The Houston Historic District Repeal Scramble Begins

Over the weekend, city officials posted the simple petitions that owners of properties in designated historic districts will need to sign if they want to un-designate their neighborhoods. Which means the 30-day clock for the one-time-only opportunity for districts to free themselves of the burdens of history (and the newly revised historic-district regulations) has already begun ticking. Really, though, the bar’s been set pretty low. What neighborhoods (besides the Old Sixth Ward and Main St./Market Square, which are both excluded from the process) won’t be able to rustle up the signatures of the owners of a measly 10 percent of tracts in their districts who want out? (That’s the threshold designated by the new law for triggering a re-vote.) The petitions describe the process as “reconsideration”; if that term doesn’t mean anything to you, you might find yourself halfway through the petition before you get a real sense of what it is you’re being asked to sign.

One stumbling block property owners in historic districts might come across in deciding whether to sign the petition: The text of the newly revised preservation ordinance doesn’t seem to be posted anywhere. The petition’s very brief second page includes a link to a city web page about the new ordinance “and proposed amendments,” but as of this morning, you won’t find the new rules — already approved by a vote of city council last week — there. We’ve sent messages to a few city officials asking when they’ll be posted; we’ll let you know when we hear back.

Update, 11 am: Public-affairs manager Suzy Hartgrove tells Swamplot the planning department hopes to have the revised ordinance (including the new “transition” ordinance) posted today, after a legal-department review.

Later Update, 10/20: As of 7:30 this morning, the new ordinances — and a summary (PDF) — have been posted.

58 Comment

  • seems unfair to start the clock ‘ticking’ without anyone being able to read the actual revised ordinance.

  • You clarified something for me. It takes 10% to bring it to a vote, not 10% to overthrow the status. That seems fair to me. It’s a one time opportunity for exising historic districts.

  • we are requesting to restart the clock when the docs. are up…and please strike the biased and ridiculous commentary “may cause the loss of protections I currently enjoy” off the petition.

  • The cure for the zoning pain has no logic: to dissolve historic districts, what? We have no problems with being in a historic district, we love historic structures, we purchased property here. We just want the zoning/restrictions removed. When property owners want to be protected they can apply for landmark designation vs. enforcing zoning laws by executive power on all the property owners. Ah caramba!

  • You love historic structures? Really Isabel? Are you the one that bought in the old sixth ward only to demolish the circa 1890 Valentine house or am I mistaken?

  • FMC Historic District, just came from Civic Club Meeting. We were told, that even if you get the 10%, provide paper work, and triger cards to be sent out, and behold you get 51% to repeal. All this means, is the same Mayor & City Council that created the new ordinance, would decide, whether to repeal. This is not about voting we were told, it never was. Just a desire to be in a Historic District, and that has all ready been done. This makes my head spin!

  • Mayor Parker has decided to make herself a one term mayor.

  • Hopefully you’re right.

  • Robert, you are correct.

  • Maria wrote: “When property owners want to be protected they can apply for landmark designation…”

    Property owners that love their historic homes and neighborhoods aren’t concerned with protecting their own home from themselves, they’re concerned with neighbors selling out and cramming their lot full of crappy townhouses. The question is what amount of lost property owner control, potential lost resale value, and red tape aggravation is it worth? That’s a pretty difficult decision for most of the property owners I’ve met and it’s something that we should at least be able to put to a vote.

  • Three years ago the City of Houston issued a petition drive in the Old Sixth Ward and found that over 70% of homeowners wanted the protections.

  • Issue flying under radar —
    The Planning Commission members are unpaid mayoral appointees with the power to make decision on land use that cannot be appealed.
    The Historic Comission members are unpaid mayoral appointees who make decisions about both land use and esthetics…
    What is the appeals process? Is there an appeals process in the new law?

  • “Property owners that love their historic homes and neighborhoods aren’t concerned with protecting their own home from themselves, they’re concerned with neighbors selling out and cramming their lot full of crappy townhouses.”

    There is already a mechanism for this: Minimum Lot Size and Minimum Building Line. MLS and MBL can be enacted by block by block, only requires 51% support, and doesn’t impose additional restrictions/bureacracy on homeowners.

    There’s very little that most HD supporters want that isn’t provided by MLS/MBL.

  • Angostura – Actually the laws are about lot size and front setback, which is why we still get homes 3 feet from the side lot line that tower over their neighbors.
    Plus, you can still build ON THE LOT LINE if you meet certain qualifications.
    Through this lack of regulation, Houston’s older neighborhoods have lost far more big trees to bulldozers than they did to Ike.

  • Finness, there is an appeals process. I believe if a property owner’s request for alteration/demolition is denied, he or she can appeal to the Planning Commission. I wouldn’t worry too much about the commissioners being unpaid mayoral appointees, though: This is Houston, which means mayoral appointees are likely going to be pretty sympathetic to builders and developers.

  • Thanks Jim for the info.
    I have to say I care which way it goes because I think it is too late to save MY ‘hood. I just worry about ANY comission made up of non-experts whose decisions are final and there is no right to appeal or vote them out. Just doesn’t seem very American, if you get my drift.

  • Maria, you don’t want protections for historic homes, but you want to live in a historic district. Um… why? What’s the district for?

    It’s kind of hysterical to hear people complaining about how evil and un-American this is, given how commonplace it is in, well, THE REST OF AMERICA. You could, you know, go look at what’s happened in other cities, look at the many studies of how historic districts affect property values, etc.

    Or you could just make shit up, I guess.

  • Making shit up is pretty much what you are doing if you take studies of the effects of applying these sorts of controls to blighted but historic neighborhoods and apply them to a neighborhood in which property values are already high. But hell, don’t let that stop you.

    Bungalows that are in fair condition in the Heights historic districts can be had for in the mid-300s. Of that at least 275k is lot value and that lot value is driven by the fact that developers know they can build an 600-800k home on that lot. Take that away and your land is not worth 275k. JMHO.

  • The preservation ordinance doesn’t take that ability away.

  • By the way – I’m not applying any one study, one example to Houston. Just noting that if this was so problematic and “un-American,” we’d certainly see some examples of those problems elsewhere. Or is Houston so utterly unique that things are completely different here?

  • John: What do you mean the ordinance doesn’t stop that from happening. That’s EXACTLY what it stops from happening: tearing down old, delapidated, nonfunctioning houses and building new, astetically pleasing and functional houses. Not that there are not bungalows that are worthing saving and investing in with a remodel and addition, but there are fewer of those than the former. As for the studies you are refering to I have read them. The two that Sue Lovell refers to were both from the 1980’s. One if about neighborhoods in Massachusetts that are 200 plus years old, and the other is from Dallas and concerns a neighborhood that is the equivilant of River Oaks. If the Mayor is so concerned about preserving history why isn’t she naming River Oaks a historic district? That area has real historic houses and those block faces deserved to be preserved more than the Heights, which was a getto until the late 90’s.

  • As a transplant from a city with rich historic neighborhoods, I see the lack of commitment to history as fairly disappointing. But then I understand that Houston touts its “open for business” quality, and maybe there are other values that I’m missing.

    SDC says that we’d get new, functional and aesthetically pleasing townhomes by tearing down what he calls “non-functional” houses. (But what others might call historic.) First, it’s my opinion that these crappy beige stucco boxes are far from aesthetically pleasing—they’re cheap eyesores shoehorned into small sites (3 per 5000 sf lot!) Second, this kind of building will last, at best, 20 years. An old bungalow, with some care, can last a hundred or more.

    By designating a district historic, you set up a situation in which people are encouraged to renovate and care for their neighborhood. You give a neighborhood character.

  • And by the way, SDC, you call the Heights a ghetto until the 1990s. Have you walked around Woodland Heights recently? It’s a great neighborhood mainly because of residents’ commitments to preserving its historic character in the last 20 years. That to me is evidence that stronger historic districts can improve the city.

    River Oaks, while nice, is an enclave of the wealthy–it’s worth thinking about whether other, more diverse neighborhoods in Houston are worth preserving.

  • Jeez
    the Heights has done well without city planing. Now some city wonks that want to control the majority get involved and Our hood explodes! neighbor against neighbor and one story houses vs two story homes. I blame the mayor’s bullying and a few of her cronies. Let’s figure a mutual result without Anise.
    Houston deserves a strong, smart and reasonable mayor.

  • If the Mayor is so concerned about preserving history why isn’t she naming River Oaks a historic district?

    Because she can’t, according to the preservation ordinance. River Oaks is facing the same problems a lot of other older neighborhoods are in terms of the loss of significant historic homes, but unless the folks in River Oaks decide to seek historic district designation, it’s not going to happen. As much as this “the mayor will do this to everyone else, but not River Oaks” argument has been repeated, well … it’s still a faulty argument.

  • I would argue that Woodland Heights is a perfect example of how this change is unnecessary. It shows very clearly that preservation is possible under the old system. As far as townhomes are concerned that is a word that you inserted into MW’s post. In the vast majority of cases what developers are building in the Heights at least is larger single family homes, one to a lot, not townhomes. Finally, with regard to longevity, the argument that all new construction is necessarily of low quality is a ridiculous generalization. There was cheap construction then and there is cheap construction now. There is also good construction now in the same way that there was then.

  • Woodland Heights is and was pricier in 1981- when I moved into the so called ghetto. (Define ghetto. Do you mean not all white an weaalthy?) WH has a very strong (voluntary) homeowners association and a desirable Vanguard magnet program at the elementary which attracted young families, thus far fewer properties were in poor condition = fewer affordable teardowns. West of Studemont has no homowners group, and the Heights Association is run by pro-builder types. Note that they did not come out in favor of preservation.
    I am curently shopping for a home in another city. Though I have no small kids, I am checking out the elementary schools and the presence or lack of a good homeowners group.

  • “Actually the laws are about lot size and front setback, which is why we still get homes 3 feet from the side lot line that tower over their neighbors.[…]
    Through this lack of regulation, Houston’s older neighborhoods have lost far more big trees to bulldozers than they did to Ike.”

    The historic district ordinance doesn’t change this. In fact, by requiring that additions be distinguishable from the original structure and, theoretically, removable from the original structure, it may actually encourage additional tree removal.
    A 2-story camelback on a bungalow is going to tower just as high as a 2-story new build. Additionally, since virtually all new construction is 2-story, it actually has a smaller footprint for the same square footage, meaning fewer trees may be lost.

  • I have no objection to what Houston is doing. Maybe a city like Houston doesn’t need quaint neighborhoods and walkability and a tourist economy, because the city is built on other values.

    But if that’s the case, if developers are privileged over other values (walkability, history, context) then we need to admit to ourselves what we’re setting up for the future. We can’t have illusions about how the city will look in 20 years.

    (And don’t kid yourself about how the Woodland Heights has “proven” that the old system works. It’s a tiny neighborhood, completely unique in Houston for being the exception. Most other big cities you have a much wider variety of historic neighborhoods than Houston, as the result of zoning and historic districts.)

  • To Finness:

    What does having a “desirable Vanguard magnet program” in the neighborhood have to do with attracting young families?

    Unless the rules have changed in HISD, being zoned to a Vanguard or magnet school does not guarantee that your child will be accepted to the program.

    Your child may ‘go’ to that school but not necessarily be IN the program. I understand that there are some schools in HISD that are strictly for gifted/talented kids meaning that they accept NO zoned children. There again, unless a child passes the entry qualifications, he won’t be admitted to the school which is right around the corner. Not all kids are born Einsteins regardless of what we as parents think.

    If these young families move into an area without doing their own homework regarding schools, they may be in for a disappointment.

    …..unless the rules have changed in HISD.

  • As a Height home owner who is currently renovating a bungalow I a must still admit that I am confused as to why all of you folks want to keep these little ran down houses as if they are some how historicly significant? They are cheaply built homes that have seen years of neglect and are only worth tearing down. The new big McMansion are a stabalizing force in the area. My street used to have crack houses on it – now an $800k+ house sits on that lot – I think we can safelty assume that that McMansion is not going to revert back to a crack house?

  • @MW

    And if you think that Woodland Heights is the only exception in Houston, I invite you to the east end where we have some delightful small neighborhoods that have totally retained their original integrity. Without “historic designation” and any help from the city.

  • Just wait until the market picks up and those East Side spots become more attractive to people. Ka-pow! Goodbye history.

    One of my old neighborhoods (in Boston) was saved by blight; it was undesirable enough that when other areas starting getting gentrified, it was ignored. By the time it started there, the market tanked. Had that not happened, we would have lost what today is one of the largest and best-preserved & maintained sets of Victorian homes in the United States.

    Something like that cannot be replaced. I love the 1930s/1940s neighborhoods of Houston because they were built to human scale, the houses aren’t auto-centric, and the streetscapes and houses themselves have a harmony of proportion and relation to one another that simply is destroyed by extreme change. I would NOT want the whole city to look like that. I do think that some small intact pieces of it are worth preserving. They are also a living page out of the history of the city’s development.

    Everyone keeps referring to those little, ramshackle bungalows. I’ve been in plenty of them and many of them are modest, lovingly maintained bungalows.

    Besides, when energy prices skyrocket and you can’t afford to cool a McMansion, you’re going to need somewhere sensible to live.

  • Matt: You’ve essentially summed up Houston’s approach to its urban fabric. Profit and value matter, not history or quality of urban experience. I have no problem with that.

    Yet you say, who cares about a bunch of crappy bungalows. But if you go to a town like Portland, OR, or Denver, CO you’ll see neighborhood after neighborhood of bungalows that are really nice. Cities that care about these things make them very nice, livable, and pleasant.

    Again, it’s fine to take a laissez-faire approach to old houses and properties. My only point is that Houston can’t have illusions about what it’s creating.

    And, to pyewacket2: if those east end neighborhoods suddenly became more desirable, I guarantee that the big developers would start buying up lots, tearing down houses, and building beige townhomes faster than you can say ‘gentrification.’

  • “I have no objection to what Houston is doing. Maybe a city like Houston doesn’t need quaint neighborhoods and walkability and a tourist economy, because the city is built on other values.”

    Walkability requires densification, which is exactly what the preservationists DON’T want, and the ordinance will, in effect, calcify the current density (and, as a result walkability) of protected districts.
    Think about the TRULY walkable neighborhoods you’ve been in, neighborhoods where you can access most of the goods and services you consume as conveniently without a car as you can with one, and tell me how many of those neighborhoods are predominantly single family houses on 6000 s.f. lots. I can’t think of a single one. Pretty much all of the walkable neighborhoods I’ve been in, whether in the US, Europe, S. America or Asia, consist mostly of 4+ story multifamily. Try getting a Certificate of Appropriateness for one of THOSE on the site of a former bungalow.

  • Downtown should be walkable but it kind of poor – you can do it but it’s unpleasant. Midtown should be walkable, but it’s very poor. The Heights was built as transit-oriented development and there is quite a bit of pedestrian activity. Rice Village is walkable.

    I don’t think anyone envisions Manhattan on the Bayou but it is a significant quality of life improvement when one household requires fewer cars & can make fewer trips and shorter trips because there are walkable destinations around.

  • Though the walkability question does bring up by one beef with Heights preservation types: I would make no attempt to save any old house on Yale, for example, because it would be better for the neighborhood if it was lined with businesses and midrise residential real estate.

  • “Besides, when energy prices skyrocket and you can’t afford to cool a McMansion, you’re going to need somewhere sensible to live.”

    Let’s see: In my 2200 s.f. house, our peak electricity bill over the summer was south of $200. Let’s assume a 4500 s.f. McMansion costs double that to cool. Or $400. And let’s say that energy prices double (unlikely with all the recent decreases in recovery costs of shale gas). That mean’s the peak electricity bill would go to $800, $400 over what I’d be paying in my more modestly sized home. Over the course of a year (since AC use slacks off in the winter), call it $2400.
    Transaction costs of selling a house are a minimum of 6% (realtor commission). That’s $48,000 on an $800,000 house. I’m not counting moving/packing costs, vacation time consumed during the moving process, etc. Using a 5% discount rate, the payback period on that $48,000 investment based on a $2400 annual savings is 53 years.

  • You’ve heard the phrase, “Tongue in cheek?”

  • I couldn’t agree more John. We should save old neigborhoods and homes … unless of course they are located somewhere that makes them inconvenient for me. In which case bulldoze them pronto.

  • So….A large portion of the Heights was ghetto (not a definition based on race as some of you guys try to imply -but based on houses falling apart, lawns not mowed, homeless living under houses, etc.) prior to the McMansion development/ conversions of the last 10 years….. What is it that you guys are trying to save? The Heights is desirable because of the quirky character of the homes not because my columns are tapered correctly……

  • I agree with Angostura:
    “Walkability requires densification, which is exactly what the preservationists DON’T want, and the ordinance will, in effect, calcify the current density (and, as a result walkability) of protected districts.”
    And I agree with John (Another One).

    Both of their comments lead to the conclusion that zoning would be good. Zoning establishes some walkable districts, and other dense districts. Right now, Houston has this even spread of minimal density.

    Houston should densify, but the current lack of zoning regulation enables sprawl. Zoning would also allow for historic neighborhoods to be preserved, but other areas that are maybe more run down (Yale, for instance) to densify, modernize and so on.

  • MW, it is so funny to me that every time someone mentions new construction you people always say “stucco mcmansions” that cover the whole lot and 3 townhouses on a 5,000 sq.ft. lot. I’ve been int he Heights for 17 years and I can count the “stucco mcmansions” on one hand. 90% of new construction in the Heights is 3,000 to 4,000 sq.ft and at least gives a nod to some turn of the century style. A 4,000 sq.ft house is ALWAYS 2 stories and would and would have an average footprint of about 2,400 sq.ft including porches. With a 500 sq.ft. garage that is a total of 3,000 sq.ft of coverage on a 6,600 sq.ft. lot, which, according to my calculations, is 45% of the lot. Where do I get my numbers? I’ve built about 50 of them and designed close to 200. All of my houses sell at the top of the market so I know EXACTLY what my competetors are building. The days of dividing a lot and building multiple units is over, at least for now. Prevailing Lot size and Building Line rules cover about 60% of the Heights and the market just doesn’t want them, so nobody is even thinking of doing it. The exception on 15th and Rutland has been in the planning since 2003 and is going to fail badly. Get off of the stupid nonsensical “stucco mcmansion, 3 to a lot” argument and use something relivent to today, not 10 years ago.

  • Pye – Unless the rules have changed since my kids were young- and they may well have- many more kids qualify for Vanguard than there are spaces, so the kids who qualify and who are zoned to that school get in. Vanguard is a program within a school- not the whole school, so kids ARE zoned to the school, thus if you have a qulified kid and do not want to drive across town…

  • SCD:

    Are you an architect or builder? Or both? I’m thinking about doing some townhouse development in the Heights and what you write here is very interesting. I’d like to talk to you more about it if you don’t mind. Feel free to email me at jack at inflectiondev dot com or call me at 832-380-4289.

  • finness-

    The key word is as you said, qualified.

    Living in a given neighborhood does not guarantee that your child will be admitted to the gifted program. Agreed, they will GO to the zoned school, just not be IN the magnet portion unless they otherwise qualify. And grades alone won’t do it. There are also race percentages too, or at least there were when mine were in HISD. It was 1/3-1/3-1/3 in African American, Hispanic and “other” (which meant everyone else).

    Maybe the rules have changed, I don’t know.

  • Pye – Of course there are no guarentees, but I also know that HISD employees get preference and, as the principal of River Oaks elementary admitted to me, about 15 percent of the admissions are ‘political.’
    Still, many kids don’t get in a magnet. This is why so many of my neighbors have headed to the ‘burbs once the reality of HISD hits them.
    But to my original point – school matters. Travis has long been considered a better school than any Heights elementary west of Studemont.

  • SCD – AMEN BROTHER! I am a market data / mapping junkie and wouldn’t mind mapping some new construction data for you as it seems we are like minded. Please contact me and I would be happy to do so for your private (or public) use. With your permission, we could post them here to help these
    anti-development bloggers get the picture.

    New construction is driven by the market and what the public wants, the public gets… So anyone thinking they are speaking on behalf of the majority should reconsider.

    Luckily, those developers with poor taste are forced out of the industry by their inability to sell product. Undoubtedly, there will always be an occasional bad development in any neighborhood but all developers shouldn’t suffer for the occasional fews poor taste.

  • “New construction is driven by the market and what the public wants, the public gets…”

    So the many regulations about how things need to be built don’t shape the choices of what is offered to & marketed to the public?

    And all that marketing that homebuilders do actually has no impact on making people want their houses? Do they realize how much money they are wasting on all that?


  • To John (yet another anti..) Are you the one that defaced my signs on Studemont?? I feel lie you are bing critical just for the ske of being critical. Of course deed restrictions shape development plans. I still think my point is valid in demand, primarily, driving decisions. And if you want to take it so literally, then right back at ya – are you saying people shouldn’t get what they want or do you always have to have your say in it? Do you walk around a bitter person? I am just playing around and perhaps I am being too defensive. I just sensed some sort of snappiness in your retort.

    And I am curious what the builders out there say but yes, they might just be wasting their money on all that advertising. Most don’t do it at all or learn their lesson very quickly. The big few might do it for brand awareness and to raise consumer confidence in their product and stability, yet still ungodly expensicve. Urban Living will do it, ALOT, but also for brand awareness (or to satisfy some sort of God complex). Primarily, however, it is so that they can convince builders to give them listings which is primarily what they are after.

    Don’t kid yourself, that advertisements sell houses.

    Solid construction and intelligent design is what will sell a house. And yes, there are other factors that come into play – so please don’t dissect that statement, I am just shooting from the hip over here, referring to fundamentals from my point of view.

  • JE – If you watch the home buying shows on TV and talk to realtors, what sells homes is granite countertops. stainless steel appliances and crown molding.

    Been in the Heights since long before it was trendy. Much of the new housing is very poorly built. People like it anyway. Sad.

  • JE, I’ll ignore the ad hominem attacks.

    I am simply pointing out that saying, “oh, it’s just the free market working” is dumb. There is no such thing as a “free market” outside of an economics text any more than the frictionless planes in which tiny, perfectly shaped objects bounce off each other in introductory physics texts exists anywhere in the actual universe which we inhabit.

    What I think is funny is that there are clearly a number of people in the world (& Houston) who would like see dense, pedestrian oriented neighborhoods and would spend their money on housing there, would patronize businesses there, etc. But there aren’t many in this city. Some might call that an “unmet market need.”

    To look at the current setup, with all the external forces warping the theoretical free market that always exist, and simply say, “Well it’s the market!” and to treat any change in the particular set of forces that warp the market as meddling – as if some of that “meddling” didn’t create the current state of affairs – is just very silly.

  • Love you man!! Thank you for ignoring my attacks because they were tongue-in-cheek, and perhaps unnecessary. I understand your point and feel like we have digressed. Originally, I was just trying to defend urban development or more specifically urban developERS.

    If we are talking about the historic district mumbo-jumbo, my stance is it seems to be over-kill red tape. People can organize and enact deed restrictions if they really care about them. I just feel it is a rash, blanket regulation that is hurting ALOT of people for very little reason.

    I am all for historic preservation, especially in this concrete jungle we all live’n’love, but this new system is c-c-c-crazy.

  • I guess it’s perspective. Having lived in a historic district in a city where that really meant something, this just seems like such a light-touch approach to it that it is really difficult to take the Chicken Little predictions seriously.

  • 1. Enacting new deed restrictions is a very cumbersome and difficult process. That was intentional.
    2. But there are free markets. It’s just that what they sell is illegal.


  • Jimbo, please drive down Morrison, specifically “Lo-Mo” as it is known to the residents, and tell me how that voluntary stuff is working.

  • If you have been following this you know that CC explicitly called the process ‘flawed’; I have copies of the level of support cards from the original distribution. Annise Parker said that the CC opinion or vote would not have an impact on what the City had plan. Politicos like Judge Steve Kirkland, Annise Parker and others are investing in the area because they know what the future will bring…one of the groups “Silver Street Properties” owns over 20 properties in the area…I saw a hooker leave one of the bungalows this morning…they are sitting on these properties and using them as low income housing etc…because they know after the revitalizing of the bayou, the building of Wal-Mart center, and Kroger o Studemont they will be sitting on a goldmine. The restrictions are chasing folks out of the district and the shysters are gobbling properties up using the ‘historical preservation’ issue.