COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHY THINGS LITERALLY LOOK BRIGHTER ON HOUSTON’S HORIZONS “Actually, Houston has substantially improved both air and water quality in the past few decades. I remember the haze days back in the early 90’s when you could not see more than a few miles through the smog when driving down the Katy Freeway, nor could you see the tops of the taller buildings. Also, nearly all of the illegal water pollution sources have been permitted and/or rerouted into treatment systems. The ones that haven’t are eventually caught and have to pay hefty fines, or the responsible people go to jail. It is true that much of the improvement was driven by federal and state regulation that trickled down to Houston, but that is true for most major cities.” [Superdave, commenting on Comment of the Day: Making Sure the House Wins Houston’s Toxicity Gamble] Illustration: Lulu
Were you kinda liking that new billboard installed on the second story of the building at 312 Main St. — the one that posed serious, possibly life-changing questions to passengers exiting the Preston St. light-rail station? Well, you’ve got less than 10 days to enjoy it, depending on long fast used-car-dealer Texas Direct Auto wants to take to comply with a city citation posted to the building yesterday — unless it can get those pesky inspectors to back off.
A notation on the red tag declares that the facade-smothering sign is in violation of the city’s sign code — namely that it was not erected in connection with a “business purpose”: “A business purpose shall not include any property, building, or structure erected or used for the primary purpose of securing a permit to erect a sign,” the note reads. (That echoes a portion of the definition in section 4602, in case you’re following along at home with regulations in hand.) Here’s a snapshot of the documents stuck to the building’s ground floor, as submitted to the Twitterverse by Houston Chronicle writer Evan Mintz, whose employer last week declared in an editorial that the sign should be illegal:
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A Red Tag Downtown
COMMENT OF THE DAY: WHY THE ROADS DON’T GO THROUGH “. . . Easy — Look at the intersection of Gessner & West Rd. Gessner is blocked to the north by a subdivision, West Rd. is blocked to the east by a landfill (or sand mine or whatever that site is; hard to tell from the aerial). Both roads could connect through, but development blocked ’em.
Having been involved in a couple of these scenarios, I’ll tell you how they typically happen: Developer meets with the city after submitting a plat. City says something like ‘connect the roads or we’re not going to approve your plat and you’ll never get to build it.’ Developer says something like ‘that will result in reduced usability of my site and increased cost to develop it, so if the City wants the road to connect then the City needs to pay $X million.’ City counters with ‘we’re not going to pay for anything, but if you don’t build the road we’re going use eminent domain to take the land and build the road anyway.’ Developer finishes them off with “Well then you can either a) give me $X million and I’ll build the road, b) or I’ll donate enough $ to the council member and mayor races to get what I want.’ The city settles for c) Do nothing, back down, and don’t get the road — because otherwise the staff member who stood up to the developer in the first place would get canned.
I’m not saying that’s how they all happen, but that’s how the couple I’ve been involved in went.” [Ornlu, commenting on Comment of the Day: The Missing Links] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY RUNNER-UP: ZONING WOULDN’T HAVE KEPT THE SPRAWL AWAY “It’s always frustrating when I hear Houston’s sprawl and prevalence of strip malls blamed on our lack of zoning. You can blame these on the setbacks and parking minimums that came along with Chapter 42, which made it illegal to build walkable neighborhoods.” [Angostura, commenting on Comment of the Day: The Kind of Zoning Houston Does Have] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE KIND OF ZONING HOUSTON DOES HAVE “. . . I always chuckle a bit when someone thinks that the free market governs Houston because the City doesn’t have zoning.
Aside from land-use restrictions, every regulation that is usually found in a zoning ordinance is in force in Houston. Tree and landscape requirements. Setbacks. Sign ordinance. Curb cut requirements. Buffering. Parking requirements. Traffic study requirements. Plan reviews for subdivisions. Regulations for building in flood plains and finish floor elevations. The list goes on. And like every other city, Houston enforces building, electrical, fire, residential, and plumbing codes (with amendments). So contrary to what a lot of a lot of people think, Houston is not a developer’s free for all. (Not that it wasn’t in the 1970s, but I digress)
If anything, it’s harder to build in Houston because the regulations are so damned hard to find sometimes. In most places, it’s all neatly packaged in a Zoning Ordinance. In Houston, it’s all over the Code of Ordinances, and you have to know where to look. As HouCynic noted, Houston enforces neighborhood deed restrictions, but the County Clerk actually records those Restrictions, so it’s not a one-stop-shop. . . .” [ZAW, commenting on Medistar’s Planned Webster Sprawl Plaza; The Most Congested Roads in Texas; Free Metro Rides] Illustration: Lulu
COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE REAL DIFFERENCE NOT HAVING ZONING MAKES “For a city without zoning, development in Houston isn’t much different that it would be if we DID have zoning. Most retail development happens on major commercial thoroughfares, and most industrial sites are either along railway lines or otherwise clustered together. And development still has to comply with our (idiotic) setback requirements and parking minimums.
The main difference Houston has over other cities with stricter land use regulation, is the ability to increase residential density in a fairly timely manner. This has helped keep housing costs from rising higher than they otherwise would have. The kinds of land use regulation in cities like New York, Washington and San Francisco generally benefit wealthy landowners at the expense of younger, poorer new-comers. Even current middle-class homeowners don’t really benefit: you can’t bank the appreciation until you sell, at which point you still have to live somewhere, and in the meantime, your property tax bill is higher.” [Angostura, commenting on Medistar’s Planned Webster Sprawl Plaza; The Most Congested Roads in Texas; Free Metro Rides] Illustration: Lulu
MENIL COLLECTION WINS SPECIAL APPROVAL FROM CITY OF HOUSTON TO PAVE LESS With the approval granted by city council today, the 30-acre campus surrounding the Menil Collection now qualifies as Houston’s first-ever special parking area. The new status will allow the Menil to provide just 1.8 spaces per 1,000 sq. ft. of gallery, bookstore, and classroom space within the district, rather than the 3 per 1,000 sq. ft. normally required under city ordinances. The rules would apply on the blocks bounded by W. Alabama, Mandell, Richmond, and Yupon and Graustark. A plan delineating these boundaries included in a parking study conducted for the Menil (above) shows — among other additions provided for in the institution’s new master plan — a new park on the middle portion of the site of the Richmont Square Apartments, immediately south of the Menil Drawing Institute, now under construction along an eastward extension of W. Main St. [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot] Plan: Lockwood, Andrews, and Newnam (PDF)
COMMENT OF THE DAY: THE ART OF OBTAINING CITY PERMITS “When Havel Ruck Projects was commissioned to create ‘Fifth Ward Jam,’ it was under the premise that it was temporary (although 5th Ward CRC decided to keep and maintain it). We needed to obtain a permit to move the shack we used for the piece to the empty lot where it stands today. With the help of Fifth Ward CRC, we met with city permit people and discussed that we were not creating a dwelling, but a work of art. They said we needed a building permit to move the house. We said it was our desire that we did not need a building permit after moving the house because it was going to be made into a work of art. So, saying they never have done this before, they wrote us up a creative permit that deemed the house a dwelling while it was being picked up and moved, but it would be officially deemed an ‘art structure’ after it was on the site, thus allowing us not to need building permits to construct the piece. With a little education and persuasion, the permit people can be pretty accommodating . . . seems back in the day, us artists did stuff and then apologized later.” [Dan Havel, commenting on Saving Houston’s Unzoned Artistic Spirit] Illustration: Lulu
SAVING HOUSTON’S UNZONED ARTISTIC SPIRIT Glasstire’s Bill Davenport has a suggestion: “Its famous lack of zoning is one of the few things Houston offers artists that other cities can’t. It’s been a defining feature of the city, and one of its main attractions for artists for decades. But this isn’t happening anymore. Prosperity has put teeth into Houston code enforcement, whose numerous inspectors now patrol the streets, ready to red-tag any unconventional building activity.
It’s vital that we preserve a loophole for artistic expression on an architectural scale. What once was an opportunity created naturally by low property prices and underfunded city government must now be maintained purposefully if Houston’s unique character as a city of artistic entrepreneurship is to continue. As part of the new cultural plan, Houston city council should create an ordinance making an exception to the building codes for artistic projects.
Of course, there will need to be safeguards against abuse. No one wants to see sleazy builders putting up unsafe, substandard structures. I propose that the city create an alternative path to compliance for creative projects in art and architecture, in which building officials will approve structures on a case-by-case basis, by assessing them on their merits, rather than on whether they conform to the rigid conventions of the International Building Code.
Imagine the effect! If you are an artist or architect in San Antonio or Sri Lanka with a great, crazy idea, and you heard that, in Houston, projects like yours were welcomed as part of the city’s freewheeling culture, where would you go?” [Glasstire] Photo of Inversion by Havel Ruck Projects: The Decay of Lying
NO BIG HURRY FOR APACHE’S BLVD PLACE TOWER Permits for Apache Corporation’s planned 34-story tower on Post Oak Blvd. next to the new Whole Foods Market have “just been granted approval” from the city, writes Roxanna Asgarian. The reporter also notes that the permits for the project were filed way back in December 2013. But any regulatory delays appear to be no big deal for the independent oil and gas company. Apache “has no immediate plans for the site,” she reports. [Houston Business Journal; previously on Swamplot] Rendering: Hines
How did these townhomes under construction on the northeast corner of Bayou and Baron streets in the Fifth Ward come by their extra-long, tongue-like driveways? It’s not exactly clear, but the reader who sent these pix of the project and its rather prominent culvert-leaping flatwork thinks the answer might have something to do with a willingness to build well past the property line — or at least a lack of familiarity with where the property line actually is. The orange complex across the street, in the background of the photo above, is the Kennedy Place Apartments. Here’s a view of the townhomes from that side, looking east:
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Just Add Street
NO PARKING VARIANCE FOR HEIGHTS MERCANTILE RETAIL REDO ON 7TH AND YALE Despite a recommendation from the planning department staff to allow the development to proceed with significantly fewer parking places than required by ordinance, the planning commission yesterday denied a parking variance for the proposed Heights Mercantile mixed-use building complex along 7th St. between Yale St. and Heights Blvd., the longtime site of a warehouse complex for the Pappas Restaurant group. The Finial Group, the project’s developers, had hoped to be allowed to count 58 existing head-in public parking spaces along 7th St., many of them fronting the MKT Hike and Bike Trail, toward the development’s off-street parking requirements. [Previously on Swamplot] Rendering of proposed new building along Yale St.: Michael Hsu Office of Architecture
“Does a building have diplomatic immunity to local ordinances if [its site] is deemed international soil?” asks Architect’s Newspaper reporter Jay Thomas, reporting on the variance request made on behalf of a new General Consulate of Saudi Arabia complex in Westchase — which Houston’s planning commission denied in December. The applicants for the variance appear to say yes, it does: “The Consulate should be considered foreign soil and should be allowed to develop the property as they have planned as long as it doesn’t harm the public in any way,” reads the application.
But the design team went ahead and applied for the variance anyway. Why?
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Heights pizza-and-veggie spot Coltivare now sports a bright red tag (shown at right) next to its front door — after a city inspector found fault with its newly protected-from-weather patio space facing the side garden (the white tent-like structures in the photo above) last week. What’s wrong with covering a patio with a temporary structure for the winter?
Nothing, but it does trigger some permitting issues. “An uncovered patio isn’t considered an occupied space,” a Swamplot reader familiar with Houston building regulations writes. But: “A lot of folks don’t realize covered patios count as building square footage and must be permitted.”
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COMMENT OF THE DAY: HOW REAL ESTATE TRAILBLAZERS REALLY CAN BURN UP THE TRAIL “There are very real consequences for having a NIMBY-smashing attitude for developers. Yes, the developers usually get their way, but they often end up ruining it for the next guy. Ashby developers will get to build, but the next guy might not because of the high-rise buffering ordinance that passed in the wake of the Ashby uproar. 380 agreements flowed like a river to Walmart and Kroger, but community uproar has meant that only Costco has since been able to get a similar deal despite some healthy opposition in city council. And there has only been one 380 agreement in 2014 outside of the downtown urban living initiative (which does require first floor space to be retail ready). There are a whole host of development regulations that have their root in NIMBY activism: drainage detention, tree ordinance, and parking minimums, to name a few.” [Old School, commenting on Comment of the Day: Don’t Let the Locals Get in the Way of Your Project] Illustration: Lulu