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San Felipe

More on San Felipe Highrise Lawsuit II

Here’s the Chron story on the latest adventure in urban planning via the courtroom. The basics are covered here so I’m going to cut to the speculation about effect.

Observers have said the Ashby case could have an effect on development moving forward. Now, local land-use experts say the San Felipe project and the neighbors’ fight against it may be the first evidence of that.

“They could be taking from the Ashby logic,” said Matthew Festa, a South Texas College of Law professor who specializes in land use issues, who testified for the developers in the November trial. “It could be a death by a thousand cuts: everyone who lives nearby suddenly feels empowered to sue for damages.”

[…]

Barry Klein, president of the Houston Property Rights Association, said not many homeowners could afford the costly litigation involved in the Ashby and San Felipe cases.

“Maybe this is a case where people have so much money, it’s a way to cause pain to the developer, even though they recognize they can’t stop the tower,” Klein said. “It could simply be spite on their part to cause the developer more trials and tribulations. … Most neighborhoods don’t have people that can take the legal gamble like this. I don’t expect this will happen in many parts of Houston.”

Bill Kroger, a partner with Baker Botts, which is defending Hines, said the Ashby case is far from resolved and the arguments of the River Oaks neighbors in the latest lawsuit are very different.

Kroger said there has not been a flood of litigation against high-rise office buildings, despite the boom in construction.

Yet John Mixon, a retired University of Houston law professor who specializes in property law, said the lawsuit against Hines signals an “open season” on development and highlights the needs for zoning.

“Developers are now paying the price for not having a system for rational regulation to settle these issues,” he said. “I think we are going to see some fireworks over the next few years.”

I’m more inclined to agree with Klein and Kroger here than with Festa and Mixon. The Ashby decision is going to be appealed – in fact, the defense has just filed a motion to appeal – and it’s possible the plaintiffs could follow suit since the judge gave it the go-ahead to be built despite the damages awarded. In both of these cases you have people with the wherewithal to pursue legal action doing so. Not every neighborhood can meet that. The fact that as yet I’ve heard of no legal action planned by any of my Heights neighbors over the multiple projects going on that they scorn suggests to me this kind of litigation will be the exception rather than the rule. Plus, who knows, the San Felipe plaintiffs may lose. I for one think that the Ashby location was a lot less sensible than this one is for a highrise, and the fact that it was so much of an outlier may be the difference. Of course, I thought the Ashby plaintiffs were going to lose as well, so what do I know. It’ll be a long time before we know for sure what the outcomes will be.

Another San Felipe highrise lawsuit

It’s like deja vu all over again, only different.

A NEW LAWSUIT filed last week against the developers of the 2229 San Felipe office tower currently under construction between Shepherd and Kirby is a bit different from the one that a group of neighbors initiated against the same party back in February, a reader notes. The plaintiffs in the new lawsuit are the owners of a River Oaks home directly across the street from the construction site, and they appear to have studied the ruling issued in the Ashby Highrise lawsuit carefully. (Back in May, Judge Randy Wilson ordered the developers of that building to pay neighbors $1.2 million to compensate them for “lost market damages,” but denied their request to halt the building’s construction)

Unlike their neighbors who sued before them, the residents of 2237 Stanmore Dr. are not seeking to prevent or delay the construction of Hines’s neighborhood office tower. Instead, it appears they are only seeking compensation for both public and private “nuisances” created by the 17-story building, including pollution, noise, and ground vibration during its construction and the resulting loss of sunlight and rain on their property.

See here and here for the background. Funny thing about precedent, it just keeps popping up again and again. If the developer community didn’t like the Ashby result, they’re really going to hate this lawsuit. Not much else to do for now but keep an eye on it. Prime Property has more.

No stopping the San Felipe Skyscraper

Not at this time, anyway.

A Harris County district court judge has denied an opposition group’s request to immediately halt construction on a 17-story office tower in a River Oaks area neighborhood.

The group, which filed suit in February against the project at 2229 San Felipe being developed by Houston-based Hines, has said it will continue to fight the tower.

Its lawsuit argues the project would be “abnormal and out of place” in the neighborhood. Last week, five more residents joined the six who sued, and attorneys targeted the contractor, Gilbane Building Co., in addition to the developer.

In its request for a temporary restraining order, the group claimed that since the work on the site began in December cracks have appeared in residents’ patios, noise and exhaust from construction equipment have invaded properties and property values have dropped by the day.

The group also claims that the developers and contractors hope to progress far enough into construction to reach a “point of no return.”

Both sides presented arguments to State District Judge Elaine Palmer Thursday. She denied the request for a temporary restraining order, which would have immediately stopped construction for a short time. The resident group plans next to request a temporary injunction, which would halt construction, but for longer.

In a response to the restraining order request, the Hines attorneys argued the residents cite no legal reason supporting a drastic action like stopping construction and said the residents offered no substantial proof to back claims for such an “extraordinary” action.

They also said that the project is fully permitted by the city and argued that the city, which has been monitoring construction, has not issued any traffic or noise citations and that there have been no accidents or injuries.

See here for the background. The lawsuit sounds a lot like the Ashby Highrise lawsuit, but I suppose there are enough differences between that project, and that lawsuit, and this one to allow this one to go forward. For now, anyway. We entered uncharted waters with the outcome of the Ashby lawsuit, so who knows what comes next.

Ashby II: Highrise Boogaloo

The Ashby Highrise lawsuit may be over, but its legacy lives on.

A lawsuit seeking to stop a 17-story office tower under development in a River Oaks-area neighborhood blasts the project as “abnormal and out of place” in a grass-roots effort that observers suggest was emboldened by the recent success of the high-profile fight against the Ashby high-rise.

Cranes are already at work at 2229 San Felipe, despite the abundance of “Stop the San Felipe Skyscraper” yard signs in the neighborhood between Shepherd and Kirby. Opposition to the project, under development by Houston-based Hines, has included an online petition with more than 1,000 signatures, a website to fight the development and personal pleas to City Council.

The residents’ lawsuit filed last week in a Harris County civil court argues, among several factors, that the height of the building would interfere with privacy and that it would cause unreasonable traffic delays, devalue surrounding properties and erode the character of the neighborhood.

[…]

Hines spokesman George Lancaster on Friday called the 2229 San Felipe project “an important and appropriate development for an area mixed with residential, commercial and multifamily properties.”

He said it is fully permitted by the city, meets all building codes and legal requirements, and will add landscaping and sidewalks.

He also said it will meet demand for new office space in that part of town.

[…]

Matthew Festa, a South Texas College of Law professor who specializes in land-use regulations, said the new lawsuit suggests last year’s Ashby verdict set a precedent.

“It shows that in a city that is famous for having less restrictive land use, one of the dangers is that particular projects can be opposed on a case-by-case basis by neighborhood groups,” Festa said. “The other thing it shows is that when one group can be successful in fighting a development project, other people are going to follow that model.”

Festa testified for the developers in the trial over the Ashby high-rise, presenting a history of land-use regulations in Houston.

I’ve noted this fight before; as that was before the surprising-to-me victory by the Ashby plaintiffs, I was rather skeptical of their efforts. Given that verdict, however, it would seem the game has changed in more or less the manner described by Prof. Festa. Given how our famous lack of zoning is seen as making Houston a libertarian paradise for developers and a key component to our economic growth, the irony is pretty thick. The two sides are currently in mediation and there have not been any hearings on this yet, so things may change. I don’t have much to add to this other than to say I’ll be keeping an eye on it. The anti-highrise group’s webpage is here and their change.org petition is here; that and their news page has links to a lot of previous coverage of this, if you want to catch up on it. Prime Property, which has a copy of the lawsuit, has more.

Ashby everywhere: The San Felipe highrise

Hard to keep track of them all.

THESE UNDERSTATED “Stop the San Felipe Skyscraper” signs started going up about knee-high this weekend in River Oaks and Vermont Commons to protest that shiny 17-story office tower that Hines is proposing to build nearby. Though these signs — spotted at the corner of Spann and Welch and San Felipe and Spann, catty-corner from the proposed site — might be lacking the services of an imaginative cartoonist like their yellow precursors across town in Boulevard Oaks, their message still comes through, directing the onlooker as well to a recently launched website for all things skyscraper-stopping:

Of course, Hines continues to say through PR man George Lancaster that the company plans to build something “upscale and handsome, befitting its River Oaks address.” The rendering shown here is the most recent version of that; it differs a bit from the one Swamplot published in May that seems to have sparked much of the ire — and which boiled over in what the new website describes as a “heated” and “tense” community meeting last night with reps from Public Works and city council member Oliver Pennington: “Many participants came away from the meeting with the idea that the only way to stop the project will be through immediate legal action.”

“Good luck with that”, said everyone who opposed the Ashby Highrise. You can see the antis’ webpage here. They address what I consider to be the main question here:

Aren’t there already other high-rises in this same area?
There are three other high-rises within four blocks of the site. Of these, two are office buildings that are shorter by several stories. A residential high-rise (the Huntingdon) is taller. Here are the differences:

– All three of the other high-rises are on major thoroughfares with six lanes (Kirby) or four lanes (Shepherd).
– The other high-rises are separated from nearby residences by high walls (Huntingdon), open space (Shepherd), or other intervening structures (Compass building).
– 2229 San Felipe has larger garage capacity but will be surrounded by two-lane streets
– 2229 San Felipe has only a 10-foot setback from the street.

Residential buildings have a much lower density than comparable office buildings. As an idea, the Wingate and St. Honore developments on San Felipe at Revere may add 20-30 cars to an entire block, as compared to the 400 cars being added at 2229 San Felipe.

I have no idea what they’re getting at in that last paragraph. “Density” is people per square mile, so by their own reckoning the 2229 San Felipe building contributes greatly to it. Be that as it may, I have some sympathy for these folks, since that stretch of San Felipe is just like the part of Bissonnet where the Ashby will be – one lane each direction. On the other hand, as they themselves admit, there are three other highrises in the area. It’s a little hard to claim that a new highrise would stand out.

My general rule on these things is whether or not the location makes sense. This one is more of a gray area than others. I don’t think the neighbors will have any luck blocking it, but I suppose they haven’t yet broken ground on the Ashby, so who knows. The one sure thing is that we’ll continue to see situations like this, until either the real estate market inside the Loop gets saturated, or city ordinances get a drastic makeover. I’m not sure which is more likely to happen first.