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Joshua Sanders

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.

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?

Council passes wage theft ordinance

Well done.

Houston City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to adopt an ordinance aimed at deterring companies from stealing workers’ wages and ensuring the city does not hire firms that do, though supporters acknowledged the measure’s limited reach.

The seemingly easy vote masked months of lobbying and negotiations among Mayor Annise Parker’s administration, council members, workers rights groups and business organizations. The item was pulled from last week’s agenda for some final tweaks in talks with lobbyists for builders, contractors, restaurateurs, building owners and hotel operators.

[…]

Laura Perez-Boston, director of the nonprofit Faith and Justice Worker Center, flooded the chamber with supporters each time the item came up, citing statistics: 100 daily wage theft complaints in the Houston area; $750 million in local wages lost annually to the practice.

“It’s certainly not everything we would want, but I do think it is a substantial step in the right direction,” she said. “And although you may see there aren’t a lot of main contractors that are found guilty of wage theft, there are a lot of subcontractors.”

Joshua Sanders, a spokesman for the trade groups, said the law strikes a balance in that it has teeth but avoids duplicating existing processes. He rejected the idea that the draft had been hollowed out via negotiations.

“What they did with this ordinance was to say, ‘We’re one of the largest employers in Houston, we’ve got a policy now that allows us to scrutinize and penalize and refuse to do business with individuals who’ve been convicted of wage theft,’ ” Sanders said. “They’re taking this position as an employer and they’re setting a standard and an example.”

See here, here, and here for the background. As Texpatriate noted, CM Helena Brown was absent, so don’t read too much into the fact that it passed unanimously. There’s certainly room for improvement in this ordinance, since it only affects a firm that has been convicted of wage theft and has exhausted all its appeals, but just having this ordinance is a big step forward. I would like to see the matter revisited before the end of Mayor Parker’s next term to ensure that the law has had the intended effect and to strengthen it if needed. But the first step is always the hardest, and getting this on the books is a big deal. Kudos all around. PDiddie has more.

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.

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.