Neighborhoods tackle Inner Loop development with lot size rules

Image description
Neighborhoods tackle Inner Loop development
Image description
Neighborhoods tackle Inner Loop development
Image description
Neighborhoods tackle Inner Loop development
Image description
Screen Shot 2019-09-05 at 2.45.14 PM
Update Sept. 5, 2:45 p.m.

Houston City Council voted to approve the special minimum lot size area application surrounding parts of Columbia Street, Sept. 4.

Original Post:

For decades, Houston Carpet was one of the few commercial buildings on its corner of the Heights. When the company relocated its operations outside of Loop 610, neighbors eyed the now-vacant property on Columbia Street wearily, longtime Heights resident Donna Bennett said.

Hoping to limit the property to single-family residential use, surrounding community members petitioned the city to designate a five-block radius of the carpet company’s lots as a special minimum lot size area. Gaining such designation allows residents to limit commercial and multifamily development in a neighborhood.

“We’re sandwiched between I-10, which is increasingly changing,” Bennett said. “There’s a hotel and those kinds of [commercial development] we have on White Oak [Drive] to the north, which is a busy, major cross street. We feel that it is important to protect ourselves against any further commercial encroachment into the neighborhood.”

The special minimum lot size application process has been available to residents since the early 2000s, and been amended several times by Houston City Council to broaden its capabilities.

Over 750 applications have been submitted since the process’s inception, over 200 of which were submitted in the Heights, according to Houston Planning and Development Department data. Longtime residents in the Heights see town homes, apartments and commercial developments as threatening to the character of historically single-family home neighborhoods, Bennett said.

As market forces continue to draw developers into the Inner Loop these applications become a point for discussions about how the city is changing and for whom.

‘Creep of commercial’

The special minimum lot size application, which can apply to an area or a single block, allows a group of residents to petition to change the required minimum size of a group of lots in a neighborhood typically to about 5,000 to 6,000 square feet. A successful application makes lots undesirable to town home developers who can no longer subdivide a single lot for multiple units, said Bill Baldwin, a Heights-area Realtor and member of the Houston Planning Commission.

The designation also requires residential lots remain residential while allowing commercial lots to remain commercial or switch to residential.

Applications in the Heights are typically submitted in anticipation of redevelopment, Bennett said, causing stumbling blocks for those trying to sell property. Michael Frank, owner of the lots on Columbia Street, said the lot size application unfairly targeted his land.

“All this property has been used for in the last 40 years is commercial, ” Frank told the planning commission during a hearing on the application June 11. The price dropped by $200,000 after the meeting, his real estate agent said.

“Commercial users knew the neighborhood would put up a fight regardless of which part the land was purchased and residential single family home builders knew were in a bind,” Ryan Neyland the site’s real estate agent said.

The planning commission approved the application in June, and it awaits City Council approval this fall. All residential lots surrounding the carpet company will remain residential and cannot be subdivided below 5,000 square feet for the next 40 years when the application is subject to renewal. While commercial development will not “creep” in to the neighborhood, the carpet company’s land and other lots previously used for commercial purposes will remain designated as commercial.

“When there’s [no commercial property] there [the application] is designed to keep you from tearing down a house to have the creep of commercial, but it’s not designed necessarily to totally restrict property,” Baldwin said. “This neighborhood is mad because that lot still can be commercial. ... The reality of it was, there hadn’t been a house there for 40 years.”

Preserving Community

About 7 miles east of that lot on Columbia Street, Carolyn Lopez and Rene Porras gather at restaurant and bakery, Porras Prontito, in Denver Harbor. The group is responsible for several successful lot size applications in their neighborhood.

An entirely different set of circumstances influenced the group to get involved in lot-size application process. In Denver Harbor, where the median income is more than $70,000 lower than the median income in the Heights, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, the proliferation of townhomes is a harbinger for gentrification as new construction is threatening to drive property values up.

“We were the first low-income area [to file applications] and for three years, [property appraisals] stayed stable,” Porras said. “And that’s a really big, big deal for us because we thought we were going to get clobbered by property taxes and actually it slowed them down.”

In the neighboring Fifth Ward neighborhood, where lot size applications have not been used as frequently, a recent study from the Kinder Institute for Urban Research found that median income adjusted for inflation increased by 2.8% in 2000-16, while median rent increased by 29% and the median home value increased by 69% in the same time period.

“This is our neighborhood. This is what we nurtured. This is what we’ve grown,” said Porras, who inherited the now 49-year-old bakery from his father. “We’ve lived here for generations now and all the sudden, people with money, just want to come in and move us out.”

Meanwhile, in the Heights, townhomes threaten to devalue a property if they disrupt what once was a cohesive neighborhood with sought-after single-family homes, Baldwin said.

“What you’re trying to protect  is the investment in the single family homes as well,” Baldwin said. “There’s a diminished value in being next door to this many units, or at least that’s the perception.”

However, Greg LeGrande, president of the Neartown-Montrose Neighborhood Association, said the neighborhood’s current variety of housing makes it appealing to residents of many backgrounds. The association is currently advocating for a greater mix of housing to maintain its affordability for teachers, police officers and students, he said.

“We have a mixture of some nice single-family homes and other things all together, and a lot of that diversity makes Montrose, Montrose,” he said.

In the Heights, Bennett said the neighborhood’s character depends on its prevalence of single-family homes.

“People are friendly here, and you know the people that live across the street from you and the people that live next door to you,” Bennett said. “If you lived next door to a series of townhouses that has a center driveway where everybody went in through the middle and never came out the front, you wouldn’t ever know anybody that lived there.”

Market pressures

A 2017 Kinder Institute of Urban Research study on housing affordability found 30% of Harris County residents are considered “cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than a third of their income on housing.

Baldwin, who is also a founding member of the Your Houston PAC, which promotes more dense housing as a way to improve Houston’s affordability, said traditionally underserved areas need to welcome some amount of change to gain access to more resources, such as grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses. He said areas zoned for industrial use could absorb growth too.

“There’s plenty of these areas in the east and in Kashmere Gardens, in the north and in Independence Heights—tracts of land that are vacant—that you’re changing the use from commercial into more residential areas,” Baldwin said. “That’s where we would find [diverse housing stock], not in the middle of a residential neighborhood that already has a prevailing lot size.”

Relying on underserved areas to accommodate housing needs for a growing city while residents become susceptible to gentrification and longer, costlier commutes, will not help address Houston’s inequalities, said District H City Council Member Karla Cisneros, whose district includes parts of the Heights, Near Northside and Denver Harbor.

“It’s not me saying I want nobody to come in here. I’m saying let us maintain some language around here ... the festivals,the tamale festival, the church bizarre, all that stuff,” Porras said.

While the city may need to increase its housing stock, Cisneros said she celebrates the community organizing required for a lot-size application in any neighborhood.

“The truth is there’s not just one thing that we need,” Cisneros said. “We need a little bit of everything to serve all the people that live here. ... We have people that want the single-family home, and we have people that don’t want that.”
By Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered public health, education and features for several Austin-area publications. A Boston native, she is a former student athlete and alumna of The University of Texas at Austin.


MOST RECENT

Snow covers I-45 in Houston during a winter storm that hit Texas the night of Feb. 14. (Shawn Arrajj/Community Impact Newspaper)
Legislators probe energy officials over power failures, lack of preparation heading into winter storm

The Texas Legislature held hearings Feb. 25 with energy companies including Oncor Electric Delivery and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas in response to last week’s historic winter storm, which left millions of Texans without electricity for days.

Keith Luechtefeld spoke with Community Impact Newspaper about some of the short-term and long-term repercussions of the storm as well as some of the reasons why so many homes saw burst pipes during the freezing weather. (Community Impact staff)
Q&A: Greater Houston Builders Association President Keith Luechtefeld discusses power, plumbing, frozen pipes after Winter Storm Uri

Keith Luechtefeld spoke with Community Impact Newspaper about some of the short-term and long-term repercussions of the storm as well as some of the reasons why so many homes saw burst pipes during the freezing weather.

OKA will open at a 9,000-square-foot store at 3461 W. Alabama St., Houston, in April, showcasing London-inspired interior design. (Courtesy OKA)
British design retailer OKA picks Houston's Upper Kirby for US expansion

The British design and interiors retailer OKA will open its Houston store in April.

Antone’s Famous Po’ Boys will bring a new “H-Town Originals” sandwich to Houston in collaboration with Dr. Peter Hotez, chair of Tropical Pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital, co-director of Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development, and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. (Courtesy Liana Bouchard/Legacy Restaurants)
Antone’s Po’ Boys to bring new Dr. Hotez sandwich to Houston

Antone’s Famous Po’ Boys will donate 50% of proceeds from the sales of the sandwich to support the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

Winter Storm Uri led to closures across the Greater Houston area during the third week of February. (Courtesy Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County)
‘It’s been a rough year for us’: Expert explains economic effects of winter storm, ongoing pandemic in Houston region

“It's been a rough year for us economically; it's been a rough year for us public health wise. It's just been a rough year for us psychologically—first the coronavirus and then the freeze," said Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research with the Greater Houston Partnership.

Down House Heights
Heights restaurant Down House has closed

The coffee shop, bar and restaurant opened in 2011.

Rothko Chapel
Rothko Chapel marks 50 years with event series

Houston art patrons John and Dominique de Menil first revealed Rothko Chapel to the public over three days 50 years ago, Feb. 26-28, 1971.

The $560 million central processor, which is part of the new Mickey Leland International Terminal, will replace the parking garage for terminals D and E. (Courtesy Houston Airport System)
Parking garage at George Bush Intercontinental Airport to be demolished to make way for new Mickey Leland International Terminal

The international central processor, which is part of the new Mickey Leland International Terminal, will replace the parking garage for terminals D and E.

As many as 31 stores across nine states will be shuttered as Fry's Electronics shuts down due to market changes and the pandemic. (Courtesy Qygen, Wikimedia Commons)
Fry's Electronics calls it quits after nearly 36 years in business

As many as 31 stores across nine states will be shuttered as Fry's Electronics shuts down due to market changes and the pandemic.

A lone runner jogs on a snow-covered road in Austin. Transportation projects across the city were briefly paused due to Winter Storm Uri. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
ERCOT: Texas power system was less than 5 minutes from collapse during winter storm

ERCOT's CEO offered details into what led to the massive blackouts that left millions of Texans in the cold last week.

Emerging technology and alternative energy sectors could help ease the blow of an oil and gas industry downturn in Houston caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a Houston-area economist said. (Courtesy Visit Houston)
Greater Houston area could see economic relief from pandemic around mid-2021, economist says

Emerging technology and alternative-energy sectors could help ease the blow of the downturn in Houston's oil and gas industry caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most of the electric grid in Texas is managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which is not linked to other national interconnected systems. (Courtesy Electric Reliability Council of Texas)
Harris County to begin exploring alternatives to Texas power grid at Feb. 26 meeting

Following the winter storm-induced statewide power outages last week that left thousands of Harris County residents without heat amid freezing temperatures, the Harris County Commissioners Court will begin exploring what it would take for Harris County to leave the state's power grid at its Feb. 26 meeting.