City design guide seen as threat to transit measure
Fallout from the long-dormant Ashby high-rise development emerged Wednesday as a potential obstacle to the city’s effort to promote walkable, urban-style development along Metro’s planned light-rail lines.
Neighborhood opposition to the Ashby project, a planned 23-story mixed-use tower whose developers continue to await a permit almost two years after they first applied, inspired changes to an obscure city document known as the Infrastructure Design Manual. The changes include a review process intended to prevent high-density developments from worsening traffic congestion on surrounding streets.
City Council members and speakers at a public hearing Wednesday said certain provisions in the design manual conflict with the goals of the proposed urban transit corridors ordinance. Councilwomen Toni Lawrence and Pam Holm threatened to withhold support from the ordinance, seen by many as a vital first step in creating walkable urbanism in Houston, unless the conflict was resolved.
“Urban corridors and transit streets are getting caught in the trap they set for Ashby,” said Kendall Miller, president of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, a group seeking to limit new regulations on Houston’s real estate industry.
The transit corridors ordinance, expected to be considered by City Council within a few weeks, would require wider sidewalks throughout Houston and provide incentives for developers to include a 15-foot-wide “pedestrian realm” with safe, attractive environments for people walking to and from trains.
Among the neighborhoods most likely to take advantage of the ordinance is the Uptown-Galleria area, where developers already are planning projects that would draw customers from a planned light rail line. But John Breeding, president of the Uptown Houston District, told the council Wednesday that Chapter 15 of the design manual could undercut the vision for Uptown.
While the goal of the transit corridors ordinance is to encourage higher density along rail lines, Breeding said, “the goal of Chapter 15 is to control, reduce or ultimately prohibit additional development density if it increases traffic.”
Chapter 15 was added to the design manual in the aftermath of the Ashby controversy, but it simply put into writing procedures that the city already followed, said Andy Icken, deputy director of the Department of Public Works and Engineering.
Icken said he will work with Marlene Gafrick, Houston’s planning and development director, to add language to the transit corridors ordinance clarifying that reduced automobile traffic is likely along corridors where people will be riding trains. That should reduce the need for any traffic mitigation, Icken said.
But Miller, of Houstonians for Responsible Growth, said he remains concerned that Chapter 15 of the design manual gives Public Works personnel too much discretion to require developers to take costly steps to offset traffic impacts. Those costs and lack of predictability could discourage investment in transit corridors and elsewhere, Miller said.
“Many of these standards have been put in place to deal with a specific project,” she said, referring to the Ashby high-rise, “and it gives too much decision-making to one person as opposed to setting standards. It is in conflict with the goal of what we’re trying to do with this ordinance as a city.”
Chronicle reporter Bradley Olson contributed to this report.