Do We Value Our Small Businesses?
Can’t the appearance of downtown Bellaire be improved without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to drive out our longtime businesses?
We already have everything we need to succeed as a community. A great location, terrific schools and parks. Friendly residents living on tree-lined streets in quiet neighborhoods. A city government that includes our own library, police and fire departments, and a public works department.
We have a sizable number of eating places and a variety of small businesses, all conveniently located. What more can we ask for, who or what else are we trying to attract? And why would we want to harm long established businesses?
My core belief is that it is morally wrong for a local government to plan to drive longtime businesses out of any town, but that’s just what the City of Bellaire seems to be doing.
The city manager has cherry-picked the Zoning Code and the City’s Comprehensive Plan to justify adding a streetscape to a street/drainage project along 5100 and 5200 Spruce and Fifth St by H-E-B. And the Mayor and City Council may acquiesce. I think our city and our citizens are better than this
The public works director stated that the cost of the streetscape is an additional $195,000. How he arrived at that figure by January 7th is unknown, since bids for the project are to be opened on January 17th. Is this the best way to spend those bond funds?
The City’s Reasons For The Project
The streets along 5100-5200 Spruce and Fifth alongside H-E-B are slated to be reconstructed and new drainage installed. Once completed the appearance of the entire area will be greatly improved.
The business and property owners are in agreement to that portion of the proposed project. Their only objection is the addition of angled public parking and 7 foot wide sidewalks on the City right-of-way.
The most recent plan will narrow the streets to 26 feet total width and hinder or block access to private parking lots. Imagine your driveway is blocked or inaccessible, only a public street for parking. The design will also create difficulties for deliveries to all the businesses in the area, including H-E-B.
The stated reason for the Spruce/Fifth streetscape portion of the project is to promote redevelopment in the area to attract new businesses that ‘conform’ to the Comprehensive Plan and our zoning ordinances.
This is an excerpt from the January 7th council meeting agenda: “There are seven properties within the limits of the Spruce and Fifth Street Reconstruction Project that do not align with current zoning requirements.
In fact all the businesses on Spruce and Fifth are grandfathered and appear to meet current zoning requirements for permitted uses, including Business and professional offices and services, General retail sales and services, and Restaurants and cafeterias.
Among the affected businesses are a restaurant, an auto repair, a beauty salon, a bakery, a day care, a wine and liquor store, and an auto parts business. Most have been serving the community for 20 to 30 years or more, all are valued by the community, and no one has complained about parking problems.
A quick drive through the Spruce/Fifth area on a Sunday morning is an eye opener. The public parking in the 5200 block of Cedar and all the private parking lots made available in the area for after-hours parking are filled with H-E-B employee vehicles. Who will be parking in the new public parking spaces?
Planning and Zoning
Some history on our P&Z. Planning and Zoning regulations are the result of decisions made by the Planning and Zoning Commission, which is comprised of Bellaire residents who volunteer to serve on the commission and are appointed by the mayor and city council.
Commissioners may be attorneys or housewives, oil and gas executives or real estate agents. While their service is valued they are seldom professional city planners or traffic flow analysts, and they often rely on the advice of City staff.
Bellaire has debated the question of protecting residential versus encouraging commercial for decades. It was the base cause of the recall election in the 1970s. In the past the downtown commercial perimeter area adjoining residential areas was zoned CCD-1 and allowed 2 story height on small parcels and 3 stories for planned development structures on an acre or more. CCD-2 allowed taller structures the central areas that did not connect to residential, such as the the Triangle and Randall’s Center.
However zoning in commercial areas of Bellaire was changed in 2014. The Planning and Zoning Commission did away with CCD-1 and CCD-2, and recommended UV-D (Urban Village-Downtown), with everything from single family townhouses to possible 6 or 7 story mixed-use multi-family buildings containing apartments or condos.
The change involved the north side of 5100 and 5200 Spruce, which backs up to residential properties on the south side of Locust.
Maximum building height by right on a small lot was increased from 2 stories (approx 25 ft) to 53 ft plus a possible 20 ft more. Planned development height on one acre was increased from 3 stories (approx 35 ft) to a maximum building height of 79 feet. Plus an additional 20 feet for roof gables, antennas, etc. – up to 99 feet! Built just 15 feet away from residential properties. For reference, the stalled Ashby Highrise on Bissonnet was to be built on just over one and one-half acres.
This change was approved by City Council on a 5 to 2 vote. I wish I was making this up, but you can find it all here: UV-D Sec. 24-537. Towards the end, the last item, d) Planned Development – in red – 79 height + 20 additional feet. Find the Bellaire Zoning Map here
What Will Replace These Businesses?
Using images from the Comprehensive Plan, the city manager and public works director are promoting a Sugar Land look. Photos of upscale areas include Market Street in the Woodlands (situated in the middle of 2 million s/f of shops and businesses), City Centre, Pearland Town Center, and Arrive River Oaks, located at the corner of Kirby and Westheimer.
City Centre covers 9 acres, Pearland Town Center covers acres more and includes a 25 acre lake, and instead of a view of River Oaks our Arrive River Oaks would face the rear of a grocery store, the parking garage, and a gas station.
Is This Move By The City Necessary?
Here’s the thing. Change occurs in an area if and when a business or developer decides it’s worth making an investment. Land and businesses are acquired through private agreements and eventually a new development is planned or a new business opens.
Bellaire didn’t have to drive out the owners of the strip center that changed hands in the 5200 block of Cedar, or force Earthman’s to put their Dashwood property on the market, where 401 and several other businesses are now located.
Anyone can enter into a purchase agreement for any of the properties in the 5100 or 5200 blocks of Spruce or along Fifth and renovate in the same manner. But once most of the private parking access is limited or blocked the value and best use of those properties will be negatively affected for both current and future owners.
Why would any new business owner or developer prefer public parking spaces where anyone can park, when they could have accessible private spaces reserved for a particular business or development, even room for expansion?
Picture the small shops along University Blvd and Rice Blvd in the Village. How could they stay in business without dedicated pull-in parking?
Are There Other Options for the City?
Sure. Reconstruct the streets and add new drainage. Work with the property owners and businesses on some updates, including sidewalks and landscaping. This is from the Comprehensive Plan regarding the downtown businesses:
“Offer mini-grants to existing commercial property and business owners to help finance building facade improvements, enhanced landscaping, or other site upgrades that might not otherwise occur where no construction activities are planned that would trigger compliance with newer development standards”
Working in concert with the land owners, the City can incorporate five foot wide sidewalks without curbs into the private parking lots. (See the image of the Bellaire fire station below.) Landscaping possibilities can be offered. That’s the sort of accommodation or assistance the City can provide to the owners. H-E-B had already planned on sidewalks along Spruce and Fifth, now the City can build them.
Finally there’s the question of fairness. Is it appropriate for a city government to use its power and funds to limit access to a business, to interfere with deliveries and to obstruct or block private parking spaces? All of which will harm the businesses, not help them.
We are asked to be mindful of a campaign to support our local businesses. Let’s begin with our businesses on Spruce and Fifth Streets.
Residents were unaware that they were voting for hundreds of thousands of dollars for this streetscape plan in the 2016 bond issue for streets, drainage, and sidewalks.
Find more information on this plan at: https://www.bellairecivicclub.com/spruce-and-fifth-street-neighborhood-meeting-what-will-happen-to-local-businesses/
Email the Mayor and City Council via our City Clerk, Tracy Dutton at email@example.com. Ask her to forward your email to the Council.
Bellaire’s Bonded Debt will be $129 million by the end of FY2019
With interest the debt runs about $180 million. Another bond issue is under discussion for 2019.