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Creating an urban village on Bellaire edge

November 4, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Plans for transforming a nondescript warehouse district on Bellaire’s north side into a more inviting “urban village” are proceeding apace.

On Monday, Bellaire City Council heard from members of the city’s Planning & Zoning Commission and an outside consultant hired early this year to help draft zoning ordinance changes for the 29-acre site near the intersection of the Southwest Freeway and Loop 610.

The commission has been meeting with Gary Mitchell of Kendig Keast in a series of workshop discussions. The product of those discussions, which included public input, is a 24-page draft ordinance which Mitchell and the commissioners discussed in detail Monday.

Several questions remain about the evolution of the district. The biggest is whether the district — with the official designation of “Urban Village-Transit,” will in fact include a station of Metro’s proposed University Line.

Metro officials have said in recent months they fully intend to construct the line, which would connect the Houston area’s southwest region to the burgeoning light-rail system. But they’ve also said they are unsure when they will receive federal funding for half of the line’s estimated $1/5 billion cost.

But as they’ve said in the past, Bellaire officials plan to proceed with their plans to redevelop the area regardless of Metro’s plans.

Another big question is what will become of an adjacent, undeveloped block of property within the Houston city limits. Right now, signs indicate that its owner, the Midway Companies, plan to build some kind of multi-family housing.

But City Manager Bernie Satterwhite said he believes the owners are now merely interested in selling the 34-acre property. Efforts to reach a Midway representative were unsuccessful Tuesday.

As Mitchell reiterated in his presentation, the concept is to make the Bellaire area very “urban” in character, a significant difference from the city’s historically very suburban residential neighborhoods. The idea behind the proposed ordinance changes is to create an environment attractive to developers but with restrictions. The emphasis is on mixed-use development, with projects that combine residential and commercial aspects.

As models for the kind of developments envisioned, Mitchell cited Sugar Land Town Center, the City Centre development in Houston’s Town & Country area, and Town Center in The Woodlands.

In his presentation, Mitchell went methodically went through the draft ordinance, including such subjects as permitted uses for the district, prohibited uses, design standards and parking ratios.

Right off the bat, Council members began peppering Mitchell and the commissioners with questions about provisions of the draft.

Mayor Cindy Siegel, for instance, wondered why the group had decided against single-family dwellings such as brownstone-type townhomes. Instead, the draft calls for only multi-family housing. Mitchell responded that townhomes would detract from the hoped-for “urban” character of the district.

Councilman Jim Avioli made sure to get some clarity on some of the permitted and prohibited uses. For instance, he wanted to make sure that “private clubs,” a permitted use, wouldn’t include something like strip clubs. Satterwhite and community development director John McDonald assured him that private clubs, which are already permitted within the city, refer to fraternal organizations and the like.

Some of the most focused questioning was about parking requirements. Mitchell explained that the draft calls for developers to provide a ratio of parking that would lead to the kind of urban-type development imagined for the area.

Depending on the kind of uses developers would plan to build, incentives are built into the draft to make it more amenable, Mitchell said. That, in turn, would determine how vertical or horizontal a project would be. There would also be incentives for developers to enter into a “shared” parking arrangement.

Councilman Andrew Friedberg, who asked the most pointed questions about parking, wondered if the the city itself might play a part in financing a large parking structure that could serve the entire district, similar to the Rice Village Arcade.

Mitchell said that just such a “public-private partnership” has been used in similar developments around the country.

Siegel and Councilwoman Mandy Nathan cited in particular the so-called Ashby Tower, the proposed high-rise apartment on Bissonnet Street in Houston, as the kind of development that would not be desired.

Siegel stressed that when public hearings are held on the draft ordinance, residents of the neighborhood just to the south of the district in particular would want to see visual representations of what the development might look like, not just the 26-page draft ordinance.

“Visuals can go a long way,” Siegel said as the workshop came to a close. “They may, or may not, alleviate any concerns residents may have. You don’t want it to be a shock (to residents).”

The draft ordinance will now go back to the planning commission for further tweaking based on the comments from Council. Once that’s done, public hearings will be held before the draft comes back to council for a vote.

reprint from YourBellaireNews.com     by Ken Fountain

Categories: Uncategorized
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