Thursday, October 25, 2007

WSJ on the Ashby tower and Houston development

Last week the Wall Street Journal had an article specifically discussing the controversial high-rise residential tower proposed for Ashby at Bissonnet (details and FAQ), but also broadly talking about the lack of zoning in Houston. Unfortunately, the article had definite overtones of "check out this crazy city without zoning," but there are still some good excerpts worth passing along:

The latest controversy has reignited the land-use debate at a heady time for Houston, a port city of more than 2.1 million people. Buoyed by its surging energy industry, Houston has added tens of thousands of jobs in recent years amid rising rents for office and retail properties. To some developers, the lack of zoning creates an advantage because it keeps options open.

But other developers and investors say such land-use leniency creates unpredictability; unsavory projects might pop up nearby and sap the value of their investments.

Mayor White, a businessman who worked in real estate, law and other industries prior to his 2003 election, doesn't see zoning as the answer to Houston's issues. "Not on my watch," he said in an interview. "I do think, as we are in a strong economy and we live closer and closer together, there will be both new development and more rules to protect our common interests. But we will respect consumer choice and not have some bureaucrat in City Hall become the taste patrol for the city."

Isn't it refreshing to have a thoughtful mayor that avoids pandering to the NIMBYs?
...proposed a tower complex that would include 23 stories of either 187 condos or 236 apartments, a restaurant, boutique grocery store and parking for 450 vehicles. They paid the city's impact fees for the development and financed $500,000 in sewer upgrades for the project at the city's request. Their initial study of the traffic the project would generate found "no adverse impacts" on surrounding streets. They anticipate that a second study with a broader scope will deliver the same verdict.

Bowing to the city's demands for a smaller project isn't an option, the developers say. They decline to say what they paid for the property. "Doing anything less dense is not economically feasible," Mr. Morgan says.

This is something people have a hard time understanding: this land was valued and sold to these developers assuming a large-scale redevelopment, so just scaling it down or converting to townhomes is not an option when they've already paid many millions for just the land.

Despite the fervor of their opposition, neighbors aren't sure zoning is the answer. Houston voters have defeated proposals to implement citywide zoning three times, in 1948, 1962 and 1993.

Lam Nguyen bought a two-story house adjacent to the project's site two years ago, intending to renovate it and move in. Now he's not sure what he'll do, though he has peppered his front yard with signs opposing the condo tower. He says Houston's lack of zoning "helps the city grow. However, it should not be treated as a blank check, and that's what this developer is doing."


Fearing that the condo tower would leave her townhome in perpetual shadow,

Um, sorry, but the sun doesn't work that way. It comes up on one side and goes down on the other, so you're pretty much guaranteed sun at least half of the day (think of it as a giant sundial). And wouldn't a little shadow be great in Houston's summers?
Ms. Miller wrote an opinion piece for the local newspapers depicting the lack of land-use controls as a "threat to Houston's very soul."
Huh? Isn't "Houston's very soul" continuous growth, redevelopment, adaptation, and vibrancy?

I've been thinking about it, and there are already residential towers all over Houston that coexist just fine next to residential neighborhoods in River Oaks, on Montrose and Shepherd, next to Hermann Park, on Alabama at the 59 spur, and all around the Galleria area. Traffic should certainly be a consideration, but you'd be surprised how much traffic even a simple two-lane road can move, and they seem to have passed their traffic studies.

If I were the developer, I would defuse this firestorm by offering the immediate neighborhood free access to the fitness center, spa, and pool - essentially no cost to him but a very nice perk for them. Combine that with the walkable access they'll be getting to a restaurant and a grocery store, and I think this development might actually make their property values increase, if anything.

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At 7:24 PM, October 25, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I think the development is a good thing and should happen, the shade and the lose of value ARE two good arguments against it. You don't give enough credit.

If there are houses directly to the north of the tower, they could be in almost perpetual shadow during winter when the sun is in the southern sky. It will increase their heating bill in the winter without decreasing their a/c bill.

Also the rise in market value that I will think will happen to nearby neighbors is not the complete story. The owners bought the house because they value it for more than the price. They can still lose if the new market value after the tower does not rise to what the owners valued it at before the tower.

At 8:05 PM, October 25, 2007, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

Speaking of NIMBYism check out this article on CNN-Money

"...a surprising ally for the opposition has emerged according to Fox: The financial, organizational and technical support for battling development often comes courtesy of...other developers."

At 8:06 PM, October 25, 2007, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

Sorry, I forgot it doesn't wrap -

At 9:26 PM, October 25, 2007, Blogger Michael said...

Mayor White's saying zoning will not happen on his watch is not saying much. He is only in office another 2 years. Eventually, more powerful zoning or restrictions on development are going to happen - it's just a matter of time. And, while Mayor White says "no zoning", he is still pretty much doing everything in his power to stop this project.

At 10:10 PM, October 25, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

That linked article is fascinating, Brian, and should raise eyebrows on all NIMBY groups and who's funding them. It's like Target supporting anti-WalMart groups...

At 10:13 PM, October 25, 2007, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

So, Michael, just to clarify: the 52 to 48 vote for the rail plan definitively closes the book on the debate, but the 3 votes against zoning were mistakes by an ignorant public that should be undermined and will eventually be corrected?... ;-)

At 8:41 AM, October 26, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

These Southampton NIMBYs should really get over themselves. They have strong deed restrictions, but the first project outside of their neighborhood they can't control they cry foul. On top of that the Mayor bends over backwards to stop the project that has passed all the approvals required by the city.

It's very easy for me to throw the hypocrite term around at Mayor White since he only helps he who donates. Neighborhoods of Rice Military and Cottage Grove have seen immense townhome development which has put many more cars on the narrow streets. Any existing residents in the old cottages are told by the Mayor that this just part of change and the developer is just following the rules. I have seen him say this many times at Cottage Grove Civic Club meetings.

So lets see, have money and stop a project. Don't have money, can't stop a project.

A disclosure: I do live in a new townhome in the Cottage Grove. I'm not opposed to redevelopment unrestricted by having no zoning, but I'm opposed to few getting the ability to challenge projects because of their contributions to political leaders while others are just told nothing can happen.

So support the Ashby project. The Southampton residents should be mad at the landowner who sold the land, not the developer that is exercising his property rights to develop his lot.

At 8:43 AM, October 26, 2007, Blogger ian said...

"So, Michael, just to clarify: the 52 to 48 vote for the rail plan definitively closes the book on the debate, but the 3 votes against zoning were mistakes by an ignorant public that should be undermined and will eventually be corrected?... ;-)"

Weeeellll. . .I'm not sure that's a fair comparison. We've had quite a few chances for high-quality transit in Houston that have each been squashed until now. People evolve; Houston warmed up to transit, so I don't see any reason they couldn't also warm up to zoning.

. . .Not that I necessarily think zoning is a good idea. Funky little Houston establishments like good 'ole Boone's Cycles probably would have a difficult time nestling into their equally funky little Houston neighborhoods if they were faced with strict zoning. But I wouldn't be opposed to SOME land use restrictions; after all, I'd absolutely hate it if a high-rise apartment complex sprouted up right next to my tiny little bungalow!

At 2:51 PM, October 26, 2007, Blogger Michael said...


"So, Michael, just to clarify: the 52 to 48 vote for the rail plan definitively closes the book on the debate, but the 3 votes against zoning were mistakes by an ignorant public that should be undermined and will eventually be corrected?... ;-)"

Note that I never said the rail debate was closed - I just use the vote as well as the Houston Area Study as proof of recent support. I am still interested in hearing the other side of the argument.

I would be interested to see the trend in the zoning votes from 1948 to 1993. My suspicion is that as Houston becomes settled by the same people that settle any other city (ie people from all over the country, not just other Texans or newly born Houstonians), the expectation they would have would be for things like rail and regular zoning laws. Now, 1993 was still a relatively long time ago, so my suspicion might not be borne out by the numbers.

I see that the 1993 vote failed 47%-53%, pretty close, and looks like the previous votes were more lopsided, but I can't find the percentages.


At 9:08 AM, November 01, 2007, Blogger Unknown said...

The reality: a wealthy neighborhood wants to keep what makes it valuable, and everyone else (who's not fortunate enough to live there) wants to give them the finger.

At 3:08 PM, November 19, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cancelled the WSJ over a year ago for the anti Houston (Texas) bias. And I told them so.

It's a typical northeastern biased that still doesn't get it that Houston has second most Fortune 500HQ's (metro 6th)and Texas is second states.

Also the industrial machine we have here is awesome, but still doesn't qualify in WSJ writers eyes as anything more that a backwater.

You can keep em.

Re: zoning, thats what makes us unique, plus I don't like govt. regulation of any kind, don't change a thing!!


At 11:30 AM, November 25, 2007, Blogger Unknown said...

The traffic in that area on BIssonet is absurd and can't take 200 or so additional units on ashby without looking like a one-laned 290. If that sounds ok to you, you obviously don't live within 10 miles. This is the real issue IMHO.

At 12:55 PM, February 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ya I live in an apartment along bissionet and kirby. And I take the 65 every day it travels down bissionet and the traffic does not seem that bad. I think it is stupid that these NIMBY people are fighting it. if you are that concerned about traffic take the bus to one more car of the road do your part. Stop crying about it. When the tower is built you will find out that it is not the end of the world. I personaly can not what till it is built maybe houston will get dense anough for people to walk around. stop driving if traffic is bad.


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