanes would improve the west side's traffic flow, it decided that the best place for such a structure was paralleling the jammed Katy Freeway (Interstate 10).
When Park Row is completed in 1985, 10 of its 12 miles will have been privately financed, with the county government kicking in the remaining two miles of roadway on privately donated land. (About eight miles of it have been laid so far.) Essentially, the West Houston Association persuaded landowners with properties adjacent to the proposed road to finance the portion of the highway fronting their property. The association acted as a conduit among landowners to coordinate the line. The investment is a good deal for the propertied interests: improved traffic flow outside adds up to increased business traffic inside, thus pushing up rents and capital values.
Obviously, these guys in Houston never went to graduate school to study these kinds of solutions, because then they'd know what the experts know: they're not supposed to happen. You can't build a privately financed roadway because of the dreaded "free rider" problem.
The free-rider problem goes like this: even if it is in the broad self-interest of all parties collectively to fund an enterprise—building a roadway, say—it still is not in the narrow self-interest of any one property owner to ante up, because the new highway is a nonexcludable, public good—once built, it serves all comers equally, even those who do not pay.
The idea of a tax, government boosters will tell you, is to force everyone to pay his "fair share" and eliminate the profit of those who benefit but don't pay. (Of course, what is not mentioned is that this solution also forces payment from those who do not benefit—those who would choose not to accept the trade-off at its full cost. Now these paying nonbeneficiaries end up the butt of the solution. We have merely substituted one class of victims for another.)
But the West Houston Association never took a Ph.D. in economic theory, so they built the road. And this is not unique. In fact, the members of the West Houston Association—and those of its half-dozen clones now popping up all over the city—make a fat living (and a fatter contribution to society) doing all manner of the theoretically impossible.
When one of the city's largest developers, Gerald Hines, started to plan Westlake Park, a commercial complex sprouting three multistoried office boxes on 58 acres, nearby residents became upset as word of the development spread. But, in a city without zoning, what's a poor city planner to do? In Houston, city planners and residents alike go right up to the developer and tell him how to solve problems. The traffic snarls the neighbors feared were a source of concern to the developer, as well: his sales and rents would reflect the relative inconvenience of a poorly situated office complex. So, to make his development accessible from the major nearby thoroughfares, Hines, in consultation with the West Houston Association, built two new roads: Westlake Blvd., a four-lane road connecting the Memorial Parkway to the Katy Freeway (about one-third mile) and Grisby Road, a four-laner linking Highway 6 to Westlake Park (about one-half mile).
Traffic, when the complex is complete, will be no worse for $150 million in added economic value and 4,000 to 5,000 new jobs (not to mention the generous windfalls to nearby homeowners who must suffer through significantly higher home values when all those office-building execs begin scouring local streets in search of bedrooms next to their desks).
The West Houston Association has encountered free riders, like the one businessman who held out on a repaving and widening project on a 2½-mile stretch of the popular Memorial Drive. The association proposed that owners of land contiguous to the road pay for the project on the basis of square footage, but two held out. One was converted through moral suasion. The other hold-out's contribution was chipped in by an adjacent property owner whose business wanted the local road improved. The money was raised in 1981, the work contracted to the county, and, for a cost of about $1.2 million, is just now being completed. (Savino claims there is little ostracism of the lone nonpayer—his business is thought to be in great financial difficulty, and "people feel sorry for him.")
For Savino's money, the most exciting aspect of the West Houston Association is the innovative nature of its solutions to problems. The traditional zoning approach is to snuff out the problem's symptoms by simply foreclosing economic growth—and opportunity. "Under zoning, the plans are arbitrary," Savino comments. "What's the difference between C-3 and C-4 [two of the many zoning categories]?" Government planners "are really trying to control the impact of development on the surrounding community," says Savino. "But they do it by controlling the use.
"It's always been my approach that, if you could set some sort of criteria for the way a development performed, there would be no reason to control use. An impact could be anything from traffic, noise, dust, air pollution, or aesthetics to the burden on sewage, water, flood-control, and school facilities. So I ask a planner, 'What about an 80-story building in the middle of a residential neighborhood?' He says, 'That's horrible!' And I say, 'Well, wait a minute. What if there were no traffic coming in and out of it? Suppose there were a subway into the building so there was no added traffic in the neighborhood?' That's kind of a ridiculous example, but if it's traffic you're worried about, then traffic ought to be the thing you control—not the type of development or the height of the building."
In fact, says Savino, the literature of the zoning profession now "abounds with ideas on performance zoning." So why haven't government planners changed their ways? "Because it's a very difficult thing to do. Zoning is a cop-out. We say, 'Look, Mr. Big Developer, if you want to build something here, why don't you build another thoroughfare to help move those people in?"
So who's complaining? Houston's got jobs—86,800 new ones every year. Houston has home building—about 60,000 new units every year. Houston's got a robust middle-class lifestyle at a price even the middle-class can afford. And Houston's got a private sector that plans and improves and repaves and lays out.
Yet all is not happy in nonzoningland. There is a grumbling in Houston. It is the steam of bumper-to-bumper anxieties brought to a boil on Houston's crowded thoroughfares in the sweltering summer Gulf Stream air. In recent polls, about two-thirds of Houstonians say they favor zoning (although polls showed the same presumption for controls before the last two referenda, as well). The undisputed reason is traffic.
Kay Crooker, a homeowner activist who is a sort of closet zoning advocate, represents a wealthy neighborhood association. Ask Crooker about zoning, and she'll tell you about traffic: "My neighbors in this area have suffered from the onslaught of commercial development, and the street work is always done after the building. There is a lack of planning as far as traffic is concerned."
A Texas transportation agency rates five of Houston's expressways among the six most heavily traveled in the nation, and many claim that Houston's surface streets are even worse. The Chamber of Commerce, concerned about traffic snafus, was pushing a "regional mobility plan" calling for a sales-tax-financed mass-transit rail system, which the voters bounced in June 1983 (see Trends, Sept.). The use of helicopters by time-valuing executives to sail through the less-crowded sky lanes has been highly publicized. And reference to "Texas-size traffic jams" now comes close to displacing "according to an undisclosed source" as southwestern journalists' favorite cliche.
There is fact lurking behind Houston's legendary traffic—but also some puff. Random personal observation: immersed in morning and afternoon drive times downtown and around, I found that Monday morning rush was dissipated by 9:15 A.M., evening drive was light by 5:30 P.M., and no traffic approached the oppression of that in my hometown Los Angeles. Moreover, for all its "sprawlingness," Houston's congestion is contained pretty much within the "610 Loop"—a 6½-mile radius from downtown. In Los Angeles, by contrast, rush-hour motorists can enjoy the thrills of thy neighbor's bumper 50 miles from City Hall.
Nonetheless, Houston's freeway system does stink. The fourth-largest city in America has only about the same limited-access-roadway mileage as San Antonio, a city half the size. Dallas-Fort Worth, with a population equal to the Houston metropolitan area (just under 3 million) and an identical land mass (2,400 square miles), has nearly twice the expressway mileage (445 to Houston's 230). Houston's unexpected explosive growth in the '60s and '70s (population up 71 percent from 1960 to 1980) explains much of the lag in the city's infrastructure development. But politics in Austin—the state capital—explains the rest. "You'll find a beautiful six-lane rural highway going nowhere to nowhere," says Savino of the lovely Texas plains. Country folks, of course, dominate the legislature.
So the 62 percent of Houston residents who now say they would vote for zoning in the abstract gripe about traffic congestion on the concrete. City council member Eleanor Tinsley, who sponsored the 1982 setback ordinance, is aware of the formidable success of nonzoning in promoting the city's growth. Yet when asked about any problems created by Houston's lack of zoning, she instantly lashes into the city's traffic jams. But, asks this observer from the heavily zoned freeway parking lots of Southern California, where is the correlation?
"When you don't have zoning," explains Jerry Wood, the mayor's planning aide, "all the problems you do have are blamed on not having zoning." Wood recalls one civic dispute where the city was contemplating running a dead-end street through to a major thoroughfare. "Residents were afraid of increased traffic," he says. "In the controversy, one resident pointed out that if Houston had zoning we wouldn't have this problem. But the decision was one of where to put city streets and didn't have anything to do with zoning."
Successful expansion in the housing and job markets has severely challenged Houston's transportation market, and here nonzoning may be an indictable accomplice. "I guess growth creates chaos," offers city planner Kerry Gilbert. "And a significant factor in our growth is our lack of zoning. Growth creates problems. It burdens the infrastructure and traffic. But those are the good kinds of problems to have. It's better than having zero economic growth and unemployment."
Moreover, given Houston's overactive-glandular growth, the city's lack of zoning has helped to alleviate traffic. "Builders and developers can react to changes in conditions in our city virtually overnight," notes Gilbert. The traffic problem grabbed the city only in the mid-'70s. Early in the decade, travel times were very swift relative to other major cities. The congestion problems descended very quickly, which is one reason why Houstonians are apt to grumble about them (sizzling summer weather is another). But the construction-market flexibility under zoning has made a bad situation manageable. "The thing that sets Houston apart from other cities is the number of office centers away from downtown," says Gilbert.
"Multinucleic" is what urbanologists call this dispersion of business centers—and Houston is multinucleating like mad. Already, one suburban area known as Post Oaks-Galleria contains more office space than the entire city of San Antonio. Currently being erected there is a 65-story skyscraper—the Transco Tower—reputedly the world's largest building not located in a downtown area. Conoco is constructing a behemoth office building (1.2 million square feet) for 4,000 workers out in West Houston. And within a 15-minute drive, there are residential neighborhoods offering single-family detached homes in every price range from $40,000 to $500,000. "Houston is solving its traffic problems—we're not waiting for the government to solve the problem," claims builder Mike Marix. "We're building satellite employment centers where employees live and don't have to drive to work."
Ironically, the typical zoning plan of the 1960s and '70s would have harshly segregated land uses, splitting downtown business districts from suburban residential neighborhoods. The result, a "sprawling" layout, aggravates traffic congestion and negates the time and energy efficiencies created by an "unplanned" land market. Popular impressions aside, zoning is not a solution to but a cause of metropolitan traffic problems.
Yet, for those who seek to dismiss the glaring success story called Houston—as the media, by and large, have done—the problems of urban growth such as traffic offer a handy, if fundamentally irrelevant, target. In writing up a story on Houston, a journalist may choose to discuss the (public-sector) difficulties or its (private-sector) opportunities, or both. By focusing almost exclusively on the former, writers who trash Houston expose themselves: they identify with the copings of bureaucrats and the disappointments of the elite.
For instance, it seems like every Northerner's commentary on this city must include the information that Houston is gauche to the max. In a major feature on Houston for the Chicago Tribune in 1980, Pulitzer Prize–winner Paul Gapp concluded that "this is a city that seems to be stuck with a mindset of municipal adolescence." On the way to this conclusion, we are treated to the news that Houston "still engages in such gaucheries as giving standing ovations to mediocre concert performances." And there's the inevitable comparison with "real class": "In New York, for example, a five-star restaurant might quietly supply you with a $1,200 bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, but only if you request it of the sommelier. In Houston, such a wine is more likely to be on display in a spotlighted glass case."
This reveals much more than simple pettiness and much less than simple good reporting. It reveals a preoccupation with the welfare of "adolescent" Houston's elite, the only class of individual (other than the public-sector bureaucrat) that rates much attention. But the plain fact is, public employees and rich people aren't the ones flocking to Houston: the former aren't wanted, and the latter generally resent having to put up with the nuisance of so much upward mobility.
"A large percentage of Houston's population, black and white," notes urban historian Barry Kaplan of the University of Houston, "has moved to the city in the expectation of improving their economic condition. As a city built by entrepreneurs, the culture and the values of the city support the concept of unlimited economic opportunity provided by the business community."
Conversely, the affluent tilt of zoning boards and public planners has long been noted. In his 1973 book, Opening Up the Suburbs, Brookings Institution housing specialist Anthony Downs detailed the great extent to which vacant residential land is zoned for lots of one- or two-acre minimum size. Moreover, Downs reported that much undeveloped suburban land is zoned only for single-family dwellings, rather than for apartments or condominiums.
Such regulations severely limit the housing supply and raise prices. And to what end? "All minimum size requirements," Downs observed, "are based almost entirely upon cultural and even political considerations, not upon health or safety requirements." Noting that "all legal minimum housing standards are direct interferences with free markets," Downs concluded that they "interfere with the rights of low- and moderate-income households both to choose freely where to live and to have reasonable access to job opportunities in the most dynamic portion of the economy."
In the '60s, in fact, it was common parlance for black militants to refer to suburban communities' "racist zoning" practices. Is it any wonder that in Houston's 1962 referendum on zoning, 75 percent of black voters rejected the idea, or that the measure's only solid support came from the wealthy southwest Houston precincts? "There is no doubt," writes former Houston planning director Jones, "that the accessibility to all types of housing throughout the community by low-income and minority groups has been facilitated by the city's lack of zoning."
Of those who characterized last year's setback ordinance as a step forward on public zoning, Jones calmly states, "I think that's a misinterpretation entirely of the situation in Houston. In no way does the ordinance regulate the use of property. It certainly cannot be interpreted as a move towards zoning." But last year's stream of reports concerning Houston's setback ordinance has fossilized into received wisdom. "In her first year in office," Newsweek reported in August 1983, Houston mayor Kathy Whitmire "imposed order on the city's unruly development."
Thus, tens of millions of "news" readers have been treated to the revelation that Houstonians are lined up (amidst heavy traffic congestion) to dump their antiquated 19th-century experiment with zero government. (Bernard Siegan, whose 1972 analysis of Houston, Land Use Without Zoning, is the classic academic treatment of the subject, reports receiving "I told you so's" from zoning proponents across the country.) It isn't Houstonians who are interested in zoning for Houston. It is reporters from elsewhere who are interested in zoning for Houston.
The real story about zoning concerns the people who must live under zoning, without the protection of the critical eye of journalists and beyond the classroom outlines for "rational urban planning," "traffic control," and "community integrity." These are what zoning proponents hold out to the citizens of a city in the abstract. In the flesh, they give them only the zoning board. One man who has thought a lot about what happens in reality to folks under those zoning boards is the well-known Houston architect Howard Barnstone, designer of the Rothco Chapel and other famous buildings.
"For me it's not a political issue," says the former Connecticut Yankee of the zoning controversy. "My feelings against zoning have nothing to do with rightist politics or any kind of conservative political feeling regarding the rights of cities or counties to govern. I feel that zoning is an inequitable device used to cheat poor people out of their homes or small businesses."
By contrast, Barnstone describes the experience of residents displaced by a Houston downtown development called Allen Center 1, 2, 3, 4. "These are four huge, new buildings ranging up to 50 stories tall, which sit on land that just 15 years ago was covered with little white clapboard houses in which black people lived. It was a little business and residential neighborhood called Fourth Ward."
"In a zoned society," recounts Barnstone in a dramatic, soft-spoken directness that is stunning, "that land would have been gathered by a Zeckendorf [a developer] who would have used state and federal statutes to get condemnation rights, and take them. What's a little cottage that sits on a 30-by-100-foot lot worth to a condemnation court—$5,000?" But residents in the unzoned Fourth Ward made many multiples of that, according to Barnstone.
In a zoned city, the Allen Center developer would have begun his project with an eight-course French dinner and a midnight cruise with a council member. In Houston, the Allen Center people began by buying up houses at prices that looked good to the sellers. "There were certainly some [white speculators] who moved in, and some [residents] did sell out too early," recalls Barnstone, "but the word got around pretty quick that their property was hot and, in the end, their land was selling for appreciable amounts of money."
Some of the poor landowners, Barnstone might have mentioned, decided not to sell—and so they stayed. The Antioch Baptist Church, the long-time home of the Fourth Ward's black congregation, today sits as a next-door neighbor to the Allen Center high-rises. The elders refused a sizeable offer to make way for "progress" and thereby purchased their own piece of the past.
The zoning story is a familiar one to Barnstone, who places great value on the morality of the issue. He points, with horror, to the flip side of nonzoning: a recent Miami Beach development that "fizzled after nine years, after they gave a private developer the right of eminent domain to destroy all the old hotels that had been developed by poor Jewish people from New York City—small, little hotels down on the south tip of Miami Beach. The plan was to build a 2,000-room hotel, 40 stories tall, and two 500-room hotels and a convention center and all that, and just destroy this retirement matrix for very poor people—first-generation immigrants many of them, and many, also, who had run away from Hitler. And here they were being 'master planned' again—in fact, that's the term they used: 'master development.' That didn't go down so well." Against the "need" for orderly growth, for government planning, Barnstone concludes: "Putting out vast numbers of people for private developers' convenience is so vicious it borders on the criminal."
The classic redevelopment scheme in nonzoned Houston is the famous Greenway Plaza. Developer Ken Schnitzer, Barnstone recalls, had to lure people out of their homes, on the site he wanted, "with cash—there was no government to take people's homes." Schnitzer offered each of the owners of 271 modest three-bedroom, two-bathroom homes—with a market value of about $18,000 apiece—a deal worth more than $40,000. Homeowners adjacent to the site petitioned Schnitzer to extend the development to include their properties, as well.
"I see no reason why Schnitzer should not have paid the going rate as he did," Barnstone says. "He's built an enormous success of that thing without government extending its arm of eminent domain. And why shouldn't the person whose house he happened to have wanted, get the supply-and-demand rate? Nobody thinks there's anything wrong with Rockefeller getting it. It's just that there's something wrong with poor people getting it."
Not in Houston. This massive megalopolis, plopped onto a dreary, barren, flat flood plain and pitted against the steamy shroud of the oppressive Gulf summer, flexes its "unbridled" muscles in daily defiance of pop wisdom: it works, it builds, it grows. While joblessness haunts the land and yet another congressional pork barrel—this year's "jobs bill"—extracts $4.6 billion from taxpayers for the illusion of 300,000 make-believe jobs, one city creates nearly 90,000 real ones every year. While millions of young families find themselves wallflowers in the dance of the American Dream, Houston is building three-bedroom suburban castles for under $50,000. While government planners in all the sophisticated places scurry from zoning-board meeting to commission hearing to advisory council to solve the problems springing from last year's planners, private-sector cooperation is constructing four-lane highways, downsizing homes (and mortgage payments), building parks, repaving roads, deed-restricting commercial developments and residential communities, revitalizing inner-city areas, and invigorating grass-roots neighborhood associations.
Does it work? A thousand new faces show up in Houston betting their Bekins money it does—every week.
The verdict on Houston is rendered by the station-wagon train arriving from New York, Cleveland, Detroit…Americans have voted with their radials their preference for "untrammeled growth." This is the long line of American pioneers that out-of-town reporters must cut in on when they come to file their dispatches on the nonzoned carnage. Houston is capitalist America's forward-most urban frontier. And this just may be its greatest burden, after all.
Thomas Hazlett teaches economics at California State University at Fullerton. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, and other publications. This article is a project of the Reason Foundation Investigative Journalism Fund.
The Conversion of a Yankee Expert
Barry Kaplan, urban historian, came to the University of Houston in 1975 as an assistant professor, bright-eyed and academic-minded. Achieving expert status in the instantaneous fashion of those who say what reporters want to hear, Kaplan quickly found a knack for quotable commentary.
Visiting journalists were especially adoring. The Chicago Tribune found Kaplan titillating enough to lead off Paul Gapp's 1980 feature piece on Houston thus:
You are about to get a 60-second crash course on the pros and cons of living in a city that can only be hated or loved.
First, listen to Barry J. Kaplan, an urban historian at the University of Houston:
"This is a city where government is a joke, the problems of poverty are incredible, and cohesion and a sense of belonging are non-existent.
"It's a monument to all the values that ended everywhere else with the Depression. Herbert Hoover would have fit in well here.
"This town is incredibly materialistic. All it has to offer is jobs. The public school system stinks. We're raping our land, and when we get to be an old city there won't be anything left. Houston is going to hell in a handbasket."
While in Houston earlier this year, I ventured out to talk to Kaplan, to see if his quotables had changed.
Now 33 years old, Kaplan moved to Texas from New York City, where he grew up, at age 25. He came to Houston, he says, "with all the traditional baggage" of "every good student" of urban history: "Zoning was good, planning was excellent, academics should run the world (because we were dispassionate and above it all), businessmen were crass—the usual."
Today, Kaplan describes Houston as a "private city" that favors the "private system." "We have low taxes, a suspicion of government, and the old frontier mentality," he explains. "I'm not saying it's perfect—you can't have low taxes and expect to have an incredibly elaborate system of public services." (For this reason, Kaplan calls Houston "public-deficient.") But "to judge us only on our public sector," he contends, "is to miss the entire vitality of what makes this city work."
As a concrete example of that vitality, Kaplan details some specifics of his own life as a Houston resident: "I built this house in an area I picked, with a park over there, an area where there is no way someone is going to put a Taco Bell on this street. We have deed restrictions.
"This house was an incredible buy. I couldn't afford anything like it any place else in the country. My wife flew for Braniff for 14 years. She's now retraining at the University of Houston to be an accountant, because of the job opportunities in this city.
"We drop our little boy off at a day-care center—we have three at the entrance to this subdivision. Why are they here? Because this is a very young area. Private service is excellent."
Of one highly visible group providing private planning and development services—the West Houston Association—Kaplan says: "When we talk about planning we always assume that the public sector is going to do it. How would Californians react if they were told that planning in Houston is done by private developers in cooperation with the public sector?" Houston's developers "are paying for roads, for public improvements. Why?" asks Kaplan rhetorically. "Because they're nice guys? No. Only because they're going to improve the value of their land."
Kaplan has come to appreciate the flexibility that private planning allows: "Houston has pioneered the multiple-land-use concept, where you have shopping facilities, office complexes, retail, wholesale—all in the same area. You can't do that with zoning. Articles claiming zoning is coming to Houston demonstrate a lack of knowledge about the city. If zoning were to come to a referendum today, I'd vote against it."
It is the issue of zoning that Kaplan offers up as the "best example" of his intellectual "metamorphosis." "People asked me," Kaplan recalls, "'Why don't we have zoning? You're the expert.' I didn't know. I did a study to see. I came in saying zoning is good. I came out saying I don't think zoning would fit this city. I've changed."
Indeed. "I've become a Houstonian," Kaplan now declares. "I'm proud of this city. I'm aware of its deficiencies. But like anybody else, I don't like a person coming down here just to do a knock job. If you come down to write about this city, say it like it is: this is a growing city, a positive city. We have our problems. But if I had a chance to move back to New York City, I wouldn't—you'd have to be crazy."