Take a moment to imagine a boomtown of approximately 2.1 million residents that measures approximately 60) square miles; however, no type of multicolored map exists that details specific land areas or ordinances that would otherwise be prohibited. This description may sound like some sort of bad nightmare in abstract; however, in Houston, Texas, and in the Houston Real Estate Market, which is the one big city in the entire United States that has never enacted any kind of zoning, the landscape itself doesn’t really match this aforementioned scenario. In fact, if you drive around this city after you’ve been to other big cities, you would end up discovering that Houston is very similar to them in many ways.
While this city has been chided by outsiders for many different reasons, including an occasional out-of-scale tower, a degree of orders typically persists, even in the middle of a big growth. The best example of this goes back to January, which saw a total of 15 different construction projects going on at that time. These projects ranged from the Hines Market Square tower to a 30-story office tower which will become home to BHP Billiton Petroleum. Another great project included the 160-acre Buffalo Bayou Park, a $58 million project currently under development by a public/private partnership.
Further legal and governance mechanisms have been put into effect as well, which include design regulations and limiting certain uses, even if they don’t dictate certain areas in which those uses are to be placed. Further mechanisms include deed restrictions and historic designations, which allow homeowners in different neighborhoods to impose rules and regulations in terms of locally-controlled zoning. District organizations also allow local businesses to shape the overall character and look of their areas. Additionally, developers are also working to create master-planned communities that are mostly suburban in nature, although some are located within Houston itself. These provide a more carefully controlled environment for those who are looking for it.
Evolution of a No-Zone City
For many developers, the overall lack of zoning comes with some definite advantages. While no one can just do whatever they want with a piece of land, the overall time frame for moving any kind of a project forward is more compressed. This makes Houston more unique in terms of providing predictability.
During the early to mid-20th century, zoning caught on in much of the nation; however, efforts to establish it in Houston essentially went nowhere, despite it having a tradition of limited government. The biggest obstacle involves Houston’s charter prohibiting council from enacting a zoning ordinance unless it’s put to a popular vote first. In 1948, a group of advocates fought with antiregulatory activists, which led to zoning being rejected by a two-to-one margin, with similar ballot measures occurring and failing in 1962 and 1993.
In 1982, Houston’s first setback restrictions were put into place, and ever since then, standards for everything have been enacted, including buffer space around high rise buildings and even parking. Certain types of uses are also restricted from being close to parks, schools, and residential neighborhoods. These uses include motels, cell phone towers, and industrial buildings.
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