There's something quaintly likable about the small-town vibe of Houston City Council meetings. The Art Deco chambers on the second floor of City Hall can only hold about 250 people, most of whom seem to know each other in that typically close-knit Houston way. This past Wednesday, Councilwoman Wanda Adams called the Housing, Sustainable Growth and Development subcommittee hearing to order in a pleasant, friendly tone, admonishing people not to block the exits and encouraging them to find a seat.
"Raise your hand if you have an empty seat next to you," Adams plied the audience. "There's a few seats up front here, too," she noted, as people began to file in and sit down obediently.
A man seated next to me introduced himself with a handshake. "I'm a residential developer," he smiled. He was there for a hearing on proposed changes to Chapter 42 of the ordinance code -- the first agenda item of two that day -- as were many others who'd crowded the chambers that afternoon. "What brings you here?"
I was there to cover the first of several subcommittee hearings on proposed changes to Chapter 26 -- the Off-Street Parking chapter of the ordinance -- but it turned out that I wouldn't be around for that to happen. Although the meeting kicked off at 2 p.m. sharp, the subcommittee didn't reach its second agenda item of the day until 6 p.m.
The four-hour span in between, during which opponents and advocates of the Chapter 42 changes spoke their minds, is indicative of the fact that while Houston may sometimes act like a small town -- for better and for worse -- it no longer is. A coherent vision for the city's future is necessary to encourage intelligent planning and growth, and that's what opponents of the Chapter 26 changes are worried will be derailed should the proposed changes move forward.
I had to leave three hours before Chapter 26 was discussed, in order to get back to deadlines at work. Many other people who'd come to speak against the proposed changes had to leave for similar reasons. Whether it was the intention of the subcommittee or not, they'd starved many of the Chapter 26 opponents out as the long meeting stretched on.
David Leftwich, a resident opposed to the proposed changes that would require restaurants and bars to make more parking available in order to alleviate parking complaints in residential areas, had brought his young daughter to the hearing. She took the wait better than others, Leftwich reported on Twitter, saying that she had "sat through almost three hours of this COH council subcommittee. She rocks and gets to learn about government first hand."
Because the subcommittee meeting wasn't televised and no transcripts have yet been released, Twitter ended up as the best way I could keep up with the meeting from afar.
Only one person showed up to speak in support of the proposed changes, reported restaurant/bar owner and activist Bobby Heugel, who's been lobbying against the increased parking requirements along with other service industry members since the changes were first proposed in 2011.
"This guy is seriously saying we need more street parking reserved for residents," wrote Heugel on Twitter. "He lives next to Minute Maid Park."
The subcommittee hearing may not have drawn the crowds on either side of the issue necessary to make a huge impact one way or another, but it was only the first of several before the proposed changes head to City Council for a formal vote. And no one is quite sure when that will happen.
"The timeline for moving the parking ordinance to City Council for consideration has not been determined by the administration," says Brian Crimmins, senior planner for the City of Houston's Planning & Development Department who's been working on the proposed changes. Crimmins noted on Twitter today that while parking requirements would increase for bars and restaurants under the proposed changes, that's not all that Chapter 26 covers.
"In most cases parking requirements are going down city-wide," Crimmins said, referring to changes in which shopping centers -- for example -- would be required to provide four spaces for every 1,000 square feet instead of five, "and we are adding significantly more options for flexibility in options."
That flexibility would come in the form of parking management districts, or "Special Parking Areas," that would allow designated neighborhoods more independence in tailoring their own parking needs. This is just one part of the proposed changes that Crimmins says require more public attention and feedback -- not just the "hot button" issues.
"The Planning & Development Department is currently reviewing the feedback from Wednesday's meeting, as well as the comments we've received from the Ordinance Feedback Website. There have been a number of comments and I personally read each one as they come in."
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Crimmins is quick to note that the proposed changes are still just that: proposed, and not concrete. "Nothing is set in stone with these amendments -- if there is something that makes sense to revise, then the Department will recommend changes before going back to City Council," Crimmins says.
"We are listening to everyone's view and encourage people to join the conversation."