After years of discussion and some fairly contentious meetings, the Heights Historic Guidelines saga continued last week as homeowners and the city made a (possible) last attempt to collaboratively eliminate subjectivity from development in the Heights.
Any hope of having guidelines completed by the end of the year, though, are all but gone.
Roughly 50 homeowners, Realtors and community citizens joined project manager Steph McDougal for the final community workshop for design guidelines for Houston Heights East, West and South at the United Way Community Resource Center Thursday, Sept. 28 for a potential final meeting. About two years and 26 community meeting in total — 10 of them for the Heights Historic District Guidelines — have now been invested into the project as a result, but the process still appears far from being finished.
Where they’ve been
In 2016, the city’s planning department hired Winter & Company, a firm based in Boulder, Colo., to help draft guidelines for the Heights. Through public meetings and varying degrees of guideline drafts, residents in the Heights were allowed to hear what sort of restrictions would be placed on home renovations (or rebuilds) in the neighborhood. Following an initial comment period, the meetings culminated in a sometimes contentious gathering at the Historic Heights Fire Station June 20.
Following that June 20 meeting, the city’s Planning and Development Department had initially hoped to send a draft to the HAHC by June 30. That date came and went, however, after a meeting with Mayor Sylvester Turner sent the city back to the proverbial drawing board.
“We aren’t going to move forward with this until there’s a stronger consensus,” Turner said, noting a strong divide. “We’re not sending anything to the [city] council until I approve what we’re sending, and we aren’t there yet.”
Following some internal evaluations, the city released another draft in August. Concerns from the June draft included continued umbrage with certain measurable standards such as Floor Area Ratio and context area, along with setbacks, eave height and more.
Upon attempting to sit down and comb through real-life context to projects, McDougal said the August draft now includes a process for how homeowners can bring concerns about context area to the Historical Commission and ask to use different numbers.
“For example, if you were in an area where contributing houses were bigger than the rest of your neighborhood, you could bring that forth and ask the Commission to look at your project differently,” she said. “We think that’s going to provide the flexibility needed for those situations, and it’s not covered under a one-size-fits-all deal.”
Floor Area Ratio/Lot Coverage
August’s draft also added clarifying language for what is and is not included in lot coverage and Floor Area Ratio. McDougal said accessory buildings are excluded whether conditioned or not, and that both FAR and lot coverage exclude both open and screened porches.
“We had some inconsistencies between those two in terms of accessory buildings and things like that, so we’ve tried to make lot coverage and FAR calculations as consistent as possible with each other,” McDougal said. “That was not clear in the previous draft.”
The FAR calculation will now also completely exclude attics in existing contributing buildings. If an attic is included in a non-contributing building, it will be excluded in new construction if it does not have dormers.
“The purpose was to allow those contributing buildings to build up and maximize square footage for new stuff while minimizing the creation of effective third stories,” McDougal said.
Another point of contention here has been expansion of the square footage exemption from these two aspects. Initial recommendations of 150 square feet from consultants Winter & Company were found to be far too restricting, so McDougal said the city asked to bump it up to 250 square feet.
“What we heard from residents is that wasn’t nearly enough. Everybody pretty uniformly said there needed to be at least a two-car garage size space, so that’s now been bumped up to 400 square feet for both of those,” she said.
As initially written, Guidelines proposed a cumulative setback of 15 feet for both one and two-story residences. However, following feedback, officials determined 15 feet seemed excessive for a one-story house, and have decreased it to 10 feet. Setbacks for two-story projects remained unchanged.
“When we looked at the intent and purpose behind that, it was to try moving some of the tall building mass of two story buildings and additions away from the property line,” McDougal said. “That (we hope) addresses a lot of the concerns we had about big walls over the back of a backyard.”
Additional variations included slight changes in plans for front setbacks, increasing plate height for new construction from nine feet to 10 feet for the first floor and from eight feet to nine feet for the second floor, eave height, standards for Detached Garage Ridge Height and side wall lengths and insets.
Future remains uncertain
Following a full report on comments received, the city will make an informational presentation to the HAHC at their regular meeting Oct. 19, at which time members of the community will be able to comment. However, the HAHC will not vote on whether or not to recommend approval until their Nov. 14 meeting. The comment period ends Oct. 6. Comments should be emailed to McDougal at Steph.McDougal@houstontx.gov
The city will take an informational report to the Quality of Life Committee no earlier than January 2018, but after such time, McDougal said it is difficult to estimate any sort of timeline for implementation and enforcement. In June, she had said she hoped the process would be finished by the end of the year.
“I don’t know and can’t estimate when we will get on the agenda or (after that) when the guidelines might be placed on the City Council agenda for a vote,” she said.
Once council approves the design guidelines (assuming it happens), McDougal will recommend that the effective date of the guidelines be delayed for about 60 days.