Houston Sprawl

One of the many things immediately noticed about the Houston area is how spread out it is. We invented urban sprawl. The next thing that you notice is an almost complete and total lack of zoning. There’s a residential community, followed by a strip mall, next to a liquor store, a high school, a church, another mall, gas stations, another mall, apartments, houses, office building, mall… get the picture? You would think that folks in Houston would be all for a more efficient, more planned use of space. Not so much. Nothing gets people’s blood boiling like a new development. Hi-rises are a chic form of living anywhere… except Houston. Yes, we have them and they do command top dollar. But building a new one is a major Bataan Death March for a developer. You see, nobody wants their view or their community impacted.

The Ashby High Rise is one such development project. It would be a 23 story building with 226 residential units, shops, a restaurant and a five-story parking garage at 1717 Bissonnet by the adjoining Southampton and Boulevard Oaks neighborhoods. Two things stand in it’s way (well, a lot more than 2, but let’s start with those): wealthy neighbors and houston’s crappy infrastructure. The adjoining subdivisions are filled with upwardly mobile folks with pricey homes and foreign cars. They don’t want the ambience of their neighborhood destroyed or their views obstructed. And the main artery that serves these neighborhoods and the proposed development (Bissonnet) is just a two-lane road. So it becomes a political football.

The mayor of Houston, Bill White, was planning on creating some new ordinances to force the developer to adhere to new traffic impact rules. Instead, he has trotted out the Houston Driveway Law that dates back to the 1940’s. It gives the city the power to reject site plans where driveways connect to public streets and:

  • A location where 60 percent or more of the properties within a 500-foot radius are residential
  • Driveways that feed onto local or collector streets instead of a major thoroughfare
  • A net increase of 50 additional vehicles going to and from the development during rush hours

Great. Using this approach, new laws do not have to go through City Council, the developers will get to propose (and likely pay for) widening of city streets and the addition of turning lanes, and the price of the residential living spaces will rise (a lot). Oh, and the existing community residents will still complain because their view is obstructed and they live next to an evil high rise… in a city with no zoning. They can take solace in the fact that there’s at least a dozen places to get all liquored up about it within walking distance.


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