Thursday, February 14, 2008

A simple rule for high-rise development

The ordinance being developed to target the Ashby high-rise is making no one happy, so they're looking at a delay of many months to rework it. In the meantime, the city will pull out a 69-year old driveway permit law giving a city engineer power to block it. Sheesh. Talk about striking fear and risk into the hearts of developers. Pay big money for land and plan a development, but if important people hassle the mayor enough, a city bureaucrat will find an arcane regulation to shut you down. This is not a healthy situation.

I've stated before that I think the Ashby situation has been blown way out of proportion by the neighborhood. Plenty of very high-end neighborhoods in Houston have very tall residential towers next to them with no problems at all (including River Oaks). And from the analyses I've heard, it would add less than 1% to Bissonnet traffic. A weak argument indeed.

That said, there seems to be a general clamoring for "neighborhood protection" from citizens, and for predictability from the developers. This situation needs to be defused before laws with some really bad side effects get passed. And it needs to be simplified and objectified too. Some of the language I've heard proposed for the ordinance is arcane in the extreme, involving detailed calculations and "traffic studies" with plenty of room for bias and subjectivity.

Most people seem to agree high-rise towers don't belong on small streets in single-family neighborhoods. In Houston, we have an arterial grid (roughly) that tends to have commercial on the arterials with residential behind, in the interiors of the arterial blocks. It seems reasonable to restrict anything over 6 stories high (a typical apartment complex, 4 floors on top of 2 levels of parking) to fronting major arterials.

I think "major arterials" could be defined as 4-lanes if two-way, or 2-lanes if one-way (as some feeders are), as well as any road with high-capacity fixed-guideway transit (LRT or BRT). That would eliminate the Ashby high-rise, since Bissonnet is only 2-3 lanes in that area (with a middle turn lane). But it does seem to retroactively allow almost every other high-rise in the city I can think of, as well as allow plenty of density where people seem to want it, like Downtown and Midtown.

Of course, there will be cases where a high-rise may make sense off of one of these arterials (like next to a large park, or inside an office park development), and in those cases developers should be able to apply to the planning commission for a variance just as they do for all sorts of developments today.

This seems to strike the right balance of allowing densificiation and helping maintain affordability through plenty of supply, while protecting off-arterial residential areas. On-arterial single-family residential (such as Beechnut in my neighborhood of Meyerland) is usually deed restricted, so it's already protected.

As always, let me know what you think in the comments.

Update: Chronicle update on Ashby negotiations.

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At 7:57 PM, February 14, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are really reaching comparing the high rise activity on kirby near river oaks to that bissonnet.

please compare apples to apples.

also, you are for neighborhood rights and voluntary restrictions. the ashby case seems to be a great example. way to band togather southampton!!

At 10:26 PM, February 14, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

no kidding.. bissonet is a 2 lane 2 way street... KIRBY?
I personally think it's a very bad idea. I'm crossing my fingers that the community will get smart on this and do something more than just put up signs and stickers.

At 8:40 AM, February 15, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

People really need to look at Bissonet. It can easily become a 4 land undivided street as many have become in the inner city. The outside lanes would handle parking as they currently do in many spots during off peak travel times. Bissonet is really no different than Westheimer and San Felipe within the inner loop. San Felipe has a high rise with the street in this configuration. Westheimer is getting several to go with the existing ones on this configuration. Of course Southampton would protest the re-striping of this street because it makes so much common sense.

The shear ridiculousness of people wanting predictable development pattern baffles me. Grow up people. The world changes and you have to adapt. We can't live in cocoons where we never get hurt.

It's like people that cause a raucous when someone offends them. They are yelling over something that really won't affect them.

At 9:00 AM, February 15, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

If not kjb434's tone, I agree with the spirit. However Tory, your proposal makes too much common sense for me to blast. It is a decent plan, but not perfect. If it prevents something horrible, then it's worth supporting.

At 9:02 AM, February 15, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

Horrible meaning a deeply convoluted system that dramatically reduces property rights.

At 1:35 PM, February 15, 2008, Blogger Lu said...

kjb434- Changing and adapting shouldn't be a problem in developement to people so long as it works and is improving quality of life.

I think this is a problem with a lot of developement in Houston...they're not taking into consideration how they're improving a neighborhood they're just looking at the $$ to be made.

In this situation i really don't see how the people of this area will benefit or improve their why should they want to adapt or change for this??? Next thing you know there will be a strip mall next to every home.

I applaud them for fighting this and maintaining some sanity.

Change is good and worth adapting to if its GOOD CHANGE. Otherwise i would not call this progress.

At 3:51 PM, February 15, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


Let me introduce you to KJB434. Appealing to subjective aesthetic preferences will not likely sway him much. He is a staunch believer in rights theory.

The point of rights, in this case property rights, is to limit the power of the majority to subject the minority. Much like the freedom of speech, once a right is arbitrarily breeched there is no logical end to its erosion.

I look at the economics and am continually dismayed that those in the design industry fail to grasp that there are costs, sometimes large costs, to dictating design rules and development planning. Don't take this as a rebuke, but you should have more faith in the developers you serve that they know that people want well designed buildings and spaces and will choose to follow this demand.

At 7:59 PM, February 15, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your proposal is quite sensible, and it's nothing's called form-based zoning. And if you think that it is "reasonable" for the government to impose such control (as I do), you may find it difficult to oppose more conventional forms of land use controls. Finally, if you recognize that the presence of LRT or BRT makes a case for higher density near the stations, your transition is complete, as most cities constructing transit make it a point to zone the station areas in this fashion. Welcome to the dark side...we've been waiting for you.

At 10:03 PM, February 15, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

It's a *long* way from form-based zoning. I'm not specifying minimum heights, setbacks, street-level retail, or where parking goes. Nor am I specifying use. Just height limits. And considering that almost every tower taller than 6 stories today does front a major arterial, because that's where those developments typically *want* to be, it doesn't seem to restrict much.

I added transit to the arterial definition because I was thinking of Main St., which is 1 lane each direction, but definitely should accommodate high-density towers. It just makes sense. But it shouldn't be *required*.

At 2:44 PM, February 16, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Don't take this as a rebuke, but you should have more faith in the developers you serve that they know that people want well designed buildings and spaces and will choose to follow this demand."

Never mind that the reason why anyone has ever wanted land use controls wherever they were put in place was that developers did NOT provide well designed buildings and spaces. Or if they did, they were nice for their clients but detrimental to the people who lived around them.

This idea that we should just have "faith" in the decisions of a powerful few pretty much reeks of feudalism. Of course the lords feared the power of the majority...

At 6:58 PM, February 16, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tory, your proposal makes great sense and is like the hotel ordinance which restricts hotels to major thoroughfares. However, your facts are off. According to the traffic impact analysis commissioned by the developers of the Ashby High Rise (which is probably predicting traffic on the low side), the high rise will increase traffic on Bissonnet by almost 11%. An eleven percent increase from one development on a street that is at 95% capacity during peak hours is unacceptable. In addition, they have planned their primary loading area for the high rise on Ashby, a 23 foot wide residential street that is the only means of ingress and egress for two dead end blocks. Imagine over 100 trucks per week blocking this street while they make deliveries. Not a pretty sight.

At 8:17 AM, February 18, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike said:
"This idea that we should just have "faith" in the decisions of a powerful few pretty much reeks of feudalism. Of course the lords feared the power of the majority..."

How does this statement altered through the existing of any form of zoning? A few powerful individuals will control everything and will be just as capable of being supposedly controlled by the developers like people claim our local government currently is.

A zoning board is a better example of reeking feudalism. I have an issue in the belief that government is a problem solver. Their record (at any level) is abysmal at best to solve social concerns.

Also, Lu, what do you define as "quality of life." This is often a discussion on this board where no one has the same exact definition. We can't expect government to enforce such an abstract term that no one can agree on.

At 10:04 AM, February 18, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a simple solution to the Ashby highrise. Instead of asking for special rights that no one else has, these people should buy the land from the developers. That's what you are supposed to do when you want to control what is done with a property. I guess that would involve parting with some of their money though. Why do that when you have powerful friends?

At 10:17 AM, February 18, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

jgriff, you probably have posted the most common sense statement on here.

This is exactly what the group that wanted to save the 11th street park.

The park was actually some undeveloped land own by HISD. Money was raised to buy the land from HISD.

In the end, they didn't raise enough, but a local bank stepped in an worked a deal. A portion of the property will be allowed to be developed with the remaining being bought in installments.

In the end, this was a much better solution to what the community envisioned a problem.

The Ashby property has market price tag. Tack on a little more since the developer would be looking to make some profit from the original land purchase and then the community can buy it. It shouldn't a problem for them. They could even turn it into a park and donate it to the city. That'll stop from anything being developed on it.

At 10:51 AM, February 19, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"How does this statement altered through the existing of any form of zoning? A few powerful individuals will control everything and will be just as capable of being supposedly controlled by the developers like people claim our local government currently is."

Not true. Citizens have a say as to how their neighborhood will look through the zoning process. Although powerful developers may be able to influence things more, this is no different than with any form of democracy.

The issue is, do we put power into the hands of the people, with the potential inequalities and inefficiencies that may result, or do we continue to just have "faith" that developers will keep everyone's interest in mind, not just their clients?

At 10:44 AM, February 22, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You asked, "do we put power into the hands of the people"

My answer is that we "Put the power in the hands of the people who own the property". If you don't do this you are handing over your rights to the government.

At 4:36 PM, February 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can not beilive that I am reading some of this. So what some of you people are saying is that people have the right to do what ever they want unless a few people bitch about it.
Do you realize where this line of thought goes. O we have freedom of speech unless somebody bitches about what you are saying. Lets try to be rational about this. If the thing is built it will not be the end of the world. So maybe it is not worth restricting freedoms just because some people do not like. If they where realy that concerned with traffic maybe they would I do not know take the BUS the 65 is a good route too i take it everyday.

At 3:06 PM, July 22, 2008, Blogger DM2120 said...


At 7:01 AM, August 25, 2009, Anonymous Gonzalo Camacho said...

greetings tory,
i am intrigued on the nature of the 11 submittals to refine the "traffic impact." 1% traffic of the volume, how many vehicles is that? what was the argument regarding the driveway?

At 7:40 AM, August 25, 2009, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Sorry, I'm not familiar with the details. Here's the quote from the Chronicle: "The city's analysis of the developers' latest plans showed that the number of additional peak-hour trips on surrounding streets generated by the project had been reduced to 120 from 184."


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