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Chapter 42 is back

This is going to be fun.

Sprawling, boomtown Houston may be in for another battle over land use and development, this time driven by the most significant changes proposed to the city’s building rules in 13 years.

The rewrite would further a push for density in single-family development, begun inside Loop 610 when the rules were last changed in 1999, by extending those guidelines citywide. The proposed changes also would address problems that have cropped up with the townhomes that proliferated after the 1999 revision, which designated the Inner Loop “urban” and areas outside “suburban.”

City planners and developers say greater single-family density – allowing more homes to be built on a single acre – will spur redevelopment of blighted areas and provide more affordable housing in the city because builders will be able to fit more buyers on each piece of land, lowering the price they have to charge for each house or townhome. They stress the changes would not encourage more apartment towers.

Many residents are wary. Some say the push for greater density inside the Loop has sacrificed neighborhood aesthetics and created infrastructure problems, compounded by a lack of city enforcement. Others fear how the proposal will affect their neighborhoods.

Change can be scary for residents, Planning Department Director Marlene Gafrick acknowledged, but said redevelopment is better than decline.

“We have an aging city. We need to think about how we go in and allow for our city to be updated,” she said. “To some extent, these rules will encourage the redevelopment of property. We’re trying to encourage more single-family residential development outside the 610 Loop.”

On the one hand, this update should allow more dense development throughout the city of Houston, which in turn should make new development in Houston more affordable, and thus make living within the city more competitive with living out in the burbs. This is a good and necessary goal, and though I have expressed concerns about this in the past, I support it, as I have come to the view that the city needs to do what it can to encourage people to live inside its boundaries. Making housing more affordable is a good step in that direction. But the concerns I had before still remain, in that the city’s infrastructure will be greatly taxed by an influx of denser development. Rebuild Houston will deal with some of this, Parks By You will deal with some of this, and the rail lines that are currently under construction and whatever expansion of the bus system we get will deal with some more of it, but it’s not enough. We’ll need a lot more transit – all the rail we voted for in 2003 and then some, and a much bigger emphasis on sidewalks, walkability, and bicycle access. I feel like we’re moving in the right direction, but I worry about how long it will take us to get where we need to be.

Discussing the Z word

I have three things to say about this.

Going up whether you like it or not

The go-ahead for the Ashby high rise has left me feeling really depressed. If affluent residents with all their political and social connections can’t keep a 21-story skyscraper out of their bucolic neighborhood, what hope is there for the rest of us?

When Mayor “I’m against the project, but I can’t do anything about it” Parker touts lopping two stories off and instituting a shuttle service that few people will likely use as some sort of neighborhood victory, you know it’s time to talk about the “Z” word.

Yes, zoning.

The fact of the matter is that Houstonians have virtually no tools to stop developments that promise to irrevocably alter the character of a neighborhood. As my CultureMap colleague Katie Oxford has written, why do developers build such projects in the face of overwhelming neighborhood opposition?

Because they can.

[…many examples of development projects that neighborhoods don’t like…]

I realize that critics will carp that those opposing such projects are elitists with a “Not in My Backyard” mentality. However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fighting to preserve the character and integrity of Houston neighborhoods and asking for an orderly process of notification and neighborhood input before construction commences.

One thing seems clear: This messy patchwork of limited protections doesn’t seem to be working well. That’s why I think it’s time to talk about land use and — yes —zoning.

Otherwise it will only get worse.

1. I don’t know how you can discuss having a conversation about the Z word without at least mentioning the C word – “charter”. Zoning is forbidden by the city’s charter, so unless you’re also talking about organizing an effort to repeal that charter amendment, the discussion you want to have is strictly academic.

2. More basically, if you want to have a conversation about zoning, the first thing you really need to do is define exactly what zoning is. I say this because “zoning” is a shibboleth, used primarily as a code word for “horrible government overreach that destroys cities”. Just look at the comments in this article to see what I mean. On the flip side, since author Pugh never talks about what zoning is or what a zoning ordinance might do to deal with the problems he identifies, it’s also code for “magic government powers that can prevent whatever awful development I don’t like from being approved”. It’s kind of hard to have a productive discussion starting with those premises.

3. Beyond all that, there are plenty of options that aren’t zoning to give neighborhoods the ability to push back on development they object to, including things like minimum lot sizes, setback requirements, and form-based codes. The city is still working on its revamp of Chapter 42, which governs a lot of these things. Perhaps a better use of one’s time would be to catch oneself up on these things, and get involved in that process. At least it won’t require a charter amendment to get it done.

Still waiting on the new density rules

With all that went on last year in Houston, one item that had been on the table was a revision of Chapter 42, to redefine the rules about density and other codes for developers. The planned revisions never made it to Council for a vote, and the city is starting over with a new cast on Council to get this going again.

Developers and city officials say the first major revisions since 1999 to the city’s density rules, known as Chapter 42, are necessary to accommodate the next wave of Houston’s growth. U-Haul recently announced that Houston is the No. 1 destination in the country for movers for the third straight year.

Projections are for Houston’s population to grow by more than 27,000 people a year in coming decades.

Without rule changes, they will not find affordable places to live in Houston, Mayor Annise Parker warned.

“We have to continue to find ways to preserve a range of housing opportunities for our residents. We don’t want to become a city where if you have lots of money to spend you can find a place to live and if you have very little money to spend you (don’t) have good housing stock available,” Parker said.

The heart of the Chapter 42 amendments is taking the cap of 27 houses per acre that exists inside the Loop and extending it out to the Beltway. That would allow many more houses to be built than currently allowed on typical 5,000-square-foot lots.

“We’re not getting new single-family residential being built from 610 to the Beltway,” said Joshua Sanders, a lobbyist for developers. “We’re losing a lot of our population to the county and to the surrounding cities.” That means longer commutes and fewer city property tax revenues.

Increased density means cheaper houses because developers can fit more of them on the same piece of land. Depending on the location and the type of dwelling, the new rules could knock $100,000 off the sales price, Sanders said.

This story is more a recap than a report of something new, so I don’t have anything new to add as well. I will simply note again that there’s more empty, or at least greatly underdeveloped, space in Houston than you probably think. I’ve gone on at length about the Fifth Ward, but recent travels around the city doing interviews have reminded me of other areas that are as wide open, in places like Sunnyside and Hiram Clarke. My point is that the city of Houston already has a lot of room to accommodate that projected growth and more. Some of it absolutely needs to be in the form of more dense development, but some of it also needs to be taking advantage of this existing space. What both of these have in common is a need for improved infrastructure to make them viable and desirable. If we don’t solve these problems, we’re going to lose out to the places that have solved them.

Downtown suburbia

Lisa Gray writes approvingly of a forthcoming urban development in Sugar Land.

A far bigger project in the works is the Imperial, a 715-acre development that includes the site of the defunct Imperial Sugar refinery – the factory that built Sugar Land, the old industrial center of what was once a company town.

The walkable, bike-friendly development will include a baseball stadium for the minor-league Skeeters; housing (single-family, multifamily and assisted living); restaurants and bars; and an office park. It’ll give spread-out Sugar Land something that feels like the tight-packed middle of town, the place where things happen – something that the area seems hungry for. Even without any residential development at all on the site, the brand-new Saturday farmers market already attracts around 5,000 shoppers from the surrounding neighborhoods.

In the last decade, high-density town-center developments like that have sprouted all over Houston’s suburbs, creating some lively places: among them, Woodlands Town Center, Pearland Town Center and, of course, Sugar Land Town Square. The thing that makes Imperial different is that it isn’t being created entirely from scratch on a bulldozed site. Unlike those other brand-new town centers, it’ll have some history to it.

That sounds great, and some day when I go to a Skeeters game I will be sure to walk around and check it out. I find myself amused by the trend Gray notes of dense urban development being in far-flung suburbia, all of which are places that had been built originally so people could escape the urban environment. Not such a bad thing after all, apparently.

Here in Houston as you know we are undergoing a review of Chapter 42, our land development ordinance, to update the codes that allow and restrict dense development in the city. Nancy Sarnoff has an update on that.

The city of Houston is revisiting changes to its development code that were proposed three years ago but never adopted.

The revisions include expanding the city’s “urban area” to Beltway 8 and requiring additional parking in high-density, single-family developments.

If the changes are approved, developments common in Houston’s inner city, such as compact clusters of townhomes, would be allowed outside the loop, too. Certain neighborhoods, however, would have tools to protect their traditional character.

Click here for the proposed ordinance and a summary of the changes.

City Council will have a public hearing about this new set of changes on Wednesday, December 7, at 9 AM. I don’t feel like I understand what’s going on with this well enough to comment about it. The related parking issues we’ve discussed, but the rest of this is still somewhat formless in my mind. The full Chron story that followed adds another wrinkle to this.

“If you can put a few more homes on a lot, you’re able to sometimes keep those price points down where you can provide some affordability,” said Suzy Hartgrove, a spokeswoman for the city’s Planning & Development Department.


Mike Dishberger, townhome developer and president of the Greater Houston Builders Association, who served on the city committee that worked on the revisions, said the proposed changes could actually result in less development inside the Loop.

That’s because there’s more available land in the suburban areas, he said, and the loosened density restrictions will allow them to build more homes in smaller spaces.

“It changes all the economics of it,” he said.

This is a corollary of what Matt Yglesias was saying when he noted that you generally don’t have to “encourage” downtown-style office development, you just have to allow it. Of course, there is still a fair amount of space inside the Loop that could be ripe for this kind of development. I don’t know what you have to do to get it to happen there, but I do know we should be thinking about it more than we currently are.

Ashby’s developer defends his project

Let me start by saying that I agree with Kevin Kirton, the CEO of Buckhead Investment Partners, also known as the developers of the infamous Ashby highrise, when he says that the “trip number” justification that the city used to block that project for as long as they did was bunk, and that the highrise as originally envisioned, is a better use of the space than the compromise version. The city’s regulatory system simply doesn’t allow for a way to deny this project, and the debate that ensued in which we pretended there was a way to do it ultimately served no one’s interests. We do need a better and more consistent set of rules for development, and we haven’t really begun to engage that particular discussion.

None of this changes the fact that the Ashby highrise is a bad idea. It’s incompatible with the surrounding area, and the reason there was such fierce resistance to it is that everyone outside of Buckhead Investment Partners realized that. I want to address two of the points that Kirton raises in his piece, one broad and one nitpicky, to try to illustrate this. First, the small point:

Consider that this project:

• •  Is located minutes from Downtown, Greenway Plaza and the Galleria and within walking distance of Houston’s major museums, the Texas Medical Center, Rice University and Hermann Park’s many amenities;

• •  Is on one of the top five most utilized METRO bus routes in the city and a quick half-mile walk to both the Main Street and Richmond rail lines;

• •  Will connect its residents to the community with its shared restaurant, specialty shop, wellness spa, and a small suite of executive offices.

Actually, the Ashby is about three-quarters of a mile from what should eventually be a rail stop at Richmond and Dunlavy, and nine-tenths of a mile from the Museum District stations on Fannin and San Jacinto at Binz. Fudging numbers doesn’t make me inclined to believe the rest of what you say. And the problem with claiming that this location is walking distance to the Medical Center and Hermann Park is that Rice is in between it and them, and given that it is private property, it may not appreciate a bunch of people using it as a cut-through. I can’t speak to the point about the bus route, but I am curious how many people that currently live in the area use that bus; more to the point, how many future residents of the highrise do you think would use it, and how many current or potential bus riders would disembark there in order to take advantage of its restaurant, specialty shop, wellness spa, or executive suites. Being accessible to transit is only a virtue if it gets used.

And that brings me to my larger point. The problem with Ashby is simply that it’s misplaced. You can claim, as Kirton does, that it somehow fits in with other pedestrian-friendly development by virtue of it being sort of walking distance from them, but the fact remains that there will be no network effect from putting a mixed-use highrise at 1717 Bissonnet. By that I mean that there won’t be anything else in its immediate vicinity that will also be of interest to someone who is on foot in the area. Ashby is and almost surely forever will be surrounded by nothing but residences. It’s a destination unto itself. Nobody who goes there will then walk to a neighboring shop or eatery or what have you because there aren’t any, and won’t be any. Contrast that with my hypothetical alternate location on Richmond, where a bunch of commercial development already exists and more will likely follow as the stretch of Richmond from Shepherd to Montrose attracts transit-oriented development as Main Street has. The equivalent stretch of Bissonnet is almost exclusively residential. Someone who gets off the Universities line at Richmond and Dunlavy will have a bunch of places to walk to. Someone who gets off the bus at Bissonnet and Ashby is probably going home.

An Ashby highrise that’s actually located in the vicinity of other dense, pedestrian-friendly properties is a valuable addition to that area, one that likely would generate a lot of excitement. An Ashby highrise located in the middle of a bunch of houses is at best a curiosity, and at worst a blight on the existing neighborhood. That’s been the problem from the beginning. To me, the best outcome once we realized that there was nothing to be done to stop Buckhead under the current rules is to come up with a revised set of rules for future Ashbys that will encourage the former and discourage, if not actually forbid, the latter. Unfortunately, we’re no closer to that now than we were when the project was first announced. And I don’t see how we’re going to get there from here.

Ashby developers lose appeal

Given how long it took for the Ashby highrise developers to get their permit in the first place, I figured their appeal of the requirement that they cut back on some aspects of the project in order to get that permit would drag out for months as well. Not so.

The city of Houston’s General Appeals Board Thursday evening rejected a bid by the Ashby high rise developers to get mixed uses restored to their planned 23-story residential building in the Southampton neighborhood.

Matthew Morgan, one of the two principals with Buckhead Investment Partners, said the next step would likely be to appeal to the Houston City Council.

“We came here to build a better building than what was approved,” Morgan told the Examiner following the appeal. “We will reconvene and consider our next step. We are still going to build a building.”


Morgan said Tuesday, the developers had been forced to modify the design, because the city had arbitrarily applied a traffic-limiting ordinance to their project that had not been used in issuing permits to similar developments on major collector streets.

“In essence, it (the change in design) eliminated the very elements that would connect our development to the adjacent neighborhoods.”

As I said before, if you can’t stop the developers from going ahead with this misplaced building, you may as well let them do it as they originally envisioned. I do agree that what was taken out made the overall project better, and is more consistent with the desire for more mixed-use development. It just continues to be a shame that they want to do it in that particular spot, where there won’t be any network effect from transit or other similar development nearby. If only you could magically move this thing 3/4ths of a mile or so north, it would be so much more suitable.

Ashby rises again

It lives!

The developers of the Ashby high-rise announced today they will appear before Houston’s General Appeals Board at 5 p.m. Thursday to ask that the original uses designed into 23-story high-rise be allowed.

“Removing these amenities completely contradicts city officials’ statements that they want new development inside the loop to create a ‘walkable Houston,’” said Matthew Morgan, president of Buckhead Investment Partners.

Gotta say, they’ve got a good point. Once you concede that you can’t prevent this thing from being built – and make no mistake, it’s still being built in the wrong location – you may as well allow the mixed-use development, which likely won’t have that big an effect on traffic, and as the developers note is in harmony with the philosophy behind the recent Chapter 42 revisions. Too bad this development isn’t near a rail corridor, or other retail, but these are the ordinances we have.

And as the Chron notes, this is just the beginning.

Morgan said the administrative appeal was necessary before the developers could take any further action, such as a lawsuit.

“We’re taking it one step at a time,” he said.

That’ll be a nice thing for the next Mayor to inherit. Game on, y’all. Prime Property has more.

More from neoHouston on the new transit corridors ordinance

Andrew Burleson, also known as neoHouston, was quoted in the Chron story on the new transit corridors ordinance. They only used a few words from him, however, and we all know he had more to say on the topic than that. Fortunately, he has a platform for expressing all those other words, and he used it. Like him, I hope that the city now sees the need to tackle the parking issue, which is long overdue, and that it does so in a way that really provides incentives to create walkable urban development in places where it makes sense.

Oh, and he also took a moment to solve the Ashby highrise problem. All in a day’s work.

Parker statement on Ashby highrise

Fresh from the inbox:

Statement by Annise Parker on Ashby High Rise

August 22, 2009
Contact: Sue Davis, 713-392-6011, [email protected]

I am disappointed with the city’s decision yesterday to grant a site development permit for the high-rise building planned for the corner of Bissonnet and Ashby in the single-family residential neighborhood of Southampton. From the first meeting at Poe School, I stood with the neighborhood in seeking solutions to stop this project.

I have a continuing concern that increased traffic resulting from the project will pose an unacceptable public safety risk to the surrounding neighborhood, bring a decreased quality of life for the residents, a loss of privacy and a negative impact on their property values.

Clearly, we simply cannot manage our city’s growth by lurching from one Ashby high-rise crisis to the next. Individuals cannot make safe investments in their homes and neighborhoods and businesses cannot make safe investments in their developments without predictability and consistency.

We need to get everyone back to the table to get a clear, workable and consistently applied ordinance that would require at least a traffic impact analysis and an adequate mitigation plan to proceed. Traffic impact is a public safety issue because it limits the ability of first responders in an emergency. It is an environmental issue because it creates air pollution. Traffic impacts absolutely need to be considered, and appropriate mitigation required, when we evaluate development projects.

I also believe it is possible to craft an ordinance that would create incentives and/or limits to move high- and mid-rise construction to the boundaries of neighborhoods and on major thoroughfares.

While I do not believe zoning is workable for Houston, I do believe it is possible to better protect neighborhoods and better preserve the property values and quality of life in neighborhoods, while still allowing growth and development.

I have worked for years to bring consistency and predictability to these issues – including spearheading the original density limitations contained in Chapter 42, our subdivision ordinance, and subsequent amendments when I served on City Council. As our city has grown, the need for clear rules has even greater urgency. It will receive my highest priority as Mayor.

I still think the traffic issue was secondary to the scale issue. I do agree that we can – and should – come up with an ordinance that addresses that in a reasonable way. As always, I’ll be interested in hearing the details of such a proposal. If I receive a statement on this from any of the other Mayoral candidates, I’ll print it as well.

UPDATE: I had wondered if the Stop Ashby Highrise folks were going to emerge from their dormant state. The answer is Yes.

Our opposition to this project remains undiminished, and we will continue our efforts to prevent it from being financed and constructed. We believe that we have a number of powerful tools available to us, and we intend to use all of them. There are many steps between obtaining a site work and foundation permit and actually constructing a project, and we will have opportunities to continue our fight in many forums.

We strongly encourage you to continue to display your Stop Ashby High Rise yard signs and bumper stickers to demonstrate your opposition to this unwelcome project. We also would be especially pleased to accept any donations to the Stop Ashby High Rise effort, because we anticipate the need for legal fees as we move forward.

More, including how to donate to their cause if you feel so inclined, is at their site. I’m sure I’ll start seeing a resurgence in the yard signs on Monday.

UPDATE: Here’s Peter Brown’s statement.

Statement By Candidate For Mayor Peter Brown On Ashby Highrise Developments:
August 24, 2009

Like many others, I’m deeply concerned over the City’s apparent ‘green-light’ for the Ashby Highrise development. I’ve opposed this project from the beginning and I’ve worked alongside advocates in the neighborhood to try and prevent it from damaging our community. This news only makes that commitment more urgent.

The project that is taking shape raises serious concerns. The infrastructure in the area is simply not sufficient for a structure of that size, and it will lead to traffic congestion and gridlock during peak hours. Turning narrow residential streets into major thoroughfares is a safety issue, restricting access for emergency vehicles during periods of traffic congestion and endangering pedestrians. It will also harm the general quality of life residents in these areas have come to enjoy. And it’s emblematic of the sort of out-of-scale projects that overtax drainage systems and contribute to our flooding issues around the City.

This isn’t the first time that a project unfit for the neighborhood it’s being built in has moved forward, and without action it won’t be the last. We need to do more to protect our neighborhoods from the adverse impacts of harmful development. What’s been made clear by our experience here is that our current, ad-hoc system of regulations is failing to protect communities. Our current approach shifts an unacceptable burden onto taxpayers who are forced to mitigate the adverse effects of that development on our infrastructure. Houston doesn’t need zoning, but we do need better tools to protect the character, diversity and function of our great neighborhoods.

First, we need to fix the city’s Chapter 42 development ordinance to better protect the integrity of our neighborhoods make our regulations more predictable and efficient. We need to make our ordinances more outcomes-driven, targeted to get the results we want.

Second, we should provide incentives designed to keep developments and projects like this outside of neighborhoods and along major thoroughfares, transit lines and other suitable areas equipped with the infrastructure to support them.

While I value the efforts of those working to create a vibrant urban environment in Houston, it should not come at the expense of the strong neighborhoods that make our City great.

I believe that this project is wrong for the neighborhood, its residents and our City. As Mayor I’ll continue to be an advocate on behalf of neighborhoods and their residents. I’ll continue the work I’ve done on City Council and much of my professional career, because our great neighborhoods are the heart of Houston.

UPDATE: And finally, courtesy of Hair Balls, here is Gene Locke’s statement:

The misfortune of Ashby High Rise is that it has created a situation where there are no winners. If there is one thing that we have learned over the past two years, it is how important it is that we create consistent, predictable and transparent rules governing development. People need to be able to protect the historic character of their neighborhoods so that we maintain an excellent quality of life for all Houstonians. At the same time, our city needs to grow and diversify to meet the economic challenges of tomorrow. As I have said many times in my campaign, I will bring together the stakeholders involved in neighborhoods and development so we can explore fresh ideas that will ensure that we continue to be one of the fastest growing cities in the nation and maintain livable and vibrant neighborhoods.

As our city becomes denser, we will need to balance the responsible growth that drives our city with the recognition that development can have impacts beyond the borders of the land being developed. The development approval process must not only be predictable, but also open and transparent so dialog can occur early in the process among all stakeholders. As mayor, I am committed to exploring various avenues to achieve and maintain the balance necessary to continue making Houston a unique and vibrant city in which to live including incentives that will drive high-rise development to major thoroughfares.

Take it away, Baby Snooks!

Ashby highrise approved

That sound you just heard was a massive freakout in the Southampton area.

More than two years after they first applied, the developers of the Ashby high-rise will receive permits for a project that generated protests and a renewed debate over how to regulate development in Houston, city officials said today.

The decision was based on changes developers Matthew Morgan and Kevin Kirton made in their 11th submission of plans for the building at 1717 Bissonnet, said Andy Icken, deputy director of public works and engineering. City engineers concluded that the changes would reduce traffic sufficiently for the development to meet the city’s standards, he said.

The building will be 23 stories high, the same as originally proposed. Houston’s development codes don’t restrict the height of buildings.

The new plans reduce the number of residential units and eliminate a spa, retail space and executive offices, Icken said. These changes significantly reduce the number of peak-hour trips expected from vehicles entering and exiting the property, one of the key restrictions in the code.

Original plans called for more than 180 daily peak-hour trips into and out of the property, while the latest, approved plans would reduce that number to 120, Icken said. In addition, he said, the new plans would limit the residents’ vehicle entrances and exits from the property to Bissonnet only, not onto surrounding residential streets.

Even so, the decision allows for construction of a high-rise tower adjacent to two affluent, single-family residential neighborhoods whose leaders say the location is unsuitable for such a project.

I figured this would eventually happen. Took a long time, but sooner or later the developers were going to come up with something the city would have to approve. And so here we are, with the relatively minor issue of traffic getting addressed, while the bigger problem of a 23-story building in the middle of a residential neighborhood doesn’t. I’m wondering if the neighborhood will try to keep fighting it – Stop Ashby Highrise was last updated in February – or if they’ll give up now. I wonder if we’ll see more of these signs. And I wonder if the next time we tweak Chapter 42, we’ll do something to prevent future Ashby Highrises.

Transit corridors ordinance approved

It’s not all that it could have been, but it’s a start.

Passengers stepping off trains in Houston’s expanding light rail network will be more likely to encounter walkable environments and interesting destinations because of action taken Wednesday by the City Council, city officials and transit advocates said.

The council unanimously approved changes in development codes intended to promote dense, urban-style development along the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Main Street rail line and five planned extensions. The pedestrian zone requirements and incentives were developed through more than three years of work by city officials, consultants, development experts and others.

Councilwoman Toni Lawrence said the changes, coupled with plans to expand urban development regulations from Loop 610 to Beltway 8 and high speed rail proposals under consideration for commuters, will have a major impact on automobile-dependent Houston. The measures take effect immediately.

“I’m excited about it,” Lawrence said. “We’re behind cities our size to move forward with rail.”

The changes drew support from real estate organizations including Houstonians for Responsible Growth, which generally resists new development regulation. But others who have followed Houston’s efforts to encourage so-called “transit-oriented development” offered only qualified praise, noting that the city’s consultants recommended more far-reaching changes.

“On the whole, it’s a teeny-tiny step in the right direction,” said Andrew Burleson, a development consultant and blogger. While the incentives for enhanced pedestrian amenities aren’t sufficient, Burleson said, the measure makes progress simply by providing a good definition of “quality urban development.”

The new rules will require unobstructed, 6-foot-wide sidewalks — two feet wider than the current standard — for new development along transit corridor streets and certain intersecting streets near transit stations. In most other areas of the city, the sidewalk standard will be increased to 5 feet.

Nice to see Andrew, a/k/a neoHouston, get quoted in the story. His take on the ordinance is well worth reading, as are each of Christof‘s. I expressed my views here. Note that’s proposed streetscape for Richmond Avenue conforms to the six-foot sidewalk width. I hope this new ordinance is a good omen for that.

Midtown not feeling the recession

Good to know some parts of town are still thriving.

The recession seems to have forgotten about Midtown.

A drive around the neighborhood reveals forgotten buildings undergoing restoration and new apartments being framed.

This area between the Central Business District and the Texas Medical Center began its transformation in the late 1990s when Post Properties built an upscale apartment complex above street-level retail that’s attracted sidewalk cafes and boutiques. A tax increment reinvestment zone formed in 1995 has helped fuel development by pumping money into the area’s infrastructure.

Matt Stovall, vice president of Midtown property owner Crosspoint Properties, said inquiries to lease office space in the company’s commercial buildings are on the rise.

It’s just too bad that that original Post property remains the only such example of truly pedestrian-friendly mixed use development. If only there was to be a revision to the city codes that governed new development so that policies that encouraged that kind of building could be enacted.

Having said that, as one who remembers what Midtown looked like 20 years ago, when it was used as the filming location for a movie set in post-apocalyptic Detroit, the place is several orders of magnitude better now. We didn’t call it “Midtown” back then – we didn’t call it anything, because there was no good reason to be there. Even if it’s a missed opportunity for urbanism, Midtown is a huge asset to the city now.

Houston attorney Genora Boykins was able to persuade a lender to finance a roughly $2 million bed and breakfast called La Maison in Midtown that has broken ground at 2800 Brazos.

“It was a little challenging early on in the process,” Boykins said. “The thing that made the difference is we really didn’t give up on the vision we have.”

The amount of real estate activity in the area helped too, she said. One of the largest projects is a $39  million apartment complex being developed on Travis by local developer Camden Property Trust. It’s going up just behind the Crosspoint retail and office project that houses acclaimed restaurant Reef.

Boykins and her business partner, Sharon Owens, plan to open their B&B in next year’s first quarter.

The seven-room property will be in a three-story build-ing designed to evoke New Orleans-style architecture. Rooms will run from about $175 to as much as $300 for one of the two suites.

Gotta admire the optimism in that. I’m unsure how good an idea such a B&B would be in good times, but best of luck to ’em. I will note that this location is seven blocks away from the McGowen light rail stop, which will surely be a plus for them. I’d say the Main Street line overall has been a sizable boon for Midtown.

Neighborhood concerns about the transit corridors ordinance

I think most people who choose to live in Houston’s urban core would agree that density is a good thing as a general rule. Density done in a half-assed way, which has been Houston’s trademark, not so much.

Density hasn’t been kind to Cottage Grove, a small neighborhood with narrow streets, few sidewalks, poor drainage and scarce parking for the owners of its many new homes and their guests.

Like many neighborhoods inside Loop 610, Cottage Grove in recent years has experienced a flurry of construction of large townhomes that loom over 80-year-old cottages next door. Two or three dwellings crowd sites where one house stood previously. Streets are cluttered with vehicles parked every which way. Water stands in the streets after heavy rains.

“It was shocking to see this jewel of a neighborhood in this condition,” said former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, a senior fellow with the nonprofit Urban Land Institute who toured Cottage Grove two years ago. “It was about the ugliest thing I’d ever seen, to be honest with you.”

The issues in Cottage Grove and other central Houston neighborhoods are on the minds of city officials, neighborhood leaders and others as the city considers the first major revisions to its development code in a decade. The proposed amendments were prompted in part by indications that pressure for dense new development is spreading to the area between Loop 610 and Beltway 8.

Marlene Gafrick, Houston’s planning and development director, said her department’s proposal to extend Houston’s “urban area” from the Loop to the Beltway would give dozens of neighborhoods tools to protect their traditional character and quality of life, such as procedures to petition for minimum lot sizes and building lines.

Some neighborhood leaders on both sides of the Loop, however, worry the measures don’t go far enough to prevent flooding, protect open space or ensure adequate parking. They see the proposals as an extension of the same approach that produced current conditions in neighborhoods such as Cottage Grove.

You can see plenty of other examples of this. The part of north Montrose where I used to live before moving to the Heights is another good example, filled with narrow streets that used to house small bungalows that now feature fewer bungalows surrounded by three-story crammed-in town homes. Streets that used to have a few cars parked on them here and there are now full on both sides – some streets, like the block of Van Buren where I had resided, now restrict parking to one side only – making passage difficult. Longtime residents have been negatively affected by all this.

It didn’t have to be this way. A lot of these old neighborhoods had been in decline and really a shot in the arm from new construction. It just needed to be done in a way that recognized their needs and limits. Improving sidewalks and ensuring that the drainage system could take the increased capacity would have helped. Pairing all this new inner-core growth with expansions and upgrades to public transit, including a more aggressive approach to building out light rail, and making more mixed-use development possible where it made sense, would have made a huge difference. We can’t undo what has been done, but we can try to stop repeating these mistakes, and we can try to address some of the now more urgent needs these neighborhoods have. We even know what needs to be done. The question is, when City Council takes up the new ordinance in August, will we do it, or will we continue down the same path as before?

Where that new transit corridors ordinance came from

Christof takes another look at the proposed urban transit corridors ordinance, and asks a simple question.

Days after the City of Houston’s draft corridor urban corridors ordinance was released, Houstonians For Responsible Growth – a developer group that generally opposes any new building regulations – endorsed the new ordinance.

Why would developers be so enthusiastic about a new piece of regulation? Because they wrote it.

Interestingly, just a few months ago, HFRG was warning against this ordinance, claiming it could “force Houstonians out of their cars and onto hot sidewalks”. Guess they were able to change it to be more to their liking – go read Christof’s post for the details of how that happened. Clearly, this is another case of it’s only a negative when it’s for something I don’t like. NeoHouston has more.

More on the urban transit corridors ordinance

I mentioned last week that the city was getting set to do an overhaul of its planning codes. In particular, there’s a proposed transit corridor ordinance that is up for public discussion on Thursday and a City Council vote in July. I wasn’t sure what to make of it but had heard some early feedback that while it did some good, it fell well short of what it could have been. Fortunately, a couple of folks who are better versed on the technical details than I am have had a look, and have returned their verdicts. First, Christof gives his typically thorough overview of the ordinance, its shortfalls and loopholes. It’s too dense to excerpt, so just go and read and see what we’ll be missing. Second, neoHouston cuts right to the chase:

Let me be clear: if the city adopts the standards as they are written, it will have exactly the opposite of the intended effect. It will be just as easy as it has always been to build suburban, auto-oriented trash near a train station, and it will be HARDER to build an urban building.

The city is taking areas where you could ALREADY build right up to the street and telling you that now you CANNOT do that unless you comply with these additional “Voluntary” design parameters.

This is a punitive measure against exactly the wrong people! This is EXACTLY BACKWARDS from what their stated goal is!

Yeah, that’s not what I was hoping for, either. Read what he has to say as well, and then consider contacting your Council member to let him or her know what you think about this. For that matter, contact your favorite Mayoral candidate and ask him or her what they think about this, since it’ll be on them in six months’ time. We need to move forward on this, and it doesn’t look like that’s what’s happening.

Enabling pedestrians

I don’t know how big a deal this is likely to be, but it’s nice to be talking about it.

More than five years after inaugurating its light rail system, Houston is taking its first, tentative steps to make it safer and more convenient for passengers to walk from train stations to homes, shops and offices.

The city’s urban transit corridors ordinance, which it began developing in June 2006, is expected to be considered by the City Council in July. It would offer incentives for developers in six light rail corridors to include a 15-foot “pedestrian realm” with broad, unobstructed sidewalks and other features intended to create appealing, walkable environments.

I got an email in my box from the Planning and Development Department about this. Here it is:

Notice of Public Hearing


The City of Houston Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on Thursday, June 11 at 2:30 p.m. in City Hall Annex, 900 Bagby to consider two items.


1)     The proposed transit corridor ordinance. This ordinance establishes mandatory and optional rules along Houston’s designated light rail corridors. This work is the result of an effort begun in 2006 to enhance pedestrian mobility and achieve transit supportive development. More information, including a summary of the proposed ordinance and the draft ordinance, is available on the Urban Corridor Planning website


2)     Amendments to Chapter 42 that address the following topics. The proposed ordinance can be found on the Planning Department’s website at


       Average lot size/lot width in new subdivision plats

       Creation of guest parking for six-plus residential units

       Redefining the width and length of shared driveway developments

       Requiring sign posting in residential subdivisions with certain reserves

       Establishing a protocol on naming of partial replats

       Expanded notification on replats and variances

       Extending the Urban Area beyond the 610 Loop to the Beltway

       Building line overhangs encroach 30 inches, five foot for outside stairs

       Require surveyed site plans for single-family residential plats

       Resolve the conflict between Chapter 42 and the Design Manual for

       Lift Station Sites


These ordinance amendments will also result in changes to the Building Code and PWE Infrastructure design manual.


Following the public hearing, the items will be considered at the Regulation, Development and Neighborhood Protection Committee of City Council on Monday, June 22 at 3:00 p.m., City Council chambers, 901 Bagby, 2nd floor.


City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance in early July.


For more information, contact Michael Schaffer at 713-837-7780 or email [email protected].

It all sounds good, though my understanding is that this is basically a finished package that is to be brought for a vote, and not something that’s under discussion. It’s still a good idea to attend the meeting, and talk to your Council member about this, because it’s likely to affect your neighborhood, whether you realize it or not.

The impact of the ordinance will depend on developers’ willingness to comply with its mostly voluntary standards. Those who agree to create the pedestrian zone will automatically be exempt from rules requiring buildings to be set back a specified distance from the street, giving them more space to build revenue-generating offices, homes or shops.

The ordinance is more limited than steps recommended by the city’s consultants and by the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit real estate organization, to promote transit-oriented development.


A Canadian consulting firm that worked with the city recommended more mandatory requirements for developers, including certain building design standards. But the only outright requirement in the new ordinance is 5-foot-wide sidewalks in most of the city — the current standard is 4 feet — and 6-foot-wide sidewalks along streets where transit lines run and intersecting streets close to rail stations.

As an incentive for developers to meet other standards, the ordinance allows building facades to be adjacent to the 15-foot pedestrian zone. The city now requires a 25-foot building setback on major thoroughfares, and developers who want to build closer to the street must seek a variance from the city Planning Commission.

I’m sure there will be a lot more discussion of this, regardless of what effect that might have at this point, and I’m looking forward to it. Houston Tomorrow, which I’m sure will be one of those that will have plenty more to say on this, has this for now.

Form-based codes come to Dallas

Good for Dallas. If they can do this, unanimously, even, then there must be hope for Houston and its proponents here. We might get lucky and avoid an Ashby lawsuit, but it sure would be nice to be better prepared for this sort of thing the next time it comes around. Right?