A group of homeowners in the Heights and a residential developer in Chicago have been at odds since December.
They didn’t even know it until February.
Brinshore Development, which has produced more than 75 housing complexes during the last 25 years, entered into a contract Dec. 18 to purchase three plats of land in the Heights from a family estate. Its vision for the property on the northeast corner of 4th Street and Columbia Street, where a small business and two vacant lots have been located, is to build an affordable apartment complex in a popular and increasingly expensive part of Houston.
Two days later, and with no knowledge of Brinshore’s intentions, two nearby homeowners with the backing of 30 other neighbors filed paperwork with the city seeking to prevent such a development. Their special minimum lot size application, which serves as a zoning mechanism in a city without zoning laws, would require the two vacant plats to be used for single-family residences and thereby thwart Brinshore’s plan to incorporate them as part of a multi-story complex.
“Both of our efforts, ironically, occurred near the same time,” said Scott Puffer, Brinshore’s vice president of business development. “But public notice wasn’t given about either until basically the same time.”
Brinshore’s proposed affordable housing development is one of seven in the area, and five in the Heights, that submitted a pre-application for competitive federal housing tax credits allocated by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs. Two of the projects removed themselves from consideration before the Feb. 20 meeting of the Houston City Council, which passed a resolution supporting more than 30 proposed developments bidding for the 9 percent tax credits.
One of the proposed developments no longer seeking the annual tax credit also is facing pushback from area residents. Avenue CDC, a nonprofit in the process of purchasing the property that includes Doyle’s Restaurant on 34th Street, said last week that it was “pausing” its plan to build an affordable housing complex on the site as it weighs community feedback.
Needs versus wants
Proposed developments, even if they choose not to pursue the tax credit, could still move forward and seek other means of financing. The other area development that withdrew its application is Heights Senior Village, an affordable housing complex for seniors at 800 Heights Blvd.
See the graphic accompanying this story for information about the other proposed developments in the area.
Bill Baldwin, a longtime Heights realtor and member of the Houston Planning Commission, said he understands homeowners’ concerns about apartment complexes but also understands the need for affordable housing options.
“The city wants more affordable housing in neighborhoods exactly like the Heights,” he said, “because they are high-opportunity neighborhoods that give people access to work, good schools and transportation.”
For developments still seeking tax credits, complete applications must be submitted to the state organization by Friday. TDHCA spokesperson Kristina Tirloni said it will be determined by the end of July which developments, and how many, will receive tax credits worth as much as $1.5 million annually over a period of 10 years.
Puffer said Brinshore won’t construct the apartment complex in the Heights without being awarded the tax credit, which would offset much of the development’s estimated total cost of about $20 million. The outcome of the minimum lot size application, which will be decided by nearby homeowners, the planning commission and the city council, also poses a potential problem.
Houston’s Planning & Development Department held a Heights community meeting Tuesday night to explain the application and the process for approving it, which requires at least 55 percent homeowner support within an area between 4th Street and White Oak Drive and, from east to west, between Oxford Street and Harvard Street. Nearly 40 people attended the meeting, including joint applicants Rebecca Abel and Donna Bennett.
Abel said the impetus for the application came from a previous initiative to convert the contiguous plats on Columbia – addresses 0, 402 and 426 – into a hotel. She said there are concerns about population density, and therefore infrastructure and traffic flow, in an area where there already is an apartment complex at the southeast corner of 4th and Oxford and an eight-story hotel is under construction on the southeast corner of 4th and Columbia.
“We don’t feel as residents that another high-density development is feasible for that street,” Abel said.
Puffer challenged the notions that a new development would put a strain on infrastructure and go against the character of the neighborhood, citing the other apartment complex and hotel. Brinshore, in a letter sent to residents on Tuesday, pledged to discourage street parking at its prospective development and upgrade the east side of Columbia Street along the length of its property.
Brinshore has twice amended its original plan for a 120-unit complex, saying Tuesday that it would build no more than 60 units. The developer also said it would reserve the plat at 426 Columbia for green space or an art installation.
“We’ve probably made more concessions than other developers would at this point, and we are doing that truly to be responsive to the concerns,” Puffer said. “Other than no development ever happening here, they’re going to have to work with a developer at some point. And they may not get one who is as willing to work with the community as we are.”
Baldwin echoed that sentiment. He also said that given the area’s economic climate and recent trends, it’s realistic to expect developments to gradually become bigger in terms of size and scope.
At the same time, he also questioned whether the corner of 4th and Columbia is the ideal location for Brinshore’s development.
Heights resident Patty Glasscock supports the minimum lot size application and led a community group that unsuccessfully opposed the city council’s resolution supporting Brinshore’s development and others.
“It’s just too many people in too small a place,” Glasscock said.
At Tuesday’s community meeting, city planner David Welch said property owners within the area relevant to the minimum lot size application would be receiving forms they can use to support or oppose it.
The owner of the three-plat property Brinshore has offered to buy for $3.6 million opposed the minimum lot size application, and requested an exemption if it is approved, in a Monday letter sent to the Houston Planning Commission. In the letter, obtained by The Leader, the estate of Angeline A. Frank said the property has not been used for residential purposes in more than 30 years and that restricting its development would cause “significant harm, financial loss, and … limit our rights as a property owner.”
The letter also says the property was contracted to the developer before the minimum lot size application was submitted, albeit only two days before. If the application is approved, Welch said Brinshore could apply for a variance and try to prove its development already was in progress.
Puffer said Brinshore will “use all available means” to see its project to fruition. Meanwhile, the Heights residents who oppose the plan will do all they can to stop it.
“I will fight that to the death,” Abel said. “There is no exception to the rules. The rules are the rules.”