After more than a year of proposals and public meetings to create design guidelines for historic homes in the Heights, Houston’s mayor was less than satisfied with the result. So, back to the drawing board they went.
Three specific districts in the Heights are classified as historic districts, stretching from 20th Street to the north and 4th Street to the south. These districts extend west to Ashland Street and Oxford to the east in some areas, and if owners want to make structural changes to their homes, they must gain approval from a board of commissioners appointed by the city of Houston. Following a meeting June 20 at the Historic Heights Fire Station, the city’s Planning and Development Department hoped to send a draft of the new Design Guidelines to the HAHC by June 30. That date came and went, however, after a meeting with Mayor Turner sent the city back to the proverbial drawing board.
The new guidelines, now available to view online on the project page, include several variations to the plans presented in June, and are tentatively scheduled to be presented again Sept. 28 at 6 p.m. at The United Way.
“We aren’t going to move forward with this until there’s a stronger consensus,” Turner told The Leader in June. “We’re not sending anything to the [city] council until I approve what we’re sending, and we aren’t there yet.”
A large portion of concern and confusion at the June meeting stemmed from the amount of space a home can take up on a lot. As initially written, the Guidelines said homes on a 5,000 square-foot lot could only be 2,300 square feet. The problem arises when those 2,300 square feet include garage space, which is usually unfinished and unlivable.
Following internal evaluations, Historical Preservation Officer Diana DuCroz said city personnel agreed that the initial 250-foot exclusion proposal lacked real-time basis.
“Obviously, some are bigger, but [a 400-foot garage] is pretty standard for most people. It was just more rational in a way,” DuCroz said of the new proposed exclusion. “We wanted to base it on something that’s actually real and practical. Even if someone wants to build a bigger garage, we would still exclude that standard measure.”
However, while Heights homeowner and Commissioner Brie Kelman believes increasing the exclusion is a step in the right direction, she said the basically unchanged Floor Area Ratio is not adequate for many owners in the Heights.
“There are a million qualifications for what counts as square footage — are screened-in porches excluded from counting as described in the change document, if only ‘open porches’ are actually referenced?” she inquired. “Why don’t they simply use the HCAD rules for square footage – how all us homeowners pay taxes and buy and sell our homes? I also think limiting a 5,000 square-foot lot to a 2,300 square-foot house will not be good for our neighborhood, for too many reasons to name.”
Revised guidelines also now allow for exclusions for an additional 400 square feet for a detached garage apartment.
“[Garage apartments] are a very typical, historical feature of the Houston Heights, and there are lots of benefits to having them,” DuCroz said of the spaces that can serve as a rental unit or good housing for single people, students, and anyone who needs a smaller space. “We want to incentivize garage apartments, and we don’t want to regulate FAR in a way that would prevent them from still being built and maintained.”
The FAR calculation now excludes attics in existing contributing buildings, while attics in noncontributing buildings, additions, or new construction are excluded if they do not have dormers. Additional concerns included apprehension about ceiling heights as well as side and rear set-backs to homes, and it appears such concerns have been taken under consideration.
As initially written, Guidelines proposed a cumulative setback of 15 feet for both one and two-story residences. However, following feedback, executives determined 15 feet seemed excessive for a one-story house, and have decreased it to 10 feet. Setbacks for two-story projects remained unchanged.
“We felt a cumulative of 10 feet for a one-story house would be fine, because it’s only the two-story houses that begin presenting an impact on the neighbors, DuCroz said.”
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 (which Kelman believes is a step in the right direction), eave height, standards for Detached Garage Ridge Height and side wall lengths and insets.
However, there still remain some aspects of the newest 233-page draft that are less than satisfactory to some. While she said she saw a couple of improvements, Kelman noted it is not yet something she could throw support behind.
“The previous draft actually had one of mine and 90 percent of other neighbors’ pet peeves addressed, but now it has changed for the worse,” she said.
The newest draft involved the section which said homeowners can build a 2nd story starting 75 percent back on the original house; that has changed from 60 percent. It now appears to also apply to non-contributing houses. As written in the Design Guidelines, the city’s logic for the change is that “An addition should not make a building even more non-contributing.” But Kelman disagrees with that logic.
“Why should non-contributing houses have the same metrics for an addition when they can be demolished without a COA?” she said.
Long way to go
It appears that the saga is far from over, though Project Manager Steph McDougal and Turner previously said they hope to have it ready before the end of the year. However, while the extra time may seem like a burden on the outside looking in, Kelman acknowledged that some steps have been taken, and the consensus that needs to be reached should be well worth the effort.
“I don’t think more time on the Heights Design Guidelines process is necessarily a bad thing, if it results in a better product for the neighborhood,” she said.