As a parent, I understand the value of a preemptive strategy. When it came time to sign up my son for the etiquette class I wanted him to take, I just signed him up months ahead of time and then told him about it 12 hours before the first class to keep complaining to a minimum.
Was he happy about it? Quite the opposite. Did he have enough time to really dig his heels in and refuse to put on a coat and tie? Negative.
But that’s parenting. The variance notification process with Houston’s Planning and Development department is something else entirely, but I feel like the process follows some of my same tactics – although as I found out, it’s all perfectly legal.
Take the story we published last week about the proposed apartment development that Hines is seeking to build on 34th Street. Because of city codes, Hines just can’t start building. It needs specific variances because it wants to do something different there than what currently exists – SECO Industrial Maintenance and Control Inc., which is a business that operated out of what used to be a home.
Hines wants a variance to allow a 20-foot right-of-way dedication along Gardendale Drive as opposed to the code-required 30 feet; another to allow an alternate right-of-way turnaround configuration at the terminus of Gardendale Drive; and a third to allow a reduced building setback of 5 feet along Gardendale Drive as opposed to the code-required 20-foot building setback.
The specific information about the variance request was in the agenda for January’s Houston Planning Commission meeting, along with Hines’ renderings and plans to build a four-story, 383-unit “upscale multifamily residential complex.” This agenda was posted 72 hours before the meeting – per the requirement of Chapter 42 of the city’s development regulations – and it was then that many residents became aware what the variance sign represented.
The variance sign is required to be hung 10 days before a meeting date, I’ve since learned after speaking with Planner Manager Dipti Mathur, and a letter to all the property owners within a 250-foot radius, or those within 500 feet in either direction along the street in question, is required to be postmarked seven days before the meeting date. The letter has the same information as the sign.
I saw the sign and emailed the first contact provided for information a few days before the January meeting. I received a prompt response from Windrose Land Services, which is the company that Hines hired to shepherd it through the process. Maybe it was because I identified myself as a reporter – understandably, not everyone feels the need to share with me – but the representative told me she was not allowed to give out information because of a confidentially agreement.
Mathur later told me that any concerned or curious citizen should be able to call the department once the sign is posted to learn whatever it is the department knows about the variance request, including the name of the developer and the nature of the development.
In my case, by the time I was dialing up the city’s Planner of the Day, the agenda for the meeting was posted and all was revealed. Hines did request a deferral at January’s meeting to revise its site plan. Its application now will be considered at the Feb. 14 meeting.
I sent an e-mail to Hines’ corporate communications office to see if more information was available regarding any public meetings about the development. There’s not, at least for now. And that’s a problem.
Why aren’t there opportunities for the community to learn more? I think any developer who wants to come into a community and make major changes to it should engage in some kind of public education campaign with the people who live there.
Ben Ackerley, who is developing Maison Robert on the corner 20th and Ashland streets, recently caught a lot of flak about his variance request for the hotel. A Heights resident asked him to attend a public information meeting to talk about it – and he went. People asked questions, got to vent a little and gave him feedback that he said he’d incorporate into his plans. Now he’s moving forward with his hotel.
While everyone is following the rules, builders can, and should, do more.
Are community meetings sometimes hard and uncomfortable? You bet. Is there going to be that person who is likely to go off on some long tangent not relevant at all to the matter at hand? Quite possibly. But I think it is owed to the people who are going to be most affected. And sometimes, giving people the courtesy of being heard is enough.
Maybe the same is true for parenting. But at least my boy now knows how to properly set a table.