April 7, 2017

North Bellaire Special Development Area Approved, with Modifications

In my last blog post I used the occasion of the public hearing on the proposed Comprehensive Plan amendment for the Chevron property to comment on the public hearing process generally.  I did not get into the proposal itself, as the City Council had not yet deliberated or made any decisions on it.  Now that we have, I’m pleased to report on the adoption—after several revisions—of the North Bellaire Special Development Area, to replace the former Business Park designation for the property.

Adoption of the final product brings to conclusion what has at times been a contentious process.  Council’s several revisions are responsive to community input, hopefully without giving up too much of the flexibility that the original proposal was intended to achieve.  It’s no doubt a delicate balance.

Zoning Protections in a Planning Document?

Public reaction to the original proposal, which the Planning & Zoning Commission had approved for recommendation to Council, highlighted the distinction between planning and zoning.  Planning sets forth a vision to guide redevelopment, by signaling to the marketplace potential land uses we’d like to see.  Zoning then protects the public interest with the specific rules that would regulate those uses.

As a planning document, the proposed Comprehensive Plan language was deliberately broad, contemplating a variety of potential land uses as an invitation to developers to bring proposals for our consideration.  Its deliberate breadth was to preserve flexibility for the zoning process that would come later, to keep our options open rather than prematurely tying our own hands.

Understandably, most of the residents from the surrounding neighborhood who participated in the discussion didn’t want to wait for the zoning regulations to see how they’d be protected.  They found few assurances in the proposal, but that’s because zoning-type protections typically wouldn’t be found in a high-level planning document.  Anticipated protections were for the most part implied, but not stated expressly.

In an effort to bridge the divide, Council revised the proposal by precommitting to some key zoning-type protections, even though we’re not to that part of the process yet and notwithstanding that this is a planning document.  Specifically, the language now establishes single-family residential as the starting point, by making it the sole permitted use (developable by right) across the entire property, to include both traditional single-family homes and “lifecycle” housing.  Other potential uses are envisioned as specific uses or planned developments (in either case developable only after review by P&Z and City Council with two public hearings, and with no guarantee of approval), concentrated in the areas further removed from the adjacent residential neighborhood.

We’ve retained much (but not all) of the flexibility from the original proposal, and located it in the areas identified for higher and moderate use intensities, such as the frontage along 610.  That not only protects the neighbors from undesired development outcomes right in their back yards, it also offers some opportunities for buffering and provides options for developers contemplating how they might incorporate the existing office building.

I readily acknowledge that we have indeed backed away somewhat from the flexibility of the original proposal overall.  However, I personally feel confident that we would have ended up in pretty much the same place anyway after the zoning process.  In other words, P&Z also would have provided substantially the same protections at the time of zoning.  By going ahead and adopting them now, we’ve given some assurances to the neighbors in response to their input, as well as communicated more precisely to the marketplace our ultimate intent.

Multi-Family Residential?  Almost Maybe.

Much of the time spent in Council’s debate Monday night was on the elimination of multi-family residential as a potential use.  Looking back, that nearly singular focus was in a sense unfortunate, in that it overshadowed and drew so much attention away from the significance of the changes discussed above.  On the other hand, perhaps it was just reflective of Council’s general agreement on those changes even if a missed opportunity to highlight them.

The original proposal approved by P&Z included the possibility of multi-family residential, but only as a component of mixed-use development and not as standalone apartment buildings.  More than any other aspect of the proposal, this exemplified its flexibility-maximizing approach, keeping our options open.  But even then, all P&Z said was “maybe.”  After stating that multi-family was not the desired outcome, the proposal recognized it might be too limiting to exclude it entirely should “land costs and development economics make multi-family among the only viable residential options for the area.”  Therein lies the big question.

The alternative view is that we need not make this compromise now; if we leave out multi-family and the land doesn’t redevelop in the coming years, future Councils can always revisit the issue if they feel they need to.  After a good and hearty debate, Council decided by a narrow 4-3 vote to eliminate multi-family.  (For those keeping score, the final vote on the proposed language, as amended, was 5-2.)  Keep in mind that while multi-family residential is out, there’s still a big emphasis on “lifecycle” housing in addition to traditional single-family development, to encourage a variety of housing types to meet the needs of residents at different stages of life.  Those options will have to be spelled out in the zoning regulations.

Council adopted six sets of changes in all, the major ones being those discussed above.  The others were to address concerns raised in public comment but don’t really change the overall substance of the document:  Tax base enhancement is no longer expressly emphasized as the driving rationale supporting the Comprehensive Plan language, though of course that’s still an objective even if unstated; reference to the 10-story height of the existing office building as a suggestion of precedent has been taken out; and finally, the language expressing desired “lifecycle” residential development outcomes has been softened somewhat, to make it less prescriptive at this stage.

Planning and zoning is a balancing act.  Time will tell if we got it right.  We’ve slowed things down long enough to let redevelopment play out with these added restrictions in place.  It’s understood that if the marketplace rejects that approach and nothing happens, future Councils may want to go back in and tweak the language to restore some flexibility.