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What about that tower’s traffic?

Christof takes a look at the Bissonnet Tower controversy, and asks just what it is we’re aiming to do about it.

To start with, the residential part of this project isn’t actually a traffic issue. Bissonnet is a major arterial; it carries 17,720 cars a day. The proposed 230-unit tower would increase the number of units on the site by 163 (there are 67 apartments there today). Assuming that each unit would create 4 trips a day, and half of those trips would head in each direction, that would increase the number of cars on the street by 2% — a trivial number. A purely commercial project could have worse traffic impacts — but the ordinance wouldn’t apply to it, nor even to a high-rise office building.

And what does lane count have to do with anything? Greenbriar in this neighborhood is 3 lanes, but it’s congested, too, and presumably the people living in nice houses with secluded backyards there don’t want a highrise next door, either (they just fought a two-story dental clinic). Conversely, there are two lane streets where a big highrise would be appropriate.

The real issue here isn’t traffic; it’s scale. There’s an important discussion to be had about how big or tall a building is appropriate in a residential neighborhood. There are good ways to write ordinances addressing these issues — so-called form-based codes. But because the neighborhood is talking about traffic, and because City Council feels politically comfortable addressing traffic, we’re debating a traffic ordinance based on faulty assumptions.

So we might ask whether the ends justify the means: is it OK to block a bad project by equally bad arguments?


Development policy ought to have two goals: it should automatically block projects that have unacceptable impacts, and it should make it easy to build projects that don’t. As long as we depend on neighborhoods to organize to stop a project, some neighborhoods will be unable to organize in time. And as long as we make it more difficult and risky to build, we make projects more expensive and chase even good development out of the city.

But the only way we’ll get a better set of ordinances is if we have the right conversations. If we’re concerned about buildings being out of scale, let’s talk about that. If we’re concerned about traffic, let’s talk about traffic. But let’s not talk traffic when the issue is scale.

I agree completely.

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One Comment

  1. Baby Snooks says:

    The issue of “out of scale” is addressed by deed restrictions. Therein lies the problem with regard to 1717 Bissonnet. That entire section between Bissonnet, Rice, Ashby and Cherokee is unrestricted. And according to the city charter, forever shall be until the voters voter “yes” to zoning.

    As for “out of scale” many believed and still believe Cheyenne Walk at Sunset and Ashby is “out of scale.” But there it sits. As will Medical Clinic of Houston down the street. As will something else. Here and there.

    Height is certainly a consideration for some. But how many stories are allowed? Is the standard to be set by the height of Medical Clinic and its garage? Can the city legally set such a standard without violating the city charter? The city does not have the right to limit land use on unrestricted land in the city. The voters have consistently said “no” to zoning.

    That is why the focus on 1717 Bissonnet is so outrageous to everyone else who has had to put up with the hirises “bordering” their “single-family” neighborhoods. The comments, and actions, by the mayor and by Anne Clutterbuck are what are most outrageous. Sorry but the homeowners in Southampton and Boulevard Oaks should not be allowed “special privilege” to stop a development on unrestricted land simply because they want to and can pull strings, or yank chains, at City Hall.

    Traffic impact, however, should definitely be looked at as a possible basis to limit such development. The problem is the impact in many cases is insignificant. It certainly is insignificant with regard to 1717 Bissonnet. I have to ask if a traffic impact study was conducted with regard to Medical Clinic of Houston. Of the three developments the homeowners in Southampton protested, that would be the one I would be most worried about. It is going to increase traffic significantly on Sunset and Cherokee and Rice.

    The real problem is in those areas like Galleria where there is already gridlock. Should development be allowed to add any additonal traffic where there is already gridlock? Probably not. But that is what the city probably needs to look at just the same. But then you have the problem of having no further development in certain areas of the city without significant widening of thoroughfares and possibly creation of new ones. Metro also needs to look at this in terms of providing rail to relieve gridlock as well as providing better mass transit. I am not sure Metro is doing so. But should.

    I am not an attorney but I would assume the issue of traffic impact would not violate the city charter. It focuses on something other than actual land use.

    I suspect the argument will continue for some time.

    Eventually it will have to be put back to the voters. I suspect the next time the voters will vote “yes” to zoning. Too many are finally being affected by the lack of zoning.