February 19, 2019

Drainage Project Paves Way for Comp Plan Downtown


That Bellaire is a city in transition is not exactly breaking news.  It’s been happening for decades.  Just take a look out your own front window (any residential street will do) to witness the ongoing turnover of our housing stock.  Our traditional residential character hasn’t changed, nor who we are as a community, but the substantial extent of new investment has brought about an obvious transformation.

While that’s been happening on the residential side, we’ve not seen as much of it in our commercial areas.  For years residents have been telling us they’d like to see downtown Bellaire revitalized, in keeping up with other premier neighborhoods throughout the Houston area.  That we should attract new, upscale development commensurate with our own residential investment, with restaurants, conveniences and shopping opportunities that contribute to our quality of life and allow us to spend more of our money here in Bellaire.  We also recognize a revitalized downtown will help in closing the wide gap between residential and commercial appraised values that’s reflected in the property taxes we pay.

Our Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 2009 and updated in 2015, thus places primary emphasis on our commercial areas in laying out a consensus vision for the future redevelopment of the City.  We’ve seen the Plan starting to take hold in recent years with several exciting new projects, which further validate that vision and our efforts to implement it.  Good things are happening!  The Spruce & Fifth Reconstruction Project, approved by the City Council last night, gives the Comprehensive Plan another big boost.

It starts as a drainage project.  And not just any drainage project, but one of our upsized drainage projects following our new approach in the Bonds for Better Bellaire 2016 program, of adding underground detention capacity at strategic locations and for the benefit of the surrounding areas.  Spruce and Fifth were identified for reconstruction according to our established street selection criteria, as both the undersized drainage system and paving have reached the end of their useful service lives.  Then, once we’ll have dug a massive hole for the drainage pipes, we’ll need to fill in that hole and restore the street surface (which is of course part of and budgeted for in any drainage project).  That presents an exceptional opportunity to upgrade the downtown streetscape as envisioned by the Comprehensive Plan.

About the Comprehensive Plan

To fully appreciate this project in the proper context, it’s important for residents and stakeholders to understand what a Comprehensive Plan is.  Under the Texas Local Government Code, a city “may adopt a comprehensive plan for [its] long-range development ... [which] may include but is not limited to provisions on land use, transportation, and public facilities ... and be used to coordinate and guide the establishment of development regulations.”  Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code § 213.002(a)-(b).  While the quoted provision does say “may adopt,” cities with zoning, like Bellaire, must have comprehensive plans.  § 211.004.

In 2009, following a multi-year public process marked by the active participation and input of numerous Bellaire residents, business owners and property owners, a citizen Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee, the Planning & Zoning Commission and City Council, through a series of workshops, town halls and public hearings, we adopted a new Comprehensive Plan, the introductory paragraph of which is a statement of its purpose and our commitment to implementing it:

The Bellaire Comprehensive Plan is designed as a framework for guiding future development, redevelopment, and community enhancement in the City over the next 20 years and beyond.  The purpose of this plan is to establish a vision, along with realistic goals and achievable strategies, that residents, business and land owners, major institutions, civic groups, the Planning and Zoning Commission, and public officials prefer—and will support with action—in the years ahead.

There are several important points about the Plan that are captured in that one, introductory paragraph, not the least of which is that it merely guides future development decisions.  It does not dictate development outcomes, or require business or property owners to undertake any redevelopment at all; no one is ever forced out.  Those are private market decisions.  What the Plan does do, is to guide future development, gradually over time, by encouraging private market decisions that are consistent with and support our vision.  It does so through updated zoning regulations, and by fostering an environment in which private market actors will respond to our stated objectives.

Supporting Our Vision with Action

Spruce & Fifth is in the downtown city center, but not right on the major vehicular thoroughfares.  It’s located within the Urban Village-Downtown (UV-D) zoning district, newly created in 2014 pursuant to the Comprehensive Plan and providing

for a mix of uses and style of development intended to reinforce the “small town” downtown feel desired by Bellaire residents, including opportunities for shopping, services, dining and entertainment. ... [Historically] it has not offered the typical experience of a destination downtown given how this primary commercial area in Bellaire developed over time without a traditional Main Street or other focal point for typical downtown amenities. ...

This district is intended to support a transition to a more Urban development character through redevelopment in the core downtown area.  This could provide the critical mass the area has always lacked to spur greater foot traffic and extended visits that are essential to a vibrant mix of retail, service and hospitality businesses. ... Keys to an Urban character are relatively small block sizes (or pedestrian routes through larger blocks), more intensive site development and coverage, reduced reliance on off-street surface parking, and greater architectural enclosure of public streets and spaces to support a pedestrian orientation.

Sec. 24-537, Urban Village-Downtown District (UV-D).  Passing on this historic opportunity and restoring the street surface as it is today would mean preserving for the next generation some of the very impediments to commercial redevelopment—the lack of a traditional Main Street or other focal point, with a critical mass of compatible uses to spur greater foot traffic and extended visits—that the UV-D is expressly intended to address.  Moreover, the Comprehensive Plan recognizes that when the street is all torn up for drainage work is the perfect time to do it, calling for us to “[t]ake advantage of opportunities to achieve design upgrades along commercial corridors as private redevelopment is proposed and public street and infrastructure rehabilitation occurs.”  Comprehensive Plan, Goal 5.3.  So this concept is not new; we adopted this approach nearly 10 years ago.

The Spruce & Fifth Reconstruction Project will reclaim and make better use of the wide and poorly-defined city right-of-way, by creating two standard travel lanes, where none exist now, and then in the remainder of the right-of-way adding significantly more on-street parking (almost double the number of existing spaces), pedestrian enhancements, and signature landscaping and streetlights.  Those improvements come at a modest incremental cost above what we’d have had to pay to fill in the construction hole anyway, as a necessary part of the drainage work.  The project has been designed by professional engineers, and is very typical of highly successful developments in locations just like this, including several around the Houston area.

Change Can Be Hard

As a long-range planning document—looking out 20 years and beyond—the Comprehensive Plan does not assume the physical landscape will always be as it is today.  Indeed, as discussed above it openly encourages redevelopment in furtherance of our future vision, not tied to or artificially constrained by current conditions.  To be clear, however, even as we go about implementing our future vision, we absolutely recognize we have a responsibility to do so in a manner that’s sensitive to the needs of existing businesses and property owners.  No one is ever forced out.

We recognize that some of the existing businesses along Spruce & Fifth feel threatened by all this change.  It’s a common reaction anytime an area (not just in Bellaire) is going through a revitalization.  Starting more than a year ago, through documented interactions with city staff and in public appearances at City Council meetings, business owners have expressed their concerns about the project.  And the record overwhelmingly shows how each of those concerns has been addressed, with specific plan modifications such as to driveway widths and ingress and egress points, and to ensure access to off-street parking and dumpsters.  As a result, expressly reflected in the design and engineering for the project are individual accommodations for each and every business that requires them, all of which has been painstakingly presented publicly.

Nevertheless, from the outset this project has been clouded by a popular narrative disclaiming those accommodations, and even denying that the well-documented meetings with business owners that produced them had occurred.  Instead, we’re told, the City has declared war on local business for some unknown but obviously nefarious reason, and won’t even communicate the plans with the businesses (all 100% of them, we’re told) who are opposed.  Again, the record clearly proves otherwise, but why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

The Facts Matter

As a governmental body, the City Council is constrained by the Texas Open Meetings Act to conduct our deliberations only in full public view.  Which is of course as it should be.  But it also makes it rather difficult for us to compete with a coordinated opposition narrative on a given issue prior to our public deliberations.  We don’t really get to respond until it’s time.

One of the key takeaways from Council’s deliberation of the Spruce & Fifth Reconstruction Project is that it reaffirmed the facts still matter.  We don’t have the luxury of legislating based on unsubstantiated hearsay, vague generalities and sound bites.  We do our very best to consider, evaluate and faithfully represent a variety of viewpoints in our decision making, but frankly, it can be a real challenge determining how much weight to give to input that’s premised on objectively false statements, however sincere and well-intentioned it may be.  “Save Local Business” is a great rallying cry—I mean, who wouldn’t agree with that—but is less compelling when simply repeated as a general statement without any specific factual basis to support what it supposedly needs to be saved from, or acknowledgment of the individual accommodations made precisely to ensure its continued success.

Parking

Probably the most persistent theme of the opposition narrative is that the businesses will lose their parking.  The exact opposite is true.  As noted above the project very nearly doubles the number of on-street parking spaces, from 25 to 46.  (And in fact, earlier iterations of the plans actually did double the parking, to 50 spaces, but in accommodating the requests of existing businesses that would’ve been impacted, 4 of those additional spaces were sacrificed.)  Of course, the project does not in any way affect the businesses’ private, off-street parking spaces.

Jax Grill, which incidentally would be an ideal anchor for the type of redevelopment envisioned by the Comprehensive Plan, is at the center of popular misconception about parking.  Since 1992, Jax has been operating with less than the Code-required number of off-street parking spaces, pursuant to a variance granted by the Board of Adjustment.  To make up the difference, Jax relies for overflow parking on the 14 existing public spaces in the city right-of-way on that block.  I emphasize the word “public,” because that seems to be where the confusion lies—those 14 spaces are and always have been public spaces.  The project will increase the number of public spaces on the block from 14 to 20.  Jax’s own, off-street parking is unaffected.

The Sugar Shop, also very much a part of our future vision, is in a similar situation.  Not with a Board of Adjustment variance, but rather is grandfathered under a prior owner’s permit that predated the off-street parking requirement.  The Sugar Shop would otherwise be required to have 4 off-street parking spaces, but has 0.  The project will increase the number of public spaces on that block from 5 to 8.  Additionally, with the City’s assistance the landlord is currently putting in new off-street parking spaces in the alleyway adjacent to The Sugar Shop, and since those will be private, not public spaces, they can be dedicated to The Sugar Shop’s use exclusively.

Delivery Trucks

Certainly a very valid concern is whether the street reconfiguration will work, especially with a steady flow of delivery trucks including 18-wheelers.  Despite all the professional engineering that went into the plans, opponents appeal to our common sense in arguing there’s no way it’ll work because the roadway is being narrowed.  In assessing that argument, first consider the situation on the ground now:  What roadway?  Seriously, go take a look at it.  There are no clear boundaries to delineate where the roadway even is, which makes it hard to know what exactly is being narrowed.  But what we do know is that the project will create two standard travel lanes, of standard width, with appropriate street geometries and striping to facilitate turning movements.  There’s nothing at all unusual about the street reconfiguration, again designed by professional engineers, with third-party peer review and in close consultation with H-E-B.

A problem that does exist now are the box trucks and other delivery vehicles that park off to the side and block the right-of-way while waiting to make their deliveries.  The plan addresses that problem by adding loading zones outside the travel lanes, where the trucks can stack without impeding the flow of traffic:


Operationally, the City has been working closely with H-E-B on better managing the delivery trucks and will continue to do so.  That’s important irrespective of the reconstruction project, and H-E-B is as committed to it as we are.

Other

Taking all of the business owners’ comments and public input received throughout the planning of this project over the course of more than a year, it mostly boils down to the foregoing two concerns, parking and delivery trucks, both of which have been addressed.  The businesses endorse improved drainage, street reconstruction and new street lighting, so those aren’t in issue.  With so little left to work with, the narrative then turned to process and cost.  Again, the facts matter.

Concerned residents urged Council not to take action without a traffic study, repeating what they’d been told, that one had not been done.  In fact, a traffic study was conducted, in November 2018 and January 2019.  Traffic volumes were measured over 24-hour periods on both of those occasions, totaling 1,412 in November and 1,630 in January.  Those measured volumes are well within the project design capacity of 15,000 vehicles per day (and even well within the 5,000 vpd capacity of a residential street).

Others balked at the cost, with the lowest bidder coming in at $2.49 million (below our pre-bid estimate of $2.69 million).  They urged us to eliminate everything from the project but the drainage improvements, street reconstruction and lighting.  That we should save that $2.49 million and use it for drainage instead.  What they seem to have overlooked is that this is a drainage project.  Saving that money means not doing the drainage at all.

In a similar vein, others ran with a headline that the bid for landscaping and streetscape improvements was almost double what the City had projected.  Not true.  What they didn’t know, because they didn’t ask, is that the landscaping and streetscape bid is inclusive of costs that will be paid by H-E-B.  You may have noticed that when the store opened those exterior aspects weren’t quite completed.  Rather than doing that work at the time of construction, only to see it damaged by our drainage and street reconstruction project, H-E-B held off and made arrangements with the City for our contractor to do all the work at the same time, with H-E-B’s portion to be reimbursed by H-E-B.

And the list could go on.  One of the most interesting things about this project, from my perspective, has been through my direct engagement with residents who were opposed to it based on all they’d been hearing, but upon learning the real facts (and independently verifying them) ended up becoming advocates for the project.  So you can see why it can be hard for us on Council to know how much weight to give to input that’s based on easily disproved misinformation.  The facts most definitely matter.

Even an op-ed recently printed in the local paper, hailed by opponents for its conclusion that the project is in conflict with the Comprehensive Plan, is heavily qualified.  The author admits he had “not had an opportunity to review the specific proposal” before offering his opinion on it, and is careful to note he does not know “[i]f the report in the [newspaper] is correct.”  At least he’s honest about it, though his having not even reviewed the proposal makes it hard to assign much value to his opinion.

We know we can’t be all things to all people.  There are a variety of opinions out there, and each is entitled to his or her own.  It’s okay to respectfully disagree.  But the facts are the facts, and the public has access to all the same information Council does.  In making good and well-thought-out decisions we have a right to insist on honest debate.  Really, everyone one both sides should.

Looking Forward to Our Future

The Comprehensive Plan did not come out of nowhere.  It was the product of a multi-year planning effort with considerable public participation and input, all reflected in our future vision that looks beyond and is not limited by the situation on the ground today.  Bellaire residents, business owners and property owners have embraced the Plan and its vision for the future of our city, especially in commercial areas.

That vision is just as valid today as it was when we adopted it 10 years ago.  In that time we’ve seen lots of redevelopment activity, both large and small in scale, including several popular new restaurants, stores and local services.  None of that has happened by accident.  That’s the Comprehensive Plan at work!  The market is responding to the Plan, and the overwhelming popularity of these new developments only adds to its credence and acceptance.

What also remain popular are all the local businesses that serve our community and have been since long before the Comprehensive Plan came into being.  The two are not mutually exclusive.  We can move forward with implementing our vision for the future of our city, gradually over time, while also accommodating the needs of existing businesses, all as exhaustively demonstrated in the record and as I’ve discussed above.

If nothing else, the sheer length and detail of this blog post ought to tell you there’s more to the story than you might have heard elsewhere, and hopefully I’ve succeeded in putting it in the proper context.  I encourage you to review both the Comprehensive Plan and the specific plans for Spruce & Fifth, most especially the individual modifications made for existing businesses, and see how we advance our long-term objectives with sensitivity and due regard for present needs.  Quite the opposite of forcing anyone out, we’ve made every necessary accommodation to ensure that existing businesses can continue to thrive for as long as they decide.

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