February 14, 2008
Ashby highrise ordinance delayed again

The first step in solving a problem is to admit you have a problem.

City officials want to spend up to seven more months to consider ways to regulate traffic from high-density buildings, Mayor Bill White said Wednesday.

The announcement was discouraging for residents who want a quick resolution to the controversy over the proposed Ashby high-rise near Rice University.

White said he would prefer City Council hold off passing a new traffic study ordinance so the city can hold public hearings that could run through September.

"I think it's a public debate that needs to happen," White said. "To make sure we do this and we do this right."

James Reeder, co-chair of the Stop Ashby High-Rise task force, said, "People would be very upset" at a delay.

With all due respect to the Stop Ashby folks, this person isn't upset at the delay. I'd much rather get this right slowly than get it wrong quickly. I'd rather we do nothing than pass a bad ordinance. Easy for me to say, I know, but I'm still going to say it. And I think I won't be the only person who'll be upset if an Ashby-specific ordinance exposes the city to a lawsuit that it ultimately loses.

In recent months, lobbying and negotiations had focused on drafting a new ordinance to regulate traffic from high-density complexes. But existing law may do the job, according to City Attorney Arturo Michel.

"There's a mechanism in place right now that we can use," Michel said. "Whether it's the Bissonnet (at Ashby) development or any development, we have a tool that we can apply."

The tool, a section of the city's street and sidewalk code, allows a city engineer to approve or deny a driveway permit for a development, said Andy Icken, the city's deputy director for planning and development.


Relying on an existing ordinance, rather than drafting a new one, may better protect the city should the developers of the Ashby project ever decide to sue, a legal expert said.

"If it's good law and it's been on the books all along, then the developers are presumed to have notice of it," said Matthew Festa, a professor of property rights and land use at the South Texas College of Law. "They can't come back and say they've been treated unjustly."

The city risks exposing itself to a "takings lawsuit" if it passes a new restrictive ordinance after the Ashby developers submit permit applications or site plans, Festa explained. The developer could argue that the city changed the rules after the fact, taking away value from their property.

White acknowledged that problem Wednesday.

"There are some legal doctrines that you can't change the rules in the middle of the game, once somebody has filed certain things," he said.

Maybe that existing law can accomplish what the neighborhood wants, and maybe it can't. I think the real problem here is that the city simply isn't equipped to do anything about this kind of development. What we need is a better approach to form-based codes, and to recognize that this is an evergreen process. The unfortunate consequence for the Ashby folks is that achieving that kind of broader fix won't do a damn thing to help them. But it will be better for the city, the neighborhoods, and the developers going forward. Maybe they can take comfort in that, I don't know. I just think we need to re-evaluate what we're trying to do here, and to do something that will be broadly beneficial. If that takes months to do, I have no problem with that.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 14, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston

you've got to have city ordinances with consistency and transparency

Posted by: Peter on February 14, 2008 2:29 PM

I completely agree with your take on this. Form-based code is coming, sooner or later, to every town and city in the nation. The quicker we get into that the quicker we get a Houston-style solution that helps remove a lot of this civic friction and begins to help shape the city to grow up around the immense new transit system that will open in 2012.

The solution to the current problem should be a public/private one, in which a development similar to the one proposed winds up near a transit station, and a project of about 5 stories happens at Ashby - and adds some sort of amenity to the neighborhood. Health club, something. Let's be creative and get something terrific out of this.

Posted by: David Crossley on February 14, 2008 4:43 PM

Let's see. We have grand jury shopping by the district attorney's office. We have judge shopping by attorneys representing the sheriff's department. And now we have ordinance shopping by the mayor.

Corruption by any other name is still corruption.

The developer will sue the city. Then the two ringleaders of all this will sue the developers and use their Vinson & Elkins "prestige" to settle the matter. And of course probably do so on a pro bono basis representing the poor homeowners. And then pad the billing and take it off their taxes.

In the end, about the only thing they have accomplished with regard to their neighborhood is to ensure it is protected. Normal people don't want to live around pretentious people who pull strings to get a mayor to pull strings in order to circumvent law. Which is really what is going on here.

Unless of course you believe the city charter, and the will of the voters, means absolutely nothing.

Reality is you don't see any other homeowner associations joining in on this temper tantrum on the part of a few pretentious, and obnoxiously so, people.

Maybe what Metro should do is take care of the real problem with Bissonnet which is the need for it to be widened and just run the Westpark rail line down Bissonnet. It's closer to Westpark, really, than Richmond is. So at least the mayor can claim Metro at least ran it near Westpark.

A growing number of people are in fact hoping the developers do sue the city. Fed up with our equally pretentious mayor. Maybe if he costs the city a fortune finally with his "the will of the voters does not matter" attitude everyone will finally wake up and realize what is going on here.

These people do not care about the city. They only care about their quiet little world in Southampton. If the hirise were planned for the north side of the street and away from Ashby, these two attorneys probably wouldn't have said a word. They really don't care about Boulevard Oaks either. Just their own little world.

By the way was there ever a traffic impact study for Medical Clinic of Houston? Do the homeowners think Sunset Boulevard is not going to become a major thoroughfare once it opens? The visitors to Rice may use Rice to access the garage. But the patients at Medical Clinic of Houston are going to use Sunset. And that is going to become a nightmare.

Maybe Anne Clutterbuck will have "No Thru Traffic" signs posted on Sunset at Kirby and Morningside and Greenbriar and of course on everyone's favorite street Ashby.

Truly one of the worst areas in the city to live at this point. And not because of the traffic or the development. Because of the pretension.

Sure would like to know what Anne Clutterbuck will tell the homeowners in Ayreshire and Braeswood Place where developers are indeed going to impact traffic on a two-lane residential street named Bellefontaine. No doubt people will finally realize who she represents when she tells them "sorry but there is nothing I can do" which is what she has told everyone about everything. Except for 1717 Bissonnet.

You get what you vote for. And all eyes turn to the mayor and to Anne Clutterbuck.

Posted by: Baby Snooks on February 15, 2008 10:03 AM
Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)