Finally. Houston, notorious for its lack of zoning, adopted its first general plan September 2015. Known as Plan Houston, it’s a road map for planners and leaders to make informed decisions about issues like mobility, neighborhoods, development, sustainable growth, and infrastructure.
In the past, the city has managed projected growth reactively by expanding its hub-and-spoke freeway system and sprawling out across its vast coastal plain.
Newly-elected Mayor Sylvester Turner inherited the plan, adopted during former Mayor Annise Parker’s term.
“If you are not a policy wonk, the General Plan is a lot to digest,” Turner said via email. “We are working to identify the top 10 or so things we want to achieve in the next year or two. These will be goals that the public can readily grasp and understand. We have to be able to explain what it means and how we are going to get there.”
Among these goals: Spend money wisely; grow responsibly; sustain quality infrastructure; nurture safe and healthy neighborhoods; connect people and places; support our global economy; champion learning; foster an affordable city; protect and conserve our resources; communicate clearly and with transparency; partner with public and private entities; celebrate what’s uniquely Houston.
In his first press conference in February, Turner acknowledged personnel reductions to balance Houston’s projected $126 million budget gap, affected by rising pension costs and a voter cap on property taxes. Coupled with the oil downturn and declining sales tax revenues, Houston has to balance the budget by June while considering debt restructuring.
Patrick Walsh, the city’s planning director, described the plan as a guidance tool that will be implemented with annual work plans for the upcoming fiscal year identifying projects in short, medium, and long terms. The annual work plan will include input from the mayor, city council, city departments, and public.
An interactive mapping tool, still being developed, has been released in its beta stage, allowing for analysis and coordination across agencies. It visually and geographically identifies the plans of local, regional, and state entities and can be layered with pieces of city data for better analysis and decision making.
“This tool will go a long way to facilitate and coordinate the processes,” said Jennifer Ostlind, deputy assistant planning director and project manager of Plan Houston. Ostlind also described the plan as an initiative to improve walkability and transportation. Among other issues looming before leaders is the immediate work being done to host the Super Bowl next year with updates to public amenities, facilities expansion, and street improvements to showcase the city. “This is a city with a very free-market based economy without much regulation,” said councilmember David Robinson, an architect who is vice chair of the city’s quality of life committee. “We don’t have traditional zoning but there are other rules and regulations in place. This master plan is a framework where blanks get filled in.”
“Clearly a bit of time will be necessary to allow Mayor Turner to get up to speed on the city and how he could use the general plan to achieve his goals,” said Joe Webb, an architect and chairman of Blueprint Houston, a nonprofit organization formed in 2002. The group has spent more than a decade advocating for a plan and hired a consultant to aid the city in its plan development.
Blueprint will be meeting with Mayor Turner soon to affirm its support for Plan Houston and to advocate for taking the plan to the next level, he said.