November 13, 2006
Condos in Sunset Heights

This story tells you all you need to know about why "historic preservation" is basically an oxymoron in Houston.

After years of disappointments, Houston preservationists were elated four years ago when the City Council adopted laws that gave homeowners new tools to preserve the character of their neighborhoods.

On Friday, as they absorbed the news that the city Planning Commission had approved a condominium development that circumvents one of those laws, the activists said they felt betrayed.

"The prevailing lot-size ordinance has failed," said Jane Cahill, an Old Sixth Ward preservation leader who serves on the Planning Commission's neighborhood preservation committee.

The lot-size measure allows residents to petition for a minimum lot size on a block or group of blocks, preventing the town home development that was proliferating in many older neighborhoods as the market heated up for housing close to downtown.

Assistant City Attorney Deborah McAbee, however, advised the commission that the measure didn't apply to condominiums, and that the panel was legally obliged to approve an application expected to result in the construction of four condos alongside 80-year-old bungalows in Sunset Heights northwest of downtown.

Condominiums are treated differently from town homes because the land beneath them is owned collectively by the purchasers and thus need not be subdivided into smaller lots, McAbee said.

This earlier story has more.

Commissioner Jim Jard, one of eight who voted for the application, said it was one of the most distasteful actions he's taken in his years on the panel.

"Usually when I leave here, I feel good about what we've done even if it is unpopular," Jard said. "But this is not a good result. It's wrong."

Two commissioners voted against the project and six abstained.

Doesn't exactly sound like overwhelming support from the Planning Commission, does it? I realize that they have to follow the advice of the City Attorney, and that they have a strong incentive to take actions that won't get them sued (which might happen in this case anyway), but maybe they needed to study this one a little more.

City Council members Adrian Garcia, who represents the neighborhood, and Sue Lovell pleaded with the commission to find a way to derail the project.

"This effectively circumvents the spirit of the prevailing lot-size ordinance," Garcia said. "This project is essentially what they are trying to prevent."

Commission Chairwoman Carol Lewis said the panel is reviewing reports from subcommittees aimed at strengthening neighborhood-protection rules.

Lewis suggested that Houston voters created the potential for such problems when they rejected zoning in a 1993 referendum.

City Controller Annise Parker, who was an author of the prevailing lot-size ordinance when she served on the City Council, said the condominium project violates the intent of the measure.

"With the city's guidance, the residents of Sunset Heights have worked hard to preserve the neighborhood qualities that attracted them to purchase homes there," Parker said in a memorandum to City Attorney Arturo Michel and Marlene Gafrick, the city planning and development director.

"I can certainly understand their frustration and anger at being told the work was in vain," Parker wrote.

Marty Hajovsky has been on this as well. He thinks the Planning Commission should have stuck to the intent of the law and rejected the application. Whatever the case, if this law can't stop condos, then neighborhoods like the Heights have no means to maintain their uniqueness, and that's a situation that cannot stand. Either the law needs to be reinterpreted, which means defending it against the inevitable lawsuit, or it needs to be fixed. Anything else is an admission that there's no value in neighborhood identity.

Houstonist also chimes in.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 13, 2006 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack