Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Pyrrhic Victory

On Friday the city of Houston gave the developers of the Ashby High Rise permission to proceed. The necessary permits were approved after more than two years and eleven attempts by the developers to meet the city's demands. The developers aren't entirely pleased with this development, telling the Chronicle:

We're still not necessarily pleased with that result because we did have to eliminate uses that we felt made the project more appropriate for the location and enhanced its overall appeal. What the city has approved is not the best project we can build.
The entire story is a travesty. The fact that the developers even had to seek permission to use their property is a gross injustice. Now they will be forced to build a project that isn't what they desire--they must eliminate the retail and office space they had planned, as well as reduce the number of apartments in the building. What was originally proposed to be a mixed-use facility will now be an apartment building.

It is interesting that the city didn't even have the courtesy to inform the developers directly. The city issued a press release and allowed reporters to give the developers the "good" news.

At a time when many Houstonians, including a large number of government officials, are clamoring for denser development and more mixed-use projects, city officials have arbitrarily eliminated one such project.

The neighborhood associations who had fought Ashby aren't willing to give up. They have threatened a lawsuit to stop the project, which will force the developers to incur even further costs. Leslie Miller, who lives in a townhouse next to the site, said:
It's out of place for the neighborhood. It's very disappointing that the city doesn't have the tools at hand to prevent this from happening, not only in our neighborhood but in others throughout the city.
What Ms. Miller ignores is that government is an agency of force, and the only "tool" it has at hand is a gun. And it is a gun that the home owners in the area--with the help of city hall--have wielded in fighting the project. I suspect that the home owners would be extremely reticent to arm themselves and directly attack the developers. But they see nothing wrong with using government as their proxy.

The project approved by the city will likely be less financially appealing to the developers. The loss of retail and office space, along with the reduction in apartments, will certainly reduce their revenues. Their choice will be to absorb this loss, or raise the rents on the remaining spaces. If the former, the city has effectively stolen money from them. If the latter, the housing will be less affordable. In either case, the result will be economically harmful.

We can hardly call this a victory, for the rights of the developers have been under assault from the beginning. They were forced to grovel at the feet of city bureaucrats. They were required to spend their time completing paperwork to satisfy the city's arbitrary demands. They were compelled to act as the city dictated, rather than on the basis of their own judgment.

The Ashby High Rise is hardly the only example of the city placing arbitrary barriers in the way of businessmen. We have seen it with Spec's Liquor. We have seen it with the sign ordinance. We have seen it with tags for taco trucks. In each instance--and numerous others--the government has declared actions that violate the rights of nobody to be illegal.

Mayoral candidates Annise Parker and Peter Brown criticized the city's decision and if elected would combat a repeat of the Ashby controversy by enacting new land-use regulations. Both would continue, and perhaps accelerate, the city's growing anti-business attitude.

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