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Viewpoint

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.

The Freeland Historic District

I drive down White Oak every day to take the girls to preschool, so I’ve been going past a bunch of houses that have signs with “save our bungalow” messages on them, but I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. Now I know.

Jack Preston Wood isn’t sure now if his dream home is compatible with the property he made an offer on last year near the Houston Heights.

What Wood didn’t know when he entered a contract to buy the 1929 bungalow at 536 Granberry was that it is located in the recently designated Freeland Historic District.

The small neighborhood off White Oak Drive was platted by some of the developers of what is now the Heights Historic District. But what makes it unique in the city of Houston is that Freeland’s original bungalow-style homes are virtually intact; only two of the original 37 have been lost.

Residents in the neighborhood are fighting to keep it that way. When word got out that Wood, a residential designer, wanted to tear down the bungalow, subdivide the lot and build two, four-story homes, neighbors organized a campaign to stop it.

The group spoke against the plans when they reached the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission in March, put out “save our district” signs and have since staged weekly protests at the corner of Granberry and White Oak Drive.

Even though city laws won’t stop the redevelopment, Wood said there’s no way he’ll go through with those plans after speaking with some of the neighbors. But if they aren’t amenable to something different, something he would consider compatible with the existing homes, then he may pull out of the deal altogether.

“If we can’t find a way to get our dream to fit in there, then we won’t close,” Wood said.

Which, judging by the comments at Hair Balls and Swamplot, would clearly suit the remaining residents just fine. I just want to add a couple of points to the discussion.

One, in all of these homeowners-versus-developers stories, there are always a few people who advocate the position that folks like Jack Preston Wood should be free to do whatever they want with their property. The point I would make is that even in no-zoning Houston, we do have limits. It would be illegal for him to build, say, a strip club or a chemical plant there. Plenty of commercial projects get blocked or need to be drastically altered because of numerous regulations covering such mundane things as the number of available parking spaces. It’s residential development that’s far looser, and that’s where these battles often erupt. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for people to believe there ought to be more restrictions on residential development, in a similar fashion to commercial development.

Second, the character of a neighborhood like the Freeland District has value to its residents. By tearing down a house that fits in with the neighborhood and replacing it with something completely different, some of that value is lost to the other residents. Again, those who would defend the developers in these scenarios often talk about their right to maximize the value of their properties. But how do you compensate those who believe their own values get diminished by that?

Finally, the Freeland Historic District (PDF) abuts the site of the long-controversial Viewpoint development – Granberry, and Frasier one block to its west, both terminate at the north end of the land where Viewpoint would be built, if it ever is. As such, I can’t really blame the folks who live there if they feel like they’re under siege.