Some Potential Setbacks for Tall Buildings in Houston

A new draft ordinance prepared by the city’s planning department aims to make it tougher to build tall buildings next to single-family homes. The proposal is called the High Density Ordinance, but many of its restrictions would apply to any structure more than 75 feet tall, no matter how tightly packed or slow-witted the folks are inside. Well, with some exceptions: The restrictions wouldn’t apply to buildings in “major activity centers” of the city. Districts could apply for that designation, but the planning department includes maps of 8 of them right off the bat: Downtown, Greenway Plaza, the Galleria area, the Med Center, Greenspoint, the Energy Corridor, Westchase, and the stretch of I-10 between Memorial City Mall and CityCentre. Also exempted from most of the proposed rules: Any tall building where all the adjacent streets are designated major thoroughfares. (In other words, a new office tower built on property in the middle of a Westheimer block apparently wouldn’t have to meet the new restrictions, but one at the corner of Westheimer and a smaller street like Woodway would.)


Any other new or embiggened tall building (and yes, aspiring Ashby Highrise copycats, they’re apparently looking at you) would be required to leave a 50-ft. buffer on every side of the property that’s either directly adjacent to or sits within 30 ft. of an existing or planned single-family home. (The buffer would have to include 10 ft. of landscaping and an 8-ft.-tall masonry wall, but the rest of it could be used as a surface parking lot.) Also, the building would be subjected to an additional setback of up to 100 ft., defined by a line with a low slope starting 40 ft. above the property line.

The proposed ordinance also imposes a few extra landscape and lighting requirements for the sides of all new buildings adjacent to single-family homes or lots outside of the major activity centers — no matter what their height — and requires otherwise open-ended parking garages to keep themselves a little better dressed on their residential sides. The first planning commission hearing to discuss the ordinance is scheduled for July 21st.

Diagram: Planning and Development Dept.

50 Comment

  • So is this ordinance called the “Ashby Highrise” ordinance?

  • Density should not be discouraged. The commercial tax base should not be undercut. Who is proposing this ordinance? I wish to berate and mock them!

  • In her first year in office the mayor focused on historic districts rather than the looming budget deficits and in her second year the mayor is focused on banning hirises in residential neighborhoods rather than the looming budget deficits. Scary to think about what she might be focused on in her third year in office.

  • What’s wrong with this ordinance? It seems that this buffer will protect existing homes from having their sunshine zapped by developers.

  • What is so special about existing homes? And why is the removal of sunshine a problem? It’ll reduce their energy bill in the summer. …besides which, if it were about protecting sunshine, the ordinance would not consider homes located to the south of a development.

  • This High Density Ordinance doesn’t discourage density; it manages it and discourages claustrophobia and lack of sunlight, and, it addresses the heat island effect. The Sky View Factor is another urban-planning measure – of the ability of a city’s mass(es) to re-radiate out to the sky at night… It’s important.
    It’s the future; Get with the program!
    Also see

  • This…seems like a step in the wrong direction.

  • Sounds reasonable. I would favor this.

    @Niche – Once all of these centers are full of 100 story buildings, as well as all of our major thoroughfares, then I guess we need to rethink this to increase our tax base… until then… nice knowing you can buy a home without the area turning into the Galleria overnight.

  • uuuuuuuuuuuuhhh this so stuuuuuuupid…
    Houston needs to build huge buildings everywhere then we can become a huge metropolis the likes of the world has never scene and I could jump from building to building chasing bad guys

  • Aw, I remember when Houston was just this tall ______. Now she’s all grown up!

  • @movocelot: How does the ordinance not discourage density? There are only so many parcels suitable for intensive developments, and their utility would henceforth be encumbered. Claustrophobia? Get real. Sunlight is obviously not the issue; it is an excuse. Otherwise, the path of the sun would be accounted for. Furthermore, I see no applicability between the ordinance that you have described and the link that you posted. If they that proposed this ordinance were interested in urban heat islands or anything of that sort, provisions would have been made for green roofs or highly-reflective membrane roofs such as Duro-Last. Nothing of the sort was attempted. They are at best unimaginative, but that is my optimism showing through.

  • What’s worse the spelling or the content, you be the judge..

  • Unimaginative is right. Masonry walls and even larger setbacks are not good for walkability no matter how they spin it.

  • They should have busied themselves with a law against massive structures which are out of scale with residential neighborhoods surrounding them. Like the Wilshire Village HEB. What a (massive)turd.

  • Right, @TheNiche, my comment was less to this particular ordinance, which addresses new structures adjacent to existing single-family-residential, and more to the value of setback protocols in general.
    Civilized cities have guidelines. The bigger Houston gets, the more important this is. Allowing light, air-flow and vistas (where applicable) – not to mention a tapering of scale between SFR and multi-family, commercial, etc. – improves livability.
    Livability, as defined by people (not roaches or pigeons), raises property values. Houston shouldn’t continue its ever outward creep toward new land, creating impossible infrastructure demands. It should make future-centered, downtown-centered plans.
    My link about Stuttgart is to show how an old city can stay livable and healthy. Let’s learn from this land-locked city how to be efficient. Houston has land but has never had any vision beyond the next ring-road. Think of a leafy, expansive Houston with islands of density, islands for recreation and an international reputation for livability!
    One way or another, by inches, Houston will get zoning.

  • I write this as an out-of-towner that has visited Houston regularly and am intrigued by its unique approach to urban development. When I read this snippet I got the sense that some in Houston government, having failed by referendum at instituting zoning, have the political strategy of instituting zoning piecemeal to try and get around the legally required referendum for it to pass. This and other ordinances (urban vs. suburban rules areas, historic districts) are clearly zone based restrictions that contain policies identical to those found in zoning codes: they are indistinguishable from zoning, especially performance zoning. I would expect a legal challenge to any such ordinance would be in order.

    As for the merits of the proposal, it is another example of planning’s hypocrisy. On the one hand, planners advocate for density arguing that it will save the world (the environment will be protected, obesity will vaporize since everyone will walk everywhere, everyone will get along more harmoniously), yet on the other they are the ones responsible for instituting and maintaing policies that directly inhibit density. Nowhere is this evidenced more than in planning’s defense of the almost sacred single-family home; something this proposal makes explicit. Houston has been the most progressive city in the nation at not allowing NIMBY’s to protect the privliged few at the expense of the many but that distinction is in serious jeopardy with proposals like this.

    To be fair, there is nothing wrong with the single-family home, however, there is something wrong with government subsidizing and protecting it. If a neighborhood’s relative position within the region changes such that denser development is possible, it should be allowed to happen and celebrated: cities and single-family neighborhoods should not be seen as static entities and should be allowed to change as the populace demands (through the market) as they had for thousands of years prior to the advent of planning and zoning.

    “Because I don’t like tall/dense buildings or the types of people who live in them” is not a strong enough justification for the limitations on freedom imposed by such regulations and the adverse impacts they cause; in fact, it’s reprehensible. Let’s be honest, we all know there’s not much more depth to the argument for these restrictions than subjective matters of taste or, even more problematic, racist or classist desires to keep people we don’t like out of our neighborhoods. The right to light is a dubious one: should a neighbor of your single-family home be able to compel you to cut down your tree that has grown up and is blocking light into his/her yard? I think most of us, single-family homeowners included, would think not. But in principal then, there is not much difference between that situation and the one involving the light being blocked from a tall building. Assuming they can be erected safely without profound risk to the health of neighboring property owners, skyscraper construction should not be limited. At most, developers of such towers should be required to compensate any property owner whose property value has clearly been diminished by the construction of the tower (which is not likely to be many); the amount being equal to the diminuation in value. That would be a fair approach. What we see here though is an approach where the single-family owners can abuse the power of government to severely diminish the value of another person’s property that would have been viable for a tower but now cannot be due to the setbacks. Where is the fairness and justice in that? It’s mob rule, socialistic rule without respect for individual rights.

    For anyone with more interest in the pitfalls of restrictions on tower construction, including a rebuttal to the false argument that one site can be a perfect substitute for another so just concentrate the towers in certain areas (e.g. arterial corridors or major activity centers), I encourage you to read Dr. Edward Glaeser’s recent article in the Atlantic Monthly:

  • @ Suwoopgang and doofus – thanks for the laughs. I spit up a little, too.

  • @movocelot: I fail to understand how this ordinance is compatible with urban “livability” or environmentalism. Central Houston ain’t The Woodlands, nor should it try to be.

  • Definately a step back for the city. People don’t realize that places like Greenway Plaza, the Galleria, etc. wouldn’t even exist if devlopers didn’t build buidings next to small houses. Sad to see politically powerful NIMBYS getting their way.

  • Where does Woodway meet Westheimer? Technically Its called Old Farm Dr. at the intersection.

  • Yesss “central Houston is not The Woodlands” @ TheNiche, Captain Obvious.

  • Nimby Ordinance

  • The major premise behind the above posts arguing against this ordinance is the idea that there is some necessity in Houston to building multi-story buildings smack dab in the middle of single family housing. There absolutely isn’t. Compared to Boston, NY, San Fran, or Chicago, Houston’s inner core has gobs and gobs of land. Between Downtown, midtown, and the near eastside, there is enough potentially available land to build a hundred Ashby high rises or 1111 Studewoods. And out in the Galleria, Med Center, etc, there are tons of cruddy old 1970s garden style apartments that could be built up without running afowl of the new ordinance. But developers do not want to take the risk of building up in an under developed part of town or in a part of town that is currently not so attractive. Instead, they want to usurp the value of single family neighborhoods by plopping down multi-story buildings right in the middle of residential neighborhoods. This does nothing for densification as residents are no closer to shops and work than residents of single family homes. All it does is enrich an elite super-rich developer and give a small hand full of people the chance to live in the middle of a residential neighborhood without having to mow the lawn, while erroding the value of the few remaining viable single family neighborhoods in Houston. All this ordinance does is make the big dogs play in the big dog section of the dog park so the little dogs can play in the little dog section. Anyone who isn’t overcome with anti-zoning hysteria would be able to see that this is a very reasonable restriction that will actually do a lot of good for this city.

  • reasonable would be making this something residents could apply for on a neighborhood basis, not shoving it down everyone’s throat.

  • @caneco, they are called “deed restrictions”. If a neighborhood can’t convince a majority of owners to sign off on the deed restrictions, they shouldn’t try to use the police power of the City to do their dirty work.

  • Well if the nimbys don’t like the highrises, why don’t *they* move to the “gobs and gobs” of land?

  • OldSchool, you can’t argue with generalizations. you can’t say these type of developments are unnecessary when the market has been acting on these developmens for years now and new ones are still getting started/financed. We are not the ones to dictate what the market is ready for.

    you’re right that this does nothing for densification, but it does add more hoops for new developments to jump through. if you don’t allow them to build it’ll never come and they’ll just move on to some other city where they can turn a profit. land/transit must be accurately priced for densification to take hold and right now too many things are being purposely undervalued and the true costs are not being accurately represented.

    you must notice that you’re siding with current residents over those of future residents. in terms of growth, this is unacceptable. you’d rather enrich neighborhoods full of multi-million dollar homes with generous market protections and tell all the other hard-working folks that they don’t have a right to live in these ‘hoods because they can’t throw down a few million just because you’re afraid of some developer making money, give me a break (because we’re obviously talking about southampton with this new restriction). these same people you’re talking about protecting are probably some of the same folks that make money off developments in established/up-and-coming neighborhoods. neighborhoods must pay the price if they want to remain single-family, not citizens that will never have a chance of stepping foot in these hoods.

  • Joel: If they go to another city, they will have to deal with zoning. Even with the new ordinance, Houston is a much, much softer land use environment than any other City in the US.
    And this isn’t about million dollar homes. The most recent example of this is in the Heights. A six story condo building is going up right next door to a single family bungalow. Your idea that this is just an Ashby/Southhampton issue is absolutely wrong. People in the Heights are very concerned about this issue. There are numerous spots in the Heights that could be our Ashby, or worse. Also, under the Tex Gov’t Code, the Ashby developer’s rights have vested. This ordinance will not apply to them as they have platted and have permits. This isn’t about Ashby. It is about an orderly development of this City versus chaotic development that throws the cost externalities of highrise development onto existing land owners, trashing neighborhoods that people have worked diligently to revitalize in the name of a quick buck for a developer and a high rise condo for someone who could have been just as happy living in an appropriate area.

  • I have several clients who live in the Huntingdon. They are all lovely people with an interesting common denomonator: they all sigh wistfully over the beautiful gardens and yards of the single-family homes they overlook; over the dogs running, the people sunning by their own pools, the children playing in the yards; yet say they don’t want the “trouble”. A bit confusing to me, considering how much they are worth and how many yard maintenance companies are around, but to each his/her own.

    Just wondering – does anyone remember that the Ashby developers had long marketed their design TO the Southhampton residents and others of their financial ilk? It was hardly Section 8 housing. The people moving into the finished project would be wealthy, just like the current residents. Does the choice of residence make one bank account more acceptable than another?

  • even though a majority of tax payers have reiterated on several occasions their desire to live in a zoning-free city, our current administration is playing the “regardless of your majority wishes, we know what’s best for you” card.
    well played, mayor parker.
    just two suggestions: 1) if one wants to live in a city with strict zoning laws, don’t move to houston. 2) if your neighborhood is concerned of a potential ashby development next door, get together and pass deed restrictions.

  • Heaven forbid a 6(!) story condo go up in the 4th largest city in America.

  • When one can’t get their neighborhood to inact deed restrictions, just have the mayor push for a ordinance to get your way regardless of what the majority wants. How can you think you are “protecting” your neighborhoods rights when you are telling them what to do? Why is this administration so afraid to put things to a vote? (and when they do, they just let some judge overturn it?)

  • OldSchool,
    Your example can/will still happen even if this rediculous ordinance passes, because it would be less than the 75ft height.

  • From houston-development:
    even though a majority of tax payers have reiterated on several occasions their desire to live in a zoning-free city, our current administration is playing the “regardless of your majority wishes, we know what’s best for you” card.

    well played, mayor parker.


    “Don’t blame me I didn’t vote for her…”

  • Old School acts as if she is one of the “little dogs” just hoping for a level playing field. In fact, she is one of the “big dogs” in this fight, just as she was in the historic district fight. How? Simple. The mayor is on her side in these issues. The little dogs are the 2/3 majority in these brand new historic districts who got steamrolled by Mayor Parker, much to the delight of “big dog” old school.

    Of course, there is only so much decimation of home values and so much limiting of dense development that a mayor can inflict on a city staring at a massive budget deficit. So, the mayor told Walmart to go build their goliaths, figuring 3 small parcels that will produce $750,000 in tax revenue each per annum is a small price to pay for all of her suburbanizing of the inner loop. In fact, Walmart is the perfect acoutrement to a suburban inner loop. Isn’t it?

  • I guess we’re at the point in the festivities where the newcomers misrepresent themselves as the originators and proceed to dictate the terms for everybody else. I can see the slippery slope from here…

  • I have to say Old school is a bit off base in his/her comments.

    1. “This does nothing for densification as residents are no closer to shops and work than residents of single family homes.” This is bull. More and more projects in Houston are going mixed use: if I don’t recall, the Ashby high-rise was orginally to be mixed-use bringing a high-end grocery within walking distance of a whole host of people. But then people like you nixed that amenity and were left with the possobility of just a tower. So sad. Even if a project is not mixed-use itself, the added residents will increase the market for retail in the area bringing more such opportunities to the remaining single-family homeowners over time.

    2. “…while eroding the value of the few remaining viable single family neighborhoods in Houston.” Towers, townhouses, and the like do not erode single-family value (unless you’ve deed restricted them out and sit next to them). Restrictions like you propose, on the other hand, do. This is one of the key fallacy’s in thought of single-family owners: we must maintain our neighborhood as only single-family to protect its value. Such a view fails to realize property value comes from two sources: structure value AND land value. SF property owners get caught up on the structure side of the equation while neglecting land values. Land values must be high to justify townhome construction and very high to justify tower construction. If such a project is viable in your neighborhood and you institute restrictions preventing it (through zoning or deed controls), you’re killing your land value and with it the overall value of your property. Yes the SF structure may lose some value as a building if a tower goes up next door, but that’s the sign that its time to densify your property as well. If you can, it’s value goes up. Any loss in structure value is greatly outweighed by the gain in land value.

    3. “…trashing neighborhoods that people have worked diligently to revitalize in the name of a quick buck for a developer and a high rise condo for someone who could have been just as happy living in an appropriate area.” Who are you to say where the “appropriate place” is for me to live and know how I could be just as happy living in a high rise in the middle of the Gulfton Ghetto vs. in the center of the Heights? Who are you to define what revitalization means and where it ends and then foist it upon everyone else? No doubt you and your neighbor’s restoration efforts did spawn revitalization efforts and if you have a historic structure it should be protected and we thank you for your efforts. But who is to say revitalization must stop at restoring existing buildings? Revitalization can mean changing the character of an area and that’s ok so long as those well restored historic remnants are kept. Judging by your screen name, you certainly sound like a historic architecture buff. I am too, perhaps more than you may guess. But it’s exactly that appreciation for the historical development of cities that led me to embrace the concept of change that so defines Houston. Almost all our great historical cities were allowed to evolve over time organically and without a plan. They evolved and changed and indeed there were periods of “chaos.” Had we enacted your policies, however, there would be, for example, no Manhattan and all its great historic structures as we know them…we would have protected a bunch of little Dutch SF homes. You need to allow change while protecting just those historic resources with enough integrity to be truly considered historic. It’s precisely the ORDERLY, PREDICTABLE, CONFORMIST idea of planning which you long for that is responsible for all the “unviable” and boring suburban neighborhoods you and I both seem to despise. Chaos is what makes a city worth living in: we should embrace it. Read Jane Jacobs.

  • “Instead, they want to usurp the value of single family neighborhoods by plopping down multi-story buildings right in the middle of residential neighborhoods. This does nothing for densification as residents are no closer to shops and work than residents of single family homes.”
    This is exactly correct. Density only works when it’s tried. IOW the big buildings need to be close together. Not spread apart by non-walkable distances throughout a sea of SFRs.
    One need only take a look at Austin. Much smaller population, yet much more density. It has a thriving dense inner core with actual people living downtown in high-density housing. It’s also got a large swath of SFRs very close to the core.
    The truly sad part is Houston has the real estate, without geographic limitation to have both high- and low- density areas. But I predict it will end up with neither.

  • Just a quick aside, Planning skeptic: the lower level of Ashby was planned to house a luxury spa and a high-end restaurant, not a grocery. I believe the proximity of an establishment serving liquor to the Hillel Student Center was the spanner in the works. As amusing as it is to imagine the residents of $1M+ condos riding down to dinner brown-bagging 25-year-old Glenlivit, I can’t see that happening.

  • This seems like a ridiculous argument. They can still build a seven story building anywhere, and buildings larger than that at major thouroghfares (which there are many in H-town) and in certain districts (downtown, midtown, galleria, greenway, med center). I don’t see any problems with this.

  • “Don’t blame me I didn’t vote for her…”
    technically speaking, mayor white set the precedent with ashby. i believe that in hindsight, he would have allowed ashby to move forward, rather than assuming southhampton’s deep pockets would pave his way to becoming our next governor. so if there’s anyone to “blame”, IMO, it’s him.
    “You need to allow change while protecting just those historic resources with enough integrity to be truly considered historic.”
    that’s a completely seperate issue. preserving our city’s history is one thing; it’s another to force zoning upon a city after a majority of taxpayers have reiterated, on several occasions, by voting to keep houston zoning free.

  • McDave said:

    “One need only take a look at Austin. Much smaller population, yet much more density. It has a thriving dense inner core with actual people living downtown in high-density housing. It’s also got a large swath of SFRs very close to the core.”

    According to the 2010 Census:

    Houston density – 3623 persons psm
    Austin density – 3126 persons psm

    The problem with guessing is that when you guess wrong, you look really dumb.

  • So I guess Houston is “densest”. That probably explains the lack of zoning.

  • I don’t think McDave’s point about Austin had to do as much with statistics as with the fact that Austin has been doing some denser mixed-use development in its city center lately — the same kind of thing that’s been happening in Dallas. Is it perfect? I’m sure it’s not. But it does lend parts of both cities a kind of urbanity that’s difficult to find in Houston.

  • Houston density – 3623 persons psm
    Austin density – 3126 persons psm

    The problem with guessing is that when you guess wrong, you look really dumb.
    That’s a nice statistic and all. But as far as I can tell it’s the entire city. Not just the urban core of each city. It doesn’t invalidate my point that Austin -despite quite restrictive land use has greater density in the inner core, yet still has neighborhoods sans multi-story mid rises.
    Don’t believe it? Fine. Go walk downtown of each on, say, a Sunday afternoon. Or any time after 8pm or so. Let us know which one appears thriving.

    Oh, and thanks for the compliments! They affix your credibility very effeciently.

  • C’mon, the only reason the Ashby highrise is proposed for its location is the developer’s desire to leech off the neighbors’ property value and beauty. It’s not about promoting inner-loop density. If it were, why not head 1.5 miles down Bissonnet over to Almeda? Lots of open land, a wider road, next to Hermann Park. Proximate to the museums, rail, med center, and downtown. Surely it couldn’t be because the Almeda neighborhood is a tad poorer and minority, instead of whiter and monied? And of course, if density is what we need and want in Houston, why is the highrise Mosaic on Almeda barely occupied and just emerging from foreclosure?

    In my inner loop neighborhood, we have plenty of townhome developments gone belly-up. One that’s still largely vacant has a few residents heard to say that they chose it because they loved the view of the old homes around them. Nice. Glad you chose your property based on the view of my old house, backyard and gardening.

  • Yeah! Come on!
    Great points @C’mon.

  • I like how neighborhoods are using “white, monied” status to justify exceptionalist behavior. Finally, truth in advertising!

  • @anon22: I don’t live in Southampton, do you? You’re acting like opposition to a highrise in a single-family neighborhood is elist. You do know that Third Ward residents (with politician Garnet Coleman) have also wanted to exclude unneighborly development. I imagine East End would have a few bitter words for a highrise builder, too. In short, no one wants a 20+ story building standing on top of their property line. That said, I’m impressed by your willingness to twist words of a mere blog entry to justify opportunistic behavior. Classy!

  • People looking to roll up the roads behind them would be better served in other cities.

    I’ve already seen one poster agitate in one post favorably towards these new restrictions and then turn around and wax nostalgic about what the old neighborhood (back east, of course) was like before everything became massively overpriced. Does it make sense to cause problems for yourself (and everyone around you) solely for the sake of having something to complain about?

    Take these neighborhoods back to grassy fields, and then you might have a leg to stand on…