Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"Unplanned" Charm in Montrose

The American Planning Association recently named Houston's Montrose one of its “10 Great Neighborhoods” for 2009. The Chronicle laments this award, because the planning that has occurred in Montrose was conducted privately, rather than by the city:

As the pro-planning group Blueprint Houston recently pointed out, three of the intersection's four corners are occupied by pedestrian-hostile blah-ness: a gas station, a dispirited-looking half-empty strip center and a drive-thru restaurant. No planner in his right mind would allow such crud to command that spot.

And there's the irony. Planning can't take credit for the off-beat charms of Montrose. But without at least some planning — public, private or both — that unplanned charm may disappear. [emphasis added]

To the Chronicle, a planner "in his right mind", i.e., a rational planner, wouldn't allow what the paper considers "crud". While the editorial fails to tell us what constitutes rational planning or "crud", the real meaning is quite clear: Unless planning is dictated by some central authority, it isn't really planning. Since land-use is being determined by the choices of property owners and the market, it really isn't planning.

The only legitimate function of government is the protection of individual rights, including property rights. The paper doesn't tell us how a gas station, strip center, and fast food joint violates anyone's rights. There are two reasons doesn't tell us: 1. These businesses do not violate anyone's rights; 2. The Chronicle cares more about appearances than individual rights. Since the paper doesn't like the way this one particular corner looks, property rights are irrelevant.

The paper has made no secret of the fact that it wants much more stringent land-use regulations in Houston. It has jumped on the "quality of life"/ "protect" neighborhoods bandwagon with both feet and spools of newsprint. It has a vision of what Houston should look like and wants government to force all Houstonians to toe the line to make that vision a reality. And this is the crux of the matter from the Chronicle's perspective.

Individual liberty allows individuals to pursue their own values without interference from others, so long as they respect the mutual rights of their fellow citizens. The result can be the kind of eclectic development that has occurred in Montrose. The Chronicle may not like this, but one's likes and dislikes do not justify using government coercion.

Continuing its evasion, the editorial argues that Montrose will loose its "charm" if some type of planning does not occur. If that "charm" resulted from the absence of planning--as the paper claims--then why is planning needed to maintain that "charm"? If the free and voluntary choices of property owners has created a "charming" neighborhood, then what does the Chronicle expect planning to achieve? The answers become clear when we identify what planning really means.

While advocates of land-use regulations are reticent to use the "z-word"--zoning--they have not deviated from their goal. Recognizing that Houstonians do not want zoning, they have taken a back-door to their goal of controlling land-use in the city. Zoning, they say, won't work in Houston, but the city still needs "planning". As I have pointed out, planning without the means of implementation is pointless. Any plan developed by the city will require extensive land-use regulations.

A property owner then, will only be permitted to use his land in accordance with the city's plan. Any use that deviates from that plan will require the land owner to grovel at the feet of city officials. As evidence, see what the city has done to the developers of the Ashby High Rise. A property owner who wishes to do something "charming" will have to conform to the dictates of city officials. Which means, the city's idea of "charming" will be imposed upon the land owner. This is the goal of planning.

If the Chronicle had its way, Montrose would be a much different neighborhood than it is today. Rather than responding to changing market conditions, property owners would be compelled to respond to the demands and dictates of city bureaucrats and politicians. And that is not very charming.


Mr. Moderate said...

City regulations should be minimal, and aimed at preventing your use of your property from having a negative impact on the property of others or endangering the lives or health of others.

"It may be ugly, but I like it!"

Brian Phillips said...

I disagree. There must be a real and objective threat to others, or actual harm to their person or property.

Mr. Moderate said...

Define "real and objective threat". If your use of your property is annoying enough, but causing no direct harm or injury, that I can't use my property do I just have to suffer. For example, you raise pigs in your back yard, and the stench makes my backyard unusable. Or, you play loud music until 3am every night, which makes me unable to sleep.

Is it reasonable to require land developers to include water retention features so that downstream property owners aren't flooded by the new runoff? Developers hate that, because they can't sell as many lots and make more money.

Brian Phillips said...

By "real and objective" I mean actual harm, not merely the potential for harm. Raising pigs in one's back yard (assuming that the pig farm did not exist first) or playing loud music late at night are actual harms.

It is not reasonable to require developers to build retention ponds or anything of the sort. However, if upstream development causes harm to downstream property owners (or vice versa) then the developer would be liable for damages. Rational developers should recognize the liability and take measures to mitigate downstream flooding as a matter of self-interest.