HPD's Barren Lot

Houston's Landscape Ordinance, in place now for almost two years, was the result of many uncounted hours of work by citizens, organizations and planners committed to improving the quality of life. At first, of course, developers didn't like it, but now that it is standard operating procedure for everybody, hardly anyone is complaining anymore.

This ordinance requires the planting of street trees, parking lot trees and landscape buffers between certain types of land uses. To encourage landowners to protect what is already there, extra credit is given for preserving existing trees on site.

Houston streets of the future will be as shady and inviting as the old tree-lined route along Main, or North and South Boulevard. Shade, when you think about it, is one of the easiest and cheapest things we can grow around here.

The ordinance is triggered by the building-permit process; if you own property and you wish to build on it, or pave it, or otherwise change it, you have to meet the requirements of the landscape ordinance, whether you are a homeowner, a developer -- or the City of Houston.

Recently the city acquired the vacated premises of the old home of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau on Main, two blocks south of Elgin. The badly crowded police department is moving its motorcycle squad and many administrative offices out of the central station into the newly acquired structure.

The site includes a second block, between Francis and Holman, which the police department will use for surface parking for the busy facility. When work began earlier in the year on the parking lot, the entire back half of the block was unpaved and covered with an assortment of old building foundations, trees and high weeds. The paving contractor cleared that off and paved it, as well as resurfaced the existing portion of the lot that was already there. In so doing, they appear to have violated the city building code, which requires landscaping for new parking lots in the city of Houston. There were already five street trees along Main, planted by the Convention and Tourist people when they paved the smaller lot the first time. But the city apparently ignored the ordinance and required nothing to be planted at the perimeter of the new lot.

In response to queries about compliance with the landscape ordinance (which the HPD helped draft), the police department has stated that they are exempt because the parking lot was in existence before the law was passed. True -- they would be exempt for that. But only IhalfI the lot was there in February 1992. The other half should have triggered the planting of new street trees; it was weeds and rubble when the paving work started.

And, there is no evidence of any subsurface drainage on the block -- other than the old inlets in the original lot parallel to the Main Street edge. Drainage requirements predate the landscape ordinance by almost a decade, and were put in place as a response to the problem of water runoff, street flooding and subsidence. Anybody who has ever tried to put in a parking lot knows there is no way out of this -- unless maybe you're the HPD. The public information officer at the police department was unaware of the particulars of the project, and was unable to locate anyone who was.

Maybe they slipped past the regulations because they used only old curb cuts, the entrances' drives that cross the sidewalks. Maybe nobody pushed them to permit the new paving. Maybe it's a gray area. But as a result, we have 60,000 square feet of new blacktop with nearly all its rain runoff going right into Holman, Travis and Francis, edges devoid of new shady street trees. If the cops found a loophole, it should be changed.

I like to think that our principal law enforcement agency is capable of following the letter and spirit of the law -- even if it is only a part of the building code.

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