Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Preview of the 2009 Mayoral Race

Update 10/7/09: A more recent review of the mayoral candidates is available here.

Next year’s Mayoral election promises to involve considerable discussion of land use regulations. Two of the more prominent potential candidates have already expressed their ideas on the issue. In this post I will examine the views of City Controller Annise Parker and Councilman Peter Brown.

In a letter that began “Dear Houstonian” and written on City stationary, Annise Parker wrote in regard to the Ashby High Rise:

What is happening in Southampton could happen in any Houston neighborhood.Other cities like Dallas and Austin have heard the cries for help from their neighborhoods and found ways to help property owners safeguard their investments and quality of life. If the political will is there, we can do the same in Houston. We can enact form-based limitations. The time to start is right now.

I would also urge quick movement on new regulations requiring a traffic impact analysis and appropriate traffic mitigation for any high-density development. If mitigation is not feasible, then building permits should be denied.

Parker makes it clear that she welcomes further land use regulations, particularly if they will “protect” neighborhoods and improve quality of life. But as I have written before, quality of life is a matter of individual values. Since Houstonians embrace a wide variety of values, whose idea of quality of life will guide those regulations? Whose values will guide public policy?

Regardless of the specifics, the values of some individuals will be imposed on the entire city. Some individuals will be forced to accept the dictates of politicians, bureaucrats, and/ or the majority.

Parker gives us an idea of her vision for Houston in an article in Out Smart Magazine

Respected social scientists like Richard Florida produce one survey after another concluding that quality of life (enhanced by parks, good neighborhoods, diversity and tolerance , recreation, and historic preservation) attracts highly mobile top graduates and families to cities--not to mention tourists and conventioneers.
Which means, Parker would use land use regulations to create parks, diversity and tolerance, and historic preservation, among other things. I can understand how land use controls could create parks and preserve historic buildings, but creating diversity and tolerance is less clear. That is, until one considers the fact that land use controls—i.e., zoning—have been used in other cities to dictate where specific types of individuals may live. One can only conclude that Parker would use land use controls as a form of social engineering to shape Houston into her vision of utopia.

Indeed, this is the premise behind land use control advocates. They seek to impose their values and ideas upon the entire community. They may start with architectural styles or specific land uses, but their power lust (or that of their successors) soon expands. If they can control the look of a neighborhood, why not control the entire “feel” and culture of that neighborhood? Indeed, Parker has hinted at that in an article in the Chronicle:
"If you're going to build a mid-rise or a high-rise, it ought to be on a major thoroughfare, not looming over and dwarfing hundreds of homes nearby," Parker said.

In other words, she would use government coercion to direct where and what development occurs. She's made it clear that she would deny permission to developers who propose projects that don't meet her vision of Houston. Personally, I would prefer nearly anything over a city that requires permission to use one's property. I would prefer nearly anthing, including a high rise looming over my home, to a city run by a gang who believes that it has a right to impose its values on the citizenry.

Peter Brown shares in this view of Houston. One of the “solutions” on his web site is:
Update Houston’s planning and development standards; adopt a comprehensive plan to realize our shared VISION for the future and to shape the quality growth our citizens want.
As with values, Houstonians have many different visions of the future. Whose vision will be implemented? The answer isn’t surprising, though Brown would likely deny it—those with political power and connections.

Like the pro-zoners of the past, Brown implies that he will build a consensus, that all Houstonians will have input into the planning and development standards. What he fails to address is what happens to those who disagree, those whose vision is not embraced by the majority.

Unfortunately, they will be forced to accept the consensus. The views and vision of the majority (or whomever purports to speak for the majority) will be imposed upon the entire city. Which means, the views and vision of some will be forced upon others. Some individuals will be forced to sacrifice their plans, their visions, and their lives.

In an article for, Brown writes:
It is time to control the destiny of our city by coordinating plans for transportation, drainage, land development, revitalization of Downtown and the inner city, and the stewardship of our heritage and natural environment.It is time to relinquish the myth that Houston is so different from other cities, and to embrace proven planning and urban/suburban development principles, directed toward enhancing the quality of life for all citizens.

A well-conceived Comprehensive Plan, reflecting input from the entire citizenry, is the basis for effective government and an efficient, attractive cityscape. Without such a plan, Houston will increasingly experience problems of congestion, air pollution, visual blight, and pressures for higher taxes.
What is interesting is that these same dire predictions have been made by the pro-regulation, pro-planning, pro-zoning crowd for nearly 80 years. What is equally interesting is that these predictions have not come true. In fact, Houston has been the nation’s star city throughout 2008. But why let that fact get in the way of your political ambitions? Further, why not let individuals determine their own destiny, rather than have it controlled and imposed on them by politicians and bureaucrats?

In the same Chronicle article cited above, Brown's plans for the city are described:

City Councilman Peter Brown, an architect and urban planner who said he intends to run for mayor, said he would develop a code that regulates building form rather than use. This approach is the hallmark of New Urbanism, a school of urban planning that emphasizes walkable neighborhoods where people live close to their workplaces, shops and entertainment.Arguments that reasonable regulations would drive new development out of Houston are nonsense, Brown said.

Without sound development standards, he said, "we're losing our share of the middle class. We're getting flooding, air pollution, neighborhood blight and decline.

So apparently the fact that Houston is far more friendly to middle-class families than more heavily regulated cities isn’t good enough. We need more middle-class families in Houston, and Brown thinks the way to accomplish this is to emulate those cities that have driven the middle-class to the suburbs. That seems more than a little odd to me. It seems like a perverse inability to recognize cause and effect. It seems like an abject rejection of principles.

Both candidates share a common premise-- some individuals may impose their ideas and their values upon others. They present their plans in grand terms, seeking to appeal to a large segment of the electorate. But the number of people who endorse their schemes does not determine its propriety or validity.

In contrast, I propose a different vision for Houston. I propose a city in which each individual is free to pursue his values without intervention from others. He may not use force on others to achieve his values, just as others may not use force against him to achieve theirs. It is a city with true diversity and tolerance, where the credo "live and let live" has actual meaning, where the ideals of others are not imposed by force. It is a city where "quality of life" is defined by individual freedom, rather than chosen and imposed by politicians and bureaucrats.

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