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As Ashby rises from the ashes, Houston still skirts the Z-word

In October 2007, protesters marched down an affluent stretch of Bissonnet Street, many carrying signs depicting a “monster tower” with gripping arms and bared teeth, towering over single-family homes in prosperous adjacent neighborhoods. The protest was sparked by a project known as the Ashby Skyscraper, a proposed 23-story tower on the corner of Bissonnet and Ashby – smack in the middle of two lovely neighborhoods near Rice University, Boulevard Oaks to the north and Southampton to the south. Protests and lawsuits over the project would drag on for years.

Months after that show of civic outrage, as millions of Americans lost their jobs, homes and savings due to a global financial crisis, a more parochial issue – land use policy in Houston , Texas – captured the attention of a small but earnest group of city officials, neighborhood activists and real estate industry leaders who met regularly in a conference room in the annex of the ‘city Hall. They were there to propose a policy that addressed the larger issues that Ashby’s skyscraper represented. I was the reporter at the back of the room, tie askew, doodling conscientiously in his notebook. I will never get those hours back.

The group’s goal was afflicted with a name barely sticking out of the tongue: a “high-density development ordinance.” This measure, if they knew how to write it, would protect neighborhoods made up mostly of isolated single-family residences from the deleterious effects – traffic jams, obstructed views, general “quirky” aesthetics – of developments that concentrate more people in smaller spaces. High-rise residential towers, for example.

The group scrambled for weeks and actually produced a draft prescription, but nobody liked. One concern was that the language of the measure would potentially affect future projects, but that wouldn’t have stopped the Ashby skyscraper. As I wrote at the time, “Finding ways to only capture projects that fit this narrow definition required hours of discussion about fine points such as the meaning of the word ‘adjoining’.” By midsummer, the project was abandoned and never repeated in the same context. Andy Icken, then deputy director of public works and now Houston’s director of development, explained the conundrum at the time, saying such an ordinance “would give people a warm feeling that this is the way the city ​​does things. The downside is…we explicitly set these development standards, we often find ourselves skirting around the Z-word.”

(Anyone interested enough to keep reading will know what the Z-word is.)

The site has sat empty for the eight years since a Houston judge ruled there was no way to legally block the project. Throughout those years, the lovely patch of green space encompassing an entire city block proved irresistible to some residents, who squeezed through the gaps in the surrounding chain-link fence to play ball with their dogs. (Kids born the year promoters first applied for permits are now in high school.)

Now, finally, some movement: The Chronicle’s Marissa Luck reports that the owners of the property have brought in a new development team and a scaled-down plan for a 20-story luxury apartment building on the site. It would have 94 units less than the 2016 version of the project. The developers plan to begin construction by November and complete construction by 2025, Luck reports. Assuming that actually happens, the dogs of Boulevard Oaks and Southampton will have to find another place to let off steam.

Across the city, meanwhile, complaints persist about problematic land use: New concert halls and strip clubs are popping up everywhere. Turns out concrete plants are mostly located in communities of color. State scientists have found clusters of cancers in the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens that may be linked to a site where railroad ties were treated with creosote. These environmental justice concerns are arguably more pressing than the complaints that flooded the inboxes of city council members at the height of the Ashby controversy. In such disputes, of course, neighborhoods inhabited by construction workers and retail employees face far greater challenges than those inhabited by lawyers, doctors and university professors. And the underlying problem – the need for a better system to regulate what goes where in a rapidly growing city – remains unresolved.

Bill White, who was mayor when the Ashby project was proposed and navigated much of the initial controversy, told me by phone last week that Houston leaders are challenged to balance the need to maintain moving traffic – discouraging large projects that dump huge volumes of vehicles onto streets not designed for that capacity – and “not scaling up behind us” when opportunities arise to provide more housing close to major employment centres. (The Ashby site is convenient to downtown and the Texas Medical Center.)

“It’s causing stress for people who want nothing more than single-family homes (housing) in neighborhoods already built for single-family homes,” White said.

He was not specifically referring to neighborhoods near the Ashby site – in fact, a low-rise housing development stood there for years until it was demolished to make way for the new tower. It is true, however, that the leaders of many established neighborhoods fight fiercely against proposed apartment projects, and they bring out the heavy artillery if the phrase “low-income” or “affordable” is uttered by anyone involved. . A denser city might seem desirable in the abstract, but many would rather see it happen on someone else’s street.

About the Z-word: Houston voters have rejected zoning three times since the end of World War II, most recently in 1993. A friend who follows these issues suggested to me that many new people have moved to Houston since then, and a formulated initiative—perhaps focusing on the form of buildings rather than their use—could pass. But someone influential should step in to champion the idea, and I don’t see any obvious candidate. I think zoning in Houston is a non-starter.

As for the new proposal for Ashby’s site, it’s hard to imagine that another round of protests and/or lawsuits would yield a different outcome. Geoffrey Walker, a resident who has been active in efforts to block the Ashby project, said many questions about the new plan’s impacts remain unanswered.

“These are matters that will reasonably be of concern to owners around the site,” Walker wrote in an email. “And so far, they’re clearly showing us that a 20-story tower with over 140 rental units doesn’t make sense for this site.” (The plan actually calls for 134 units.)

Chris Amandes, the chairman of the Southampton Civic Club, offered it by email:

“My personal reaction is that fewer units and less traffic is better than more units and more traffic (and all the other negatives associated with the building and its construction), but at the end of the day, it’s still a 20-story building in a place where a 20-story building doesn’t belong.

The trick, of course, is how and by whom decisions are made about where buildings of a particular size, design or use “belong”. Houston clearly hasn’t figured that one out yet.

Mike Snyder is a writer from Houston who retired from the Chronicle in 2019 after 40 years as a reporter, editor and columnist.

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