Monday, August 26, 2013

Houston, high-rises and NIMBYs

A 17-story office highrise is being planned for a piece of land on the edge of River Oaks, and residents of the wealthy neighborhood are not happy:
Many worry about traffic issues, especially with River Oaks Elementary located a few blocks down the street, and think a high-rise building will make traffic worse.

“The streets around here are tolerable as-is,” Ed Heller said.

Heller opposes the development and has formed the Stop San Felipe Skyscraper group to organize opposition and provide information for residents.
Residents of an affluent, inside-the-loop neighborhood upset about a high-rise being constructed in their midst and creating an organization to oppose it? Where have I heard that story before? Oh, yeah.
Heller said most residents are “not opposed to progress… or to development in Houston,” but rather the location of this particular project.
This, by the way, is the textbook definition of NIMBY: "you can build it anywhere in the city, just as long as it's Not In My Back Yard." In a non-zoned, developer-friendly city like Houston, however, the cries of the NIMBYs don't carry as much weight as they might in other cities.
Ryan Bernard, who lives near the site of the proposed office building, said the group is hoping to postpone the project long enough for the city and developer to see how unacceptable the project is to nearby residents.
Yeah. The folks opposed to the Ashby High Rise on Bissonnet tried that, too. How'd that work out for them? Once again: oh, yeah.
More than 100 people attended a July 22 meeting hosted by Houston city council member Oliver Pennington, who said he received several calls from residents about the project.

“Some see a 17-story building as not compatible” to the neighborhood, Pennington said. “I’m sure a lot of people don’t like the idea of having a high-rise there, but there’s no (legal) basis for complaining.”

Without zoning or deed restrictions, there’s not much residents can do to combat unwanted development in their neighborhoods.
This is the reason why the San Felipe high rise is going to be built. There's nothing the residents of the neighborhood can do to legally stop it. But it's also another reason why I think the issue of zoning is going to be revisited by the citizens of Houston sometime in the future. A few years ago, when I wrote about why Houston has done well to avoid standard use-based zoning, I predicted this:
What I am convinced of is this: as Houston's urban core continues to densify, conflicts like the one surrounding the Ashby High Rise that are still relatively rare today are without a doubt going to become more and more common in the future. My fear is that some point, more and more citizens are going to become affected by these controversies and are going to become disillusioned with the City's current approach to land development regulations such that they are going to demand a mechanism to deal with these disputes, including traditional use-based zoning (and in that regard it's worth noting that Houston's last attempt at zoning in 1993 barely failed in a referendum).
Now, as the city experiences as surge of inside-the-loop development, we are indeed seeing more and more of these conflicts between developers and residents: not just Ashby High Rise or the San Felipe tower, but also developments near the Heights or in the Museum District. I still think it's only a matter of time before frustrated residents of these affluent neighborhoods, realizing just how little power they have over development that occurs in and around their homes, begin demanding that the city implement some form of zoning code. If and when that happens, I can only hope that the city's citizens, developers, administrators and elected officials agree on something that isn't the antiquated, bureaucratic mess that traditional use-based zoning entails.

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