In a sense, this is surprising, and in a sense, it’s not.
Mayor Bill White’s administration has proposed an ordinance that could require developers to reduce the size of a planned high-rise building that’s ignited a bitter dispute over what’s appropriate to develop in Houston.
The ordinance, distributed to City Council members Tuesday, could be on the council’s agenda next week — an unusually fast timetable for a new regulatory law in Houston. Such measures typically take months to work their way through the city bureaucracy.
White acknowledged that the ordinance was drafted in response to a controversial high-rise planned near Rice University that has not yet received a building permit. Residents of the adjoining Southampton and Boulevard Oaks neighborhoods hired a prominent attorney and staged a street protest against the project.
The ordinance would require traffic impact studies of projects on two-lane, two-way streets that include at least 100 dwelling units and increase density 100 percent or more. This description fits the 23-story building that developers Kevin Kirton and Matthew Morgan of Houston-based Buckhead Investment Partners want to build at 1717 Bissonnet.
The measure would give the public works director broad discretion to require steps to ease traffic problems involved. In the case of the Bissonnet project, White said, reducing the building’s size would be the most logical solution.
“The development on Bissonnet that will dump more than 2,000 (daily) trips onto a two-lane, two-way street exposed a loophole” in city regulations, White said, explaining why he put the ordinance on such a fast track.
The ordinance would authorize the public works director to use the traffic impact analysis as well as his “independent judgment” to determine whether the project would cause excessive impact on traffic. It would be the first time the city has required traffic impact studies of new developments.
If the director finds that the project would worsen traffic congestion, he could require any corrective action he deemed appropriate. The developers could appeal to the city Planning Commission.
Neighborhood leaders and the district councilwoman, Anne Clutterbuck, praised the ordinance Friday. Clutterbuck said it was a first step toward a broader traffic impact ordinance that would apply to other types of developments.
It’s surprising to see action being taken as swiftly and decisively on this. This sort of regulation on development just doesn’t happen in that fashion in Houston. It’s always been slow and incremental. On the other hand, given the neighborhood affected and the outcry they’ve been able to generate, it’s not surprising at all.
As I’ve said before, if this leads to a more comprehensive review of city ordinances on development, then it’s a worthwhile exercise regardless of the outcome in this particular case. I just hope we don’t limit the scope to just traffic flow, which I think in this case may be overstated anyway. Things like parking, sewage and drainage are important, too – more so, in many cases. Rethinking our implementation of form-based planning, so that projects are more appropriate for the neighborhoods they’re in, would be a big step forward. I’ll be very interested to see how this plays out. Tory has some related commentary.