March 23, 2007
An update on a longstanding Heights development story

Via Houstonist, here's an update on a story regarding some condo development in the Heights.

Heights residents, upset about a possible new condominium development on vacant land near East Fifth and Frasier streets, aim to petition the city of Houston to broker a deal with the developer and join with the city to raise the money or find a donor to purchase the property so the land can be retained as a green space.

Residents contend the project, Viewpoint at the Heights, would cause traffic and flooding problems, and threaten the urban bird and wildlife habitat.

The claim is dismissed by Inner Loop Condos' representatives, who say they are doing their best to improve the area and work with residents.

Viewpoint would be built on 1.26 acres of land that is part of the original John Austin land grant purchased by the Allen Brothers.

The site is bounded by White Oak Drive on the north, Studemont on the east, I-10 on the south and Oxford Street on the west, and identified as Threlkeld Reserve in the Houston/Harris County Key Map.

The land is surrounded by a ravine and includes once used railroad tracks that are to be developed as part of the city's rails-to-trails bike network.

I blogged about this two years ago yesterday, and I even took pictures of the area in question.

The final plan for Viewpoint is yet to be determined, said project director Andre Julien of Inner Loop Condos, because they are waiting to find out whether the Texas Department of Transportation will grant an easement to gain access to the property from Frasier Street.

Inner Loop Condos has two plans for building entrances: from only Fifth Street or from both Fifth and Frasier streets.

If there are two entrances, Inner Loop Condos would build a one-story garage with four stories of about 75 condo units above it.

If there is only one entrance, the building would have a two-story garage with six stories of 80 to 84 condo units above it. Units will be priced from $170,000 to $400,000.

Julien said he is hopeful to break ground on the project in early 2008 and finish in early 2009.

"The best solution would probably be to have access on both sides because I know the neighborhood is very sensitive," Julien said. "They think there will be a big impact on traffic, which we don't believe because the traffic study says there won't be an impact.

"But if we can divide it into two access roads it would be better for (the neighbors). For us it would be more expensive, but we don't want to be against the neighbors. We want to work with them."

Here's the thing: The streets in question, especially Frasier, are tiny. As in, there's barely room to drive past a parked car on the street. Anything that adds traffic to Frasier, especially an 80-unit condo development, is going to have a big impact. It can't be helped.

There's another consideration as well:

The residents have found allies in the Houston Audubon Society and Bayou Preservation Association, both of which have sent letters to Mayor Bill White.

The Houston Audubon Society's letter, sent to White on Feb. 27 and signed by society president Stennie Meadours, said its board toured the land on Feb. 18 and found it to be an "excellent birding experience," and that one resident has identified 56 bird species on the property.

The Bayou Preservation Association's letter, sent on March 14 and signed by association president J. Tynan Kelly, raised issues about flooding the development could cause.

"Frasier and Fifth streets in the Houston Heights are bordered by an urban ecosystem that consists of undeveloped green space and a ravine that functions as a natural artery of the White Oak Bayou," Kelly wrote. "This natural ravine meets the Environmental Protection Agency's best management practices by serving as a non-structural technique designed to temporarily store stormwater runoff and overflow from the White Oak Bayou to mitigate flooding and reduce pollution.

" ... Allowing Inner Loop Condos to develop this natural green space will ultimately destroy an already existing wetland mitigation area of significant value and purpose to the surrounding area."

I'd be worried about the effect on the Bayou as well. When we get rain like we did last week, the water level gets awfully high. Who knows what might happen if all that green space there gets paved over?

There are still more considerations, like a proposed hike and bike trail through that area. The developer says he can include that in the design, and that he's doing everything he can to mitigate the neighbors' concerns. They're obviously not satisfied, and some aspects of this plan, such as the sheer height of the building, can't be smoothed over. It's hard to see a middle ground here, so the question is who's going to win. Whatever ultimately does happen, my sympathies are with the current residents.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 23, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston

What is it I've heard the Richmond Rail advocates tell people with businesses and homes on that busy street -- that's the price of progress, or some such?

Posted by: kevin whited on March 23, 2007 8:01 AM

Whatever you say, Kevin. As always, your logic amazes me.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on March 23, 2007 8:17 AM

This is a clone of two or three other developments they've done: Midtown Vistas, Piedmont, etc, that are in areas with just as little street access and congestion... so I don't see the big deal.

But then again, when I found out the Mosaic was going to be built (literally) in my backyard, I leaped for joy at the thought of more high rise residential in Houston. So I guess I'm "pro development."

IMHO, one of the best things about Houston is that no one has a right to block a business or condo tower on property you've purchased. It's not clear to me why Heights residents should have special power no one else has. I am absolutely indifferent to cries of historical preservation.

Posted by: ian on March 24, 2007 2:47 PM