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Houstonians for Responsible Growth

Planning to plan

Not really sure what to make of this.

“We’ve had a lot of planning in this city and most of us continue to do a great deal of it,” said Central Houston president Bob Eury. “What we haven’t had is the coordination and the ongoing framework for coordination. That’s what is so incredibly important coming out of this process.”

The effort is in its early stages, with Denver-based urban planner, professor and consultant Peter Park having conducted a “plan to plan” in recent months, holding discussions with numerous civic leaders to get a sense of what makes Houston tick and decide what the plan should look like.

City officials presented results of that effort and next steps to a City Council committee last week, to general enthusiasm from council members and civic leaders.

Planning and Development Department director Patrick Walsh said the plan should prevent inefficient decisions, such as paving a street and then tearing it up a few years later to install new drainage pipes, or redundant plans being pursued by the city and local development boards.

It would identify the public’s preferences in specific areas and help guide investment choices, Walsh said. For instance, a park could be a place to relax, or it could be a catalyst for economic development, such as Discovery Green. Or, he said, if it included a trail, it could be part of the city’s mobility system; or it could provide drainage for a nearby public project.

“We are attempting to recognize that there’s been an awful lot of very good work that’s gone on before us,” Walsh said. “It’s time to take advantage of that work and utilize it … There is no need to re-create the wheel here.”

[…]

[Mayor Annise] Parker said neither comprehensive planning advocates’ highest hopes, nor opponents’ worst fears, will be realized in the final product.

That sort of rhetoric hasn’t calmed David Crossley or Peter Brown’s excitement. The two smart-growth gadflies launched BluePrint Houston 12 years ago and, despite the time invested, never quite saw the idea take root. The same could be said for a 1994 effort dubbed Imagine Houston.

“I’ve had outside developers who are interested in investing in Houston ask me, ‘Show me your adopted plan so I get a feel for where I might do a project,’ ” Brown said. “I met with deputy administrator of the EPA in Washington … (who) said, ‘Show me your adopted comprehensive plan.’ There wasn’t one. This is going to help us in many, many ways.”

Even those typically inclined to frown at such proposals see promise.

Josh Sanders, of developer-led Houstonians for Responsible Growth, said there was “some initial trepidation” among his members when whispers emerged of a “general plan.” Those fears proved unfounded, he said, as the planning strategy took shape.

“We think the city does need more of a strategic outlook and does need more coordination between its existing plans,” Sanders said. “What we can do a better job of doing is figuring out how to plan and accommodate growth.”

We’ll see what this turns into. No question, there’s a need for the left hand to know a little more about what the right hand is doing. How that will translate into a set of action items, I have no idea. I’m glad everyone seems to be on board with this, I just have no idea what to expect at this time.

Everybody wants to help the judge rule on the Ashby lawsuit

I really don’t envy Judge Randy Wilson the task he has.

Sue me!

Lawyers aren’t the only ones peppering the judge in the Ashby high-rise case with last-minute paperwork. A former city councilman, a pro-developer interest group and residents who live near the planned tower have all submitted pleas in hope of influencing his decision. One arrived in an email addressing the judge in the case by his first name and closing with, “Sent from my iPad.”

In addition to formal correspondence from the lawyers who participated in the monthlong trial that resulted in a jury verdict that favored opponents, four other letters and a friend-of-the-court brief from a Houston attorney also have been entered into the official court record since state District Judge Randy Wilson heard their final arguments to a week ago.

[…]

Peter Brown, director of Better Houston, a nonprofit urban planning group, sent a letter to the court also. In the letter, Brown, who was on City Council from 2006 to 2010, also sided with the residents.

“A ruling in favor of the developers in this case would perpetuate the unplanned, hap-hazard, inefficient development patterns which negatively impact city life,” Brown wrote in part. “A ruling in favor of the developers would unnecessarily limit the authority of the City to enact reasonable rules, standards and incentives to promote important initiatives now underway.”

He recommended downsizing the tower to seven stories or 90 feet and to require a public space. He also suggested the judge mandate a basic overhaul of city development regulations to ensure more security for developers for future projects.

The Houston Real Estate Council took the side of Buckhead in its statement to the court. The group noted that an earlier friend-of-the-court brief submitted by Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit that represents developers, which argued against a permanent injunction for a project that otherwise complied with city regulations and state law.

See here, here, and here for the background. I truly have no idea what Judge Wilson should do, or what he might do. The only thing I feel confident about is that someone will appeal his ruling, whatever it is.

City asks court to let Ashby Highrise be built

Interesting.

Sue me!

The city on Friday asked a judge to let the Ashby high-rise project go forward after seven years of wrangling and a recent jury verdict in favor of nearby residents who oppose the 21-story tower planned for 1717 Bissonnet.

City Attorney David Feldman said halting construction of a project that satisfied the regulations in place at the time it was granted a permit would “irreparably impair future developments in the city.”

“The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of such lawsuits would hinder developers from financing, leasing and constructing real estate developments in Houston, which require long-term secure contracts,” Feldman wrote in a letter delivered to state District Judge Randy Wilson. “We urge the court to consider the serious public policy considerations involved.”

[…]

“We’re not endeavoring to take a position in this specific situation,” Feldman said Friday. “It’s a broader question of whether, in a city such as ours without zoning, development can reasonably be expected to occur if a developer that complies with all laws and deed restrictions can be enjoined from building … What kind of effect would that have on development in a city such as ours? That’s the point that we felt was important to raise with the court.”

The city’s stance surprised Earle Martin, one of the residents who brought the suit. He said that even when the city settled a separate lawsuit with Buckhead in 2012, Mayor Annise Parker continued to insist the project was not suitable for the area.

“The letter is completely inconsistent with what the mayor has said so far,” Martin said. “I cannot understand this. I’m sure there is pressure from the development community.”

[…]

Expert testimony presented during the monthlong trial showed the building would severely damage several homes, causing walls to lean, foundations to crack and pipes to shift. The jury also heard evidence that the project would cause significant traffic problems, and that it is out of place and abnormal in the neighborhood.

Residents’ attorney Jean Frizzell said Friday that the city letter ignores evidence presented at trial that the developers misled the city to obtain permits, and that an ordinance enacted after the battle began ensured similar projects could not be built so close to existing homes.

“This letter appears to ignore that,” Frizzell said.

Josh Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit organization that represents developers, said the city weighed in on the court case because stopping the project would have a major impact on development. His group submitted a friend of the court brief, which Feldman referenced in his letter, that argued against permanent injunction.

“The city is stepping in and saying, ‘Why are you overriding our regulatory structure?’ ” Sanders said. “If a permanent injunction is granted, it throws all the rules out the window.”

See here for the last update. I’m really not sure what to make of this. I get where the city is coming from, and as you know I never really believed the plaintiffs had a case, but neither do I think the regulatory structure is sacrosanct. If this lawsuit has shown it to be fatally flawed, then let the court do its job and allow for a remedy. I’m skeptical this is the case, but let’s let the judge sort it out. Final arguments are today about whether the project can go forward, and I’m sure whatever the judge says it will be appealed. What do you think?

Ashby Highrise trial begins today

This has been a long time coming.

Sue me!

The case in state District Judge Randy Wilson’s court will begin Tuesday and is expected to last four weeks. A jury will hear from the parties involved and experts on both sides to decide whether the project would substantially interfere with the residents’ property rights.

If they rule for the residents, jurors could decide to award damages. The court also has discretion to issue an injunction limiting the size and scope of the project or stopping it altogether.

Jean Frizzell, a Houston-based attorney for the neighborhood group, said his side will present traffic, foundation and architectural experts and a horticulturist to address the potential impact of the high-rise on the Southampton neighborhood. Residents will also testify, he said.

“There are high-rises all over Houston. What’s different about this project is where it’s located,” Frizzell said. “We are not anti-development, per se. This is simply too high-density of a building and there is not enough infrastructure to support it.”

[…]

Josh Blackman, assistant professor at the South Texas College of Law, who specializes in property law, said this case will be monitored closely by developers and by neighborhood groups fighting projects.

“This is really breaking new ground,” Blackman said. “This is the furthest that any residents have tried to challenge something in Houston history. It will set a precedent for what happens with future developments.”

He said a ruling in favor of the neighbors may deter developers and give credence to neighborhood efforts.

“If this is successful, this is one more tool in the arsenal of the neighborhood,” Blackman said. “If the developers win, it shows you aren’t going to win in this town.”

See here for the previous update, and here for all posts tagged “Ashby Highrise”. As you know, my sympathies lie with the neighborhood – I have always agreed that the problem with this development is that it’s in the wrong place – but I’ve never believed they could do anything about it. The project is legal by city standards, and I just don’t think they’re going to be able to show that they’ve been damaged in a way that merits redress. If property values are rising in the neighborhood, it may be hard to show they’ve been damaged at all. On a broader note, while I believe neighborhoods need to have more tools at their disposal to exercise some say over what gets built, it needs to be done within a regulatory framework. Leaving it to the courts is guaranteed to be more chaotic and uneven, and only available to the wealthiest neighborhoods. I’ll be interested to see what evidence the plaintiffs present to back up all the claims they’ve been making over the years, but I remain very skeptical of this.

Wage theft ordinance back before Council

It should be up for discussion this week.

“Wage theft is defined as a situation in which someone employs someone to perform a service, not intending to pay them wages. That’s an extreme offense,” [City Attorney David] Feldman said. “The city has an interest in knowing if that type of conduct is taking place under a public contract. That’s one reason why this ordinance affords a process for that kind of complaint to be brought directly to the city.”

Workers who believe they have been improperly denied pay can file civil complaints with the Texas Workforce Commission or in court, or pursue criminal complaints with police and prosecutors. Most workers choose the state agency, but Feldman said that the process is hopelessly slow.

A coalition of builders, contractors, restaurateurs, building owners and hotel operators has argued that existing civil and criminal processes should take priority, particularly since the proposed city ordinance levies sanctions only after existing remedies are exhausted. Coalition member Joshua Sanders, executive director of developer-led Houstonians for Responsible Growth, said city involvement in fielding wage theft filings could result in companies being unfairly snubbed if complaints later prove to be without merit. However, Sanders said, the trade groups are open to further discussions.

“We are not supportive of wage theft. The city should set an example in not doing business with these types of individuals,” Sanders said. “But we don’t want a process set up to where individuals can go shame businesses by filing unmeritorious complaints. There’s a system in place that supersedes the city and our ordinances, and there are processes in place there that are effective and work.”

[…]

The proposal would bar the city from hiring people or firms that had been assessed civil penalties or judgments related to wage theft or that have been criminally convicted of the offense, provided all appeals are exhausted. Those with final criminal wage theft convictions also would be denied 46 types of city permits and licenses for five years. Feldman has said criminal wage theft convictions are rare.

See here for the previous entry – this ordinance was first proposed in July – and here for some background on the issue. There’s not a lot of detail in the story so I’m not sure what the point of contention is. I hope we all agree that people should be paid the wages they were promised without any subsequent conditions, and that the city should not do business with anyone that rips off its workers in this fashion. Assuming we are in fact all on board with that, then we should be able to work out the details of how to enforce it. If anyone is not in agreement with this, then I look forward to hearing what their arguments are, because I’m having a hard time imagining what they could be. Stace has more.

Today is Chapter 42 day

Actually, today is almost certainly the day that the Chapter 42 revisions get tagged by multiple members of Council, thus pushing it back for a week. Nonetheless, this is the beginning of the end of a long, long journey. Here’s another story about what that will mean.

The Fourth Ward would not look quite the way it does now, however, if not for a change in city development rules in 1999. That change hiked the density allowed in single-family housing construction inside Loop 610, allowing the building of several homes on what had been one residential lot.

City Council is poised Wednesday to extend that Inner Loop home density citywide in the first rewrite of Houston’s development rules, known as Chapter 42, in 14 years. And that has [Ray] Washington and other south Houston civic leaders on edge.

“You’ve got different developers. Some are going to be good, and you’re going to get a few bad ones. Our goal is to upgrade this community,” said Homer Clark, president of south Houston’s Five Corners Management District.

“If they say, ‘Hey, this is a nice place, I think I’ll go out here and buy me a little piece of land and I’ll just put this out here,’ that’s our fear, that it won’t be consistent with what we’re doing.”

To address concerns about incompatible development, the proposed rules include protections that would allow neighborhoods to impose minimum lot sizes for up to 500 homes at a time, preventing the subdivision of lots for townhomes. The requirement, which would last 40 years, also would restrict any residential or vacant land to single-family homes, keeping out apartment towers and condominiums.

“In Houston, because we’re not a zoned city, deed restrictions are the one thing that’s relied upon to keep your neighborhood consistent and retain that character,” said Suzy Hartgrove, spokeswoman for the city Planning Department. “It (minimum lot size) is a protection that really is akin to a deed restriction that will be established for these neighborhoods that apply and are designated. It’s a strong protection to have.”

The minimum lot size process has existed since 2001, and is applied only on a block-by-block basis. Under the proposed change, 10 percent of property owners in an area must apply, triggering a balloting process through which 60 percent of owners must vote yes to impose the restriction. City staff could revise an area’s boundaries to secure the necessary support.

The proposal is an acknowledgement that deed restrictions are difficult to amend, said Joshua Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit that represents developers.

“We understand the neighborhood concerns, and we think there should be more tools made available to them to protect against any sort of development,” he said.

“It’s not like these rules are in place to protect against bad development. They’re in place to protect the integrity of a neighborhood. We could go in and build something great on one piece of property, but it’s still an issue because it’s damaging the character of the neighborhood.”

[…]

The lot-size proposal is a “huge achievement,” said Jane West of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, though she is concerned areas with many rental properties will struggle with the petition process. That concern led civic leaders to negotiate a phase-in: one year to give neighborhoods time to petition, and a second year during which the new density would be allowed only on tracts larger than an acre; smaller tracts could be developed if most surrounding properties are not residential.

“It will help all the people it can help,” West said. “It depends a lot on the stamina and the abilities of the people in the neighborhood and how badly they want to save the neighborhood.”

See here, here, here, and here for the recent history. This ordinance and the effort to revamp it are big, complex beasts with lots of moving parts and no one really knows what the effect of this or that change will be, but it sounds like the lot size part of it is being well received by all. If both Jane Cahill West and Joshua Sanders think it’s a good idea, that’s saying something.

On a related note, I want to call attention to this comment left by Ed Browne to one of my earlier posts on Chapter 42:

I think that I can speak for the SNA when I say that everyone agrees that the City needs to grow and densify, but there are good ways to grow and bad ways. Tomaro Bell, president of the Super Neighborhood Alliance (SNA), and Jane Cahill West, its Vice President, have experienced the negative aspects of Chapter 42 inside Loop 610 where it has been the law for over 10 years. They and others inside the Loop decided that the rules need to be cleaned up before subjecting the entire City to them. SN 22, along the Washington Avenue corridor, has been a test case for a lot of these issues. Jane gave a tour for City Council members and SN leaders in her area of problems created by Chapter 42 and although many have been addressed by the City, some of the more important ones still need attention.

We had been told by the Mayor and developers that the main thrust for Chapter 42 was to redevelop run-down apartments and strip centers, but no sooner had the SNA removed its objections, then the Mayor started backpedaling – offering to reduce the wait time for neighborhoods to establish minimum lot sizes and setbacks from 2 years for lots under an acre to 1 year for lots under 1/2 acre. Small lots like this are not run-down apartment complexes. They are neighborhoods like yours.

Under street infrastructure for most of Houston is old and antiquated, so we want to be sure that high density building does not occur where the streets have inadequate storm sewers, water lines, and sanitation sewers. When the toilet flushes next door, will you get scalded? But Jane pointed out that high density also makes every detail more important. Where are trash cans stored? Where are mailboxes? Air conditioners? With a requirement of one guest parking spot for every 6 homes, where do guests (and homeowners) really park? In Cottage Grove, emergency vehicles cannot access many homes because too many vehicles are parked on narrow streets. Ladder trucks needed for the 3 or 4 story buildings need a place for the support pads so they don’t topple over. These were Fire Marshall concerns, too, not just Jane’s.

Average lot size can be as low as 1400 square feet, but there is no minimum lot size. Permeable ground can be no less than 150 square feet on a 3500 square foot lot – tiny. Chapter 42 and Chapter 9 are not harmonized; i.e., they contradict one another. Chapter 42 requires green space which increases as the lot sizes reduce until at 1400 square feet 600 square feet of green space is required, but there is no minimum lot size .

Very dense development makes sense in areas that have good mass transit because then people can do without a car, but multiple small shared driveway developments scattered throughout a neighborhood would be messy and would remove the trees and shade that redefine its character. That doesn’t matter to somebody who only wants to make money, but it does matter to the people who’ve searched for the perfect house for their family.

There’s a lot more to what Ed has to say, so go read the whole thing. Just as the changes from 1999 are being revisited now, the key to making this work as best as possible is to be willing to go back and make further tweaks and revisions as issues and problems arise. This is an ongoing concern, it’s not something you can do and be done with. If we see that something isn’t working the way we though it would, let’s not wait another 14 years to fix it.

Keep Moving Houston Forward PAC poll on Metro and GMP

Yesterday I wrote about a poll commissioned by Houstonians for Responsible Growth on Metro and the General Mobility Program. That poll suggested that any changes to the GMP would be difficult for Metro to get, especially in the face of a negative campaign against it. Later in the day, I received the following in my inbox:

A telephone survey of 600 likely November voters recently conducted in the METRO service area shows that voters support a potential ballot measure ensuring continued mobility payments by METRO to local cities and the county, fixed at the 2014 level, by a margin of 67 percent to 24 percent.

The poll was commissioned by Keep Houston Moving Forward PAC, a group formed to pass a ballot measure this fall that will determine the future of the mobility payments.

METRO’s board is currently considering a number of options for the ballot measure; the option tested in this poll is a compromise put forward by METRO Chair Gilbert Garcia between those who want to discontinue the payments entirely and use the funds entirely for transit, and those who want the payments to continue without alteration.

“Voters in the METRO service area support safe and reliable public transit to relieve traffic congestion but are also concerned about the condition of their streets. The proposal we tested is a fair compromise that has strong voter support,” said Billy Briscoe, a spokesperson for Keep Houston Moving Forward PAC.

Here’s the poll memo that was included as an image in the email:

This is all the information I have on the poll. The HRG poll initially showed plurality support for capping the GMP payments in 2014, so this result is not a surprise. The higher level of support for that in this poll can be explained by differences in the sample, differences in how the question was phrased, random variation, or some combination of all three. The main thing it tells me is that it’s highly unlikely Metro will present an up-or-down vote on keeping the GMP as is or doing away with it. I mean, if even the PAC supporting Metro’s efforts didn’t poll the question – or did poll it but didn’t like the result enough to release it – that says a lot. At this point I’d guess the frontrunners are a cap-or-keep-as-is question or something more involved like the Spieler proposal. We’ll know more on Friday when the Metro board discusses the proposals that have been put before it. Houston Politics has more.

HRG poll data on Metro and the GMP

I mentioned on Friday that there had been a poll commissioned to measure voter attitudes towards Metro and the General Mobility Program. That poll was commissioned by Houstonians for Responsible Growth, and Joshua Sanders was kind enough to send me the polling data later in the day, which you can see here. On the key questions, a sizable majority says they would vote to keep the GMP, with a small plurality saying they would vote to put a cap on it. However, after being given what is known as “directed” information about Metro, a majority would vote against the cap, and attitudes towards Metro become sharply negative. The point to understand is that a negative campaign against Metro, which for all the good it has done in the George Greanias/Gilbert Garcia era is still not very far removed from the bad old days, would be successful and would likely do a lot of damage to them. You can relish or decry the thought of such a campaign, but none of this should be a surprise. People may like the idea of transit and walking to work and all that good stuff, but that doesn’t mean they’ll vote that way.

You may say “But Metro and transit supports can fight back with their own campaign!” That’s true, they can, and if someone wants to show me a poll with some differently “directed” messages in it, we can see what the potential for such a campaign may be. But where would funding for such a campaign come from, and how would it counter the villianization of Metro itself in a pro-GMP campaign? Those who want to keep the GMP as is have an easy target. They can make Metro the bad guy in all this, and it would be effective. What’s the strategy to counter that? Sure, there are plenty of bad guys on the anti-transit side, starting with Steve Radack and John Culberson, but the connection between them and the virtues of spending transit money on road repair is a lot more tenuous and harder to explain than “Metro hasn’t kept its promises and doesn’t deserve more money”. If you can’t see the train wreck coming (pun intended), I think you’re fooling yourself. Read through the slides, look at all the ammunition available to the other side, and tell me you don’t see it.

If it were up to me, I’d be happy to phase out or at least cap the GMP payments. But I have no desire to engage in a fight that looks like a sure loser from the get go, and I suspect that Metro will be thinking along similar lines. That’s why I like Christof Spieler’s proposal and think that it could be the basis for a compromise people can live with, or at least won’t be motivated to spend a bunch of money to defeat. It doesn’t move things forward as much as I’d like, but I’d much rather take smaller steps forward than risk taking big steps backwards. Your mileage may vary, and if you’d rather go all in on capping or killing the GMP, I certainly sympathize. I just don’t see what the path to victory for you is. Sometimes kicking the can down the road is the wisest course to take.

Joshua Sanders: Required Referendum Does Not Need To Be A Bump In The Road For A New Metro

The following is from a series of guest posts that I will be presenting over the next few weeks.

Joshua Sanders

The METRO Board should not risk its newfound goodwill by raiding its member entities’ General Mobility Program (GMP) funds after the end of September 2014. Instead, METRO should move forward with a required referendum that offers voters the clear choice to extend the General Mobility Program at its historic level of .25 of the 1-cent METRO sales tax for a shorter extension to fulfill its obligations from the 2003 referendum.

The 2003 METRO Solutions Plan election extended the General Mobility Program from 2003 through September 2014, extending a partnership with the County, the City of Houston and smaller member cities that has been in place since a coalition of these same entities helped establish METRO, its service area and the penny sales tax. This coalition has been held together by balancing the funding from the penny sales tax between the General Mobility Funds for roads and streets at 25%, and the rest of METRO’s budget for buses and related transit services including light rail at %75. Although the General Mobility Program was not officially set at 25% until 1988, mobility investment from METRO to its member entities has always been at the core of the partnership that created METRO in 1978.

The New METRO Leadership has done well to overcome the recent controversies that have delayed the implementation of the 2003 METRO Solutions plan approved by voters in 2003. The new 2012 Business Plan and Budget lays out a five-year plan with the stated goal of being a better community partner. It would have been even better if it introduced real metrics for judging success like ridership and future debt level expectations, which are currently $1.1 billion plus perhaps another $539 million for pension liabilities. But the 2012 Business Plan did introduce a new level of transparency on how much more light rail expansion is going to cost than originally estimated in 2003. METRO looks to “boldly accelerate” spending on light rail to complete 3 of the 4 lines approved in 2003 for a little over $2.1 billion, or $1.4 billion more than estimated for same three lines in 2003. The North, Southeast and East lines are slated to be completed by the end of 2016, 8 years, 7 years, and 5 years late, respectively.

Unfortunately, the bus service expansion promised in 2003 of increasing capacity by 50% will not be delivered under the 2012 Business plan. In fact, bus service and routes have significantly decreased from their 2003 levels to help make room for the accelerated commitment to light rail transit funding.

Despite this profligate spending plan, some argue that the General Mobility Program should be capped or cancelled to support more rapid bus and rail expansion. We are now being told that METRO needs more money to complete the goals that were outlined in the 2003 referendum. We believe Metro needs the discipline of the GMP and the chance for the public to access the performance of light rail after completion and operation of the current expansion. The primary reason the 2003 referendum was set to expire next year was due to METRO’s outlined promise in the METRO Solutions Plan to complete the components of the referendum by this time. By completing the goals of the 2003 referendum in 2012, the member entities and the taxpayers would have had adequate information on the true capital costs, operating costs, and ridership numbers to justify the investment in the transit plan. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened and won’t happen for another couple years.

Destroying the long standing coalition of community partners that created METRO by changing the General Mobility Program in the required referendum runs the risk of the METRO Board losing its discretion. It would be one thing to come to the taxpayers and member entities with results to justify their request for more funding, but METRO is asking its member entities to forget their part of the bargain and is now trying to remove needed funding for roads and mobility.

The General Mobility Program is not a diversion from transit as some like to characterize it. Since when did roads stop becoming part of the transit and mobility equation? Those same roads are responsible for moving the other %95 of the people, goods, and services in the region that don’t utilize transit. Roads and infrastructure I might add that METRO buses run on every day.

With the State of Texas and the Federal government having an ever decreasing ability to fund road and infrastructure projects, it is important to also look at the GMP as a great source of local transportation funding. Not many other cities in Texas, rather the US, have discretion over a funding source for transportation and mobility projects that comes directly out of their tax base. This funding helps not only maintain existing roads and infrastructure in the City of Houston through the Rebuild Houston plan, but it goes to build new capacity in Harris County where 92% of the growth in our region was accounted for during the last census.

Houstonians for Responsible Growth urge the New METRO to not make the voters choose between a situation where METRO gets more money either way. What do we mean by that statement? METRO has the ability to choose the ballot language and details of the proposed referendum. If a proposal is put on the ballot that its member entities have not reached a consensus on, the likelihood of passing the referendum decreases and the General Mobility Program agreement runs the risk of ending with METRO keeping all the funding from the 1 cent sales tax. It turns into a situation of “heads METRO wins, tails you lose.” Either situation impacts the member entities’ budgets, and those entities may have to seek new revenues sources to pay for existing debt and future infrastructure projects.

METRO’s new image may not be strong enough with voters to win support for a capped General Mobility Program, and an ugly referendum fight could hurt the other important City of Houston bond priorities on the ballot. That is why it is important that METRO find a compromise solution with its member entities to avoid this public fight.

METRO would do best to extend the General Mobility Program program in its current form until completion of the 3 lines under construction are done. As stated above, this would give the member entities and the taxpayers the ability to judge for themselves whether or not METRO’s investment justifies the cost and is in line with what the voters approved. New METRO would come out a winner by proving their newfound fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers. By admitting to the public that mistakes were made and even government’s plans need to be adjusted, they would go a long way to rebuilding a solid foundation of trust with the public.

Joshua Sanders is the Executive Director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth.

Your vote on the Metro referendum may not matter

Unless of course you vote the way the developers want you to vote, in which case it’s all good.

All your votes are belong to us

In an interview prior to Monday’s meeting, Joshua Sanders, the acting executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, said the group would resist [capping Metro’s General Mobility Payments].

“We’re ready to run a campaign against the cap and go to the Legislature if we have to,” Sanders said.

[…]

Sanders said Houston needs the general mobility payments not just for road work but to help finance Rebuild Houston, an initiative to improve local infrastructure.

Loss of mobility funds might require a property tax increase, Sanders said.

If voters approve a referendum that caps general mobility payments, Houstonians for Responsible Growth will lobby state lawmakers to get the city of Houston’s money back, Sander said. The organization also might ask for a greater share of the 1-cent sales revenues, he said.

So vote to give the developers what they want, or they’ll go to the Lege and work to overturn the election. Because they respect the will of the people, naturally. I’d like to say I’m shocked by this, but I’m not nearly that naive. This has become pretty much standard operating procedure of late, as we saw with the various (thankfully unsuccessful) attempts to legislatively overturn the Renew Houston referendum last year. The odds are pretty decent that any such effort next year to nullify what the voters decide would fail as well, but it really shouldn’t come to that. Make your case before the election and take it like a grownup if you lose. Sheesh.

Council taking up highrise ordinance

And the Chapter 42 overhaul gets underway as the revamped highrise ordinance makes it onto Council’s agenda.

The proposed rules, inspired by a planned 23-story high rise at the corner of Ashby and Bissonnet, would require that buildings over 75 feet tall in residential neighborhoods be at least 30 feet from the houses around them. The maximum buffer zone would be 40 feet.

The proposals came after years of complaints from residents that a high rise could loom over their properties and disrupt the character of neighborhoods.

The proposed ordinance has the backing of builders, but some residents complain the restrictions are too weak.

“As the city gets more dense (city officials) also have to recognize that the neighborhoods that are there have value, as well, and they need to strike a balance,” said Erik Eriksson, president of the University Place Super Neighborhood in the Rice University area. “I think that they can strike a better balance that’s more protective.”

[…]

Some residents and neighborhood groups are calling for a larger buffer – as much as 50 feet – between houses and high rises, as well as limits on the locations of loading docks and noise levels for mechanical equipment.

The restrictions have been up for discussion for months, with several opportunities throughout the summer for neighborhood organizations to offer feedback on the proposals, said Joshua Sanders, a lobbyist for the developer-backed Houstonians for Responsible Growth.

The ordinance initially called for 50 feet of buffering space, as well as the possibility of a greater setback after a building reached a certain height. Those restrictions, however, were removed or adjusted during planning hearings and other discussions.

The latest proposal calls for different buffers depending on the width of the road on which a high-rise development is planned. The maximum buffer would be 40 feet of space between a high rise and the closest homes.

The neighborhood folks took to the op-ed pages on Tuesday to press their case for a bigger setback requirement. Fifty feet doesn’t seem too unreasonable to me – I’m not really sure what the fuss is at this point. Be that as it may, the item was tagged, so the vote will take place next week.

More on directing density

We know that the city’s Planning Department is prepping a draft ordinance that would add some restrictions to highrise construction in parts of the city outside designated areas. Here’s the Chron story about it.

The proposed ordinance was written in response to the controversy over the project known as the Ashby high-rise, a real estate development planned several years ago near upscale homes around Rice University.

“The one thing Ashby did was raise the level of interest from a lot of our neighborhoods. A lot of them have voiced to us they don’t want to see something similar in their neighborhood,” said Suzy Hartgrove, a spokeswoman for the municipal Planning & Development Department.

[…]

The ordinance would require that developers leave a 50-foot buffer along the sides of buildings adjacent to or within 30 feet of single-family homes or land restricted to single-family development.

The buffer would have to include 10 feet of landscaping, trees, and an 8-foot-tall masonry wall. Mechanical equipment or covered parking wouldn’t be allowed in the buffer zone. In addition, taller parts of the building would have to be set back farther than the ground floor.

Joshua Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, sees the additional setbacks on upper floors as too limiting, but supports the draft’s overall language.

“It does strike a very good balance between neighborhood protection and encouraging high-density development in areas that can handle these types of projects,” said Sanders, who served on Mayor Annise Parker’s transition committee on development when she took office at the beginning of 2010.

Just as a reminder, Houstonians for Responsible Growth is a developer-heavy group that “organized in response to a significant number of proposals by the City of Houston proposing stringent land-use controls.” For them to be basically okay with this ordinance says a lot. Note that there is nothing in the ordinance the forbids building a highrise in a residential neighborhood. Even with the new ordinance, you can still build something up to six or seven stories without triggering its regulations. Above that would require some design changes, but doesn’t otherwise say No. Common sense says that highrises belong some places and not others. There’s certainly room to haggle over the details, but there’s nothing in this to get alarmed about.

Well, except for this guy:

Kevin Kirton of Buckhead declined to discuss the status of the Ashby project because of the ongoing litigation, but said he doesn’t believe the proposed new ordinance would affect it.

“We have an approved set of plans and still have an application with the city,” he said.

To Kirton, the ordinance looks a lot like zoning, which he said Houston does not need.

“I think deed restrictions and the existing land use controls work just fine,” he said.

Dude. Your project is Exhibits A through Z of the reasons why our existing land controls don’t work. This new ordinance should be called the Buckhead Memorial Don’t Be Pigheaded About Where You Build Highrises Ordinance. If it weren’t for the litigious duo of Kevin Kirton and Matthew Morgan, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

Public Hearing on Final Draft of Historic Preservation Ordinance

From the Inbox:

Final Draft of Proposed Amendments to Historic Preservation Ordinance Released

Houstonians,

After a two-month process involving public input from stakeholders, I have released the final draft of proposed amendments to the City’s Historic Preservation Ordinance and a specified process for transitioning the existing historic districts to the stronger protections offered by the proposed amendments. I envision the transition process to beginning following passage of the amended ordinance. To view the proposed amendments, transition process and other information, please visit www.houstontx.gov/planning/HistoricPres/hist_pres_amend.html.

I appreciate the engagement of City Council and other stakeholders. The new draft incorporates the concerns I heard from you, as well as the many suggestions offered at the series of town hall meetings during the last two months. It is a good compromise that reflects the needs of the preservation community while still protecting private property rights.

Annise Parker

Mayor

Public Hearing on Proposed Historic Preservation Amendments

The City of Houston Planning Commission will conduct a public hearing on the proposed amendments Thursday, September 23, 2010, 6:30 p.m. in the General Assembly room on the third floor of the George R. Brown Convention Center, 1001 Avenida de Las Americas, Houston, TX 77010.

Speakers will be allowed one minute to make their comments at the public hearing. If someone cannot attend the meetings, but would like to comment, please email historicpreservation@houstontx.gov or mail your comments to Historic Preservation, City of Houston, Planning and Development Department, P.O. Box 1562 , Houston, Texas 77251-1562 by Wednesday, September 22, 2010.

To view the proposed amendments and other information about the process, please visit www.houstontx.gov/planning/HistoricPres/hist_pres_amend.html.

For a map and directions to the George R. Brown Convention Center, please go to www.houstonconventionctr.com/Home/MapsParking.aspx.

Some street parking may be available or attendees can park in the Hilton/George R. Brown Convention Center parking garage located on Polk Street, subject to availability. Attendees can submit their parking stub for validation (from that garage only).

Swamplot has a brief summary, while the Chron goes into some detail.

As expected, the revised law will close a loophole that allowed property owners to demolish the structures on their land even when a city commission disapproved of their plans.

However, the city also is raising the bar on neighborhoods that wish to receive the historic designation, reducing the size of areas that can qualify and requiring the approval of far more property owners to achieve the distinction. Existing districts will have to reapply, a change that has rankled some preservation advocates.

[…]

Under the new proposal, historic districts could be no larger than 400 properties, and 60 percent of property owners in the proposed area must return ballots mailed by the city showing they want the designation, said Marlene Gafrick, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development.

If the amendments pass City Council, which is expected to take up the matter next month, then all 16 existing districts and three that are pending must petition the city for reconsideration of their historic status within 15 days. The revisions to the ordinance propose no threshold for how many in a given area must approve of the historic designation for it to remain so, Gafrick said.

The department will mail ballots to property owners and evaluate whether the entire area previously covered by the designation should remain historic, be reduced or if the district should be eliminated.

I don’t care for that last change, and I expect the existing protected districts won’t either. It seems wrong to me that this could allow for the un-protecting of districts that went through quite a bit of trouble to comply with the ordinances we now have. Why not just give them the option to remain as they are, with no changes to the rules? Then if they want to apply for designation under the stricter rules, they can pursue that. I don’t see the need to make them petition for reconsideration, especially on such a short time frame.

I’m sure that will be brought up at the hearing. According to the story, the realtors and the builders have not taken a position on the revisions, while Houstonians for Responsible Growth, who represent developers, say they like them. I’m not sure that a preservation ordinance that gets the support of those groups while being opposed by neighborhood groups is worth having, but we’ll see what happens.

The new Historic Preservation ordinance

From Swamplot:

The mayor’s office is out with a “public comment draft” of proposed changes to Houston’s Historic Preservation Ordinance. The biggest (and most expected) change: There’ll be no more 90-day “compliance waivers” issued for historic-district properties. Under the previous ordinance, owners of contributing properties in historic districts whose plans for new construction, demolition, or renovation had been rejected by the city’s historic commission could proceed with those plans anyway after simply waiting 90 days. Under these changes, the Old Sixth Ward — labeled a “protected” historic district because the waivers weren’t allowed there — will now be the model for all others.

But the changes also include a completely revised process for neighborhoods to vote on historic-district status. Previously, for a neighborhood to file an historic-preservation application, it needed to submit a petition signed by owners representing more than 51 percent of its tracts. But the new system puts power into the hands of owners who are willing to express an opinion and takes it away from those who can’t be bothered or found. It allows an application to be filed if 67 percent of the property owners in a district who send in special cards distributed for that purpose indicate on those cards that they’re in favor of the designation.

I like that change. If you really don’t care one way or another, or at least don’t care enough to officially say so, you shouldn’t be part of the process. The threshold is low enough for opponents to win, and it makes the job of those who favor historic preservation status easier, too. Finally, getting rid of the 90-day waivers, which are one of the biggest jokes in Houston, is a huge step in the right direction. What was the point of even having a commission if its rulings meant nothing?

Of course, this is a long way from finished, and even if it makes it to the finish line, there may be many changes along the way. But first this proposal has to overcome the usual opposition from the usual suspects.

Josh Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, an organization that includes developers and advocates for private property rights, said the new rules could hurt the economy.

“It’s going to slow growth. It’s going to potentially slow down an area that’s rapidly redeveloping,” Sanders said, adding that residents should be able to vote on whether to accept the new rules.

I believe the petition process, in which a one-third minority can prevent a given subdivision from gaining the historic designation, is more than sufficient to ensure that all interested parties have a say in the outcome. And slowing things down, in these historic areas, is the point. Ask the people who used to live in Freedmen’s Town if they think easing the throttle on rapid development is a feature or a bug. As for the call for a vote, that’s just a page from the anti-rail playbook, in which the solution to something you don’t like is to keep calling for the people to vote on whatever it is you don’t like in the hope that sooner or later they’ll vote against it.

Anyway, there’s more to read there and at the Swamplot link, so go take a look; see also these relevant links from the Planning Office. The press release from the Mayor’s office, with a list of dates and locations for public meetings about the proposed changes, is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Council may vote today to strengthen preservation ordinance

Last week, we heard that Houston City Council was considering a change to the historic preservation ordinance that would actually prevent structures from being torn down or moved if the Houston Archeological and Historic Commission denied the request to do so. Right now, all that the owner of such a property needs to do is wait 90 days, then go ahead and do whatever he or she had originally planned. Assuming it doesn’t get tagged, Council will vote today on a proposal that would suspend 90 day waivers until the modified ordinance is ready for debate.

“We’re voting [today] to protect our historic structures in our historic districts until the committee of stakeholders agrees on revisions to the current historic preservation ordinance,” said Councilwoman Sue Lovell, who chairs the council committee that deals with preservation matters.

[…]

If passed, the temporary update would take effect immediately and apply to all new applications for demolitions, relocations and new construction on property in any of the city’s 15 historic districts. The new rule would not apply to those owners who already have sought permission for changes, which can run the gamut from demolition to a window update. Those who can show that they already have paid a contractor for work related to a change to their property also could get an exemption from the new rule, said Suzy Hartgrove, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Planning and Development.

The task force weighing the permanent changes and Lovell’s council committee are expected to work together to produce final proposed amendments to the ordinance. The city then would notify residents of its historic districts about the proposed changes, hold hearings and vet concerns, Hartgrove said.

Preservationists are understandably happy about this; I certainly think it’s long overdue. So far I have not seen any reaction from the developers, or from the shills like Kendall Miller of Houstonians for Responsible Growth. (Their website appears to be out of date – the most recent “latest news” on it is from last October. I wonder what’s up with that.) You can never really judge these things till you know who’s against them and why. My guess is that this will get tagged, and we’ll have a better idea of where the battle lines are after that.

Design guide versus transit corridors ordinance

Not sure what to make of this just yet.

Fallout from the long-dormant Ashby high-rise development emerged Wednesday as a potential obstacle to the city’s effort to promote walkable, urban-style development along Metro’s planned light-rail lines.

Neighborhood opposition to the Ashby project, a planned 23-story mixed-use tower whose developers continue to await a permit almost two years after they first applied, inspired changes to an obscure city document known as the Infrastructure Design Manual. The changes include a review process intended to prevent high-density developments from worsening traffic congestion on surrounding streets.

City Council members and speakers at a public hearing Wednesday said certain provisions in the design manual conflict with the goals of the proposed urban transit corridors ordinance. Councilwomen Toni Lawrence and Pam Holm threatened to withhold support from the ordinance, seen by many as a vital first step in creating walkable urbanism in Houston, unless the conflict was resolved.

“Urban corridors and transit streets are getting caught in the trap they set for Ashby,” said Kendall Miller, president of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a group seeking to limit new regulations on Houston’s real estate industry.

[…]

Chapter 15 was added to the design manual in the aftermath of the Ashby controversy, but it simply put into writing procedures that the city already followed, said Andy Icken, deputy director of the Department of Public Works and Engineering.

Icken said he will work with Marlene Gafrick, Houston’s planning and development director, to add language to the transit corridors ordinance clarifying that reduced automobile traffic is likely along corridors where people will be riding trains. That should reduce the need for any traffic mitigation, Icken said.

But Miller, of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, said he remains concerned that Chapter 15 of the design manual gives Public Works personnel too much discretion to require developers to take costly steps to offset traffic impacts. Those costs and lack of predictability could discourage investment in transit corridors and elsewhere, Miller said.

Holm agreed.

“Many of these standards have been put in place to deal with a specific project,” she said, referring to the Ashby high-rise, “and it gives too much decision-making to one person as opposed to setting standards. It is in conflict with the goal of what we’re trying to do with this ordinance as a city.”

I’m not going to take Kendall Miller’s word for it – I think he’s more likely to be concern-trolling than anything else. I’d like to know what folks like Christof Spieler, Andrew Burleson, or David Crossley have to say about this. Having said that, the point that a bunch of us have made all along regarding the Ashby highrise is that the problem with it wasn’t traffic but scale – it just didn’t fit into the surrounding area. Until that is truly acknowledged and dealt with, there’s a real possibility of unintended consequences like this.

Where that new transit corridors ordinance came from

Christof takes another look at the proposed urban transit corridors ordinance, and asks a simple question.

Days after the City of Houston’s draft corridor urban corridors ordinance was released, Houstonians For Responsible Growth – a developer group that generally opposes any new building regulations – endorsed the new ordinance.

Why would developers be so enthusiastic about a new piece of regulation? Because they wrote it.

Interestingly, just a few months ago, HFRG was warning against this ordinance, claiming it could “force Houstonians out of their cars and onto hot sidewalks”. Guess they were able to change it to be more to their liking – go read Christof’s post for the details of how that happened. Clearly, this is another case of it’s only a negative when it’s for something I don’t like. NeoHouston has more.