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Appeals court reverses Ashby damages award

It’s kind of amazing to me that the Ashby Highrise saga is still a newsmaker.

Sue me!

In a major ruling that could stymie future legal challenges against developers, a state appellate court has reversed a key portion of the 2014 judgment awarding damages to residents opposed to the controversial Ashby high-rise.

Neighbors of the residential tower proposed for 1717 Bissonnet at Ashby had claimed it would reduce the value of their homes, intrude on their privacy and create a slew of other problems. A judge in Houston two years ago concluded there was no way to legally stop the project.

But he said the residents were entitled to $ 1.2 million in damages, even though construction had yet to begin.

The eagerly awaited opinion filed Thursday in the 14th Court of Appeals is a big win for the Houston development community and it brought the partners involved a sense of vindication as they prepare to move forward with the project.

“A decision to uphold damages in this type of case would have set a dangerous precedent for urban growth and economic prosperity, not just in the city of Houston but throughout the state of Texas,” Matthew Morgan of Houston-based Buckhead Investment Partners said Friday. “We are grateful to the Texas Court of Appeals for making it clear that zoning by nuisance law is not how things get done in Houston, Texas.”

The reversal applies to damages awarded to 20 homeowners near the site at 1717 Bissonnet and Ashby where Buckhead has been planning a 21-story residential tower the company said it still plans to build in the leafy neighborhood near Rice University.

[…]

Thursday’s opinion also reversed the ruling that the developers would have to pay the homeowners’ legal fees.

The appeals court affirmed the remainder of the judgment, including the trial judge’s refusal to grant an injunction halting the project.

In recent years and likely a result of the earlier Ashby ruling, property owners in Houston’s urban core have filed lawsuits to stop developers from building.

If the court had upheld the damages, it would have set a precedent for future cases, said Matthew Festa, a professor at Houston College of Law who specializes in land-use issues and who testified for the developers’ side during the December 2013 trial.

“Basically it would have hung a million-dollar price tag on the building permit,” he said.

A copy of the decision is here. The original ruling was made in 2014, and we are past the tenth anniversary of this case. As the story notes, the residents could try again after the thing gets built and it is shown to lower their property values, but who knows if that will ever happen? Despite the setback, as a Swamplot commenter notes, they’ve delayed the project well past the real estate boom time in Houston, and if nothing else bought themselves at least a decade of not having this highrise as their neighbor. Not that bad an outcome no matter what happens next, really.

Will the Ashby highrise ever get built?

Who knows?

Sue me!

Penelope Loughhead’s house in the leafy neighborhood near Rice University abuts the land where, nearly a decade ago, a proposed high-rise sparked a land-use battle that resonated citywide and throughout the local development community.

This week marks two years since a judge ruled the proposed Ashby tower could go forward after a monthlong trial and jury verdict that agreed with residents that the 21-story tower would be a nuisance to surrounding property owners. The judge agreed to some of the roughly $1 million in damages jurors assessed against Houston-based Buckhead Investment Partners but denied residents the permanent injunction they were seeking to halt the project.

Yet the 1.6-acre lot sits empty as both sides await a decision on their appeals.

“It feels like we’re in limbo,” Loughhead said. “We’re in the dark. We know they are allowed to build, but no ground has been broken.”

The developers declined to comment, citing the ongoing appeals process. They did not answer questions about the status of the project, although they previously told the Chronicle that the construction was moving along despite the appeal.

[…]

Attorneys for both sides made their cases during an appellate hearing in September. A decision could come down any day, attorneys say.

In documents filed with the 14th Court of Appeals, the attorney for the developers, Raymond Viada, argued against the damages that jurors awarded 20 residents who live near the Ashby project’s 1717 Bissonnet address. He wrote, in part, that the developers altered plans for the project after the jury’s decision and before the injunction hearing. Therefore, the project discussed in trial, which was ruled by the jury to be a nuisance, was no longer what his clients were proposing.

Viada wrote that the developers, who have already invested $14 million in the project, changed plans to reduce lighting from the garage, place planters on the amenity deck to add privacy and reconstruct its foundation to limit the impact of damage to surrounding homes. He wrote that the developers expect to net $72 million in profit if the project is not stopped.

See here for all the Ashby blogging you can stand. As I said the last time, it really boggles the mind to realize how long some lots in extremely desirable parts of town have been empty. The old Robinson Warehouse, Allen House, The Stables, and Ashby sites have been fallow for going on ten years. They remained unbuilt through a multi-year real estate boom that was especially hungry for inside-the-Loop properties. Now, in the midst of a low-oil-price downturn, it’s hard to imagine any of them changing status any time soon, and that’s without taking the Ashby lawsuit appeals process into account. I keep thinking that one of these days something will change, but all I’ve gotten for my trouble is that much older.

The Ashby legacy

What hath it wrought?

Sue me!

The plot of land where developers promised the so-called Ashby high-rise would be built in an affluent neighborhood still sits empty.

Yet the 1.6-acre lot at 1717 Bissonnet, which in 2007 sparked a battle that came to symbolize the impact of a lack of formal zoning in Houston, is still high on the minds of land-use experts, city leaders and developers grappling with development policy around the region, an expert panel said Monday.

“We are watching for the repercussions going forward,” said South Texas College of Law professor Matthew Festa, who specializes in land use. “We start in a city without a formal zoning code. But we have a lot of those types of rules.”

[…]

Festa said that with the various land use restrictions in Houston, in the form of minimum-lot sizes, historic districts and residential buffer ordinances, the region has “de-facto zoning.” This has led to many questions and sets up battles over where to build and about density versus preserving what is already there.

He said there are equity issues on both sides.

“Wealthy neighbors pass the hat and hire top-notch attorneys. What happens to the ones that don’t have those resources?” Festa said. “Nowhere is this stuff more intense than land-use battles.”

[…]

There is also an ongoing battle over a proposed affordable housing complex in a neighborhood between Tanglewood and the Galleria. That Houston Housing Authority project is a test case for new federal pressures and a Supreme Court decision that requires that affordable housing is built in high-opportunity neighborhoods, said Kyle Shelton, a researcher with the Kinder Institute at Rice University.

“It intimately ties into the same debate as Ashby,” Shelton said. “It raises the question for Houston: Does this ‘de-facto zoning’ get us a Houston that works for everybody? Ashby provided an interesting contradiction for Houston.”

Festa, who testified for the developers’ side during the Ashby trial, said he has watched the case since the beginning. He said the property rights issue is a sensitive one because people will sense a threat to their homes, their biggest purchase and largest asset.

“Land use really does motivate people,” he said. “It’s the communities that we live in.”

As noted in the story, one of the legacies of the Ashby highrise is the reverse Ashby lawsuit that was recently filed. You have to wonder if we’d be having these issues now if we’d passed that zoning referendum in the 90s. Be that as it may, I still believe the following: One, the Ashby location was a terrible place for a 21-story high-rise. This Swamplot comment puts it in a way that I hadn’t previously considered but which makes perfect sense. Two, we really need to revisit this issue as a city. What are the legitimate ways that a homeowner or neighborhood can oppose a proposed development near them? Combat by lawsuit isn’t doing anyone but the lawyers any good. And three, will the inner city’s best known long-vacant sites like the Ashby location and the Robinson warehouse ever get redeveloped? Now that we’re on the downslope of the last economic boom, it’s hard to see why anything would change if it hadn’t during the good times. The Robinson site will “celebrate” ten years of nothingness in January (the Ashby site will hit that mark later next year). When you consider how much construction has occurred around it in that time, it’s almost mind-boggling. Maybe they’re just cursed, I don’t know. We’ll see what happens next when there’s a ruling in the Ashby appeal.

An outsider’s view of the Ashby Highrise

From Governing.com. It contains the Z word, so you might want to shield the eyes of innocent children and Joel Kotkin.

Sue me!

Whatever views one may hold about a city without zoning, it’s hard to deny that Houston has done pretty well for itself over the past generation or so. Its population has grown faster than that of almost any other American city. Its unemployment rate is among the lowest. It continues to attract new businesses no matter what slogan it chooses to adopt for itself. And a growing number of scholars, notably the urbanologist Edward Glaeser, have argued that Houston has done well precisely because it imposes so few restrictions on development.

But will a developmental free-for-all bring Houston the same heady results in the coming decades that it brought in the preceding ones? Or is it, at long last, time to impose a little more order on the unwieldy metropolis? Those are questions that Houston’s development community has spent the past couple of years trying to puzzle out, as it has negotiated the twists and turns of a legal event known to just about everybody as the Ashby case.

[…]

At a minimum, a comprehensive zoning code would dramatically revalue properties all over the city, amounting to a substantial redistribution of private wealth. No elected city leader, not even an outspokenly progressive one like [Mayor Annise] Parker, is going to advocate that.

But neither would it be correct to suggest that free-for-all development will proceed in the future as it did in pre-Ashby times. A precedent for awarding nuisance damages has been set, assuming it is not reversed on appeal. The concessions offered by the Ashby developers over the past seven years seem certain to place pressure on others building where there is significant local opposition. The city government, while backing away from zoning, will be asked to impose new regulations on future projects. One such rule, allowing neighborhood groups to apply for minimum lot size restrictions, has already become law.

But the most interesting question emerging from the case may be whether it will lead to more large infill projects in the central areas of the city. On the one hand, the court and the city government have made it clear that Houston’s build-it-anywhere legal structure will remain more or less intact. On the other hand, the sheer amount of time and effort required of the developers on the Ashby project may send a signal that it remains easier and cheaper to build in the exurbs where they do not have to deal with entrenched community feeling.

Or, still another possibility — developers might draw the lesson that there is plenty of useful work to do in creating urban density, but they have to go about it in a more sensitive and appropriate way than they did on Ashby. That might be the best outcome of all.

One must always be careful to distinguish between the city of Houston, which has grown modestly over the past decade or so, and the greater Houston area, which has grown like gangbusters. Much of that growth in places that aren’t Houston proper has been in empty, generally unincorporated areas. Those places don’t have zoning either, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that the widespread availability of undeveloped land in close proximity to a major urban center is at least as big a factor in the Houston area’s growth as the presence or absence of any municipal codes. San Francisco may be a Kotkinesque nightmare, but I’m pretty sure that if a few hundred square miles of empty turf within commuting distance of the Bay Area were to suddenly materialize, developers would trip over each other rushing out there to buy it up for whatever pieces of cul-de-sac heaven they could build. Anyway, I posted this mostly to provide a recap for anyone who needs to be caught up on the topic, and also because I like the author’s vision of an ideal outcome. These things never happen, of course, but it’s nice to think about once in awhile.

Finally, as an aside and because I don’t feel like writing a separate post for this, the plaintiffs in the Ashby lawsuit – you know, the guys who won the judgment against the developers – have now filed an appeal as well; the developers filed their motion to appeal a couple of weeks ago. They weren’t satisfied with just the money, they don’t want it to be built, which the judge refused to forbid. So we’ll get to litigate this all over again soon enough.

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.

Judge will allow Ashby to rise

We have a decision.

Sue me!

Developers can move forward with the proposed Ashby high-rise after a much-anticipated ruling Thursday by a judge who agreed the tower is a nuisance for its immediate neighbors but concluded there was no way he could stop the project or determine a more appropriate alternative.

“If an injunction is granted, there is no question but that it will have a chilling effect on other developments in Houston,” wrote state District Judge Randy Wilson, a stance that drew mostly positive comments from the development community for eliminating uncertainty for groups considering future projects.

But Wilson also awarded $1.2 million in damages to 20 of those residents who had filed suit against the developer, Buckhead Investment Partners of Houston. While that is $438,000 less than a jury recommended in December, it still reflects a belief that those who live closest to the project, on a 1.6-acre site at 1717 Bissonnet, will see their property values suffer.

In firmly denying the residents’ primary request, however, Wilson said a permanent injunction would be difficult to enforce and would invite an “endless series of lawsuits” testing various tweaks and revisions to the project’s scope.

“A 21-story residential development is believed by the neighbors (and the jury) to be too big,” Wilson said in the ruling. “However, this court has zero evidence with which to find what size is just right.”

[…]

Buckhead welcomed the ruling but said it would appeal the monetary damages. It also said construction will resume as soon as possible.

“With hundreds of new Houstonians moving to our city each day, this type of urban housing option is becoming increasingly more necessary and desirable,” the company said in a statement. “We remain concerned about the dangerous precedent that any fully entitled and lawfully permitted real estate project may be penalized by the awarding of damages.”

Jean Frizzell, attorney for the disappointed residents, said they are considering their legal options.

“This case has never been about money and has always been about their community and homes,” he said in an email.

Via Swamplot, you can see a copy of the judge’s order here. Judge Wilson mentioned the z-word (“zoning”, for you non-Houstonians) in his decision, which undoubtedly had a lot of people crossing themselves and fashioning garlic necklaces. I said before that I had no idea what he should do, but this seems as sensible to me as anything. Not that it matters in some sense, since it’s going to get appealed – the developers have already said they’ll appeal the damages award, and the residents may appeal the go-ahead for construction, which will happen straightaway barring any further rulings or injunctions. It will still be a few years before the last chapter of this story is written. Prime Property and Hair Balls have 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.

Ashbys all over

Here’s that Chron story that I mentioned yesterday, which talks about increasing neighborhood resistance to multi-story residential projects in areas that mostly have single-family houses.

Tension mounted as 20 or so Morrison Street residents, armed with city documents and Internet research, squared off with a developer building a midrise apartment complex in their midst.

In a small music room at the Zion Lutheran Church, the residents and developer Terry Fisher debated whether the Woodland Heights neighborhood, known for its century-old bungalows and quirky charm, would be diminished by the apartments.

“It’s a wonderful neighborhood,” Fisher agreed at the meeting last month. “We saw a lady walking down the street with a St. Bernard, twirling a leash with the sun setting behind. It was a revelation that I should build in that location.”

For an hour, neighbors pressed Fisher about traffic, potential sewage problems and property values. One neighbor stormed out; another allowed that she had no plans to be “professional or courteous.”

Fisher kept stressing that he broke no city rules and had every right to develop the property into a five-story, 36-unit apartment complex. Construction is underway and expected to be completed in eight to nine months.

“I moved to Spring for the specific reason I don’t want to live next to a high-rise,” Fisher told the room at one point. “At the end of the day, there is no zoning in Houston.”

“I’m not rolling over anyone,” he continued. “I’m building what is legal for my lot.”

That blunt answer is being invoked more often, as pent-up demand gives way to building projects across the city and into the suburbs – and as neighbors fight back, worried about the impact of the new, often high-density projects.

As I said yesterday, the key issue here is one of location, just as it has always been with the infamous Ashby Highrise. Morrison is a little side street. It’s surrounded by houses. A five story apartment complex will stand out like a zit on a forehead. The developer, who from what I understand is as charming as he comes across in this story, doesn’t care that people bought into this neighborhood for the same reason he moved to Spring. It’s not his problem, and other than putting up websites and Facebook pages, there’s not much anyone can do about it.

I suppose there is one thing that could eventually do something about development like this, and it inevitably comes up in the comments to this post on the Blight In The Heights Facebook page. I’m talking about zoning, of course, that magic yet forbidden word in Houston that means what you want it to mean. We couldn’t have another charter referendum until May of 2015 at the earliest, so even if such a movement were to take place it would happen far too late to affect a project like this. I don’t expect such a thing to happen, and I’m not sure I’d support it if it did, but I bring it up to note that the last time there was an effort to enact zoning in Houston was 20 years ago, and as Campos notes, the vote for it didn’t lose by much. I have no idea what such a vote would look like now, in a very different Houston.

That makes for interesting speculation, but not much more. In the meantime, this is the reality. I think the best you can hope for as a resident near this thing is that it will fail as a business venture, which might have the effect of making other developers a little more leery about building in places where they’re really not wanted. I still don’t know why anyone would want to live in a place like the Ashby Highrise when they must know how much all their neighbors hate it. Maybe after it and the Morrison complex are built, we’ll find out if that is a factor in the where-to-live decision making process.

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.

Checking in with the cottage foodies

Recall again that last year home bakers were able to get a law passed that allowed them to legally sell their products in the state – see here for all the background. After the law was passed there was another uproar as the Texas Department of State Health Services proposed regulations for home bakers that they thought were excessive and onerous. I don’t recall coming across any news about how that turned out, but this Statesman feature story provides an update.

When the law passed in May 2011, home bakers rejoiced, but their elation was short-lived. Shortly after the law went into effect in September, the Department of State Health Services, which was tasked with drawing up specific labeling requirements for the new cottage bakers, released rules that had many home bakers hotter than their ovens.

Among other recommendations, the health services department said that home bakers would have to include a full list of ingredients by weight with every cake, cookie or brownie.

“I was nervous about the proposed rules because they were absolutely ridiculous,” said Beth Reyburn, owner of Never Enough Pie, an Austin-based home bakery that offers, among other things, Pie of the Month subscriptions. “Requiring a list of every single ingredient by weight is essentially giving away the recipe. That’s my livelihood.”

Even storefront bakeries aren’t required to list ingredients by weight, home bakers said, and besides, have you ever tried to weigh a multi-tiered wedding cake?

The law contains a lot of common-sense provisions, home bakers said. It requires that the sale of baked goods, jams, jellies and herb mixes take place in the home of the cottage food operator. It allows the customers to self-inspect the kitchen, meet the producer and make sure conditions meet their approval. Cottage food operators can’t sell over the Internet. They also can’t sell highly perishable goods, such as cheesecakes or anything with meat in it. Cottage food producers can’t resell through stores or restaurants, and they can’t sell at farmers markets.

But those labeling rules caused more than a few home bakers to rethink their plans to sell cookies on the side.

[…]

Just a few weeks ago, the state health services department backed off the proposed labeling plan. Cottage food operators will have to list the name of their business, address, any allergens like milk or nuts, and a statement that the product was made in a kitchen that was not inspected by the health department.

Home bakers are breathing a sigh of relief.

Much more reasonable. You can see the current draft here. According to the story, this has enabled the home bakers to get up and running, which is good news. The bad news is that there is yet another obstacle to overcome, at least for some of them.

Recently, [Kelley] Masters and other cottage food operators have been facing down local government authorities over zoning issues. For example, Frisco passed zoning rules before the cottage food law went into effect that ban bakers from selling out of their homes, which the state law requires that they do. Frisco is the only city to specifically ban cottage food operators, [Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance founder Judith] McGeary said.

The only gluten-free baker for 30 miles, Gluten Free Medley, might have to shut down while city officials mull what to do. There are no provisions in the state law that prevent local entities from using zoning rules to shut down cottage food producers.

The showdown between home bakers and zoning rules will likely have to be settled by the state legislature, said McGeary, who testified before state lawmakers last month about increasing access to healthy foods and argued that cottage food operators are one way to do that.

You can see McGeary’s testimony here; it mostly has to do with agriculture but on page 4 she references cottage foods and zoning laws. As you know, I’m not a reflexively anti-regulation person, but I firmly believe regulations must be fair and reasonable, and I have a lot of sympathy for small operators who often don’t get the kind of considerations that big ones do. As is often the case with new legislation, some tweaking will be needed to account for this situation.

Mayor tells Ashby foes it’s over

Mayor Annise Parker told the attendees at that neighborhood meeting to discuss the proposed settlement of the Ashby highrise lawsuit that it’s a done deal.

Going up whether you like it or not

“We have exhausted all legal means to stop this project,” said Parker, reiterating her opposition against the project.

Next week, Buckhead and its architects will begin meeting to make changes to the plans based on the settlement, said Buckhead’s Kevin Kirton.

Residents who have spent years fighting the project expressed further disappointment at Monday night’s meeting at Congregation Emanu El.

“I feel wholly deflated,” said Jim Reeder, co-chair of the Stop Ashby High Rise Task Force.

The Stop Ashby folks expressed their opinion of the proposal before the meeting. I can’t tell from the Chron story how, or if, their concerns were addressed, but Your Houston News tells us a bit about what was brought up.

Going back to 2005, documentation existed – both with the Southampton Civic Club and the City of Houston- indicating knowledge of this development taking shape, but know one publicly acknowledged or acted upon it.

http://www.yourhoustonnews.com/river_oaks/news/a-lesson-in-civics/article_aa6b7d0e-3765-52bc-8792-ba9db194b853.html

http://www.yourhoustonnews.com/west_university/news/drainage-documents-pointed-to-high-rise-in/article_7b3fe94f-3b06-5e3f-a6fb-f2ef7ce3c049.html

I can only imagine where our neighborhood would be today if the folks referred to in these articles – key figures at both the Civic Club and community as well as elected officials at the city –had acted to stop the project back then, instead of waiting until 2007 to begin publicly admonishing the project. It may be coincidence, but the same folks came together to support a similar high-density project in the Rice Village area during that time. Early opposition to the Ashby high-rise at that time could have jeopardized the project in the Village area – the one in which the city faced opposition from area residents and which involved the selling of a block of Bolsover Street to developers by the city.

Many folks listed in those articles – Kathy Easterly, Erik Eriksson, and others – were in attendance at this meeting, but chose not to speak. In fact, other elected officials, including At-Large Position 1 Council member Stephen Costello, former At-Large Council member Sue Lovell and others, were in attendance but also chose not to speak. The former District C council member, Southampton resident, and former president of the Southampton Civic Club, Anne Clutterbuck, was not in attendance.

Many more folks lined up at the microphones to comment and ask questions that, according to the mayor, were put into the public record. Comments ranged from a passionate plea by one resident questioning safety measures that would protect her child from harm by speeding traffic being forced onto Wroxton Road by the new construction to demands that the city forcibly take the property by eminent domain. Another resident, once again, floated the idea that the city could create a nonprofit entity by which residents could begin the process of raising money to buy the property from the developers – an idea that a representative of the developers attending the meeting said they would consider.

I don’t know what Mayor Parker or City Attorney David Feldman said to these concerns, but this is what I would have said: 1) Wroxton is still going to be a little side road with a lot of stop signs on it. More stop signs, and maybe some speed bumps, can be added if needed. No one is going to drive on Wroxton if they want to get somewhere in a hurry. 2) Under what pretext, exactly, would the city invoke eminent domain that wouldn’t subsequently be laughed out of court in the ensuing lawsuit? 3) Buckhead asked for $40 million in damages in the lawsuit the city is now settling. While I’m sure they’d have accepted a lower price for a buyout, I’m also sure there are better uses for the money.

The bottom line is that in a city with no zoning and relatively few constraints on development (at least, at the time this project was first proposed), what exactly was there for the city to do about this? I understand the residents’ concerns, and I have a lot of sympathy for them. I agree this is a poorly conceived and poorly located project. It’s entirely possible the city could have gotten a better settlement, though given the empty hand they were playing it’s hard to see how. We all knew how this was going to turn out, barring a loss of nerve or some kind of implosion on Buckhead’s part. What else was there to do?

Anyway. Here’s a photo gallery from the meeting. Did anybody here attend this? If so, what was your impression? Prime Property and Swamplot have more. Be sure to read this comment for an interesting prediction about what may come next.

The Bellaire “urban transit village”

Very interesting.

Nearly a year in the drafting, a sweeping change to Bellaire’s zoning laws creating an “urban transit village” where there is now a collection of nondescript warehouses will soon be before City Council.

On Nov. 1, the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission unanimously voted to recommend Council approval of the zoning ordinance they’ve has been working on since February with Gary Mitchell of the firm Kendig Keast, which had helped design Bellaire’s comprehensive plan five years ago.

Before the vote, the commission held a public hearing on the proposal. While members of the public were present at many of the marathon workshop sessions the commission held throughout the process, this was the first opportunity they had to speak directly on the proposal.

The warehouse district, previously called a Retail Development District in the city’s zoning plan, is a 28-acre area near the intersection of the Southwest Freeway and Loop 610. It includes a site where preliminary plans by Metro call for a light-rail station on Westpark where the regional transit agency hopes to connect the University Line with the Uptown Line leading into the Galleria.

This is the same basic location as the one-time proposed alternate site for Dynamo Stadium. The proximity of a future Universities Line rail stop was a key feature in that proposal as well.

Richard Franke, a Bellaire resident who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in May, said that the proposed ordinance was “an extraordinary effort.” Still, he peppered the commissioners with a list of questions he’d prepared.

“How will the legitimate interests of taxpayers be protected?.” he asked. “What if it reverts to an apartment complex? It’s clear that the residents of Bellaire clearly prefer detached, single-family housing.”

Responding to Franke, [Bellaire community development director John McDonald] said that while the quiet suburban lifestyle may have served Bellaire well in the past, recent trends in development throughout the greater Houston region have shown that a more “urbanized” form is beginning to take hold.

If Bellaire wants to attract new residents, particularly young professionals, it needs to seriously begin considering new forms of development, he said.

That’s almost shockingly forward-thinking of Bellaire. Who knew they had it in them? I hope Houston is paying attention.

Elections from a bygone era

All through the Early Voting period, I’ve been comparing turnout this year to elections from 2005 through 2009. It’s not like we didn’t have elections in this city before then, of course. Obviously, the city now is different than it was before, and as such I don’t know how much there is to learn from turnout levels in the 1990s. But given the concerns about poor turnout that some folks have expressed, I thought I’d take a look and see what’s there.

Year: 1993

Total votes cast: 214,306. No turnout figure is cited.

Mayoral votes cast: 186,944, or 87.2% of the citywide total. Bob Lanier, running for his first re-election against a squad of no-names, set the standard by which all future Mayors will be measured by garnering 90.10% of the vote.

Controller votes cast: 178,411, or 83.3% of the citywide total. George Greanias topped the field of four with 54.43% .

At Large votes cast: Ranged from 167,057 in the 12-candidate At Large #2 race (78.0% of citywide) to 157,974 in the 14-candidate (!) At Large #3 race (73.7%). Eleanor Tinsley led the former with 47.64%, while Lloyd Kelley at 18.26% and Cynthia Canales Gorczynski at 16.97% made it to the runoff in the latter. For those of you keeping score at home, a mere 26,822 votes were enough to make it into the finals in At Large #3. The top votegetter among all Council candidates, second only to MayorBob himself overall, was none other than Sheila Jackson Lee in At Large #4, with 103,866. How do you like that? She would defeat Craig Washington in the Democratic primary for CD18 in March, 1994, so this was her last Council election.

Familiar name: Orlando Sanchez finished fifth in a field of seven for the open District C seat, with 10.36% of the vote. He’d do better in his next election.

Special circumstances: Kids! You know that Houston is world-famous for being a city with no zoning, right? Well, did you know that we actually once voted on whether or not to impose some form of zoning on ourselves? It’s true! On the ballot in 1993 was a city proposition to allow for zoning ordinances. It failed, but by less than 7000 votes out of 168,009 ballots cast. It’s too long ago for me to remember the details, and I wasn’t paying much attention to it then. But it sure is a shame that there wasn’t an Internet back then to record everyone’s breathless utterance about it, so we could see what crazytimes it was, isn’t it? (Yes, I know there actually was an Internet back then. It was a lot smaller, and most of what was there isn’t easy to find nowadays. You know what I mean.)

Year: 1995

Total votes cast: 142,117, which is given as 13.88% turnout. It’s the only turnout figure on these result pages. This implies there were 1,023,898 registered voters in Houston at the time of this election. Let’s keep that number in mind for when the turnout figures are given for this year.

Mayoral votes cast: 126,081, or 88.7% of the citywide total. MayorBob dropped to a mere 82.66%, ahead of our old friend Dave Wilson in second place with 9.05%

Controller votes cast: 108,798, or 76.6% of the citywide total. Lloyd Kelley succeeded Greanias by winning a three-way race with 53.35% of the vote.

At Large votes cast: Ranged from 87,066 (61.3% of citywide) in At Large #1, where Gracie Saenz ran unopposed, to 114,036 (80.2%) in At Large #2, where Joe Roach easily cruised past two challengers with 73.35% of the vote. And proving that more candidates does not mean more votes, the 11-candidate pileup in At Large #3 drew only 97,961 votes. Among its other contenders were Chris Bell, who finished third with 14.17%, and Griff Griffin, who came in fourth with 10.31%. Like Orlando Sanchez, the eventual winner of this seat, Bell would do better in his next election. Unlike Orlando Sanchez, Griff would not.

Familiar name: Andrew Burks eked into a runoff in a seven-candidate District E race, finishing exactly eleven votes ahead of the third place contestant, and 20 votes ahead of fourth place. This is what they’re talking about when they say every vote matters, kids. He then got skunked in the runoff, losing to Rob Todd by a 63-37 spread.

Special circumstances: None. Total dullsville. Basically, 1995 was the 2007 of the 90s.

Year: 1997

Total votes cast: 348,680, in a wild eight-way open seat Mayoral free-for-all. Here we begin to get Harris County precinct data appended to the City Secretary reports, which includes turnout for the Houston portion of Harris County. For this election, it is given as 28.20%.

Mayoral votes cast: 313,123, or 89.8% of the citywide total. I think it’s safe to say we won’t match that total this year, though it would not shock me if the Mayoral share of total turnout is comparable. In the race, Lee Brown led the way with 132,324 votes, with Rob Mosbacher joining him in the runoff with 90,320. Round One also included former Controller George Greanias, who got squeezed between constituencies and finished third, and former Council members Gracie Saenz and Helen Huey.

Controller votes cast: 259,418, or 74.4% of the citywide total. Sylvia Garcia scored a clean win over Lloyd Kelley, 55.40% to 33.50% (there were three other candidates), becoming the first of so far only two challengers to defeat a sitting incumbent since term limits were adopted in 1994. (Jean Kelley, who inherited District G from her husband John in this election, would become the other such incumbent in 1999, losing to Bert Keller.)

At Large votes cast: Ranged from 226,382 (64.9%) in the nine-person At Large #5 race, eventually won by future HCC Trustee candidate Carroll Robinson, to 250,933 (72.0%) in At Large #2, where the late Joe Roach cruised past a single opponent and collected the high vote score for the cycle, with 190,841.

Familiar name: Annise Parker, who finished second in a seven-candidate race for At Large #1, then won in the runoff.

Special circumstances: The only open seat Mayor’s race of the 90s, as Bob Lanier had ousted incumbent Kathy Whitmire in 1991, and the genesis of the term “the Greanias line” for city election wonks. And if that wasn’t enough, a charter referendum to end affirmative action, which lost 55-45, and a bunch of bond referenda. Yeah, there were a few things pushing people to the polls that year.

Year: 1999

Total votes cast: 268,109. Turnout for the Houston portion of Harris County is given as 21.57%.

Mayoral votes cast: 206,778, or 77.1% of the citywide total. This was the infamous election in which one-term incumbent Mayor Lee Brown received only 67.29% of the vote against two no-chance opponents, Jack Terence (23.16%) and Outlaw Josey Wales, IV (9.55%, and no, I’m not kidding about the name), thus setting up the narrative that he was vulnerable to a challenge for 2001, and giving too many political pundits with too much time on their hands something to point to a decade hence.

Controller votes cast: 150,385, or 56.1% of the citywide total. Sylvia Garcia, having established herself as the first challenger to defeat an incumbent in the term limits era, established the tradiion of uncontested Controller races after that.

At Large votes cast: Two uncontested seats (#s 4 and 5, Chris Bell and Carroll Robinson), received 141,489 and 142,022 votes, respectively, each less than 53% of the citywide total. Three contested races had totals ranging from 174,774 (65.2%) in the 11-candidate At Large #2 race, in which Gordon Quan would go on to defeat Dwight Boykins in the runoff to 179,095 (66.8%) in At Large #3, where Orlando Sanchez won a 54-46 re-election against Andrew Burks, which somehow did not create a narrative that he too was electorally vulnerable.

Familiar name: Have I not given enough already? All right, Toni Lawrence made the first of two unsuccessful attempts to defeat Bruce Tatro in District A. She didn’t run in the open seat race in 1997 (Tatro defeated our old buddy Dave Wilson in the runoff), and eventually won the seat after Tatro got termed out.

Special circumstances: Four more city referenda, of which the one “relating to residency of elected officers” received the highest vote total of 194,543, which as you can see easily exceeded every city race other than the Mayoral. The other three ranged from 174,654 to 185,971 votes. As with the zoning referendum of 1993, I have no memory of what these were about, but they clearly helped drive turnout.

What do we learn from this? Well, other than the fact that certain characters have been recurring in our elections for a long time, it seems to me that a charter amendment is a pretty good way to drive turnout. Note how great the falloff is from the city vote totals to those of individual races, a factor that I have to believe is related to some people showing up only for the referenda. As such, I think that while we are correct to lament low turnout in city races, we should be careful about comparing our current elections to those of the 1990s, when turnout was superficially pretty high. Perhaps if the red light camera referendum had been on the 2009 ballot, or on this one, we’d be having a very different conversation about the turnout levels. Just something to think about. Hope you enjoyed this trip down somewhat-cloudy-memory lane.

Auto salvage yards

This recent Chron story about the county cracking down on auto salvage yards raised a couple of interesting points.

The county long has been able to come after the yards for spills and drainage problems. This year Commissioners Court gave the county attorney the power to enforce state anti-nuisance rules that allow government lawyers to target yards not just for how they operate, but where.

Any yard that keeps cars within 300 feet of a home or church or within 50 feet of a road will be denied a county permit. The yard owners also must maintain fences and keep salvaged vehicles inside them. In April, the county attorney’s office filed its first lawsuit against a yard it alleges has violated those rules. The office is preparing three more suits.

“In an unzoned city and, of course, unzoned county, a salvage yard, if not properly run, can ruin your neighborhood,” said Terry O’Rourke, first assistant county attorney. “We want salvage yards. We just don’t want them to ruin the quality of life for the people they’re around.”

The county formed a task force in recent years in response to complaints from residents and civic associations in the Aldine area, said Rock Owens, an assistant county attorney who specializes in environmental cases. Many yards were setting up shop in Aldine and other areas just outside the Houston city limits after the city had tightened its regulations on junkyards.

Stuff like this, and the efforts in recent years to ban smoking in most indoor establishments, show the limits to government based on arbitrarily-drawn boundaries. The city cracks down on these nuisances, so they move to unincorporated Harris County. If the county succeeds in getting tough on them, odds are they’ll move to Montgomery or Liberty or Galveston or some other neighboring county. There’s plenty of good reasons why one state may want to do certain things differently than another, or why one city may want to do certain things differently than another, but I can’t think of a good reason for such a piecemeal approach to problems like this. In some cases, you have an entity located in one place that’s causing problems for residents of another but is legally out of their reach – think polluters, for one prime example. Some things require a regional approach, but we just don’t have that capability for the most part. This is one result of that.

The new rules and lawsuits amount to a backdoor way of imposing zoning on a single industry, said salvage yard owner Cameron Tavakoli.

He predicted the crackdown will be a job-killer.

If successful, the county’s efforts likely will result in a reduction of auto salvage yard-related employment. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, of course. Certainly, Harris County thinks the benefits it will get from things like better land use and higher property values will outweigh whatever short-term loss of jobs there may be. I’m inclined to agree with them on this.

We’re for more land use regulations, whatever that means

As long as Zogby was polling the Mayor’s race, they may as well ask about some other stuff, too. Like whether or not you like the Ashby highrise.

Out of 601 people surveyed between Oct. 12 and 15, 71 percent said they strongly or somewhat agree that “Houston should enact tougher land use restrictions.”

The results come from a range of questions about voter satisfaction with the direction the city is headed, their views on the tenure of outgoing Mayor Bill White and which issues they find most important as they consider his replacement.

Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg, who has gauged voter support for zoning and stronger development protections for decades, said much of the support for such planning improvements likely falls at the feet of the Ashby high-rise development.

[…]

“It reflects a broad recognition that people want to be prepared for the additional 1 million people who are going to be in Harris County in 20 years,” Klineberg said.

Mmm. I’ll grant that you’d likely have gotten a different answer to this question 20 years ago, but I think Klineberg is giving folks too much credit. I suspect this is one of those issues that polls well as a generic “do you support?” question, but any actual plan to implement it would be much less popular. Really, there’s nothing unusual about that – as long as it’s theoretical, everyone can assume they’re supporting their own personal idea of how it should be done. Nothing specific can match up with that. When someone proposes an actual ordinance, and there’s a vocal constituency loudly opposing it, then we’ll see how popular this is. Until then, color me skeptical.

Three cheers for Montrose

Always nice to get recognition.

Montrose, the central Houston community known for its diverse lifestyles, vibrant street life and stately historic homes, is being honored by the American Planning Association today as one of the country’s 10 great neighborhoods.

Houston’s sprawl, absence of zoning and reputation for haphazard development might make its recognition by the national planning establishment something of a surprise. Yet the qualities cited in the award for Montrose — its walkable street grid, carefully preserved historic districts and eclectic mix of homes and businesses — reflect Houston’s preference for private rather than government-imposed planning, experts said.

In the early 20th century, long before it became the focus of slum-clearing urban renewal projects or the heart of Houston’s gay and lesbian community, Montrose was an elite master-planned suburb, said Stephen Fox, a Rice University architectural historian.

“Its planning has really come from the developers of the individual subdivisions rather than representing any public policy,” Fox said.

[…]

“It doesn’t have to always be a prescribed method of growth,” [David Robinson, the president of the Neartown Association] said. “It’s organic. The street grid, the sidewalks have meant that without zoning and for the most part without restrictive covenants, the area has been able to grow and adapt.”

The street grid — a web of straight streets with short blocks and none of the cul-de-sacs favored in suburban neighborhoods — has helped keep Montrose walkable since the days when people stepped off streetcars and walked to homes or shops, Robinson said.

David Morley, a research associate at the American Planning Association, said Montrose’s pedestrian-friendly nature was an important factor in the award.

“It’s one of the few places in Houston where people get out of their cars and walk around,” Morley said.

Congrats to Montrose and kudos to the APA for making such a good choice. I hope that as Montrose continues to gentrify and densify that its basic infrastructure needs are met so that it may be a great place where people want to live for many years to come. Hair Balls has more.

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!

More signage regulation coming

First, they came for the billboards. Then they came for the attention-getting devices. Now in the crosshairs: Roof signs and other potential menaces to Houston’s natural beauty.

The city of Houston is poised to pass a major revision to its decades-old ordinance governing more than 60,000 signs on display at area businesses, proposing numerous changes that supporters hope will improve the city’s appearance.

Critics agree that the changes will be vast — eliminating roof signs, regulating electronic displays and diminishing the maximum allowable height and square footage of on-premises signs by nearly half in certain cases — but strongly oppose the changes because they could hurt small businesses and initiate a citywide makeover they say Houston does not need.

The debate has sparked age-old tensions about the character of Houston, and whether the laissez-faire approach that has governed its appearance, leading to a little-controlled bonanza of signs and development — is ideal for the city’s future.

“People come here and they are consistently shocked by the city’s appearance and they often ask us how we let this happen to our city,” said Anne Culver, executive director of Scenic Houston, an organization that advocates for more regulation of signs and billboards. “Site consultants say all the time that they’re told not to put Houston on their lists because of pollution, the heat and how it looks. This is a step in the right direction.”

Michael Berry, a former city council member who has spoken against the measure on his radio show, said the timing of the changes — coming in one of the worst economic downturns in a generation — could not be worse.

“Houston didn’t grow so big so fast because of an activist City Hall,” he said. “Less government, no zoning, low taxes and a strong business climate may be ‘ugly’ to some, but that’s why we’ve prospered. This will hurt small business at a time when they are struggling.”

I cheered the billboard ordinance. I’m more ambivalent about the AGD ordinance, but am okay with it. This one, I’m not so sure about. I guess I just don’t perceive the problem. Maybe I just don’t notice the types of signs and displays in question, or maybe I do notice them and am just not all that bothered by them, I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a case to be made that Houston would be more aesthetically pleasing with a stronger ordinance in place, and I’m sure the existing one needs some kind of updating, but the case for this particular revision is not self-evident to me. Given the recent loss in court over enforcement of the to-be-updated AGD ordinance, I’m leery of something as broad as this. I’m not saying I can’t be convinced that this is a worthwhile pursuit, but someone is going to have to make an effort to do so.

Having said that, Berry’s lame, archaic, knee-jerk sloganeering is about the least credible argument you could use to dissuade me. Let’s put aside the fact that this is about the worst time in my memory to make the “regulation is bad” claim as an axiom. Even if it is the case that in whatever history of Houston Berry has in mind a “non-activist” City Hall contributed to the city’s growth in the past, why is that necessarily the case now? We all know how much, and how rapidly, Houston has changed in recent years. Who’s to say the way we’ve always done things is the way we should always keep doing? That’s granting Berry’s premise about Houston’s governance, which may or may not be on point anyway.

The proposed changes were produced over the course of a year by a 14-member task force that included city officials, commercial real estate agents and representatives from the sign-making, restaurant and apartment industries. Task force members said the proposals represented a compromise between business interests and consumers, and many stressed that the new requirements will not be imposed on businesses with existing signs. Only new developments and businesses greatly remaking their signs will have to comply with the new regulations, which would go into effect Sept. 1, if passed.

The measure appears to have the support of council members, who last week noted the array of stakeholders who participated on the task force. The proposed rules sailed through council’s Quality of Life Committee in May.

[…]

Despite efforts by city officials, some industry officials have spoken out against the changes, in some cases even though it was not immediately clear how their companies would be affected. Several officials representing national pharmacy chains such as Walgreen’s asked City Council not to pass the ordinance last week, citing concerns over the new electronic sign rules.

Some commercial real estate agents have speculated that Houston will lose a perceived advantage from developers eager to do business in a place with few regulations.

Mike Harp, development director for Cedarwood Development, a commercial real estate company, said businesses with existing signs would have an advantage over competitors that come into the market after September. In particular, he said, there are not adequate provisions for exceptions to the rules.

“I can agree that we need our rules to be stiffer, but when you turn it over to a bureaucracy and administrative people, you very much lose your edge, in my mind,” he said. “It’s a problem if you set down a black and white ordinance that may not apply common sense to a specific site.”

I can accept the argument that Houston’s current regulations may be attractive to some developers. It does not necessarily follow that this is a net positive for Houston. Maybe a more stringent set of rules would have a greater benefit, in terms of people and businesses wanting to relocate here. That’s Anne Culver’s argument, and it’s one I’m receptive to, but I’m also receptive to Mike Harp’s point about the new ordinance possibly favoring existing businesses over new ones. I can see the pros and cons, I’m just not sure which set is bigger. I’d like to hear more about this. What do you think?

The Freeland Historic District

I drive down White Oak every day to take the girls to preschool, so I’ve been going past a bunch of houses that have signs with “save our bungalow” messages on them, but I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. Now I know.

Jack Preston Wood isn’t sure now if his dream home is compatible with the property he made an offer on last year near the Houston Heights.

What Wood didn’t know when he entered a contract to buy the 1929 bungalow at 536 Granberry was that it is located in the recently designated Freeland Historic District.

The small neighborhood off White Oak Drive was platted by some of the developers of what is now the Heights Historic District. But what makes it unique in the city of Houston is that Freeland’s original bungalow-style homes are virtually intact; only two of the original 37 have been lost.

Residents in the neighborhood are fighting to keep it that way. When word got out that Wood, a residential designer, wanted to tear down the bungalow, subdivide the lot and build two, four-story homes, neighbors organized a campaign to stop it.

The group spoke against the plans when they reached the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission in March, put out “save our district” signs and have since staged weekly protests at the corner of Granberry and White Oak Drive.

Even though city laws won’t stop the redevelopment, Wood said there’s no way he’ll go through with those plans after speaking with some of the neighbors. But if they aren’t amenable to something different, something he would consider compatible with the existing homes, then he may pull out of the deal altogether.

“If we can’t find a way to get our dream to fit in there, then we won’t close,” Wood said.

Which, judging by the comments at Hair Balls and Swamplot, would clearly suit the remaining residents just fine. I just want to add a couple of points to the discussion.

One, in all of these homeowners-versus-developers stories, there are always a few people who advocate the position that folks like Jack Preston Wood should be free to do whatever they want with their property. The point I would make is that even in no-zoning Houston, we do have limits. It would be illegal for him to build, say, a strip club or a chemical plant there. Plenty of commercial projects get blocked or need to be drastically altered because of numerous regulations covering such mundane things as the number of available parking spaces. It’s residential development that’s far looser, and that’s where these battles often erupt. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people to believe there ought to be more restrictions on residential development, in a similar fashion to commercial development.

Second, the character of a neighborhood like the Freeland District has value to its residents. By tearing down a house that fits in with the neighborhood and replacing it with something completely different, some of that value is lost to the other residents. Again, those who would defend the developers in these scenarios often talk about their right to maximize the value of their properties. But how do you compensate those who believe their own values get diminished by that?

Finally, the Freeland Historic District (PDF) abuts the site of the long-controversial Viewpoint development – Granberry, and Frasier one block to its west, both terminate at the north end of the land where Viewpoint would be built, if it ever is. As such, I can’t really blame the folks who live there if they feel like they’re under siege.