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?