Freeway-Hovering Audi Dealership Headed for the Greenbriar Curve

A North Carolina company that already operates 18 car dealers in the Houston area plans to build the largest “flagship” Audi dealership in the U.S. on the north side of Hwy. 59 just east of Greenbriar. The dealership would consist of a 7-story building fronting the Southwest Freeway and containing offices, parts and service departments, a parking garage, and a ground-floor showroom. A more dramatic showroom, though, will be on the top floors, where drivers stuck in freeway traffic can ogle recent Audi models parked on display. A fenced-in parking lot for 87 cars would sit behind the building on the north side of Lexington St.


One problem: The building’s architects got tripped up by a provision of Houston’s development regulations that requires buildings be set back 25 ft. from the property line when they’re along major thoroughfares (in this case, Greenbriar). The plat Sonic Automotive inherited when it bought the property from developer Frank Liu last summer showed only a 10 ft. setback on that side. So, the company explains in its variance application, it’s hoping the city planning commission will allow an exception at its meeting this Thursday that’ll free it from redoing the plans and clipping off the building’s northwest corner, which is already 31 ft. back from the Greenbriar curb where it curves.

The application argues that city regulations would have allowed a 5-ft. setback for the building if it had qualified as a “retail commercial center” under the city’s particular definition of the term; also, if the University Line ever gets built — along with the proposed station at Richmond and Shepherdtransit corridor rules will eliminate setback requirements along Greenbriar entirely.

Drawings: Sonic Automotive. Photo: Swamplot inbox

44 Comment

  • I have always wondered what is the point of having land use or building requirements, if a developer can always seem to request a variance. Especially in a major city with no zoning. Perhaps someone can enlighten me as to how this helps the public, rather than the developers.

  • Well, I guess that patch of grass was too valuable to stay empty. I don’t know how well a massive Audi dealership fits into that area though..

  • Awww….. I was hoping for an In ‘N Out Burger there.

  • Taking a page from BMW Midtown with the cars on display.

    This is very close to Momentum Audi, who is by far the worst dealership in the city.

    Good move.

  • Sonic Automotive is the parent company for all of the Momentum dealerships around town, including the ones nearby on Richmond.

    This is a great use for this site.

  • So what will be going in the Audi dealer on Richmond around the corner? Expand the VW dealership – or – maybe overflow parking for whatever is going in the old Yelapa?!?!

  • I’m guessing the existing Audi dealership on Richmond near Greenbriar is very excited about this, or this is a move for them rather than crushing competition.

  • Craig,
    Sonic Automotive owns Momentum Audi as well as the property this new dealership will go on. So I’m guessing it’s either a replacement store, or an expansion of the existing store which might remain for their service/parts departments.

  • Sonic owns Momentum, so I assume they are just moving the dealership from Richmond to Greenbriar.

  • Wait, so this is going to be an Audi dealership in addition to Momentum one Richmond?

    I would think this would just be a relocation. I wouldn’t Audi USA would allow two dealerships that close. It has to be a relocation.

    It seems they are using same concept as the Momentum VW dealerhip on Richmond and making an urban car dealership.

  • @ Craig – This is for Momentum Audi. They’re relocating from their nearby space-limited site on Richmond. Fits in fine with the surrounding area.

  • It’s the same company as the Richmond Ave location. There will not be two Audi dealers operating within blocks of each other.

  • Regardless of whether it’s 30 feet or 10 feet from Greenbriar, we know it’s going to have the same crappy service as the Richmomd location.

    I trek all the way out the West Houston VW when I need service since everyone that works at Momentum is an a-hole.

  • Thanks for clearing that up guys. That was the logical assumption, but you know what they say when you assume.

    I wonder if the Momentum VW location will expand?

    Also, I guess all cool charity parties that they host at the Richmond Audi location for various events will move to the new location too.

  • I’ll pile on, Momentum is HORRIBLE

  • At the speeds that people drive at on the Greenbriar curve it might be a dangerous intersection at the feeder if someone runs the light; given that the variance will clip the view for cars in the far right lane of the feeder.

  • What a complete waste of a great space. It could have been a car wash or a gas station/car wash combo.

  • I’ll pile on too. Momentum Audi was AWEFUL!!! I loved the audi engine, but hated the car wrapped around it. It was a money pit and Momentum made it worse. 2nd best decision I ever made was getting rid of that Audi.

  • All Audi’s have been long known for the great engine but rest of the car will drain your wallet. Even normal maintenance is ridiculous. This is why every time I think about getting an Audi, I see the maintenance costs and run.

  • I find it amusing that the Richmond rail will be a few short blocks away.

  • Oops, nevermind..

  • I love my Honda!

  • I’ll pile onto Momentum as well. Don’t know about Audi, but their BMW store’s service department cannot be described in polite company.

  • I’ve owned an audi for 8 years and have never had a problem with Momentum. Plus, I love that I can walk home when I drop my car off for servicing.

  • Jumping onto the pile. Mahan VW had dependable, honest service until Momentum took it over. After that, there were too many problems. Now my German auto goes to European Cars Limited on Feagan where I am a happy customer.

  • Interesting. Assuming the top picture is the front elevation, the rightward-sloping angled windows are a nod to the Audi Sport logo. And, yes, dealer maintenance is crazy expensive. But there are a lot of good independent German car specialists out there: my favorite is BARtuning.

  • @marmer

    My favorite independent shop is MPH Automotive off Park 10, but Momentum’s problems go beyond expense. The service is bad. They are rude and unacommodating.

  • @S. Regal: Coulda shoulda woulda. It’s not like there’s a lack of stations and car washes on that stretch of 59.

  • So this continues the commandment that no new car dealer in Houston shalt be built except on a freeway. What’s left on regular streets? I can only think of Momentum VW, Tommy Vaughn Ford, and Star Motor Cars. I’m not counting mom and pop used car lots here obviously…

  • Don’t forget the Cadillac dealership in Midtown.

  • I keep hearing about how awful Momentum is, but I have always had good experiences.

  • The real issue here is not whether or not momentum is a good dealership. It’s planning. Or, lack thereof. This is a major intersection. No variance of the setback should be granted. It’s already an accident-prone area. And, secondly, it’s next to a planned rail station. The largest car dealership next to a rail station? How in the world does this make any sense?

  • I hope people realize it is not right by the rail station. It’s a couple of blocks away. Midtown has a car dealership within stones throw of the current Red Line.

    And I thought everybody was for buildings being close to the curb and making things more urban?

  • It’s not a couple of blocks away. It’s in the triangle. Large- walkable space that could be very urban- yes. Not for a bunch of cars. But, for people, commerce, residents, businesses. A car dealership is not the best use for this space. It could be so much better. IMO

  • Gee, thought for sure that at least one of the developer types who frequent this site would respond to my original question, above? But, alas, an answer is not forthcoming. Is that because there is not a good answer available? Is the only discussion of this issue one about whether Momentum is a good dealership of not? Geez, what a waste of space.

  • Bubba,
    You raise an interesting point. The city (being unzoned) doesn’t determine what can be built in most cases. But, where is another story. Why are there rules when the developer can just come along and request a variance? And apparently it’s just assumed in both this article and the chronicle piece that the variance will be granted. What’s the point?

  • I thought for sure that a lively discussion would ensue on the variance topic. I just goes to show you that “planning” in Houston is a joke and folks are much more interested in their BMW experience.

  • Ok, you want variance talk?

    The variance process allows the developer and surrounding property owners to have a say in the development process (unlike cities with zoning).

    When a variance is sought, notification is posted on the property to alert the neighboring property owners. If anybody has objections (or support) of the variance, they can present their side at the planning commission meeting. Despite what people think, variances aren’t rubber stamped. Many of times the neighboring property owners will ask for concessions from the developer in the variance. The planning commission has to power to force developers to provide these concessions.

    The other big plus in the Houston planning commission model is that disclosing of conflict of interest is a major priority. When the agenda is issued, the planning commission members must present all the conflicts of interest that they have regarding all the items on the agenda. These members cannot vote on any decision regarding that property. If you have attended a planning commission meeting or watched one on the muni channel, you’ll see occasionally members of the board leave for discussion and voting on at various times. The board is also fairly diverse with people of various backgrounds and they often don’t agree and vote unanimously.

    Zoning boards often are not bound by conflict of interest. Often, larger projects lobby and influence the zoning board prior to decisions being made. Vocal property owners can voice their opinions, but the zoning board doesn’t have to consider any concessions. The Achilles heel of the zone board is that they aren’t in the position to work things out between developers and nearby property owners.

    In Houston, the idea that a developer can ask for a variance and get it after nearby property owners have a say and potentially offer up compromises is very unique. As I’ve said many of times on other posts, Houston’s development model provides a more organic and natural development pattern versus the cold and stale products of development by zoning fiat where the developers can pay off zoning board members (legally too).

  • bubba,
    Okay, I’ll bite. The reason we don’t have zoning is because the people of Houston have always believed in property owners rights above all else. We have never wanted politicians telling us what we can, or cannot, do with our property outside of certain understood limits. We have also always understood that once you give politicians the power to dictate land usage they will slowly, but surely, expand that power until you no longer have the right to do anything on your land without asking permission. Now, that happens anyway, regardless of whether you give politicians the power because eventually they will figure out a way to take it from you, as we are seeing more and more today.

    Now, to your question about variances, we have retained the right to request variances in our property code to allow for some flexibility where it can be shown that flexibility is needed. Having rigid rules that do not allow for any flexibility can, and will, result in situations where worthwhile projects cannot happen because the law does not allow it. Variances are not just for developers; municipalities, utilities, churces and schools all have to request variances when they want to break the rules.

  • Wow – Finally. kjb434 & SCD have chimed in with some very good comments regarding the use of variances. Good points, not sure that I buy all of them. I guess this topic could meld into the Ashby discussion. In that a large number of neighbors to that project object, even after many changes have been made. So, it may seem that that the developers generally get what they want. The objecting neighbors are thrown a bone through some minor changes to the varience request. Do the developers ask for more than they really want or need in the variance so that they have something to give up in the process?

  • Bubba,

    Actually the developers didn’t win nor did the residents lose.

    I find it funny how people don’t realize that the Ashby project is NOT in Southampton. It’s adjacent too it. That’s a big difference.

    The Huntingdon tower on Kirby is NOT in River Oaks. It’s just south of it.

    The Ashby project could never be built in Southampton because there are deed restrictions (localized form of zoning where property owners decide the rules and not a zoning board).

    If you live on the edge of the a neighborhood with deed restrictions, you know very well a project can be built next to you that is not in sync with the neighborhood (because it technically is not in it.

    If Ashby were attempted to get a variance to build within Southampton, they wouldn’t have been granted it.

    The process worked and worked well.

    It’s no difference than living in a masterplanned community on the edge of Houston. You have strict deed restrictions, yet if your property is on the edge of the neighborhood, you know very well that something that you don’t like can develop there.

    Also, the reason that Bissonet could have traffic impacts is the fault of the residents of Southampton, not Ashby’s. Bissonet should have been widened or at least striped for 4 lanes many years ago. The community stops. All this happened long before Ashby. Bissonet being identified as a major thoroughfare means the city should respond with improvements when the traffic may warrant it. Ashby can be built because Bissonet technically should be expanded as development increases. This is how all major thoroughfares have been upgraded in many neighborhoods throughout Houston. Somehow the residents of Southampton are exempt? I don’t think so.

    These residents have a major stick up there a$$ because for once they aren’t getting there way. JUST GROW UP. Houston is densifying, and this battle will keep going on in the future. We have good rules in place. These residents were no blind sided by this. This could have very well happened all along. They just ASSUMED it wouldn’t happen to them.

  • Sorry, veered off into the Ashby discussion. You are right, these topics are blending because of the “variance” discussion.

  • I looked for this in the Ashby discussion too. Okay, I will admit that sometimes, if a “developer” knows he/she is asking for something that might be thought a tad unreasonable, he/she might exagerate it with something excessive that they know will get attention, and that they don’t want anyway, as a “sacrificial lamb” to the alter of the Planning Commission. It happens because there is a give and take discussion when you ask for a variance, but in the end you usually end up with something that is reasonable for the community. Usually nobody is really happy, but that is how negotiations are supposed to end, right?

  • Why cant people just use a pre-existing building?

    Seems a waste of good space.

    I thought the economy was supposedly bad. But yet there is an aweful lot of building going on.