Panel Discussion on the Ashby High Rise

by Brian Phillips

On April 14 I appeared on a panel to discuss the proposed Ashby High Rise. The event was hosted by the Baker Institute Student Forum at Rice.

The other members of the panel were:

  • Jim Reeder, the President of the Southampton Civic Club (the neighborhood nearest the proposed project)
  • Mike Snyder, a reporter for the Chronicle
  • John Mixon, a law professor and zoning advocate

The moderator was a student from Rice.

Currently, the property at 1717 Bissonnet is an apartment complex. A developer purchased the property, and after doing marketing studies, concluded that a multi-use high rise would be the best use of the property.

They applied for the 7 required permits and had received approval on 5. The civic clubs for 2 neighborhoods near the property began fighting the project, and enlisted help from Mayor White and City Council. At one point the City was drafting a new ordinance aimed specifically at this property. However, other Council Members began “tweaking” the ordinance so that it could apply to projects in their districts. As a result, it got watered down and the ordinance no longer would have stopped the Ashby High Rise. In response, the City found a law from the 1930’s that they are now trying to apply.

The moderator directed a question to one panel member, and other members could then respond. In total the moderator asked 5 questions, and then questions were taken from the audience.

The audience consisted primarily of home owners from the 2 nearby neighborhoods. There were a few students and a number of HOS members present.

The questions from the moderator were very weak. They avoided any essential issues. For example, the first question pertained to Houston’s “unique approach to zoning” and the second addressed how the Southampton Civic Club became involved in the “debate”.

I had received the questions several days prior to the event. I had prepared responses to each question, and my message was integrated. I knew that my time would be limited in response to each individual question, and intended to develop my message as the questions proceeded.

Despite my planning, several things occurred that made complete implementation difficult:

  1. The time available to me was cut short by the last minute addition of Mixon to the panel
  2. Reeder made statements that demanded that I address them
  3. Interruptions from the crowd

I had anticipated a hostile crowd. I knew that they would not like what I was going to say. However, their hostility exceeded my expectations and reached the point of being mildly amusing.

For example, at one point a member of the audience asked for my removal from the panel. During the Q & A another person launched an ad hominem attack by asking about my credentials (it turned out to be a good opening to inform them that they were not dealing with some intellectual hack).

Reeder ultimately cut the discussion short, quietly telling the moderator that he needed to leave. He disappeared within moments of the end. He was visibly and verbally shaken during the event.

Afterward, several homeowners approached me to discuss the issue. They seemed to be on the fence, so perhaps I had some impact on them.

I was also approached by 2 members of Houstonians for Responsible Growth. I had not heard of this group. In briefly looking at their web site, they seem to be pro-free market and they indicated as much that night. They appear to be focused on the economic argument against land use restrictions.

Overall, I was pleased with my performance. It was by far the most hostile audience I’ve ever faced. I believe I held my own quite well, and I certainly undermined the moral certainty of the opposition. The audience heard a principled argument, and I exposed the essence of their position. From a personal standpoint, I had a lot of fun.

I had met with the developers the week before the event. They were appreciative of my willingness to defend them. They are currently in “negotiations” with the City, and want to keep a low profile. Hence, they did not participate in the event. I hand delivered an audio recording to them the morning after the event. At this time, I have not heard their response.

Mike Snyder thinks that land use controls will be a big part of next year’s mayoral election. Peter Brown—a current Councilman and anti-billboard/ pro-zoning slug—plans to run.

The Ashby High Rise is a small battle in a much larger war. In 1993 I delivered a talk titled “Winning the Battle and Losing the War”. In that talk I predicted that even if we won the upcoming referendum on zoning, the issue would not go away. Collectivists would continue to work to implement land use restrictions. We won that particular battle, and the collectivists have won many since.

Houston is arguably the freest city in the nation. I love this city. I fought for it in the early 1990’s, and I will do so again. I desperately want to see the Ashby High Rise built. To me it will be more than just another tall building. At the risk of being melodramatic, it will be a monument to freedom, and the first victory in winning the upcoming war.

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