Developers love them. Urban planners hate them. Ahead of a City Council vote set for Wednesday on the controversial “frontloader” driveways proliferating across Houston, officials say they have worked out a compromise with homebuilders.
The compromise would allow new “frontloader” houses in some neighborhoods while prohibiting their creation near schools and crafting new rules designed to protect sidewalks. The council vote could shape the future of the many Houston neighborhoods without deed restrictions that have seen rapid changes to their streetscapes in recent years.
Sidewalks in many of those neighborhoods recently have been crosscut by driveways that dominate the face of 25-foot lots subdivided from Houston’s standard 50-foot width. In some hot neighborhoods, such as Rice Military, Montrose and Third Ward, houses with “frontloader” driveways claim entire blocks.
Critics say the frontloaders leave little room for trees and grass, that supersized trucks parked on driveways make life miserable for pedestrians, that the curb cuts make it harder to find on-street parking, and that the frequent exit points for cars put cyclists in constant danger.
Developers say the driveways allow every owner direct access from their vehicle to their home, avoid awkward shared driveways and leave room for backyards.
During an earlier round of debate in June, Houston Planning Director Margaret Wallace Brown rejected the idea of allowing frontloader driveways in future small-lot development. Mayor Sylvester Turner argued the frontloader-style developments were a flooding hazard because they devoted so much space to impermeable concrete.
Brown sought to win council approval of a new rule that would ban front-loading driveways on lots narrower than 33 feet. Amid furious pushback from builders, however, the council delayed voting.
A planning and development department spokesperson said Tuesday that officials had worked out a compromise with the Greater Houston Builders Association during the past week.
That compromise, if approved, would allow new frontloader-style houses only if there is no way to reach the lot via side or rear access to a public street, or through an alley, according to a copy of the amendment. In a nod to the concerns of homeowners in areas like the Heights who say that many of Houston’s alleys are in disrepair, the amendment says that alley access must come through alleys “maintained by the city or a homeowners association.”
Driveways on small lots would be limited to 12 feet in width, and if a developer opts to build one it must set the residence’s garage back 20 feet from the street. That change is designed to address concerns that many sidewalks in front of frontloader-style houses are clogged by residents’ cars.
The amendment also would prohibit “frontloader” houses within 1,400 feet of primary and secondary schools and within the 10 “complete communities” that Turner’s administration has targeted for added investment.
The compromise proposal drew vocal support from the Greater Houston Builders Association and the Houston Realtors Association in public comment at council on Tuesday.
“I don’t think either side likes all the compromises,” developer Richard Mazzarino said. “However, for the most part, we’re expanding housing options in the city and preserving a very popular option.”
At-large Councilmember David Robinson “tagged” the housing code changes last week before the compromise had been crafted, a procedural move that delayed the vote until this week. Robinson on Tuesday said he was comfortable with the compromise the city has reached, though he noted that some neighborhood groups may not agree.
Robinson, an architect who previously served as the chair of the Super Neighborhood Alliance, described the garage setback rule as a concession from builders that was “the utmost of importance … it maintains the pedestrian realm as far as the sidewalk is concerned.”
If a compromise is approved, it could seal victory for a larger package of housing code changes aimed at allowing denser, more affordable housing in Houston.
“The one big contention is the direct access from the street for lots less than 33 feet wide,” Brown said last week.
The tweaks to city code would ease the way for developers to build triplexes, courtyard homes and bigger garage apartments. For many styles of small-scale housing, they also would ease or drop requirements that builders create parking spaces to accompany housing units.
Several speakers Tuesday said they were hopeful the changes will spur the creation of more affordable housing, which has emerged as a top concern for residents ahead of the Nov. 7 mayoral election.
Earlier in the years-long process of remaking Houston’s housing code, Brown’s department had proposed doing away with mandatory parking requirements altogether in neighborhoods near transit corridors, following the lead of cities like Austin.
In lieu of legal requirements, Brown said she prefers leaving it to developers to decide how many parking spaces new apartment buildings and houses require. The city already has done away with parking requirements in and around downtown.
The Turner administration dropped that proposal amid pushback from neighborhood groups who worried it could create parking nightmares.
Brown said last week that it will be up to the next mayor to decide whether to abandon parking requirements in more of the city. Several mayoral candidates signaled support for the idea at a forum last month hosted by the Super Neighborhood Alliance.
“Do you support the expansion of market-based parking, that is, the elimination of minimum parking requirements, beyond downtown’s Central Business District?” host and KRIV reporter Greg Groogan asked the candidates.
Gilbert Garcia, John Whitmire, Sheila Jackson Lee and Lee Kaplan said yes.