The New Ashby High Rise in Houston?

September 16th, 2013

My colleague Matt Festa, who is an expert on land use in our unzoned city of Houston, is quoted in the Houston Chronicle about a potential new high-rise that will likely be met with massive opposition by wealthy residents:

The neighborhood’s fight recalls the efforts of Southampton residents who have fought the Ashby high-rise for the last six years, said Matthew Festa, a South Texas College of Law professor who specializes in property law and land use. That project, at 1717 Bissonnet, is now under construction.

“You have a situation with an affluent neighborhood with resources, a heightened level of interest and stake in the outcome,” Festa said.

That raises an equality issue, Festa said, about who can muster the most resources to fight a development. While the amount of money and time spent does not guarantee legal success, well-funded efforts may elicit more attention and generate public pressure.

“Even the River Oaks crowd may lose, but they are willing to write a check,” Festa said. “In the long-term, higher-level scholars who study this field are asking questions like: Do these wealth disparities argue for more generalized command and control or less?

“It’s not clear which way it’s going.”

I previously opined on the relationship between a lack of a zoning code and the ability of people to resist it–in short, without the governmental channels of opposition, stopping land use policy becomes a tool  of the wealthy.

In Houston, the dynamic is exactly the opposite. Because there is no formal mechanism for citizens to challenge land uses, homeowners are virtually powerless to stop new constructions. They can’t stop it. The unsuccessful five-year battle to stop the Ashby High Rise in an affluent neighborhood is proof. Not even the wealthiest Houstonians could stop a high-rise being built in a residential area, even though they organized massive protests at City Hall, plastered the city with signs, filed several (weak) law suits, and engaged in political lobbying. Because Houston has no real zoning review process, they couldn’t do anything.

Now, consider those with less means. I raise in class the example of poor members of the community trying to stop a similar construction, and the students all agree–it would be impossible in H-Town. Those most in the need of help fighting back lack the channels to do so. This is one of the massive down-sides of a lack of a zoning code.

Already the neighbors are mobilizing and soliciting $1,000 from property owners in the affluent River Oaks section of town. Check out