Roger Galatas Interests

Articles

Houston Chronicle
Old problem: taming new sprawl
Counties, voters, developers have roles in guiding our growth

By Roger Galatas
Aug. 20, 2005

Along roadways around Houston the landscape is changing in a way that is worrisome. Closely spaced houses replace trees and open fields in many areas. More houses each day. New billboards advertise our future.

But let's also recognize that the Houston region is rich in resources with talented, caring people, attractive centers of commerce and many neat neighborhoods. For most, this is and will continue to be a great place to live and work.

But to reach that beckoning future we must examine a new set of solutions to avoid the endless expansion of sprawl so visible today sprawl that will limit our potential.

Houston is not alone in facing this challenge. The Census Bureau forecasts a national population growth of 60 million within the next 20 years. This is a staggering thought. It is the growth equivalent of building communities equal in population and services to 11 of the top 12 metropolitan regions in the United States.

During the same time frame, the Houston region is expected to add more than 2 million residents, increasing its population by about 50 percent. There is just not enough affordable space within existing cities to accommodate all future demand for residential development. Across the nation and in Houston, the majority of this growth will occur in suburban locations.

For the Houston region this growth phenomenon may be especially challenging given our historic aversion to comprehensive land use planning. As has been the case for the past 40 years here, most new regional growth will occur in unincorporated areas of Harris, Montgomery and Fort Bend counties, with Galveston and Brazoria adding to the equation.

And counties in Texas have very limited authority to impose rules and regulations regarding the use of privately owned land. They also have rather limited financial resources to expand services. But lack of authority and money do not dismiss the need for solutions.

I will offer some solutions to consider which some in the development community may not embrace but first, a little history.

Early suburban development here during the 1960s and '70s generally consisted of residential subdivisions taking access from existing two-lane county roads. Residents commuted to work in Houston and traveled out of the neighborhood for daily shopping needs, schools and other services. Families knew families, and that, coupled with the usual single entryway into the neighborhood, created a sense of security not always found in the city.

But as more subdivisions were developed and connected to county roads, traffic became a problem. Retail strip centers sprang up along the roadways, creating more traffic. Trips to work, to school and to shopping became a bigger problem and less attractive as the natural beauty of the roadway disappeared under a clutter of competing signs, frequent parking lots and unattractive architecture. So the reason for moving to the country to enjoy a better quality of life was spoiled by unplanned sprawl.

This chaotic growth pattern of the late '60s and '70s, coupled with a more thoughtful national trend in urban planning, gave rise to the successful introduction of large scale master-planned communities in the Houston region. Owner/developers of these larger land holdings, some exceeding 10,000 acres, could establish quasi-zoning and development standards through covenants imposed by deed restrictions.

Today, master-planned communities capture an impressive 30 percent to 35 percent of the residential housing market in the Houston area. Several also serve as successful regional centers for jobs, shopping and entertainment. They offer a more efficient use of land and a sense of community for residents. But many of these communities are reaching the end of their development life with replacement of the larger ones made difficult by higher land costs and greater development risks. As a result, we now see a renewal of the sprawl pattern with many smaller developments and limited amenities.

So, what can be done to guide growth?
First, recognize and agree that the region faces a problem of sprawl that will adversely affect the quality of life and economic opportunities for the next generation unless reasonable steps are taken to intercede soon.

But agreement is not always easy. For example, one business owner on the North Freeway was reported to say the cluttered look of I-45 is an important part of our cultural history, much like Times Square is an icon of New York.

Another said it is a streetscape from hell delivered by an unmarked truck. There are different opinions to consider, but even if status quo is the choice, that too will require thoughtful effort. Left unattended, conditions tend to decline.

Advancing toward higher goals will require greater energy and cooperation within the regional community.

Developers have a special obligation to plan and develop suburban communities and retail centers that meet high standards. Most do a good job; but, unfortunately, a few do not. At some point, this will tend to invite an increase in regulation of all and it should.

Reasonable rules uniformly applied would place no one at a disadvantage. Quality development makes a lasting contribution to the region, whereas poor quality will become a burden. The focus should be on community building, not just land development. As an example, the city of Sugar Land imposes land-use regulations in a professional way to enhance quality while improving its competitive edge.

Government has a role to play. Regionwide zoning would be problematic and filled with unintended consequences, but urban counties should be given more legislative authority to address issues of urbanization that affect quality of place. These include the preservation of trees and open space and control of billboards and signs.

The Texas Department of Transportation should rethink the purpose and use of frontage roads to make our freeways more attractive. In other states, cities without frontage roads have more attractive freeways.

Financial and regulatory incentives should be established to encourage development of more comprehensive communities that meet reasonable standards of development and include sites for parks, schools and open space. Those not meeting these standards should make mitigation contributions to a parks and open space fund.

The Harris County Flood Control District has initiated a well-conceived program to combine flood control projects with recreation uses. Expanding this concept to adjacent counties would be beneficial.

Counties should use qualified urban planners to assist in land-use policy issues. Bond elections should be called by cities or counties to fund the acquisition of additional parks and open space. Let the voters decide. Nationally, more than $17 billion in such ballot measures have been approved by comfortable margins within the past five years. Why not here? It is a good investment in the future.

A fraction of future infrastructure bond revenue should be used to landscape or preserve trees to enhance public roads and facilities. Thoughtfully structured public/private partnerships can be a productive approach to leveraging resources and creating value. Special-purpose improvement districts are effective in focusing resources on specific programs and areas.

A stronger central city adds strength to the region. The impressive repositioning of downtown Houston to include attractive residential housing, entertainment venues and cultural activities has made it a more appealing living alternative. Significant effort is under way to improve Houston's public schools, but more is needed to attract large numbers of families with school-age children into the city.

Over time the light rail line will create positive change in the urban pattern between downtown and the Texas Medical Center. Future commuter transit service from outlying residential communities will add to the vitality of the region and have an impact on the location of suburban development.

Even so, new and expanded roadways will be needed to accommodate growth; but these should include scenic roadside easements to the extent practicable.

Volunteer organizations offer great potential to address quality of place issues. Many are already making a visible impact. Trees for Houston, Scenic Houston and others are engaged in a number of tree planting and beautification programs. Coalitions have been formed to include civic groups, businesses and local governments to work with TxDOT to fund landscaping programs along sections of major freeways. Hopeful signs abound.

And individuals can and do make a difference. I am reminded that George Mitchell, Terry Hershey and Hanna Ginsburg, with the help of then-Congressman George Bush, made a difference many years ago in protecting a wooded stretch of Buffalo Bayou west of downtown from becoming a concrete-lined channel, as proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers. Elyse Lanier championed landscaping at the big airport. Countless others have made similar contributions.

The lesson learned is that we should not leave it up to someone else. Each of us has an obligation to become involved in our own way. And we can make a difference. Today, we have good political leadership within the region but we must continually work to elect public officials who understand growth issues and are willing to take initiatives. Monitor their performance. Make constructive suggestions. The system rewards those who participate.