Tag Archives: Houston Chapter 42

Signs Everywhere: Is Houston Ready for Zoning?

First it was the infamous ‘Stop Ashby Highrise’ lobby… a bitter battle to defeat developers that have worked well within the bounds of Houston law, and want to build on land that they rightfully own. Sure the battle is still raging thanks to a barrage of lawsuits, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing to really stop them from building whatever they want there.

The impressive campaign to defend the “character” of Southampton (Ashby High rise’s future neighborhood) did not go unnoticed. Now in Houston, there is a wave of ‘Stop the Highrise’ activity, from San Felipe in the Galleria to a rapid coalition forming to block development in the Heights. These neighborhoods continue to spends thousands of dollars to somehow change developers’ minds, or enrage the public enough to force the city to stop the activity.

The big gaping problem that these neighborhoods don’t want to address?? The city of Houston does not have basic, comprehensive zoning laws. Granted there are some city ordinances that have done much to regulate lot size like Chapter 42, but it is one small piece of a much larger puzzle. There is very little to actually protect a neighborhood from having a high rise built in the middle of it if a developer owns the land and gets the proper variances. Because actual zoning law is so weak, developers are going to win these fights every time, no matter how much attention the signs get. The latest attempt to enact zoning was in 1994, and was overwhelmingly defeated in a low-turnout referendum. Now many argue that there are big advantages to this… of which the most prominent is affordable housing throughout the city.

Instead of spending thousands of dollars to demonize the developers, why not put zoning laws on the ballot and let Houstonians decide? Remember the red-light camera debacle? As many complaints as were lodged against the city then, the ballot measure has ensured their removal. Done. END OF STORY. This could have also been the fate of Ashby High Rise, if the residents of Southampton had put 1/4th the energy they did in screaming signs and transferred it to the ballot box. What we have yet to figure out… until the citizens of Houston come together and put comprehensive zoning in place, there will always be another Ashby. And in the end, the developers will win that fight too. In an area that is growing as rapidly as Houston, stuff is going to get built, and it has to go somewhere. If we choose not to regulate with proper zoning, then all the crafty sign campaigns in the world aren’t going to make a difference.

Houston City Council PASSES Chapter 42

Ready or not, here we come…

After six years of vigorous debate, the Houston City Council has voted to further increase the city’s density. Chapter 42 passed Council on a vote of 14 to 3. The ordinance changes development rules in the hopes of making the city more competitive with the suburbs. And given the extreme interest by area developers, it will likely be successful in that regard. This was far from an easy vote, as virtually every Council Member had qualms with the ordinance. As the Mayor said, this vote ends the separation between inner loop and outer loop areas. “The city of Houston now has one development code.” And it has been updated to reflect a much more ‘urban’ reality.

Council Member Melissa Noriega voiced resident concerns that Chapter 42 does not address a legacy of draining issues (currently covered under Chapter 9 of the development code), and that will only put a greater strain on an already aging drainage system. Even with this concern, Noriega voted in favor of the ordinance.

Council Member Helena Brown even proposed an Amendment to exclude her entire district (District A) from the Chapter 42 changes. It failed, and Brown voted against the whole measure. Of course to most Houstonians ‘Council Member Brown voting no’ shouldn’t be a surprise.

But even with all of the added drama, anxiety and resistance, this grand bargain is an important next step for the city of Houston. The Mayor and her office worked tirelessly on the issue, and to strike an agreement between the neighborhoods and builders was a win in itself. But now that agreement is law, and Houston can pave the way to a more dense development future.

From a purely political standpoint, the passing of Chapter 42 is a very big win for Houston Mayor Annise Parker. It is yet another major legacy issue that she has tackled as Mayor. If any other elected offices lie in her future, she can point to Chapter 42 as one of the big things that she accomplished. Hopefully, the continuing issues with drainage, complete streets and buried powerlines will be tackled in the not-too-distant future. But Chapter 42 is officially DONE.

For previous coverage on chapter 42, you can check here and here.

Houston Faces Growing Pains with Chapter 42

Everyone of us can identify with the notion of growing pains… going from the small frame of a child, to one’s body awkwardly adjusting into adulthood. You probably remember the weird fit of your clothes, interesting voice changes, and of course a flood unexplained (and often unreasoned) emotions.

The city of Houston is about to experience some serious growing pains as well. Mayor Annise Parker has set up the latest coucil battle over Chapter 42 the city’s main proposal for density of new development… to take place on April 10th. And a battle it is sure to be.

Currently, Houston is the largest city in the United States of America without any formal zoning code. When a developer comes to the city, they can basically build whatever they want, regardless of what it’s next to, or where it is located. The only way that a particular area can “zone” itself for a certain type of development is to have very clear deed restrictions. If the neighborhood doesn’t have iron clad deed restrictions, then they are left susceptible to situations like Ashby High Rise… where the developers are going to build a 21-story skyscraper in the middle of an area of very old, very WEALTHY old Houston mansions. No zoning means there’s no stopping the developers… no matter how much money or influence the surrounding residents have. Chapter 42 plans to set some guidelines that will regulate future land use.

But what has many residents mad is that Chapter 42 actually encourages more high-density development like Ashby High Rise, and makes it much more expensive to build a single family home. The ordinance amendment is already in effect inside the loop, and most can tell that there are very few single family homes being built in Central Houston… but a TON of new, high-density apartments and townhomes. Under the next phase of the ordinance, the high-density regulation area will be extended to all of Houston between the loop and the Beltway. And that’s what has got current residents up in arms. Many (whom live in detached, single family homes already) don’t want more dense development coming to their area. They want to keep their neighborhood just as it is.

The truth of the matter though? Nothing in Houston is going to stay “as is”… this is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. People will continue to move to Houston for the forseeable future, and when they get here, they will need affordable housing options. In Mayor Parker’s view, the purpose of Chapter 42 is to protect affordable housing within the Central city. But Chapter 42 isn’t doing that as it is… the Houston housing market is on fire right now, and property values have shot through the roof.

Another major problem with this ordinance? It definitely encourages more development, but it’s not encouraging smarter development. With so many of the new townhomes that have sprouted inside the loop, developers get to be too lax with how they meet the city’s “standards” that the current ones are practically useless. Many of the safety codes that Chapter 42 legislates are simply not being enforced. Everyday I pass by unsafe clusters of new townhomes… all built from wood… that couldn’t possibly have enough room for a fire truck if they were to catch fire. The cheap construction materials aren’t being measured against Hurricane force winds, or any sort of predictable fire prevention. The city was very lucky during Hurricane Ike, but what if we were to get some of the damage that happened on our coastal areas? And beyond that, Chapter 42 isn’t aesthetically pleasing either. Homes are littered with unsightly utility meeters, disjunct sidewalks, random utility poles and all of the other quirky issues that occur in Houston’s “Wild West” development culture.

Before Chapter 42 is expanded, it first needs to WORK properly. If the city of Houston cannot establish real zoning ordinances, we better be sure of what we’re getting before we expand half-zoning that doesn’t do as intended. The growing pains of this city are real, but if we really want to solve the issues, we have to take the right pain medicine. And my greatest concern is that Chapter 42 is more placebo than pain killer.