By Andrew Friedberg
The road to Bellaire Place, at the site of the former Chevron campus, has been a long and often arduous one. Which is as it should be; for the project to be a success it must be mutually beneficial for both the developer and the community. Throughout the process, going back more than five years now, at each step we slowed things down and took our time to get it right.
The end result, heavily influenced by public input and modified to address legitimate concerns, will be a wonderful addition to our commercial sector with certain constraints imposed to protect the surrounding residential interests. It’s a positive outcome we can all get behind as we anticipate the exciting progress it will bring.
Bellaire Place will be a mixed-use office, dining, retail and entertainment destination similar to other modern, upscale developments our residents frequent in other parts of the Houston area but that we’ve long been lacking here in our own neck of the woods. Aside from the obvious shot in the arm to our tax base, which will ease the burden on residential taxpayers, it’ll be nice to have more options to keep our local spending dollars right here in Bellaire.
It’s a big step forward in fulfilling the commercial redevelopment objectives emphasized in our Comprehensive Plan, and will feature new businesses and amenities more compatible with our community character than the technical research park that preceded it.
All that notwithstanding, and even though the developer’s proposal fully complied with the North Bellaire Special Development District (NBSDD) zoning we adopted last year, its final approval was anything but a rubber stamp. Taking the property in isolation, the development works just fine and is very much in line with what we’d envisioned. But evaluating it against the reality of its immediate surroundings — a quiet residential neighborhood, undersized streets — striking the right balance, and at the appropriate scale, presented a real and complex challenge. Which is precisely why we made the zoning as restrictive as we did, including by utilizing the planned development process to ensure that any proposal would be subject to a two-step review, with two public hearings, first at the Planning and Zoning Commission and then at City Council.
P&Z was very thorough and did a tremendous job crafting an extensive set of conditions responsive to the major themes expressed in the public input, including environmental, neighborhood protection, drainage and utilities, traffic and parking, site design and buildings, and construction-related issues. All of P&Z’s recommended conditions made it into the ordinances finally adopted by council, some with modifications, and even had we stopped there they went a long way toward minimizing the potential impacts of greatest concern to the residents.
But council didn’t stop there, and over the course of three successive meetings that ran late into the night worked diligently back through all of those subjects, refining P&Z’s conditions and developing still more. Among them are provisions for the future widening of both South Rice and Fournace, a reduction to the height of the building at the southwest corner and of the parking garage along the north side of PD-2, a requirement for opaque screening of the garages to protect adjacent residences from light intrusion and to preserve their privacy, and restrictions concerning the placement and enclosure of dumpsters.
Additionally, in recognition of the more generalized concern over the scale of the development as a whole, council implemented a “speedbump” of sorts, granting approval as to the entire site plan but providing that no more than 70 percent of the total square footage may be developed without further approval. (That threshold figure effectively allows any two of the three PDs to be built, or some combination of parts of all three.) The idea is to introduce an element of phasing, so that the city and residents can see how things play out before committing to the remainder, and can potentially make adjustments as needed, while still preserving flexibility for the developer in deciding which portions are to be built and in what order.
Over at least the past decade we’ve prioritized efforts to attract new commercial developments like Bellaire Place, not only to boost our local tax base but also to enhance quality of life in the city with restaurants, retail and other conveniences that are supportive of and consistent with our established residential character.
We no doubt walk a fine line, as the years-long process to get to this point well demonstrates. This is a significant achievement, shared by everyone who has been involved, most especially all of the residents who through their thoughtful public input directly contributed to the outcome, and helped us get it right.
Friedberg may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org