The Chron has a story today about something near and dear to my heart – a battle between Heights homeowners and a developer.
After work and on weekends, between appointments or during lunch breaks, a half-dozen or so Heights residents have logged hundreds of hours in their campaign to block a planned condominium project in their neighborhood.
They’ve created a Web site, collected hundreds of petition signatures, met with city officials, exchanged countless e-mails and explored the intricacies of the city’s development code. Five months after their efforts started, they’re on a first-name basis with city Planning Department officials and City Council aides.
I’d love to see that website, but the article doesn’t name it and I failed to find it via Google. Grumble.
Like their counterparts in neighborhoods throughout Houston, these Heights residents are frustrated by the difficulty of fending off development they believe will increase flooding risks, clog their quiet streets with traffic or threaten their children’s safety.
They are heartened, however, by stirrings of change within the City Planning Commission, a group of 21 volunteers who provide the primary public forum for arbitrating land-use disputes in the nation’s only major city without zoning.
In December, Mayor Bill White installed new leadership on the commission and instructed the panel to find ways to protect neighborhoods more effectively while sustaining growth and development.
“We’re going to be challenged to think of how we can do certain things differently in the future than in the past, unless we want to see increased flooding, congestion, deteriorating air quality,” White told the commission on Jan. 27.
Mark Sterling, a physicist who has led the opposition to the Viewpoint Condominiums, said the project is a good illustration of development conflicts in Houston and a test of the reorganized Planning Commission’s commitment to protecting neighborhoods.
“Viewpoint seems to represent so many elements of poor planning,” Sterling said. “In the fog of war, it just started looking like the perfect fight.”
Guided by recommendations from the city’s professional planners, the commission determines whether projects comply with rules for site access, lot sizes, building setbacks and related matters. It meets every two weeks to review dozens of subdivision plats, which describe how property is to be divided for development projects.
White said he wants the commission to move beyond plat review and create committees to examine the city’s development policies and recommend any needed changes.
Leading this effort is the commission’s new chairwoman, Carol A. Lewis, a Texas Southern University professor and former Metropolitan Transit Authority board member. Supporters of stronger local planning said White’s choice of an academic with expertise in transportation planning was a clear signal that he is serious about changing the commission’s role.
One of the most urgent questions facing Lewis is how, or whether, the commission should seek greater authority and discretion to balance neighborhood and development.
Under city laws, the commission is required to approve plats that meet development rules, even if the project seems inappropriate because of factors that fall outside the scope of plat review, such as traffic or flooding. This is often frustrating to members of the public who appear at commission meetings to complain about these issues.
Critics of the current arrangement said plat approval creates momentum for projects that might be harmful to existing neighborhoods.
“Once the plat is approved, virtually every developer thinks that (the building permit) is going to be approved,” said Kay Crooker, a neighborhood advocate who has served on the commission for 21 years.
The most contentious projects the commission reviews tend to be those for which developers request variances, or exceptions, to the city’s code.
Officials at innerLoopCondos.com asked for three variances for Viewpoint. The application was on the commission’s agenda last month, but the developer withdrew it the day before the meeting. The company said it intends to resubmit the application without changing its basic concept for the project.
Suzy Hartgrove, a spokeswoman for the city Planning Department, said the staff intended to recommend denial of the variances, although the developer did not know this when it withdrew the application.
Opponents of the 64-unit, midrise project said the site is inappropriate for development and would be better used as a park.
The only access would be a bridge the developer would build across a ravine that drains into White Oak Bayou. The bridge would start at the dead end of 5th Street. City rules require two access points for such projects, which prompted one of the variance requests.
I’ve quoted rather extensively so you can get a feel for what this is about. There was an earlier article, which was relegated to the This Week section, which covered this in more detail – one crucial point that was omitted was to note that the single point of access plus the tight fit would make it very difficult for a fire truck to get in. The article was saved on the Houston Architectural Forum, which also has this earlier piece about the condo builder and its other projects.
I think to really get a feel for where this is and why the residents might be concerned, you need to see some pictures. I drove by with my digital camera and took some shots. Click the More link to see them.
This is a view of the area from the I-10 service road, which is south of the proposed development. To the left (west) is a new luxury apartment complex called the Alexan Heights. It faces Oxford Street and runs from the I-10 service road to 4 1/2 street, two blocks away.
The Alexan Heights from Oxford and 4th, one block north of I-10.
One more block north at Oxford and 4 1/2 Street. I’m showing you this so you’ll know what the borders of the proposed development are, and also so you’ll see that there really is no other way in to Oxford and 5th.
And here we are at Oxford and 5th. The bridge mentioned in the story begins where the street dead-ends.
The official Notice of Variance Request, with some editorial comments from the residents.
More editorial comments.
The view behind the fence, as best as I can get it. It looks like what’s directly behind the dead-end fence is already owned by someone, though the townhome it’s connected to is under construction and for all I know may be owned by the InnerLoop people. If not, well, how much would you need to be paid to have a public bridge built over your back yard?
Moving over to the corner of Frasier and 5 1/2, we see another defaced InnerLoop sign.
A view of the behind-the-fence lot from Frasier. The dead-end fence is just to the left of the townhome. It’s hard to see, but that cyclone fence continues all the way around the lot, behind the plastic child’s playground unit, which is the box in the middle of the picture. My guess is that the bridge will have to cross over all of this.
Where I think the condos will be built, just east of the fenced-in lot. The downtown skyline view is the obvious attraction.
Another view of the lot.
I should note that there’s no fence at the junction of Frasier and 5 1/2 (it’s not an intersection, as both roads end where they meet), so I suppose there could be a second access point via Frasier (5 1/2 goes one block and deadends at the next street over, whose name escapes me). Indeed, other than the fact that Frasier is a really narrow little road and it doesn’t have a direct connection to the I-10 service road like Oxford does, it would seem to be the more natural entry point to the proposed development, since no bridge would need to be built. I can only presume that the developer planned on having the units face the downtown skyline, which would make the entrance from 5th Street more appealing. Nonetheless, if it comes down to it, rejigging the design would surely be preferable than leaving the land fallow, at least from InnerLoop’s perspective.
This in my mind is a good example of the kind of undesireable density that gets proposed in the Heights and other inner city areas. The infrastructure isn’t capable of handling it, and in this case at least, there’s not much anyone can do about it except deny it. Maybe the city can make an offer to buy the land back from InnerLoop, assuming of course that it has that kind of cash lying around.
Finally, I’m glad to see that Mayor White respects the needs and values of his urban constituents enough to want to give some teeth to the Planning Department. There really isn’t any other viable counterforce to the developers, and it’s high time there was one. Someone has to look out for the people who get impacted by this sort of thing.