Tag Archive for: Houston Planning Commission

Livable Places Initiative Would Create Higher Density in Flood-Prone Areas

First in a series on the Houston Planning Commission’s Livable Places Initiative, and updated on 6/18/2023

On 6/8/23, the City of Houston Planning Commission approved an initiative called Livable Places that it has worked on since early 2020.

Goals include creating a more affordable, walkable and equitable City.

Planning Commission Website

All laudable goals! However, the goals do not include reducing flood risk. Both the City and Harris County agreed to do that after Hurricane Harvey.

But the changes recommended in the Livable Places initiative could actually put more people in harm’s way during the next big flood.

Encouraging Higher Density in Flood-Prone Areas

They would do that by encouraging more housing density – and potentially more impervious cover – in neighborhoods already prone to flooding.

While regulation changes would apply to the whole city, they would primarily increase housing density in “public-transit-rich” areas inside the Beltway. There, the new regs would even let developers avoid building parking so they could increase housing density more.

Compare the three maps below. The first shows flood damage in all storms from 1999 to the month before Hurricane Harvey.

From a 2018 Rebuild Houston presentation. Note the preponderance of damage inside the Beltway.

The second shows damage during Hurricane Harvey.

From 2019 HCFCD Federal Briefing. Again, note the preponderance of damage inside the Beltway.

Compare those maps to this one created by the Planning Department for the Livable Places Initiative. It shows transit-rich areas where parking requirements would be optional for developers, allowing even more housing density – inside the Beltway.

Screen capture from the Livable Places presentation to the Planning Commission on 6/8/23.

Preamble to City Council Resolution Clarifies Targeted Area

If that weren’t clear enough, the preamble to the ordinance changes proposed by the planning department clarifies the purpose(s) of the new regulations. Among other things, they strive to:

  • Encourage more compact development patterns and small-scale, multi-unit housing options
  • Make better use of land closer to existing infrastructure
  • Promote responsible, affordable housing development “within the inner city.”

The graphic below shows the housing types that Livable Places will encourage. Each involves putting more people on any given lot, acre, or square mile.

Screen capture from presentation to Planning Commission on 6/8/23

In summary, the Planning Commission hopes to increase density in areas with the worst history of flooding in Harris County – in the name of equity. And they do that even as Harris County struggles to mitigate flooding in those same areasalso in the name of equity.

My head is spinning. Where is Daniel Webster when you need him!

Learn More During “Livable-Places” Week

The City Council still needs to adopt these regulations before they become effective. The Planning Commission hopes to bring them before Council later this month or early next. Before then, I will cover:

  • More details of the plan and attempts to offset increases in impervious cover
  • The unknown, cumulative impact of recommended changes on impervious cover
  • The City’s Drainage Fee which penalizes impervious cover by increasing residents water bills
  • Whether proposed changes will really make housing more affordable
  • Migration patterns within the city and region, and the demographic changes affecting them.

Livable Places does have the potential to provide some benefits to some market segments. So to make sure we get this right, I encourage comment from members of the planning commission, local governments, affected citizens, and flood experts. To submit a guest editorial, reach out to me through the Contact page of this website.

Posted by Bob Rehak 6/13/2023 and updated on 6/16/23 with minor changes to the approved regulations.

2114 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

The Future that Houston Envisioned for 1990 … in 1968

1968 … the year that humans first traveled around the moon during the Apollo 8 mission. It was a triumphant time for America and Houston, home of the NASA “Manned Spacecraft Center,” its name at the time. We could do anything, it seemed. And we did.

1968 Plan for 1990

A reader recently sent me a preliminary plan developed in 1968 called Houston 1990. The Honorable Louis Welch was Mayor and Intercontinental Airport was still a year away from opening. And the Houston Planning Commission (which developed the plan) clearly had its eye on supporting future growth. The plan discussed new water sources, transportation corridors, green space, cultural amenities, employment centers, retail centers, housing choices and more.

Not all of ideas became reality. But most did.

Hits and Misses

For instance, the plan talks about an “emerging” office, retail and high-rise residential area near Westheimer and West Loop 610. (The Galleria?) It also mentions an emerging business area near Holcomb and Main (The Medical Center?) It predicted the continued dominance of single-family housing and the need outlying employment centers as Houston expanded so people could continue to live near where they worked.

For older Houstonians, this will be a nostalgic trip on Rocky and Bullwinkle’s “wayback machine.”

For younger Houstonians, it will be a lesson in the value of planning. For instance, future transportation options can be taken off the table if land isn’t set aside early enough and people build homes on it. That’s why it’s interesting to see something that looks like a network of greenbelts where the Grand Parkway is now.

But people also ignored parts of the plan. For instance, the need for flood control. The plan designated wide green spaces around bayous and creeks which were largely undeveloped at the time. They could have been used for detention ponds and channel expansion as development pushed outward.

Reservoirs that Never Happened

The plan also showed large reservoirs.

  • One was immediately west of what is now Kingwood where Spring and Cypress Creeks come together with the San Jacinto West Fork near I-69.
  • Another was west of a tiny town in the hinterlands called Tomball on Spring Creek.
  • A third was on the Brazos River near Richmond and Rosenberg.
  • And the fourth was a sprawling affair north of Lake Houston that took in portions of Peach and Caney Creeks, the San Jacinto East Fork and Luce Bayou.

Not one of these reservoirs was developed. And with few exceptions, none of the land along the bayous was set aside. The land along the rivers and streams became settled. And now those areas flood significantly during heavy rains.

Olive-colored areas represent open spaces recommended as set-asides for recreation, water resources, and flood control. However, little of the land was actually set aside for those purposes. The large green ring around the City is now the Grand Parkway.

Difficulty of Flood Mitigation After Development

The planned lake west of Kingwood is now sand mines and subdivisions. Lake Conroe would be built in 1973, five years later farther upstream. And Kingwood started building out in the early 1970s.

Building flood mitigation projects along these waterways now would be difficult. It often requires buyouts that can take a decade or more. This problem was foreseen. People were already building up to the edge of bayous, as you can see in the enlarged portion of the map below that shows Halls Bayou.

Halls Bayou in 1968. Note the green areas suggested as set-asides for “open space” along the bayou where development was already crowding the stream banks, leaving few options for flood control.

Many outlying areas that were sparsely populated in 1968 would follow the Halls Bayou pattern.

People would demand flood mitigation after, not before development.

However, that can become expensive and controversial as we saw this week in Huffman. Some areas there along Luce Bayou flooded badly during Harvey and Imelda. Harris County Flood Control District commissioned a flood-mitigation study that recommended a construction of bypass channel (see sections 4.1.3 and 4.1.4).

But local opposition developed from homeowners whose property would be affected. They fought the project. Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia killed it in the 8/24/21 Commissioner’s Court meeting, citing local opposition. That left Huffman with no immediate flood-mitigation hopes after three years of study and planning.

For Complete 1968 Study

For a high resolution PDF of the entire 1968 plan and accompanying text, click here. (Caution: 33″x30″, 14 megabyte file. Best viewed on large screen. )

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/27/2021

1459 Days after Hurricane Harvey