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.