May 26, 2021

North Bellaire Special Development District

The most important thing to know about the newly established North Bellaire Special Development District (NBSDD), which rezones the former Chevron property, is that it’s a planned development-only district.  That makes it the most restrictive (i.e., protective of the neighbors) zoning district anywhere in the City.  With planned developments (PD’s) nothing is allowed by right, and any proposal could be considered only after two levels of review including two public hearings, and with no guarantee of approval.  Simply put, once there’s an actual development application on the table we’ll all get another bite at the apple (two bites, really).

That last part is significant and highlights a common misunderstanding in much of the public input Council received.  Many of the comments—both for and against—seemed targeted at “the developer’s plans” or at a particular outcome, as though it’s already a done deal.  However, we’re just not at that stage of the process yet.  We could have been, had the zoning district been proposed to allow by-right development, thereby preauthorizing anything that complied with its regulations.  But it wasn’t, and that’s the point.  Zoning the property as a PD-only district was merely the next step to soliciting development proposals for future consideration, maximizing the protection of the neighbors’ interests by reserving the right to say no.

Back in 2016, when Chevron announced its intention to sell the property, the City Council essentially placed a moratorium on any further Technical Research Park development by making all such uses—among them office buildings, central plant including electric generation facilities, automobile service stations and technical research laboratories—no longer available by right.  Our purpose in doing so was to buy time for updating the Comprehensive Plan and then rezoning the property, without risking any incompatible development that might come along in the interim.

About six months later, following that same two-step public process we adopted new Comprehensive Plan language for the property.  Responding to input from the surrounding neighborhood, we took out much of the flexibility from the original proposal, but where we preserved it, we did so for the portions of the property identified for more intensive development, namely the frontage along 610 where it belongs, rather than in residents’ back yards.  We also eliminated multi-family residential as a potential use, while keeping open the possibility of “lifecycle” housing.  The revised Comprehensive Plan language also contemplated the PD-only approach that we’ve now taken in the zoning.

The NBSDD provides for the graduated development intensities envisioned by the Comprehensive Plan—busier along 610, quieter by the neighborhood—but since the greater includes the lesser, only the maximum parameters are stated.  For example, 80% lot coverage could very well be appropriate in the areas of most intensive development, and so is of necessity the number set forth, but wouldn’t be approved in the portions of the property adjacent to residences.  Same with the maximum building height of 85 feet along 610, but never over by the neighbors, who are additionally protected by a minimum required setback and a 2-for-1 height-setback plane.  And even then, if we don't like a particular development proposal we can still say no.  This is about signaling to the marketplace what might be allowed.

In that regard, the City Council extensively deliberated numerous amendments to the proposed NBSDD language with an eye toward ensuring that the signals we’re sending are actually realistic; it would serve no one’s interests to encourage development applications that have no chance of succeeding.  The most significant change to the Planning and Zoning Commission’s recommendation was to increase, from 35 to 65 feet, the minimum required setback from residential properties (again, with the added protection of the height-setback plane)—a big win for those in opposition to the proposal.

Council also refined the list of contemplated uses, eliminating the possibility of indoor movie theaters, assisted living facilities, nursing homes or skilled nursing facilities, and hospitals or emergency rooms.  An advantage of the PD-only approach is that it preserves greater control over uses, not only to ensure their desirability but also their compatibility with each other and where they’re located on the site.  The City retains broad discretion and will have the opportunity to look at land use holistically as the property develops over time.  Later proposals that the community deems incompatible with what’s already there could be rejected on that basis alone.

So in a very real sense, the tough decisions are still to come, once there are actual PD applications brought forward.  Some might find that rather unsatisfying after everything leading up to this point, and recognizing we’re going to have to keep working through all the same issues.  However, as discussed above the alternative would have been less protective of everyone’s interests and potentially led to undesirable outcomes.  It’s not that we’ve punted those decisions, but rather, we’ve created the framework by which specific development proposals can be made and considered, with multiple opportunities for public input.

Redevelopment of the former Chevron property, the only contiguous open parcel of its size in our landlocked city, is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for positive and beneficial growth.  It’s rife with possibilities for exciting new amenities that will enhance our quality of life and reinvigorate our economic base.  But it also has to be done right, with special sensitivity to the concerns of the surrounding neighbors.  The PD-only NBSDD accomplishes that objective by ensuring all residents can have their say, and that before approving any new development we’ll know exactly what it is we’re getting.