Parker: Pressing ‘reset button’ on historical commission

Aug. 13, 2014Heights Leader

The development of the Heights is not just an issue important to residents who live there. Even Mayor Annise Parker knows the area’s growth has included a few controversial consequences.

Last week, Parker spoke at the Greater Heights Chamber of Commerce’s inaugural Gateway to City Government lunch, and she defended a highly publicized disagreement between some homeowners, home builders and the Houston Archaeological and Historical Commission.

“The system appears to be working,” Parker said. “Ninety-three percent are approved coming through the chute.”

The HAHC consists of 13 appointed members who are tasked with approving major renovations or construction in the city’s historic districts. All districts in Houston, except the Heights’ three districts, have specific guidelines that tell homeowners what they can and cannot do to historic homes. The controversy has been over HAHC’s ability to subjectively approve homes and deny “Certificates of Appropriateness,” which legally allow work to begin, in the Heights.

Parker said she didn’t see the need to revamp the HAHC, as it is filled with people who provide a variety of specialized expertise and skills.

“What we didn’t do right was make sure that everyone who came on the commission had a thorough grounding of what was in the ordinance, and that everyone understood what the rules were,” Parker said.

The city subsequently had training sessions for HAHC staff and said she and other officials were surprised with the results.

“It was amazing,” Parker said. “Two people could look at a single ordinance and come to different conclusions.”

Rather than dismantling the HAHC, Parker likened the process to hitting a reset button.

“We’ve taken a look at people who were there, particularly those that never could figure it out, and we’re working to replace them.”

Just last week, however, members of the Houston City Council did hit the reset button on a decision by HAHC. A homeowner in the Heights purchased a lot on Cortlandt Street and asked HAHC for permission to move the current home on that lot.

HAHC denied the request, presumably because they believed the house was a contributing structure to the historic era. Despite evidence to the contrary, the homeowners were overruled and told they could not move the home. Those homeowners then appealed to the city’s Planning Commission and, again, they were denied.

For the first time, a homeowner challenged the two rulings to the Houston City Council, and this time, they were successful. Councilmember Ellen Cohen asked her colleagues to overturn HAHC’s ruling, potentially setting a precedent for others to make further appeals to Council.

Transportation

During Parker’s talk with Chamber members, she was asked about the expansion of public transportation. Parker said two more light rail lines will be in operation by the end of this year. All of the lines are exceeding estimates and the new ones coming in are expected to have the best ridership in the company.

Parker also emphasized that light rail “barely scratches the surface” of what can be done for a city the size of Houston and pointed to Metro’s work in re-imagining the city’s bus system.

“Most of us, if we have access to cars, will not get on a bus unless it is a Park & Ride,” Parker said. “One of the challenges for our bus system is that it was designed a very long time ago and everything came into downtown. We have arguably six or seven big commercial centers here that would be pretty good sized downtowns in their own right.”

Parker said Metro has devised a new system which she believes will lead Houston to have one of the finest integrated transit systems in the country. Last week, the City of Houston also announced they would put together the first general plan in the city’s history. Officials have a timeline of a year to put together a plan that allows the city to connect master plans from a variety of elements and try to get ahead on issues such as infrastructure.

“Just because you don’t zone doesn’t mean you don’t need to plan,” Parker said. “We do a lot of planning but what we don’t do is coordinate the planning. We talk to each other, but we don’t integrate those plans to see what is really happening here in the Houston.”