With win on development rules, neighborhoods hope for more reforms

Apr. 25, 2013Houston Chronicle

Houston City Council on Wednesday voted 14-3 to allow greater single-family home density outside Loop 610, while also strengthening the proposal’s already robust protections for neighborhoods concerned about unwelcome development.

Council voted to drop the threshold of support needed to impose a minimum lot size in an area – preventing the subdividing of lots for townhomes – from 60 percent to 55 percent, and agreed to phase in the new rules, keeping new development out of residential areas for two years.

Mayor Annise Parker, who has said the changes will spur redevelopment of blighted areas and lower housing prices in the city, praised the first fundamental changes to the city’s development rules in 14 years.

“It’s about time,” Parker said. “The city of Houston has to grow, and we have to have a more flexible development tool. ”

Parker said she will engage a group of home-builders and civic leaders to continue the dialogue that allowed the package to come to a vote as related reforms move forward. Neighborhood support largely was won through city promises to improve standards in regulations outside the development code, known as Chapter 42.

In the ordinance itself, the Super Neighborhood Alliance got its phase-in of the new rules. The alliance raised concerns about eyesore Dumpsters at townhome developments; developers now must show where large garbage bins will sit when seeking permits. The alliance also worried about structures being built on property lines, leaving inches between homes; builders now must get written agreement from neighbors to come inside 3 feet.

The alliance’s wish list is longer, however. Chief among the items are stricter drainage requirements for redeveloped tracts and a commitment to Complete Streets, generally defined as a street built with all users, including bikes and pedestrians, in mind.

Council members Andrew Burks and Helena Brown said the absence of improved drainage rules was a key reason for their votes against Chapter 42. Burks repeatedly used an analogy to gumbo, which he said is best when everything is thrown in at once. Changing development rules without having complementary reforms ready is the wrong approach, he said.

Even council members who supported Chapter 42 questioned Parker about progress on changes to drainage and streets policies.

“I am concerned about safeguards, but I don’t think worrying about safeguards should prevent us from doing what I think we need to do for the good of Houston,” said Councilwoman Ellen Cohen. “Chapter 42 isn’t perfect, but I think it’s going to take us to where we need to go.”

Parker said discussion of issues related to development and infrastructure have long delayed progress on Chapter 42.

“Some of the discussion has been, ‘Do we wait until we get everything fixed or do we try to deal with them as they come forward?’ We’re going to deal with it as aggressively as we can,” she said. “There are a lot of things we have been discussing that are moving.”

Jane West of the Super Neighborhood Alliance said as her colleagues were congratulating each other after the vote, they began to realize their reward for a successful negotiation was going to be, well, more negotiations.

“We have a path forward on all of those issues and, hopefully, they can all be resolved before these amendments become fully effective,” she said. “Overall, we’re happy. There really are benefits to working together collectively on these big issues that benefit the entire city.”