September 27, 2007
More on the Bissonnet high-rise battle

Mayor White has weighed in on the Bissonnet high rise that's got residents up in arms.

The city of Houston will use "any appropriate power under law" to alter a planned 23-story building that would tower over single-family homes in neighborhoods near Rice University, Mayor Bill White said Wednesday.

White, in a letter to leaders of area civic clubs, said the project at 1717 Bissonnet would worsen traffic congestion on that two-lane street. For future projects, he said, city officials are working on an ordinance that would require developers to "reasonably address traffic impacts" in surrounding neighborhoods.

Neighborhood protection advocates said they hoped the mayor's comments, coupled with fierce opposition from the adjoining Southampton and Boulevard Oaks neighborhoods, would provide impetus for stronger policies to ease the impact of new developments often seen as out of scale with surrounding single-family enclaves.

That is a pretty strong statement from the Mayor. Expect there to be some pushback when that in-progress ordinance gets aired.

City Controller Annise Parker, who previously served on the City Council and has a longtime interest in neighborhood issues, likened the city's role in regulating development to its recent strengthening of its smoking ordinance.

"There is a strong reluctance on the part of many in the community to infringe on property rights," she said. "But that tower in the middle of Southampton is going to influence every building around it, just like someone who lights a cigarette in a restaurant has an impact on the people around him."

Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, whose district includes the Bissonnet site as well as two other recent controversial development projects, said such disputes have become so widespread that trying to solve them individually is impractical.

"We need to look at these more comprehensively and collectively," Clutterbuck said. "It's unfortunate that we're doing them piecemeal."

Clutterbuck said she had asked White's administration to thoroughly review city ordinances to look for any regulations that might give the city leverage to require changes in the Bissonnet project.

I agree with CM Clutterbuck. We'll be doing nothing but this sort of thing for the foreseeable future unless we try to come up with a more general solution. Given Houston's history in such matters, even with recent small steps and proposals, I wouldn't expect much from such a thing. But almost anything Council can come up with has to be better than the ad hoc approach.

Neighborhood leaders said the project, on the site of what is now a small apartment development, would pour hundreds of vehicles every day onto Bissonnet and Ashby, also a two-lane street. In addition, the building would block the sun from nearby homes and intrude on residents' privacy, they said.

I recommend you go back to that previous post of mine and read Trafficnerd's comments about this. Very enlightening stuff.

In his letter, however, the mayor acknowledged that new, denser development in central Houston requires policy solutions as well as negotiation.

"Houston's city charter prevents the city from dictating references to landowners concerning the residential or commercial use" of their property, White said.

"I believe the city does have the power to limit or to impose reasonable requirements concerning on-site parking, flood impacts, the amount of traffic or trips and the reasonableness of places for ingress and egress on a particular property."

I think that's a very reasonable place to start, since these are practical items that really do have a big impact on the existing residents, to the point where they may no longer be able to park in front of their own homes. It's also something that can and should be addressed by developers, since they're the ones causing these problems. The reality of Inner Loop real estate today is that high rises and townhomes are here to stay. There's no reason why they can't be made to fit in a little better, however.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 27, 2007 to Elsewhere in Houston