September 20, 2017

Specific Use Permits for New Bellaire High School, Offsite Baseball Approved With Conditions

With our daily attention devoted to Hurricane Harvey recovery, much of our usual city business has been deferred or postponed indefinitely.  One major item that has been pending on our docket since before the storm, and has now been brought to a successful resolution, is the specific use permit for the rebuilding of Bellaire High School.  This week the City Council granted that permit, along with a second one to allow for the relocation of the baseball field to the former Gordon Elementary/Mandarin Chinese school property to free up some extra space on the BHS campus to make the site plan work.

Part of the Houston Independent School District’s 2012 bond program, this has been a very long time coming.  At many points along the way it seemed doubtful they’d ever come up with a plan that would work.  The challenges are immense in designing a 21st century high school on an undersized 1950s site, especially when construction is to be phased to keep the old building in operation while the new one is being built.

The original proposal in 2014 of a campus flip (building the new school on top of the existing athletic fields adjacent to Ferris Dr. and then replacing the fields after demolition of the existing building) was a complete non-starter. It was met with such hostility that HISD didn’t even bother with a formal application at that time.  Since then the plans pretty much stalled on the drawing board.  But HISD and the Project Advisory Team—representing parents, students, teachers, neighbors and the architect—stayed with it.  Earlier this year, the suggestion of moving the baseball program offsite, made by our District V Trustee Mike Lunceford, broke the impasse and a new plan quickly gained momentum.

The first step of our two-step process was a public hearing before the Planning and Zoning Commission.  (The proposed site plan also required variances from the Board of Adjustment, which are not subject to Council review and are outside the specific use permit process.)  P&Z’s public hearing yielded a lot of constructive input from the residents who spoke, and HISD showed great responsiveness to their concerns with further modifications to the plan.  The areas of disagreement were thus substantially reduced, and after due deliberation P&Z unanimously recommended approval of both SUPs with conditions.

The remaining issues having been narrowed, Council’s review focused primarily on the traffic impacts of the proposed parking garage and bus routing.  Harvey’s devastating floods also prompted renewed concerns about the drainage at both sites, with many speakers suggesting that the athletic fields be lowered for additional storm water detention.  While drainage plans are not part of specific use permitting, the point was well-taken and a clear request made to HISD to engage with our Development Services department to evaluate opportunities to incorporate flood control measures in the project.  Note that the plans already call for underground detention beneath the football field at BHS, and at the Gordon/Mandarin site removal of the existing improvements will result in a decrease of the impervious lot coverage from 32% to 23%.

After careful consideration of the thoughtful input from all sides, including the concerns expressed at P&Z and HISD’s revisions in response, the City Council was satisfied with the plans overall.  The discussion then turned to the conditions to be attached to the specific use permits.  For the BHS site, Council adopted the following:

  • (a) That the student enrollment at Bellaire High School shall not exceed 3,100 students, and the registrar’s office shall submit an enrollment affidavit at the beginning and end of each school year.

  • (b) Houston Independent School District must install one lane, on HISD property, from South Rice Avenue into the parking garage on Maple Street, and include a hard median between such lanes and Maple Street.

  • (c) No field lights or public address system shall be installed for the athletic field on the property.

  • (d) Houston Independent School District must install all medians, striping, traffic signals, and signage as depicted in the proposal, subject to the approval of the City’s Traffic Engineer.

  • (e) The use of temporary buildings shall be strictly prohibited.

P&Z had recommended, by a 4-3 vote, that condition (b) require two lanes into the parking garage.  Council examined the plans closely and identified a number of safety issues that would create, among them the additional turn lane pedestrians would have to cross, and that it would be dedicated to garage entry, not controlled by the traffic signal and with no bailout for drivers intending to turn onto Maple St.  The traffic engineers supported those arguments, and Council amended the condition to require only one lane.  Condition (e) was a new addition made by Council.

For the SUP allowing relocation of the baseball field to the Gordon/Mandarin site, Council adopted a second condition to protect the neighborhood from unanticipated activity beyond what has been represented:

  • (a) No field lights or public address system shall be installed on the property.

  • (b) The baseball facility shall be for the sole and exclusive use of Bellaire High School and not by other entities without prior consent of the City Council.

It is expected that HISD may come forward in the future with a proposed shared-use agreement for the baseball field, which could modify or supersede that second condition if acceptable to the City Council, with opportunities for public input, at that time.

Seemingly against the odds, HISD and its many involved stakeholders came up with a workable plan that both honors settled expectations, and at a minimum improves the status quo in the area around the school.  The original proposal of a campus flip would never have been approved, because it would have completely upended the well-established situation of the school within its surrounding neighborhood.  For more than 60 years the school has been oriented toward Maple and South Rice.  This plan preserves that orientation.

The parking garage and associated vehicular routing, endorsed by both HISD’s and the City’s traffic engineers, will improve the status quo by finally addressing all the street parking we’ve heard complaints about over the years.  Yes, the traffic engineers acknowledge there will be a peak impact at the beginning and end of each school day, but we already have that with the existing configuration.  After all, it’s a high school.  The garage may concentrate that effect, twice a day, but that’s a trade-off for the street parking that currently lasts the entire day.  Moreover, nothing in the SUP would prevent the City from exercising its inherent power to regulate traffic and parking on city streets should it prove necessary to do so once the new school is built and in operation and any problems identified.

Not only is South Rice—which is the least residential in character—most appropriate for traffic intensity, again there’s an improvement over the status quo with the expansion from four lanes to six.  A raised median separating the north and southbound lanes, and at a signalized intersection at Holly, will prevent exiting vehicles from attempting a straight-shot across South Rice into the neighborhood east of the school.  The residents on Maple, who have for decades dealt with living across the street from a high school and all that comes with it, will benefit from the dedicated garage entry lane separated from the street by a hard median and landscape buffer.

If Bellaire High School were located in the City of Houston, it would have been rebuilt by now.  Our residents very much support the school and want to see it succeed, but at the same time we’re a zoned community and insist on reasonable protections for our residential neighborhoods from institutional impacts.  Working together, we’ve come a long way from the campus flip non-starter and are eager to welcome the new building that will serve our kids and future generations to come.

I offer our congratulations and appreciation to HISD, the PAT, city staff, and everyone involved in the process who never gave up on it, with a special mention of Trustee Mike Lunceford for his leadership and vision.  Sincere thanks to all of our Bellaire residents who have stayed engaged with the project, and through their input have helped refine the plan to be reflective of the interests of all stakeholders.