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The battle continues

City can't stop Ashby high rise, Mayor Parker says, but neighborhood group vows it's not over yet

Mayor Annise Parker has sent a letter to residents of the Southampton neighorhood protesting plans to build a multi-story high rise  — dubbed the "Ashby High Rise" — in their neighborhood, saying that the city "has no legal basis for stopping it."

In the letter, which is dated Feb. 28th but which surfaced in the Houston media on late Friday afternoon, Parker wrote:

Even success in the courtroom in the City's litigation against developers, Maryland Manor Associates and Buckhead Investments, Inc., would not halt the project, since the developers would still be able to proceed with their current permit application, which mirrors that which the City was compelled to approve in 2009. Therefore I am accepting the advice of City legal counsel and recomending settlement of the lawsuit. I believe this is the best option for the City and the neighborhood because it will ensure some control over how the project succeeds."

In 2010, the project's developers, Buckhead Investments, had filed suit against the city of Houston, seeking $40 million in damages, alleging neighborhood pressure caused the city to exceed its legal authority in denying the company's applications for permits to build a 23-story, mixed-use tower at 1717 Bissonnet.

 "In a city without zoning, our options are very limited and do not offer the level of protection many of us would prefer. " — Mayor Annise Parker

 In the letter, Parker maintained that a settlement with developers limits the height of the high rise to 21 stories, excluding the roof, and provides a pedestrian plaza, along with two driveways (one along Bissonnet and one along Ashby limited to trucks), shuttle service to the Texas Medical Center, an 8-foot fence along the south and east property lines and vegetative covering on a five-story garage.

"I continue to want to explore ways to protect neighborhoods from incompatible development," Parker wrote. "However, in a city without zoning, our options are very limited and do not offer the level of protection many of us would prefer."

Parker set a community meeting on March 12 at Congregation Emanu El, 1500 Sunset Boulevard, at 6:30 p.m. to discuss the settlement.

The reaction to Parker's letter from the neighborhood group protesting the high rise was swift and curt. In its own letter to residents, the Stop Ashby Highrise Task Force wrote on Friday night:

We are disappointed that the Mayor has elected to schedule the town hall meeting to explain the settlement to the community on March 12, which is the Monday of spring break when a substantial number of neighborhood residents will be traveling with their school age children. However, we encourage all residents who are in town to attend the meeting to learn more about the settlement and express any concerns they may have."

The letter also stated:

It was never our understanding that the City had the intention or the authority to "stop" the Ashby High Rise, but we did expect the City to use its authority to mitigate the impact of the project if it were to be built. We are therefore distressed to learn about the following features of the settlement described by the Mayor.

The settlement includes 18 additional apartment units over and above the number that the City had previously determined would result in an "unacceptable" traffic impact at Bissonnet and Shepherd.  This increase is apparently justified by the developer's agreement to have one shuttle bus trip to the Medical Center in the morning and another in the afternoon and to make "loaner bikes" available to the tenants.  It seems highly dubious that either of these steps is going to result in a reduction in peak hour trips in and out of the project or that they can be or will be enforced during the life of the project. In addition, the City's evaluation of traffic impacts appears to be based on a traffic study that is now four years old and does not account for the additional development that has occured or is under construction in the area. Several members of this Task Force were assured by city officials that a new traffic impact study would be ordered to assess the current impact of the project and the project's size would be adjusted accordingly, but to our knowledge no new study has been conducted.         

The settlement includes a driveway onto Ashby that will allow all exiting traffic from the project to avoid Bissonnet. Although the Mayor's letter says that exiting traffic will only be allowed to make a right turn onto Ashby toward Bissonnet, there is no way that this can be guaranteed except by an engineered solution that would make Ashby unavailable to normal northbound traffic from the neighborhood.  As a result, everyone exiting the building will be able to make an illegal left turn and cut through the neighborhood to avoid the congestion on Bissonnet.

The Mayor's description of the settlement does not reference any measures to mitigate the substantial impacts that are likely to occur during construction. It is difficult to imagine how dozens of cement trucks are going to be staged on Ashby or Bissonnet during a foundation pour without bringing all traffic on those two-lane streets to a complete halt or how hundreds of truckloads of construction materials will be delivered to the site without major disruptions.  We question why precautions against those kinds of impacts cannot be included in this settlement."

With a well-heeled opposition, it's likely this is not the last we're heard of the ongoing battle.

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