Fearing density, residents cheer proposed protections

Apr. 23, 2013Houston Chronicle

Whenever he sees Freedmen’s Town, the historic Fourth Ward neighborhood founded by freed slaves after the Civil War, Ray Washington feels a sense of remorse. Washington grew up there, but the neighborhood does not look much like he knew it six decades ago. Of the 568 notable structures present when the area joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, only 6 percent remain. Historic homes nearby have been replaced by three-story, mostly metal-sided townhomes: street after street, block after block, of gray and red and blue boxes.

“It looks bad to me, it really does,” Washington said. “It looks so tight and condensed. All of us now feel a sense of remorse. And then, the time that we could have done something, they were coming in and taking over. It was too late.”

To some extent, Washington and others say, the redevelopment of Freedmen’s Town was inevitable. The area, in the shadow of downtown, was ripe for redevelopment, with deteriorating homes and few resident owners.

The Fourth Ward would not look quite the way it does now, however, if not for a change in city development rules in 1999. That change hiked the density allowed in single-family housing construction inside Loop 610, allowing the building of several homes on what had been one residential lot.

Rewriting density rules

City Council is poised Wednesday to extend that Inner Loop home density citywide in the first rewrite of Houston’s development rules, known as Chapter 42, in 14 years. And that has Washington and other south Houston civic leaders on edge.

“You’ve got different developers. Some are going to be good, and you’re going to get a few bad ones. Our goal is to upgrade this community,” said Homer Clark, president of south Houston’s Five Corners Management District.

“If they say, ‘Hey, this is a nice place, I think I’ll go out here and buy me a little piece of land and I’ll just put this out here,’ that’s our fear, that it won’t be consistent with what we’re doing.”

To address concerns about incompatible development, the proposed rules include protections that would allow neighborhoods to impose minimum lot sizes for up to 500 homes at a time, preventing the subdivision of lots for townhomes. The requirement, which would last 40 years, also would restrict any residential or vacant land to single-family homes, keeping out apartment towers and condominiums.

“In Houston, because we’re not a zoned city, deed restrictions are the one thing that’s relied upon to keep your neighborhood consistent and retain that character,” said Suzy Hartgrove, spokeswoman for the city Planning Department. “It (minimum lot size) is a protection that really is akin to a deed restriction that will be established for these neighborhoods that apply and are designated. It’s a strong protection to have.”

Apply for restrictions

The minimum lot size process has existed since 2001, and is applied only on a block-by-block basis. Under the proposed change, 10 percent of property owners in an area must apply, triggering a balloting process through which 60 percent of owners must vote yes to impose the restriction. City staff could revise an area’s boundaries to secure the necessary support.

The proposal is an acknowledgement that deed restrictions are difficult to amend, said Joshua Sanders, executive director of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit that represents developers.

“We understand the neighborhood concerns, and we think there should be more tools made available to them to protect against any sort of development,” he said.

“It’s not like these rules are in place to protect against bad development. They’re in place to protect the integrity of a neighborhood. We could go in and build something great on one piece of property, but it’s still an issue because it’s damaging the character of the neighborhood.”

Vacant lots a concern

In south Houston, many subdivisions largely are intact, but some are peppered with vacant lots. Washington said some civic clubs are not sure whether their deed restrictions are in force, or have lost the documents, which could allow for incompatible construction.

Residents also are concerned about the swaths of vacant land on the edges of neighborhoods, Washington said, but Planning Department staff said seeking a minimum lot size for such tracts likely would not make sense.

City Councilman Larry Green, who represents the area, is determining which neighborhoods have intact deed restrictions and which will need to seek a minimum lot size.

“District K is the most underdeveloped district in the city, and I have the most opportunity for new development in the area. It only makes sense for us to support that, to make that happen, but we don’t want to do that to the detriment of our existing neighborhoods,” Green said.

The lot-size proposal is a “huge achievement,” said Jane West of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, though she is concerned areas with many rental properties will struggle with the petition process. That concern led civic leaders to negotiate a phase-in: one year to give neighborhoods time to petition, and a second year during which the new density would be allowed only on tracts larger than an acre; smaller tracts could be developed if most surrounding properties are not residential.

“It will help all the people it can help,” West said. “It depends a lot on the stamina and the abilities of the people in the neighborhood and how badly they want to save the neighborhood.”

Deciding own fate

City Planning Department Director Marlene Gafrick agreed some areas will struggle to meet the requirements, which is why planners are scheduling 20 meetings to discuss the process.

“We’ve tried to be as flexible as possible,” she said. “When you draft regulations, it’s difficult to draft something that absolutely covers everyone, at least unless the city were to do something from the top down, and we’re really trying to let the neighborhoods determine their fate.”