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Marlene Gafrick

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.

It’s Chapter 42 week

We won’t know for years what the upcoming revisions to Chapter 42, the development and density codes in Houston, will mean to the city and its development and population patterns. There’s certainly a lot of hope that the changes will be positive.

Southwest Houston, with its glut of apartments and condominiums, is three times denser than the city as a whole.

Whatever the term – aging, blighted, dilapidated – many of those complexes are ripe for redevelopment, as are the empty shopping centers and abandoned warehouses around them. Often havens for crime, these eyesores depress property values and are themselves a drag on the tax rolls.

Some revitalization efforts are underway, but residents like Jim Bigham, president of the Sharpstown Civic Association, are looking for a spark, a catalyst for change.

With a proposed rewrite of Houston’s development ordinance headed to the City Council table on Wednesday, city leaders say they have one.

The new rules, six years in the making, would allow greater single-family housing density outside Loop 610. That, builders say, will enable them to fit more houses on the same piece of land, bringing down the price of each home and making it more likely that market-price housing can be placed on dormant tracts.

“We’re stuck right now. What’s not working is having an empty retail – vacant, crappy – building for 20 years sitting on the same corner,” Bigham said. “We see the overall rule change facilitating redevelopment at some level, and that in itself is a positive thing.”

By their own admission, however, homebuilders will struggle to develop many of the tracts targeted for renewal because they do not have the capital or because they risk being outbid by apartment developers. Experts say land developers, who buy large tracts, invest in infrastructure and then sell individual lots to homebuilders, will play an important role if revitalization is to be widespread.

“Our challenge that we have to think about is, we have an aging city, and we need to think about how we go in and allow for our city to be updated,” city Planning Department Director Marlene Gafrick said. “To some degree, these rules will encourage the redevelopment of property, and you’ll utilize the existing infrastructure that’s already in place where the city has already made an investment in the infrastructure, streets and sewers.”

That’s the plan, anyway. How well it will work, I have no idea. The theory is simple enough – when you’ve got a lot of demand for something, you should try to increase the supply of that something – it’s the ancillary effects that are the big unknowns. Check back in ten years and we’ll see where we are.

One way to know if the revision has been a success is if this trend slows down.

More than 80 percent of the homes that sold last year were outside of Beltway 8, according to a study commissioned by the Houston Chronicle. Compare that to just 6 percent inside Loop 610 and 12.8 percent between the Loop and the Beltway.

What draws people to these far-off suburbs, sometimes 30 miles from downtown? Homeowners cite a multitude of reasons, like schools, shopping and affordable housing. Another big draw is jobs.

Houston’s outlying areas are home to major business districts.

“You keep seeing oil companies and major employers locating outside of downtown. They locate along the West Belt. They’re moving up to The Woodlands,” said Evert Crawford of Crawford Realty Advisors and the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business.

“A lot of people don’t work downtown anymore,” said Crawford, who conducted the study.

[…]

The median price per square foot for a home outside the Beltway was $72.98 last year, according to the housing data. That was up 3.7 percent from 2011, but still less than half of the Inner Loop value of $178.09 per square foot.

That’s an insufficient comparison, since the Chapter 42 revision is aimed at property between 610 and the Beltway, but you get the idea. We’d like to see a higher percentage of homes purchased inside the Beltway in order to say that the Chapter 42 remake is doing what we wanted it to do. Now, single-family houses aren’t the be-all and end-all – there’s a ton of high-end apartment construction inside the Loop, and smaller apartments, the antithesis to sprawling suburban mansions, are a trend as well. A fuller range of metrics will be needed to really get an answer to the question of how successful the Chapter 42 changes were. But since we’ve been talking so much about how the goal is to make it easier to build affordable housing in Houston, then let’s look first at those numbers.

Chapter 42

Other than the updated highrise ordinance, Council has not yet taken up the proposed revisions to the city’s planning code, also known as Chapter 42. That will be on the agenda soon, and the Chron has an overview of where things now stand.

Now, officials want to extend that urban area and its accompanying density cap – allowing a maximum of 27 housing units per acre – from Loop 610 to Beltway 8. The change would come with a series of updates to the existing development code, including community safeguards to make it easier for residents to protect the character of their neighborhoods even as the ordinance would allow developers to subdivide lots for more construction, officials said.

Officials say developers are waiting to build properties that would meet demand for more housing at varying price levels but have hesitated without any density rules in place outside the Loop.

“This city is growing and we are the envy of the nation,” said Sue Lovell, who worked to develop the proposed ordinance changes before she finished her final City Council term last month. “But with that comes (the question of) how do we continue development, but at the same time protect the quality of life in our neighborhoods? Chapter 42 provides that.”

Population in the Houston area has grown 7.5 percent during the last decade, to nearly 6 million. Homes near the urban core, however, have not provided the flexibility in size and price that many new residents want, said Suzy Hartgrove, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Planning and Development. Instead, transplants lured to the area by jobs are moving to more affordable areas in Houston suburbs, she said.

“The thought was that you’re recognizing that as the city grows and densifies you’re just trying to provide an opportunity for more of a variety of housing stock,” Planning Director Marlene Gafrick said.

Still the best comment anyone has made on the highrise situation

I’m glad someone is thinking about the issue of where people are moving and how housing prices affects that. I’m sure these Chapter 42 revisions will have some positive effect on that, but it’s not clear how much. Matthew Yglesias has often written that this is basically a supply and demand problem, and the solution to creating more affordable housing in the urban core of any large urban area is to alter or remove regulations that prevent more housing from being built. As he lives in Washington, DC, his main target is a local ordinance that forbids most construction of anything higher than six stories. Here in Houston, we’ve just added some restrictions on where highrises can be built, but its effect will likely be felt only on the margins. We actually have quite a few highrises and midrises being built or being proposed right now, though ironically they all tend to be of the high-end, luxury variety. They’re mostly being built in expensive neighborhoods, so that is to be expected. What we don’t have is a strategy for enticing development in places where the land is cheap and the population has been declining, like the Fifth Ward. I don’t have any advice for how to do that – it’s hardly an easy problem – but I would like to see more thinking about it.

Historic preservation has been preserved

Swamplot:

THE RESULTS ARE in, and it looks like the great campaign todissolve Houston’s historic districts has been a bit of a bust. Houston planning director Marlene Gafrick reports that the “survey period” for Heights East, Heights West, Heights South, Boulevard Oaks, and Avondale West historic districts has closed and that the planning department has determined that “none of the districts achieved the 51% threshold that requires the Planning Director to recommend repeal of the designation or, in the case of Heights South, recommend denying the designation.” Neighborhood meetings and subsequent “surveys” for 2 more districts — Norhill and First Montrose Commons — haven’t taken place yet (the meetings are scheduled for January 8th and 18th, respectively). That’s it for the 7 districts where petitions from owners triggered the “reconsideration” provisions of thepreservation ordinance changes city council approved last fall. According to the new ordinance, if owners of 51 percent of the lots in any of the districts had returned notices sent to them by the city, the districts might have been dissolved — or, more likely, had their boundaries adjusted.

However, as noted in a subsequent post, these districts could still be altered.

Gafrick will be required to send a report to city council recommending one of 3 options for each of them. For Heights East, Heights West, Heights South, Boulevard Oaks, and Avondale West, the first option — dissolving the district entirely — is out. But Gafrick can still recommend adjusting the boundaries of a district — even if the returned surveys didn’t reach the 51 percent threshold. (Her third option: recommend city council do nothing — and keep the district as it is.)

In an email to Swamplot [Wednesday], planning department public affairs director Suzy Hartgrove says Gafrick plans to look carefully at where the surveys came from: “What we are in the middle of now is really evaluating the data received, mapping it and coming up with that recommendation,” she writes. Since those surveys will likely become available to anyone making an open-records request, locating concentrations of owners who want out of their districts sounds like a good idea. Though the ordinance allows Gafrick to come to her own conclusions, she won’t be making the final decision, Hartgrove notes:

Ultimately, it is [up to] the Mayor and Council to make the decision. They don’t have to take our recommendation. I don’t have the date of when these items will go to Council.

So there you have it. More background is here, here, and here. Now maybe all of those pro and anti signs will finally get put away. Until the next tweak to the ordinance, anyway.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

Preservation reconsideration

One of the pieces to the new historic preservation ordinance was the designation of a period in which already-existing historic districts could submit a petition to have the city reconsider their status. The deadline for that has passed, and 8 of the existing 16 districts got the necessary 10% of homeowners to sign on.

If owners of 51 percent of the tracts in the district vote against the historic designation, Planning Department Director Marlene Gafrick would recommend City Council repeal the district or shrink its boundaries. The authority to repeal, amend or leave a district intact rests solely with council.

Planning Department spokeswoman Suzy Hartgrove said city staff has yet to verify the signatures in the applications submitted by residents of Avondale West, Boulevard Oaks, First Montrose Commons, Houston Heights East, Houston Heights South, Houston Heights West, Norhill and Westmoreland historic districts.

You can find maps of these districts here.

Officials have said districts could be redrawn to encompass only the blocks where a majority of owners support the new protections.
Bill Baldwin, of Responsible Historic Preservation for Houston, which worked to gather petitions against the new ordinance in the Heights and provided guidance to opponents elsewhere, said he was pleased.

“We always wanted a survey and we’re going to get one, so we’re happy about that,” he said.

Baldwin said he was confident a majority of homeowners in Heights East and South oppose the new ordinance. Avondale West opponent Dana Thorpe said the same for his neighborhood.

“Will 51 percent of those tract owners receive a ballot and return it in opposition? I have no way of knowing,” Baldwin said. “To get 51 percent of people to return a ballot is a monumental task.”

That challenge is encouraging to Bart Truxillo, co-chairman of the Houston Historic Districts Coalition.

“It is so disappointing that people are not understanding the potential good that the districts will do,” he said. “But there’s always going to be 10 percent against everything … 51 percent is a little bit harder.”

We’ll see what happens. I’m rooting for the attempts to change these districts to fall short, but if that’s what the residents want, then so be it. Swamplot has more.

What the Planning Department says about the new preservation ordinance

Via The Heights Life, here are a series of YouTube videos produced by Planning & Development Director Marlene Gafrick to explain what the new preservation ordinance is all about:

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRJrDd6cb7A

Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ae5DyFiwuk4

Part 3: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tp81p1Yq2HQ

Part 4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8X3IpwWfcs

Or just go to YouTube and search on “Marlene Gafrick”. If I hear of something similar by the ordinance’s opponents, I’ll pass it along as well.

Parking review coming

This ought to be interesting.

The Department of Planning and Development has scheduled three community meetings in April to hear ideas about possible changes in the city’s parking ordinance, which has been modified only slightly since it was adopted in 1989.

From the department’s press release:

Some of the topics that will be discussed include but are not limited to shared parking, parking management areas, types of occupancy and intensity of use (i.e. bars, types of restaurants, etc.), parking incentives for development along transit corridors or for restoration of historic buildings, lifts and valet parking just to name a few.

The meetings will be from 4 p.m.-6 p.m. April 7 at Havens Center, 1827 W. Alabama; from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. April 14 at the Judson Robinson Jr. Community Center, 2020 Hermann Drive; and from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. April 21 at the United Way of Greater Houston, 50 Waugh Drive.

Houston’s urban landscape has changed dramatically since the parking ordinance was adopted in 1989. The area inside Loop 610 has grown much denser, clogging streets in some neighborhoods with the cars of all the new residents and their guests.

At the same time, leaders of efforts to redevelop neighborhoods like Midtown in a more urban style say strict parking requirements and other regulations have hindered their efforts.

“We’ve got to take a look at the ordinance and make it more relevant to today,” the city planning director, Marlene Gafrick, told me.

Parking requirements were not a part of the recent urban corridors ordinance, though there’s clearly a tight connection between the two. It’s good to see this being dealt with now, but it probably should have been part of the earlier discussion. Houston Tomorrow has more.

On a side note, the city of San Francisco recently completed a census of its parking spaces.

Over the last 18 months, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) has tallied every publicly accessible parking space within city limits, including free and metered spaces on-street and every publicly accessible garage [PDF map].

The total number of spaces, as Mayor Gavin Newsom recently announced on his Youtube site, is 441,541. Of the total, over 280,000 are on-street spaces, 25,000 of which are metered. For just the on-street spaces, that is roughly the equivalent area of Golden Gate Park.

I can only imagine what that number would be for Houston. It would be a heck of a challenge just to enumerate downtown’s parking capacity. Of course, San Francisco is a more transit-oriented city than Houston, and as such they need fewer parking spaces per capita. I hope that as Houston contemplates changes to its parking requirements, it takes into account what Houston’s transit system will look like a few years down the line. Yes, I know, that is still up in the air to an uncomfortable degree, but we should assume there will be a more robust system in a few years’ time than there is now, and ideally we will also consider what is yet to come beyond what we’re doing now.