Bissonnet high rise protesters get some results

It’s not a “media event” without the media, so here’s Miya’s coverage of the neighborhood protest against the Bissonnet high rise. They certainly succeeded in their mission to draw attention to their cause.

They’ve also succeeded in the more important matter of winning the political battle, at least so far.

Two days after Mayor Bill White pledged support for residents fighting a planned high-rise building near Rice University, city officials withdrew their approval of the developers’ traffic impact analysis of the project.

This reversal of the city’s position, the mayor’s personal involvement and the announcement that prominent attorney Rusty Hardin would represent the opponents have reinforced concerns that affluent, politically connected neighborhoods enjoy an advantage over others in Houston’s frequent land-use battles.

“There is a terrible inequity here,” acknowledged City Councilman Peter Brown, who lives a few blocks from the project site and joined at least 300 of his neighbors standing along both sides of Bissonnet on Wednesday afternoon protesting the developers’ plans.

White and other city officials denied that the Southampton and Boulevard Oaks neighborhoods near the site at 1717 Bissonnet had received any special treatment. And neighborhood leaders said they hope the attention focused on their struggle will lead to policies that will benefit all of Houston’s neighborhoods.

“Sometimes it takes a project affecting folks who can get things done to actually get things done,” said James Reeder, a Southampton resident and a partner in the Vinson & Elkins law firm, who said he was surprised and grateful when the mayor returned his recent call to talk about the high-rise. “We are fortunate that we have residents who do have the ear of influential people.”

Well, connections do matter. I don’t begrudge these folks their success, especially if in doing so they help bring about a more comprehensive review of the process by which permits for different types of developments are granted. But yeah, it’s a little hard to look at this one project and see any substantive difference from other ones that caused people to stir up a ruckus beyond who it is that’s making the noise about it.

Reeder said he wasn’t familiar with the contradictory letters the city’s Public Works and Engineering Department had sent to the firm that performed the traffic study for the developers, Kevin Kirton and Matthew Morgan of Houston-based Buckhead Investment Partners.

The first letter, dated Sept. 4, said the city had reviewed the study and found that the 23-story, mixed-use project would have “no adverse traffic impact on the area street system nor the neighborhood. … I am granting our approval of the traffic impact analysis of 1717 Bissonnet.”

A second letter dated Sept. 28 and signed by the same official, Raymond D. Chong, a deputy public works director, said the previous approval of the traffic study was withdrawn. It cited several potential traffic problems the development could cause.


Chong’s second letter was dated two days after White’s letter to neighborhood leaders saying he believed the project would impair mobility on Bissonnet, a two-lane street. In the letter, now posted on the city’s Web site, White promised to “use any appropriate power under law to alter the proposed project as currently planned.”

Andy Icken, another deputy public works director who has been the administration’s spokesman on the project, said the letter withdrawing approval of the traffic study was unrelated to the mayor’s statement.

Icken said the second letter was drafted after he reviewed the traffic study and found inconsistencies in the level of activity expected at a restaurant included in the developers’ plans for the building. The figures cited in the traffic study were different from those included in a previous request for utility work that was done in preparation for the development, Icken said.

White said he, too, had read the 59-page traffic study and found some of its conclusions questionable. His attention to this project was not unusual, the mayor said, because city officials have closely scrutinized the traffic impact of new, dense development projects in parts of central Houston since early this year.

Let’s assume that the second letter was in fact unrelated to the high profile of this case. Was the first letter sent incorrectly, or is it standard for their to be further reviews that might lead to the discovery of new and contradictory evidence, thus prompting a reversal like this? Maybe this is another matter of process that needs to be studied by Council.

The mayor said he and other high-level city officials frequently step in to help neighborhoods resolve problems with new development, and that most of these cases involve low-income neighborhoods rather than affluent ones.

But Councilman Jarvis Johnson, who represents District B in northeast Houston, said residents of the poor and working-class neighborhoods he represents had a difficult time getting a sympathetic ear at City Hall when they complained about single-family housing developments with no parks or other amenities.

“The city said there were standards that we set that (the developers) followed,” he said. “How can this community (Southampton) push the envelope so much?”

Good question. No question, the Southampton folks have a lot of support. I just want to know what it’s going to mean for folks who aren’t affected by this project, but may be by another one. Is this a one-off, or is it a catalyst?

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3 Responses to Bissonnet high rise protesters get some results

  1. dukakis_in_a_tank says:

    I think this is a catalyst…a catalyst for developers to abandon high-rise projects in established/affluent neighborhoods and instead continue their gentrification of traditionally lower and working class interior neighborhoods. I am not surprised to learn than opponents of similar projects in less affluent neighborhoods did not receive the same level of personal response that the Mayor extended to a V&E partner.

    And as far as reeder’s comment about “people who can get things done,” I would reply that it can be difficult to get things done when you work two jobs or you are single parent in a working class neighborhood. Many people might not have been able tog et off work to stna doutside and protest.

  2. Trafficnerd says:

    Does anyone know if the Traffic Impact Analysis has been posted online somewhere, or if someone has it can they post it online? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

    The City’s letter rescinding their approval in some ways gets to the point I made the other day, everyone gets hung up on height and the # of residential units, when its the other uses you really need to watch carefully.

    The City, in their letter refer to “apparent inconsistencies” between the level of development (I assume this means square footage/size/intensity) for the restaurant use. Also important, in the City’s letter they reference the “fine dining”.

    A Quality Restaurant (Fine dining – one that rarely serves lunch, requires reservations etc) generates almost 200 fewer trips per day at this size (5,125 sq ft) than a High-Turnover Sit Down restaurant (virtually any of your typical chains etc). The peak hour difference is pretty small though.

    Without knowing what tenants the developer has lined up, its hard to make that distinction. From what i have seen, absent additional information from a developer related to actual tenants, if a traffic person is working for the developer, they’ll tend toward Quality Restaurant in a location like this, if they are working for the residents, they’ll tend toward High-Turnover. Both are correct in the absence of additional information, its just that the numbers vary and its easier to make a no/little impact assessment if you use fine dining.

    With that said, discrepancies in land use intensity information between site civil and the traffic study are common. We are frequently given limited site info for the traffic study, maybe raw uses and sizes – or best case/worst case etc. Site civil knows much more detail but usually that comes later so I’m not surprised the city found size differences between the TIA and wastewater stuff. etc.

    Lastly, like I said before, the residents need to be careful what the wish for, and watch the other uses carefully, the apartments or condos are not going to be the biggest problems at this site in terms of traffic.

    Not related, but I found it interesting that the City’s letter writer does not have a Texas Engineering license (yet). He must be licensed elsewhere because he does have his PTOE (Professional Traffic Operations Engineer) Certification which requires you to have a PE first.

  3. Baby Snooks says:

    “I am not surprised to learn that opponents of similar projects in less affluent neighborhoods did not receive the same level of personal response that the Mayor extended to a V&E partner.”

    Opponents of similar projects in more affluent neighborhoods neighborhoods, specifically Tanglewood and River Oaks, also did not get that level of personal response from a mayor or even from a city council member.

    Not everyone in Southampton is pleased with the response they got with regard to this project simply because many of the politicians who have come out against it came out in support of a similar project, the sole exception being the height of the buildings involved although that seems to be changing now that the project has been approved, on Bolsover. There is a little hypocrisy that some of the residents of Southampton have taken note of. The politicians may have pleased some partners at Vinson & Elkins but they may have rubbed some constituents the wrong way in the process.

    Traffic studies? Most expect the traffic increase from Sonoma on Bolsover and from the Methodist Clinic on Cherokee between Sunset and Rice to impact Southampton far more than the hirise on Bissonnet in terms of the increased traffic on Morningside and Kelvin as a result of Sonoma and on Cherokee and Sunset and Rice as a result of the Methodist Clinic. All two lane streets just like Bissonnet.

    The only real difference is that Bissonnet is already a major thoroughfare that should have been widened years ago. And probably cannot be at this point because of developers who were given approval of building beyond building lines on Bissonnet, at least one literally sitting on the city sidewalk easement, which makes expansion impossible unless several of the townhome developments are demolished which would cost the city quite a bit of money given the value of the townhomes.

    Some opposed that as well and that fell on deaf ears as has most opposition to similar developments throughout our city. The voters have repeatedly refused zoning. So it has always been “anything goes” with little exception.

    One does have to ask if the only time the ears of City Hall listen is when attorneys from Vinson & Elkins are talking?

    That’s a question quite a few are asking. The politicians may discover the answer most have come up with next time at the polls.

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