Mayor Sylvester Turner backed away from a fight with neighborhood groups over parking but faced a room full of angry developers Wednesday as his administration signaled its intent to move forward with a plan to reform small-scale residential development.
After weeks of complaints about a far-reaching plan to eliminate parking requirements for some new homes, the administration put the idea aside. The city will forge ahead, however, with plans to allow triplexes, courtyard homes and bigger garage apartments.
Developers love the idea of more options, but used the packed City Council hearing to rail against a new rule that would ban direct access from garages to streets on narrow lots. For nearly two hours, Turner sparred with developers who warned the changes would drive up the cost of housing and force new homeowners into the suburbs.
“It’s about protecting the public right of way, and making what exists more accessible for everyone,” Turner said.
The public hearing drew scores of people to the council chamber who packed the seats and lined the walls. No date has been set for Council to consider the changes.
The city’s ambitious proposal, known as the Livable Places initiative, is three years in the making. City planners say it is designed to revive the market’s “missing middle” of modestly-sized, modestly-priced houses.
On June 9, the Planning Commission approved changes to the city code that would:
- raise the maximum size for so-called granny flats, also known as garage apartments or accessory development units, from 900 to 1,500 square feet;
- allow for the creation of courtyard homes up to 1,800 square feet clustered around a common space. These houses would not have direct driveway access from the house to the street;
- and allow the construction of residential buildings with three to eight units on small lots. Once common in older neighborhoods such as Montrose, small-scale, multi-unit housing is nearly impossible to build under current city code.
In many cases, the new rules would lower the minimum number of parking spaces developers must build along with small-scale housing.
Houston Planning and Development Director Margaret Wallace Brown, however, announced the city was abandoning for now a proposal to do away with residential parking minimums altogether along high-frequency transit corridors.
Cities across the country have made similar changes aimed at creating more housing and more walkable neighborhoods. In May, the Austin City Council voted to eliminate parking requirements for new developments citywide.
Even Houston’s narrower proposal was too much for neighborhood leaders who fretted that it would lead to a scramble for on-street parking, however.
“This market-based parking, that was going to in a sense drive people to the street, we heard loud and clear people didn’t want that. So, we’re not proceeding with that,” Turner said.
In a statement, Wallace Brown said any decision on tweaking the parking rules will be left to the next mayor. “If the city pursues market-based parking beyond its current defined area, it will be a comprehensive approach, and would not be during this administration,” she said.
The mayor showed more of an appetite for a confrontation with developers and real estate agents over the proposals.
Existing rules allow developers to equip houses on narrow lots with direct access from garages to the street. City planners say in neighborhoods without deed restrictions, it is common to see sidewalks divided by driveways for entire blocks, leaving no space for on-street parking, and creating a hazard for bicyclists and pedestrians.
The Turner administration is proposing to eliminate direct access from garages to streets for houses on lots narrower than 33 feet. Instead, homeowners would have to access their garages from alleyways or along driveways shared with other homes.
The proposal drew support from Gabe Cazares, executive director of the transportation advocacy group LINK Houston.
“Every driveway is a potential point of conflict between a person in a car and a person outside one,” Cazares said.
He was far outnumbered at the hearing by developers and real estate professionals who said banning the so-called “front-loaders” would eliminate one of the city’s most popular forms of new housing, and eventually drive up the cost of housing.
Developers said building houses along shared driveways is more challenging or a practical impossibility.
“The turnaround time on a shared driveway is four to five months longer. This cost will always be passed along to a consumer,” said Anthony Monaco, who develops housing in the Heights, Rice Military, Independence Heights and other neighborhoods. “This is an attack on middle-class families that want to live in the city. The front-loader house provides an opportunity for a family to live in the city.”
New homeowners far prefer to have their own driveways where they can park extra cars, developers said. That position drew support from some homeowners who live in shared-driveway-style developments.
“I can’t have family gatherings, holiday dinners, special occasions, because there’s nowhere for my family to park,” said Linda Sweeton, who lives in Independence Heights.
Turner said houses with shared driveways already are allowed under city code and have proven to be a popular option for homebuyers.
“We’re not eliminating anybody’s garages. We’re not eliminating the American dream,” the mayor said. “We’re just seeking to build a city that works, now and into the future.”