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.
On the other side, builders and developers are engaging Councilmembers with an array of drawings, maps and financial calculations to show that restricting urban development will drive developers and their projects elsewhere.
Developers also attack the Neartown group's tactics. They claim Ramsey and O'Brien reneged on an agreement to allow the construction of 27 townhouses on an acre, a figure grudgingly accepted by even developers favoring unlimited density.
"We made countless compromises on behalf of the neighborhood interests," says Spear, who helped shape the new ordinance. "But after two years of deliberations and a work product that all could live with, they walked straight out of the compromise to try to retrade the deal. I have never seen a more scurrilous, underhanded, sleazy process."
Not surprisingly, Mike O'Brien claims the builders and developers corrupted the process. He says two committees appointed by the city to review Chapter 42 in 1996 "were stacked with 'developer types.' " They had little interest in listening to residents from the stable neighborhoods whose character they were busily changing, he said.
About the only agreement the sides can reach is that, for the good of the city, a healthy discussion about inner-city planning and development is needed, and the Chapter 42 revision seems to offer the best forum. But, with so much at stake, it hasn't been easy.
"Neighborhoods have to look to Chapter 42 for protection because Houston has no zoning and only about one-third of inner-city neighborhoods have deed restrictions," O'Brien says. "This ordinance is all we can rely on."
"But there has always been a culture in this city that the developers are the tail that wags the dog. Do you think they're going to let a bunch of neighborhood people come in and change that?"
Mike O'Brien's observation about the power of developers in Houston comes when the sanctity of the neighborhood has never been so heartily acknowledged by the city's elected officials. Houston's strong-mayor form of government gives inordinate power to city departments while marginalizing the elected City Councilmembers. So a commitment to constituent services is critical to winning and holding district Council seats and city-wide, at-large positions as well.
"I'm very much from the school that believes you dance with whomever brought you," says at-large Councilmember Annise Parker. "And the neighborhood people are really the ones who supported me and got me elected."
Certainly, Mayor Lee P. Brown can relate to that. Brown campaigned on a promise of what he calls neighborhood-oriented government, which seeks to create "partnerships" among the city, its neighborhoods and the business community. In December, Brown announced the long-awaited Neighborhood Impact Program to help community development corporations, or CDCs, carry out urban renewal projects. The program was launched in four low- and moderate-income neighborhoods around the inner city, after their leaders drew up specific plans and goals.
Some Neartown residents believe the Chapter 42 amendments constitute a type of neighborhood plan that dovetails nicely with Brown's rhetoric, if not his neighborhood impact program.
"Do neighborhoods have any kind of say in the process?" wonders Gary Coover, an architect and member of the Neartown Task Force. "Lee Brown says they do, but I'm real curious to see how this plays out. Is this the first big test of neighborhood-oriented government?"
Until Bob Lanier became mayor in 1992, neighborhoods inside Loop 610 suffered through years of neglect. There was little new construction, and owner-occupied housing was decreasing. Lanier, a real estate developer and former banker, rearranged the city's debt to pour billions of dollars into streets, parks and other inner-city infrastructure needs. He pooled local and federal housing funds to provide subsidies to both builders and first-time homebuyers, and announced a goal of creating 25,000 new housing units by 2000.
From 1995 through 1997, Lanier's final term, the city formed almost a dozen special taxing districts, most near downtown, to entice new construction and redevelopment. In the Midtown Tax-Increment Reinvestment Zone, just south of downtown, huge tracts of land have been scraped clean for sprawling, high-density apartment complexes.
Lanier's largess paid off. Urban development, which most builders avoided like the plague, has become a gold rush. The evidence is everywhere, from the Ballpark at Union Station, to the Bayou Place entertainment complex, in the heart of the theater district, and the expanding nightlife near Market Square.
Just about everyone agrees that the key to sustaining the boom is a continuous supply of urban dwellers, preferably young professionals, childless couples and empty nesters who no longer want suburban commutes. That kind of resident doesn't require ample living space. It means the market for traditional single-family detached homes, with front and back yards, is trumped by the need for high-end townhouses priced accordingly.
And that's what homebuilders have been providing at an astounding rate over the last five years. The problem is that the new construction is taking place in older neighborhoods. Despite their proximity to the urban core, they are almost as suburban as anything built in west Houston in the last 30 years. Houses are constructed on large lots and set back 25 feet from the property line, a good thing for grass and trees and the people who like them. And at six or seven houses per acre, life isn't cramped and, as long as you stay home, parking isn't much of a problem.
Chapter 42, which dates back to 1982, is geared almost exclusively to suburban development, which everyone figured would be the trend far into the future. Nothing in the ordinance allows the kind of high-density residential construction that is now in high demand.
The just-completed review and revision of the city's development ordinance began in 1996 under Lanier. One of its goals was to actually codify a loophole that existed since the mid-1980s. It has allowed developers to skirt certain provisions of the ordinance to build on lots as small as 1,400 square feet, with no setback from the property line and at whatever density the market would bear.
As the market for housing inside Loop 610 increased, it became obvious that the loophole should become the rule, and the ordinance should make it as easy as possible to meet the demand.
"What we want in this city, of course, is high-density townhouses," says Spear, of Community Design Assistance Center.
"If you're an architect or an urban designer or care anything about livable cities or walkable streets or the possibility of ever having rapid-transit-supportable density, then you want the ability to have urban townhouses like every other urban area on the planet."
Indeed, urban planners such as Spear and Houston architect Irving Phillips say the prospect of living in close proximity to others, as well as within walking distance of restaurants, bars and shopping has always been the appeal of inner-city living. That's what pulls new residents in from the peace and quiet of the suburbs, they say.
"Density is a very positive thing," Phillips says. "That's why people want to live in the inner city. To fight it is to fight a national historic trend."
This is the kind of talk that has homeowners in some neighborhoods howling mad.
"Developers are so bewildered by this whole thing," says Gary Coover. "They honestly think they're doing the neighborhood a favor. They've convinced themselves that [by] tearing down these 1920s homes, putting up spanking new townhomes, 'We're improving your neighborhood.' And here we are acting like a bunch of ingrates."
The dispute over density has a legacy of its own. An acre of land in a typical Neartown neighborhood was originally subdivided to yield eight 5,000-square-foot lots, for cottages or bungalows.
Perry Homes and about a half-dozen other builders active inside Loop 610 have replatted land in these neighborhoods to yield, typically, four or five -- sometimes more -- townhouses on each lot. That's a huge increase in the number of dwelling units the neighborhood was originally intended to accommodate.
"It's probably pretty good to have higher densities in areas where there is no existing development," says Coover. "But in Montrose, all of a sudden you're coming in with 24, 30 or unlimited density like some people want, but you're not improving the streets, the water, the sewer. If everything went to solid townhouses, would there be water pressure or sewer backups? I don't think anyone could tell you."
Barbara Tennant, of Perry Homes, says builders and developers reluctantly agreed to a density cap of 30 units per acre for one reason. At 30 units per acre, developers can build four townhomes on a corner lot and three on an interior lot, a formula that would help keep land costs and home prices reasonable.
However, the development community was caught by surprise, Tennant says, when the City Council's Neighborhood Planning and Protection Committee forwarded a final draft ordinance to the full Council that allowed only 24 townhomes.
"We thought everything was fine, but what was not known was that when the ordinance came out of the committee, there was going to be a tremendous lobbying effort by the Neartown Association to amend it and lower the density," says Tennant. "We feel that that only serves the Neartown neighborhoods, but it's certainly going to make things more restrictive than would be good for the city in other areas."
If the Neartown task force has its way, City Council will approve other amendments they've proposed to Chapter 42. One would limit the number of curb cuts -- otherwise known as driveways -- to one ten-foot cut for every 30 feet of property facing the street. The group also wants developers to help pay for pocket parks and include more open space in their projects.
According to Spear, these provisions, if included in the final ordinance, will only hurt redevelopment in the inner city and bring about unappealing side effects.
"The result of what they're doing has grotesque unintended consequences," Spear says. "If you were to follow their conclusion of two houses on an interior lot, and only one ten-foot curb cut, the result is a 36-foot front setback paved with concrete so that one can get four cars on each townhouse lot. It will result in nothing but a sea of parking in front of every townhouse and the demolition of every last tree in Montrose."
From a developer's standpoint, the most troublesome aspect of the Neartown proposals is its potential effect on the urban housing market. Spear and Tennant both predict that townhome prices will rise, perhaps by as much as $75,000, if density is limited to 24 units per acre. That additional cost, they say, will put inner-city housing out of reach of many of the same homebuyers who are driving the demand for inner-city townhomes.
O'Brien and Ramsey are not convinced Neartown's amendments will have much of an impact on the real estate market. They suspect the developers' real fear is that their profits will be cut.
"Well, yes, they say that the more density, the less they have to charge," Ramsey says. "But who says they're going to do that? Right now, most of these townhomes are selling for $200,000 to $300,000. There are already plenty of people who can't afford them, so this talk about affordability is just plain wrong."
Those in the development community disagree, of course, and none more vehemently than Spear. He says land prices in Neartown are so high that builders will be reluctant to buy into an area that restricts development in any way. Instead, they'll just scout out areas where the land is cheaper, "where they can build this ridiculous two units per lot and still make the houses come in affordable."
Spear predicts developers won't have to look any farther than the mostly minority neighborhoods in the First, Third and Fifth Wards, where economic development efforts have been slower to take off. But Spear wonders if townhouse development is right for these communities, some of which are considered historically significant.
"What happens? You have further pressure to destroy the historic resources in the inner city," says Spear. "Instead of altering the fabric of upper-middle-income Montrose and the Heights, you're going to destroy the fabric of minority neighborhoods, which are completely defenseless and 100 percent unrestricted."
Spear and his allies in the development community say the civic groups that belong to the Neartown Association should be expending their time and energy on deed restrictions, which would take precedence over Chapter 42 and allow neighborhoods to exercise some control over future development.
While acknowledging that deed-restricted neighborhoods have nothing to fear from Chapter 42, neighborhood advocates say the regulations are cumbersome to set up and difficult and costly to enforce.
If that's the case, says Toy Wood, a lobbyist for the Greater Houston Builders Association, then maybe it's time for some of the neighborhood residents to adjust their attitudes and accept that they live in a unique city.
"Just getting across to them that they don't have to live that way, or even like it, but millions of people around the country do, has been a tough sale," Wood says. "It's hard for some people to understand that this kind of urban development can be very desirable."
The ultimate authority on the issue is City Council. It could vote to approve the ordinance as early as the day following the February 17 public hearing, though it will likely be delayed for at least a week. Another option would be to send it back to the Neighborhood Planning and Protection Committee or the city planning department for further revision.
At-large Councilman Carroll Robinson, who has been particularly sympathetic to the neighborhood residents, says he'll lobby his colleagues to approve a 24-unit cap.
"They really got themselves in the process, and I think they're worthy of my support," Robinson says. "I've told them they have my vote."
They also have the vote of Councilwoman Annise Parker, a former president of the Neartown Association, who has received considerable political support from inner-Loop neighborhoods.
"My pet peeve is that a lot of things in this ordinance are designed to address what the developers are doing right now," Parker says. "I don't want to lose any more lots in the intact neighborhoods in Montrose to developers who have more money than sense."
Wood says her organization will "continue our educational efforts" with individual Councilmembers on behalf of developers such as Perry Homes, who want the density cap at 30 or done away with entirely.
"Most of the builders I have talked to have plans in hand for projects that they will not be able to build because they will be forced to reduce the number of units they had planned," says Tennant. "And I imagine there are going to be some expressions of serious concern about their future ability to continue doing what they've been doing in the inner-Loop area."
However Chapter 42 turns out in the end, will it have much impact on urban development in Houston? Probably not, say some urban planners, who believe the new ordinance lacks flexibility.
"I'm afraid we're going to pass a bad law," says architect Phillips.
Phillips says the current ordinance does nothing to protect existing neighborhoods against townhouse developments, while putting unnecessary limitations on areas such as Midtown, which can support high-density residential construction.
"The results of this are so important to the city of Houston," Phillips says, adding that people fear change. "But I don't think people realize the implications of what they're doing. It's perfectly understandable to want to protect neighborhoods, but I'm not sure they should pass a density cap on the recommendation of upper-middle-class neighborhoods."
Why not, says Gary Coover. He lives in a 70-year-old Victorian home on a quiet, traditional street in the Audubon Place subdivision.
"You'd think the city and its planners would have a stake in how neighborhoods thrive and what they should look like. But it's been the exact opposite, like the neighborhoods are there for the plundering," Coover says. "The neighborhoods are the heart of Houston. Let's see some support.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.