Development, Harvey and Zoning Regs

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Courtesy Photo

So there's no real way around it; Harvey was one of the biggest storms to hit the Gulf Coast since data was collected on the subject. People keep throwing around terms like a once-in-500-year storm, oronce-in-1,000-year storm (which is hysterical because nobody in Texas was recording storm data 500 years ago, unless there's an Aztec stone we haven't found yet).

Just to be clear, there's no way this storm wasn't going to fuck up a great number of people's lives. But, and it's a big but, the fact that Houston and Texas as a whole have no zoning regulations for land use and little to no regulations regarding wetland conservation have played majorly into the damage wrought. 

There were no plains or wetlands or swamps to help soak up all that rain. It really seems like the weather gods don't like Texas, as after four years of severe drought, they get two major flood storms in two years (Matthew last year). Feast or famine issues. But besides that, there is the point that Houston alone has paved over 70 percent of its wetlands in the last 30 years. All that pavement pushed the water higher and higher, as it had no where to go.

And now, all this money everyone is donating for recovery is not going to do anything (as of the day this was published at least) to try to increase drainage in the region and help prepare for the next flood. People think oh, well the chances of this happening again are so much smaller, and that's the gambler's fallacy. It's like thinking that because a slot machine hasn't hit in a week, it's got a better chance of hitting now. No, predictive percentages don't work that way, the chance of hitting is the same as it was when Harvey hit, it's still one percent each year. But regulations could've helped, and it's a point being made all over the place, but, as Boston is realizing now, those kinds of environmental and zoning regulations are extremely expensive. 

It's not just the contractor and designer who have to pay, think of how much time in Boston is spent going over those proposals sent in by developers, design architects and contractors to dot the I's and cross the T's. It's a lot. There's also a huge requirement for neighborhood outreach and feedback in Boston. 

And what happened in Irene, when New England was hit so hard with the huffin' and the puffin' and the rain coming up sideways? Bob Kraft got the priority for the Patriot Place in Foxborough so his shopping center and football team could continue to function. He got an earful from local residents who actually had to wait six days longer for power (literally in the same town) to come back on.

Boston has a reputation in its design. According to a survey of urban planners at Thrillist.com last year, it's the second-worst designed city in the country, but that really stems from the fact that we as Bostonians still put our faith in the instincts of the cows and horses of the 1700s, the paths of which were the roots of many routes still today in the city. But guess, and I was taken aback when I read this, which city is the most poorly-designed cities in the nation according to that same survey?

Fucking Houston. The study came out last year. I'm not surprised persay, but the lack of comprehensive planning that Boston is currently trying to go through on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood piecemeal basis is starting to show in Houston. At the time of writing this, 156,000 homes have been affected by Harvey, and it can be strongly argued that better planning and better zoning laws could've had an effect in mitigating that damage and the resultant deaths.

Boston and a good deal of the Northeast is still riding high on development booms in certain areas, with Boston being the focal point.  Marty, His Mayor the Honory Marty J. Walsh, and the local semi-governmental design board, the Boston Planning and Development Authority, are steamrolling through as much development as they possibly can before the development bubble bursts, and rents and real estate prices go back to reasonable levels ($1,979 average price for a one-bedroom here, it's out of control).But to be fair, half of the land within the City of Boston city limits is dedicated to education or religion, and therefore doesn't pay property taxes, which would explain to a point Walsh's perceived bet that more development will get more revenue.

They argue the more housing there is the lower the demand for housing, but that's another discussion. The simple fact of the matter is I believe they want to get as much new development as they can now so they can get the most amount of property taxes from those developments after the bubble bursts and pick up the pieces when development decreases later. The more stacked revenue they have saved up there in predictable property taxes, the more they have to work with later. It's not a bad strategy, but it does ring like Houston in some ways. The board and the Mayor's Office, in dozens of instances, have supported development that the neighborhood vehemently opposed, as in two instances going through the courts in Jamaica Plain where residents are actually suing the developers or the city over projects that were approved despite opposition and clear violations of the Boston Zoning Code, approved through what is called a variance in the code that the Boston Zoning Board of Appeals votes for. Rarely has any of these variances been denied.

To the city's credit, Boston has been responding to increased flood zones predicted by the Federal Emergency Management, mainly in the city's 2030 plans. But Paul Kirshen, UMass Boston School for the Environment Professor and Academic Director of the school’s Sustainable Solutions Lab, has proposed a radical new idea, which would enclose the city's harbor along the various islands (basically where Shutter Island takes place, for you DiCaprio fans out there) in a barrier to help prevent flooding.

Either way, everyone on the coast should be thinking about this, know where they fall on the flood plain and figure out whether flood insurance makes sense, as FEMA's predictive models put $86 billion worth of assets in Boston alone in the flood plain by the end of the century. It would make lobster fishing a bit easier though if half the city was under water, so there's that silver lining

“Remember, I'm pulling for ya, we're all in this together.”

Red Green

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Courtesy Photo