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Alexan Heights gets approved

The Leader News updates us on the latest news regarding the proposed development on Yale at 7th.

Alexan Heights on Yale

Houston’s Planning Commission has approved Trammell Crow Residential’s replat application without variance for the site of its 360-unit Alexan Heights mid-rise luxury apartment at Yale and 6th streets, West Heights Coalition’s website reports.

The replat for the 3.5-acre site included properties previously restricted to single family use but recently revised with deed restrictions amendments.

The deed restrictions involved single-family home initially within the block-filling complex’s proposed footprint — properties that the owners did not want to sell and that TCR was able to design around. TCR’s earlier request for construction with a variance failed before the Houston Planning Commission.

A half-dozen or so area residents spoke against the replat request at the May 23 hearing — and others had written and called relevant offices and attended numerous planning commission meetings, WHC sources said.

See here and here for the background, and here for the WHC’s statement. I think people are going to have to come to terms with projects like this and Elan Heights and whatever the next foofily-named high-end apartment project that will replace some existing piece of old Heights development is. People want to live in the Heights, but the houses are scarce and ridiculously expensive. A high-end condo or apartment isn’t a bad alternative for a lot of folks, given that reality. For all of the gentrification that has occurred in the last decade or so, there’s still a lot of low-end properties and vacant lots dotting the map. Trammell Crow, to their credit, is offering to address some of the items on the neighborhood wish list, in particular a pedestrian-activated crossing signal where the bike path traverses Yale, as part of their offer to the city for this space. I think overall we’re going to be better off engaging developers on that sort of thing rather than going full metal Ashby Highrise and hoping for a different outcome. I’m just saying.

Alexan Heights trying again

The Leader News reports that the proposed mid-rise apartment complex for Yale at 7th Street has been reworked in a way that would avoid the need for a variance.

Alexan Heights on Yale

The deed restrictions involved single-family homes within the proposed complex — properties that the owners did not want to sell and that TCR was able to design around. TCR’s earlier request for construction with a variance failed before the Houston Planning Commission.

An advance copy of the new notice was part of a TCR/Maple Multi-Family Land TX letter to District C Councilwoman Ellen Cohen dated April 19, portions of which read: “The replat includes properties that were previously restricted to single family. The deed restrictions for these properties have been amended to allow multi-family so the replat will include all 3.55 acres of the site as an unrestricted reserve.”

The letter to Cohen also says TCR has restricted the project’s driveway on Allston Street to be a service exit, left turn only, to divert traffic away from the neighborhood. And, the developer “is willing to work” with Allston Street neighbors if they seek parking restrictions or “No Parking” signs adjacent to the apartment project.

In addition, the letter to Cohen says that if the city will approve a HAWK signal — a crossing signal controlled by pedestrians or bicyclists — at the bike trail adjacent to the mid-rise’s site, TCR will fund and build it. Similarly, the company “is prepared to make a contribution” to the detention pond/park at Rutland and 6th streets.

See here for the last update, and see here for a copy of the letter sent to CM Cohen’s office, which they shared with me. “TCR” is Trammel Crow Residential. I had thought they’d get the variance that they were ultimately denied, so I’m not going to speculate what may happen here. The neighborhood is still opposed to the idea, or at least the more vocal factions of the neighborhood is opposed. I know there’s a lot of interest in putting some kind of signal at the bike trail crosswalk, so you’d think there might be room for negotiation here. Be that as it may, there is a public hearing scheduled for 2:30 p.m. May 23 at City Hall Annex, 900 Bagby St to discuss this, so we’ll see what happens this time. Swamplot has more.

More on Ashby Heights

That’s not this project‘s name, but it’s how I think of it.

Canadian developers of a condominium project on a wooded 1.4-acre plot near the Heights Bike Trail and White Oak Bayou late have dropped their request for a variance to develop the site – thereby allowing the city of Houston far less control over their revised plans.

Suzy Hartgrove, spokeswoman for Houston’s planning & development department, confirmed to The Leader that The Viewpoint at The Heights, L.P., altered its plans for “Emes Place” and will now construct a public street over a bridge and install a cul de sac. Earlier plans had called for a private street that would have required a variance and allowed the Planning & Zoning Commission some latitude in approving the project.

Now, said Hartgrove, if the plans meet minimum standards of Chapter 42 of the city’s Code of Ordinances, the commission will have no choice legally but to approve it.

While the initial plans for the property, which borders the hike-and-bike trail and Fifth Street, were for 84 condo units, Hartgrove said the new plans have not specified the density.

City staff was reviewing the new plans to make a recommendation to the Planning Commission, and Hartgrove said she expected it to be on the agenda on Thursday of this week.

See here for the background. I have heard that folks in the neighborhood are pushing for the Planning Department to defer this decision for a month to investigate the developer’s claims about meeting Chapter 42 standards. I think that’s a fine idea, because there’s no other mechanism to put a check on this unloved project if one is needed. Surely it’s part of the process for the city to verify claims about meeting code standards, right? It’s on you now, Planning Department.

On a tangential note, in the event this thing does eventually get built, I have to wonder about the type of person who would want to buy a unit in it. As with the Ashby Highrise, any cursory research on a buyer’s part would make them realize that the vast majority of their new neighbors-to-be despise the building they’re about to move into, and probably will not have very warm feelings towards them as well, at least at first. Maybe it’s just me, but I would feel like that’s a significant negative, more than enough to make me consider other options. These are nice neighborhoods, but they’re not the only nice neighborhoods, and if you can afford a condo in either of these developments, you definitely have other possibilities available to you. What do you think?

UPDATE: Via CM Ellen Cohen’s office, this is what the Planning Department has said regarding Emes Place:

Inner Loop has now revised their plans in order to comply with Chapter 42 of the City’s Code of Ordinances, which governs this type of development. PD has determined that their application now meets the minimum requirements for Planning Commission approval, and the Commission is required by law to approve a subdivision plat application that meets these minimum requirements. This item will be considered by the Commission for a final vote this afternoon and, due to deadlines established by state law, cannot be deferred until a later date.

However, the subdivision plat is only the first step in the development process and any development moving forward must still meet all applicable City requirements. For instance, plans for the street build-out must meet the Public Works and Engineering (PWE) Department’s Infrastructure and Design Manual criteria. No plans for the street have yet been submitted, and when they are, PWE will evaluate to determine if the criteria are met (it is not in the Planning Commission’s purview to determine whether those standards are met.) This will give the City another opportunity to examine whether the developer meets the necessary requirements.

Additionally, the indication on the submitted plat of “future right of way” is being removed. No such right of way has been dedicated, and the City has no intention of buying or condemning any right of way for a private project.

So there you have it.

Ashby Heights

Here’s the next frontier in unwanted development.

A residential development proposal that’s been on and off in the Heights since 2004 is back on, reviving neighborhood opposition to the project and catching the attention of the mayor.

Canadian developer Group LSR is requesting a multi-part variance that, if approved, would allow it to move forward on a building with as many as 84 units along the hike and bike trail. The site is at the east end of E. 5th Street, which dead ends just after it intersects with Oxford.

On Thursday, the planning commission, which votes on such issues, is expected to delay taking action on the variance for two weeks so it can have more time to consider the details.

When the developer first bought the land for the project in 2004, neighbors launched a grass-roots campaign hoping to stop the project. They said it would cause traffic, flooding and safety problems as well as threaten the urban bird and wildlife habitat. They set up a website and signed petitions.

This time around, the neighborhood has been working quickly to fight back, placing protest signs in their yards and making calls to City Hall.

The Heights Life has the details on the current fight against this development, which I have written about before. The photos in that first post have been archived; sorry about that. The main difference between this and Ashby is that this development can’t happen without variances, which Mayor Parker doesn’t seem inclined to support. One of the variances involves building a bridge from where 5th Street dead-ends at Oxford to where the condos would be. The full Chron story has a few more details.

One of the reasons for the request is that the developer owns only 35 feet of frontage along East 5th. Typically, 60 feet of frontage is required, though variances have been granted with far less than even 35 feet of space, according to the city’s Planning & Development Department.

[…]

The developer has considered other options, like accessing its site through Frasier Street, which connects to White Oak. But the city had concerns over that plan.

“We think the conditions of Frasier have changed,” said Suzy Hartgrove, planning department spokeswoman.

Hartgrove was referring to the explosive growth in new bars and restaurants that has occurred along White Oak.

Traffic there and along intersecting residential streets already has increased considerably, creating tension between homeowners and businesses.

Yes, traffic on White Oak was a concern when this project, whose name has apparently changed from Viewpoint In The Heights to Emes Place, was first proposed. Needless to say, with White Oak having since transformed into Washington Avenue North, that concern is even greater now. Frasier Street remains too narrow to handle any consistent traffic load. And then there’s the very popular Heights Bike Trail, which passes right by the proposed bridge location at 5th and Oxford. There’s a lot to be concerned about here. We’ll see what the planning commission has to say, but until then send some email and let your voice be heard.

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.

More on the urban transit corridors ordinance

I mentioned last week that the city was getting set to do an overhaul of its planning codes. In particular, there’s a proposed transit corridor ordinance that is up for public discussion on Thursday and a City Council vote in July. I wasn’t sure what to make of it but had heard some early feedback that while it did some good, it fell well short of what it could have been. Fortunately, a couple of folks who are better versed on the technical details than I am have had a look, and have returned their verdicts. First, Christof gives his typically thorough overview of the ordinance, its shortfalls and loopholes. It’s too dense to excerpt, so just go and read and see what we’ll be missing. Second, neoHouston cuts right to the chase:

Let me be clear: if the city adopts the standards as they are written, it will have exactly the opposite of the intended effect. It will be just as easy as it has always been to build suburban, auto-oriented trash near a train station, and it will be HARDER to build an urban building.

The city is taking areas where you could ALREADY build right up to the street and telling you that now you CANNOT do that unless you comply with these additional “Voluntary” design parameters.

This is a punitive measure against exactly the wrong people! This is EXACTLY BACKWARDS from what their stated goal is!

Yeah, that’s not what I was hoping for, either. Read what he has to say as well, and then consider contacting your Council member to let him or her know what you think about this. For that matter, contact your favorite Mayoral candidate and ask him or her what they think about this, since it’ll be on them in six months’ time. We need to move forward on this, and it doesn’t look like that’s what’s happening.

Enabling pedestrians

I don’t know how big a deal this is likely to be, but it’s nice to be talking about it.

More than five years after inaugurating its light rail system, Houston is taking its first, tentative steps to make it safer and more convenient for passengers to walk from train stations to homes, shops and offices.

The city’s urban transit corridors ordinance, which it began developing in June 2006, is expected to be considered by the City Council in July. It would offer incentives for developers in six light rail corridors to include a 15-foot “pedestrian realm” with broad, unobstructed sidewalks and other features intended to create appealing, walkable environments.

I got an email in my box from the Planning and Development Department about this. Here it is:

Notice of Public Hearing

 

The City of Houston Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on Thursday, June 11 at 2:30 p.m. in City Hall Annex, 900 Bagby to consider two items.

 

1)     The proposed transit corridor ordinance. This ordinance establishes mandatory and optional rules along Houston’s designated light rail corridors. This work is the result of an effort begun in 2006 to enhance pedestrian mobility and achieve transit supportive development. More information, including a summary of the proposed ordinance and the draft ordinance, is available on the Urban Corridor Planning website http://www.houstontx.gov/planning/Urban/urban_cor.html.

 

2)     Amendments to Chapter 42 that address the following topics. The proposed ordinance can be found on the Planning Department’s website at www.houstonplanning.com.

 

       Average lot size/lot width in new subdivision plats

       Creation of guest parking for six-plus residential units

       Redefining the width and length of shared driveway developments

       Requiring sign posting in residential subdivisions with certain reserves

       Establishing a protocol on naming of partial replats

       Expanded notification on replats and variances

       Extending the Urban Area beyond the 610 Loop to the Beltway

       Building line overhangs encroach 30 inches, five foot for outside stairs

       Require surveyed site plans for single-family residential plats

       Resolve the conflict between Chapter 42 and the Design Manual for

       Lift Station Sites

 

These ordinance amendments will also result in changes to the Building Code and PWE Infrastructure design manual.

 

Following the public hearing, the items will be considered at the Regulation, Development and Neighborhood Protection Committee of City Council on Monday, June 22 at 3:00 p.m., City Council chambers, 901 Bagby, 2nd floor.

 

City Council will hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance in early July.

 

For more information, contact Michael Schaffer at 713-837-7780 or email Michael.Schaffer@cityofhouston.net.

It all sounds good, though my understanding is that this is basically a finished package that is to be brought for a vote, and not something that’s under discussion. It’s still a good idea to attend the meeting, and talk to your Council member about this, because it’s likely to affect your neighborhood, whether you realize it or not.

The impact of the ordinance will depend on developers’ willingness to comply with its mostly voluntary standards. Those who agree to create the pedestrian zone will automatically be exempt from rules requiring buildings to be set back a specified distance from the street, giving them more space to build revenue-generating offices, homes or shops.

The ordinance is more limited than steps recommended by the city’s consultants and by the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit real estate organization, to promote transit-oriented development.

[…]

A Canadian consulting firm that worked with the city recommended more mandatory requirements for developers, including certain building design standards. But the only outright requirement in the new ordinance is 5-foot-wide sidewalks in most of the city — the current standard is 4 feet — and 6-foot-wide sidewalks along streets where transit lines run and intersecting streets close to rail stations.

As an incentive for developers to meet other standards, the ordinance allows building facades to be adjacent to the 15-foot pedestrian zone. The city now requires a 25-foot building setback on major thoroughfares, and developers who want to build closer to the street must seek a variance from the city Planning Commission.

I’m sure there will be a lot more discussion of this, regardless of what effect that might have at this point, and I’m looking forward to it. Houston Tomorrow, which I’m sure will be one of those that will have plenty more to say on this, has this for now.

So much for the wine bar

The battle between Weingarten and its neighbors over the changes to the new River Oaks Shopping Center, which reached a resolution two weeks ago, may end up as having been over nothing.

Houston restaurateur Tony Vallone said he’s canceled plans to open an Italian bistro and wine bar in the River Oaks area because of the ailing economy.

“I’m going to wait until the economy gets better,” said Vallone, who was planning to operate the restaurant with his son Jeff.

Boy, if they’d only said that a few months ago. Anyway, we’ll see if this crops up again in the future, when and if the Vallones decide that the climate has improved. Thanks to Houstonist for the catch.

UPDATE: The River Oaks Examiner has more.

“This is not the time for expansion,” Vallone said of his decision.

Better to wait for the economy to recover, he said, and to focus on his flagship restaurant and catering business.

The spiked project was a restaurant with a patio and upstairs wine bar. It would have been an Italian restaurant, not a bistro, he said.

Meanwhile, the recent flak between neighbors and developer Weingarten Realty on such points as the building’s setbacks and the use of the patio were not factors in pulling the plug, he said, adding the discourse was full of misinformation.

Vallone said, for example, rumors were circulated that the patio would have been used, at times, as a band venue, which would not have been the case.

“I would never do anything to jeopardize the relationship with the neighborhood,” Vallone said.

So we may see this project again some day. I wonder what the neighbors think.