Neighborhood uprisings: Isn't it time for Houston to have a serious discussionabout zoning?
The go-ahead for the Ashby high rise has left me feeling really depressed. If affluent residents with all their political and social connections can't keep a 21-story skyscraper out of their bucolic neighborhood, what hope is there for the rest of us?
When Mayor "I'm against the project, but I can't do anything about it" Parker touts lopping two stories off and instituting a shuttle service that few people will likely use as some sort of neighborhood victory, you know it's time to talk about the "Z" word.
The fact of the matter is that Houstonians have virtually no tools to stop developments that promise to irrevocably alter the character of a neighborhood.
The fact of the matter is that Houstonians have virtually no tools to stop developments that promise to irrevocably alter the character of a neighborhood. As my CultureMap colleague Katie Oxford has written, why do developers build such projects in the face of overwhelming neighborhood opposition?
Because they can.
Non-profit schools and churches are also encroaching into established neighborhoods, pitting longtime residents against organizations with clout that insist they want to be good neighbors. The latest example, in today's Chronicle, details opposition to a proposed halfway house for single mothers near a deed-restricted Meyerland neighborhood.
The facility, which includes four duplex units, would be built on property owned by St. John's Presbyterian Church outside of the deed-restricted zone. "I understand the importance of helping these mothers," said one resident, "but when you take away from one group to give to another group, you haven't improved society at all."
When minimum lot size doesn't help
In my Montrose neighborhood, residents of the 1200 block of Kipling breathed a sigh of relief after they filed for protection afforded by minimum lot size. The city ordinance allows residents within the 610 Loop to petition the city to preserve the single family residential character of a neighborhood block-by-block. In establishing such a standard, lots cannot be subdivided below the “special minimum” size in the designated area, thus keeping out the encroachment of townhomes and maintaining the neighborhood's special character.
Scared by the rise of a series of soulless townhomes on one end of they block, the Kipling residents got more than 70 percent of homeowners to ask for protection. In 2008, the city approved the petition.
Not so fast. This is Houston.
At the other end of the bungalow-laden block were two tiny apartments, where a number of retired Basilian Catholic priests live. The '60s-era low-slung apartments, which were grandfathered in and thus not part of the minimum lot size regulations, were leveled last year and replaced by a complex called Dillon House rising more than 40-feet high.
Wedged on the small lot, within inches of their property, it looks like building on steroids as it dwarfs the surrounding properties. "It's like having a cruise ship next door," Andy says.
Lucinda Cobley and Andy Weaver, who own the bungalow next door and have lived there since 2002, knew nothing about the new building — until it kept growing higher and higher and higher. Wedged on the small lot, within inches of their property, it looks like a building on steroids as it dwarfs the surrounding properties.
"It's like having a cruise ship next door," Andy says.
Residents in our neighborhood are now bickering over what to do with another vacant lot, where a developer leveled a charming 1960s-era apartment complex, with plans for a passel of patio homes. But he went bankrupt before construction commenced and the land has sat vacant for years. (Why do developers in Houston constantly tear down good structures to make way for projects that never get off the ground? It sure does seem to happen a lot.)
A developer who lives in the neighborhood says he has a potential buyer for the property but only if residents agree to relax neighborhood deed restrictions to allow taller structures. (The deed restrictions limit heights to three stories or 30 feet.) The proposal now pits neighbors who are clinging to such protections and are suspicious of such claims against those who want to weaken the deed restrictions in return for any development on the property.
But at least we have some tools to shape the neighborhood — no matter how weak they might be.
No protections at all
A few miles away, a friend of mine lives in a neighborhood with no protections. Located in the Museum District, next to neighborhoods like Boulevard Oaks that have strong deed restrictions, the Museum Area Municipal Association (MAMA) is a collection of older homes and newer townhomes, with a smattering of businesses, including the Grand Prize Bar near Bell Park. Bounded by the Southwest Freeway, Graustark, Main and Bissonnet streets, it has no deed restrictions and is thus open to anyone who wants to build practically anything in the neighborhood.
A few months ago neighbors were surprised to learn that the Post Oak School had purchased property at the corner of Montrose and Autrey to establish a high school. (It maintains a school for kids aged 18 months through eighth grade in Bellaire.) The school demolished a couple of homes for parking lots and green space and are converting a small industrial building into a school that will open in August.
The plan seems especially odd to the neighbors as the school doesn't yet own a historic home that is wedged between the main building and a parking lot. And it's located on a narrow street, which they fear will be clogged during peak school hours.
"You had better hope your house doesn't catch fire at 8:30 a.m. or 3:30 p.m.," says Cassie Stinson, president of the MAMA neighborhood group.
On the other side of Montrose Boulevard, also in the MAMA neighborhood, the Joy School has leveled homes and numerous oak trees, with plans to double the school, which focuses on educating developmentally disabled children, to serve 180 students. Stinson says the city doesn't consider the two school expansions as concurrent and has declined to conduct traffic studies of the effect on the neighborhood.
"Basically you'll have a lot of young drivers playing bumper car with Medical Center traffic," she said. "It is a death trap. Do we have to wait until somebody dies to do something about this? The answer is yes."
The other side
Officials at the Post Oak School insist they want to be good neighbors. The school, which will eventually cover grades 9-12, will start with only dozen students and three full-time faculty with no plans to exceed a total of 80 in the four grades. The Montessori school chose the location because the program emphasizes the arts and will be within walking distance of Houston's major museums.
John Long, the head of school, points out that officials removed a billboard on the property it purchased and tore down a home that had become a hangout for the homeless. And it is working to mitigate traffic concerns.
"That view (against the school) represents only one side of the neighborhood. We've heard other people who say it's the best thing to happen (here) in 10 years," he says.
Stinson and others point out that the neighborhood didn't learn about the school until it had purchased the property, much like the couple on Kipling only learned about the gigantic apartment building when it was under construction.
As a real estate lawyer, Stinson says she is not necessarily in support of zoning, yet she acknowledges that a neighborhood like hers has precious few options to maintain a sense of community when assaulted by development that doesn't make sense to them.
"This administration purports to be concerned about inner city neighborhoods, but they're not," Stinson said. "They know we have no tools to fight it."
I realize that critics will carp that those opposing such projects are elitists with a "Not in My Backyard" mentality. However, I don't think there's anything wrong with fighting to preserve the character and integrity of Houston neighborhoods and asking for an orderly process of notification and neighborhood input before construction commences.
One thing seems clear: This messy patchwork of limited protections doesn't seem to be working well. That's why I think it's time to talk about land use and — yes —zoning.
Otherwise it will only get worse.