Inner-city Shootout

Neartown braces for the ultimate development war at City Hall

Twenty years ago, not long after she moved from San Francisco, Gayle Ramsey and her neighbors in Montrose wanted some potholes fixed but were told by city officials to get in line: It might take years before public works got around to their neck of the woods.

So Ramsey and her friends took the matter into their own hands and turned to the Neartown Association, an umbrella group of civic clubs representing 21 neighborhoods from inside Loop 610.

"Can you imagine? We prioritized our potholes," says Ramsey, a courtly woman who's probably somebody's favorite aunt. "We did a block-by-block survey, put the results in a little booklet and took it to every City Councilmember. And we got our potholes fixed."

Ramsey, president of the East Montrose Civic Club, remained active in the Neartown Association. Like most of her neighbors, she's closely watched the transformation taking place in Neartown, particularly in Montrose. Blocks of what used to be traditional single-family housing are now densely packed townhouse enclaves. At first, they welcomed the change.

"A lot of the older houses really did need to be torn down," Ramsey says, "so we weren't in a riot mode."

In September 1997, she met Mike O'Brien, president of the Houston Homeowners Association. O'Brien had been making the rounds of the city's civic clubs for about 18 months, describing how city planners and real estate developers were plotting to destroy Houston neighborhoods through a major overhaul of Chapter 42. That city ordinance regulates how land in Houston is subdivided and developed. For example, Chapter 42 sets the minimum lot size allowed for development. It also dictates building setbacks, or how close a house can be built to the street.

What O'Brien had to say alarmed groups in neighborhoods without deed restrictions: Developers were calling the shots in the revision process, aided by an acquiescent city bureaucracy whose admitted goal was to further encourage the inner-city housing boom. Together, they planned to overwhelm stable, single-family neighborhoods with high-density townhouse complexes, he said.

Unless the residents organized and injected themselves into the Chapter 42 debate, O'Brien warned, the traditional pace and character of their neighborhoods would be ruined. So many new residents would arrive that parking, already a precious commodity, would be nonexistent. Trees and green space, along with many of the area's familiar bungalows and cottages, would be consumed by the burgeoning market for "urban" housing. In Houston, that is any dwelling unit inside Loop 610.

An alarmed Ramsey, who describes herself as so "provincial" she rarely ventures as far as the Galleria, volunteered to organize a task force to study the effect of the planned ordinance changes on Neartown neighborhoods. Since then, it hasn't been a riot so much as a war, with builders and developers on one side and neighborhood leaders such as Ramsey and O'Brien on the other.

After nearly three years of countless meetings of various committees and task forces representing builders, developers and neighborhood residents, City Council meets February 17 to consider a final draft of the proposed ordinance. Included is a provision that limits the number of housing units that can be built on an acre of land to 24.

That has enraged many builders and developers. Since the city started regulating residential development in 1982, they have historically had few restrictions placed on how many units they can build or how they otherwise do business. They say the proposed density cap could have a devastating impact on inner-city housing construction; it could threaten a thriving market and the future of Houston's urban revitalization effort.

"There's a real issue here: Are homes going to be more expensive, will land values go down?" says Barbara Tennant, project director for Perry Homes, whose formulaic designs started popping up in Neartown about five years ago. "We're not sure what's going to happen, but it's not going to be the way it is."

Tennant, the Greater Houston Homebuilders Association and other developers, architects and planners are fighting the Neartown task force's amendments. The debate has turned nasty, with each side accusing the other of all manner of insidious behavior.

"I've been called greedy, money-grubbing developer scum in public meetings," says John Spear, executive director of the Community Design Assistance Center, which offers affordable architectural and planning services to nonprofit community redevelopment groups. Spear, an architect and urban planner, counters by labeling the Neartown task force "a bunch of NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] know-nothings who have had all along as their sole and single purpose to stop development in the inner city."

That's not true, says Gayle Ramsey.
"Development is inevitable," she says. "All we're asking for is that it be responsible development. For what other reason but obscene profitability would you need to build four or five buildings on a single lot?"

With a public hearing and, possibly, final City Council approval imminent, the sides have turned up both the rhetoric and their lobbying efforts. The Neartown group has given each City Councilmember a self-produced seven-minute video featuring residents waxing poetic about their "quality of life," interspersed with images of what they consider to be the worst features of modern townhouse construction: brick walls that tower over adjacent bungalows, rows of garage doors lining sidewalks, an absence of landscaping and, of course, entire blocks of driveway entrances that were once on-street parking spaces.

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