UPDATE May 25, 2021: The new zoning ordinance was approved by a 4 to 3 vote on May 24, 2021.
The May 3, 2021, the City Council meeting ended after almost 5-1/2 hours. The proposed language for the new zoning district along Fournace, the North Bellaire Special Development District (NBSDD) for the old Chevron tract that encompasses approximately 30 acres, covered the second half the evening.
Due to the length of the meeting there will be a Special Session, at a date to be decided, to continue Council consideration of the ordinance. This tract is bordered by residential areas to the north and the south. Although residents were not allowed to speak, an owner of the property, Danny Sheena, was allowed to do so towards the end of the meeting.
Bellaire residents are proud to live in a city with protective zoning and a well-written Comprehensive Plan. After all, who wants to live across the street from a hotel, a movie theater, a Dave & Buster’s or a 24 Hour Fitness? Or have a multi-level parking garage or 85′ tall building erected just 35 (now 65′) feet from their back fence? But wait… isn’t that exactly what’s being proposed in this new district? And a ‘height set-back plane’ for a tall building? That still leaves a tall building.
Meanwhile City Attorney Alan Petrov reiterated several times during the meeting that the zoning code has to be consistent with the language for the North Bellaire Special Development Area in the Comprehensive Plan, amended in 2017 and orginally recommending single family homes. “Such a “lifecycle” residential component might include single-family homes developed in a clustered fashion, on small lots and possibly with a more vertical house profile (i.e., three stories) …”. That was before the contamination on the site was revealed. Mr. Petrov mentioned that a zoning code would usually be more specific, not less. So where does City Council stand with the current proposal?
What Did Planning and Zoning Propose?
Apparently the premise of the Planning and Zoning Board’s broad language, which seems to contain just about anything a developer may desire, is focused on Planned Development (PD). If the proposed use is on the list of PD Permitted Uses developers could submit a proposed PD for that use, possibly on a site as small as 2 acres, for approval by P&Z. If approved it would move on to City Council for consideration. Which means more stress for Bellaire residents. Check out the list and some of the site specifications later in this article.
Councilmember Wesely asked about the covenants from the Special Warranty Deed from Chevron, which can only be enforced by Chevron. Due to the contamination on the site single family homes are no longer being proposed, but what about the prohibition on hospitals, nursing homes, day care centers, children’s homes and schools? What about the requirement for vapor barriers, prohibitions on using underground water for landscaping or using the ground to grow food for human consumption. Are they just to be ignored? Shouldn’t they be addressed in this zoning ordinance?
Council discussion flowed, first from an esoteric analogy about a blank check that needs to be carefully filled in but then segued to quasi-approval of P&Z’s decision. On to a suggestion to reduce the large circle of uses, heights, and site coverage to a much smaller diameter.
Some members expressed concern for the residents in the area. Another mentioned trust. I hope I misunderstood that part about trust. Hopefully it was not intended to suggest acceptance of this language now and then leave it up to future City Boards and City Councils to remedy or prevent bad choices.
Because isn’t that pretty much the premise of the proposed product from P&Z? Approve what’s being presented no matter how outrageous or unbelievable or ruinous for Bellaire residents, but trust that future members of P&Z and City Council would be more considerate and protective than the current crew?
Out of curiosity, what’s wrong with specificity? That’s what residents are requesting, and it is a standard in other City ordinances. What if builders could request approval of 4-story houses, 60′ in height? Well, there’s an ordinance for that and it specifies a maximum of 2-1/2 stories and 35′ 6″ height. Period. Some cities limit all buildings, residential or commercial, to 2 stories.
Why not specifically limit building heights and lot coverage for the remainder of the entire tract? Establish setbacks for the entire perimeter, especially deeper ones from the residences on the north boundary? No one knows the future for flooding in that area after the 610/69 construction is completed.
Can’t the next session begin with a list of the proposed ‘Allowable Uses’, as listed below? Then strike off or change what is deemed unacceptable?
Proposed Uses for Planned Developments
The uses that are highlighted in red are prohibited in the Chevron Special Covenants mentioned by Councilmember Wesely. He proposed that they be removed from the list and they were, by a vote of 5 to 2. Councilmembers Verma and Fife voted against. Why would they feel those uses should remain?
(2) Planned Development: Applicants intending any use other than those permitted in the district by this subsection must propose a planned development under the amendatory procedures in Section 24-604. All such applications must meet the development standards detailed in this Section. Allowable uses inside a planned development may include a single use from the following list or a combination of two or more of the listed uses:
a) Business and professional offices and services;
b) Banks, credit unions and similar institutions;
c) General retail sales and services, excluding pawnshops, tattoo shops, head shops, vehicle sales and services, including service stations, vehicle washing, vehicle repair and vehicle storage;
d) Restaurants and cafeterias;
e) Bars, when accessory to a principal restaurant, hotel, commercial indoor amusement, movie theater, or theater use, and subject to the requirements of Chapter 3, Alcoholic Beverages, of the City Code;
f) Indoor movie theater;
g) Indoor athletic facilities;
h) Amusement, commercial indoor;
i) Studios for photography, art, music, dance or fitness activities;
j) Museums or art galleries;
k) Theaters, for live performances;
l) Hotels, as defined in Section 24-202(87), designed to where ingress to and egress from all rooms is made through an inside lobby;
m) Conference center facilities;
n) Medical offices and/or urgent care facilities;
o) Assisted living facilities; – Removed from List by City Council vote on May 3, 2021
p) Nursing homes; or skilled nursing facilities; – Removed from List by City Council vote on May 3, 2021
q) Hospital or emergency room; – Removed from List by City Council vote on May 3, 2021
r) Commercial parking garage operations, within multi-level and/or underground garage space as defined in Section 24-202(78), but not commercial surface parking lots (areas) as defined in Section 24-202(42).
(3) Temporary uses. Temporary uses in the NBSDD shall be authorized, permitted, limited in duration and subject to potential time extensions as provided in Section 24-505. Examples of such uses include:
a) Construction offices.
b) Public interest or special events.
c) Sidewalk sales and other outdoor sales events (e.g. farmer’s market).
C. Development Standards. What about the Site? Why would an 85′ building height remain on the list if it is not considered acceptable?
Why would 80% lot coverage be included when the current TRPD coverage is 75%? The Loop 610 district allows 60% coverage, and a 6-story building height with a 50′ setback from the right-of-way.
How can a 35′ setback from the residences on Mayfair be considered acceptable, especially if tall buildings are allowed? Per the Comprehensive Plan, “lowest development intensities, together with adequate separation and buffering, should occur along the northern boundary of the area, closest to the single-family homes that front on Mayfair Street…” What about zero setback along Fournace Place and South Rice Avenue, with buildings right up to the property line? Where are we, in downtown Houston or in Bellaire, the City of Homes?
What Does This Say About The Neighbors’ Quality of Life?
The Comprehensive Plan calls for green space and parks in that district. “In non-residential and mixed-use areas, pocket parks, landscaped plazas and seating areas, and generous plantings within street rights-of-way would provide the desired green amenities and area enhancement. Additionally, landscaping plans across the entire Special Development Area should have a core objective of extending the signature urban tree canopy of Bellaire into the interior of the area—”
If the demographics in the residential portions of that area change, residences are demolished and the area transforms to commercial businesses, for instance, couldn’t the City consider modifying the zoning in the future?
For now the view of the Mayor and some members of Council seems to be let’s approve this now, most of this will probably never be proposed anyway, but if it is we (or future Councils) can deal with it then. That seems to be a weak choice.
Because unless they’re mind readers those future P&Z and City Council folks will not realize that something that was passed by earlier versions of the same Board and Council was not their actual intent. And residents will continue to be threatened each time another site plan for that district is submitted by a developer.
You can email the Mayor and members of City Council via our City Clerk, Tracy Dutton, firstname.lastname@example.org, and ask that she forward your message.