May 26, 2013
"So the bad stuff we're going to see today," I asked, "it'll be a cautionary tale for the suburbs?"
I was driving west from downtown on what I thought of, privately, as the Terror o' Townhouses Tour, a sort of scared-straight exhibit for suburbanites like me, who haven't realized what a boring-sounding change to city development rules may be about to unleash on our outside-the-Loop neighborhoods.
David Robinson and Jane Cahill West were my guides. As neighborhood activists, they'd both seen firsthand how, 14 years ago, a similar change to Chapter 42 of the city of Houston ordinances made high-density development possible inside Loop 610, transforming entire neighborhoods lot by lot. One-story houses with yards gave way to townhouses so quickly that it became disconcerting to drive down a street you hadn't seen in a while.
"Yeah," Robinson said from my Hyundai's back seat. "We're interested in how the city is going to educate the suburbs." (Robinson, an architect, is one of those civic activists who seem to be everywhere: head of the Neartown Association, former president of the Super Neighborhood Association, former member of the planning commission, a candidate for City Council, veteran of a bazillion stakeholders' committees.)
"Just getting the word out is a problem," said West in the front seat. (Her résumé is as overstuffed as his: vice president and resident expert on development for the Super Neighborhood Alliance, recent president of Washington Ave/Memorial Park Super Neighborhood Council, a former board chair of the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone for the Old Sixth Ward, and on and on.) "It's a tough subject to cover."
"They're getting hit by a tidal wave," said Robinson.
"Now get in the right-hand lane," West said. "Crooms Street is coming up."
I drove slowly down Crooms, a single long block just north of Memorial, between Asbury and Detering, one of those townhouse-lined streets that looks nothing like it did 15 years ago. Slow was the only speed possible. The skinny street, once able to handle two-way traffic of its few residents, is now one-way, with cars parked here and there along the sides. And that morning, garbage cans lined both sides, making it seem even narrower.
Midblock, a man was walking tentatively at the edge of the street, next to an open ditch, dodging the cans. "That guy could use a sidewalk," said Robinson.
Billy Smith II, Staff
A delivery truck squeezes through tightly packed Crooms, between Asbury and Detering.
"But where are
the sidewalks?" West asked rhetorically. As a place grows denser, she noted, sidewalks become ever more important: There's simply not enough space for everyone to drive and park. But inside the Loop, many townhoused streets give no quarter to anyone not ensconced in a car.
As a matter of policy, West explained, the city doesn't build neighborhood sidewalks. Instead, it requires private developers to build them in front of each new project, or at least to make sure that they're up to code. If that system worked, a street jammed with new development would have nice fresh sidewalks 5 feet wide, friendly not just to pedestrians but to wheelchairs and strollers. But Crooms was a scary place to walk - and it's hardly alone.
"There aren't enough inspectors to enforce the rules," West explained. "Or the developers ask the Planning Commission for a variance, so they don't have to build a sidewalk, or so they can build one that's 4 feet wide instead of 5. The Planning Commission hands out variances like Halloween candy."
"No, we don't!" said Robinson. (I checked the rearview: smiling.)
West continued unfazed. "And once that happens, a precedent is set. 'So and so at the property next door got that variance, so why can't we have it?' You end up with a street like this."
I kept inching down Crooms. "That one has no drainage," West said, pointing to a townhouse. "Lots of them don't."
Billy Smith II, Staff
A no parking sign put up by a resident on Crooms St., between Asbury and Detering, Tuesday May 21, 2013. (Billy Smith / Chronicle)
Each lot is supposed to have either an open ditch or a curb with a gutter, she explained. Those flat spaces that just flow into the street with no hard edge? Those have been filled in illegally. Lots of little builders do that. Then some even have the nerve to put up illegal no-parking signs, transforming public right-of-way into private yards or parking spaces.
As things stand, she said, it's important for neighbors to monitor new construction closely and file a complaint if there's obviously no drainage. The city might then stop the project until the problem is fixed. But once construction is finished, it's too late. A right has been established, and the city won't act - never mind that the neighbors become far more likely to be flooded.
"The city needs more staff to review plans, do inspections and enforce the rules we have," said Robinson. "We can't enforce those rules already. Now we're about to expand those rules to an eightfold increase in territory. And so far, the city hasn't allocated or reallocated money for a single new inspector."
At the end of the street, where Crooms meets Detering, we heard the beep and rumble of a garbage truck. "Do they have special trucks for a one-way street like this?" West asked Robinson. "With special arms on both sides, to get cans on both sides of the street? Or does the truck just drive the wrong way down the street?"
I thought that was another rhetorical question. But then, suddenly, the truck turned onto Crooms, driving the wrong way: facing my car.
Robinson, an old hand at documenting neighborhood annoyances, jumped out of the back seat, clicking away with his phone camera. I pulled into a driveway so the truck could pass.
A minute later, he climbed back into the car, grinning, and passed his phone to the front seat so West and I could see the photo. He'd scored: The screen showed the garbage truck entering Crooms, right next to the Do Not Enter sign. It was the kind of Exhibit A documentation that beleaguered neighborhood activists treasure, the kind of thing that shows the unexpected, unplanned-for problems of high-density development.
"You know something is wrong when the municipal authorities have to break the law to do their job," Robinson said. It was a good line. I figured he'd use it again soon with that photo, at one of the subcommittee or commission meetings where the nitty-gritty work of fixing a city gets done.
It was too late to fix Crooms, of course. But for those suburban townhouse neighborhoods yet to be born, there's still a chance to get things right.
Density for dummies
What's up: Chapter 42, the city of Houston ordinance that controls how land is subdivided, changed in a big way last month. Now city rules encourage higher-density development outside Loop 610.
Why it's a big deal: The last revision, in 1999, transformed inside-the-Loop Houston. In an astonishingly short time, many neighborhoods' single-story houses and grassy lawns gave way, one lot at a time, to three-story townhouses.
Now that kind of development will be allowed in a much, much larger area: not just the 96 square miles inside Loop 610, but in all 600 square miles inside city limits.
What won't change: Neighborhoods protected by well-enforced, up-to-date deed restrictions that specify a minimum lot size. Those private contracts will still apply.
What could change radically: Neighborhoods without strong deed restrictions, or whose deed restrictions don't specify minimum lot size. (Those neighborhoods have a year to submit a minimum-lot-size petition.) Development pressure will likely be greatest in the north and west suburbs.
Possible upsides: Rising land values in denser neighborhoods. More new housing in the $200,000-and-up range. Development of run-down properties.
Stuff to worry about: Lack of enforcement of existing city rules. Radical change of your neighborhood's character. Drainage problems. Increased traffic tie-ups in suburbs with only one or two entry points. Noise. Lack of sidewalks, which become more important as a neighborhood grows denser. Loss of green space.
Timeline: The new ordinances are being phased in over two years. To tighten deed restrictions or petition for lot-size protection, neighborhoods need to start right away.
The map below is the Priority Development Area that Supervisor Adams advocates 30 to 50 housing units per acre. It is all land east of Las Gallinas to the 101 Freeway.
Townhouses on your street?